Monday, September 3, 2012

Caesar after Dyrrhachium

History books don’t usually run through the details of Caesar’s life. They only lay out the big stories -- conquest of Gaul, crossing the Rubicon, Cleopatra, and the assassination. Here we have recently discussed the Battle of Dyrrhachium, an under-reported event, so I’m going to carry on a detailed chronology from there.

Here is a map of Caesar's travels from 48-44 B.C.

Caesar was busy the last three years of his life, yet there is mystery embedded in his activities. What was he trying to accomplish? Did he have a plan? How did he intend to solve the problems of the Republic? We don’t have the answers, but it’s interesting to look at the hints he gives us.

Caesar believed he could win the civil war by defeating his friend Pompey. Dyrrhachium had been a draw, but a month later when Caesar prevailed at Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Egypt. The latter was murdered upon his arrival based on the Egyptian’s mistaken notion it would benefit them to demonstrate allegiance to Caesar. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria four days later, following a month of tribute collecting in Anatolia, he was shown Pompey’s head and was not pleased. The Egyptians had ruined his opportunity to humiliate a defeated enemy by taking him back to Rome and, more importantly, crossed the line by murdering a senior Roman leader.

But Caesar still needed money and assumed the role of arbiter over the dispute between Cleopatra and her brother to gain position in the battle for control of the Egyptian treasury. Once Cleopatra became his mistress, Ptolemy and his minions rebelled, were defeated, and the king was killed. The end result was an alliance with Egypt, rather than annexation, because Caesar knew he could not trust any governor to manage an Egyptian province.

Ignoring the unrest in Rome, Caesar decided to seek additional tribute in the east, so he headed north with the goal of reducing Pontus as punishment for the murder of Crassus. Then, after its defeat on August 1, 47 B.C, he headed home via Athens and Tarentum, where he met with Cicero.

By early fall, Caesar realized that a revolt of Pompey loyalists in Africa was underway so he began to plan an invasion of Tunis. Departing on December 25th from Marsala, Sicily, Caesar’s army traveled to Africa. A combination of food shortage and reluctance on the part of the Pompeians to fight delayed the climactic battle until early April of 46 B.C.

By July Caesar had returned to Rome and initiated forty days of triumphs to celebrate the end of the civil war. Included in this extravaganza was the strangulation of Vercingetorix, his old enemy from Gaul, who had been kept in prison for six years waiting for the right moment.

But now Pompey loyalists in Spain began to revolt and something had to be done about them. On November 1, 46 B.C, Caesar left for Spain with his army, for what would become his final campaign. Again, as in Africa, the enemy was elusive and it took until March 17th of 45 B.C. before they were defeated.

In the single year that remained of Caesar’s life, we note three primary activities: attempts at colonization and resettlement of veterans, the making of his will, and the extension of his powers. With regard to the settlements, the Roman army at the end of the civil war consisted of no less than 35 legions, far more than needed and a dangerous risk to the stability of the Republic. The dictator initially proposed resettlement lands for the veterans but there was not enough free land available in Italy so the settlements were moved to occupied lands. Not east, because the Hellenistic world refused to be Romanized, but west to Spain and other parts.

In September Caesar returned to his villa at Lavicum to prepare his will. It left three quarters of the estate to Octavius, grandson of one of his sisters. The boy would also become his adopted son. Here Caesar chose family over colleagues because he had a good candidate. Octavian’s intellect and ruthlessness had impressed his uncle and overcome any concerns about his frail constitution.

What did Caesar intend to do about the Republic? Fix it later or let it be? We don’t know. Perhaps the answer lies in the plans he made in early 44 B.C. to invade Parthia. Battle was certainly something he loved and going to war put off having to deal with political problems he had no answer for.

In February of 44, Caesar had his dictatorship converted into a lifelong office, only a year after he had extended it to ten years. This new definition of dictator was deeply offensive to Roman traditionalists who saw it as an emergency office only. In a weak attempt to show modesty, Caesar refused to be named king when the crown was offered to him by Anthony on February 15, 44 B.C. Somehow he believed that the title was more dangerous than the authority, a frighteningly delusional position.

Once his enemies found out about the Parthian campaign, they decided they couldn’t live with the idea of an absent dictator operating by remote control. The assassination plan came together quickly and Caesar was killed. Unfortunately, those Republicans among the conspirators were as delusional as their victim and leaderless. Brutus decided that Anthony should be spared, so the public could see that the assassination was not a power grab. This foolish idealism would be their undoing. The conspirators had no plan for restoring the Republic or even taking control of the situation. They allowed Anthony to use Caesar’s funeral oration to build hatred for the conspirators, driving them from Rome while elevating himself.

How many times has this story been told in history? Idealists strike at the tyrant as an attempt to turn the clock back, but they fail because they aren't ruthless enough and don’t understand how to take power.

The brilliant fallout of the death of Caesar was the sham perpetrated on the Roman people by Octavian once he had defeated Anthony at Actium. He made the principate look like the Republic and everyone fell for the ruse.


Anonymous said...

This is very true! you know the only one time i actually had the chance to learn about Cesar's life?In my a-levels latin class. It was very interesting, and i was shocked that not many historians have dedicated some time to investigate this topic. I understand that his military achievements and the causes and results of his death are quite important but...

anyway, thanks a lot for spending some time on this.


Lillian from W.U Hstry

Mike Anderson said...


Thanks for your kind words. History gets most interesting in the details, especially when it comes to human behavior.

Randall Wilks said...

I appreciate your filling in the gaps in history. Great job.

But one comment has me wondering. You say that Roman soldiers could not be settled in the east because ".... the Hellenistic world refused to be Romanized .....". could you elaborate?

Mike Anderson said...


What I was referring to was the inability of the Latin language to compete with (or replace) Greek in the east whereas the areas to the west (Spain) could establish Latin as the standard. The other issue in the east was the confiscations required to obtain land for redistribution. The regional patron, Atticus, complained that these would be too disruptive, so Caesar, after a payoff, cancelled the program.

Randall Wilks said...

I can understand that being the case in Caesars time, since the Romans had only recently conquered the Hellenistic world. Obviously, Latin never supplanted Greek in that part of the empire, as the New Testament was originally in Greek and the Pentateuch was a Greek translation of the original Hebrew. Was there at least a partial acceptance of Latin in following centuries?