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Profile - Caesar's First Conquest

Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) is often though to have been a military novice when he undertook the conquest of Gaul at the age of 42 in 58 BC, a task that would take nearly seven years. Nevertheless, like all Romans of his class he had spent time with the legions, and had served with some distinction.

The Civil War of 83-82 BC began when Caesar was about 17. He was thus eligible to serve as a contubernius, a volunteer personal aide to a senior officer, the most common introduction to military service for a young man of good family. In 87 BC, however, when Caesar was about 13, he had been elected Flamen Dialis, the High Priest of Jupiter, which barred him from military service. A run-in with the Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla around the beginning of 81 BC cost Caesar this priesthood, albeit not his head.

Leaving Rome, Caesar served as a junior officer under Marcus Minucius Thermus, the Praetor of Asia, in 81‑80 BC during the Second Mithridatic War. Thermus needed ships to control the Aegean, and sent Caesar on a diplomatic mission to Bithynia, to secure a fleet from King Nicomedes IV, at which he was successful (his enemies would later claim he had become the royal catamite – “We know what you got from Nicomedes, and what he got from you.”). During the siege of Mytilene in 80 BC, Caesar won the Corona civica for saving the life of a comrade in battle. After the fall of the city he apparently spent some time on occupation duty and later served with Publius Servilius Vatia during his campaign against the Cilician pirates in 78 BC. As Sulla died that year, Caesar returned to Rome, having spent about three years in the army.

In Rome, Caesar began making a splash as a prosecutor and in politics, and was elected to several minor government posts. In 75 BC, however, Rome having become too hot and his debts too great, Caesar left Italy to study at Rhodes. Captured by pirates in the Aegean Sea, after his ransom had been paid (by his insistence at more than double what they had demanded!), although lacking imperium (command authority), Caesar raised a small fleet at Miletus, captured his former captors in a daring night attack, and crucified them. The following year, Nicomedes IV of Bithynia died, willing his kingdom to the Roman people. Mithridates of Pontus objected, initiating the Third Mithridatic War (73-63 BC). Caesar abandoned his studies at Rhodes to join the army in Asia commanded by his mother’s brother, Marcus Aurelius Cotta. He raised troops at the start of the war, and apparently commanded them in the defense of Caria (the southern coast of Turkey), but when the death of another of his uncles, Gaius Aurelius Cotta, opened a seat in the College of Pontiffs, he promptly returned home to secure election to this minor priesthood and reentered politics.

In 72 BC Caesar was elected military tribune, and served in the war against Spartacus and the rebellious slaves, though we have no information as to his activities. In 70 BC he was elected one of the quaestores, the first formal step on the cursus honorum, or “Course of Honor” which all high-born Romans sought to follow. Assigned to the staff of the governor of Further Spain, Caesar performed administrative, judicial, and financial duties, in what is now Andalucia. Returning to Rome in 67 BC, he continued in politics and law, and in an electoral coup in 63 BC secured the senior-most priesthood, Pontifex Maximus. The following year Caesar was elected praetor, the second highest post in the Roman government, and one with full imperium. When his term ended in 61 BC, he was assigned to govern Further Spain as propraetor.

Already familiar with the province from his tour there as quaestor, Caesar promptly demonstrated that despite his reputation for luxury, idleness, and dissipation he was an excellent administrator. Upon arriving in Further Spain, Caesar dealt with some routine administrative and judicial problems. Then he undertook to settle the problem of plundering raids by the Lusitani, who dwelt in the Herminian Mountains (today’s Serra da Estéla) of what is now eastern Portugal, between the modern rivers Tajo and Duero, territory familiar to those interested in the Peninsular War of 1808-1814.

While raising a new legion to supplement the two veteran ones already in his province, Caesar undertook a diplomatic offensive, ordering the tribes to move out of their mountains into the plains. Naturally the Lusitani refused and prepared for war. During the war Caesar proved remarkably energetic, as seen in this lightly edited passage from the Roman historian Lucius Cassius Dio (c. AD 155-235),

After the Lusitani had taken up arms, Caesar overcame them. Then the Callaeci, their neighbors to the north, fearing that he would march against them too, carried off their children and wives and most valuable possessions out of the way across the Duero. Caesar first occupied their cities, while they were thus engaged, and next joined battle with the men themselves. They put their herds in front of their battle line, with the intention of attacking the Romans when the latter should scatter to seize the cattle; but Caesar, neglecting the animals, attacked the men and conquered them.

Meanwhile Caesar learned that the Lusitani had once more withdrawn into the Herminian Mountains and were intending to ambush him as he returned southwards. So he moved by another route, and then marched against them. Emerging victorious, Caesar pursued them in flight to the ocean. When, however, they abandoned the mainland and crossed over to an island. Caesar had to halt at the water’s edge, as he had no boats. He built some rafts, by means of which he sent on a part of his army to attack the island.

