Gaius Julius Caesar (100 - 44 BC)
Gaius Julius Caesar was born most likely on 13th July (originally Quinctilis, but renamed in honor of Caesar after his death) in the year 100 BC. Caesar was a member of the deeply patrician Julii family with roots dating to the foundation of the city itself. He later claimed to be a direct descendent of Aenaes, son of Venus, and therefore related to the gods themselves.
Still, at his start, the Caesar family was an impoverished line of the noble original clans. No Caesars in recent generations had held the seat of Consul. Whilst still highly respected, they held little political clout. His father, Gaius Julius as well, had served in a respectable capacity within the Senate, but would have little notoriety aside from his son's legacy. His mother, Aurelia, of the Aurelii Cotta line, seems to have been both a remarkable woman and a major influence on the life of her son.
From Humble Beginnings
Caesar was raised in the common quarters of Rome, among the lower citizen classes. His home was an insula, equivalent to an apartment building in the modern world. Even for a patrician family in poor financial straits, this was a definite handicap for future political ambition. However, the young Caesar certainly learned a great deal from his experiences as a child, as he early on realized the power in championing the common man. It wouldn't take a genius to understand that several politicians in this era made a name for themselves using this method, and Caesar certainly caught on to this easily. He had, though, the added advantage of his patrician heritage, along with a sort of political genius that would push him to the very limit of Roman power.
Two Major Events
Two major events impacted the life of the young Caesar. The later and seemingly less momentous event of the two was the death of his father at the age of 15 in 85 BC. So few of the details of Gaius Julius Caesar the elder's life are known, that it's difficult to determine the impact this may have had. While he certainly played a role in the life of his young son, he was often away on military and Senatorial obligations, as was often the case with Patrician families. His father had reached the office of Praetor prior to his death, the office just below Consul, and at least helped set the stage for the Caesar line to return to the highest order.
The more significant event in the life of Caesar was a marriage arrangement that would have enormous impact on Roman culture as a whole. The marriage of his aunt Julia to the novus homo (new man) Gaius Marius had repercussions that affected the entire ancient world. Through this marriage in 110 BC and 10 years prior to the birth of his famous nephew, Marius gained the political and familial connection necessary to advance his own career up the cursus honorum. While it may have been frowned upon by the elite of the day, first off in giving the uncouth Marius such assistance, it was a completely understandable move by the Caesars. Marius was certainly one of the richest men in Rome of the time and while he gained political clout, the Caesar family gained the wealth required to finance election campaigns for Caesar's father and uncles. As mentioned previously, his father attained the rank of Praetor and his uncle, Lucius Julius Caesar rose to a prominent Consulship during the Social War of 90 to 87 BC.
Marius and Caesar
Marius' impact on the future dictator must have been immense. Their careers follow notable similarities that certainly show a profound influence by the uncle on the nephew. More importantly, however, Caesar had the great fortune of his patrician background which gave huge advantages over Marius. He also was able to play witness to both the successes and failures and adjust his own plans for the future accordingly. Marius was the pre-eminent Roman just prior to Caesar's birth, serving six Consulships, winning the war against Jugurtha, reforming the legions and the social order, and saving Rome from the Germanic Cimbri and Teutone threat. By the time Caesar was a young man, however, Marius had fallen deeply out of favor, though he was still a player of some note. As Caesar began his own career, he would be thrust into the coming conflicts between Marius and his rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The advancement of Caesar in light of the turmoil of the day is notable enough; the fact that he even survived may be even more remarkable.
As Julius Caesar aged into his early teenage years, the political climate of Rome was in turmoil. By 88 BC, the rivalry between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla was heating into open civil war. Attempts by Marius' supporters to overturn Sulla's command against Mithridates VI of Pontus prompted Sulla's subsequent march on Rome. Sulla took control of the city by force, and many of Marius' supporters were put to the sword. Caesar, despite his relation to Marius, was still a boy and for the time being, was excused from any potential danger.
Soon after, Sulla marched east to fight the first Mithridatic War. With his legions away from the capital, Marius, and a deposed Consul, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, gathered strength and made their own march on Rome. By 86 BC, both men were elected Consul, and in retribution, a bloodbath against Sulla's supporters took place.
These events, along with the history of Rome in Caesar's near past must have been key factors on the young man's development. From the time of his birth through his early formative years, all Rome seemed to know was political uncertainty, violence, and the uncertainty of what was to come. From the social disorder brought on by the Gracchi 30 years before his birth to the deep involvement of his own family in various situations, Caesar's view on Roman politics would surely be a major impact later. In light of the status quo of continuous factional fighting, as opposed to the potential stability and control of a single powerful ruler, these events in Caesar's life were a powerful force.
Marius died shortly after election to his record Consulship. While the relationship between the young Caesar and Marius on a personal level is largely unknown, there is little question of his relationship to his aunt Julia, Marius' wife. As evidenced by a later funeral oration of her, she was an influential force to him, and it stands to reason that the uncle was as well. Regardless, he certainly fell under the indirect influence of the surviving Consul Cinna. He ruled Rome after the death of Marius, and in the absence of Sulla, with an iron-handed will for the next few years.
During this time, Caesar was appointed to the office of Flamen Dialis, or head priest of Jupiter, by Cinna. This priesthood was filled with many strict rules based on the lore and rituals of the ancient religion. The flamen dialis could never touch metal, see a corpse, ride a horse, and was restricted in many foods, among many other things. It seems likely that, possibly due to his youth, he was never actually confirmed in this role, in light of his future career as both a politician and a soldier. Whatever the reason, it's evident that he held the position only a short time, and the ancient sources make little mention of his dismissal as a priest.
Shortly after his appointment as flamen, Caesar's association with the populares political party was cemented further by marriage. In 84 BC, he was married to Cinna's daughter Cornelia, which would have lasting ramifications. Just a year later, as Cinna prepared to meet Sulla's victorious legions as they returned to Rome, his own troops mutinied and Cinna was killed. Sulla marched into Italy and within a year defeated nearly all opposition. In 81 BC, after the battle of the Colline Gate, Sulla was the undisputed victor, and soon assumed the title of dictator.
Sulla's victory was to be another profound event in the life of Caesar. Not only was he a member of the opposition party, by virtue of his family and marriage, but Sulla's behavior also helped shaped Caesar's later leniency toward opposition.
Caesar Escapes Sulla's Purge
With Sulla in charge of Rome, a political and brutally bloody purge of his enemies commenced. In a term labeled as proscription, in which enemies were publicly listed for execution and/or confiscation of properties, Sulla began the systematic reversal of all opposition to his pro Senatorial elite, or optimate, agenda. Caesar certainly was named on the proscription lists, and at the age of 19, he left his young wife and family to avoid the death penalty. Disguised and assumedly with the help of substantial bribes, he escaped Rome and went into hiding in the Italian countryside.
Caesar's family, and likely with great influence from his mother Aurelia - along with the College of Vestal Virgins, as he was still technically the flamen dialis - worked hard on reversing Sulla's proscription. Eventually Sulla rescinded the sentence of death for Caesar, and he was free to return to Rome. Sulla instead demanded that Caesar divorce the daughter of his former rival Cinna, but Caesar refused.
Amidst the pressure from Caesar's family, Sulla still pardoned him, confiscating Cornelia's dowry instead. In a prophetic moment, Sulla was said to comment on the dangers of letting Caesar live. According to Suetonius, the dictator in relenting on Caesar's proscription said:
"Take him then, my masters, since you must have it so; but know this, that he whose life you so much desire will one day be the overthrow of the part of nobles, whose cause you have sustained with me; for in this one Caesar, you will find many a Marius."