How did Julius Caesar rise to power?

Bust of Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is one of the most famous leaders from the ancient world. His life and death are very well-known and still capitivate people. He is not only one of the greatest generals who ever lived, but he who destroyed the Roman Republic. His ascent shifted the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

How did Caesar to rise to Emperor in the Roman Republic? There were three key reasons for the rise of Caesar: his role in the First Triumvirate, his conquest of Gaul and his victories during the Civil Wars. These were the key stages in Caesar’s career that allowed him to become the Emperor of Rome.

Caesar’s Early Life

Caesar was born to a patrician Roman family who had once been very influential in the Republic. However, by the time of Caesar’s birth, their fortunes had been in decline for many years and they were no longer prominent, although his father did serve as a governor.[1] We know very little about Caesar's childhood. Through his aunt, he was related to Gaius Marius, the great general and this led the young Julius to become associated with the popular (populares) party in Rome. These were aristocrats who had allied themselves with the poor.

By the time he was sixteen, he was the head of his family after the early death of his father. At this time, there was an ongoing bloody civil war between Marius and his Sulla, the head of the aristocratic or optimates party. After Sulla occupied Rome, Caesar was in danger because of his party. He went into into hiding so he would not become another victim of the bloody proscriptions.[2] When Marius regained control of the city, Caesar married a leading politicians daughter and became the high priest of Jupiter.

However, when Sulla recaptured Rome, Caesar was stripped of his wealth and his office. He decided to join the army and served in Asia Minor and was decorated for bravery. Later after he was kidnapped by pirates he led a successful punitive expedition against them and was once again decorated for bravery. Caesar returned to Rome and became one of the leaders of the Marian party or popular party.[3] He became very prominent in Rome because of his lavish expenditures. He also forged a political alliance with Crassus, one of Rome's richest men. Caesar was later elected Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) of Rome and secured himself the governorship of a province in Spain.

In his new province he defeated some rebellious tribes and was accorded a Triumph and he was later nominated to the office of Consul, one of the most important roles in Rome (60 AD). At this stage, Caesar had a rather conventional career or the cursus honorum as it was known in Rome and one that was typical of a man of his class. However, a series of events which were brilliantly manipulated by Caesar and his military genius meant that he was to become the single most powerful Roman who lived, up to that point and the man who was to change Rome forever.[4]

First Triumvirate

By 59 BCE, Caesar was one of the most important political figures in Rome, mainly because of his connections to the old supporters of Marius. He also appears to have been genuinely popular among many ordinary Romans.[5] The political situation in Rome was chaotic and political violence was common, often orchestrated by gangs connected to leading public figures. In this situation, nothing could get done and there was political gridlock. The Senate wanted to control all aspects of political life as they had since the early days of the Republic. However, many aristocrats were frustrated by the conservatism of the Senators and believed that it was incapable of any meaningful decisions. Some of the leading figures in Rome at the time decided to come together and to enter an informal alliance in order to provide some stability and to secure their own political aims.[6]

Pompey, sometimes known as Pompey the Great was hailed by his contemporaries as a great general. While still a young man he had secured a series of victories which stabilized the Roman Republic and greatly expanded it. In a series of campaigns, he conquered a vast area around the Black Sea and the modern Middle East. He was revered in the city but not even he could persuade the Senate to grant his veterans lands. Crassus was very wealthy, and he wanted to translate this into political power. These two men entered into an alliance and they invited Caesar to join their informal arrangement. The richest man in Rome and its most famous soldier needed the young aristocrat, because of his links to the populares. They needed him to help them to obtain the votes that they needed to make sure that they could achieve their political goals and also guarantee at least some level of stability in the city.

The Triumvirate was not an arrangement that was based on shared views or aims but was designed to help the trio to further their ambitions. This arrangement benefitted Caesar immensely it allowed him to pay off some of his debts and to extend his influence in the city. Most importantly it allowed him to become Consul in 59AD and to initiate a series of reforms aimed at benefiting the ordinary Roman, which made him wildly popular in certain segments of society.[7] This allowed him to establish a network of supporters such as Clodius who were to protect and advance his interests. Moreover, his consulship allowed him the command of four legions and a province, in what is now southern France. This was to allow him to embark on his military career which was to be the key to his success.

Gallic Wars

A Gallic chieftain submitting to Caesar

Some allies of the Romans in Gaul (modern France and Belgium) were defeated by Germanic tribes. This was used by Caesar as a pretext to intervene into Gaul and to begin its conquest. Caesar was to prove to be a general of genius.[8] He defeated the Germanic tribes with great brutality. The Gaul in the North and West were alarmed by the appearance of Romans and they began to form defensive alliances. These were interpreted by Caesar as a threat to the Romans even though this may not have been the case. He ordered his legions to march to the far north of Gaul and he conquered much of the area and later he also extended Roman influence into to the south-west. Caesar had begun the conquest of Gaul without the sanction of the Senate and many regarded his campaign as an illegal war. At a conference in Lucca in 55 BCE at this Caesar was able to extend his consulship, and his command in Gaul for another five years.

