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Our Young Folks' Plutarch by  Rosalie Kaufman


 

 

CAESAR

[406] IN the lives of Marius and Sylla mention has been made of Julius Cæsar, but, as he was one of the most renowned of the Romans there is much more to tell about him.

He was descended from the illustrious and noble Julian family, many of whose members distinguished themselves at different periods in Italy, but he was the most famous of them all. As a boy he was considered remarkably intelligent, and he was always so eager to learn that he gave promise at an early age of future greatness.

He was scarcely twenty years old when, after a season of disturbance in the government, Sylla became ruler of Rome, and he was forced to fly for his life. Sylla had reasons for disliking him, the principal of which was his relationship to Marius, who governed the opposite party; for Cæsar and Marius were first cousins. So many people were put to death merely for not siding with Sylla that Cæsar could not be ignorant of his own danger, so he left Rome and hid himself in a foreign country.

After a time Sylla's power grew weaker, and then Cæsar returned and soon became very popular with his countrymen. As a proof of this, he was elected to the office of high-priest when Metellus, who had held it, died, although two men of the highest reputation and great influence with the senate were candidates at the same time.

Not long after, Cæsar was appointed to the government of certain provinces in Spain, but he had spent so much money in entertainments and public shows that he was in debt, and his creditors refused to let him go until he had settled with them. He would not have known how to help himself had it not been for Crassus, one of the wealthiest men in Rome, who pledged himself to pay all his debts, whereupon he was allowed to depart. When crossing the Alps, he passed some villages whose inhabitants looked poor and miserable, and one of his companions said, "I wonder if those people want offices, or feel envious enough towards the great [407] to quarrel with them?" To which Cæsar answered, "I assure you I had rather be the first man among these fellows than the second man in Rome." One day, when reading the history of Alexander, he burst into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked what ailed him. "Have I not just cause to weep," he asked, "when I consider that at my age Alexander had conquered many nations, while I have not a single exploit to boast of?"

But his ambition was soon gratified, for he conquered several tribes in Spain and made them subject to Rome. Besides, he settled many quarrels, and established such excellent laws that the provinces he had won were made happier by his presence. He became rich himself, and divided so much booty among his soldiers that they saluted him as Imperator, the highest title ever bestowed upon a Roman.

Then he returned home, and, having paid off all his debts, desired to stand for the consulship. Rome was divided into two great parties at that period, one led by Pompey, and the other by Crassus, but, knowing that his chances would be less if opposed by either, Cæsar brought about a reconciliation between the two leaders. The union thus formed between them and himself is known in history by the name of the First Triumvirate, and plunged the country into civil war.

Cæsar walked to the place of election between Pompey and Crassus, and was declared consul, with Bibulus for his colleague. The first thing he did after entering upon his new office was to make certain laws about the division of property and of grain, which so pleased the poorer classes that he became more popular than ever.

Bibulus was consul in name only, for he could do nothing against so powerful a person as Cæsar; therefore, finding that he was in danger of being murdered when he offered any opposition, he shut himself up in his house until his consulship expired. At that time Pompey filled the Forum with armed men, and thus got the laws passed which Cæsar had proposed merely to gain favor with the populace. In the same manner he secured for Cæsar the government of Gaul and Illyricum for five years with an army of four legions.

During his consulship Cæsar was guilty of one disgraceful deed, [408] and that was getting such a depraved creature as Clodius elected tribune. His motive was to ruin Cicero, for it was through the influence of the bold, bad Clodius that the orator was banished; but this was before the wars of Gaul. We have now to follow Cæsar in a different course, and to show that after he went to Gaul he was equal as a warrior and general to the greatest the world had ever produced, and superior to many. In less than ten years he took by storm eight hundred cities, conquered three hundred nations, and fought with three millions of men, one million of whom he killed and another million he made prisoners.

So great was his influence over his soldiers that those who had been in no way remarkable before became heroes under his command, enduring the most dreadful sufferings and dangers that they might receive their reward from his hands; and he did reward them most liberally, storing up all the riches he got in the wars for that purpose alone, and never keeping more than his share for himself. Besides, he set them an example of courage and endurance by always exposing himself to danger and indulging in no comforts that they had not. This was the more remarkable, because he was a small man, his constitution was delicate, and he was subject to violent headaches and epileptic fits. He tried to strengthen himself by long marches and simple diet, and did in that way keep off many an attack. He usually slept, while on a march, in a chariot or litter, so that no time might be lost, and he travelled so fast as to excite surprise. He had been such a good rider from childhood that he usually sat with his hands joined together behind his back while his horse went at full speed. During his wars in Gaul he dictated letters to several people at once while riding, and it is said that he was the first person who sent letters to his friends who were in the same city with him when business was urgent. This was done to save the time that a personal interview would have required.

