There were three leaders in Rome, Pompey, whom Sulla had named the Great, Crassus, the rich, and Cæsar, the shrewd and wise. Two of these had reached their utmost height. For Pompey there was to be no more greatness, for Crassus no more riches. But Cæsar was the coming man of Rome. After a youth given to profligate pleasures, in which he spent money as fast as Crassus collected it, and accumulated debt more rapidly than Pompey accumulated fame, the innate powers of the man began to declare themselves. He studied oratory and made his mark in the Roman Forum; he studied the political situation, and step by step made himself a power among men. He was shrewd enough to cultivate Pompey, then the Roman favorite, and brought himself into closer relations with him by marrying his relative. Steadily he grew into public favor and respect, and laid his hands on the reins of control.
There was a fourth man of prominence, Cicero, the great scholar, philosopher, and orator. He prosecuted Verres, who, as governor of Sicily, had committed frightful excesses, and drove him from Rome. He prosecuted Catiline, who had made a conspiracy to seize the government, and even to burn Rome. The conspirators were foiled and Catiline killed. But Cicero, earnest and eloquent as he was, lacked manliness and courage, and was driven into exile by his enemies.
There remained the three leaders, Pompey, Cæsar, and Crassus, and these three made a secret compact to control the government, forming what became known as a triumvirate, or three man power. Pompey married Julia, the young and beautiful daughter of Cæsar, and the two seemed very closely united.
Cæsar was elected consul, and in this position won public favor by proposing some highly popular laws. After his year as consul he was made governor of Gaul, and now began an extraordinary career. The man who had by turns shown himself a dissolute spendthrift, an orator, and a political leader, suddenly developed a new power, and proved himself one of the greatest soldiers the world has ever known.
Gaul, as then known, had two divisions,—Cisalpine Gaul, or the Gaulish settlements in Northern Italy; and Transalpine Gaul, or Gaul beyond the Alps, including the present countries of France and Switzerland. In the latter country Rome possessed only a narrow strip of land, then known as the Province, since then known as the country of Provence.
From this centre Cæsar, with the small army under his command, consisting of three legions, entered upon a career of conquest which astonished Rome and drew upon him the eyes of the civilized world. He had hardly been appointed when he received word that the Helvetian tribes of Switzerland were advancing on Geneva, the northern outpost of the Province, with a view of invading the West. He hastened thither, met and defeated them, killed a vast multitude, and drove the remnant back to their own country. Then, invited by some northern tribes, he attacked a great German band which had invaded Northern Gaul, and defeated them so utterly that few escaped across the Rhine. From that point he made his way into and conquered Belgium. In a year's time he had vastly extended the Roman dominion in the West.
For nine years this career of conquest continued. The barbarian Gauls proved fierce and valiant soldiers, but at the end of that time they had been completely subdued and made passive subjects of Rome. Cæsar even crossed the sea into Britain, and took the first step towards the conquest of that island, of which Rome had barely heard before.
During this career of conquest many hundreds of thousands of men were slain. But, then, Cæsar was victorious and Rome triumphant, and what mattered it if a million or two of barbarians were sacrificed to the demon of conquest? It mattered little to Rome, in which great city barbarian life was scarcely worth a second thought. It mattered little to Cæsar, who, like all great conquerors, was quite willing to mount to power on a ladder of human lives.
Meanwhile what were Cæsar's partners in the Triumvirate doing? When Cæsar was given the province of Gaul, Pompey was made governor of Spain, and Crassus of Syria. Crassus, who had gained some military fame by overcoming Spartacus the gladiator, wished to gain more, and sailed for Asia, where he stirred up a war with distant Parthia. That was the end of Crassus. He marched into the desert of Mesopotamia, and left his body on the sands. His head was sent to Orodes, the Parthian king, who ordered molten gold to be poured into his mouth,—a ghastly commentary on his thirst for wealth.
Pompey left Spain to take care of itself, and remained in Rome, where he sought to add to his popularity by building a great stone theatre, large enough to hold forty thousand people, where for many days he amused the people with plays and games. Here, for the first time, a rhinoceros was shown. Eighteen elephants were killed by Libyan hunters, and five hundred lions were slain, while hosts of gladiators fought for life and honor.
