My history hero: Julius Caesar (100–44 BC)

"Caesar realised the importance of good public relations and of 'putting out' the right story about himself, even if the story he told didn't necessarily bear much relation to the facts", Nick Knowles tells York Membery...

Front and profile views of the bust of Roman dictator Julius Caesar (c50 BC) on display in the British Museum. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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. After implementing a number of wide-ranging reforms, including the introduction of the Julian calendar, Caesar was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius on the Ides (15th) of March, 44 BC.

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When did you first hear about Julius Caesar?

My elder brother used to read me the Asterix books as a kid and I remember one of those stories was about Asterix and Caesar, so I must’ve been aware of him by the age of seven or eight. I was instantly hooked by this extraordinary character, and I’ve been fascinated by him ever since.

What kind of person was he?

Caesar was a complex man. Firstly, he was a brilliant politician, and a great manoeuvrer and survivor. Secondly, he was one of the first PR gurus – he realised the importance of good public relations and of ‘putting out’ the right story about himself, even if the story he told didn’t necessarily bear much relation to the facts. Thirdly, he was a superb military campaigner who, crucially, knew the importance of surrounding himself with the right people.

What made Caesar a hero?

Just like Walter Ralegh, Caesar came from a pretty lowborn noble family, but was still able to rise to great heights – despite being a bit of a crook and a scoundrel, albeit a loveable one. And then even with powerful enemies trying to get one over on him at every opportunity, he invariably came out on top, smelling of roses. Even in his death, he managed to organise his succession so as to ensure that his great-nephew, Octavianus, became emperor.

What was his finest hour?

Strange as it may sound, perhaps the management of his own death. That was genius. Caesar was almost certainly ill and dying anyway – most likely of a brain tumour – but he knew who the people were who wanted to kill him, and knew that if their plot was successful, it would dash their hopes of winning power. His finest hour certainly wouldn’t be his invasions of Britain, which were utterly disastrous – although he managed to spin it so that everyone thought he’d achieved his objectives.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

The fact that he called his daughter Julia. Calling his daughter after himself just wasn’t fair. He couldn’t have made it clearer that what he actually wanted was a son.

Can you see any parallels between Caesar’s life and your own?

I’m a ruthless person too, and have tried to take over the world in my own small way!

Would you like to have lived in Roman times?

As a Briton, it wouldn’t have been much fun because I’d have been under the cosh. That said, I’d love to have seen Rome at the time of Caesar’s ascendancy. What an extraordinary place it must’ve been. I’d have enjoyed the partying, too – the Romans knew how to enjoy themselves.

If you could meet Caesar, what would you ask him?

I’d like to ask him a few things. Firstly, what frightened him? Secondly, who did he trust? And lastly, did he know that he was dying when he was assassinated?

Nick Knowles is a television presenter, best known for fronting DIY SOS: The Big Build and the quiz show Who Dares Wins – both on BBC One. His latest book is Proper Healthy Food (BBC Books, 2017).

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This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine