Julius Caesar

Caesar is Named Dictator

Annourbis.com > Julius Caesar > Chapter 25


[B.C. 45.] The drift of disaffection into Spain was held at first to be of little moment. The battle of Thapsus, the final breaking up of the senatorial party, and the deaths of its leaders, were supposed to have brought an end at last to the divisions which had so long convulsed the Empire. Rome put on its best dress. The people had been on Caesar's side from the first. Those who still nursed in their hearts the old animosity were afraid to show it, and the nation appeared once more united in enthusiasm for the conqueror. There were triumphal processions which lasted for four days. There were sham fights on artificial lakes, bloody gladiator shows, which the Roman populace looked for as their special delight. The rejoicings being over, business began. Caesar was, of course, supreme. He was made inspector of public morals, the censorship being deemed inadequate to curb the inordinate extravagance. He was named Dictator for ten years, with a right of nominating the person whom the people were to choose for their consuls and praetors. The clubs and caucuses, the bribery of the tribes, the intimidation, the organized bands of voters formed out of the clients of the aristocracy, were all at an end. The courts of law were purified. No more judges were to be bought with money or by fouler temptations. The Leges Julias became a practical reality. One remarkable and darable reform was undertaken and carried through amidst the jests of Cicero and the other wits of the time--the revision of the Roman calendar. The distribution of the year had been governed hitherto by the motions of the moon. The twelve annual moons had fixed at twelve the number of the months, and the number of days required to bring the lunar year into correspondence with the solar had been supplied by irregular intercalations, at the direction of the Sacred College. But the Sacred College during the last distracted century had neglected their office. The lunar year was now sixty-five days in advance of the sun. The so-called winter was really the autumn, the spring the winter. The summer solstice fell at the beginning of the legal September. On Caesar as Pontifex Maximus devolved the duty of bringing confusion into order, and the completeness with which the work was accomplished at the first moment of his leisure shows that he had found time in the midst of his campaigns to think of other things than war or politics. Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer, was called in to superintend the reform. It is not unlikely that he had made acquaintance with Sosigenes in Egypt, and had discussed the problem with him in the hours during which he is supposed to have amused himself "in the arms of Cleopatra." Sosigenes, leaving the moon altogether, took the sun for the basis of the new system. The Alexandrian observers had discovered that the annual course of the sun was completed in 365 days and six hours. The lunar twelve was allowed to remain to fix the number of the months. The numbers of days in each month were adjusted to absorb 365 days. The superfluous hours were allowed to accumulate, and every fourth year an additional day was to be intercalated. An arbitrary step was required to repair the negligence of the past. Sixty-five days had still to be made good. The new system, depending wholly on the sun, would naturally have commenced with the winter solstice. But Caesar so far deferred to usage as to choose to begin, not with the solstice itself, but with the first new moon which followed. It so happened in that year that the new moon was eighty days after the solstice; and thus the next year started, as it continues to start, from the 1st of January. The eight days were added to the sixty-five, and the current year was lengthened by nearly three months. It pleased Cicero to mock, as if Caesar, not contented with the earth, was making himself the master of the heavens. "Lyra," he said, "was to set according to the edict;" but the unwise man was not Caesar in this instance. 1

Caesar is Named Dictator

While Sosigenes was at work with the calendar, Caesar personally again revised the Senate. He expelled every member who had been guilty of extortion or corruption; he supplied the vacancies with officers of merit, with distinguished colonists, with foreigners, with meritorious citizens, even including Gauls, from all parts of the Empire. Time, unfortunately, had to pass before these new men could take their places, but meanwhile he treated the existing body with all forms of respect, and took no step on any question of public moment till the Senate had deliberated on it. As a fitting close to the war he proclaimed an amnesty to all who had borne arms against him. The past was to be forgotten, and all his efforts were directed to the regeneration of Roman society. Cicero paints the habits of fashionable life in colors which were possibly exaggerated; but enough remains of authentic fact to justify the general truth of the picture. Women had forgotten their honor, children their respect for parents. Husbands had murdered wives, and wives husbands. Parricide and incest formed common incidents of domestic Italian history; and, as justice had been ordered in the last years of the Republic, the most abandoned villain who came into court with a handful of gold was assured of impunity. Rich men, says Suetonius, were never deterred from crime by a fear of forfeiting their estates; they had but to leave Italy, and their property was secured to them. It was held an extraordinary step toward improvement when Caesar abolished the monstrous privilege, and ordered that parricides should not only be exiled, but should forfeit everything that belonged to them, and that minor felons should forfeit half their estates.

Cicero had prophesied so positively that Caesar would throw off the mask of clemency when the need for it was gone, that he was disappointed to find him persevere in the same gentleness, and was impatient for revenge to begin. So bitter Cicero was that he once told Atticus he could almost wish himself to be the object of some cruel prosecution, that the tyrant might have the disgrace of it. 2

He could not deny that "the tyrant" was doing what, if Rome was to continue an ordered commonwealth, it was essential must be done. Caesar's acts were unconstitutional! Yes; but constitutions are made for men, not men for constitutions, and Cicero had long seen that the Constitution was at an end. It had died of its own iniquities. He had perceived in his better moments that Caesar and Caesar only could preserve such degrees of freedom as could be retained without universal destruction. But he refused to be comforted. He considered it a disgrace to them all that Caesar was alive. 3 Why did not somebody kill him? Kill him? And what then? On that side too the outlook was not promising. News had come that Labienus and young Cnaeus Pompey had united their forces in Spain. The whole Peninsula was in revolt, and the counter-revolution was not impossible after all. He reflected with terror on the sarcasms which he had flung on young Pompey. He knew him to be a fool and a savage. "Hang me," he said, "if I do not prefer an old and kind master to trying experiments with a new and cruel one. The laugh will be on the other side then." 4

Far had Cicero fallen from his dream of being the greatest man in Rome! Condemned to immortality by his genius, yet condemned also to survive in the portrait of himself which he has so unconsciously and so innocently drawn.

The accounts from Spain were indeed most serious. It is the misfortune of men of superior military ability that their subordinates are generally failures when trusted with independent commands. Accustomed to obey implicitly the instructions of their chief, they have done what they have been told to do, and their virtue has been in never thinking for themselves. They succeed, and they forget why they succeed, and in part attribute their fortune to their own skill. With Alexander's generals, with Caesar's, with Cromwell's, even with some of Napoleon's, the story has been the same. They have been self-confident, yet when thrown upon their own resources they have driven back upon a judgment which has been inadequately trained. The mind which guided them is absent. The instrument is called on to become self-acting, and necessarily acts unwisely. Caesar's lieutenants while under his own eye had executed his orders with the precision of a machine. When left to their own responsibility they were invariably found wanting. Among all his officers there was not a man of real eminence. Labienus, the ablest of them, had but to desert Caesar, to commit blunder upon blunder, and to ruin the cause to which he attached himself. Antony, Lepidus, Trebonius, Calvinus, Cassius Longinus, Quintus Cicero, Sabinus, Decimus Brutus, Vatinius, were trusted with independent authority, only to show themselves unfit to use it. Cicero had guessed shrewdly that Caesar's greatest difficulties would begin with his victory. He had not a man who was able to govern under him away from his immediate eye.

Cassius Longinus, Trebonius, and Marcus Lepidus had been sent to Spain after the battle of Pharsalia. They had quarrelled among themselves. They had driven the legions into mutiny. The authority of Rome had broken down as entirely as when Sertorius was defying the Senate; and Spain had become the receptacle of all the active disaffection which remained in the Empire. Thither had drifted the wreck of Scipio's African army. Thither had gathered the outlaws, pirates, and banditti of Italy and the Islands. Thither too had come flights of Numidians and Moors in hopes of plunder; and Pompey's sons and Labienus had collected an army as numerous as that which had been defeated at Thapsus, and composed of materials far more dangerous and desperate. There were thirteen legions of them in all, regularly formed, with eagles and standards; two which had deserted from Trebonius; one made out of Roman Spanish settlers, or old soldiers of Pompey's who had been dismissed at Lerida; four out of the remnants of the campaign in Africa; the rest a miscellaneous combination of the mutinous legions of Longinus and outlawed adventurers who knew that there was no forgiveness for them, and were ready to fight while they could stand. It was the last cast of the dice for the old party of the aristocracy. Appearances were thrown off. There were no more Catos, no more phantom Senates to lend to rebellion the pretended dignity of a national cause. The true barbarian was there in his natural colors.