However, many fierce tribes such as the Belgae continued to resist Romans and Caesar was involved in much fierce fighting. He did find the time to launch a raid on Britain. The Roman general was a great propagandist and he wrote reports on his campaigns that informed the public of his achievements. These are considered to be classics of Latin Literature. While Caesar was popular with many he was hated by many Senators in Rome. He continued his campaigns and at the Battle of Alessia he won a decisive victory, which ended the conflict. After his victory, Caesar had the command of a large army of seasoned troops who were loyal to him and many partisans in his native city. Much of the wealth he made in Gaul was used to finance his supporters. Caesar had by now even eclipsed Pompey. However, the Senate wanted to strip him of his army and to prosecute him. This led him to demand that he be allowed to retain control of his legions to protect his interests when this was refused Caesar crossed the Rubicon and occupied Rome, which he saw as an act of self-defence against those who would harm him and his supporters.[9]

Civil Wars (49-44 BCE)

A medieval manuscript showing Pompey fleeing Caesar

Caesar was by now the most powerful man in Rome, but he had many enemies. Pompey and his old foes the conservative Senators formed an alliance against Caesar. However, they had no legions at their disposal in Italy and they fled to the Balkans. Here they assembled a number of legions. The majority of the Roman Senate joined the Pompeiians as they came to be known and they controlled most of the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Caesar knew he was vulnerable and that many in Italy hated him, despite his generally tolerant and benign rule. He knew that he had to defeat Pompey. Caesar took several legions to the Balkans and confronted the army of Pompey. This campaign was very difficult for Caesar and he was lucky to escape a decisive defeat. The conqueror of the Gaul’s maneuvered Pompey into a battle at Pharsalus in modern Greece. Caesar was out-numbered, and his opponent was a great general.

However, Caesar prevailed at Pharsalus and smashed the army of Pompey. This did not end the civil war. The victor returned to Rome and based on his success and the assertation that his enemies were a threat to the Republic he had himself declared Dictator, by the rump of the Senate who had not fled in 50 BCE. This was an office that gave him extraordinary powers, and he was effectively the sole ruler of the Roman Republic. He left Mark Anthony in control of Rome and Italy.[10] Pompey escaped, after Pharsalus and he and other senators vowed to continue the war. Caesar was even after Pharsalus still not master of the Roman World. Pompey was killed by a Roman renegade on the orders of the Pharaoh, but his adherents continued the fight.

The Pompeiians seized control of Africa and Spain. Caesar fought wars all over the Mediterranean and he emerged victorious. He knew that all long as his enemies were in the field that he was not secure. Caesar finally defeated his enemies at the Battle of Munda in 45 BCE in Spain. After there was no real resistance to the rule of Caesar and he returned to Rome and he had himself appointed Dictator for life. He was by 44 AD the supreme leader in the Roman World and he was arguably the first Emperor in Roman history, although the majority of authorities hold that Augustus was the first Emperor.[11] This was based largely on his military prowess and his success on countless battlefields around Europe and the Middle East.


Caesar was a remarkable leader and the secret to his success was that he was able to seize any opportunity in both the military and in the political arena. This young man who came from an aristocratic family that had been long in decline was able to use his many talents to become the sole rule of Rome and to be the architect of the Roman Imperial System. Caesar was able to achieve this because of the following. He was a member of the popular party and he was eventually able to secure an ascendancy over this political group. Based on his support and influence he participated in the informal arrangement known as the First Triumvirate. This informal political alliance elevated him to become one of the most important politicians in Rome. This allowed him to become Consul and to command a force of legions. It also enabled him to undertake the conquest of Gaul. This was not sanctioned but the support of the other parties in the Triumvirate allowed him to continue the conquest of Gaul. In the aftermath of the conquest of Gaul, he was able to occupy Rome and to defeat his opponents in a series of wars. This allowed him to dominate Rome, but his glory was to be short-lived and he was assassinated in 44 BCE.

Suggested Readings


  1. Freeman, Philip. Julius Caesar. Simon and Schuster, 2008), p. 16
  2. Plutarch, Life of Caesar, vi
  3. Plutarch, vii
  4. Grant, Michael. The Twelve Caesars (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p 15
  5. Plutarch, vix
  6. Holland, Tom. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (London, Anchor Press, 2003), p. 134
  7. Holland, p 156
  8. Grant, p. 98
  9. Plutarch, ix
  10. "Suetonius, Life of Caesar, LXXIV
  11. Osgood, Josiah. Caesar's Legacy: Civil War and the Emergence of the Roman Empire (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 60