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Julius Caesar by  Jacob Abbott


 

 

CÆSAR'S EARLY YEARS

[35]

C
AESAR does not seem to have been much disheartened and depressed by his misfortunes. He possessed in his early life more than the usual share of buoyancy and light-heartedness of youth, and he went away from Rome to enter, perhaps, upon years of exile and wandering, with a determination to face boldly and to brave the evils and dangers which surrounded him, and not to succumb to them.

Sometimes they who become great in their maturer years are thoughtful, grave, and sedate when young. It was not so, however, with Cæsar. He was of a very gay and lively disposition. He was tall and handsome in his person, fascinating in his manners, and fond of society, as people always are who know or who suppose that they shine in it. He had seemed, in a word, during his residence at Rome, wholly intent upon the pleasures of a gay and joyous life, and upon the personal observation which his rank, his wealth, his agreeable manners [36] and his position in society secured for him. In fact, they who observed and studied his character in these early years, thought that, although his situation was very favorable for acquiring power and renown, he would never feel any strong degree of ambition to avail himself of its advantages. He was too much interested, they thought, in personal pleasures ever to become great, either as a military commander or a statesman.

Sylla, however, thought differently. He had penetration enough to perceive, beneath all the gayety and love of pleasure which characterized Cæsar's youthful life, the germs of a sterner and more aspiring spirit, which, he was very sorry to see, was likely to expend its future energies in hostility to him. By refusing to submit to Sylla's commands, Cæsar had, in effect, thrown himself entirely upon the other party, and would be, of course, in future identified with them. Sylla consequently looked upon him now as a confirmed and settled enemy. Some friends of Cæsar among the patrician families interceded in his behalf with Sylla again, after he had fled from Rome. They wished Sylla to pardon him, saying that he was a mere boy and could do him no harm. Sylla [37] shook his head, saying that, young as he was, he saw in him indications of a future power which he thought was more to be dreaded than that of many Mariuses.

One reason which led Sylla to form this opinion of Cæsar was, that the young nobleman, with all his love of gayety and pleasure, had not neglected his studies, but had taken great pains to perfect himself in such intellectual pursuits as ambitious men who looked forward to political influence and ascendency were accustomed to prosecute in those days. He had studied the Greek language, and read the works of Greek historians; and he attended lectures on philosophy and rhetoric, and was obviously interested deeply in acquiring power as a public speaker. To write and speak well gave a public man great influence in those days. Many of the measures of the government were determined by the action of great assemblies of the free citizens, which action was itself, in a great measure, controlled by the harangues of orators who had such powers of voice and such qualities of mind as enabled them to gain the attention and sway the opinions of large bodies of men.

It most not be supposed, however, that this [38] popular power was shared by all the inhabitants of the city. At one time, when the population of the city was about three millions the number of free citizens was only three hundred thousand. The rest were laborers, artisans, and slaves, who had no voice in public affairs. The free citizens held very frequent public assemblies. There were various squares and open spaces in the city where such assemblies were convened, and where courts of justice were held. The Roman name for such a square was forum. There was one which was distinguished above all the rest, and was called emphatically The Forum. It was a magnificent square, surrounded by splendid edifices, and ornamented by sculptures and statues without number. There were ranges of porticoes along the sides, where the people were sheltered from the weather when necessary, though it is seldom that there is any necessity for shelter under an Italian sky. In this area and under these porticoes the people held their assemblies, and here courts of justice were accustomed to sit. The Forum was ornamented continually with new monuments, temples, statues, and columns by successful generals returning in triumph from foreign campaigns, and by proconsuls and prætors [41] coming back enriched from their provinces, until it was fairly choked up with its architectural magnificence, and it had at last to be partially cleared again, as one would thin out too dense a forest, in order to make room for the assemblies which it was its main function to contain.


