Rome solved the great political problem of the ancient world in the best practicable, if not in the best conceivable, way. To Cæsar it fell to put the crowning stroke to that work. The several states of modern Europe have all contributed, though in different degrees, to political progress, and therefore no one of them has the unique importance and glory that belongs to Rome.
For the same reason, no modern statesman stands on a level with Cæsar. He remains, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “the foremost man of all this world.” It was the high fortune of Rome that, in the principal crisis of her history, she possessed a citizen so splendidly endowed in intellect, character, and heart. Free to an extraordinary degree from the prejudices belonging to his age and country, with piercing and far-sweeping vision, he saw as from some superior height, the political situation of his own time in its (p. 033) relation to the past and the future of the ancient world. If Rome had till then carried out the work of conquest with considerable method, and upon the whole, with steadiness, she had very inadequately satisfied the need for incorporation. Her oligarchical constitution, admirably adapted for the first task, could not easily reconcile itself to the second. In its best days, and while Carthage and Macedon were still formidable, the Senate had from time to time, prudently though grudgingly, extended the privilege of citizenship to some of the subject Italian states. But the great mass of Italians had only extorted it by rebellion during the boyhood of Cæsar, and outside Italy, the conquered nations were still on the footing of subject allies, trampled upon and fleeced for the benefit of Rome, or rather of the Roman nobles and capitalists. If the great dominion was to be maintained in some tolerable degree of well-being for all its members, or even maintained at all, it was absolutely necessary that the so-called Republican constitution, always oppressive for the provinces, and now shamefully corrupt, should be replaced by personal government. For a complete incorporation of the subject peoples was not to be expected from the suffrages of a dominant people, to even the poorest of whom, it would mean the cessation of highly prized privileges and immunities. The provinces would from the earliest moment of their subjection have welcomed such a change. The time was more than ripe for it when the Roman world lay at the feet of Sulla. Sulla had all the ability, self-reliance, prestige, and opportunity that were needed. But his moral nature was below the task. He had neither the insight, nor the sympathy, nor the noble ambition of Cæsar, and he preferred to re-establish the senatorial oligarchy.
When Sulla crushed the Marian party Cæsar had just arrived at manhood. Though of an old patrician house, he had yet a family connection with the democratic party, Marius having married his aunt. He himself had married a daughter of the democratic leader Cinna, and for refusing to divorce her he was proscribed by Sulla, but managed to keep in hiding till the storm was past. After the death of the great reactionist (B.C. 78), he seized every opportunity of reviving the spirit of the popular party; as, for instance, by publicly honoring the memory of Marius, bringing to justice murderers of the proscription, and courageously raising his single voice in the Senate against the illegal execution of Catiline’s (p. 034) partisans (B.C. 63). Clearly seeing the necessity for personal government, at a time when his own services and distinctions were not such as to entitle him to aspire to it, Cæsar did his best to secure it for Pompey, then far the foremost man in Rome, by strenuously supporting measures which virtually placed the empire at his absolute disposal for an indefinite period. A fairly good soldier, but a most vain, unreliable, and incompetent statesman, Pompey after five years let these powers slip through his hands.
Cæsar was by this time thirty-eight (B.C. 62). He had steadily risen in influence and official rank; and it was, no doubt, now that he determined to take the great task into his own hands. He was the recognized chief of the popular party, which aimed at concentrating Republican government in the hands of a single person, as the only means of bridling the oligarchy. But this was not to be accomplished merely by popular votes, as many a democratic leader had found to his cost. Cæsar needed an army and a military reputation, and with rare patience he set himself to acquire both. By a coalition with Pompey—now obliged to treat him as an equal—he obtained the consulship (B.C. 59), which on its expiration entitled him to a great military command.
Roman generals had of late preferred to extend their conquests eastward, and to win comparatively easy and lucrative triumphs in Asia, over people who had possessed for long ages a type of civilization suited to them, and who therefore could never thoroughly assimilate Western manners and institutions. All this time Gaul, lying at the gates of Italy, was neglected (only the district between the Cevennes and the Alps having been reduced), because the people were more warlike, and less booty was to be gained. Yet, till that conquest should be effected, Rome’s work of civilizing the world was standing still; nay, it was always menaced by northern invasions. This field of action, then, Cæsar marked out for himself, in which he could prepare the means for assuming power at home, and at the same time render the highest service to his country and humanity. His ardent spirit, his incredible energy in all circumstances of his life, astonished his contemporaries. Time pressed, for he was no longer young. While he was absent from Rome, what revolutions might not mar his plans! Yet, ten continuous years did he devote to this great task, which, if he had achieved nothing else, would make his name one of the greatest in history. In those ten years he conquered Gaul, from the Pyrenees to the Rhine and the British Channel; conquered her so thoroughly, and treated her so sensibly, that when the fierce struggle was over, she frankly and even proudly accepted her new position. The culture, the institutions, even the language of the victors, were eagerly adopted. The grandsons of the men who had fought so gallantly against Cæsar, won full citizenship, took their seats in the Senate, and commanded Roman armies.
These ten years decided the future of the West, and therefore of Humanity. It is not merely the central position and natural advantages of France, nor yet the admirable qualities of her people, which have made her throughout mediæval and modern history, the foremost of European states. It is even more the result (p. 035) of her rapid and thorough acceptance of Roman civilization. This made her the heir of Rome. This enabled her, long afterward, to Romanize Germany and England in some degree, and as it were at second-hand, by the arms of Charlemagne and William.