Very reluctantly Caesar found that he must himself grapple with this last convulsion. The sanguinary obstinacy which no longer proposed any object to itself save defiance and revenge, was converting a war which at first wore an aspect of a legitimate constitutional struggle, into a conflict with brigands. Clemency had ceased to be possible, and Caesar would have gladly left to others the execution in person of the sharp surgery which was now necessary. He was growing old: fifty-five this summer. His health was giving way. For fourteen years he had known no rest. That he could have endured so long such a strain on mind and body was due only to his extraordinary abstinence, to the simplicity of his habits, and the calmness of temperament which in the most anxious moments refused to be agitated. But the work was telling at last on his constitution, and he departed on his last campaign with confessed unwillingness. The future was clouded with uncertainty. A few more years of life might enable him to introduce into the shattered frame of the Commonwealth some durable elements. His death in the existing confusion might be as fatal as Alexander's. That some one person not liable to removal under the annual wave of electoral agitation must preside over the army and the administration, had been evident in lucid moments even to Cicero. To leave the prize to be contended for among the military chiefs was to bequeath a legacy of civil wars and probable disruption; to compound with the embittered remnants of the aristocracy who were still in the field would intensify the danger; yet time and peace alone could give opportunity for the conditions of a permanent settlement to shape themselves. The name of Caesar had become identified with the stability of the Empire. He no doubt foresaw that the only possible chief would be found in his own family. Being himself childless, he had adopted his sister's grandson, Octavius, afterward Augustus, a fatherless boy of seventeen; and had trained him under his own eye. He had discerned qualities doubtless in his nephew which, if his own life was extended for a few years longer, might enable the boy to become the representative of his house and perhaps the heir of his power. In the unrecorded intercourse between the uncle and his niece's child lies the explanation of the rapidity with which the untried Octavius seized the reins when all was again chaos, and directed the Commonwealth upon the lines which it was to follow during the remaining centuries of Roman power.

Octavius accompanied Caesar into Spain. They travelled in a carriage, having as a third with them the general whom Caesar most trusted and liked, and whom he had named in his will as one of Octavius's guardians, Decimus Brutus--the same officer who had commanded his fleet for him at Quiberon and at Marseilles, and had now been selected as the future governor of Cisalpine Gaul. Once more it was midwinter when they left Rome. They travelled swiftly; and Caesar, as usual, himself brought the news that he was coming. But the winter season did not bring to him its usual advantages, for the whole Peninsula had revolted, and Pompey and Labienus were able to shelter their troops in the towns, while Caesar was obliged to keep the field. Attempts here and there to capture detached positions led to no results. On both sides now the war was carried on upon the principles which the Senate had adopted from the first. Prisoners from the revolted legions were instantly executed, and Cnaeus Pompey murdered the provincials whom he suspected of an inclination for Caesar. Attagona was at last taken. Caesar moved on Cordova; and Pompey, fearing that the important cities might seek their own security by coming separately to terms, found it necessary to risk a battle.

