A Brief History
On August 9, 48 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar, known more familiarly to us as Julius Caesar or simply Caesar, won the Battle of Pharsalus in Central Greece against his arch enemy and former friend, Pompey, decisively winning the pivotal battle of the conflict known as “Caesar’s Civil War.” Caesar’s Civil War was fought from 49 to 45 BC, pitting Caesar and his allies against the political bloc known as “The Optimates,” led by Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (known as Pompey the Great or merely just as Pompey) and representing the Senate of Rome and those Romans opposed to Caesar taking power as dictator and emasculating the Roman Republic form of government. (See some of our many other articles based on Rome and Caesar.)
Although the Battle of Pharsalus is considered the battle that basically won the war for Caesar, there were other battles left to be fought. Brutus and Cicero surrendered to Caesar after Pharsalus, and Pompey, Caesar’s greatest foe, fled to Egypt where he was murdered by the Egyptian king. Scipio fought on, as did Cato the Younger, but both of those anti-Caesar leaders were defeated in turn, leaving only Labienus to face the army of Caesar at the Battle of Munda in Spain on March 17, 45 BC where Caesar won his final victory of his Civil War. Little did the great man realize that he had but one more year to live!
While Caesar is often portrayed as a power hungry self-absorbed type, the fact is that he had the backing of most of the common people of Rome, as his ideas about social reform favored the working classes over the wealthy and powerful types. Those democratic minded defenders of the Roman Republic cloaked themselves in the banner of democracy and the primacy of the Senate, but perhaps they were more concerned with their own continued welfare under the established system.
After winning the Civil War and establishing himself in power as Dictator perpetuo (Dictator for Life), Caesar did not make the final insult to the democracy by declaring himself some sort of king. In fact, Julius Caesar was never the “Emperor” of Rome, either. As dictator, he went about creating social reforms that benefitted his military veterans and the common people. Such actions could not sit well with the upper classes who were forced to finance the public works of Caesar, and the conspirators that ended up assassinating Caesar on March 15, 44 BC, were of course wealthy Romans and not the working types.
We know what happened after the death of Caesar, with a new triumvirate of Marc Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus emerging prevailing in a civil war for power in Rome against Brutus and Cassius and their wealthy supporters. The lower and working classes, enraged at the murder of their advocate, Caesar, supported the Second Triumvirate and the anti-Caesar assassins were ultimately defeated. Of course, in Rome power seldom rested easy, and yet another civil war would be fought between Antony with his consort, Cleopatra, against Octavian and his supporters. Octavian won that war, and later became the first Emperor of Rome, known as Caesar Augustus.
The question then, becomes, “What would have happened had Caesar not been assassinated?” This intriguing question, like so many “What if?” scenarios, has generated plenty of books and essays, as well as heated debate. (In fact, an upcoming book co-authored by Dr. Zar, Simply Caesar, will feature a chapter on this question.) Since the reign of Augustus is generally considered to have been a positive era, we cannot assume Julius Caesar would have done any better for Rome, although of course not having to face the distraction of yet another civil war and then even another civil war after that (Octavian vs. Antony) may have provided Caesar the time for attention and money needed to accomplish some of his reforms and building projects. Exactly how much diversion of collective assets were devoted to these civil wars instead of for the good of Rome is hard to quantify and qualify.
In fact, while “What if?” scenarios are a lot of fun and interesting to engage in, such an inquiry is beset by an almost innumerable number of variables that could take place, and for that matter, take place in different sequences creating even more variables. In our scenario, Julius Caesar may have died of natural causes not long after his date with destiny on the Ides of March, perhaps creating a similar power vacuum to what actually happened. Or perhaps not! Maybe his will, leaving Octavian as his heir would have been honored without another civil war being fought. Or not… Or perhaps Caesar would have lived a particularly long life, gaining numerous other accomplishments to add to his historical resume before he finally died. Maybe other conspirators would have emerged to challenge Caesar’s dictatorship. Or not…
How would Roman history, so important to the ensuing history of Europe and the Middle East, have been different? Would the Roman Empire have survived longer than it actually did, or would it have achieved even greater conquests and influence had Caesar lived? Or would Rome somehow have a diminished role in shaping history than it actually did?
One aspect of our “What if?” scenario that personally intrigues this author is the question of how Cleopatra would have been treated by history had Caesar not been assassinated. Would she have retained an important role as an ally and mistress of Caesar, or would she have been nudged aside? Her later role as the consort and ally of Marc Antony in the civil war against Octavian would probably not have happened, nor would her apocryphal suicide at the fangs of an Asp! Would Cleopatra still have the tremendous historical and cultural impact that continues to this day had Caesar not been stabbed to death?
For now, we leave these and all the other inherent questions about “What if?” Caesar had not been assassinated to our valued readers, and we welcome your opinions on the subject. Feel free to list those scenarios you believe would be likely had Caesar lived.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you see Caesar as a positive or a negative influence on Roman history? Why? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Brice, Lee. Warfare in the Roman Republic: From the Etruscan Wars to the Battle of Actium. ABC-CLIO, 2014.
Julius Caesar. The Complete Works of Julius Caesar. Independently published, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a map by The Department of History, United States Military Academy of the Battle of Pharsalus, 48 BC, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.