Julius Caesar is considered by some to be the greatest military commander to have ever lived. His generalship and military campaigns expanded the borders of Rome beyond the River Rhine and across the English Channel to the southern lands of the British Isles.
His machinations plunged the Roman Republic into chaos, sparking a civil war that destroyed the Republican constitution forever and inaugurated the era of the Roman Empire. He was a charismatic leader, a seasoned military veteran, and a formidable politician. It is little wonder that he is rarely thought of as being an ancient example of the modern-day war reporter.
Yet, without Caesar’s regular dispatches from the front, his name may not have been so renowned today. Indeed, Caesar’s prolific writings on war, based on his first-hand experience, were key tools used to build his popularity across the Republic. Information is power – and the one who controls it, spins it, and adequately disseminates it to reach the greatest mass, can often change the course of history.
Born to a privileged patrician family in 100 BC, Caesar’s early life was dangerous and turbulent. Things started off relatively well: Caesar was nominated as a high priest, and then married Cornelia, the daughter of influential Roman consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna.
But Caesar and Cinna were on the wrong side of a power struggle between Caesar’s uncle Gaius Marius and rival consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
After a bitter civil war – which Marius lost – Caesar was stripped of his inheritance, priesthood, and dowry, and was forced into hiding. Only the intervention of his mother’s family led Sulla to reluctantly ease the persecution.
Seeking to distance himself from the cesspit that was Rome, Caesar joined the Army and went on campaign in Asia. There he distinguished himself and won the Civic Crown – the second-highest military decoration available to citizens of the Republic.
After Sulla’s death in 78 BC, Caesar returned to Rome and, in his bid to challenge the authority of the elite aristocratic senate that then ruled Roman politics, he became a legal advocate, prosecuting corrupt former governors of Sulla’s regime and gaining fame for his brilliant and fiery oratory.
He was eventually elected to the post of Military Tribune, which gave him command over a portion of the Roman Army, and was regarded as a stepping stone to a senatorial career.
Immediately becoming a rising star, he was then elected Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of the Roman state religion, a prestigious and culturally influential role. Moving from triumph to triumph, he quickly became governor of south-eastern Spain, and by 60 BC was elected consul of Rome, the highest possible political office.
But Caesar had baggage: his dispossession at the hands of Sulla during his younger years left him heavily indebted, leading him to forge an alliance with Crassus, one of Rome’s richest men, and Pompey, another great military commander. Together these three formed the First Triumvirate of populist leaders. Together they dominated Roman politics, and slowly eroded the powers of the aristocratic senate.
The Triumvirate used their political power to pass a law that allowed the redistribution of public lands to the poor by force of arms – leading to uproar among Rome’s elite. Caesar used his army to intimidate and stem conservative opposition to this proposal, which, though it angered the Roman senate, made him hugely popular among the Plebian class.
After his consulship was over, Caesar began the military campaign he is most famous for: the conquest of Gaul. While leading his army through the Gallic lands, he also composed one of his most-celebrated works of Latin prose: Commentaries on the Gallic War.
Written in 53 BC, the Commentaries were essentially a collection of seven books, or dispatches, each of which covered one year of his military campaigns. They were published at regular intervals in order to convey to the Roman people the success of and justifications for his wars.
Based on his prolific recording of the events that passed, some have classified Caesar as a historian, but, as Classical scholar David Rankin notes, ‘Caesar was not a historian: he was a political warlord in need of good public relations material to confuse both friends and enemies in Rome about the true nature of his activities in Gaul.’
Key to Caesar’s public relations agenda was the manner in which the Commentaries were written: they had to cut through the messaging of the elite Roman senate that sought to turn the Plebian class against Caesar, and speak directly to his grassroots power base in Rome.
So Caesar’s writing was stylish yet uncomplicated; full of drama and invective, but totally accessible to the common Roman citizen. Even his political opponent Cicero could not but applaud his talent, stating of his works, ‘They are worthy of all praise: they are unadorned, straightforward, and elegant’.
The Commentaries told of the upstart rebellions of the Gauls and the Celts, with particular focus on the resistance of Vercingetorix, a Gallic chieftain who sought to unite Gaul’s various tribes against the crushing grip of the the Roman Army.
Vercingetorix was roundly defeated by Caesar at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC, cementing the expansion of the Roman Republic over the whole of Gaul (present-day France and Belgium).
Through the populist dispatches of the Commentaries, Caesar whipped up hatred of the Gallic tribes and support for his wars, portraying Vercingetorix and his followers as brutal savages:
To the utmost vigilance [Vercingetorix] adds the utmost rigour of authority; and by the severity of his punishments brings over the wavering: for on the commission of a greater crime he puts the perpetrators to death by fire and every sort of tortures; for a slighter cause, he sends home the offenders with their ears cut off, or one of their eyes put out, that they may be an example to the rest, and frighten others by the severity of their punishment.
Caesar wrote similarly about the Celts and the Druids he encountered as he continued his campaigns across the English Channel into Britain, where he failed to gain a foothold. His Commentaries included the first known written records of the British Isles. Modern-day readers may relate to Caesar’s lament that in Britain, ‘The nights are short and the weather miserable, with frequent rain and mists.’
When Caesar’s term as Governor of Spain came to an end, the Roman senate ordered he disband his army and return to Rome – where he would be prosecuted for defying the laws of the Republic.
Caesar refused to do so, and instead marched his army across the Rubicon – plunging Rome into the fateful civil war that ended the Republic and established the imperial dictatorship. His Commentaries on the Civil War, published around 40 BC, detail his account of events. They do not, however, dwell on the unconstitutionality of his acts: instead, they focus their narrative on the plotting and corruption of his political opponents.
Ultimately, Caesar’s propaganda efforts, legal reforms, and military campaigns failed to ensure his continued grip over the Roman state. While they may have won him the support of the Roman people, they stoked bitter enmity among the elite senatorial class. What happened next is common knowledge: a group of these senators came together to assassinate Caesar on the steps of the entrance to the chamber of the Senate on 15 March 44 BC, the day now famous as the Ides of March. •
IN CONTEXT: CAESAR’S CIVIL WAR
The Civil War began when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC and marched his army on Rome. His main opponent was the military commander Pompey and his supporters, with whom Caesar had once been allied to form the First Triumvirate.
Caesar waged war against Pompey for four years, fighting on fronts across the Empire, including Italy, Greece, and Africa. He eventually defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, and stamped out the last elements of resistance at the Battle of Munda in 45 BC.
He was then crowned dictator for life.