Caesar – just a dictator?

Below are some reflections on why Caesar is only regarded as a general and a dictator.
Plus a test to determine your own mental picture of Caesar.

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Caesar, do we know him?



Caesar, do we know him?

The mental block which prevents us from entertaining the thought that Jesus could be Divus Julius, the deified Caesar, is not only due to the image we have of Jesus, but also due to the one we carry around of Caesar. When we hear the name Caesar, we think of the general and dictator, and if we think of him as a writer at all, we only think of him as a reporter of his own military and political activities. Other aspects - especially the Clementia Caesaris, Caesar as Pontifex Maximus and Divus Julius - are indeed known to the specialists, but are repressed in the collective mind.

I will spare you the quotes from contemporary literature wherein you would see that this is the case. (We will take an example as representative of this genre: In the preface to Caesar, D. Rasmussen ed., Darmstadt 1967, the editor lists: “Caesar was politician and statesman, conqueror, discoverer and general at the same time and last but not least orator and writer of some standing…”. Caesar as Pontifex Maximus, son of Venus and God of the empire is not even mentioned, even though this was a book to mark the 2000th anniversary of Caesar’s death, a collection of essays by the current creme de la creme of Caesar researchers.)

The reason for this is not only that Roman history is hardly taught at school anymore, and that the information gleaned from cinema, TV and comics tends to be distorted by bias. There are also reasons that have to do with considerations of translational technicalities, politico-cultural matters and journalistic stereotyping.

Because practically only his Commentarii on his own campaigns have been handed down to posterity (his love-poems, tragedies, travel-reports, etc. were not well regarded by his puritanical adopted son Octavian Augustus – too dissolute? – and the monks in the Middle Ages considered it more important to copy volumes and volumes of the church fathers than to pass on Caesars scripts) even his identity as a writer has been subsumed by his identity as a general and dictator.

As we are only just getting over the dictators who arose in the first half of the last century, the Dictator par excellence is implicitly held responsible for them. Caesar is blamed for Caesarism, after all, the words are so similar, and because Mussolini stems from the same country geographically, then he must have been his spiritual grandfather. Who cares that Mussolini regarded Augustus as his mentor and not Caesar? It is just a petty detail that we need not bother about. Especially as this allows us the opportunity to discard the progressive Caesar and retain the conservative, well-nigh reactionary Octavian Augustus and moreover to sell this as politically correct!

In the West, at least since the time of the dissension of Erasmus and Luther, there has been a separation of the religious from the secular, of Church from state, a condition that was not the case with the Romans, nor indeed with the ancient peoples generally. The political and religious order were two aspects of the same salus civium, the welfare of the citizen. Outside of their more worldly official positions, all Roman politicians held religious titles as well. Not only were they Quaestors, Aediles, Praetors, Consuls, Tribunes of the people, Imperators, etc., they were also Augurs, Pontifices, Flamens et. Caesar was no exception, only that he attained the highest titles and combined them all in himself: Consul, Dictator, Imperator and Pontifex Maximus.

This has not gone the rounds of the editorial departments of our popular-scientific publishing houses, and even less is it to be seen in newspaper and magazine articles. Publications about the Caesar-cult are rare, about the deified Caesar almost non-existent. (Stefan Weinstock had to emigrate to Oxford, in order to realize his Divus Julius which was finally published in English.)

As examples of this rare literature we will here mention:

  • G. Dobesch, Caesars Apotheose zu Lebzeiten und sein Ringen um den Königstitel, Wien 1966
  • Helga Gesche, Die Vergottung Caesars, Kallmünz 1968
  • St. Weinstock, Divus Julius, Oxford 1971
  • A. Alföldi, «La divinisation de César dans la politique d’Antoine et d’Octavien entre 44 et 40 avant J.-C.», RN 15 1973, p. 99–128 (Pl. IV–XIII)
  • Antonie Wlosok ed., Römischer Kaiserkult, Darmstadt 1978

All titles are of course out of print and can only be found in universities and libraries, if at all.


Now that you have been given an idea of how far removed the traditional view of Caesar is from reality, we now offer you the opportunity to test yourself and your friends.

Do we really know Caesar?

Shall we put it to the test? Which of the alternative answers proffered below is correct?

  1. Caesar, apart from having held just about all the Roman official positions and titles, amongst other things Quaestor, Aedile, Consul, Emperor - either successively or contemporaneously - there was one which he held which was considered to be the most important and was always mentioned in pride of place. It was:
    a) Dictator;
    b) Pontifex maximus.

  2. The first Roman to intervene in a civil war at the head of a private army was
    a) Caesar;
    b) Octavian, (later called Augustus).

