Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Lives of the Caesars is an important account of the journey of Julius Caesar written by Suetonius. In this selection, it is shown how Caesar came to power and the problems he encountered along the way. The reader can also see the distaste that the citizens and the Senate had for him, eventually leading to his assassination. Suetonius explains how the actions of Caesar led to changes in the governing of Rome and gives insight on his effect on Roman democracy, or lack thereof, by telling what Caesar did and the unrest these actions caused. He also utilizes a clear chronological order to provide an easy to understand example of the changes in Roman governance over the course of Julius Caesar’s reign.
In the time leading up to Caesar’s political career, Rome was in a very unsteady place, Politically, the century after the Third Punic War was one of great turbulence, (Cole and Symes, Western Civilizations 122). Among these issues was a revolt led by Spartacus against the Roman forces defeating as many as 10,000 men, ending in the death of Spartacus himself. Cole and Symes also note that He [Marius] also changed the course of Rome’s history by reorganizing and expanding the army, (Western Civilizations 123). These changes allowed legions to be loyal to one commander rather than the Roman democracy, opening up the door for a civil war to begin. Julius Caesar held many political offices before being elected consul and was awarded a triumph. This is stated by Cole and Symes, Caesar returned to Rome in triumph literally.
A triumph was a spectacular honor awarded to a victorious Roman general by the Senate (Western Civilizations 124). Caesar served as military tribune, Pontifex Maximus, Praetor, and Quaestor before eventually becoming the consul and then dictator of Rome. The Pontifex Maximus was the high priest of the College of Pontiffs. The position held important political and legal powers as well as religious ones, especially concerning the censoring of public morals (Suetonius 3). This office most likely aided Caesar in his ability to understand the Roman government, giving him an advantage as consul and dictator. This effect was also enhanced by his role as praetor which allowed him to utilize extensive government authority in the absence of a consul. As praetor, Caesar was a tribune of the commons, (Suetonius 4). This use of power likely inspired Caesar to become consul and have this power indefinitely.
During his reign over Gaul, Julius Caesar made many decisions that were deemed unacceptable by the Senate. Such actions include, All that part of Gaul…with the exception of some allied states which had rendered him good service, he reduced to the form of a province; and imposed upon it a yearly tribute of 40,000,000 sesterces, (Suetonius 6). These tributes made Caesar very unpopular with the people and the Senate. He also picked fights with both allied and hostile nations, creating more enemies than the Roman empire cared to have. After the Senate attempted to remove Caesar as the governor of Gaul, he began a civil war and did many things to win the favor of the people. In explanation of these actions, Suetonius states, He doubled the pay of the legions for all time. Whenever grain was plentiful, he distributed it to them without stint or measure, and now and then gave each man a slave from among the captives, (6).
This guaranteed the loyalty of the citizens and the legions of Rome in Caesar’s favor. Suetonius also says, to retain his relationship and friendship with Pompey, Caesar offered him his sister’s granddaughter Octavia in marriage; he lavished gifts on men of all other classes; offering prisoners to some by the thousand as a gift, and sending auxiliary troops to the aid of others whenever they wished, and as often as they wished, (6-7). On the other hand, Caesar also did many things that made him very disliked by the people and led to his assassination. Suetonius said, …he not only begged money from the allies, to help pay his debts, but also attacked and sacked some towns of the Lusitanians (13). However the most significant of his actions was, When the Senate approached him in a body with many highly honorary decrees, he received them before the temple of Venus Genetrix without rising, (Suetonius 17).
This sign of disrespect made the people hate Caesar and only added to the reasons for his assassination. Thinking that Caesar intended to be king, the Senate believed they had no choice but to rid themselves of him for good. Suetonius’s account of Caesar’s life helps the reader to better understand the political development of the Roman world during the Civil Wars era. He does this by providing a detailed explanation of Caesar’s actions and the effects they had on the Roman government and culture.
For example, Suetonius states, He was the first Roman to build a bridge and attack the Germans beyond the Rhine; and he inflicted heavy losses upon them. He invaded the Britons too, a people unknown before (6). Caesar began to abuse his power by acting out against allied and enemy nations alike. His love for conquests made Rome a more dangerous nation and feared by surrounding governments. He also created one of the most loyal armies that Rome had ever seen as explained by Suetonius, Throughout the long struggle, not one deserted and many of them, on being taken prisoner, refused to accept their lives, when offered them on the condition of consenting to serve against Caesar, (15).
This is a prime example of a change in the political system of Rome because this ensured the loyalty of the soldiers to one person (much like a king) rather than to the Roman democracy. The death of Julius Caesar seems to be a significant turning point in the history of Rome’s transition to an empire rather than a democracy. Suetonius further shows this by saying, Immediately after the funeral the commons ran to the houses of Brutus and Cassius with firebrands, and after being repelled with difficulty, they slew Helvius Cinna when they met him, through a mistake in the name, supposing that he was Cornelius Cinna, who had the day before made a bitter indictment of Caesar and for whom they were looking (20). This statement shows that Caesar’s death had a great impact on the people and demonstrates their loyalty to him, even in death.
This loyalty enhances the notion that the citizens saw him as a king despite the pride they had for their democracy. The likeness that they had for him in his state of dictatorship made them gravitate more and more towards the idea of being ruled by a single person rather than a system of democracy. Roman democracy met its demise as this idea spread and the idea of a Roman empire was normalized. Analyzing the primary source and the textbook, the reader can clearly see Julius Caesar’s role in the fall of the democracy of Rome.
Caesar was very significant in the alteration of the Roman government and the feelings of the citizens. He made the people realize the benefits of being an empire and helped to make the idea of a monarchy less taboo. While it is possible that he simply accelerated these changes, it seems to be evident that his death was the sole event that changed Rome’s historical course from that moment on. Sulla shared this way of thinking saying, …bear in mind that the man you are so eager to save [Caesar] will one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy, which you have joined with me in upholding… Caesar’s son followed in his footsteps as an epic conquistador and worked to finish Caesar’s lifelong goal of being the sole ruler of the Roman empire. The rise and fall of Julius Caesar was a very significant journey that will be shared for centuries to come.
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