Julius CaesarPompeypossibly Crassus



The last years of the Roman republic were dominated by three men: Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. After Crassus's death, civil war between the other two became inevitable, despite the worthy interventions of Cicero. Pompey had a acquired a formidable military reputation with his successful campaigns against the pirates and Mithridates. To balance this power, Caesar - with some difficulty - conquered Gaul and made it his base for the invasion of Italy.

After defeating Pompey at Pharsalus, and subsequently all the others who tried to oppose him, Caesar became dictator. The untraditional nature of his rule enraged his enemies in the senatorial class - inspired by Cato the Younger, who had committed suicide in Africa after the defeat of the Pompeians there in 46 BC, but led by Brutus. They assassinated him on the Ides of March 44 BC.


Originally the city of Rome was ruled by kings. Lucius Junius Brutus introduced republicanism and consulships; dictators were appointed on a temporary basis. The committee of ten did not survive more than two years; the granting of consular authority to military tribunes did not last long either. Cinna and Sulla held sway only for a short time. The powers of Pompey and Crassus soon devolved on Caesar. [Octavian] took over the military resources raised by Lepidus and Antony, and, with the entire state exhausted by civil wars, assumed control with the title of princeps. Tacitus, Annals 1

The Triumvirate

The twenty years that followed Sulla’s death saw the rise of three men of particular ambition and power, and the flowering of the political and forensic skills of a fourth. Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115 - 53 BC) had prodigious wealth; Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106 - 48 BC), “Pompey the Great”, was a born military leader and organizer; Gaius Julius Caesar was an astute politician who was also a military genius. Together they took advantage of Caesar’s election as consul for 59 BC to form a triumvirate, which ruled unconstitutionally for several years. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 - 43 BC) lived through these times and left to posterity many examples of his oratorical and prose styles in the form of speeches and letters. All four were stabbed to death within ten years of each other.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero, like Marius, was born near Arpinum. He was sent to Rome to complete his education, which was interrupted by military service in 89 BC. (Capitoline Museum, Rome: René Seindal)

Cicero's opposition

Cicero’s first important speech in the courts was in defence of Roscius, charged with murdering his father. It was a brave case to take on, for the charge had been brought by one of Sulla’s favourite freedmen, who had an interest in a conviction. Roscius was acquitted, and Cicero prudently went abroad “for reasons of health and study”.

On his return to Rome after Sulla’s death, Cicero ascended the political ladder, helped by his oratory, which led the Sicilians to retain him as prosecutor in Rome of their former governor Verres (d. 43 BC), a notorious embezzler and extortionist. Cicero’s courtroom tactics, as well as his skills, were such that the defence counsel threw up his brief while the evidence was still being called.

Cicero was elected consul for 63 BC, when he dealt firmly with a conspiracy against the state led by Lucius Sergius Catilina (c. 109 - 62 BC). The turning point in Cicero’s career came in 61 BC, when he appeared in court as a witness, and destroyed the alibi of Publius Clodius (c. 92 - 52 BC), accused of attending in drag a “ladies only” religious ceremony. Clodius was not only powerful, but he was a toady of Caesar, who used Clodius as a means of driving Cicero into exile. For Cicero had refused to join the triumvirate, and had even criticized its right to govern. Caesar only reluctantly agreed to his return in 57 BC.


Ostia, port of Rome. Even where apartment blocks were well appointed, the streets were narrow and houses close together. Apartment blocks in Rome were often jerry-built. (VRoma: Via di Diana, Ostia: Susan Bonvallet)


Crassus bought cheap, from the state, the estates of those who had been proscribed by Sulla. He also ran a building racket. When there was a fire in the city, he would rush out and make a nominal offer not just for the burning building but for all the others in the neighbourhood. In this way, and by rebuilding damaged properties, he is said to have owned most of Rome. He used much of his wealth to gain popular favour, both essential assets for a politician.