[Illustration]

A ROMAN FORUM

The people of Rome had, of course, no printed books, and yet they were mentally cultivated and refined, and were qualified for a very high appreciation of intellectual pursuits and pleasures. In the absence, therefore, of all facilities for private reading, the Forum became the great central point of attraction. The same kind of interest which, in our day, finds its gratification in reading volumes of printed history quietly at home, or in silently perusing the columns of newspapers and magazines in libraries and reading-rooms, where a whisper is seldom heard, in Cæsar's day brought every body to the Forum, to listen to historical harangues, or political discussions, or forensic arguments in the midst of noisy crowds. Here all tidings centered; here all questions were discussed and all great elections held. Here were waged those ceaseless conflicts of ambition and struggles of power on which the fate of nations, and sometimes the [42] welfare of almost half mankind depended. Of course, every ambitious man who aspired to an ascendency over his fellow-men, wished to make his voice heard in the Forum. To calm the boisterous tumult there, and to hold, as some of the Roman orators could do, the vast assemblies in silent and breathless attention, was a power as delightful in its exercise as it was glorious in its fame. Cæsar had felt this ambition, and had devoted himself very earnestly to the study of oratory.

His teacher was Apollonius, a philosopher and rhetorician from Rhodes. Rhodes is a Grecian island, near the southwestern coast of Asia Minor. Apollonius was a teacher of great celebrity, and Cæsar became a very able writer and speaker under his instructions. His time and attention were, in fact, strangely divided between the highest and noblest intellectual avocations, and the lowest sensual pleasures of a gay and dissipated life. The coming of Sylla had, however, interrupted all; and, after receiving the dictator's command to give up his wife and abandon the Marian faction, and determining to disobey it, he fled suddenly from Rome, as was stated at the close of the last chapter, at midnight, and in disguise.

[43] He was sick, too, at the time, with an intermittent fever. The paroxysm returned once in three or four days, leaving him in tolerable health during the interval. He went first into the country of the Sabines, northeast of Rome, where he wandered up and down, exposed continually to great dangers from those who knew that he was an object of the great dictator's displeasure, and who were sure of favor and of a reward if they could carry his head to Sylla. He had to change his quarters every day, and to resort to every possible mode of concealment. He was, however, at last discovered, and seized by a centurion. A centurion was a commander of a hundred men; his rank and his position therefore, corresponded somewhat with those of a captain  in a modern army. Cæsar was not much disturbed at this accident. He offered the centurion a bribe sufficient to induce him to give up his prisoner, and so escaped.

The two ancient historians, whose records contain nearly all the particulars of the early life of Cæsar which are now known, give somewhat contradictory accounts of the adventures which befell him during his subsequent wanderings. They relate, in general, the same incidents, but in such different connections, that the [44] precise chronological order of the events which occurred can not now be ascertained. At all events, Cæsar, finding that he was no longer safe in the vicinity of Rome, moved gradually to the eastward, attended by a few followers, until he reached the sea, and there he embarked on board a ship to leave his native land altogether. After various adventures and wanderings, he found himself at length in Asia Minor, and he made his way at last to the kingdom of Bithynia, on the northern shore. The name of the king of Bithynia was Nicomedes. Cæsar joined himself to Nicomedes's court, and entered into his service. In the mean time, Sylla had ceased to pursue him, and ultimately granted him a pardon, but whether before or after this time is not now to be ascertained. At all events, Cæsar became interested in the scenes and enjoyments of Nicomedes's court, and allowed the time to pass away without forming any plans for returning to Rome.

