Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 17b Julius Caesar 1

Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), Caesar and His Fortune (Caesar in the Boat) (1855), oil on canvas, 114 x 146.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the great majority of Plutarch’s Lives, he introduces the subject of his biography with a preamble about their parentage, then tells of their childhood and formative years. In the case of Julius Caesar, the surviving narrative starts with his first marriage, to Cornelia the daughter of Cinna, and his hatred of Sulla, which occurred after Caesar’s father had died, when he was sixteen.

Gaius Julius Caesar was born into an ancient noble family which originated from the predecessor city to Rome, Alba Longa.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1530–1625), Portrait of Julius Caesar Aged 14 (c 1586), oil on canvas, 186 × 115 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Sofonisba Anguissola’s unusual Portrait of Julius Caesar Aged 14 from about 1586 is an informal portrait rather than a true history painting, showing the young Caesar when his father was still alive, a period in his life which is relatively undocumented.

These were difficult times in Rome, and the young Caesar aspired to public office. When he was nominated as the high priest of Jupiter, Sulla considered whether to have him killed. Caesar went into hiding, at one stage fleeing by boat to Bithynia. When he was travelling back from there by sea, he was captured by pirates, who demanded a ransom. Once that had been paid and he was set free, he set sail from Miletus to capture the pirates, and take them to prison in Pergamum. The praetor of the province was reluctant to do anything with them, so Caesar took them out of prison and had them killed by crucifixion.

Caesar then sailed to Rhodes, where he studied under Apollonius, a famous orator who also taught Cicero. On his return to Rome, he practised as an advocate, which won him popular fame and increasing public influence. He was next elected military tribune, and gave a fine funeral oration for Julia, the dead wife of Marius. Not long afterwards, Caesar’s own wife died, and he broke with tradition and gave her a funeral oration too.

Caesar then served in Spain as quaestor. He spent money lavishly, and at one point became 1300 talents in debt. At that time, Roman politics was dominated by two parties: those of Sulla and Marius, the former being dominant. Caesar had many golden images made of Marius, which were set up during the night on the Capitol in order to promote him. For this he was denounced in the senate.

He stood for election as high priest (pontifex maximus), and was successful. Caesar was again criticised in the senate, but his popularity ensured that nothing untoward happened to him. A young noble, Publius Clodius, then fell in love with Caesar’s wife Pompeia, and tried to sneak into her accommodation during the festival of the goddess Bona. Clodius was discovered, and Caesar divorced Pompeia because he held that his wife ought to not even be under suspicion – the origin of a popular saying.

Caesar was made propraetor of the province of (south-eastern) Spain, but couldn’t leave Rome until his debts had been managed for him by the rich Crassus. In return, Caesar gave Crassus political support in opposing Pompey. His time in Spain was highly successful: he increased the size of the army, and led it against the Callaici and Lusitani. Once he had subdued rebellious tribes, he reformed local laws. This brought him significant wealth, and when he returned to Rome he put himself forward for the post of consul.

This posed Caesar a dilemma. He could have claimed a triumph for his achievements in Spain, but would not have been allowed to enter Rome until that celebration. To pursue his candidacy for the office of consul, he needed to be present and active in the city. He chose the latter, and was successful thanks to the support of Crassus and Pompey.

As consul, Caesar moved laws which were radically popular with ordinary Romans. He used his allegiance with Crassus and Pompey, and betrothed his daughter Julia to Pompey, before himself marrying Calpurnia, whose father Piso he had made consul.

It was then that Caesar started his prolonged and highly successful series of campaigns in Gaul, in less than a decade taking eight hundred cities, subduing three hundred tribes, and killing a third of the three million barbarians which his armies fought. This was largely due to the zealous and loyal service which he inspired among his forces.

In the first Gallic War, Caesar defeated the Helvetii and Tigurini, who had been laying to waste parts of the Roman province. In the second, he defended Roman Gaul from the Germans. Caesar then spent the winter in the valley of the River Po, which allowed him to continue his political schemes in Rome and to keep control of Gaul.

While there, he heard that the Belgae had revolted, so reassembled his army and slaughtered the barbarians in great numbers. Although many others submitted without a fight, the Nervii came close to defeating Caesar’s forces; Caesar himself then took up a shield and personally led the Roman counter-attack, finally cutting the Nervii down from a force of sixty thousand to just five hundred survivors.

These successes against such great dangers were celebrated by the senate ordering a fifteen day festival, which increased goodwill of the ordinary people towards Caesar. He spent the winter again at Luca on the River Po, where he was visited by Pompey, Crassus, and other politicians. Pompey and Crassus were to be elected the next consuls, and together they ensured that Caesar’s campaign in Gaul would continue to be funded well.

When Caesar returned to his army in Gaul, he discovered that two large German tribes had just crossed the River Rhine and were making war. They deceived him by attacking when under a truce, so the Romans spared them little in combat, killing about four hundred thousand in all. Caesar then wanted to be the first Roman to cross the Rhine with an army. His engineers built a bridge within ten days, and the Romans crossed unopposed. After eighteen days giving support to those who were friendly to Rome, and ravaging the lands of those who were not, Caesar and his army returned to Gaul.

Caesar next took his army by ship to Britain twice, where the Romans damaged the Britanni but sailed away when they discovered that “there was nothing worth taking from men who lived in poverty and wretchedness”.

