Tag Archives: julius caesar

Briefly revisiting Julius Caesar

In my recent post, “‘Julius Caesar was not Emperor.’ – Or was he?”, I may have come off a bit hard on the now-traditional reading of Roman history that Augustus, not his Great Uncle C. Julius Caesar, was the first emperor. If we ask ourselves what, legally and constitutionally, the emperors have in common, it is clear that Augustus has it and Julius does not. That I never doubted.

What I wanted to do was to engage with the idea of Julius Caesar as emperor — an idea that most ancient Romans themselves believed. Even if our vision of Roman history is clearer than theirs, their vision was still, well, theirs.

The Roman and mediaeval belief in Julius Caesar as emperor demonstrates to us a few things:

The pro-Julius campaign of his immediate successors and then of the dynasty that bore his name seems to have been successful. Rather than being just another Late Republican dictator — even if dictator perpetuus — Julius Caesar is raised to the status of an emperor among emperors, alongside the luminaries such as his illustrious successor Augustus and the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius — not to mention the less shining holders of Roman imperium such as Caligula or Commodus.

Augustus pretended to restore the Republic, and future generations would see him as the legitimate successor to the first emperor rather than the creator of something entirely new. Fictions both, but powerful ones.

Second, we are blessed with clearer vision than our forebears. This is not say that they were bumpkins who knew no better than just to simply say, ‘Oh, Julius Caesar. First Emperor of Rome.’ They believed a falsehood — but doing history for them was a lot harder than it is for us.

The necessary primary source documents for Roman history are available to us in the same wording with indices at the back, for one thing (that is, in modern printed editions). We are not confronted with inscribed laws scattered all over the Mediterranean. When we go to a library, we are not looking through a series of papyrus scrolls stored in leather tubes. Our chronicles are manageably published in codices. The Roman imperial archive has been shown to be efficient enough to draft laws in Late Antiquity, but not very efficient by modern standards; finding what exactly you want could be a very difficult labour, indeed. The task of the historian would have been very, very different and difficult back then.

Furthermore, our goals are different. Tacitus is one of the few Roman historians who claims to be seeking just the truth without malice or bias. As inevitable as all bias is, most ancient writers did not try very hard to tone theirs down. There is always an ulterior motive to ancient and mediaeval history writing — conveniently, they tend to let it out (whereas we try to hide our bias and ulterior motives). Thus, some truths get lost in the thick of the thrill of the fight, in the midst of the moralising tales, in among the desire to flatter some men and scorn others.

As a result, for whatever reason, it was perfectly normal for ancient Romans to consider Julius Caesar the first emperor. We usually stop there and say that they were wrong. But if we consider why they were wrong, we find a few more insights into the Roman world and mindset. These are just the insights from some general remarks about Roman society — imagine what a proper study of the sources about Julius Caesar would find us!

‘Julius Caesar was not Emperor.’ – Or was he?

'Green Caesar', ca. AD 1-50, in Altes Museum, Berlin (my photo)

‘Green Caesar’, ca. AD 1-50, in Altes Museum, Berlin (my photo)

In Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 1.18, the late sixth-century (AD, obvs) Bishop of Tours writes:

After these Julius Caesar was the first Emperor to gain jurisdiction over the whole Empire. (Trans. Lewis Thorpe for Penguin)

Thorpe’s footnote to this sentence is:

Julius Caesar was not Emperor. (p. 80, n. 63)

This little fact is one that we students and scholars of Roman history like to tote out and display to our friends and family, demonstrating our superior knowledge of the Roman world through it. What we mean is that Julius Caesar was not the first person to establish an official position within the structures of the Roman state that gave him some degree of lifelong autocratic power and ushering in an age of monarchical rule. Not that he didn’t try — hence the Ides of March.

The establishment of the Principate, and therefore the ‘Empire’ by Octavian ‘Augustus’ is one of the big watershed moments in Roman history. It is the dividing point between what we call ‘Republic’ and ‘Empire’. It’s a big deal, and worth talking about and considering a big deal — whether you count it from 31 BC at the Battle of Actium when Octavian gains sole power over the Roman Empire or from 27 when he is officially invested with the title of Augustus which emperors would use down to Konstantinos Palaiologos XI in 1453.

So, while I would say that we are in a particular sense correct in seeing Augustus as the first of something new, it need not follow that Gregory is wrong in seeing Augustus’ great-uncle Julius as the first as well.

What Gregory actually says is that Julius Caesar was the first imperator who obtained the monarchia of the entire imperium. I suppose, when we consider the various dictators and others who attempted the gain sole power of the Roman imperium in the Late Republic, it could be argued that Julius Caesar was not the first of one thing but the last of another.