On the opposite side of Asia Minor, that is, on the southern shore, there was a wild and mountainous region called Cilicia. The great chain of mountains called Taurus approaches here very near to the sea, and the steep conformations of the land, which, in the interior, pro- [45] duce lofty ranges and summits, and dark valleys and ravines, form, along the line of the shore, capes and promontories, bounded by precipitous sides, and with deep bays and harbors between them. The people of Cilicia were accordingly half sailors, half mountaineers. They built swift galleys, and made excursions in great force over the Mediterranean Sea for conquest and plunder. They would capture single ships, and sometimes even whole fleets of merchantmen. They were even strong enough on many occasions to land and take possession of a harbor and a town, and hold it, often, for a considerable time, against all the efforts of the neighboring powers to dislodge them. In case, however, their enemies became at any time too strong for them, they would retreat to their harbors, which were so defended by the fortresses which guarded them, and by the desperate bravery of the garrisons, that the pursuers generally did not dare to attempt to force their way in; and if, in any case, a town or a port was taken, the indomitable savages would continue their retreat to the fastnesses of the mountains, where it was utterly useless to attempt to follow them.

But with all their prowess and skill as naval combatants, and their hardihood as mountain- [46] eers, the Cilicians lacked one thing which is very essential in every nation to an honorable military fame. They had no poets or historians of their own, so that the story of their deeds had to be told to posterity by their enemies. If they had been able to narrate their own exploits, they would have figured, perhaps, upon the page of history as a small but brave and efficient maritime power, pursuing for many years a glorious career of conquest, and acquiring imperishable renown by their enterprise and success. As it was, the Romans, their enemies, described their deeds and gave them their designation. They called them robbers and pirates; and robbers and pirates they must forever remain.

And it is, in fact, very likely true that the Cilician commanders did not pursue their conquests and commit their depredations on the rights and the property of others in quite so systematic and methodical a manner as some other conquering states have done. They probably seized private property a little more unceremoniously than is customary; though all belligerent nations, even in these Christian ages of the world, feel at liberty to seize and confiscate private property when they find it afloat [47] at sea, while, by a strange inconsistency, they respect it on the land. The Cilician pirates considered themselves at war with all mankind, and, whatever merchandise they found passing from port to port along the shores of the Mediterranean, they considered lawful spoil. They intercepted the corn which was going from Sicily to Rome, and filled their own granaries with it. They got rich merchandise from the ships of Alexandria, which brought, sometimes, gold, and gems, and costly fabrics from the East; and they obtained, often, large sums of money by seizing men of distinction and wealth, who were continually passing to and fro between Italy and Greece, and holding them for a ransom. They were particularly pleased to get possession in this way of Roman generals and officers of state, who were going out to take the command of armies, or who were returning from their provinces with the wealth which they had accumulated there.

Many expeditions were fitted out and many naval commanders were commissioned to suppress and subdue these common enemies of mankind, as the Romans called them. At one time, while a distinguished general, named Antonius, was in pursuit of them at the head [48] of a fleet, a party of the pirates made a descent upon the Italian coast, south of Rome, at Nicenum, where the ancient patrimonial mansion of this very Antonius was situated, and took away several members of his family as captives, and so compelled him to ransom them by paying a very large sum of money. The pirates grew bolder and bolder in proportion to their success. They finally almost stopped all intercourse between Italy and Greece, neither the merchants daring to expose their merchandise, nor the passengers their persons to such dangers. They then approached nearer and nearer to Rome, and at last actually entered the Tiber, and surprised and carried off a Roman fleet which was anchored there. Cæsar himself fell into the hands of these pirates at some time during the period of his wanderings.

The pirates captured the ship in which he was sailing near Pharmacusa, a small island in the northeastern part of the Ægean Sea. He was not at this time in the destitute condition in which he had found himself on leaving Rome, but was traveling with attendants suitable to his rank, and in such a style and manner as at once made it evident to the pirates that he was a man of distinction. They accordingly held [49] him for ransom, and, in the mean time, until he could take measures for raising the money, they kept him a prisoner on board the vessel which had captured him.