Cæsar won two victories in Spain, then left his army in their winter quarters and went to the river Po, anxious to find out what was going on in Rome. While he was there, numbers of Romans paid their respects to him, and to each he gave a handsome present or some promise for the future; thus the number of his friends constantly increased.

[409] Suddenly he was summoned to join his army, and at their head won two such glorious victories over the Belgæ and the Nervii that the senate of Rome ordered sacrifices to be offered and all sorts of festivities to be kept up for fifteen days in honor of them. After settling the affairs of Gaul, Cæsar went back again to Lucca, near the river Po, for the winter, and did a great deal of mischief while there in this way: he had so much money that he could control the elections by bribery; so anybody whom he wanted in office he supplied with funds to buy votes, and of course in that way his power became greater and greater all the time.

Among the distinguished persons who went to visit him at Lucca were Pompey, Crassus, Appius, the governor of Sardinia, and Nepos, proconsul of Spain. At one time there were assembled a hundred and twenty lictors, with their masters, and more than two hundred senators. All these met in council, with Cæsar at their head, and fixed upon this plan: Pompey and Crassus were to be consuls again for another year, and Cæsar was to have a fresh supply of money and continue in command of the army for five years longer. It seems absurd for the senate to have voted Cæsar more money when he already had so much, and the honest men of Rome shook their heads and sighed; but what could they do? If Cato had been present, he would have spoken out boldly against such a decree, but he had been sent on an expedition to Cyprus on purpose to get him out of the way, and Favonius, who attempted to speak, was silenced because some of the people feared Pompey and Crassus, and others hoped so much from Cæsar that they were ready to grant him almost anything he might have demanded.

On his return to his army in Gaul, Cæsar found another furious war on his hands, for two of the most powerful German tribes had crossed the Rhine to fight him. He killed four hundred thousand of them, and then pursued those that fled, because he wanted to have the honor of being the first Roman who ever crossed the Rhine with an army. So in the short space of ten days he built a bridge that was a wonder to all who beheld it, and, having crossed over with his army, drove two of the most warlike of the German nations to the woods, where they concealed themselves. Then he laid the country waste, sparing only those parts where the people [410] declared themselves friendly to Rome, and at the end of eighteen days went back to Gaul.

His expedition to Britain was the most remarkable of all, and showed a great spirit of daring, for no other fleet had sailed into the Atlantic to make war, and it was not positively known that such an island as Britain really existed. Some writers had represented that there was in the north an immense territory, while others had stated that no such land existed at all. Therefore Cæsar may be said to have extended the Roman empire beyond the known world, for he went to Britain twice, and fought several battles, doing much damage to the inhabitants, but finding little to take, for they were too miserably poor and wretched. However, he received several hostages from the king, imposed a tribute on the island, and then went back to Gaul.

Sad news awaited him here; for his daughter Julia, who was Pompey's wife, had just died, and the great conqueror was much afflicted when he heard of it.

As winter came on, Cæsar went again to Italy, but he was soon recalled by a general uprising of the whole of Gaul; and although the season was a most severe one and the rivers were all frozen up, he performed some of the most wonderful feats that ever were known, appearing now here, now there, with such rapidity that the enemy never knew exactly where or when to expect him. At last the Gauls became convinced that Cæsar's troops could neither be conquered nor resisted, so they laid down their arms; and their principal general, approaching Cæsar as he sat on his throne, threw off his armor, and, placing himself at his feet, remained in silence until led away by the guard, who were ordered to keep him in safety to appear at the triumph.

By this time Crassus was dead, and the government of Rome had become so corrupt that tables were publicly spread out, where candidates for office sat to pay the people for their votes, and there was often much bloodshed in the Forum before an election could be decided. Many declared openly that they preferred a monarchy to such scenes, and hinted at Pompey as the person they preferred for their ruler; but Pompey pretended that he did not wish to become dictator, though he was all the while working for that position. Cato understood him, and, to prevent his taking [411] any violent steps, persuaded the senate to declare him sole consul. This was done; and he continued at the same time to govern Spain and Africa, where he had stationed his armies.

