The Rise of Caesar

It’s almost like Cato the Younger had no idea he was putting his head in the lion’s mouth.

In the space of two years he had managed to get on the wrong side of Julius Caesar, Rome’s up and coming populist leader, Pompey the Great, Rome’s greatest living general, Marcus Crassus, Rome’s richest man, and Marcus Tullius Cicero, who had been Rome’s most recent consul, and for a few minutes there, the man with near-absolute power over the state during the Catiline Conspiracy.

Stubborn sticks in the mud like Cato are not impressed with anyone. This is what makes them formidable.

And dangerous.

Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were on a path to power that would ultimately end the Roman Republic.

Cato the Younger was standing firmly in their way, and he had to go. One way or another.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast):

https://play.acast.com/s/historys-trainwrecks/031-stubborn-nags-of-ancient-rome-part-vii

***

While Pompey and Crassus were licking their wounds from their most recent spats with Cato, where Pompey had been deprived of a consulship and Crassus had lost a ton of money, Caesar was busy working on the next phase of his Master Plan to Take Over Rome: military glory.

He had left Rome (after losing out to Cato over the disposition of the co-conspirators in the Catiline Conspiracy, which had nearly captured the city) and went to war in Hispania. Rome was a bit too hot for Caesar right then — he owed a ton of money to debt-collectors, and his attempts to advance his political career had put him on the wrong side of the Roman Senate, which, thanks to Cato, had found its spine for the last time and was standing in firm opposition to opportunists like Pompey and Caesar. For the moment, the Senate was under the influence of the conservatives, and would stand up to men who wanted to subvert Roman laws and traditions to gain power.

And like most men of the ancient world in their thirties who dreamed of world conquest, Caesar had the example of Alexander the Great, who had ruled most of the known world by age thirty-three, to try and emulate. Caesar was creeping up on forty, and felt like he was falling behind. He had some serious Alexander-envy.

A road trip was just what he needed.

***

He spent 62 and 61 BC plundering what would one day be Spain, defeating pirates and other nefarious bands of brigands, and, most importantly, diverting silver from Hispania’s mines into the Roman treasury, with enough flowing into his own coffers to pay off his debts.

A master of public relations, Caesar’s own accounts of his exploits, and the loyalty he inspired in his legions by way of victories and loot made him the kind of Roman hero the late Republic adored. He returned to Rome, looking for a triumph and a consulship as his reward for a conquest well done.

Here he ran into the same problem Pompey Magnus had a couple of years before. He couldn’t have his cake and eat it too. If he entered the city to run for the consulship, he would no longer be a general and therefore could not have his triumph. If he went for the triumph, he would have to delay his run for consul until the next year. A year was a long time, during which his military glory would fade (or be eclipsed by yet another ambitious general), and the riches he had gotten would likely be spent, knowing Caesar.

Always believing he could do better than his contemporaries, he pushed for the same exemption from the rules Pompey had gone for a few years before, and lost. His chances were actually pretty good; his relationship with the Senate was far better than Pompey’s, who was viewed as a dangerous upstart. Caesar had done his best to charm the Senators instead of demanding things from them as his right. He also had both Rome’s richest man and the mass of lower-class Romans on his side. Caesar had masterfully arranged events and alliances to smooth his way to getting what he wanted.

He was so close.

Once again, Cato the Younger rose up to stop him.

***

He essentially shut the Senate down, “seizing the floor to denounce Caesar from dawn to dusk and preventing any vote on his request.” It was the last day the Senate was in session, so it was Caesar’s only chance for his exception to be considered.

By the end of the day his chance was gone, and Cato was likely pretty happy that it only took one day of filibustering to deprive Caesar of power. The expectation was that Caesar, like Pompey in the same set of circumstances, would choose the glory of a triumph over boring old political power and put off rule for a year.

But when confronted with setbacks, Caesar was willing to do the unexpected. He renounced his triumph and entered the city to run for consul, choosing power over glory.

Well then. Maybe he was better at this than everybody else.

***

Two consuls were elected every year, each with the power to veto the actions of the other. Two like-minded fellows could get a lot done. Two opposing consuls could grind the Roman government to a halt. Not only did Caesar need to win his consulship, but he needed a partner who would go along with ambitious plans of land reform, debt forgiveness, and proceeding with the next step in his plan to take over the pre-eminent power in the western world.

He planned to run with Lucius Lucceius, a fellow with no ambition other than the title and perks of consulship. They started their campaign, which involved lots of bribes for votes.

This was Cato’s nightmare scenario: a forceful and ambitious fellow like Caesar, with big plans and one year to get them done, and an empty suit — I mean toga — for a co-consul. Unable to run for the office himself, Cato put up a candidate of his own: his son-in-law, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. They started their campaign, which involved lots of bribes for votes.

