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Caesar’s Rise to Power in Rome (Fall 2012)

            Gaius Julius Caesar was perhaps one of the most influential peoples of all time.  His historic rise to power and overthrow of the Roman Republic put an estimated 45 million people or around 15-25 percent of the world’s population under his control.  Therefore, it is no wonder Caesar has been one of the main subjects of early history and it is also no wonder the Roman culture from 2,000 years ago can still be seen worldwide today.  But with every historical event, comes questions as to why or how the event happened in the way it did.  Due to Caesar’s rise to power having massive implications for so many people and history, it is necessary and rather interesting to explore how he was able to take over.

            To understand Caesar’s rise to power, it is necessary to first understand Roman history and Caesar’s early history.  Beginning with a brief overview of Roman history, Rome had its foundations tied up in the legend of Romulus and Remus.  As the tale goes, when Romulus and Remus were born an attempt on their lives was made and the gods spared them.  Then as they grew up in a different part of the country, they set up the foundations for what would become Rome.  Though this is obviously just a legend and its truthfulness unknown, it is clear that Roman power began as an early kingdom some hundreds of years before the more-recorded Roman Republic and nearly 700 years before the Roman Empire, dating its foundations around 750 BC.  From this point on, Rome continued to grow its influence and power.  Eventually in 510 BC, the Romans overthrew the kingship and replaced it with a freer, democratic Roman Republic.  In the appropriately called constitution which modern day nations like the U.S. have based their constitutions on, the Romans set up a Senate composed of leaders from all Roman territories allowing for better representation.  To fill the authoritative void that the kings left, the Romans put power into two popular elected consuls that served for only a year.  Their power was vastly limited and some powers, such as religious power, was vested in other elected officials to prevent any one person from having absolute power.  In addition, the Romans authorized a special position during times of emergency that was key to Caesar’s rise to ultimate power that will be talked about later, known as the Dictatorship.  This new system of government had a promising beginning, but soon developed fatal instabilities that belittled the power of the common man and paved the way for Caesar to take over.

            Now, here is where Caesar comes into play.  Julius Caesar, born Gauis Julius Caesar, was born on July 12, 100 BC in Rome to father and politician Gaius Caesar and mother Aurelia.  Caesar grew up into a fairly wealthy political family and as such he was expected to follow tradition and enter politics.   Caesar, as will become apparent, almost followed tradition too well throughout his life and angered political leaders and even the Roman Senate.  Beginning his career in his adolescent years, Caesar started off on dangerous footing.  The two political leaders of the time, Marius and Sulla, controlled the political scene and while Caesar tended to form connections with Marius supporters particularly with his marriage to the daughter of a Marius supporter/politician, Sulla gained influence over Marius and dispatched any Marius supporters.  Caesar, through friends and relatives, was able to receive a pardon after he refused to divorce his controversial wife and was exiled.

            While in exile, and somewhat before then, Caesar learned much about what it would take to be a political and even militaristic leader.  To begin with, Caesar joined the army as a military assistant to a governor.  While fulfilling his duties, Caesar also assisted in some successful military campaigns that garnered him support.  Despite this, after serving for a short time, Caesar still couldn’t return to Rome, so he left the army and began work to improve his political abilities, focusing on public speaking.  As Caesar was doing this, Rome was experiencing a political upheaval that resulted in a regime change.  This gave Caesar the opportunity he needed and was waiting for to return to Rome and continue his political ambitions, an opportunity he did not take lightly. 

            When Caesar returned to Rome, he completely dedicated himself to politics.  All aspects of his life, including his fortune, his choice of wife, and his character all had political implications surrounding them.  For example, he married several times and always to a woman that would help boost his political standing or wealth.  He put all of his fortune, including fortune he obtained through marriage, into politics via parties and bribes. Though this is not uncommon for political office seekers to do, Caesar also spent beyond his own fortunes and took money from others on loan.  Knowing this could end up disastrous if his political rise halted, Caesar worked tirelessly and managed to work his way up the political scheme enough to land a high-end religious position called the pontifex maximus (the chief priest).  Soon after obtaining this position, Caesar was sent to Europe to quell the revolts that were occurring stabilize the area.  Caesar proved successful and gained further political support that he obviously wanted.

