“I LOVE THE NAME OF HONOR,
MORE THAN I FEAR DEATH”
When I was a boy studying Latin, I read Caesar’s “Commentaries on the Gallic War,” which was traditionally assigned to students as their first authentically written text. We all struggled through the first book (there were eight) as we were just fledglings trying to translate the words of the great Julius Caesar. But as we became more proficient, his simple yet elegant words took all of us back in time 2,000 years. During his campaigns in Gaul, Caesar would sit in his tent at night writing about the amazing things he had seen and done.
Everyone familiar with western civilization has some point of reference for Julius Caesar. Yet few of us really know him as a man. He was a scholar, priest, lawyer, general, and leader - but he was also a son, husband, and father. Here is a side of him that you may not know.
He was born Gaius Julius Caesar in 100 BCE. His father and grandfather had the same name but were referred to as “the elder” and “the younger.” The family claimed that they were descendants of a legendary Trojan prince who was the son of the goddess Venus. Legend says that they adopted name “Caesar” because a distant ancestor was born by caesarean section, but this is an unlikely assumption. The explanation that is most plausible is that the word “caesai” is the source. It means “one who has killed an elephant.” Young Julius liked this and when he came to power years later, he had coins issued featuring elephants.
The Caesar family was a member of the Roman privileged class but they were not outstanding in either wealth or power, and lived modestly. In 85 BCE, Caesar’s father died unexpectedly leaving the 16 year old Julius as the head of the family. At 17 he was selected to become a high priest of Jupiter, which seemed to point the way to his future career.
Julius was married three times. His first wife, Cornelia, died giving birth to their daughter Julia, his only legitimate child. He was married to Pompeia for only six years when it ended in divorce with no children. His third wife, Calpunia Pisonis, was with him until his death, again without children. Caesar also had two illegitimate children. Cleopatra gave him a son called Caesarion who was named Pharaoh of Egypt but died before adulthood. Another son was born as result of a youthful affair with Servilla Caepionis. That boy was named Marcus Brutus, more about him later. His favorite, however, was the boy he adopted. His name was Octavianus and he was actually Caesar’s great nephew by blood.
When Julius was about twenty, the dictator Lucius Sulla began purging Rome of all his political enemies which included the Caesar family. The young man was stripped of his inheritance and his priesthood, and was forced into hiding. He left Rome and joined the army. The loss of his priesthood permitted him to follow a military career for which he was well suited. He was tall for the times, with a fair complexion. He was strong and an excellent horseman. Julius was found to be a brave soldier, and received several medals for his conduct.
After hearing that Sulla was now dead, Julius returned to Rome. Because his inheritance had been seized, he was forced to live in a lower-class neighborhood. Then a new career beckoned. He turned to law. He gained recognition as an exceptional lawyer. His brilliant oratory style and dramatic gesturing was made even more striking by his deep set, piercing black eyes and patrician features. He was elected as a tribune. His wife of 14 years, Cornelia Cinnilla, who he married when he was just seventeen, died in 69 BCE. After her funeral, Julius Caesar, now 31, returned to the military life.
A crossroads in his life was reached while serving in Spain. He visited a statue of Alexander the Great. Caesar realized to his dismay that Alexander had conquered most of the known world by the same age that he was then. He recognized that he had achieved so little in his life to that point, and dedicated himself to being the great man that he would eventually become. Through talent and ambition, Julius Caesar subdued the Spanish tribes and was appointed the Governor of Spain. He was a tireless commander in the field, often walking at the head of his troops instead of riding near the rear. If they were stopped by swollen rivers, Caesar himself would be the first to enter the water and swim across. With the complete loyalty of his legions and the wealth of Spain on his side, he decided to reach for control of Rome itself.
The rest of the story, as they say, is well known. He led his army through Gaul, Belgae, and Britain, and fought a series of civil wars. In 50 BCE, Julius Caesar, now 50 years old, was ordered by the Senate to disband his army and return to Rome to be tried for insubordination. He returned alright, but with his army. His enemies fled but he pardoned almost all of them. Julius Caesar was appointed dictator of Rome. For the next few years he reigned without opposition. He established a new constitution and brought order back to the empire.
Even though he was now an old man, considering the human life span at the time, he remained in good health except for bouts of fainting. Today, historians and physicians have attempted to diagnose what Caesar suffered from. Many believe it was epilepsy but others think it was malaria, hypoglycemia, or severe migraine headaches. Whatever it was, it plagued him during his later years. He kept good care of his appearance. His broad face was always clean shaven and his hair trimmed. Caesar wore a laurel wreath crown almost every day, as he is often depicted in illustrations. It wasn’t because he was being superior, but because he was mostly bald and extremely self conscious about it. The wreath hid his receding hair line.
On the Ides of March in 44 BCE, an opposing political faction assassinated Julius Caesar on the steps of the Senate. He was stabbed 23 times. He attempted to get away but he was blinded by blood, tripped, and fell. His body laid on the steps for three hours. His last words are remembered as “Et tu, Brute?” (You too Brutus?), but those are Shakespeare’s words. His actual words were “You too, child?” which is more prophetic as the final blow came from Marcus Brutus, who Caesar, and many historians, believed was his own illegitimate son.
After Caesar’s death, power flowed to his adopted son, Octavianus, who later took the name Caesar Augustus. Augustus became the first Emperor of Rome after defeating Mark Antony in a bloody civil war. It is appropriate that our months of July (named for Julius Caesar) and August (named form Caesar Augustus) lie next to each other.