What made Julius Caesar a great general?

Modern statue of Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is widely regarded as one of the greatest commanders of all time. His campaigns and tactics have been studied and admired by soldiers since the ancient era. Among his admirers were Napoleon and Rommel. Many regard him as the greatest general in history.

There are many reasons why the Roman general was so successful and why he never suffered a major reversal on the battlefield. This article will focus on the factors that made Caesar near-invincible in war. The three main reasons for the success of the Roman were his leadership skills, his daring and speed and his masterly use of artillery.


Early Life

Caesar was born into the Roman aristocracy into a family that had been distinguished in the city for centuries. He was associated with the popular party in Rome and was related to the great general Marius[1]. He was fortunate to escape the proscriptions of Sulla and to escape the attention of the dictator he joined the army. Caesar was a capable soldier and he received the highest award for bravery in the Roman Republic because of his role in a siege in modern Turkey. On one occasion he was captured by some pirates and after he was ransomed he returned and seized his former captors and crucified them, after all. This led him to be awarded another award for bravery. He became very prominent in Rome because of his lavish expenditure and oratory.

Caesar also forged a political alliance with Crassus, one of Rome's richest men. The ambitious young politician was later elected Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) of Rome and secured for himself the governorship of a province in Spain. Here he defeated two tribal confederations and was voted a Triumph by the Senate, a singular mark of honor for the young aristocrat. Later he joined the First Triumvirate (59 BCE), an informal alliance between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus and they dominated Roman political life for ten years.[2] This arrangement secured the consulship for the Roman aristocrat and the command of an army in northern Italy, this was to mark the start of his career as a general.

Caesar’s career as a general

Julius and Cleopatra

Some allies of the Romans in Gaul (France) were defeated by invading Germanic tribes (55 BCE). Caesar used this as a pretext to intervene in the area, which was outside the Empire. He beat back the Helvetia and massacred many German tribes.[3] This alarmed the Celtic tribes and they banded together in a defensive alliance. Once more, ever the opportunist Caesar used this as an excuse to invade Gaul. He was to spend the following years conquering the Celts who were organized into powerful confederation. Caesar in a series of battles defeated major tribes such as the Belgae. Caesar was able to extend his consulship as part of a deal with Pompey and Crassus. The commander launched an invasion of Britain, to punish tribes who were supporting his Gallic opponents (55 BCE).

The Roman also raided deep into Germany to deter the Germanic tribes from intervening in Gaul. In 52 BCE the general faced perhaps the greatest challenge of his life when the Gaul’s rebelled against Roman rule. A massive Gallic army surrounded the Romans at Allesia, but despite this, the legionnaires prevailed.[4] This victory for Caesar effectively was the end of all resistance to his conquest. The Roman general had conducted what many regarded as an illegal war and the Senate threatened him with the prosecution. To avert this Caesar marched on Rome with his army and occupied the city. This led to a civil war between him and the optimates (senators), who were led by Pompey. They fled to the Balkans and recruited a large army. Caesar landed in the Balkans and attacked the Optimates army under the command 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. He was able to defeat the numerically superior enemy at the Battle of Pharsalus. He enemies were shattered and fled all over the known world. Caesar followed Pompey to Egypt but found his old foe had been assassinated by orders of the Ptolemies. The Roman general became romantically involved with Queen Cleopatra VII and at the Battle of the Nile, he defeated her rival for the throne. In that same year, Asia Minor was invaded by Pharnaces II, king of the Bosphoran kingdom (Crimea). Caesar annihilated the larger army in just five days and after this, he uttered the line ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’[5]

The civil war was not over, and the senators and the followers of Pompey regrouped in North Africa. Caesar pursued them and landed in modern Tunisia. He fought a bloody draw with his old subordinate Titus Labienus at the battle of Ruspina. However, after receiving some reinforcements he inflicted a decisive defeat on his enemies, at the battle of Thapsus and this led to the suicide of many prominent senators including Cato the Younger. He knew that as long as his enemies were in the field that he was not secure. The remaining senators and Pompeiians regrouped in Spain and once more assembled a large army.[6] Caesar campaigned in Spain and he finally defeated his enemies at the Battle of Munda in 45 BCE in Spain. This was the end of the civil wars and the Roman general was supreme ruler in Rome and had himself made dictator for life. In Rome, he began to plan invasions of Dacia and Parthia but before he could embark on these campaigns he was assassinated in 44 BCE.

