Rome's First Dictator

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Around the world, Julius Caesar has long been a famous name. Born on 13th July 100 B.C., this man was, perhaps, the most famous of all Roman leaders. There are three main characteristics which stand out in Caesar's life. While two of these — arrogance and the tendency to become flattered — are regularly found in powerful historical figures, the other, humility, is far rarer. The display of this attribute, I must admit, was not seen often even in Caesar's life.

Confidence and arrogance go hand in hand. Caesar had both. Because of his political connections, Caesar was exiled from Rome when he was young. However on his way out of Rome his ship was taken by pirates. While under their guard, Julius Caesar, not accustomed to being ordered around, acted in a very arrogant and demanding manner towards them. “When these men at first demanded of him twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not understanding the value of their prisoner, and voluntarily engaged to give them fifty. He presently dispatched those about him to several places to raise the money, till at last he was left among a set of the most bloodthirsty people in the world, the Cilicians, only with one friend and two attendants. Yet he made so little of them, that when he had a mind to sleep, he would send to them, and order them to make no noise. For thirty-eight days, with all the freedom in the world, he amused himself with joining in their exercises and games, as if they had not been his keepers, but his guards.” (Plutarch). At one time Caesar even seemingly jested that he would have the pirates put to death when he was released. When that time came, Caesar returned with a professional army and speedily hunted down the pirates. Sorely wanting revenge, because of his humiliation, he ordered them to be killed. Just as he had ‘jested’. Interestingly enough, this sort of attitude — arrogance and unpredictability — could be often observed in Caesar.

No trade is more humble than that of a soldier's. Much of Julius Caesar’s time was spent fighting fierce wars in Gaul. He took this opportunity to sharpen his military skills and took many risks while putting down large scale revolts. Thus, Caesar often found himself in awkward military situations. On several occasions his army — or parts of it — were near wiped out! Once, we see his rare but genuine humility clearly displayed. Caesar’s army had been fighting many hard, long battles. Plutarch takes up the story, “Once…upon a journey, he and his followers were driven by a storm into a poor man's hut, and when he found that it consisted of one room only, and that one barely able to accommodate a single person, he said to his friends that honours must be yielded to the strongest, but necessities to the weakest, and bade Oppius [who was in bad health] lie down there, while he himself with the rest of his company slept in the porch.” It is extraordinary that we can see such incredible humility in such an incredible general. What a man! Caesar was willing to give up his own comfort to help a soldier in need! Interestingly, it was still infrequent for Caesar to show such humility. Spanning his entire life, few moments of true, unselfish humility are seen. While rare, however, those few events won the admiration and respect of his men.

After defeating his fellow consul and arch rival, Pompey, during the Roman Civil War and quickly putting down numerous uprisings around the empire, Caesar returned to Rome and was ‘allowed’ by the senate to continue as dictator. Over the coming years, during the assassination plot, it appears that Caesar's tendency to become influenced by flattery blinded him to the blatantly obvious threat. His ‘flatterers’, as Plutarch describes them, were not meaningfully malicious in their intent but many of them were former foes of Caesar's and had become desperate to gain his trust. They provoked him to consider himself greater than he really was and to view his ‘government’ as more stable than it really was. This, of course, led to his downfall. On the 15th of March 44 B.C. Caesar, who was now dictator for life, was summoned to the senate. Wisely, his wife pleaded with him to disband the house. Although he greatly respected his wife, Caesar was blind to the danger. He refused. Reaching the senate Caesar’s right hand man Mark Antony, was, delayed outside by the conspirators. Inside, twenty three senators with knives in their hands rushed at Caesar and murdered him. At the foot of his arch rival's statue, Caesar breathed his last.

Confidently, I can say that Julius Caesar's weaknesses in arrogance and naivety led to his downfall and, ultimately, his death. Listening to and becoming influenced by the wrong people, his ‘flatterers’, was the worst decision he ever made. But, perhaps those few moments of humility and personality are what we recall most of Julius Caesar. Rome’s first dictator.