But that may just be splitting hairs so much that we go nowhere.


Imperator is the term given by the Romans to a general who holds an official capacity of command in a given area or situation. Power of command in Latin is imperium. From these words come emperor and empire. Of the different imperatores, Julius Caesar, after the defeat of Pompey in civil war, established himself as the holder of sole rule (mon-archia — this word is Greek) in the lands where the Roman state held power of command (the imperium, the empire). Given that his assassination did not stop the consolidation of power in the hands of a couple of individuals — Mark Antony and Octavian — who were considered his heirs and then one individual — Octavian/Augustus — it could be argued that Julius Caesar, with his dramatic military and political activities, was the man who established the scenario in which one man could/would emerge as princeps (leading man — the term used of early emperors), as sole imperator. Had he not been assassinated, he may have lived long enough to become dictator for life and establish a constitutional way of being princeps as Octavian/Augustus did.

But he died before such could transpire, so we tend to consider Augustus the first Roman Emperor.

Now, these historical and constitutional arguments for Julius Caesar as first emperor are all well and good, if I remember everything correctly (which I may not). But there’s another reason by Gregory of Tours may have been correct in his assessment:

Everyone else seems to have thought so as well.

This November, I was at a conference about the fifth-century (AD) poet, letter-writer, and Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Sidonius Apollinaris. In the poem analysed by Aaron Pelttari’s paper, Sidonius refers to Ovid as having been exiled by the second emperor (I forget the exact wording and which poem this was — apologies!). Timothy Barnes reminded the room in question time that back in the ancient world, everyone considered Julius Caesar the first emperor, not his great-nephew Augustus.

I believe Tim Barnes, even if I cannot marshal the evidence here. But it is an interesting fact that the idea of Julius as the first emperor is not some mediaeval misreading of the evidence or a fabrication of Astérix. The ways we examine and delineate history, the demarcations we make with our own ‘scientific’ way of examining the past, are not necessarily those of the men and women who lived through it and handed on the record of the past to later generations.

While I think there are hard and fast truths in history, humility should keep us from thinking that our way of seeing the past is the only one and that we have all said truths bundled up in our hands.

Seductive Suetonius

I am reading Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, in my spare time right now.* I’ve read three Caesars — Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius.

Beautiful Cameo of AugustusI posted as my Facebook status the other night that when Augustus (pictured left in a cameo at the Bibliotheque nationale de France that I happily viewed) died, I was a bit sad. It’s true. Suetonius takes you on this journey with Augustus wherein you see the many things he did, allegedly to better the Roman imperium, you learn about his character, all that stuff. And when he dies, with that line about them applauding him if he’d played his part well, and then his last words to Livia — it’s a sad scene.

The Green CaesarJulius Caesar (pictured right as viewed by me at the Altes Museum, Berlin), the first of the Twelve, on the other hand — that is the death you know is coming. This is probably one of the most famous assassinations in all history, if not the most famous. Certainly the most famous ancient assassination. So when the Ides of March come, you don’t need Shakespeare to tell you that bad stuff is going to go down. Suetonius has brought us to this point of inevitability, building it up with portents, omens, soothsayers, and Caesar’s own attitude towards it all. I felt no sorrow. Just the weight of necessity.

Tiberius (left, no photo of mine since that section of the Vatican Museums was closed the day I went!) — well, no one’s sad that Tiberius dies. His biography is interesting in that it starts off with him as a pretty decent senator and member of the imperial family. And then it descends into the dark caverns of Tiberius’ appetite for wine, boys, and song (if you will), his bloodthirstiness, his neglect of the Eternal City, and so forth. So when he dies, there is almost a sense of relief. Almost as though, ‘The city can be free!’

Of course, we all know Gaius’ nickname — Caligula — so we know it won’t be so. The same is true Suetonius’ original audience, I reckon. Who among the senatorial class of the 100s wouldn’t have had the names of the infamous emperors etched into his memory?

Nonetheless, equipped with this knowledge, Suetonius seduces you into his narrative, into his tales. Well, he seduced me, anyway. I felt what I was supposed to feel with all three deaths. He painted for me the portraits he wanted to, and my subconscious was drawn into those images.

Now, I know that the truth of all three of these men is not entirely Suetonius, both in terms of nuance as well as in omissions or additions to the historical record. I’m not a dummy; I know how to read a source better than that.

But Roman historians aren’t just sources — they are writers of literature. Indeed, history is included amongst the branches of literature, not philosophy, in the ancient handbooks. And so, to look at Suetonius as a writer, I find him seductive. His story and his vivid portraits draw me in.

Tomorrow I’ll begin Caligula.

*For work I’m reading Augustine, City of God, and a whole bunch of manuscripts, so the Early Empire = not work.