At this time, gladiators were either convicted criminals or slaves, and had no choice in the matter. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

As the supreme commander appointed by the senate in 72 BC against the slave revolt of Spartacus the gladiator, Crassus is remembered for two acts. He revived the ancient punishment of decimation for disobeying orders, dividing the five hundred of his men whom he regarded as the most culpable into fifty tens, and then choosing by lot one out of each ten to be publicly executed before the whole army. After the final defeat of Spartacus in 71 BC, he crucified the six thousand survivors, leaving them to hang at regular intervals along the main road from Rome to Capua, where the rising started.

Map of Mediterranean

Campaigns of Caesar (Gaul, Britain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Africa, Spain), Crassus (Italy, Parthia), and Pompey (Italy, Sicily, Africa, Spain, Mediterranean, Asia, Greece) 72-45 BC.(Ancient World Mapping Center)

Crassus and Pompey were consuls in 70 BC, and again in 55 BC, after which Crassus obtained the governorship of the province of Syria. In an attempt to add military glory to his wealth, he misguidedly took on the Parthians to the east. He was ignominiously defeated, and was murdered while negotiating the terms of surrender.


Pompey was first elected consul in 70 BC while under the statutory age-limit and without having held any office of state, though he had already made a name for himself as a soldier. In 67 BC he was appointed to rid the Mediterranean of pirates. The resources and powers put at his disposal were formidable, and included 250 ships, and a hundred thousand marines and four thousand cavalry from Rome alone, which he reinforced with what was offered by other interested nations. By a concerted sweep against the pirates and their strongholds, he forced them out of business in three months. He took twenty thousand prisoners, most of whom he spared and offered employment as farmers.

He was then transferred to Asia, where he succeeded completely where others had failed, and defeated Mithridates of Pontus, in the process enlarging the Roman empire. Unwilling at that time to assume sole power in Rome, but anxious to keep it within his sights, he threw in his lot with Crassus and Caesar, whose daughter Julia he married in 59 BC, as his fourth wife.

Marriage ceremony

Marble sarcophagus relief AD 160 - 80, of Roman marriage ceremony. The couple are observing the solemn ceremony of clasping right hands, while the groom holds in his other hand the marriage contract. Between them is the matron-of-honour. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Though probably intended as a marriage of convenience, the partnership seems to have been a successful one, until Julia’s death in childbirth in 54 BC. There was now no-one capable of reconciling the ambitions of Pompey and Caesar, neither of whom could bear to take second place to anyone.

It is also probable that Caesar, at the end of his campaign in Gaul (58 - 49 BC), wanting a further consulship and a command, and fearing prosecution for past irregularities if he did not get them, deliberately provoked a confrontation. He returned at the head of his army, had himself appointed temporary dictator, and pushed Pompey, his army, and his senatorial supporters out of Italy and to final defeat at Pharsalus in Greece.

Pompey sought asylum in Egypt, but was assassinated by members of the Egyptian government as he stepped ashore. Caesar, in hot pursuit, was then persuaded by Cleopatra (68 - 30 BC), joint ruler of Egypt with her brother, to stay a while as her personal guest. He accepted her invitation with such pleasure that a son, known as Caesarion, was born the following year.


Bronze coin of Cleopatra VII, c. 35 BC, with her infant son, Caesarion. It was minted in Cyprus, which Caesar had given to Cleopatra in 47 BC as a parting gift. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

In the meantime Caesar had been confirmed in his absence as dictator, an appointment which was regularly renewed. Thus began, with a few interregna, the rule of Rome by twelve men who, with one exception, successively held the name Caesar, by birth, by adoption, by descent through the female line, or by incorporating it into their official title.


Gaius Julius Caesar: born 12 July 100 (or 102) in Rome, son of Gaius Caesar and Aurelia. Governor of Gaul 58 - 49 BC. Appointed dictator for ten years in 47 BC; for life 14 February 44 BC. Married [1] Cornelia (one daughter, Julia); [2] Pompeia; [3] Calpurnia. Assassinated 15 March 44 BC. Deified 42 BC. View Julius Caesar's family tree.

