Julius Caesar: Dictator or Reformist?

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I remember the first time when I came across the name, Julius Caesar, it was during my literature class. I was 14 then and we were having a discussion about one of William Shakespeare’s timeless masterpiece, Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare, with his play, should receive no small credit for immortalizing Caesar’s name in the world of literary. Shakespeare’s play also plays a leading role in crystallizing the image of Caesar in the minds of the people who knew his name.

He was a great conqueror; an influential dictator and an often-accused a demagogue. His ambitions unsettled the deeply seated powers of Rome, and that eventually led to his demise at the end of 23 knives. The senators who assassinated him proclaimed that he was a threat to the ideals of the republic and for the good of the republic, he had to be killed.

This well-known side of Caesar from the play is being reflected in many non-fictional works, historical studies and texts. This particular image of Caesar is further reinforced in the minds of the people as many fictional novels and films have also adapted this setting into their stories.

So is that all there is to Julius Caesar?  The answer is no. The other facets of this man and his history have been buried in a landslide of the stereotypical depictions that I have mentioned above. One has to do a little digging before they can glimpse the other aspects of this controversial figure.

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Julius Caesar the reformist

“So who was Julius Caesar?”

This was one of the questions that were posed to Michael Parenti in an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now. Parenti, who is a historian, a political scientist and a media critic, has an in-depth knowledge about the Roman and had even wrote a book on Caesar.

“Julius Caesar was an aristocrat who sided with the Roman people,” Parenti said. “He’s not my hero, but he was one of a long line of what we’ll call populare’s, which were popular leaders who tried to institute these reforms that the people were fighting for.”

Land reforms were one the reforms that Caesar introduced. Land distribution was greatly disproportional at that time, most of the lands in Roman territories were owned by a handful of powerful families.

These wealthy landowners would often resort to unscrupulous means to acquire land from small landowners and farmers. Many people lost their lands and their livelihood as a result. The already abyssal rich-poor divide was driven even further apart because of the rampant land consolidation.

Caesar’s policies awarded lands that are acquired in military conquests to his soldiers and gave the plebeians the chance to own their own lands. These reform which gave many the means to feed themselves, which helped to ease the problems of unemployment and poverty among the people.

However, the powerful families’ oligopolies on land have been broken and their interests and profits were imperiled by Caesar’s reforms. Even as Caesar’s popularity continue to rise among the people, more than a few enemies were made among the rich and powerful, and many of them had ties to the Senate or were senators themselves.

Another policy that Caesar introduced that benefited the people was to make the owners of large landed estates hire a third of their farm workers from free men, rather than slaves. Caesar did this to give jobs to the unemployed, land-less workers who lived in the overcrowded towns.

This had, once again, earned Caesar the ire of the rich Roman aristocrats. This policy increases the expenses and undercuts the wealth of the large landowners, as unlike free slave labor, the landowners needs to pay free men under their employment.
 
Rome, at that time, was effectively in the control of a handful of powerful Romans in the ruling class. These optimates were mostly self-serving and were usually blind or simply indifferent towards the hardships and the sufferings that their people were undergoing, being more preoccupied in the consolidation of more power and wealth.

Caesar, both to break the stranglehold of these oligarchs as well as to create new opportunities for both plebeians and equites, increased the number of governing posts in Rome.

He also increased the number of senators by a third, and many of the new members were his supporters. Many senators as well as many historians now viewed that as Caesar’s move to solidify his power, but there was a pragmatic reason for Caesar to do this.

 For the first time, there were members of the Senate that comes from provinces outside of Rome, namely Spain and Gaul, so any plans and announcements that the Senate made from then on will carry more weight in Rome’s colonies.

When Caesar was at the peak of his power, he had introduced many other reforms and policies other than those that I mentioned above and some of them include:

  1. Increasing the criminal penalties.

  2. Granting citizenship and all its benefits to doctors and teachers, many of who were Greek.

  3. Dealing with Rome’s uncompromising debt problems, which have been troubling both debtors and creditors alike, more effectively than any politicians before him.