This expedition cost Caesar a number of men. As the rafts approached the enemy coast, their commander ordered the troops ashore, thinking they could cross over the flats on foot. But then he was forced offshore by the return of the tide, leaving them in the lurch. All but one of the landing party died bravely defending themselves; Publius Scaevius was the only one to survive, who, having lost his shield and taken many wounds, leaped into the water escaped by swimming.

Caesar sent for boats from Gades, and crossed over to the island with his whole army, and reduced the people there without a blow, as they were hard pressed for want of food. Then he sailed to Bragança, a city of Callaecia. As his ships approach to land, the people became alarmed, never before having seen a fleet, and were easily subjugated.

With the Lusitani and Callaeci tamed, albeit not annexed, Caesar turned to more peaceful pursuits. He settled some long standing problems between various cities in his province and tried to resolve complaints by debtors against their creditors. Caesar also handed out grants of citizenship to some notable local leaders, and raised at least one city to the status of a Roman municipality, Gades (modern Cadiz), a prosperous old Phoenician settlement that had been under Rome’s aegis for about 150 years. Of course he also rewarded his troops, using the loot from the Lusitanian and Callaecian towns he had taken, and still had enough money left over to help settle some of his prodigious debts and leave some left over for the treasury. Caesar’s administration of his province seems to have found favor among the Celtiberians, for when he campaigned in the Spains against the Pompeians in 49 BC and again in 46-45 BC, the local tribes seem to have looked upon him with favor.

When his term of office was coming to an end, Caesar made such haste to get back to Rome that he did not even wait for his replacement; having been hailed as Imperator by his troops, he wished to get to the capitol to celebrate a triumph and then run for consul.

What followed is told by the historian Plutarch (fl. AD 46-120):

. . . since those who sued for the privilege of a triumph must remain outside Rome, while those who were candidates for the consulship must be present in the city, Caesar was in a great dilemma, because he had reached home at the very time of the consular elections. Caesar sent a request to the senate that he might be permitted to offer himself for the consulship in absentia, through the agency of his friends. Opposing Caesar’s request, M. Porcius Cato insisted that the law be strictly enforced. Moreover, observing that many senators had been won over by Caesar's attentions, Cato blocked a vote on the matter by spending the day in speaking. Caesar decided to give up the triumph and try for the consulship.

Caesar’s decision to forego a triumph was virtually unprecedented in Roman history, the ceremonial parade being among the crowning honors that a citizen could achieve. But then, Caesar was much more focused on the long view than most Roman politicians; years later, during a desperate political crisis the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, also seeking a triumph, would make a different decision, arguably with disastrous consequences.

Caesar won the consulship for 59 BC, in part because he had entered into a partnership – the “First Triumvirate” – with the two most powerful men in Rome, Pompey the Great and Crassus. It was a spectacular consulship. Caesar marginalized his co-consul to the extent that folks joked it was “The Consulship of Julius and Caesar,” as he single-handedly instituted many reforms while his colleague withdrew to his residence claiming to be consulting the omens. During his consulship, Caesar secured for himself the command in Gaul that was his ultimate goal, and in 58 BC headed north to begin the conquest of that vast region.

Oddly, Caesar’s contemporaries ignored his military achievements in Lusitania, which gave a foretaste of his extraordinary energy, decisiveness, and speed when on campaign, an oversight that was for many of them fatal. And, of course, most modern biographers and historians have also tended to overlook his military experience as well, and even his successful command of three legions on campaign in Lusitania, given the sparseness of the ancient sources.

Plutarch tells us one other thing about Caesar’s time in Spain: he read extensively, which until only a couple of centuries ago was the main way a gentleman learned tactics, strategy, and statecraft. Among the books he read was a life of Alexander the Great, and upon finishing it Caesar wept. Asked why, he replied “Wouldn’t you, thinking it sad that at my age Alexander was already king of such a great empire, while I have not got anything to my credit?”

FootNote: Caesar’s Legions. There were four legions in the Spanish provinces in 61 BC, and a case has been made that they were designated the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th (well, actually VI, VII, VIII, and VIIII) two of which were in Caesar’s bailiwick. So when Caesar raised a new one, it would logically have been designated the 10th. Now there’s no question that when he became proconsul of Narbonnensis and Cisalpine Gaul in 58 BC he was given “four veteran legions”, numbered 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th. So if the hypothesis about the numbering of the legions in Spain is correct, Caesar would have already commanded some of these troops during his Lusitanian campaign. This would certainly help explain the enormous confidence he had in his legions – and they in him – later that year during his initial campaigns in Gaul against the Helvetii and the Germans under Ariovistus.

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