Back in Gaul, Caesar heard the tragic news that his daughter Julia had died in childbirth at Pompey’s house. He then prepared for winter, and started his move south towards his winter quarters nearer Italy. As he did so, there was a major rebellion, which put Cicero and his legion under siege. Caesar led a small army of seven thousand to bring relief, avoiding direct confrontation with the rebels until he was ready. When they attacked the Romans, Caesar’s force put them to flight.

During that winter, tribes started to unite under the command of Vergentorix to attempt a more co-ordinated rebellion against the Romans, in the hope that they would rouse the whole of Gaul, and exploit growing opposition to Caesar back in Rome. Caesar once again returned to tackle this rebellion. This culminated in the rebels congregating in the city of Alesia, where Caesar put them under siege. The Romans crushed the rebels outside the city, and finally forced Vergentorix to surrender. The latter donned his best armour and decorated his horse, then rode out through the gates and made a circuit around Caesar.

Lionel Royer (1852–1926), Vercingetorix Throwing down His Weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar (1899), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée Crozatier, Puy-en-Velay, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Lionel Royer’s painting of Vercingetorix Throwing down His Weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar from 1899 shows the moment of surrender. Vergentorix is about to dismount, strip off his armour, and kneel at Caesar’s feet.

Caesar and Pompey were now on a collision course. Cato persuaded the senate in Rome to appoint Pompey sole consul rather than outright tyrant. Caesar, though, started his campaign for a consulship, which Pompey didn’t oppose. With a constant stream of wealth returning to Rome from Caesar’s successes in Gaul, Rome was in a difficult situation. Pompey’s vanity was fed by reports that Caesar’s soldiers wanted Pompey to lead them, and he was lured into the situation where he had no army himself.

Caesar demanded that, if he were to give up his army and become a private individual again, then so should Pompey. Antony demanded that both should give up their commands, but Scipio (Pompey’s father-in-law) insisted that Caesar should be given an ultimatum, or be made a public enemy of Rome.

While a compromise was being sought, Caesar ordered the small force with him at the time to occupy Ariminum. From there he went to the River Rubicon as he decided what to do. He eventually said “Let the die be cast”, crossed the river, and made haste to Rome. Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, a phrase which lives on in English and other modern languages.

With Caesar and Pompey preparing to fight, much of Rome was put into panic. The consuls and most of the senators fled, abandoning the city to its fate.

Caesar built himself a larger force by taking over dispersed troops of Pompey, then marched with a formidable force towards Pompey, who promptly fled to the port of Brundisium, from where he sailed before Caesar could reach him. Caesar wanted to pursue Pompey, but had no ship, so he turned back to Rome. In two months he had become the master of all Italy without shedding any blood.

Caesar then went to Spain, where two of Pompey’s legates posed him a threat. They fled to join Pompey, and Caesar was able to return to Rome, where he was made dictator by the senate. He occupied himself with restoring order, and reversing some of the more oppressive changes of Sulla.

In early January, Caesar took a small force of handpicked horsemen and five legions to cross the Ionian Gulf and take Oricum and Apollonia. However, Caesar himself put to sea before they reached him, in an effort to cross to Brundisium. He disguised himself as a slave and boarded a boat to make the crossing. Where the river met the sea, a violent sea put the boat into danger; its master therefore decided to turn back.

Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), Caesar and His Fortune (Caesar in the Boat) (1855), oil on canvas, 114 x 146.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Caesar and His Fortune, also known as Caesar in the Boat was Jules-Élie Delaunay’s unsuccessful entry for the Prix de Rome in 1855, in which he shows Caesar revealing his true identity to the master of the vessel. Despite trying again to make their way out to sea, Caesar reluctantly accepted defeat from the elements, and they turned back.

Caesar challenged Pompey to battle, and there were many skirmishes in which Caesar generally came off the better, although in one he narrowly escaped being killed. Pompey didn’t really want to fight, but both armies went onto the plain of Pharsalus, where Caesar’s army put Pompey’s to flight. Pompey himself fled to the coast, where he escaped by sea. Caesar gave immunity to many of those who had fought for him, and incorporated them into his own Roman army.

Reaching Alexandria shortly after Pompey had been murdered, Caesar wept with regret over that and won over those who had supported his rival.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Cleopatra before Caesar (1866), oil on canvas, 183 x 129.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

While Caesar was in Egypt, he grew angry with the co-ruler Ptolemy XIII. Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra VII Philopator, known simply as Queen Cleopatra, exploited that by having herself smuggled into Caesar’s palace, so that she could meet with him. Plutarch reports that she was smuggled in inside a bed-sack, but this has traditionally and more romantically been described instead as a large roll of carpet, as shown in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Cleopatra before Caesar from 1866.

She became Caesar’s mistress, bearing him a son, and convincing him to fight and defeat Ptolemy’s army at the Battle of the Nile, restoring Cleopatra to her throne.

Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669), Caesar Giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt (c 1637), oil on canvas, 255 x 267 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Pietro da Cortona’s Caesar Giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt from about 1637 shows Cleopatra successful in her mission to become sole ruler of Egypt.

Caesar returned through Asia, where he and his Roman army took on Pharnaces, son of Mithridates, near the city of Zela. The battle was fierce, and led swiftly to the total annihilation of the barbarians, which Caesar apparently summarised in three Latin words often attributed to his visits to Britain: Veni vidi vici, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ He then returned to Rome.


Julius Caesar, whole text in English translation at Penelope.