At the age of 30, arguably the most famous Roman of them all was regarded as a dandy who had squandered his wife’s fortune (they married when he was 17) as well as his own. He was, however, a fine public speaker, which served him well when campaigning successfully for the offices of quaestor (he served in Spain), aedile (his extravagance in providing gladiatorial shows and renovating public buildings at his own expense to gain further popularity put him even deeper in debt) and praetor in 63 BC, when he resorted to massive bribery in order to be elected pontifex maximus. His duties as praetor took him again to Spain, where he discovered a talent as a military commander and amassed enough booty and tribute to pay off his debts.

Gallic wars

The formation of the ruling triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey was a mark also of Caesar’s determination to push through genuine and innovative measures in the face of a senate which was suspicious of his motives, and to ensure that there was some continuity of progressive legislation after his year as consul was over. He then obtained the governorship of both provinces of Gaul for a period of five years, later extended for a second term: Cisalpine Gaul, the subjugated region south of the Alps and to the east of the Apennines as far as the river Rubicon, and Transalpine Gaul, roughly corresponding to Provence and Languedoc.

Tribes in Gaul

The tribes and regions of Gaul and southern Britain 58-50 BC.

When Caesar had finished his series of brilliant but punitive campaigns, during which two million men, women, and children are said to have died, he was master of the whole region to the west of the Rhine, which he crossed by military bridge to ensure that there would be no trouble from the Germanic tribes. In 55 and 54 BC he mounted expeditions to Britain, which had up till then been unknown to the Roman world. In 55 he arrived without his cavalry, which had been prevented by the weather from landing. On both occasions storms and tides broke up his ships, which had been badly beached or wrongly anchored.


Celtic coin of Vercingetorix, late first century BC. (Acknowledgment Julius Caesar: the Last Dictator web site)

The size of his Gallic operation was matched by its complexity. Caesar’s most considerable achievement was the subjugation in 51 BC of Alesia, the fortified hill-city in which Vercingetorix, the Arvernian chief who most successfully opposed Rome, made his final stand with his eighty thousand infantry.

Civil War

When Caesar left his province in 49 BC and crossed the Rubicon at the head of his troops, it was the signal that he came as an invader. After Pompey’s hasty departure and ultimate defeat, and his own fruitful holiday in Egypt, Caesar returned to Rome with his army via Asia Minor, pausing at Zela to annihilate the forces of Pharnaces of Pontus (d. 47 BC), son of Mithridates. This was the occasion of his celebrated message to the senate, “Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)!”

Opposition from the Pompeian faction, however, was only stamped out after two more campaigns, n Africa and Spain, culminating in the battle of Munda on 17 March 45 BC. In October of that year, Caesar was back in Rome. Five months later he was dead, at the hands of a band of conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus (c. 85 - 42 BC) and Gaius Cassius Longinus (d. 42 BC), former Pompeians whom he had pardoned after the battle of Pharsalus.

Ides of March

The Ides of March! Silver denarius issued by Brutus in 43/42 BC to celebrate the assassination of Caesar. It carries two daggers, a cap of liberty, and the date of the murder, [E]ID. MAR. (Photo © Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow )


In the meantime Caesar had established order in Rome, begun measures to reduce congestion in the city and to drain large tracts of marshy ground, given full voting rights to the inhabitants of his former province south of the Alps, revised the tax laws of Asia and Sicily, resettled many Romans in new homes in the Roman provinces, and reformed the calendar, which, with one slight adjustment, is the one in use today.

Death of Caesar

“The Death of Caesar” by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771 - 1844). (Acknowledgment Storia dell’ Arte web site)

The judgment of history is that Caesar’s driving ambition and energy led him to try to make too many changes too quickly and without ensuring that there were workable substitutes for the traditions he was sweeping away. Further, the senate was concerned not so much with reverting to democracy, but with preserving rule by the aristocracy, and their positions in that rule. Caesar's position was that of a king, and though he refused the crown it was for reasons of diplomacy not modesty.

Caesar the dictator

Caesar was the first living Roman to have his own portrait on a coin. Silver denarius of Julius Caesar, 44 BC. The inscription CAESAR DICT QUART refers to his being dictator four times. The curved symbol is a lituus, the staff used by augurs which here signifies his office of pontifex maximus. (VRoma: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Barbara McManus)

The imperium that Caesar assumed, however, gave him the position of sole ruler. The literal translation of imperium is something akin to both “command” and “power”. The word is related to imperator, which came to mean emperor but was originally the title bestowed on a victorious military commander by his troops.

