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Julius Caesar: Into Exile

Young Caesar

A young and unshaven Julius Caesar, on display at the Museum of Corinth.

A young and unshaven Julius Caesar, on display at the Museum of Corinth.

A New Life

The young Julius Caesar had fled abroad as soon as he had managed to escape Sulla’s men, sent to pursue him, despite the pardon granted by the new Roman dictator. He wouldn’t return to the eternal city for several years. His exile years would be spent in military service that was the mandatory preliminary to his public career. Initially he served with the governor of Asia Minor Marcus Minucius Thermus. Ten years before, Caesar’s own father had held the same post in the same place, so the young officer fresh from Rome would have been familiar to the leading men in the province.

Thermus and Caesar quickly struck up what can only be described as a political friendship; surprising considering the fact that Thermus was a strong supporter of Sulla. Even so, Caesar became one of his ‘contubernales’ or tent-companions. These were young men who messed with the commander and performed whatever duties he asked of them. For Thermus, having a group of willing and devoted subordinates was useful for when it came to completing the more minor or mundane tasks. At the same time, the relative peace and calm of Asia Minor compared to Rome allowed Thermus to teach his young officers the intricacies of soldiering and leadership.

The peace and prosperity now enjoyed in Asia Minor was as result of Sulla’s defeat of rebel king, Mithridates. For now, he was at peace with Rome, but there was still matter of subduing some of his allies. One of the major tasks that Thermus had to face was to defeat the besieged city of Mytilene, the fight was bloody but Rome prevailed, and a 19 year old Julius Caesar distinguished himself by winning the civic crown or ‘corona civica.’ It’s no longer known exactly what Caesar did to earn such a great honour, but usually the crown was awarded to somebody who had risked their own life to save the life of another citizen. Caesar would have received the crown from the magistrate commanding the army, who informed him that he was permitted to wear the crown at military parades and also during festivals in Rome.

Caesar and the King

Before Caesar won his prize for gallantry, he embarked on a diplomatic mission that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Thermus selected Caesar as the officer to visit the court of Nicomedes of Bithynia (the modern northern coast of Turkey) in order to arrange a despatch of a squadron of warships promised to Rome to help in their campaign against Mithridates’ allies. The King of Bithynia was an elderly man and had probably met Caesar’s father on more than one occasion, so it’s likely that Nicomedes gave young Caesar a warm welcome, according to rumours that irritated Caesar until his final days the welcome was very warm indeed.

It seems that the young officer, who had led a relatively sheltered life up to this point, revelled in the grandeur and splendour of Nicomedes court. Caesar deliberately lingered longer than he was supposed to, as he was getting his first taste of royalty, luxury and fine art, he was simply intoxicated by it all. However, gossip soon spread among the Roman ranks that the elderly King had seduced the young Roman. The story gained legs, due to the fact that Nicomedes was openly homosexual, and all sorts of wild stories regarding Caesar and Nicomedes relationship circulated, ranging from Caesar acting as the King’s cup-bearer during a drunken feast to being led up to Nicomedes bedroom by slaves, wearing fine purple robes to seduce him with.

While the Romans greatly admired Greek culture, they never openly accepted homosexuality in the same way they did. Their dislike of it, was widespread right across the social classes, and was often regarded as a sign of weakness in men. In the military, any soldier caught committing any sort of homosexual act was given the ultimate punishment, death. The Romans were suspicious of Asiatic Greeks like Nicomedes; they regarded them as corrupt and decadent, as well as inferior to the Classical Greeks such as Homer and Aristotle.

Caesar and the Pirates

A good while after the victory at Mytilene, Caesar began working for the governor of Cilicia, Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus who was carrying out operations against the pirates that plagued the area. However, the appointment was short lived, for in 78 BC, the news reached Asia Minor that Sulla was dead. Now free from the threat of death, Caesar promptly returned to his home city. Once home, he embarked on the first stage of a long career in politics by becoming an orator. He essentially was the equivalent of a lawyer, and his early legal career was typical of an ambitious young man. He attempted to prosecute a supporter of Sulla, Cornelius Dolabella for extorting money from the province of Macedonia. The following year, again he pursued another supporter of the former dictator when he tried to charge Antonius, one of Sulla’s former officers with enriching himself during the war against Mithridates. Despite Caesar’s lack of success, he had earned himself a voice and reputation for persistence and doggedness.

He decided that it would be best if he completed his oratory education in Greece; the Romans made no secret of their love for Greek culture and Caesar was no exception, in fact he was totally fascinated by it and was desperate to learn his trade at the hands of a Greek orator. Before Caesar reached Greece however, his ship was intercepted by Cicilian pirates near the island of Pharmacussa. The pirates could hardly believe their good fortune in capturing a Roman patrician, a most valuable prize. They decided to see if they could profit from Caesar’s presence and demanded a payment of 20 talents of silver for his release. Plutarch records that Caesar laughed at such an offer and considered himself to be worth at least fifty. He sent off most of his companions to the nearest cities to raise the money through loans. As a result Caesar was left with just his doctor and two slaves. Plutarch records that the stubborn young Roman was completely unafraid of his captors, if anything he regarded them with disdain, sending somebody to shut them up whenever he wanted to sleep. For the duration of his stay with the pirates, some 38 days, Caesar treated them more like his royal bodyguards rather than a group of bloodthirsty kidnappers. He even went as far as to share poetry and regale them with glorious speeches. Those pirates who did not appreciate literature were denounced as barbarians and even threatened with crucifixion. Clearly bewildered, the pirates simply laughed, interpreting his arrogance as boyish mirth.

