Monday, July 27, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Caesar (Part 2 of 4)

Part One of this essay can be read here.

Not long after his aunt’s death, Caesar’s first wife, Cornelia, died in childbirth. Plutarch writes that Caesar gave a lyrical and moving eulogy to her memory in the Forum, a practice not often afforded to young women (as opposed to older ones like his aunt, Julia) and one that endeared him to the people of Rome once again. Not long after, he accepted an administrative position in Spain that seems to have bee his first transition into mainstream Roman politics. Upon his return to Rome, Caesar married Pompeia, the granddaughter of his former persecutor, Sulla. It is impossible to mistake, even from this distance, the calculated maneuvering in which Caesar is engaged in his transition from his marriage with Cornelia (the daughter of Cinna, one of Marius’ chief con-conspirators) to Pompeia. As a result, more doors began to open for him politically. Plutarch mentions him working as the “surveyor of the Appian Way” for some period before being appointed to the position of aedile, an administrator in charge of public works and for organizing the games and festivals beloved by the Roman people. About this, Plutarch writes that:

When he was aedile, he provided such a number of gladiators, that he entertained the people with three hundred and twenty single combats, and by his great liberality and magnificence in theatrical shows, in processions, and public feasting, he threw into the shade all the attempts that had been made before him, and gained so much upon the people, that every one was eager to find out new offices and new honours for him in return for his munificence. [579]

At the height of his popularity as aedile, Caesar one-upped the spectacle he perpetuated at his aunt’s funeral by having images and statues celebrating Marius’ military victories on behalf of Rome placed in the public Forum. While this act enraged the Senate, it sent a clear message to those sympathetic to the populares cause that it had found a new champion in Gaius Julius Caesar as well as to the people of Rome that the unchecked authority of the patricians in the Senate was not impervious to criticism. Caesar was brought before the Senate to defend his actions and received from him an apology but old battlelines had been unmistakably re-sketched into dirt for all to see.

It was along these lines that Caesar gained advantage over his enemies as he ran for the office of Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest of Rome. He was opposed in election by two men, both allied with the optimates cause and, after acquiring immense debt in the act of bribing anyone and everyone he thought might aid his cause, Caesar won the election that he told his mother would make him either “high priest or an exile.” The effect on the political landscape in Rome was unmistakable, leading his enemies in the Senate to step up their efforts to stop his political elevation any further. When a man named Catiline was discovered, after his flight from Rome, to have been conspiring “not only to change the present state of affairs, but to subvert the whole empire,” a great investigation was launched to uncover all who may have joined in this cause. As his co-conspirators were brought before the Senate for trial and punishment, all who spoke called for a sentence of execution until Caesar, in his role as the High Priest, said that it was “without precedent and not just to take away the lives of persons of their birth and distinction before they were fairly tried” [580].

This statement questioned the veracity of the trial that had just taken place and, according to Plutarch, influenced many who spoke after him to reverse their certainty in seeing the men put to death. Cato, the functional head of the optimates in the Senate, reproached Caesar in his closing argument, accusing him of being involved himself in the conspiracy and, ultimately, the men were sentenced to be executed. By Plutarch’s account, the optimates were so incensed by Caesar’s opposition to them that:

As Caesar was going out of the senate, many of the young men who at that time acted as guards to Cicero ran in with their naked swords to assault him. But, Curio, it is said, threw his gown over him, and conveyed him away, and Cicero himself, when the young men looked up to see his wishes, gave a sign not to kill him, either for fear of the people or because he thought the murder unjust and illegal. [580]

Caesar was eventually exonerated by the Senate for any involvement with Cataline’s rebellion and, indeed, was elected to be the praetor of Rome for one year. While he was praetor, Caesar divorced his wife, Pompeia, under rather unusual circumstances. During a festival where the women were sequestered from the men in accordance with the rite, it was discovered that a young man named Clodius, disguised as a young woman, had made his way into Caesar’s home with the intention of coupling with Pompeia, whom Plutarch describes as having “no aversion to him.” Though Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, Plutarch does note that Caesar made no attempt to revenge himself upon Clodius and, in fact, appointed him to positions of status within the government later. The inclusion of these details suggests that Plutarch believes that Caesar may have, in fact, orchestrated his wife’s public disgrace in order to sever the now unneccesary ties their marriage created between him and the optimates.

When Caesar’s term as praetor expired, he was given the province of Spain to administer similarly. While in Spain, Caesar polished his credentials as an effective general by subduing long rebellious tribes in the area and earning, from his legions, the title of Imperator. It was customary, after receiving this title, for a general to return to Rome for a triumph. However, at the same time, Caesar was vying to become co-consul of Rome. This presented a problem as any general being honored with a triumph was expected to remain outside of Rome until the Senate summoned him home. However, it was also custom that anyone petitioning for the consulate must be in Rome to do so. After failing to persuade the Senate to bend the rules in order to overcome this paradox of tradition, Caesar gave up his right to a triumph and returned to Rome to begin his campaign to become consul. Had the Senate known the means by which Caesar planned to gain the consulate, they might have pushed harder for him to accept his triumph instead.

Upon returning to Rome, Caesar reconciled to long-standing foes, Crassus and Pompey, and then bound the three of them together in an alliance that rendered the Senate nearly impotent. With Crassus’ money and Pompey’s military prowess backing him, Caesar could not be stopped in his quest to attain the position of consul and, upon his appointment, began introducing a variety of controversial bills designed to please the people and further weaken the aristocracy. When the Senate became enraged by his agenda, he turned then to the people to ratify his legislation. Plutarch writes that:

He hurried out of the senate, and presenting himself to the people, and there placing Crassus and Pompey, one on each side of him, he asked them whether they consented to the bills he had proposed. They owned their assent, upon which he desired them to assist him against those who had threatened to oppose him with their swords. They engaged they would, and Pompey added further, that he would meet their swords with a sword and buckler too. These words the nobles much resented, as neither suitable to his own dignity, nor becoming the reverence due to the senate, but resembling rather the vehemence of a boy or the fury of a madman. But the people were pleased with it. [582]

As Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey moved to consolidate the power of their new alliance (sometimes called the First Triumvirate), there was a flurry of marriages to cement the bonds. Pompey married Caesar’s daughter, Julia (born from his first marriage) and, some time after, Caesar married Calpurnia, the daughter of one of Crassus’s allies named Piso who was named consul when Caesar’s term had ended. Pompey, through the threat of force, got Caesar appointed to govern Gaul and got the Senate to allow him four legions to subdue it. It might have seemed like a good deal for both the Senate and Pompey for Rome would be rid of his ambitions for at least five years and Pompey would preside in his stead as the man of the people. Little could they have known that, by the time he returned, he would be positioned to master them all.

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