It had been arranged between Cæsar and Pompey, that during the absence of the former in Gaul, the latter should act with the popular party, and keep the nobility in the condition of impotence to which it had been reduced in the consulship of Cæsar. Partly from jealousy of Cæsar, partly from sheer incapacity, Pompey, after much vacillation and duplicity, finally allied himself with the nobles, thinking with their aid to crush his rival and thereafter to be supreme. The nobles, for their part, thought they would know how to deal with Pompey if once Cæsar was out of the way. In the negotiations which preceded the civil war, Cæsar showed a moderation and fairness in striking contrast with the unscrupulous and headstrong violence of the nobles, who had not even formal legality on their side. But when he was finally summoned to hand over his province and army to a nominee of the Senate, on pain of being declared a public enemy, and when the tribunes who had reversed the resolution of the Senate were obliged to fly for their lives to his camp, he suddenly crossed the river Rubicon, the boundary of his province, and marched on Rome (B.C. 49).
He had but one legion with him; the bulk of his army was far away in its Gallic cantonments. The forces of Pompey were overwhelmingly superior in numbers. But the rapid and daring advance of Cæsar prevented their concentration. He came, not merely the adored general of a veteran army, but the long-tried and consistent leader of the liberal party, who had never swerved from his principles, never betrayed his friends, never flinched from dangers. Fascinated by his success and encouraged by his clemency, towns everywhere opened their gates and Pompeian levies joined him, swelling his army at every stage as he swept down Italy.
Pompey, for his part, was not sorry to have a pretext for moving eastward toward the scene of his early triumphs, where his military prestige and his personal influence would cause all the client states to rally round him, and the sulky and suspicious nobles would find themselves overshadowed. So he crossed the Adriatic, leaving the large veteran army in Spain, which was under his orders, to take care of itself. Thither Cæsar proceeded as soon as he had secured Italy, bent on making sure of the West before doing anything else. When the Spanish legions were beaten, he lost no time in following Pompey, who had found the respite all too short for drilling his large but raw force of Romans, and organizing the masses of Asiatics whom he had summoned to his standard. In the campaign that ensued, the conqueror of the East fully maintained his old military reputation; but at length, driven by the clamor of the nobles to risk a pitched battle, he suffered a crushing defeat on the field of Pharsalia (B.C. 48). Flying to Egypt, still an independent kingdom, he was assassinated by order of the government.
The beaten party rallied again, first in Africa, then in Spain; and of the (p. 036) three years and nine months of life that remained to Cæsar, much the greater portion was spent at the head of his army. He, therefore, had not time to give any complete organization to his new government. But his intentions are clearly discernible in outline. Supreme power, legislative as well as executive, was to be vested in a single ruler, governing not by divine right, but as the representative of the community, and in its interest. This was indeed an ideal by no means novel to Romans. Scipio had brooded over it. Caius Gracchus had for a moment realized it. The oldest institutions and traditions told of it. It was the power of the ancient kings theoretically continued to, and in grave emergencies actually exercised by, the magistrates of the Republic during its best days. It had been increasingly overshadowed by the Senate. That body was now to be reduced to its original consultative office. The functions of the executive had been gradually divided among several magistrates. They were now to be re-concentrated. Above all, annual election—the cherished institution of all oligarchies, open or disguised—was to be replaced by life-tenure, with power to name a successor. The subjects of Rome were to be admitted to citizenship, wherever and whenever fit for it; and there is reason to believe that Cæsar intended to move much faster in this direction than his successor did. Rome itself, from the mistress of the Empire, was to become its capital and most dignified municipality. All old parties—Cæsar’s own included—were to consider themselves at an end. “To the victors the spoils!” was a cry rebuked from the first. For the vanquished of Pharsalia there was not only amnesty, but admission to the highest grades of the public service, if they would bury their old grudge and recognize the government. Pauperism among the lower class, and insolvency among the upper—ulcers not admitting of a radical cure—were treated with judicious palliatives. Taxation was reduced, expenditure was increased, and yet the balance in the treasury at Cæsar’s death was tenfold what it had ever been before—a proof of the frightful waste and corruption from which the Roman world was rescued by the overthrow of the oligarchy.
Of the administrative work of Cæsar it is impossible here to give any adequate idea. A reform of the calendar, which served the West till 1582, and serves Russia still; a recasting of the whole provincial administration; a codification of Roman law; a census of the Empire; a uniform gold coinage; a public library; a metropolitan police; building regulations; sanitary regulations; an alteration of the course of the Tiber, which would have drained the marshes—all these grand projects, and more, some carried to completion, some only sketched out, teemed from the active brain of the great organizer, in the brief moments he could spare from military cares in these last months of his life—a devouring activity, an all-embracing capacity, such as perhaps never shone forth in man before or since. What Roman incorporation meant for the ancient world was at last revealed. The war havoc of seven centuries had found its justification.
In the midst of this glorious and beneficent career, at the age of fifty-five (57?), Cæsar, whose frank and fearless spirit disdained suspicion or precaution, (p. 037) was assassinated by a knot of rancorous, perfidious aristocrats, whom he had pardoned and promoted. Their purblind spite was powerless to avert the inevitable advent of monocracy. What they did effectually extinguish for more than a century, was the possibility of amnesty, conciliation, and mutual confidence. Careless as usual of historical truth, the great English poet has glorified the murderers of Cæsar. Dante, never forgetting the moral responsibility of art, has reserved the lowest circle of hell for Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot.
It imports little to the greatness of such a one as Cæsar, to add that in an age of oratory he stood in the first rank of orators; that his historical writings are an unrivalled model of vigor, lucidity, and elegance; that he carried his scientific culture to a point very unusual among his countrymen; and that his personal prowess and feats of endurance were the admiration of veteran soldiers. Women loved him, and he loved them. Enjoying life thoroughly, he was temperate in all things. To no man has it been given to approach more nearly to the perfection of human nature—complete, evenly balanced, and self-controlled.
[from Great Men and Famous Women. Vol. 1 of 8, by Various]