While thus seeking popular favor, Pompey was secretly working against the interests of Cæsar, of whose fame he had grown jealous. His wife Julia died, and he joined his strength with that of the aristocrats; while Cæsar, a nephew of old Marius, was looked upon as a leader of the party of the people.
Pompey's power and influence over the senate increased until he was virtually dictator in Rome. Cæsar's ten years' governorship in Gaul would expire on the 1st of January, 49 b.c. , and it was resolved by Pompey and the senate to deprive him of the command of the army. But Cæsar was not the man to be dealt with in this summary manner. His career of conquest ended, he entered his province of Cisalpine Gaul, or Northern Italy, where he was received as a great hero and conqueror. From here he sent secret agents to Rome, bribed with large sums a number of important persons, and took other steps to guard his interests.
Meanwhile the senate tried to disarm Cæsar by unfair means. They had the power to shorten or lengthen the year as they pleased, and announced that that year would end on November 12, and that Cæsar must resign his authority on the 13th. Curio, a tribune of Rome and Cæsar's agent, said that it was only fair that Pompey also should give up the command of the army which he had near Rome. This he refused to do, and Curio publicly declared that he was trying to make himself a tyrant.
Finally the senate decreed that each general should give up one legion, to be used in a war with the Parthians. There was no such war, but it was pretended that there soon would be. Pompey agreed, but he called upon Cæsar to send him back a legion which he had lent him three years before. Cæsar did not hesitate to do so: he sent Pompey's legion and his own; but he took care to win the soldiers by giving each a valuable present as he went away. These legions were not sent to Asia, but to Capua. The senate wanted them for use nearer than Parthia.
Cæsar was then at Ravenna, a seaside city on the southern limit of his province. South of it flowed a little stream called the Rubicon, which formed his border-line. Here he took a bold step. He sent a letter to the senate, offering to give up his command if Pompey would do the same. A violent debate followed in the senate, and a decree was passed that unless Cæsar laid down his command by a certain day he should be declared an outlaw and enemy of Rome. At the same time the two consuls were made dictators, and the two tribunes who favored Cæsar—one of them the afterwards famous Marc Antony—fled for safety from Rome.
The decree of the senate was equivalent to a declaration of war. On the one side was Pompey, proud, over-confident, and unprepared. On the other was Cæsar, knowing his strength, satisfied in the power of the money he had so freely distributed, and sure of his men. He called his soldiers together and asked if they would support him. They answered that they would follow wherever he led. At once he marched for the Rubicon, the limit of his province, to cross which stream meant an invasion of Italy and civil war.
Plutarch tells us that he halted here and deeply meditated, troubled by the thought that to cross that stream meant the death of thousands of his countrymen. After a period of such meditation, he cried aloud, "The die is cast; let us go where the gods and the injustice of our foes direct!" and, spurring his horse forward, he plunged into the stream.
This story, which has been effectively used by a great epic poet of Rome, probably relates what never happened. From all we know of Cæsar, the question of bloodshed in attaining the aims of his ambition did not greatly trouble his mind. Yet the story has taken hold, and "to cross the Rubicon" has become a proverb, signifying the taking of a step of momentous importance.
Cæsar, after the legions sent the senate, had but a single legion left with him. He sent orders to others to join him with all haste, but they were distant. As for Pompey, knowing and despising the weakness of his rival, he had made no preparations. He had Cæsar's two legions at Capua and one of his own at Rome, while thousands of Sulla's veterans were settled in the country round. "I have but to stamp my foot," he said, "and armed men will start from the soil of Italy."
He did not stamp, or, if he did, the armed men did not start. Cæsar marched southward with his accustomed rapidity. Town after town opened its gates to him. Labienus, one of his principal officers, deserted to Pompey. Cæsar showed his contempt by sending his baggage after him. Two legions from Gaul having reached him, he pushed more boldly still to the south. The cities taken were treated as friends; there was no pillage, no violence. Everywhere Cæsar won golden opinions by his humanity.