This arrangement did not suit Cæsar or his friends, all of whom were jealous of the favor shown to Pompey; so Cæsar paid the debts of one tribune, sent money to another to build a public hall, and was so generous to many of the prominent men that his party increased wonderfully. This alarmed Pompey, who proposed that a successor be appointed to Cæsar in Gaul, and at the same time demanded the troops he had lent him. They were immediately returned, each man receiving a handsome sum of money from Cæsar as he bade him farewell.

The messengers who had been sent for these troops were so anxious to flatter Pompey that they told him he had nothing to fear from the army in Gaul; that they all preferred him to Cæsar, and would declare for him as soon as they entered Italy. This deceived Pompey, so that he did not deem it necessary to levy troops, and when Cæsar sent to demand a longer term as commander he was refused. He then made this proposition: that both he and Pompey should lay down their arms and become private citizens, thus leaving it to their country to decide what reward for his services each should receive. This seemed so fair that Curio, who made the demand in Cæsar's name, was loudly applauded, and wreaths of flowers were showered at him.

Scipio, Pompey's father-in-law, rose and proposed that if Cæsar did not lay down his arms within a certain time he should be declared an enemy to his country. Then a vote was taken to decide whether Pompey or Cæsar should disband his soldiers, and almost all the people were in favor of having the latter do so; but some of the senators became excited and talked angrily, while all were so grieved at the turn of affairs that they left the Forum and put on mourning.

Matters were not improved, and by no means settled, for when somewhat later Cæsar sent another proposition, such a violent uproar was the consequence that Antony and Curio, who spoke for him, were driven out of the senate-house with insults and forced to make their escape from Rome in a hired carriage, disguised as slaves. Cæsar wanted no better excuse for his future actions, for [412] Antony and Curio were men of high standing, and it was easy to arouse the indignation of the soldiers by showing them how impossible it had become for any one who favored him to raise his voice in Rome with safety.

So he ordered an attack on Ariminum, a large city of Gaul, and sent troops under command of Hortensius, with orders to take it with as little disturbance and bloodshed as possible. He followed with the rest of his army, and marched straight to the river Rubicon, which divided Gaul from the rest of Italy. But there he hesitated, and began to weigh the difficulties and the daring of his enterprise. Many a man would have been daunted. Not so Cæsar: his courage rose with the occasion, and he cried out, "The die is cast!" as he proceeded to cross the river. He travelled so fast that Ariminum was taken that very day, and, as he advanced, not only individuals but the population of whole cities fled before him in terror and crowded into Rome.

Pompey was amazed when he heard that Cæsar was coming with his army, and as the news spread from house to house it struck terror to every heart, causing the wildest confusion throughout the city. Pompey had boasted in the senate that if he but stamped his foot all Italy would arm in defence of her territory. "Stamp your foot now," said Favonius, tauntingly. Although Pompey had as many soldiers then as Cæsar had, his friends were so alarmed at the reports constantly circulated that they forced him along with the general current. He issued a decree that from such a state of tumult nothing was to be expected but war, and, after ordering the senate and every man who preferred his country and liberty to the rod of a tyrant to follow him, left Rome. The consuls and most of the senators did likewise, but, when they heard how kindly Cæsar treated those he had conquered, many of them returned.

The account of how Cæsar pursued Pompey, who fled from place to place, and then went out to sea, is given in Pompey's life, so it need not be repeated here. Within sixty days from the time he entered Italy, Cæsar had made himself master of the country, and then he went to Rome, where, to his surprise, quiet had been restored.

He helped himself to what public money he wanted, though [413] Metellus, the tribune, did his best to prevent it, and set out at once for Spain for the purpose of making himself master of Pompey's army there. Though often in great danger of defeat, he succeeded at last, and none of the soldiers escaped except the generals who fled to Pompey.