            After the campaigns in Europe were finished, Caesar returned to Rome on a political high streak fresh with new experiences and knowledge.  He quickly formed a crucial alliance with two political leaders of the day-Pompey and Crassus-to form the first Triumvirate.  (Caesar solidified this alliance by marrying Pompey to his daughter Julia)  With their help, Caesar was able to rise to the highest position in Rome, consul.  Through this position, Caesar was able to further improve his popular support by passing popular legislation that reformed such things as tax collection.  After serving the allowed period of a year, Caesar secured himself the position of the Governor of Gaul in 58 BC, which comprised the modern day region of middle Europe.  Events that conspired soon after, though not by Caesar’s hand, resulted in the end of Caesar’s traditional Roman political career and threw him into a military campaign that brought him to the steps of Rome and the Roman Empire.

            During the times of Caesar, the Roman Republic was vastly extended out of Italy and into Europe and the Mediterranean.  Due to Rome’s continual struggle to control these provincial territories, revolts erupted nearly every year in Europe and Caesar, as Governor of Gaul was left to defeat them.  The revolts were numerous with the most implicating ones involved keeping control of Gaul and expanding its territory.  Caesar was avidly able to defeat any revolt attempts and even used potential revolts as a way to justify expanding Gaul to include a broader area.  However, Caesar did have some setbacks, most prominently in 54 BC and 52 BC when Arverni chief Vercingetorix attempted to overrun the Romans and throw them out of Gaul.  Though he experienced some initial success, Vercingetorix was ultimately defeated.  Caesar used this defeat as propaganda to fully secure Gaul as a Roman province a year later, permanently extending Rome’s influence beyond the Mediterranean and into Europe.  The Senate “thanked” Caesar by removing him from office in 51 BC, leaving him powerless, most likely the hoped for outcome of Senate members who opposed Caesar.

            And indeed, the plan worked as Caesar was left action less for about two years until 49 BC.  At this time, he got tired of doing nothing and decided to do something that fundamentally changed the Roman Republic forever: he decided to invade and take control of it.  Crossing the Rubicon that separates the Gaul and Italy, Caesar and his army marched on Rome, seized it, and all but formally reconstructed the Roman Republic ruled by the senate and consuls into the Roman Empire ruled by one man.  Though he still met resistance, particularly from Pompey who most saw as Caesar’s superior and controlled some parts of the eastern Roman Empire, Caesar quickly dispatched him and returned to Rome.  Thereafter, Caesar continued his rule, convinced the powerless Senate to declare him dictator for life, and tried to win over any enemies left by pardoning them.  Tragically, however, Caesar’s rule was cut short when Senate members murdered him in 44 BC and the Roman Empire that he set up, still premature and not really ready for the loss of its leader, was forced to continue without him.

            Now that Caesar’s historical rise to power is accounted for, it is possible to examine it and formulate questions about his rise to power.  For example, how was Caesar able to grasp power when the Roman Republic before Caesar was directly set up to prevent men like him from doing so?  Also, how was he able to do it without more public uprising or really any loss of support?  Well, the answers to these questions are quite simple and all involve timing.  When Caesar was born, the Roman Republic was overwhelmed by its size and power and didn’t know how to control it all, which resulted in political corruption at home and resistance abroad.  For example, political leaders of the time relied on money and fear to get their way into political office instead of truthful popular appeal.  The Senate and consuls also rarely fulfilled the needs of citizens and failed to ensure political stability.  Caesar was able to capitalize on all of these insecurities and use his political abilities along with his military capabilities to at least ensure himself power in Rome.  However, this still doesn’t explain how he was able to set up the Roman Empire fundamentally different than the Roman Republic.  Again, the answer to this question is also quite simple.  Caesar used force and the Dictatorship provision in the Roman constitution to give him absolute power, with which he kept the Senate as a false body, but stripped most or all of its powers and transferred them to himself.  Of course, Caesar had opposition-and he also had support, but by the time anyone knew what was going on, it was too late.  The forces of politics and government, the role of a specific individual-Caesar, economics, and arts and new ideas had already taken their toll and they were all in Caesar’s favor.

            Overall, the rise of Caesar marks an important change in Roman society; as mentioned before anywhere from 15-25 percent of the world’s population were under Rome’s control.  The end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire set up by Caesar would last for centuries to come and would continue to exert its power even after Caesar’s death.  The influence doesn’t stop there however.  Future nations and empires would look to Caesar’s methods, strategies, and reconstructions, as foundations for stabilizing themselves and his accomplishments would be remembered by the Romans and later societies forever. 

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