Julius Caesar: The Early Years
Julius Caesar was perhaps the most famous Roman ever to have lived, whenever you think of Ancient Rome, his is the name that first pops into your head. According to the modern calendar, he was born on the 13th July 100 BC. While historians are more than certain of the accuracy of the day and month, the actual year of his birth is shrouded in doubt. The doubt comes to light when we examine the Roman calendar; according to that, Caesar was born on the third day before the Ides of Quinctilis, 654 years after the supposed founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. However, the tale of the famous founders of Rome who were raised by a wolf is a myth. Rome’s true origins could lie as far back as the 10th century BC, when members of the Latin tribe forded a section of the Tiber River on top of the Palatine Hill and built a small settlement surrounding it. Quinctilis was the name given to the fifth month of the Republic’s year which started in Martius or March. Later in life, Caesar would rename Quinctilis, Julius in honour of himself, thus explaining the origin of July.
Caesar’s full name was Gaius Julius Caesar, the fact he possessed three names reveals his standing in Roman society at the time. Only true Roman citizens had the privilege of possessing three names or ‘tria nomina’. The first name or ‘praenomen’ was identical to a modern first name, the second name or ‘nomen’ was the most important, as it served as the name of the clan or group of families to which the person belonged. The third name or ‘cognomen’ helped to specify the particular branch of the wider family tree.
It was very in common in Roman times, for fathers to pass their names down to their sons through many generations, so it comes as no surprise to learn that Caesar’s father was also known as Gaius Julius Caesar. Incidentally Marius, consul of Rome was married to one of Caesar’s aunts, Julia, meaning that he belonged to a very influential family indeed. Caesar’s mother was called Aurelia, and as well as him she produced two daughters both called Julia (if Caesar had been a girl he would have been called Julia too). It’s likely that she had more, but Caesar and his sisters were the only ones who survived into adulthood. This comes as no surprise as the rate of infant mortality was exceptionally high in the ancient world, even among the aristocracy.
Very little is known about Caesar’s childhood, but we can at least speculate on what it was like by examining the life of a contemporary aristocrat in Ancient Rome. The birth of any child was a monumental event for a family with such high standing. When the happy event was deemed imminent, messages would be hastily delivered to as many relatives and associates as possible, asking them to come to the house. The purpose of this was to ensure that as many people as possible witnessed the birth, to confirm the child’s aristocratic status. Most of the guests would not actually witness the birth itself, Aurelia would have been attended by a midwife, some of her household slaves and maybe some female relatives. The only male permitted into the room would have been the doctor.
Once born, the child would have been placed gently onto the floor by the midwife and given a careful inspection for any deformities or anything out of the ordinary; she would then pass judgement on whether the child had a good chance of survival. Only after hearing the midwife’s assessment would the parents decide whether to raise the child or not. As was Roman law, the father of the child would make the final decision on whether to accept the child or not.
Once accepted, the slaves would light fires on altars in the parents’ house; the guests that witnessed the birth would repeat the ritual when they returned to their own homes. In a normal Roman aristocratic household, the mother played a dominant role in the child’s earliest years. However, many of the more intimate child rearing tasks were left to a wet nurse and a collection of female slaves, all carefully supervised by the mother. Occasionally the mother would perform some of the tasks herself, in order that the child could easily recognise its mother as the true authority figure in its life.
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For a child born into the aristocracy, education was of the utmost importance, and therefore unsurprisingly it was managed entirely by the family. Initially girls and boys would have received a similar education, learning to read, write and the basics of mathematics; additionally every aristocratic child would have learnt Greek as well as their native Latin. Normally, that particular aspect of the child’s education would have been given by a Greek slave.
The child would have also learnt the intricate and often complex rituals and traditions of the family, as well as learning about the history of Rome, and the great figures that helped to shape it, the tutors would have undoubtedly placed great emphasis on the roles played by the child’s ancestors. Above all, the Romans instilled a belief in their children that they were all special, and that Rome and its glorious Republic were special; such a belief was reflected right across the social spectrum. Caesar, being a man and therefore carrying the responsibility of being the one to carry on the family line, would have undoubtedly had a high sense of his own worth. Roman education among the aristocracy carried a practical element, in the sense that it prepared the child for life as an adult, and for a male aristocrat, adulthood meant a life in public service and becoming the head of their own household.