On his return to Rome he was created dictator, but within eleven days he resigned, declared himself consul, and was off to the wars again. He marched so fast that part of his army was left behind, while in the very depth of winter he put to sea and took two important towns of Greece, and then sent his ships back for the rest of the troops. But they were getting tired of so much fighting and marching, and many of the men were growing old and longed for peace and repose. So they exclaimed, "Whither will this man lead us again? Will he never let us be quiet? He carries us from place to place as if we had limbs of stone and bodies of iron; but even iron yields at last to repeated blows, and our very shields and breastplates cry out for rest. Our wounds, if nothing else, should make him see that we are but mortal men, subject to the same pains as other human beings. The gods themselves cannot force the seasons, or clear the winter seas of storms and yet he pushes forward as though he were flying from an enemy rather than pursuing one."

Thus they complained; but still they followed their general, for they would have considered themselves traitors had they done otherwise, and he led them against Pompey. A great battle was fought, and Cæsar lost so many men that when he retired from the field at night he said, "The victory to-day would have been of the enemy's side if they had had a general who knew how to conquer." Cæsar was almost as miserable as though he had been defeated, for he knew that he had not conducted the war properly and spent the whole night lamenting the mistakes he had made. He asked himself again and again why he had settled down to fight with Pompey in a barren country, where it was impossible to get food enough for his army, when he might have marched into a fertile one, and taken possession of some of the wealthiest cities in the world.

In the morning he raised his camp and marched towards Macedonia, where Scipio was stationed, and Pompey's men, thinking [414] that he was running away because he was beaten, wanted to follow him. But Pompey was too prudent to risk so much; he preferred to tire out Cæsar's men by following at a safe distance, and laying a siege whenever a good and safe opportunity offered. He would have been wise had he stuck to this decision, but he allowed himself to be influenced by his officers, and so marched forward until he joined Scipio, and the two armies combined were so numerous that even Cæsar was dismayed when he beheld them drawn up in line of battle on the plain of Pharsalia.

It was Pompey then who made the attack, and the battle fought on that day was one of the most desperate ever seen. Cæsar, at the head of the tenth legion, broke into the enemy's ranks and drove all before him. When Pompey saw his cavalry flying he was beside himself, for he knew that all was lost. Retiring to his tent, he sat down without speaking a word, and buried his face in his hands. When the enemy engaged with his men just on the fortifications around the camp, he seemed to become suddenly alive to his position, and, starting up, exclaimed, "What! into my very camp?" He then disguised himself in old clothes and stole away. His journey to Egypt and his death there are related in his life.

Most of the infantry that were taken prisoners were joined to Cæsar's legions, and many distinguished persons were pardoned. Among these was Brutus, of whom more will be said hereafter. To the Thessalians Cæsar granted liberty for the sake of the victory he had won on their soil, before going in pursuit of Pompey.

Pompey had been assassinated before Cæsar reached Alexandria, and when his head was brought to him, he turned away in disgust. Ptolemy, the king of Egypt, handed over to Cæsar all the soldiers he found wandering about his country who had fought under Pompey, and they not only received favors, but were taken into the service of Cæsar, who wrote to his friends in Rome, "The greatest pleasure I have from my victory is the being able to save so many of my fellow-citizens, even though they have borne arms against me."

The king of Egypt had a sister named Cleopatra, with whom he was not at all friendly, and, indeed, had banished her from his country. When she heard that such a great warrior as Cæsar had come to Alexandria, she had herself carried to his palace rolled up [415] like a bale of goods, and so interested him in her behalf that he induced her brother to let her share the government with him. Later, during the war which Cæsar fought in Egypt, the king was killed, and Cleopatra became queen.

The great general next went over to Asia, where Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates the Great, was engaged in a war. He totally defeated his army, and finished up the war so quickly that when he wrote an account of it to his friends in Rome he put it in three well-known Latin words, "Veni, vidi, vici,"  "I came, I saw, I conquered."

By the end of the year Cæsar was back in Rome, where he had been appointed dictator for another year, consul for five years, and tribune for life. So his authority was almost without limit.

After the battle in Thessaly the friends of the Roman republic had gathered in Africa under Cato and Scipio, so Cæsar could not rest until he had made a campaign in that country. After several battles he at last gained a complete victory, and returned to Rome, where he had one of the most magnificent triumphs that ever was seen. When it was over, he gave splendid presents to the soldiers, and feasts to the citizens, whom he entertained at twenty-two thousand tables.

The last of Cæsar's wars was fought in Spain, against the sons of Pompey. They were young, but they had collected such a numerous army, and fought with so much skill and courage, that Cæsar was in great danger. He was victorious at last, however, and when the battle was over he said to his friends, "I have often fought for victory, but this is the first time I ever fought for my life."

