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Julius Caesar: The Early Years

Updated on August 19, 2012

Caesar

This particular bust of Caesar is the only one that survives from his lifetime.
This particular bust of Caesar is the only one that survives from his lifetime. | Source

Introduction

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.

Earliest Days

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.

Ancient Rome Recreated

This model of Ancient Rome shows the Campus Martius at the top of the picture.
This model of Ancient Rome shows the Campus Martius at the top of the picture. | Source

Education

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.

Asia Minor

A map of Asia Minor in the time of Caesar.
A map of Asia Minor in the time of Caesar. | Source

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.

Caesar's Uncle...

A bust of Gaius Marius.
A bust of Gaius Marius. | Source

...and his Rival

A bust of Cornelius Sulla.
A bust of Cornelius Sulla. | Source

Civil War

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.’

More to follow:

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The First Man in Rome (In the Masters of Rome)

I haven't read all of these novels, but the ones I have read are awesome, and a must for anyone who loves historical fiction that remains faithful to the actual facts. Colleen's books on Rome cover a huge time period, from when Marius is young, past the death of Caesar up to Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

 
Caesar: Life of a Colossus
Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Adrian Goldsworthy's biography of Caesar is the most detailed you'll find out there in the literary world. I've borrowed it out of the library, and it was such a pleasure to read.

 
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Plutarch's famous book covers the lives of some of Rome's finest and brightest including Caesar, Marius and Sulla among others.

 

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    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks John, I must admit that before I started researching Caesar, I had no idea that he had a third name, or indeed what the names actually meant, so it was really great to learn. Thanks for dropping by.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Terrific article JKenny. I love antiquity very much - philosophy is one of my favorite things. I didn't know about Roman Nobility having many names (Virgil and Ovid had three names, but it must have passed me...). You're a good source for history.

      Take care

      John

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem Alicia, really glad you liked it, because I really enjoyed learning about the man. He's not exactly my favourite historical character, but he's definitely one of the most interesting people you could chose to write about. Thanks for dropping by.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting and detailed hub! I haven't studied history for a long time, so I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your Julius Caesar series. Thanks for all the information, JKenny.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks physics boy. It was a real pleasure to write about Caesar, I hope you enjoy all seven parts. Your own idea sounds interesting, look forward to reading it when its written. Thanks for the visit and the follow.

    • physics-boy profile image

      physics-boy 5 years ago from England

      Wow, looks like I have some reading to do....A seven parter! You've given me an idea for my own to boot ;) Quantum Physics: The Saga....

      Seriously though, great idea! Caesar must turn into an incredibly vast topic, and this reads very simply to a layman in matters of Ancient Rome. Voted up!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks CAJUN CAT LADY, I'll check out Steven Saylor's books, I've never heard of them. That's a good point about the calendar, Independence Day would certainly be weird if you went around wishing everyone a 'Happy Fourth of Quintillis'. Appreciate you dropping by.

    • profile image

      CAJUN CAT LADY 5 years ago

      I ALSO HAVE READ THE BOOKS BY COLEEN AND ASLO CONN, THEY ARE GREAT THERES ALSO SOME BY STEVEN SAYLOR THEY ARE ALSO GOOD TOO.IM MOST GRATEFUL THAT JULIUS HAD FIGURED OUT THE CALERNDER. IMAGINE CELEBRATING THE FOURTH OF QUINTILLIS.INSTEAD OF THE FOURTH OF JULY? IT JUST DOESN'T HAVE THE SAME RING TO IT DOES IT?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Deepunetfish, it must have been fun to study the play. Unfortunately I never got the chance to study it in school. I'm sure you'll enjoy reading the other parts.

    • profile image

      Deepunetfish 5 years ago

      I studied the play Julius Caesar by the Great William Shakespeare in my degree classes and was very fond of the Characters Brutus and Casio.I appreciate your efforts to present a detailed description here.looking forward to read all parts.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks lulu, I've actually written six on Caesar, and I'm writing a seventh at the moment. I love delving into Roman history, the stories are so absorbing and always fun to write about. Thanks for commenting.

