Who Was Julius Caesar?

Julius Caesar was a Roman general, politician and dictator who played a major role in Rome’s transition from a Republic into an Empire.

May 16, 2024By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

who was julius caesar


Julius Caesar was a key figure in transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. A brilliant general, he led military campaigns that greatly expanded Rome’s territory. As a politician, he enacted reforms that centralized power and diminished the Senate’s authority. After winning the civil war and the death of his former ally and rival – Pompey the Great – Caesar became the sole master of Rome – a dictator for life. Caesar’s grand plans were cut short by his assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BCE, but his legacy endured in the Roman Empire of Augustus.


Julius Caesar Came from A Prestigious Family

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Bust of Julius Caesar, by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci, 1512-4. Source: The MET Museum


Gaius Julius Caesar was born into the gens Julia, one of Rome’s oldest and most distinguished patrician families, around 100 BCE. The Julii traced their lineage back to the early days of the Republic and claimed descent from Iulus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas and grandson of the goddess Venus. Despite their illustrious ancestry, the family’s political influence declined by the Late Roman Republic, overshadowed by the power struggle between Gaius Marius and Sulla. When Sulla emerged victorious, Caesar, linked to the Marian faction, left Rome and joined the army.

He Rose Quickly Through the Ranks

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Relief from the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, showing the soldiers of the Late Republic, end of the 2nd century BCE, The Louvre Museum, Paris


Joining the army was the right choice, allowing Caesar to rise quickly through the ranks. The young man distinguished himself for his bravery and skills in combat, earning the civic crown (corona civica), Rome’s second-highest military honour. Caesar’s strategic prowess was further highlighted during his captivity by the Mediterranean pirates, whom he defeated and crucified after securing his release. After Sulla’s death, Caesar returned to Rome, where he rapidly climbed the cursus honorum, serving as quaestor in 69 BC, praetor in 62 BCE, and finally being elected consul in 59 BCE. Julius Caesar was now one of the most powerful men in Rome.


Caesar Joined the First Triumvirate

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Vignette with profiles of the three Triumvirs, Raphael Morghen after Giovanni Battista Mengardi, 1791-94, The British Museum, London


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Despite his numerous military and political achievements, Julius Caesar faced resistance from the Senate. Unable to advance his reforms through the gridlocked Senate, he allied with two other ambitious men who shared his distrust towards the Senate: Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Together, they formed the so-called First Triumvirate. This informal alliance enabled its members to pool their power and resources, allowing them to achieve what they could not do on their own. Caesar, Pompey and Crassus advanced their political agendas, bypassed the Senate’s authority, and secured top government and military positions, further amplifying their power and influence.


Caesar Conquered Gaul

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Vercingétorix before Caesar, by Lionel Royer, 1899. Source: Musée Crozatier, Le Puy-en-Velay


Julius Caesar used the First Triumvirate to secure the governorship of Roman-controlled parts of Gaul and, more importantly, the command over the legions there. From 58 to 50 BCE, he led his veteran troops in a series of successful campaigns against the Gallic tribes – the Gallic Wars – significantly expanding Rome’s frontiers to the English Channel and the Rhine. His forces even made brief forays into Britain and Germania. Caesar’s military success made him widely popular. They served as a showcase of Roman military might and a not-so-subtle demonstration of strength to the Senate, which grew increasingly worried about Caesar’s rising popularity.


He Sparked the Civil War

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Julius Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, by Philip de László, 1891. Source: De Laszlo Archive Trust


When Crassus died during his Parthian expedition, the Triumvirate collapsed. The Senate, wary of Caesar’s increasing power, allied with Pompey, who shared concerns over Caesar’s military triumphs. Bolstered by Pompey’s military support, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Instead, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, igniting a civil war. For five years, Caesar and Pompey’s forces fought on the battlefields of Spain, Africa and Greece until Caesar defeated his rival at the Battle of Pharsalus in 45 BCE, forcing Pompey to flee to Egypt.


Caesar Became a Dictator

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Silver denarius depicting Julius Caesar (first time a living Roman shown on coinage) on obverse, goddess Venus, Caesar’s mythological ancestor on the reverse, February–March 44 BCE, The British Museum, London


Pompey sought refuge in Egypt but met his end on the order of Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII—a misguided attempt to curry favor with Caesar. Outraged by the murder of a fellow Roman, Caesar supported the pharaoh’s sister, Cleopatra, defeating Ptolemy and leaving Egypt under Rome’s nominal control. Back in Rome, Caesar wielded his power unopposed, initiating sweeping reforms. He allocated land to veterans, redistributed wealth to the impoverished, absolved debts, and extended citizenship to many non-Romans. He also expanded the Senate with men from the provinces. The reforms made Caesar incredibly popular among the soldiers and the masses but angered the elites, who feared his absolute power. When Julius Caesar declared himself a dictator for life in 44 BCE, the Senate decided to strike. 


Julius Caesar’s Assassination Did Not Save the Republic

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Death of Caesar, by Vicenzo Camuccini, 1806. Source: Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Milano


Fearful of Caesar bringing back the hated monarchy, his enemies orchestrated a senatorial conspiracy, with former Caesar’s allies Brutus and Cassius Longinus as its ringleaders. On March 15th, 44 BCE – the infamous “Ides of March” – Caesar was assassinated during the Senate meeting. According to Suetonius, Brutus made the first blow, prompting famous Caesar’s reply: Kai su teknon? (“You too, child?”). His example was followed by the others, and twenty-three wounds later, Julius Caesar was no more.


Caesar’s assassination was a desperate attempt to restore the Republic; instead, it plunged Rome into another civil war, with the victor, Caesar’s adopted son and heir – Octavian – becoming Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.