Meanwhile Pompey's armed men came not; his rival was rapidly approaching; he and his party of the senate fled from Rome. They reached Brundusium, where Cæsar with six legions quickly appeared. The town was strong, and Pompey took his time to embark his men and sail from Italy. Disappointed of his prey, Cæsar turned back, and entered Rome on April 1, now full lord and master of Italy and its capital city. In the treasury of that city was a sacred hoard of money, which had been set aside since the invasion of the Gauls, centuries before. The people voted this money for his use. There was no more danger from the Gauls, it was said, for they had all become subjects of Rome. Yet the keeper of the treasury refused to produce the keys, and when Cæsar ordered the doors to be broken open, tried to bar his passage into the sacred chamber.
"Stand aside, young man," said Cæsar, with stern dignity; "it is easier for me to do than to say."
Cæsar was not the man to rest while an enemy was at large. Pompey had gone to the East. There was no fleet with which to follow him; and in Spain Pompey had an army of veterans, who might enter Italy as soon as he left it. These must first be dealt with.
This did not delay him long. Before the year closed all Spain was his. Most of the soldiers of Pompey joined his army. Those who did not were dismissed unharmed. Everywhere he showed the greatest leniency, and everywhere won friends. On his return to Rome he gained new friends by passing laws relieving debtors and restoring their civil rights to the children of Sulla's victims.
He remained in Rome only eleven days, and then sailed for Greece, where Pompey had gathered a large army. It was January 4, 48 B.C, when he sailed. On June 6 of the same year was fought, at Pharsalia, in Thessaly, a great battle which decided the fate of the Roman world.
Pompey's army consisted of about forty-four thousand men. Cæsar had but half as many. But his men were all veterans; many of those of Pompey were new levies, collected in Asia and Macedonia. The battle was fierce and desperate. During its course the cavalry of Pompey attacked Cæsar's weak troops and drove them back. The infantry advanced to their support, and struck straight at the faces of the foe. Plutarch tells us that this cavalry was made up of young Romans, of the aristocratic class and proud of their beauty, and that the order was given to Cæsar's soldiers to spoil their beauty for them. But this story, like many told by Plutarch, lacks proof.
Whatever was the cause, the cavalry were broken and fled in disorder. Cæsar's reserve force now attacked Pompey's worn troops, who gave way everywhere. Cæsar ordered that all Romans should be spared, and only the Asiatics pursued. The legions, hearing of this, ceased to resist. The foreign soldiers fled, after great slaughter. Pompey rode hastily from the field.
The camp was taken. The booty captured was immense. But Cæsar would not let his soldiers rest or plunder till they had completed their work. This proved easy; all the Romans submitted; the Asiatics fled. Pompey put to sea, where he had still a powerful fleet. Africa was his, and he determined to take refuge in Egypt. It proved that he had enemies there. A small boat was sent off to bring him ashore. Among those on board was an officer named Septimius, who had served under Pompey in the war with the pirates.
Pompey recognized his old officer, and entered the boat alone, his wife and friends watching from the vessel as he was rowed ashore. On the beach a number of persons were collected, as if to receive him with honor. The boat stopped. Pompey took the hand of the person next him to assist him to rise. As he did so Septimius, who stood behind, struck him with his sword. Pompey, finding that he was among enemies, made no resistance, and the next blow laid him low in death. His assassins cut off his head and left his body on the beach. Here one of his freedmen and an old soldier of his army broke up a fishing-boat and made him a rude funeral pile. Such were the obsequies of the one-time master of the world.
The battle of Pharsalia practically ended the struggle that made Cæsar lord of Rome. Some more fighting was necessary. Africa was still in arms. But a few short campaigns sufficed to bring it to terms, while a campaign against a son of Mithridates ended in five days, Cæsar's victory being announced to the senate in three short words, " Veni, vidi, vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered). Then he returned to Rome, where he shed not a drop of the blood of his enemies, though that of gladiators and wild animals was freely spilled in the gorgeous games and festivals with which he amused the sovereign people.