  3. During the Gallic war:
    a) Caesar ordered the horses of the Teutons to be stolen and proudly divided the booty amongst the young Roman knights.
    b) Caesar took the horses away from the proud young roman knights and awarded them to his Teutonic equestrians.

  4. After the conquest of Gaul:
    a) Caesar deported the defeated as slaves to Rome, ordered the men to fight each other as gladiators in the circus and threw the women and children to the lions;
    b) He awarded the Gauls the right to Roman citizenship and appointed many of them as Senators, to the extent that more Gallic trousers were to be seen in Rome than togas.

  5. After all the worldwide wars, Caesar:
    a) …left behind a deserted, depopulated world, razed the resisting towns to the ground, increased the taxes, took away the best arable land from the peoples, distributed it to the Roman aristocrats and thereby starved out the provinces;
    b) …rebuilt the destroyed towns and founded countless new ones, lowered the taxes, confiscated the usurped estates of the aristocrats, distributed the best land to the veterans and the proletarians, reversed the spread of pasture land, promoted farming and thereby defeated the famine and left behind thriving countryside.

  6. After his victory in the civil war
    a) Caesar made an example of his enemies and ordered all of them to be executed, even having Spartacus crucified;
    b) Caesar forgave all his enemies, reinstated them to their positions and honor, and most touchingly, he took especial care of Brutus, who would later murder him.

  7. Caesar was murdered:
    a) because he had suppressed the Roman people and enslaved the foreign races; Gauls and Jews were among the principals of the conspiracy; at the funeral speech Anthony spoke the famous word "and Brutus is an honorable man", the people celebrated, dragged the body of the tyrant through the city and finally threw it into the Tiber;
    b) because he had cut back the privileges of the Roman nobility; the most distinguished of Romans were among the conspirators, the learned Cicero was one of the principals; Gauls and Jews mourned him longer than all the others; at his funeral Anthony praised him as a God and his deeds as miracles; the people burned Caesars body in the Forum, revolted against the murderers, hunted them down and drove them out of the city.

  8. After his assassination:
    a) Caesar was condemned and his name became a nickname for all his successors, especially for the bad ones like Caligula and Nero, who were called Caesar in mockery and scorn;
    b) Caesar was raised to the Gods out of the deepest conviction of the people and only the best of his successors were allowed to be seen as Gods after his example.

If you knew the correct answers i.e. in all cases (b) - or if you can at least entertain the idea that these are the correct ones and not obdurately maintain that Caesar is the spiritual grandfather of Mussolini, the tyrant of Asterix and the persecutor of the early Christians, if you have studied history not (only) in Hollywood (Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, Spartacus, etc.), if you are perhaps not so certain that Rome really was the “ancient empire of evil” (O-Ton Spiegel-TV, and others), then you are prepared for the “Crash of History” that you will experience whilst reading this texts, or at least, partially prepared.

    SOURCES: That the answers are always (b) is substantiated by the entirety of ancient historiography, not only the Corpus Caesarianum, but also the historians of the civil war and Caesars biographers (Suetonius, Velleius Paterculus, Appian, Plutarch, Dio Cassius, etc. passim). Hence there is no point in providing all the specific sources here.

    However, questions 3 and 4 are very specific, so here are the specific quotations:

Apropos Question 3 –

  • Caes. BG 7.65: Caesar quod hostes equitatu superiores esse intellegebat et interclusis omnibus itineribus nulla re ex provincia atque Italia sublevari poterat, trans Rhenum in Germaniam mittit ad eas civitates, quas superioribus annis pacaverat, equitesque ab his arcessit et levis armaturae pedites qui inter eos proeliari consuerant. eorum adventu, quod minus idoneis equis utebantur, a tribunis militum reliquisque equitibus Romanis atque evocatis equos sumit Germanisque distribuit.
    [«Caesar, understanding that the enemy were superior in cavalry and that if they blocked all the roads he had no chance of getting any reinforcements from the Province or from Italy. He therefore sent across the Rhine to the German tribes he had subdued in previous years, asking them to send cavalry and the light armed infantry who regularly went into battle with them. When these arrived there own horses were not really suitable, and so he took the horses from his military tribunes, and other Romans of equestrian rank, and the re-enlisted veterans, and gave them to the Germans to ride.»].
    (He acted in accordance with the motto: I do not need knights, I need equestrians!)

Apropos Question 4 –

  • Suet. Div. Jul. 80: … et illa vulgo canebantur :
    Gallos Caesar in triumphum ducit, idem in curiam ;
    Galli bracas deposuerunt, latum clavum sumpserunt.
    [«Caesar led the Gauls in triumph; led them uphill, led them down;
    To the Senate House he took them; Once the glory of our town;
    ‘Pull those breeches off’ he shouted; ‘Change into a purple gown’.]
    (This last poem is a free translation from Michael Grant.)