  4.  Re-regulating the free distribution of grain, which halved the total number of people eating at state expense.

  5.  Abolishing the tax system at that time, which was exploited by corrupted tax collectors, who were siphon tax money into their own pockets. It was replaced by a tribune system instead.

  6. Revising Roman laws to make them more manageable. The laws were contradictory and ungainly before he revised them.

Many of reforms that Caesar sought to implement were beneficial to the common people and had thus made him a popular figure in Rome. But these reforms had also earn him the ire of the powerful and the rich as their position in the society were being undermined.

The Gracchus Brothers

The brothers, Tiberius & Gaius Gracchus was a pair of Roman politicians that lived about a century before Caesar’s time. So what have they got to do with Julius Caesar, you might ask.

Caesar was not the first land reformist in Roman history. They were many before him who tried to introduce similar reforms; the Gracchus brothers were two of them. Like Caesar, land reformists in ancient Rome are prone to a violent death.

The elder brother, Tiberus was a famous figure at his time, showered with the support of the plebeians. Like Caesar, he also introduced land reforms and his ideas of land reforms won him few friends in the senate as it undercuts their wealth. The Senate killed Tiberus, with many of his followers while he was seeking re-election for the Tribune.

His brother, Gaius, took up what his brother left off and tried to introduce even more aggressive land reforms. Gaius was a flamboyant and powerful orator, and was a far more formidable political force than his brother.

The Senate plotted to remove Gaius from power and succeeded in preventing him from being reelected into the Tribune. His supporters held a mass demonstration after his failed reelection and because of that, he was branded an enemy of the state. He eventually took his own life, but not before he witness the massacre of about 3 000 of his supporters, which was orchestrated by the powerful enemies he made in the Senate.

The Senate had demonstrated their willingness to kill anyone who threaten their interest, and high on top of the list had always been land reformists. That had been the case before Caesar’s time, and the possibility that they killed Caesar to protect their own interest seems entirely plausible.

Were historians biased?

The knowledge we have on Julius Caesar is all based on the accounts left behind by the historians at that time. Many depictions of Julius Caesar at that time portrayed Caesar unfavorably, branding him as an ambitious dictator.

They pointed out that Caesar did not really had the people’s welfare at heart, but the reforms were calculated moves to gain popularity and acquire power. In Rome, the people’s support also translates into power.

This all may be true, but we have to bear in one point. Literacy rate at that time was not high; historians were all learned men, affluent and powerful as well and were known to participate in politics.

Take the famous historian during Caesar’s time, Cicero. He was a historian; he held various offices during his lifetime; and he was a staunch supporter of the optimate’s cause.

Caesar’s reforms, which hurt the rich and powerful, were bound to undermine those historians interests as well. Can they really leave a fair and objective depiction of a man that they are likely to bear a grudge against?

Can we, as readers, just blindly digest all of the information that they left behind?

And at this moment, you might be fighting the urge to go off and dig out history texts on Caesar and begin to question at the credibility of just about anything that is written on them.

And while reading through this article, you may have also gained a new insight to one of the possible underlying motives that drove the senators to murder him. Was it really for the good of Rome? Or was it the insatiable greed of the Senate that drove them to kill him?

By now, I’m sure that you would have a more complete picture of Caesar, of his achievements and how he had helped the common people of Rome. He may mean more to you than just an ambitious dictator now.

So, who is Julius Caesar?

I believe that you can now give a more completed answer to that question than Shakespeare could ever give.

 Glossary

  • Populares- The people or the people’s party, in ancient Rome, as opposed to the optimates.
  • Plebeians- The common people of ancient Rome
  • Optimates- The nobility or aristocracy of ancient Rome, as opposed to the populares.
  •  Equities- Loosely translated as the knights and the merchant class of ancient Rome
  •  Tribune- any of various administrative officers, especially one of ten officers elected to protect the interests and rights of the plebeians from the patricians.

Reference

Parenti,Michael.  The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome. The New Press, 2005.

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