Caesar retuned to Rome in 46 BC, having won military campaigns on three continents, including the long, spectacular campaign in Gaul. Having surpassed the achievements of Pompey, he was now indisputably the greatest general in Roman history. He was honored with extraordinary celebrations, extending for weeks – festivals, parades, gladiator events, athletic competitions, beast fights, processions of exotic animals, miniature naval and cavalry battle reenactments, and more. Caesar paid his soldiers generously and distributed allotments of cash, wheat and olive oil to the poor; the College of Pontiffs ceremoniously beheaded two mutineers.
While Caesar did not plan on a permanent Consulship, he was elected to his third term in 46 BC, and then, after winning the Battle of Munda later that year, he was rewarded by the Senate with even more ceremonial tributes, statues, columns, a throne in the Senate, etc.; and was also awarded extraordinary powers, including a ten-year Consulship; control over the entire Roman army; and control of the Republic’s Treasury. Caesar now held supreme power; decisions were made privately with a few advisers and endorsed, rather than debated, by a sycophantic Senate. Officials were named by Caesar to public office and then duly elected as a matter of course. Caesar, while refusing the title “king”, had assumed regal, almost mythic status with the citizens of Rome, and dressed accordingly in red and purple robes with gold laurels.
Caesar, following his longstanding political practice, worked to co-opt those who had remained neutral, or at least silent, during his war with Pompey, pardoning former opponents and naming them to senior political positions. In one case, after refusing a pardon for one prominent Pompeiian, moved to tears by Cicero’s speech, Caesar allowed his opponent’s return to Rome, and a trickle of self-exiled Pompeiians, feeling safe from retribution, began returning.
Caesar proposed and implemented numerous reforms, primarily a land distribution plan, on a massive scale, to reward his veterans with public land, property confiscated from prominent Pomepiians, and land purchased at market value. Caesar also implemented massive colonization and resettlement, and expansion of citizenship opportunities, in conquered provinces, including Italy, North Africa, Greece and Transalpine Gaul. Teams of surveyors were despatched to lay out land allotments and construct roads and infrastructure; plans were drawn to drain the marshland along the coast south of Rome to create new farmland. These efforts resettled large numbers of Romans in the provinces, provided them livelihoods, gained their loyalty, and created a large class of newly affluent citizens. In addition, public projects in Rome, including major expansion of the Forum and construction of the saepta, a new public voting facility measuring four acres, provided jobs with good wages for the unemployed. Reform of grain subsidies improved the condition of the poor. Other improvements included codification of Roman law; collection of written works to be overseen by scholars in a central library; reform of the Hellenistic calendar; limitation of slave labor in southern Italy; and improved management of Rome’s growing public infrastructure.
The Roman Republic was at peace; it was being managed more effectively than it had for decades; Caesar’s diplomatic and political skills had accommodated those in political opposition or neutral; the major violent political convulsions of the past had subsided; and many more of Rome’s citizens were able to maintain their livelihoods and prosper. Plans for vast military campaigns, expected to take three years, in the Balkans and further Asia Minor were laid, including a canal for supplies to be built through the isthmus at Corinth.
The gradual degradation of the Republic’s political institutions had begun before Caesar was born, and continued over the course of his life and career. Rather than understanding Caesar’s seizure of power as an event, it seems better viewed as the conclusion of a long process of debilitation of a political system that was unable to maintain its design intent against increasing waves of corruption and violence, the Republic’s devolved political norm. The balanced, representative design of the government, its diffusion of power, had been completely undermined by a gradual process reflecting the relentless ambitions of its senior statesmen, maintaining the form of its design, but ending with effective rule by one man. Rome’s aristocracy had accepted this condition on a temporary basis through civil war and invasion threats, but expected a return to their previous influence afterward; resentment against Caesar was growing.
With Caesar planning to be away for three years, the resentment against him in the arstocracy turned to conspiracy. Rumors of conspiracy, both real and imagined, led to an oath of loyalty by the Senate, and a new bodyguard for Caesar made up of Senators and Equestrians. Motivation for the murder of Caesar varied by its participants, but primarily revolved around resentment over rule by one man, and loss of their own influence, power and wealth. Caesar heard the rumors, and ignored them; and on March 15th, 44 BC, the Ides, Caesar was called to a meeting of the Senate in the Forum, carried by litter from his home. A slave arrived at Caesar’s home with “vital news” and was told to wait for his return; Caesar was stopped en route and handed a letter from an ally, but did not read it. The conspirators, including Brutus, waited outside the meeting with knives hidden under their clothes. Caesar arrived and greeted them cheerfully, proceeding to his throne, where the conspirators clustered round him, and attacked, stabbing him 23 times; he fought to the end, then collapsed at the foot of a statue of Pompey, the ultimate military and political rival he had defeated. Rome’s greatest leader – and the Republic itself – both passed into history.
Caesar, scion of an aristocratic family, descended from Rome’s founders; one of history’s greatest generals; leading statesman, orator and politician; eventually brought the Roman Republic, stumbling to destruction from forces within, to its final end. All subsequent Roman emperors took his name as their title, symbolizing supreme power, the rendering continuing for a millennia with Germany’s “Kaisers” and Russia’s “Tsars”. Caesar was pragmatic, sometimes ruthless, often merciful with his enemies, dependent on his objective under circumstances at the time. He was at times fugitive, prisoner, military leader, politician, legal advocate, rebel and dictator. His spectacular military victories in rebellious provinces brought him fame, fortune and political power; ultimately his ambitions led him to initiate a civil war that resulted in the end of the Roman Republic. But Caesar replaced a system where a predominant aristocracy in the Roman Senate used their authority to preserve their own wealth and power at the expense of the majority of Roman citizens. While Caesar governed well, making improvements and passing laws that benefited Rome and its citizens, his imperial system led to incompetent leadership later, as his descendants lacked the character traits Romans valued, Dignatas, Pietas, Viritus.