Julius Caesar - Early Life and Career

Early Life and Career

Caesar was born into a patrician family, the gens Julia, which claimed descent from Iulus, son of the legendary Trojan prince Aeneas, supposedly the son of the goddess Venus. The cognomen "Caesar" originated, according to Pliny the Elder, with an ancestor who was born by caesarean section (from the Latin verb to cut, caedere, caes-). The Historia Augusta suggests three alternative explanations: that the first Caesar had a thick head of hair (Latin caesaries); that he had bright grey eyes (Latin oculis caesiis); or that he killed an elephant (caesai in Moorish) in battle.

Caesar issued coins featuring images of elephants, suggesting that he favored this interpretation of his name. Despite their ancient pedigree, the Julii Caesares were not especially politically influential. Caesar's father, also called Gaius Julius Caesar, governed the province of Asia, while his mother, Aurelia Cotta, came from an influential family. Little is recorded of Caesar's childhood.

Caesar's formative years were a time of turmoil and "savage bloodshed". There were several wars from 91 BC to 82 BC, although from 82 BC to 80 BC, the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla was purging Rome of his political enemies. Domestically, Roman politics was bitterly divided. In 85 BC, Caesar's father died suddenly so at sixteen Caesar was the head of the family. The following year he was nominated to be the new high priest of Jupiter.

Since the holder of that position not only had to be a patrician but also be married to a patrician, he broke off his engagement to a plebeian girl he had been betrothed to since boyhood, and married Lucius Cinna's daughter Cornelia. Meanwhile, having brought Mithridates to terms, Sulla returned to Rome and had himself appointed to the revived office of dictator.

Sulla's proscriptions saw hundreds of his political enemies killed or exiled. Caesar, as the nephew of Marius and son-in-law of Cinna, was targeted. He was stripped of his inheritance, his wife's dowry and his priesthood, but he refused to divorce Cornelia and was forced to go into hiding. The threat against him was lifted by the intervention of his mother's family, which included supporters of Sulla, and the Vestal Virgins. Sulla gave in reluctantly, and is said to have declared that he saw many a Marius in Caesar.

Caesar left Rome and joined the army, where he won the Civic Crown for his part in an important siege. On a mission to Bithynia to secure the assistance of King Nicomedes's fleet, he spent so long at his court that rumors of an affair with the king arose, which Caesar would vehemently deny for the rest of his life. Ironically, the loss of his priesthood had allowed him to pursue a military career, as the high priest of Jupiter was not permitted to touch a horse, sleep three nights outside his own bed or one night outside Rome, or look upon an army.

Hearing of Sulla's death in 78 BC, Caesar felt safe enough to return to Rome. Lacking means since his inheritance was confiscated, he acquired a modest house in a lower-class neighborhood of Rome. Instead, he turned to legal advocacy. He became known for his exceptional oratory, accompanied by impassioned gestures and a high-pitched voice, and ruthless prosecution of former governors notorious for extortion and corruption.

On the way across the Aegean Sea, Caesar was kidnapped by pirates and held prisoner. He maintained an attitude of superiority throughout his captivity. When the pirates thought to demand a ransom of twenty talents of silver, he insisted they ask for fifty. After the ransom was paid, Caesar raised a fleet, pursued and captured the pirates, and imprisoned them. He had them crucified on his own authority, as he had promised while in captivity—a promise the pirates had taken as a joke. As a sign of leniency, he first had their throats cut. He was soon called back into military action in Asia, raising a band of auxiliaries to repel an incursion from the east.

On his return to Rome, he was elected military tribune, a first step in a political career. He was elected quaestor for 69 BC, and during that year he delivered the funeral oration for his aunt Julia. His wife, Cornelia, also died that year. After her funeral, in the spring or early summer of 69 BC, Caesar went to serve his quaestorship in Spain. While there he is said to have encountered a statue of Alexander the Great, and realized with dissatisfaction he was now at an age when Alexander had the world at his feet, while he had achieved comparatively little. On his return in 67 BC, he married Pompeia, a granddaughter of Sulla, whom he later divorced.

In 63 BC, he ran for election to the post of Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of the Roman state religion. He ran against two powerful senators. There were accusations of bribery by all sides. Caesar won comfortably, despite his opponents' greater experience and standing. When Cicero, who was consul that year, exposed Catiline's conspiracy to seize control of the republic, several senators accused Caesar of involvement in the plot.

After his praetorship, Caesar was appointed to govern Spain, but he was still in considerable debt and needed to satisfy his creditors before he could leave. He turned to Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of Rome's richest men. In return for political support in his opposition to the interests of Pompey, Crassus paid some of Caesar's debts and acted as guarantor for others. Even so, to avoid becoming a private citizen and thus be open to prosecution for his debts, Caesar left for his province before his praetorship had ended. In Spain, he conquered two local tribes and was hailed as imperator by his troops, reformed the law regarding debts, and completed his governorship in high esteem.

As imperator, Caesar was entitled to a triumph. However, he also wanted to stand for consul, the most senior magistracy in the republic. If he were to celebrate a triumph, he would have to remain a soldier and stay outside the city until the ceremony, but to stand for election he would need to lay down his command and enter Rome as a private citizen. He could not do both in the time available. He asked the senate for permission to stand in absentia, but Cato blocked the proposal. Faced with the choice between a triumph and the consulship, Caesar chose the consulship.

Read more about this topic:  Julius Caesar

Famous quotes containing the words early, life and/or career:

    When first we faced, and touching showed
    How well we knew the early moves ...
    Philip Larkin (1922–1986)

    Oh sure, everyone goes back to the earth at some point, but life itself is a thread that is never broken, never lost. Do you know why? Because each man makes a knot in the thread during his lifetime: it is the work he has done and that’s what gives life to life in the long stretch of time: the usefulness of man on this earth.
    Jacques Roumain (1907–1945)

    Clearly, society has a tremendous stake in insisting on a woman’s natural fitness for the career of mother: the alternatives are all too expensive.
    Ann Oakley (b. 1944)