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The Ideal Roman or Not?

During the end of the Punic Wars, Rome had conquered much of the civilized world at that time. As the Greek historian Polybius puts it, at this very time, the Romans “had just raised their constitution to the most flourishing and perfect state”. He further described the qualities of the Romans during that time that put them in their “period of perfection”. The question raised is that whether the greatest Roman military and political leader, by the name of Julius Caesar, met these qualifications or not. The senate held most of authority in Rome during the Punic Wars.

It was through the wisdom of the senate’s counsel that the Romans became the world’s super power during that time. It was a hundred years later that we see the decline of the senate when Republic was troubled by a series civil wars. It is wrong, however, to account the decline of the of the Roman Republic to the acts of Julius Ceasar alone, for even before his time, Rome was already plagued by political instabilities and economic strife. Julius Caesar made his political career through the regular order of the cursus honorum. He started by serving as a personal staff of Marcus Thermus in Asia, from which he also obtained the civic crown.

He also served under Servilius Isauricus in Cilicia. After he was released as prisoner by pirates, he was called back to military service and raised an auxiliary army to fend off Mithridates prefect in Asia. Upon his return to Rome, he was then elected as a military tribune. He then served as quaestor in 68 BC, as curule aedile in 65 BC, as Pontifex Maximus in 63 BC, as praetor in 62 BC and as Consul in 59 BC. As consul, he received governorship in Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum and Transalpine Gaul. He stayed there for nine years and imposed a yearly tribute of 40,000,000 sesterces and effectively conquering Gaul (Suetonius).

For fear of being persecuted without immunity of being consul, Julius Caesar returned to Rome with his army, ignited a civil war, and established himself as dictator. He further increased his popularity with the people that he has already obtained during the course of his political and military career. He shared elections with the people that, except in the case of consulship, half of the magistrates should be appointed by the people’s choice. He made a law that no citizen older than twenty or younger than forty, who was not detained by service in the army, should be absent from Italy for more than three successive years.

He granted citizenship to all who practice medicine, liberal arts, and teaching. He opened to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin (Suetonius). This is the main difference in Polybius’ Rome to Caesar’s: that Polybius prefer to have a Rome that was led by the senate but Caesar wanted to give more power to the people, although it was only a means to achieve his goals. Rome, during the time of Caesar, is already in a serious economic and political turmoil. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of a few powerful clans.

Only men who could provide their own arms were eligible to serve in the military. Due to the increase in the length of military campaigns, soldiers could not return to work their farms and often finds themselves landless and unable to support their families upon their return. Allied nations seek full Roman citizenship and ask it through wars or revolts. Throughout the land, public dissatisfaction is increasing. Politics is divided into two factions: the optimates, who prefer aristocratic rule through the senate; and the populares, who preferred to appeal directly to the electorate.

Reforms in the government were initialized by some previous leaders like Gracchus and Marius, both of whome were populares, by introducing land reforms and reorganization of the Roman legion. These subsequently gave more power to the people than what they previously had. Caesar, being a nephew-in-law of Marius, also worked to empower the people and just like any other populares, used that advantage to sieze power. Caesar also used bribes for his political career to succeed. Polybius claims it is a capital crime in Rome to employ money to obtain the dignities of the state.

Indeed, it is not virtuous to do so, but it is not only Caesar who displayed this but those who were before him and his contemporaries as well. Surely none can blame Caesar for doing what he can to obtain his ambitions. Ambition is also a virtue that drives men to excel. Just like any Roman, popularity and reputation are important to Caesar. The government itself works “to infuse” a “spirit into the citizens as shall lead them to encounter every kind of danger for the sake of obtaining reputation in their country” so much that “young men ar greatly animated to perform acts of bravery” (Polybius).

Valor is very important virtue for the Romans and Caesar has demonstrated it throughout his career, first by receiving the civic crown which could only be obtained by saving the lives of fellow soldiers during battle and held his ground for the remainder of the engagement. “He was highly skilled in arms and horsemanship, and of incredible powers of endurance… He covered great distances with incredible speed,… swimming the rivers that barred his path. ” He also joined in the battle. Not only did he displayed valor, he also encouraged his army to do the same (Suetonius).

He imposed strict discipline among his men of which Polybius said the Romans are superior with. Later, Ceasar lost the confidence of some members of the senate. For the Romans, “nothing is held more base than to be corrupted by gifts, or to covet an increase in wealth by means that are unjust” (Polybius). Caesar has already displayed that he covet wealth as he in debt of a large sum during the earlier and middle parts of his political career. Many have written that he was very fond of elegance and luxury.

People say that he was led to invade Britain in hopes of getting pearls. In Gaul, he pillaged shrines and temples of the gods filled with offerings and sacked towns for the sake of plunder (Suetonius). It is thought that Caesar had abused his powers and accepted excessive honors such as uninterrupted consulship, dictatorship for life, the forename of Imperator, the title of Father of His Country, a statue among kings, a raised couch on orchestra, a golden throne in the House and on the judgement seat, and others (Suetonius).

Through these he displayed the corruption by the gifts for “there were no honors which he did not receive with pleasure”. He further displayed this corruption by not standing during a presentation of honorary decrees by the senate he received before the temple of Venus Genetrix. All these led to his murder. Now, it was some of the senator’s fear and envy to Caesar that led to his murder. Rome, before it became a Republic, was under the rule of tyrant kings and it is the people of Rome’s desire to never again suffer under tyranny.

With his growing appeal of the people, some senators feared that Rome will once again be ruled under tyranny. But Caesar did not consider himself king and refused the title monarch but saying to the people: “I am Caesar and no king” (Suetonius). Julius Caesar is an ideal Roman of his age. Not only did he exemplify Roman character, he also surpassed Roman standards through his political and military genius. Although there were differences of ideaologies during his time and during the end of the Punic Wars, he still personifies the Roman spirit and was loved by the Roman populace.

With his valor and the speed of execution, he had defended and helped increase the size of Roman territory and brought glory and honor both to himself and his country. Even in his death he still displayed his love for the people and his country, for he left them “his gardens near the Tiber for their common use and three hundred sesterces to each man” (Suetonius). His life and death may have caused Rome to be plagued by civil wars and ended the Republic, but it also gave rise to the Roman Empire.


Polybius. “Rome at the End of the Punic Wars. ” History, Book 6. Accessed at Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.

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