The package of powers that Julius Caesar’s successor assumed in 27 BC gave him the constitutional right to greater imperium than anyone else at the time. It is for this reason that the establishment of the rule of Rome by emperors is said to have begun then.


Detailed timelines for Caesar, Cicero, Pompey and Brutus can be found if you click on "Timelines" above.

Roman empire 44 BC

The Roman Empire in 44 BC at the death of Julius Caesar: provinces of the empire are in capital letters. Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group.


The term means "first" or "chief", and was the job title which Octavian gave himself in 27 BC at the same time as he assumed the name of Augustus.

Caesar's appearance

“ [Julius Caesar] was acutely embarrassed by his baldness, which was a frequent subject of jokes on the part of his opponents. He took to combing his straggling locks forward from the back, and of all the honours heaped upon him by senate and people, the one he appreciated best and took advantage of most often was the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times. He also dressed in a peculiar fashion. Instead of the short-sleeved, unbelted tunic which senators wore, his had long sleeves fringed at the wrists, with a belt loosely fastened round his waist” (Suetonius, Julius Caesar 45).


View map of Pharsalus campaign

Pompey had the advantage of numbers. His tactics were to maintain pressure on Caesar’s infantry all along the line, and then outflank his right with a massed cavalry charge. Caesar combated this ploy by removing one cohort from each of his legions’ third line, and redeploying them in reserve behind his right wing. At the critical moment these men took up the offensive, using their javelins against the cavalry as bayonets. The Pompeian cavalry, caught by surprise, got in the way of each other and took flight. Caesar now threw his third line, which had not yet engaged the enemy, into the assault. Pompey’s infantry could not sustain the fight, and fled. Pompey lost his nerve and galloped into the distance.

Siege of Alesia 52 BC.

View map of Alesia Campaign

At this point only three of all the Celtic tribes in Gaul still supported Rome. Caesar blockaded the town, which stood on a plateau bounded on three sides by rivers, with a series of ditches and earthworks (contravallation). To protect his army from attack by a relieving force, he constructed a further ring of fortifications outside the first (circumvallation). To save food, and also to summon help, Vercingetorix managed to get his cavalry out of the town by night, with instructions to raise the tribes. Both sides were now running out of supplies. The Gallic relieving force duly arrived and camped on the heights to the west of the town. It numbered, according to Caesar, 250,000 infantry alone, against Caesar’s seventy thousand. There were two battles, one by day and the other by night. Caesar, conspicuous in his red cloak, was forced to fight on two fronts. While the Gauls assailed the Roman outer line of defences at various points, Vercingetorix sallied out against the inner line. Caesar himself led the final coup de main, appearing with four cohorts and a troop of cavalry to reinforce an attack on the Gallic rear. There was slaughter and wholesale surrender, and Vercingetorix was sent to Rome in chains. He was made to march in Caesar’s quadruple triumph in 46 BC, after which he was strangled. (From Antony Kamm, Julius Caesar: a beginner’s guide, Hodder and Stoughton 2002)




Gaius Julius Caesar


Marcus Tullius Cicero




Marcus Junius Brutus


(Drawings by Jennifer Campbell from Antony Kamm, Julius Caesar, a life, Routledge 2006)

Believe it or not:

Besides being the author of histories of his military campaigns, Caesar wrote a long poem and a treatise on grammar while travelling between Italy and Gaul in an express carriage. He dictated them to a slave who was crammed in beside him on the seat.

In the summer of 2005, two Greek nationals were stopped by customs officials when they arrived at Stanstead airport in UK. They claimed to have come to spend the day in London, but they had hardly any money with them. When they were stopped again on their way back, they were found to be carrying a large sum of cash in euros. An investigation discovered that this was payment for a coin exactly like the one illustrated here, which they had sold to a reputable classical numismatics group in London. The cash was seized and the coin was ultimately returned to Greece under a European directive on the illegal traffic of antiquities.