The Rise of Caesarism: The Weakened Roman Republic Was Crushed by Julius Caesar, a Charismatic Military Leader Who Exploited His Popularity with a Roman People Who Desired Security above All Else

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This is the seventh installment in a series of articles on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.

The Cilician pirates in the early first century B.C. were the scourge of the eastern Mediterranean. They commanded huge fleets and immense amounts of wealth from their strongholds along the southeast coast of Asia Minor and had spread their depredations over the entire Aegean Sea. By 75 B.C. they apparently enjoyed the sponsorship of Rome's sworn enemy Mithridates, king of Pontus, who, having already lost one debilitating war with Rome, still sought to undermine Roman power any way he could. Sometime in that year, a group of Cilicians captured a vessel carrying a young Roman aristocrat named Julius Caesar.

According to the story, the young Caesar laughed at his captors' demand for a ransom of 20 talents. He told them they had no idea whom they had captured and instructed them to ask for 50 talents instead. The pirates readily agreed to his bold demand, and Caesar dispatched most of his entourage back to Italy to round up the ransom money. In the meantime, Caesar more or less took command of the pirates' camp, insisting on preferential treatment, writing letters and essays, and deriding the illiterate pirates as ignorant savages. He also laughingly promised the pirates that he would crucify every last one of them. The Cilicians, unsure what to make of this cheerful, powerfully built young man with the emotionless eyes, played along with what they assumed were foolish jests by a spoiled socialite who hadn't grasped the full peril of his situation.

After a lapse of little more than a month, Caesar's friends returned with the ransom money, and the Cilician pirates set him free. It was the last mistake they were to make. Julius Caesar went directly to the nearest port, Miletus in Asia Minor, and assembled a small fleet of mercenaries. He then sailed back to the island where his erstwhile captors were still encamped. His forces quickly defeated and captured the pirates, and Caesar ordered them all crucified. However, in a fit of magnanimity to the condemned, he ordered their throats to be cut, to spare them the full agony of death by crucifixion. After all, he reminded them, they had treated him well in captivity.

This was the personality of the man who dominated his age like no other before or since, saving only One who came into the world a few decades later to preach the coming of a very different kind of kingdom from that espoused by Caesar and his confederates, and who had nothing in common with Julius Caesar except his initials. Gaius Julius Caesar--military genius, charismatic leader of men, author, demagogue, consummate politician--was one of the most contradictory characters ever to occupy the stage of history. He shared Sulla's lust for dominion, but lacked his bloodthirsty vindictiveness. Capable of ruthlessness beyond measure, Caesar also frequently displayed calculated clemency. He understood, where Marius, Sulla, and Cinna had not, that the path to supremacy lay in patronage and flattery, not in pogroms. His personal assets--a keen wit, powerful intellect, decisiveness, and an athletic physique hardened by years of discipline--won him instant allegiance among the men he commanded and allowed him to ingratiate himself with the masses. In an age that produced a constellation of luminaries--Cicero, Brutus, Cato, Pompey, Crassus, and many others--Caesar outshone all the rest. Yet in spite of his extraordinary assets, Julius Caesar was a tragic man who, more than any other Roman leader, was responsible for the downfall of the republic.

Early Life

Caesar was born in 100 B.C. and as a young man married Cornelia Cinnilla, the daughter of Cinna, the leader of the Marian faction. He found himself on the wrong side of Rome's first civil war when the victorious Sulla began his purge of all of Marius' supporters. Caesar fled from Rome and enlisted in the military to campaign in Asia Minor. …