Julius Caesar was born in 100 BC into a wealthy and influential family. His father, who was the Roman governor of Asia, died when Caesar was just sixteen and his uncle, Gaius Marius, a powerful man who controlled the City of Rome, took Caesar under his wing. However, soon afterwards, Marius was deposed by his rival, Lucius Sulla, and Caesar found himself on the wrong side. Although support from some influential friends spared him the worse, he decided that he would be better off away from Rome so he joined the army. It was the start of a brilliant military career. He distinguished himself in the Seige of Mytilene and returned to Rome following the death of Sulla in 78 BC. Based on his success, he also launched his political career, gradually making his way up the political ladder, interspersed with a series of military campaigns.
Caesar was elected as a Consul in 59 BC and at this time he forged an alliance with the two most powerful men in the Roman Senate, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Pompey, (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus). This alliance became known as the 'First Triumvirate' and between them they dominated the government of Rome.
After his time as Consul, Caesar left again on a military campaign. This time he was gloriously successful, defeating both Gaul and Britain. These successes made Caesar a hero to his troops and fueled his own self-importance, developments that did not go unnoticed in Rome. Following the death of Crassus, Pompey aligned himself with opponents of Caesar and demanded that he dispand his army and return home, accusing him of arrogance and treason. Fearing he would be arrested when he got there, Caesar and his army 'Crossed the Rubicon'. The Rubicon river marked the northern boundary of the Roman Republic and it was forbidden for a Roman general to cross the river accompanied by soldiers. In doing so, he was effectively declaring war.
Pompey and his associates fled Rome before the advancing army and were pursued by Caesar who left his trusted lieutenant, Mark Anthony, in control of Rome. Returning briefly to oversee his own appointment as dictator, Caesar then followed Pompey to Egypt where he was presented with his severed head. Caesar was furious and took revenge for the death of his former friend on the soldiers who had hoped to please him.
Cleopatra and Caesar. Painting by Jean-Leon-Gerome
Caesar's stay in Egypt was eventful. He became involved in a civil war between the child pharoah, Ptolemy XIII, and his sister, Cleopatra. Siding with Cleopatra, he defeated the Pharoah in the 'Battle of the Nile' in 47 BC and installed Cleopatra on the throne. Their subsequent romantic relationship has been immortalised in numerous paintings, books and was even the subject of a Hollywood movie.
When Caesar returned to Rome he was again appointed dictator, first for a period of ten years and then afterwards, for life. He used his power to reform the state, embarking on an extensive program of reforms. He revised the Roman calendar, established a police force, reformed the tax system and extended rights across the Roman world. But despite these, and many other improvements, his enemies were unable to come to terms with their own loss of power and grew determined to act to overthrow him.
Death of Caesar. Painting by Jean-Leon-Gerome
They finally struck on the 15th March, 44 BC, the 'Ides of March'. Caesar was due to attend a session of the Senate and, when he arrived, the conspirators attacked him, stabbing him 23 times.
Ironically, an act that was carried out to save the Republic ended up destroying it forever. The aristocratic conspirators underestimated the strength of feeling that Caesar commanded among the ordinary citizens of Rome, and when they rose up in revolt, the conspirators were forced to flee for their lives. Mark Anthony joined forces with one of Caesar's most loyal commanders, Lepidus, and Caesar's named heir, Octavian, to form the 'Second Triumvirate' and proceded to track down and kill the conspirators. Inevitably, the association did not last for long and when Mark Anthony joined up with Cleopatra and turned against Octavian, their forces were finally defeated at Actium and Octovian, under the name of Caesar Augustus, became the first Roman emperor and was named a god.