[March 17, B.C. 45.] [B.C. 45.] The scene of the conflict which ended the civil war was the plain of Munda. The day was the 17th of March, B.C. 45. Spanish tradition places Munda on the Mediterranean, near Gibraltar. The real Munda was on the Guadalquiver, so near to Cordova that the remains of the beaten army found shelter within its walls after the battle. Caesar had been so invariably victorious in his engagements in the open field that the result might have been thought a foregone conclusion. Legendary history reported in the next generation that the elements had been pregnant with auguries. Images had sweated; the sky had blazed with meteors; celestial armies, the spirits of the past and future, had battled among the constellations. The signs had been unfavorable to the Pompeians; the eagles of their legions had dropped the golden thunderbolts from their talons, spread their wings, and had flown away to Caesar. In reality, the eagles had remained in their places till the standards fell from the hands of their dead defenders; and the battle was one of the most desperate in which Caesar had ever been engaged. The numbers were nearly equal--the material on both sides equally good. Pompey's army was composed of revolted Roman soldiers. In arms, in discipline, in stubborn fierceness, there was no difference. The Pompeians had the advantage of situation, the village of Munda, with the hill on which it stood, being in the centre of their lines. The Moorish and Spanish auxiliaries, of whom there were large bodies on either side, stood apart when the legions closed; they having no further interest in the matter than in siding with the conqueror, when fortune had decided who the conqueror was to be. There were no manoeuvres; no scientific evolutions. The Pompeians knew that there was no hope for them if they were defeated. Caesar's men, weary and savage at the protraction of the war, were determined to make a last end of it; and the two armies fought hand to hand with their short swords, with set teeth and pressed lips, opened only with a sharp cry as an enemy fell dead. So equal was the struggle, so doubtful at one moment the issue of it, that Caesar himself sprang from his horse, seized a standard, and rallied a wavering legion. It seemed as if the men meant all to stand and kill or be killed as long as daylight lasted. The ill fate of Labienus decided the victory. He had seen, as he supposed, some movement which alarmed him among Caesar's Moorish auxiliaries, and had galloped conspicuously across the field to lead a division to check them. A shout rose, "He flies--he flies!" A panic ran along the Pompeian lines. They gave way, and Caesar's legions forced a road between their ranks. One wing broke off and made for Cordova; the rest plunged wildly within the ditch and walls of Munda, the avenging sword smiting behind into the huddled mass of fugitives. Scarcely a prisoner was taken. Thirty thousand fell on the field, among them three thousand Roman knights, the last remains of the haughty youths who had threatened Caesar with their swords in the senate-house, and had hacked Clodius's mob in the Forum. Among them was slain Labienus--his desertion of his general, his insults and his cruelties to his comrades, expiated at last in his own blood. Attius Varus was killed also, who had been with Juba when he destroyed Curio. The tragedy was being knitted up in the deaths of the last actors in it. The eagles of the thirteen legions were all taken. The two Pompeys escaped on their horses, Sextus disappearing in the mountains of Grenada or the Sierra Morena; Cnaeus flying for Gibraltar, where he hoped to find a friendly squadron.

Munda was at once blockaded, the enclosing wall--savage evidence of the temper of the conquerors--being built of dead bodies pinned together with lances, and on the top of it a fringe of heads on swords' points with the faces turned toward the town. A sally was attempted at midnight, and failed. The desperate wretches then fought among themselves, till at length the place was surrendered, and fourteen thousand of those who still survived were taken, and spared. Their comrades, who had made their way into Cordova, were less fortunate. When the result of the battle was known, the leading citizen, who had headed the revolt against Caesar, gathered all that belonged to him into a heap, poured turpentine over it, and, after a last feast with his family, burnt himself, his house, his children, and servants. In the midst of the tumult the walls were stormed. Cordova was given up to plunder and massacre, and twenty-two thousand miserable people--most of them, it may be hoped, the fugitives from Munda--were killed. The example sufficed. Every town opened its gates, and Spain was once more submissive. Sextus Pompey successfully concealed himself. Cnaeus reached Gibraltar, but to find that most of the ships which he looked for had been taken by Caesar's fleet. He tried to cross to the African coast, but was driven back by bad weather, and search parties were instantly on his track. He had been wounded; he had sprained his ankle in his flight. Strength and hope were gone. He was carried on a litter to a cave on a mountain side, where his pursuers found him, cut off his head, and spared Cicero from further anxiety.