From the age of seven, Caesar would have accompanied his father as he went about his business, as opposed to his sisters who would have learnt the skills of running a household from Aurelia. Caesar would have observed his father meeting and greeting other senators and was even permitted to sit outside the open doors of the Curia Hostilia, the meeting place of the senate to listen to their debates. By doing this, Caesar would have quickly learned who had the most influence in the senate and why. Right from an early age Caesar would have felt a part of the Republican world and grew to expect that he would one day take his seat among the other senators.
While taking his first steps into the adult world, Caesar would have continued to receive more conventional education at home, under the tutelage of Marcus Antonius Gnipho, originally a slave from Greece, who was freed by the Antonius family after successfully educating their children. Caesar’s education now progressed to the study of literature, both Greek and Roman. Most well respected Roman aristocrats maintained extensive libraries for private use, and also for the convenience of relatives and trusted associates. It was common practice to use libraries as a place to entertain the greatest academics and philosophers of the age. As well as learning about how to interpret literature, Caesar would have been encouraged to compose his own works. The biographer Suetonius mentions a poem praising Hercules and also a tragedy called ‘Oedipus’. It’s likely that the quality of these works was poor, but with careful tuition, the young boy’s literary skills would have improved greatly. Caesar’s detailed accounts of his campaigns in Gaul and Africa are a testament to that.
As well as delving into the world of academia and politics; Caesar would have received physical training in order to hone his physical fitness and instill a sense of military discipline in him. Usually, the Campus Martius, a plain where supposedly the first army of Rome had mustered long ago was the place where young male aristocrats learnt to run, swim in the Tiber and fight with an assortment of weapons, notably the sword and javelin. Additionally the young boys were taught to ride; usually they received instruction from their fathers or another male relative. The fact that the Campus Martius was an open plain was significant because all of the boys trained in full view of each other, even at this early stage great reputations and rivalries would have been forged. Caesar, whilst not being the most robust boy physically made up for it with an iron determination and a will to win. The Greek writer, Plutarch informs us that Caesar was a natural horseman, with the ability to ride with his arms behind his back, guiding his mount with his knees.
A Time of Turmoil
We’ve talked about what Caesar’s earliest childhood may have looked like, but now it’s time to examine the sort of world that the most famous Roman was born into. At the time of his birth, Rome was jointly led by Lucius Valerius Flaccus and his uncle Gaius Marius, both elected as consuls by the senate and the people. Marius was Rome’s golden boy, on account of saving the Republic from destruction by defeating two fearsome Germanic tribes, the Teutones and the Cimbri. However, while Caesar was still in infancy, Marius’ popularity had already begun to wane. As a result the now ex-consul left Rome to travel around Greece and Asia Minor (modern Turkey) hoping to pick up a command somewhere. However, in 92 BC he suffered a blow when Caesar’s father was elected as a praetor or magistrate in Asia Minor. The following year, Caesar Sr. served as a governor in the province, making it highly likely that young Caesar received some of his education outside of Italy. It was just as well, because back home crisis loomed large.
The crisis that presented itself on Rome’s doorstep was later called the Social War. Its origins lay with Rome’s Italian allies who felt that they had not received a fair share of the spoils from conquered provinces such as Spain, Asia Minor, Greece and Tunisia. The Italians were understandably angry at not getting what they thought they deserved and revolted in 91 BC. The senate appointed Marius as general, and the former golden boy did record some victories, however the important victories were claimed by a certain Cornelius Sulla. Sulla was well known in Rome as an ‘optimate’, basically a senator who plays the political game in order to further his career and reputation.
The Romans succeeded in scattering the rebels using diplomacy, namely promises of citizenships if they agreed to remain loyal to Rome. Caesar’s uncle, Lucius Julius Caesar extended the promise to the remaining rebels in 89 BC on the condition they give up fighting.