Then, although the Romans were displeased because Cæsar boasted of having destroyed the children and family of Pompey, one of the greatest of their statesmen, they were so tired of war that they made him dictator for life, hoping that the government of a single person would bring them peace. He was called the "Father of his country," and flattery poured in upon him from all sides, for even his enemies paid him compliments now, when his conduct was all that even they could desire. For he not only pardoned those that had fought against him in the field, but on some of them he bestowed honors. Among these were the two prætors Brutus and Cassius.

[416] When his friends proposed that he should have a body-guard, he refused, saying that he would try to gain the affection of the people, which would be the best and surest guard he could possibly have. So he did everything to please them, and in order to gain favor with the army he sent colonies to people and rebuild Carthage, Corinth, and other places that he had destroyed.

But Cæsar was not a man who could sit still and enjoy the fruit of his great exploits: he was constantly making plans, which, if he had carried them out, would have brought almost the whole of Europe under Roman rule. All human designs, even though they may be excellent, as some of Cæsar's certainly were, are limited; but fortunately one of the best was carried into effect after Cæsar got through with his wars, and that was the correcting of the calendar. He called in the best philosophers and mathematicians of his time, and they formed such an exact calendar that it is in use to this day in Rome.

Now we come to the closing scene in Cæsar's life, for he enjoyed the lofty position for which he had fought so hard little more than a year. Various causes hurried on his end. He had offended the senate by receiving certain honors they conferred on him without rising from his seat, as he ought to have done. Then he had given offence by showing favor to people who were not worthy, merely for his own gratification. On one occasion Mark Antony offered him a crown. He refused it, and the next morning his statues were crowned. The tribunes imprisoned the people who had done this, but Cæsar turned them out of office for it. This proved that he was really anxious to be called king, though he had pretended that such was not the case.

So he became unpopular, and a conspiracy, in which Cassius and Brutus played the chief part, was formed against his life. His superstition was aroused because of several bad omens. Among these was the absence of his victim's heart when he was sacrificing, strange lights in the heavens, noises in the night, and wild birds that perched on the Forum. A soothsayer bade him prepare for great danger on the Ides of March. That day, when on his way to the senate, he met the soothsayer, and, with a light laugh, said, "The Ides of March are come." "Yes, they are come," was the answer, "but they are not gone."

[417] Calpurnia, Cæsar's wife, who was by no means a weak-minded woman, had a horrible dream on the night before her husband was murdered, and begged him, with tears in her eyes, not to go to the senate-house. Finding that he was inclined to neglect her warning, she urged him to consult his fate by sacrifices. He did so, and, as the priests pronounced all the signs bad, he resolved to send Antony to dismiss the senate.

But one of the conspirators ridiculed him for listening to a woman's fears, and urged him to go to the senate, because the business to be transacted that day was of the utmost importance. So Cæsar felt ashamed of the weakness he had shown, and yielded.

When he entered, the senate rose to do him honor, and as he took his seat the conspirators gathered close about his chair. Cimber offered a petition, which Cæsar seemed unwilling to grant; and while he was speaking, Cimber seized his robe and pulled it from his shoulder. This was the signal for attack. Casca struck the first blow at the neck of Cæsar, and all the other conspirators rushed on him, so eager to share in his death that they actually wounded one another. He fought at first; but when he beheld Junius Brutus among his enemies, he was so grieved that he drew his cloak about him, and, having covered his face, fell without a struggle. He received twenty-three wounds, and his blood bathed Pompey's statue, at the foot of which he breathed his last.

Brutus turned to the senate and tried to explain the reason for the dreadful deed; but they were so dismayed that they fled, and the wildest confusion prevailed throughout the city when Cæsar's death was made known. Brutus, Cassius, and all who were suspected of having taken part in the murder were obliged to hide themselves or leave Rome, and their houses were burned to the ground. An account of the sufferings and death of Brutus will be found in his life.

Cæsar lived only four years after Pompey, and was fifty-six at the time of his death. It is said that for seven nights after that event a comet was visible in the skies, and was looked upon as a sign that the soul of Cæsar was received among the gods.

Cæsar was, besides a great general, one of the most intellectual men of ancient times, and his writings, which have many remark- [418] able features, have been admired by students even up to the present day. His name became a title of honor for the Roman emperors, of whom there are twelve that bore it mentioned in history.


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