Your guide to Julius Caesar, the Roman general and dictator

The vicious assassination of Julius Caesar at the hands of his opponents in the Roman Senate can often obscure the military conquests and social reform he achieved in his prematurely ended life. Find out more about the man who rose to become a 'dictator for life' in ancient Rome…

A bust of Roman dictator Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar: a biography

Born: c100 BC

Died: 15 March 44 BC

Known for: A brilliant military leader who inspired great loyalty among his troops, Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, forced advancing Germanic tribes back after building a bridge over the Rhine river, and invaded Britain twice. In 49 BC, his army crossed the Rubicon river to take Rome and, following campaigns in Asia Minor, Africa and Spain, he governed the city as a dictator. He implemented a number of wide-ranging reforms, including the introduction of the Julian calendar.

Reigned: He assumed control of the Roman Republic as dictator from 46 BC until his death in 44 BC

Cause of death: He was assassinated by a group of nobles on the Ides of March

Succeeded by: his great-nephew, Augustus

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For presidents, emperors and other leaders whose lives were prematurely curtailed by assassination, their respective – usually dramatic – demises often overshadow what they actually achieved during their time in power. John F Kennedy’s murder in Dallas in 1963 continues to be of infinitely more interest to the casual historian than his New Frontier programme of domestic legislation.

And so it is with Julius Caesar too. Thanks in no small part to the pen of William Shakespeare, Caesar’s death – at the hands of a knife-wielding conspiracy of Roman senators – is familiar to all. His military conquests and the social measures he introduced receive less exposure.

The killing of Julius Caesar
The circumstances of Caesar’s death are familiar to many. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Born around 100 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar was elected Consul of the Roman Republic for the year 59 BC, having formed an informal alliance with two statesmen who were formerly opponents, Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus. The alliance was known as the First Triumvirate. It was an alliance that covered plenty of bases: Caesar’s grasp of politics was married to Pompey’s military stature and the financial clout of Crassus. Politically, Caesar favoured the Populares, a faction of the Republic advocating social reforms that won them the support of the people. Their opponents were Optimates, conservatives whose aim was to safeguard the interests of the privileged elites. Many of these Optimates could be found in the 600-strong Senate, ensuring that the populist Caesar would, throughout his political life, find little support on its benches.

Consulships lasted for just a year, with the holders unable to seek re-election for a decade. The Senate had attempted to put Caesar merely in charge of Italy’s forests and cattle trails, rather than handing him a military governorship. However, it was toothless – operating, in practice, in a debating and advisory capacity – and the passing of legislation through the people’s assemblies promoted Caesar to the position of Governor of Illyricum (western Balkans) and Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), with Transalpine Gaul (what is now southern France) later added to his portfolio. The duration of his governorship was also set at five years, rather than the traditional single year.

Julius Caesar invades Britain
Caesar oversaw a highly successful military campaign that included the conquering of Gaul and a couple of expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During this time as a governor – which was subsequently extended to a ten-year tenure ­– Caesar oversaw a highly successful military campaign that included the conquering of Gaul and a couple of expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC, precipitating the full Roman invasion nearly a century later. In 50 BC, towards the end of those ten years and with the Gallic Wars concluded, the Senate called for Caesar to relinquish his military role and return to Rome. Politically, this was dangerous for Caesar. Not only had Crassus died and the ever-dangerous Pompey had realigned himself with the Senate, but leaving the territories under his control would expose Caesar to possible prosecution for corruption and exceeding the limits of his authority.

What happened when Caesar crossed the Rubicon?

As he reached the geographical limits of his jurisdiction on his journey back to Rome, Caesar had a clear choice: either venture forth without his troops and face the almost inevitable curtailing of his powers or be accompanied illegally by his soldiers in an act that would be interpreted as a declaration of civil war. Approaching the modest stream known as the Rubicon that separated Cisalpine Gaul from Italy, he made up his mind. He wouldn’t be travelling on alone and unarmed. He reportedly announced his decision with three words of Latin: Alea iacta est (the die is cast). The Rubicon was crossed.

The seemingly unavoidable civil war broke out. Caesar the rebel, who had left his territory under arms, gradually gained momentum over the following four years, systematically removing his main Optimates opponents. Marcus Junius Brutus and Cicero surrendered, while Pompey was killed in Egypt. Elsewhere in North Africa Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio committed suicide shortly after his defeat at the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BC.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon
A depiction of Caesar crossing the Rubicon. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Caesar the dictator

Caesar assumed complete control of the republic and was appointed dictator for a ten-year period shortly after Thapsus. In 44 BC, his title was upgraded to Dictator perpetuo; he was now dictator for life. During his time as supreme leader, he was able to introduce many of the social and political reforms longed for by his supporters among the populace, including centralising bureaucracy, redistributing public land to the poor, and extending citizenship to far-reaching corners of the republic.

Julius Caesar
Caesar assumed complete control of the republic and was ultimately appointed ‘dictator for life’. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Opponents of these populist measures still dominated the make-up of the Senate and a conspiracy against the Dictator perpetuo was launched. On the fifteenth day of March in 44 BC ­– the Ides of March – as he arrived to address the Senate, Caesar met his mortal fate. The knives were out.

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Following his bloody death, the republic dissolved back into civil war. The ultimate winner of this power-grab was Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir, who rose to take sole control. Billing himself as Augustus, he became the first Roman emperor, overseeing the transition from republic to empire. He would be the one-man ruler for more than four decades, from 27 BC onwards. His more famous adoptive father managed just a handful of years as dictator.

Did Julius Caesar really wear a laurel wreath? BBC History Revealed explains…

According to the Roman historian (and dreadful gossip) Suetonius, Julius Caesar was quite the dandy. He shaved, trimmed and plucked any unwanted body hair with tweezers but he was mortified to be as bald as the proverbial coot. Now the comb-over is rarely seen as a good look, but Caesar tried to hide his hairlessness by growing the few strands he did have and sweeping them over his head.

On the day that the Roman Senate voted him the honour of wearing a laurel wreath on all occasions, Suetonius tells us that Caesar was overjoyed. Not only did it prove how powerful he was, it was the perfect disguise for his shiny pate.