In this situation, Cæsar, though entirely in the power and at the mercy of his lawless captors, assumed such an air of superiority and command in all his intercourse with them as at first awakened their astonishment, then excited their admiration, and ended in almost subjecting them to his will. He asked them what they demanded for his ransom. They said twenty talents, which was quite a large amount, a talent itself being a considerable sum of money. Cæsar laughed at this demand, and told them it was plain that they did not know who he was. He would give them fifty  talents. He then sent away his attendants to the shore, with orders to proceed to certain cities where he was known, in order to procure the money, retaining only a physician and two servants for himself. While his messengers were gone, he remained on board the ship of his captors, assuming in every respect the air and manner of their master. When he wished to sleep, if they made a noise which disturbed him, he sent them orders to be still. He joined them in their sports and diversions [50] on the deck, surpassing them in their feats, and taking the direction of every thing as if he were their acknowledged leader. He wrote orations and verses which he read to them, and if his wild auditors did not appear to appreciate the literary excellence of his compositions, he told them that they were stupid fools without any taste, adding, by way of apology, that nothing better could be expected of such barbarians.

The pirates asked him one day what he should do to them if he should ever, at any future time, take them prisoners. Cæsar said that he would crucify every one of them.


[Illustration]

THE PIRATES AT ANCHOR

The ransom money at length arrived. Cæsar paid it to the pirates, and they, faithful to their covenant, sent him in a boat to the land. He was put ashore on the coast of Asia Minor. He proceeded immediately to Miletus, the nearest port, equipped a small fleet there, and put to sea. He sailed at once to the roadstead where the pirates had been lying, and found them still at anchor there, in perfect security. He attacked them, seized their ships, recovered his ransom money, and took the men all prisoners. He conveyed his captives to the land, and there fulfilled his threat that he would cru- [51] cify them by cutting their throats and nailing their dead bodies to crosses which his men erected for the purpose along the shore.

During his absence from Rome Cæsar went to Rhodes, where his former preceptor resided, and he continued to pursue there for some time his former studies. He looked forward still to appearing one day in the Roman Forum. In fact, he began to receive messages from his friends at home that they thought it would be safe for him to return. Sylla had gradually withdrawn from power, and finally had died. The aristocratical party were indeed still in the ascendency, but the party of Marius had begun to recover a little from the total overthrow with which Sylla's return, and his terrible military vengeance, had overwhelmed them. Cæsar himself, therefore, they thought, might, with prudent management, be safe in returning to Rome.

He returned, but not to be prudent or cautious; there was no element of prudence or caution in his character. As soon as he arrived, he openly espoused the popular party. His first public act was to arraign the governor of the great province of Macedonia, through which he had passed on his way to Bithynia. It was [52] a consul whom he thus impeached, and a strong partisan of Sylla's. His name was Dolabella. The people were astonished at his daring in thus raising the standard of resistance to Sylla's power, indirectly, it is true, but none the less really on that account. When the trial came on, and Cæsar appeared at the Forum, he gained great applause by the vigor and force of his oratory. There was, of course, a very strong and general interest felt in the case; the people all seeming to understand that, in this attack on Dolabella, Cæsar was appearing as their champion, and their hopes were revived at having at last found a leader capable of succeeding Marius, and building up their cause again. Dolabella was ably defended by orators on the other side, and was, of course, acquitted, for the power of Sylla's party was still supreme. All Rome, however, was aroused and excited by the boldness of Cæsar's attack, and by the extraordinary ability which he evinced in his mode of conducting it. He became, in fact, at once one of the most conspicuous and prominent men in the city.

Encouraged by his success, and the applauses which he received, and feeling every day a greater and greater consciousness of power, he [53] began to assume more and more openly the character of the leader of the popular party. He devoted himself to public speaking in the Forum, both before popular assemblies and in the courts of justice, where he was employed a great deal as an advocate to defend those who were accused of political crimes. The people, considering him as their rising champion, were predisposed to regard every thing that he did with favor, and there was really a great intellectual power displayed in his orations and harangues. He acquired, in a word, great celebrity by his boldness and energy, and his boldness and energy were themselves increased in their turn as he felt the strength of his position increase with his growing celebrity.

