Caesar's Role in the Collapse of the Roman Republic

Illustration of Julius Caesaron horse.

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The Roman Imperial period followed the period of the Republic. As is true of the Imperial period, civil wars were one of the factors contributing to the end of the Republic. Julius Caesar was the last real leader of the Republic and is counted the first of the Caesars in Suetonius' biographies of the first 12 emperors, but his adoptive son Augustus (Augustus was actually a title given Octavian, but here I will refer to him as [Caesar] Augustus because that is the name by which most people know him), the second in Suetonius' series, is counted as the first of the emperors of Rome. Caesar did not mean "emperor" at this time. Between Caesar and Augustus, ruling as the first emperor, was a period of strife during which the pre-imperial Augustus fought the combined forces of his co-leader, Mark Antony, and Antony's ally, the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. When Augustus won, he added Egypt—known as Rome's ​breadbasket—to the territory of the Roman Empire. Thus Augustus brought an excellent source of food to the people who counted.

Marius vs Sulla

Caesar was part of the era of Roman history known as the Republican Period, but by his day, a few memorable leaders, not restricted to one class or another, had taken control, defying custom and law, making a mockery of the Republican political institutions. One of these leaders was his uncle by marriage, ​Marius, a man who had not come from the aristocracy but was still wealthy enough to have married into Caesar's ancient, pedigreed, yet impoverished family.

Marius improved the army. Even men who lacked property to worry about and defend could now join the ranks. And Marius saw to it that they were paid. This meant farmers wouldn't have to leave their fields at the productive period in the year to face Rome's enemies, all the while worrying about the fate of their families, and hoping for enough loot to make the venture worthwhile. Those with nothing to lose, who had previously been barred, could now earn something worth hanging on to, and with luck and the cooperation of the Senate and consuls, they might even get a bit of land to retire on.

But seven-time consul Marius was at odds with a member of an old, aristocratic family, Sulla. Between them, they slaughtered many of their fellow Romans and confiscated their property. Marius and Sulla illegally brought armed troops into Rome, effectively waging war on the Senate and Roman People (SPQR). The young Julius Caesar not only witnessed this tumultuous breakdown of the Republican institutions, but he defied Sulla, which was a very risky action, and so he was lucky to have survived the era and proscription at all.

Caesar as All But King

Caesar didn't just survive, he prospered. He gained power by making alliances with powerful men. He curried favor with the people through his generosity. With his soldiers, he demonstrated generosity as well, and perhaps more importantly, he showed bravery, excellent leadership skills, and a good bit of luck.

He added Gaul (what is now roughly the country of France, part of Germany, Belgium, parts of the Netherlands, western Switzerland and northwestern Italy) to Rome's empire. Originally Rome had been asked for help because intruding Germans, or what the Romans called Germans, were hassling some of the tribes of Gaul that were counted as defense-worthy allies of Rome. Rome under Caesar went in to straighten out their allies' mess, but they stayed even after this was done. Tribes like those under the famous Celtic chieftain Vercingetorix tried to resist, but Caesar prevailed: Vercingetorix was led as a captive to Rome, a visible sign of Caesar's military successes.

Caesar's troops were devoted to him. He probably could have become king, without too much trouble, but he resisted. Even so, the conspirators' stated rationale for his assassination was that he wanted to become king.

Ironically, it wasn't so much the name rex that conferred power. It was Caesar's own name, so when he adopted Octavian, wags could quip that Octavian owed his status to a name.

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Gill, N.S. "Caesar's Role in the Collapse of the Roman Republic." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). Caesar's Role in the Collapse of the Roman Republic. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Caesar's Role in the Collapse of the Roman Republic." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).