Here again is an uncomfortable example of Cato’s principles taking a back seat to his vendettas. He despised Pompey and Caesar, in a most un-Stoic way. His feud with them may have started from a place of high purpose — he saw them as a threat to the survival of the Roman Republic. About which he was right. But it descended into a situation where Cato saw his nemeses as pure evil, like he did with Pompey, to the point where he refused to allow his daughter to marry the general and perhaps bring him over to the side of the Republic. Cato, despite his Stoicism, could be blinded by what feels like genuine hatred. When that happened, his principles went out the window.

Autocrat Prevention Safety Tip Number Two Hundred Fifty Seven: Leave your emotions at the door.

His desire to thwart Caesar overrode any principled objection Cato might have had to bribes. The slush fund generated by Bibulus propelled him into the consul’s chair, where he could block every initiative Caesar had planned.

This looked like a clear win for Cato, but this would be true if Caesar was an average Roman politician, which he most definitely was not. Julius Caesar was by this point a famous and successful general, a proven friend to Rome’s downtrodden and an agreeable enough guy as far as the Senate was concerned. Now he occupied the highest office in the Republic.

Cato the Younger thought he had brought Caesar to a stalemate, but he was just getting started.

***

Caesar had just demonstrated how easy military conquest was — for him, anyway. Once his consulship was done, he could go a-conquerin’ again and get the triumph he wanted. And then another consulship. And so on. Rome would get used to having Julius Caesar at the top — politically, militarily, and if he played his cards right, in the hearts and minds of Rome’s masses.

But at the moment, his prospects didn’t look so good. He had been elected to office with Cato’s son-in-law as a proxy for the Senator who seemed to have made it his life’s work to prevent any man from being in charge of Rome without the oversight the Senate was supposed to — at least on paper — provide.

As a parting shot, Cato arranged a dead-end post-consulship assignment for Caesar. Former consuls were usually granted the governorship of a lucrative province for a few years, where they could plunder to their heart’s content. Cato proposed sending Caesar out into the Italian countryside instead. Rather than another shot at military glory, Caesar would be chasing down “cattle thieves” and bandits.

Cato’s successes in thwarting the ambitions of the Republic’s most powerful men were significant, but like his ancestor Cato the Elder, he was no good at reading the situation on the ground. Pompey the Great was fading into obscurity, not planning a tyrannical resurgence. Depriving Rome’s poor and its retired soldiers of any relief like the kind Caesar promised ratcheted up the growing unrest in the Republic. Cato attacked the Senate in order to shame them into doing what he wanted; Caesar charmed them and Crassus paid them off.

Cato was starting to look like the boy who cried wolf — I mean dictator — and the conservative principles that were his sword and shield were getting tarnished every time he set them aside in order to pursue what seemed like personal feuds with Pompey and Caesar. Or when he ignored the political realities of the late Roman Republic.

Even his closest ally, Cicero, always a political pragmatist, sensed that Cato was out of touch. He wrote: “The fact remains that with all his patriotism, he can be a political liability. He speaks in the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s republic instead of Romulus’s cesspool.”

Cato had faced down a lot of powerful interests in a short time and won. But in doing so, he placed a pretty big target on his back. The institutions of the Republic, which Cato counted on to keep him on top, were now in the hands of his enemies.

***

Cato believed Caesar was who he appeared to be: a vain, self-obsessed, pleasure-seeking glory-hunter who needed to advance his way through the Roman political and military system in order to earn the admiration of the people and stave off his creditors.

Cicero was also, initially, taken in by the image Caesar projected. “When I notice how carefully arranged his hair is,” Cicero wrote. “and when I watch him adjusting the parting with one finger, I cannot imagine that this man could conceive of such a wicked thing as to destroy the Roman constitution.”

What Cato and Cicero failed to realize was that Julius Caesar was playing a long game. He wanted ultimate power, and the recent decades of the Republic’s history had made clear to him how to get it. He studied those who had come before him — the populists, the dictators, the generals, and the politicians — and knew where they had gone wrong. He possessed the arrogance and confidence needed to risk everything on the belief that he could do it better, and succeed where they had failed.

If Cato was going to tie his hands as consul, Caesar would find another path to power. As he looked around the landscape, he found willing accomplices among the other powerful men of the city who had recently, and embarrassingly, lost out to Cato.

Pompey the Great could feel his influence waning. His triumph was over, and Roman memories were short. Marcus Crassus, who had tons of money and thought it was all he needed, found himself in decline as well. Both were ripe for an alliance with a man who was on his way up, even though they didn’t much like each other.

More than that, the big thing they had in common was having their schemes ruined by an intractable stick in the mud with no glorious war record, no money, and no fame.

Caesar discovered that the enemies of his enemy were his new best friends.

***

The new consul invited his partners to a ritual in his home where they all swore allegiance to each other in sight of the gods. Aside from the self-interest each member of the triumvirate had, Romans took their oaths pretty seriously. Betrayal, always a possibility, was on the back burner.