    • lulusmith profile image

      lulusmith 5 years ago from England

      This is a fantastic hub about Ceasar, I only studyed him briefly at college, so I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your hubs.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Alastar, I saw his book on the Gaul Wars the other day. Its amazing how he always refers to himself in the third person. His skills as a writer are awesome.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks viveresperando, really appreciate you dropping by. I'm sure you'll enjoy reading parts 2 and 3/

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks editorsupremo, really appreciate it. I've already got parts 2 and 3 up, feel free to check them out.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Great coverage on Caesar JK, his writings on the Gaul Wars are something. Roman history is a fave because they left so much behind of themselves. Especially into the later Emperors who aren't so well known.

    • viveresperando profile image

      viveresperando 5 years ago from A Place Where Nothing Is Real

      Really loved this trip through time. Looking forward to enjoying the other two parts I saw. Will check them out also.

    • editorsupremo profile image

      editorsupremo 5 years ago from London, England

      Brilliant hub. I love Roman history, I find it fascinating and compelling. Looking forward to Part 2.

      Voted up. Thanks

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much, Chuck. I appreciate you taking the time to drop by.

    • chuckbl profile image

      Charlie 5 years ago from Scotland

      As an ancient historian, I find articles like these extremely interesting. Keep up the good work. Thanks for sharing. Voted up and all.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem, christopher. I really enjoyed writing it. I'm in the middle of doing part 2 at the moment, should have it up by the end of the day.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Absolutely first class. I really enjoyed that. Thanks. It brings me back to my schooldays and "roman history".

      I am looking forward to part two.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Dave, thanks for commenting. I checked out her books on amazon last night and all the reviews are excellent. Think I'll have to pay a visit to the library.

    • Davesworld profile image

      Davesworld 5 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

      I second Judi. Colleen McCollough's books are excellent.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Judi, thanks for commenting. I have read a couple of Colleen's novels on Rome, and thought they were pretty good, especially on the accuracy side of things. But Conn Iggulden is such a fantastic storyteller, I can't get enough of his books. I'm going to go back and read more of Colleen's books at some stage, so that I can compare.

      Appreciate you dropping by, Judi. Take care.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      Great hub JKenny - he is a fascinating character, in an age of fascinating characters!

      On the historical fiction point, Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series is pretty good too.

      Voted up, of course!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yeah, I liked Vercingetorix as well. I loved that face-off he had with his brother to decide who was going to be king, when they had to burn each other. I also liked the fact that he saw Julius for what he was and stormed out of that meeting.

      I liked Brutus, I loved his cockiness and confidence. Admittedly I didn't like it when he betrayed Julius, but in a way you can understand why he did it. I don't think I'd want my best friend sleeping with my mother. I'm amazed Brutus didn't kill him after he found that Julius had hit her.

      I understand what you mean about the Mongols, they seem to have no emotion at all, and no mercy either. That 'cold face' that they make sounds weird to me.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Well, to be honest - I'd say my favourites where the Greek King Mithridates, and the leader of the Gaul tribes, Vercingetorix!!!

      I liked Brutus' character quite a lot!!! I thought it was amazing that Caesar was an item with his Mother!!! To me that explained a LOT about that "friendship."

      I read the Genghis books too!!!! I think that I found the Mongol hordes a bit too brutal for my tastes. The Mongols made the Romans seem very very civilized by comparison!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hey Wes, yes I have read Conn Iggulden's Emperor series. At the moment I'm reading my way through his Conqueror series on Genghis Khan at the moment. All of his books are totally awesome and I've learned so much from them. Personally, I don't care that he strays from historical fact, I just like a good story, and as you say he puts a historical note in at the end to explain the truth.

      Thanks for commenting, mate. By the way, who were your favourite characters in the Emperor series. I, personally liked Caesar or 'Julius' but I thought Renius, Tubruk and Cabera were totally awesome, shame they're fictional. I also liked Marius in the first book, I'd love to have him as an uncle.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      WHEW!!!! Damn good work, Sir!!!!

      I dunno if you've read it or are interested, but I dang sure LOVED the "Emperor" series about Caesar by Conn Iggulden...of course it is historical FICTION, but at the same time the author goes out of his way to tell everyone exactly what was fiction and what was not in the closing notes of each novel.

      I'd honestly known scarcely anything about ancient Rome until I read those.