The leadership of Caesar

One of the reasons for Caesar's success was his great leadership. He was a charismatic leader and he could persuade his men to do anything and to do the impossible. This can be seen time and time again. Caesar was able to rally his men at Alessia and persuade them to attack numerically superior forces on many battlefields. Caesars ability to motivate his men and galvanize them into action was unmatched and even his enemies acknowledged this. His men were devoted to him and they loved their general. They obeyed him and unlike many contemporary armies they were very well disciplined.[7] Caesar reputedly could quell any dissent in the ranks with the sheer force of his personality. Caesar was fortunate to have at his disposal some of the finest soldiers in the ancient era, this and his leadership skills meant that his forces were often invincible even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Perhaps the key to Caesar’s leadership skills and his ability to inspire men was that he led by example. Like Alexander the Great, he was his own best soldier.[8] He led from the front and if the line threatened to break he would personally fight there, thus inspiring his legions to victory.[9] He was also able to inspire his men because he promoted men on merit. While his officers were mainly nobles he usually promoted them only on merit. A good example of this was Mark Anthony, who became his commander of his cavalry and proved to be fearless in battle. Caesers belief in merit was unique and this meant that he was supported by many gifted officers who could execute his orders effectively.[10]

Use of Artillery

A modern reconstruction of a ballista

Artillery was a regular feature of the ancient battlefield. In the ancient world, artillery referred to large weapons that could fire bolts, stones or projectiles. These were very effective, and they were routinely used in sieges by both the defenders and the attackers. They were mainly used for defensive purposes because they were bulky and not very mobile. Caesar in his campaigns in Gaul brought these weapons in his train, for sieges. These included the ballista which could fire massive bolts and catapults, that could hurl rocks a great distance. Caesar in Gaul began to use these not as defensive weapons but as offensive weapons. He was able to integrate these weapons into his offensive strategies and employ them in conjunction with the legionnaires and cavalry.

Caesar recognized that catapults and ballistas could break up the massed formations of the Gaul’s. This allowed the Roman general to attack much larger forces and defeat them. Caesar also used these heavy weapons very successfully in the invasion of Britain. He skillfully used the ballistas on his ships to break the British formations that were preventing him from landing on the shore of southern England. He was a pioneer in the offensive use of this weapons and employed them on the battlefield and not just in sieges.[11] The only other ancient general who deployed artillery in this way was Alexander the Great. Caesar’s use of artillery was imitated by generations of future Roman commanders. However, Caesar was also able to use artillery in a conventional way and he was a master of siege warfare. He stormed many Celtic hill forts in Gaul by using ballistas and catapults, such as at the siege of Siege of Uxellodunum, in Gaul.[12]

Daring/ speed

A nineteenth-century painting of the assassination of Caesar

Caesar was a risk taker and he would regularly devise strategies that were very risky and even reckless. However, his gambles were always calculated ones and he would take great care of his plans and his tactics and strategies were always well-thought out. Caesar believed that the best way to win was by launching daring and rapid attacks, in this way he was not a conventional commander.[13] At times his risk-taking resulted in problems. This recklessness meant that he often advanced too quick and his supply lines could not keep pace. It was noted at the time that Caesar would often run out of food on his campaigns. For example, when he defeated the Helvetii his troops had already run out of food and other supplies.

However, the great gambler was ready to be reckless if he could achieve his twin goals of speed and surprise. It was often stated that Caesar was very fortunate, but his remarkable victories were usually a result of speed and tactical surprise. A good example of this was his victory at Thapsus in modern Tunisia where his speed enabled him to defeat a larger force of Optimates and allied tribes. Despite being a risk-taker, Caesar was flexible and was a master of the strategic retreat. That is, he could disengage from a battle or situation and regroup and then fight when the circumstances were more advantageous.

Conclusion

Caesar’s victories changed the Roman Empire and he decisively shaped not only the future of Rome but also Europe. He was a great commander and never suffered a defeat in a battle, with the possible exception of the Battle of Dyrrhachium (48 BC). He was able to prevail over many enemies, including those who were numerically superior and armies who were led by great commanders such as Pompey. Time and again he demonstrated his genius on the battlefield. He was fortunate in that he commanded an army that was very formidable, highly trained and disciplined. However, the achievements of Caesar were unmatched in the Roman era.

The factors that have earned Caesar the reputation as one of the greatest generals of all time were his leadership skills. He could inspire and cajole his men, and under his command, they performed remarkable feats. Caesar was an innovator and he was able to use artillery such as catapults in ways that changed the ancient battlefield. He was a brilliant strategist and he emphasized speed and surprise and this ensured that the Roman general secured many victories against the odds.

Recommended Books

References

  1. Goldsworthy, Adrian, Caesar: Life of a Colossus (Yale University Press, 2008), p. 13
  2. Goldsworthy, p. 112
  3. Caesar, The Gallic Wars (London, Penguin Books, 1984), p 19
  4. Caesar, p. 89
  5. Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 45, 7
  6. Jonathan P. Roth, Roman Warfare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 116
  7. Roth, p. 116
  8. Plutarch, 43 7
  9. Barry Strauss, Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), p. 137
  10. Roth, p. 189
  11. Hans Delbrück, Warfare in Antiquity, trans. Walter J. Renfroe, Jr., History of the Art of War 1 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. 541
  12. Caesar, p. 221
  13. Holland, Tom, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (London, Anchor Books, 2003), p. 213