For now.

Rome’s new three-headed monster started out with a land reform bill, which was the third rail of Roman politics. The population of the city was booming, thanks to an influx of people from the Italian countryside, where land was being gobbled up by the rich and turned into lucrative slave-run farms, which deprived citizens of both work and a place to live. Pompey had tried to get some of that land for his returning soldiers, but there was no way Rome’s upper classes were going to break up their estates.

Earlier attempts at land reform, most notably by the Gracchi brothers in the previous century, had failed. Anyone proposing it was deemed a radical who wanted the state to redistribute wealth and hoped for the support Rome’s poor as a path to power and glory. It never ended well for them.

Caesar handled his land reform bill differently. He proposed leaving the best land where it was, in the hands of Rome’s top classes. A commission would be created to purchase land in central Italy for landless peasants and retired soldiers. The owners would not be forced to sell and if they did, they would receive a fair price. Romans from all walks of life would be represented on the commission, and the land buys would be financed from Pompey’s conquests in the East.

It was reasonable, fair-minded, and wouldn’t break the bank. Caesar had crafted the bill in a way that would neutralize most of the anticipated opposition to it. He suspected he could even get Cicero to support it. The Senate had been toying with the idea for years, most recently when Pompey had asked for land for his victorious legionnaires. Pressure in the city was rising as the crowds, with no work and no land, grew. The timing was as good as it was going to get.

The only holdout, as always, was Cato the Younger.

***

He stood in opposition on the day Caesar took his land reform bill to the Senate house. Cato made the same arguments that had worked before: land reform bills were the tools of populists, who sought to leverage the outrage of impoverished masses straight into the dictator’s chair.

But he made no specific arguments against this plan, which was different from those in the past. Cato prevailed upon his influence to kill the bill. Caesar saw it coming, lost his temper, and ordered Cato’s arrest.

Cato cleverly allowed himself to be led away by the guards in silence. The Senators filed out after him, one calling back to Caesar that he’d rather be in prison with Cato than in the Senate chamber with the consul.

It looked like Cato had won. But he had succeeded in persuading only a minority of Rome’s population. Caesar appealed to the masses. He was able to bypass the Senate and take his land reform bill straight to the People’s Assembly. He read the bill out to the roar of the crowd with his co-consul standing next to him. At the end, he demanded that Bibulus support the bill. Bibulus, who had been picked to be consul simply to oppose Caesar, said he wouldn’t support the bill and fled from the stage. At that point, two other men stepped forward to stand side by side with the consul in a show of public support — Crassus and Pompey.

Cato knew in that instant that he had lost.

***

Now that the land bill had passed, Caesar added a poison pill — a requirement that every Senator swear an oath to support the law. This tactic had been used in the past as a way to show that everyone in Rome, from the people to the consul to the Senate, were all on the same side. Refusing to swear the oath meant exile.

Cato started packing his bags.

He ignored the pleas of his friends and family. His principles had made his entire public career, and they were all he had left. If he was Rome’s dead past and Caesar was the city’s future, Cato would let Rome have him, and whatever catastrophes would follow.

Cicero came to see him. The great orator made his case without eloquence or lofty phrases. As Plutarch wrote, he said:

“It would be the greatest of evils if [Cato] would abandon the city in behalf of which all his efforts had been made, hand her over to her enemies, and so, apparently with pleasure, get rid of his struggles in her defense. For even if Cato did not need Rome, still, Rome needed Cato.”

Cato signed the oath.

***

Caesar had done it. He had beaten Cato, and he had invalidated the influence of his co-consul for the year. Bibulus retreated to his home, where he protested his ruling partner’s actions to no audience at all. With the co-consul effectively sidelined, the year became what was known as “the consulship of Julius and Caesar.”

Cato himself was reduced to protesting the increasingly populist and tyrannical moves Caesar made. Despite the terms of the land bill, Caesar also took the prime land in Campania he had originally exempted. Cato railed against it in the Senate and was once again hauled away by Caesar’s guards. He had learned the value of silent protest; Plutarch said that the sight of the great man being dragged away by the consul’s guards was enough to, at least temporarily, shame Caesar and his partners. But Caesar was committed to his plan, and he only had this year to get it all done. Cato could only rant from a distance.

Pompey, Caesar’s new son-in-law, got the political settlement of his conquests in the East and land for his soldiers. Crassus got a favorable tax collection contract. Caesar set up a five-year governorship for himself in Gaul for when his term in office was over.

All of Cato’s work was undone. The next move, in retrospect, was obvious. In order for Julius Caesar’s takeover of Rome to be complete, his two most dangerous adversaries had to leave the city.

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There are many historical figures who seemed to have everything going for them — Aaron Burr, George McClellan, Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, and more — but lost out to people who had been relative nobodies. History’s Trainwrecks tries to figure out what happened…

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Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.

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