At length the wife of Marius, who was Cæsar's aunt, died. She had lived in obscurity since her husband's proscription and death, his party having been put down so effectually that it was dangerous to appear to be her friend. Cæsar, however, made preparations for a magnificent funeral for her. There was a place in the Forum, a sort of pulpit, where public orators were accustomed to stand in addressing the assembly on great occasions. This pulpit was adorned with the brazen beaks of ships which [54] had been taken by the Romans in former wars The name of such a beak was rostrum; in the plural, rostra. The pulpit was itself, therefore, called the Rostra, that is, The Beaks; and the people were addressed from it on great public occasions. Cæsar pronounced a splendid panegyric upon the wife of Marius, at this her funeral, from the Rostra, in the presence of a vast concourse of spectators, and he had the boldness to bring out and display to the people certain household images of Marius, which had been concealed from view ever since his death. Producing them again on such an occasion was annulling, so far as a public orator could do it, the sentence of condemnation which Sylla and the patrician party had pronounced against him, and bringing him forward again as entitled to public admiration and applause. The patrician partisans who were present attempted to rebuke this bold maneuver with expressions of disapprobation, but these expressions were drowned in the loud and long-continued bursts of applause with which the great mass of the assembled multitude hailed and sanctioned it. The experiment was very bold and very hazardous, but it was triumphantly successful.

[55] A short time after this Cæsar had another opportunity for delivering a funeral oration; it was in the case of his own wife, the daughter of Cinna, who had been the colleague and coadjutor of Marius during the days of his power. It was not usual to pronounce such panegyrics upon Roman ladies unless they had attained to an advanced age. Cæsar, however, was disposed to make the case of his own wife an exception to the ordinary rule. He saw in the occasion an opportunity to give a new impulse to the popular cause, and to make further progress in gaining the popular favor. The experiment was successful in this instance too. The people were pleased at the apparent affection which his action evinced; and as Cornelia was the daughter of Cinna, he had opportunity, under pretext of praising the birth and parentage of the deceased, to laud the men whom Sylla's party had outlawed and destroyed. In a word, the patrician party saw with anxiety and dread that Cæsar was rapidly consolidating and organizing, and bringing back to its pristine strength and vigor, a party whose restoration to power would of course involve their own political, and perhaps personal ruin.

Cæsar began soon to receive appointments to [56] public office, and thus rapidly increased his influence and power. Public officers and candidates for office were accustomed in those days to expend great sums of money in shows and spectacles to amuse the people. Cæsar went beyond all limits in these expenditures. He brought gladiators from distant provinces, and trained them at great expense, to fight in the enormous amphitheaters of the city, in the midst of vast assemblies of men. Wild beasts were procured also from the forests of Africa, and brought over in great numbers, under his direction, that the people might be entertained by their combats with captives taken in war, who were reserved for this dreadful fate. Cæsar gave, also, splendid entertainments, of the most luxurious and costly character, and he mingled with his guests at these entertainments, and with the people at large on other occasions, in so complaisant and courteous a manner as to gain universal favor.

He soon, by these means, not only exhausted all his own pecuniary resources, but plunged himself enormously into debt. It was not difficult for such a man in those days to procure an almost unlimited credit for such purposes as these, for every one knew that, if he finally suc- [57] ceeded in placing himself, by means of the popularity thus acquired, in stations of power, he could soon indemnify himself and all others who had aided him. The peaceful merchants, and artisans, and husbandmen of the distant provinces over which he expected to rule, would yield the revenues necessary to fill the treasuries thus exhausted. Still, Cæsar's expenditures were so lavish, and the debts he incurred were so enormous, that those who had not the most unbounded confidence in his capacity and his powers believed him irretrievably ruined.

The particulars, however, of these difficulties, and the manner in which Cæsar contrived to extricate himself from them, will be more fully detailed in the next chapter.


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