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Julius Caesar: Tyrant or Populist?
Gaius Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in July, 100 BC, and is known throughout the world as the founder of the Roman Empire. Caesar was a cunning politician, strategist and superb general. Popular culture would have a person believe that Caesar was a brutal dictator that acted to create a tyrannical regime. Caesar is seen as the man who destroyed the Roman Republic and created the world's longest lasting empire. During the life of Caesar, or even his successor Caesar Augustus, there would have been no idea that the Republic was over.
Julius Caesar was a military dictator, but his goal was to fix the problems of the Republic, not destroy it. Caesar sought to end the Civil Wars that plagued Rome during his lifetime. To do this he had to end the contest between the Populares and the Optimates. There was also a bit of selfishness to Caesar's goals. He wanted to rebuild his families fortunes and maintain his own honor.
Populares Against the Optimates
In the later Roman Republic there were two main ideologies that existed among the Senatorial class. The Populares believed that they could legislate, gain personal power, and rule by appealing to the masses. The Optimates on the other hand believed that power should come from the old families of Rome. Neither of these sides could be considered good, or better than the other as both sought to increase their own personal fortunes and personal power. These two ideologies were not like the political parties of today, but were rather two paths by which the Senators sought to achieve their own goals and the biggest players in the Roman world switched methods throughout their careers.
Julius Caesar was a populare. Throughout his career he sought to use the people to get legislation done, and he was a proponent of the Tribunes, the people's voice in the Senate. His enemy, Pompey Magnus, began his career as a populare, but sided with the Optimates during the Civil War.
The Senatorial Class
Roman aristocrats were similar to any nobility throughout the ages. They wanted to achieve greater power than their predecessors, and they often did this at the expense of their fellow citizens. The main difference between the Roman nobility and later noble classes is that the Roman nobles wanted their enemies to survive. A Roman would seek to gain prestige over his fellows, but he still wanted his fellow nobles to have some measure of power. It was a contest to see who could get the most titles and in turn gain the most recognition in history.
Caesar was no exception to this rule. Throughout the Civil War Caesar let his Senatorial enemies live. It was said that he wept at the sight of Pompey's head when he arrived in Egypt. This is because he wanted Pompey to live so that Caesar's glory would be enhanced through his achievements over Pompey.
Julius Caesar was no tyrant. He may have assumed dictatorial powers, but they were used to bring order in a desperate time. Caesar passed legislation that was not popular among the nobility, but it was necessary to allow the plebs to find work and land.
When Caesar went to war in Gaul it was deemed illegal by the Senate and they sought to prosecute him. This was seen as an intentional slight to Caesar, so he could not honorably agree to disband his legions. To defend his name and that of his family he was forced to invade Italy. The privileges he sought had been granted to other members of the Senate when it suited them, but under Pompey the Senate turned against Caesar.
Throughout the Civil War Caesar acted like a man who sought to end civil strife rather than prolong it. He prevented his armies from seizing the property of his enemies. When Caesar defeated Pompey's generals and armies he pardoned them and let them go. These are the actions of a man simply seeking to redress the wrongs done to him when the system failed him.
Caesar was assassinated by a group of Senators on March 15th, 44BC. His assassination brought an end to his reforms, and also to his merciful nature. Mark Antony and Octavian were not so merciful and they destroyed Caesar's enemies. Octavian used dictatorial powers to dominate the Senate and effectively ruled as one man. This is seen as the start of the empire to historians, but Romans at the time would have seen the Senate still operating and Octavian went to great lengths to give the appearance of the Republic still functioning.
As a result of Octavian's actions the Republic died a quiet death, but some historians see Julius Caesar as the force behind the death of the Republic. Caesar sought to protect his family name, fix the changes to the Senate wrought by the Optimates, and to achieve a greater legacy for himself. This does not make Caesar a tyrant, simply a man living in his time and succeeding.