Thus bloodily ended the Civil War, which the Senate of Rome had undertaken against Caesar, to escape the reforms which were threatened by his second consulship. They had involuntarily rendered their country the best service which they were capable of conferring upon it, for the attempts which Caesar would have made to amend a system too decayed to benefit by the process had been rendered forever impossible by their persistence. The free constitution of the Republic had issued at last in elections which were a mockery of representation, in courts of law which were an insult to justice, and in the conversion of the Provinces of the Empire into the feeding-grounds of a gluttonous aristocracy. In the army alone the Roman character and the Roman honor survived. In the Imperator, therefore, as chief of the army, the care of the Provinces, the direction of public policy, the sovereign authority in the last appeal, could alone thenceforward reside. The Senate might remain as a Council of State; the magistrates might bear their old names, and administer their old functions. But the authority of the executive government lay in the loyalty, the morality, and the patriotism of the legions to whom the power had been transferred. Fortunately for Rome, the change came before decay had eaten into the bone, and the genius of the Empire had still a refuge from platform oratory and senatorial wrangling in the hearts of her soldiers.

Caesar did not immediately return to Italy. Affairs in Rome were no longer pressing, and, after the carelessness and blunders of his lieutenants, the administration of the Peninsula required his personal inspection. From open revolts in any part of the Roman dominions he had nothing more to fear. The last card had been played, and the game of open resistance was lost beyond recovery. There might be dangers of another kind: dangers from ambitious generals, who might hope to take Caesar's place on his death; or dangers from constitutional philosophers, like Cicero, who had thought from the first that the Civil War had been a mistake, "that Caesar was but mortal, and that there were many ways in which a man might die." A reflection so frankly expressed, by so respectable a person, must have occurred to many others as well as to Cicero; Caesar could not but have foreseen in what resources disappointed fanaticism or baffled selfishness might seek refuge. But of such possibilities he was prepared to take his chance; he did not fly from them, he did not seek them; he took his work as he found it, and remained in Spain through the summer, imposing fines and allotting rewards, readjusting the taxation, and extending the political privileges of the Roman colonies. It was not till late in the autumn that he again turned his face toward Rome.

[1] In connection with this subject it is worth while to mention another change in the division of time, not introduced by Caesar, but which came into general use about a century after. The week of seven days was unknown to the Greeks and to the Romans of the Commonwealth, the days of the month being counted by the phases of the moon. The seven-days division was supposed by the Romans to be Egyptian. We know it to have been Jewish, and it was probably introduced to the general world on the first spread of Christianity. It was universally adopted at any rate after Christianity had been planted in different parts of the Empire, but while the Government and the mass of the people were still unconverted to the new religion. The week was accepted for its convenience; but while accepted it was paganized; and the seven days were allotted to the five planets and the sun and moon in the order which still survives among the Latin nations, and here in England with a further introduction of Scandinavian mythology. The principle of the distribution was what is popularly called "the music of the spheres," and turns on a law of Greek music, which is called by Don Cassius the [Greek: armonia dia teddaron]. Assuming the earth to be the centre of the universe, the celestial bodies which have a proper movement of their own among the stars were arranged in the order of their apparent periods of revolution--Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, the Moon. The Jewish Jehovah was identified by the Graeco-Romans with Saturn, the oldest of the heathen personal gods. The Sabbath was the day supposed to be specially devoted to him. The first day of the week was, therefore, given to Saturn. Passing over Jupiter and Mars, according to the laws of the [Greek: armonia], the next day was given to the Sun; again passing over two, the next to the Moon, and so on, going round again to the rest, till the still existing order came out. Dies Saturni, dies Solis, dies Lunae, dies Martis, dies Mercurri, dies Jovis, and dies Veneris. See Dion Cassius, Historia Romana, lib. xxxvii. c. 18. Dion Cassius gives a second account of the distribution, depending on the twenty-four hours of the day. But the twenty-four hours being a division purely artificial, this explanation is of less interest.

[2] To Atticus, x. 12.

[3] "Cum vivere ipsum turpe sit nobis."--To Atticus, xiii. 28.

[4] "Peream nisi sollicitus sum, ac malo veterem et clementem dominum habere, quam novum et crudelem experiri. Scis, Cnaeus quam sit fatuus. Scis, quomodo crudelitatem virtutem putet. Scis, quam se semper a nobis derisum putet. Vereor, ne nos rustice gladio velit [Greek: antimuktaerisai]"--To Caius Cassius, Ad Fam. xv. 19.

Back - Next