Caesar’s friends returned with the ransom, and the pirates released the young patrician, setting him down at the city of Miletus on the western coast of Asia Minor, which incidentally provided the bulk of the ransom money. Despite being, just twenty five years old and never holding an elected position anywhere, Caesar remained resolved to keep the promise he had made to the pirates, and set to work formulating a plan to attack his former captors. He successfully persuaded a number of provincial officials to assemble an improvised fleet of warships, Caesar personally led the fleet back to Pharmacussa and managed to catch the pirates off guard, taking them all prisoner and capturing all of their plunder including his own ransom.

The next stage involved Caesar approaching the governor, Marcus Iuncus to gain his permission for the pirates to be executed. However, the governor had more important things on his mind than a bunch of raiding pirates; the elderly Nicomedes had recently passed away and had bequeathed his lands to Rome. Iuncus had the responsibility of ensuring that all of his lands were successfully incorporated into the realm. Frustrated, the brash young Caesar stormed back to Pergamum and ordered the pirates to be crucified immediately. It was an extremely bold move, as he had no real legal authority to do it. Even so, the fact he was handing out death to pirates, meant that the order went unchallenged. Each man was crucified, although each had his throat slit beforehand. This has often been interpreted as Caesar showing mercy, sparing them a long and painful death. It seems likely that Caesar had come to regard the pirates highly during his time as a captive.

Enemy of Rome

King Mithridates IV of Pontus, one of Rome's most famous enemies.

King Mithridates IV of Pontus, one of Rome's most famous enemies.

The Return of Mithridates

At the conclusion of his rather unexpected adventure, Julius Caesar finally reached Rhodes and continued his oratory studies under the famed Greek orator, Apollonius. Caesar proved to be a skilled and fast learner, acquiring an impressive skill with words, so much so that Cicero, a prominent senator of the age described him as one of the best orators of the period. While his skill with words marked Caesar as a future talent in the political world, he was also proving to be exceptionally skilled at something else the Romans held dear to them, soldiering. In 74 BC, he would get another chance to demonstrate it.

Mithridates, the rebellious Greek King, defeated by Sulla years before had once again raised rebellion, launching raids into Asia Minor, plundering any territories loyal to Rome. Caesar put studying to one side and sailed to the province, where he amassed a considerable army of volunteers from the community and defeated the invaders. The victory came so swiftly, that it is thought that Caesar prevented some of Rome’s allies from defecting to Mithridates.

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Tribune, then Quaestor

After his victory over Mithridates, Caesar returned to Rome once more and was elected to be military tribune, one of the six senior officers assigned to each legion. No sources survive today to say exactly where Caesar served his time as tribune, but it’s a pretty fair bet that he served his time in Italy, for the great Slave War; ignited by a Thracian gladiator called Spartacus was raging at the time. He and a small group of fellow gladiators had escaped from a training school near Capua, sparking the biggest slave rebellion known at the time right throughout Italy. Spartacus won a series of stunning victories against highly trained and disciplined Roman soldiers. It took Roman commander, Marcus Licinius Crassus two years to finally quell the mass rebellion. It’s possible that Caesar served under Crassus at this point, marking the first meaningful connection between the two men.

During his time as Tribune, Caesar spoke in favour of an amnesty for the supporters of Lepidus who had enriched themselves during Sulla’s era as dictator, but within a couple of years, or 70 BC to be more precise Caesar had been elected to the senate and given the post of Quaestor. Caesar was now essentially a police inspector, charged with investigating murders, ensuring that the fiscal administration of the Republic remained efficient and also acting as an overseer and organiser of Roman Games, including gladiatorial bouts and chariot races.

A New Home

Spain, as it was in the time of Caesar.

Spain, as it was in the time of Caesar.

To Spain

In 69 BC Caesar was posted to the province of Further Spain (Southeast Spain). However, before he was due to depart he received the tragic news that both of his aunt and Marius’ widow Julia and his own wife, Cornelia had died. Aristocratic Romans liked to hold very public and surprisingly lavish funerals. For them, they served as a celebration of the achievements of the person, but also the rest of the family. Actors were hired to dress up in the regalia of office and donned masks of distinguished ancestors from the down the ages. They helped form a procession, which would head for the Forum, where traditionally a close relative would deliver a eulogy from the Rostra.

Caesar used his oratory skills to deliver a powerful eulogy, proclaiming that his family was descended from Venus and Ancus Martius, Rome’s second king. It’s uncertain whether Caesar truly believed the claims he made, but they undoubtedly helped to enhance his profile. As a deliberate smite against the supporters of Sulla he displayed wax images of his uncle Marius that depicted images of the man and also scenes of his great victories in Africa and Northern Italy. He may have also displayed the image of one of Marius’ most prominent supporters and also his own father in law, Cinna. The ploy of displaying Marius’ image worked, due to the fact that the former general had far a far greater emotional appeal to the masses than Sulla ever had. For Caesar, that unbroken link to his famous uncle was extremely crucial in regards to enhancing his reputation among the people. After dealing with those two tragic events, Caesar was finally ready to take up his posting in Southern Spain.

More to follow:


James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on March 16, 2012:

Thanks Judi. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Judi Brown from UK on March 16, 2012:

Found Part 3 on my feed and skipped back here, off to read Part 3 now.

Voted up, of course!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on March 16, 2012:

Thanks christopher. I'm working on part three, as I write. Hopefully I'll have it up either today or tomorrow.

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on March 16, 2012:

Excellent. I am looking forward to part three.

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