...and his Rival
While the Romans were preoccupied with unrest at home, an old enemy resurfaced in Asia Minor. King Mithridates VI of Pontus launched attacks on Roman strongholds in the province. The natives welcomed him as a liberator and turned on the considerable number of Italian and Roman settlers, massacring them in their thousands. The whereabouts of the Caesar family are uncertain at this time; although it’s doubtful they remained in Asia Minor. Caesar’s father had finished his term as governor, and thus was no longer needed there. After receiving the news of the thousands of settlers massacred by the Greeks, the Roman senate was in a foul mood and desired revenge. They appointed Sulla as general and ordered him to destroy Mithridates. Meanwhile, Marius who had coveted the position convinced the tribune, Publius Sulpicus Rufus to call an assembly to overturn the senate’s original decision. However, the assembly soon descended into violence, rioting broke out on the streets. Sulla, himself was forced to take refuge in Marius’ house and made a personal plea to end the violence, which fell on deaf ears.
Sulla fled from Rome and assembled an army to march on the city; the prospect of seeing his beloved Rome come under attack compelled Marius to flee to Africa, allowing Sulla to return to Asia Minor and complete his original mission. News of Sulla’s absence gave Marius the imperative to return to the eternal city and upon his reappearance he massacred all who stood against him and elected himself consul for the seventh time, a record at that point. Unfortunately, for him he died several days later from natural causes, although living to the age of 70 was deemed exceptional at the time. In the violence that had ensued on Marius’ return, two of Caesar’s father’s relatives were killed, Lucius Julius Caesar, his brother whom had earlier played a role in the Social War, and a cousin Gaius Julius Caesar Strabo.
From Boy to Man
The death of Marius meant that young Caesar’s life now hung in the balance. Sulla must have known of Marius’ relatives and could have easily ordered them to be eliminated. For Caesar though, he was soon crippled by another tragedy. One morning in 85 BC his father collapsed suddenly while trying to put on his shoes, he suffered a stroke and died soon after. Caesar was nearly 16 at the time and had already been formally accepted into manhood by discarding his purple bordered toga that signified youth and donning the classic all white toga of an adult Roman citizen. He took further steps into manhood by having his hair cut short.
But Caesar wasn’t just a man; he was now the head of a household, and had few close male relatives on hand to guide him as he entered the career that would shape the rest of his life. But right from the beginning, Caesar’s self confidence and intelligence meant that the lack of guidance wasn’t a problem. Within a year of his father’s death, he broke off the betrothal arranged for him by his parents. He had been due to marry a wealthy young woman called Cossutia, but instead wedded the daughter of one of Marius’ most prominent allies, Cinna. Caesar married Cornelia at the age of 18, later on she would provide him with a daughter, called Julia.
After successfully defeating Mithridates, Sulla returned to Rome and appointed himself dictator. Whenever, we think of a dictator, we think of a bloodthirsty tyrant like Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin. But in Ancient Rome there was no association between dictatorship and tyranny. Sulla was basically an ‘extraordinary magistrate’ rather than an autocrat. However, Sulla’s behaviour in the role would give rise to the modern interpretation of the role. He hunted down Marius’ supporters and executed them, and changed the constitution, effectively wiping out the People’s Assembly. As of then the ordinary Roman lost their rights and their liberties. Sulla personally scattered Marius’ ashes into the Tiber; while his soldiers continued the hunt for his former rival’s supporters. Among Marius’ supporters of course, was one Julius Caesar, on account of his youth, Sulla agreed to pardon him if he in turn agreed to divorce new wife, Cornelia. Caesar stubbornly refused, but instead of delivering death, Sulla pardoned him, sending him into exile instead. As the stubborn young man departed Rome for what seemed like the last time, Sulla made a chilling prophecy: ‘In this young man there is more than one Marius.’
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More on Julius Caesar
The first novel in the fantastic series by Conn Iggulden covers Caesar's childhood. He does forsake historical accuracy slightly for storytelling purposes, but don't let it put you off, it's a fantastic book.