Immersed in the conflicts of a twilight Roman Republic, Julius Caesar’s youth is perhaps the least known stage of his life. Although we have little information about this period, this phase is of great interest in understanding his future career.
The political conflicts of those years were then marked by the corruption that plagued Rome. Indeed, betrayals and assassinations were then daily in the capital of the Empire.
At that time, the Roman Senate was divided into two irreconcilable factions. On the one hand, the optimates, closely related to the ancient Senatorial aristocracy. They sought to keep the state under their sole control. On the other side, the popular, who had the support of the people.
One should not think that these popular were themselves members of the plebs. On the contrary, they sought to use their assemblies to their advantage. Among their members was mainly a kind of middle class called the Equestrian Order.
The family of Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar’s political career was largely shaped by his family relationships. His family was an ancient and prestigious lineage, but nevertheless in decline. His father was a senator and was linked to the popular group by his sister’s marriage to Caius Marius.
Marius, seven times consul, the highest office of the Republic, had thus become the strong man of Rome at the head of the popular group. So he ensured a good position for his relatives.
His family’s meagre wealth was increased tenfold by his promise to marry Cossutia, the daughter of a wealthy member of the Equestrian Order. All his education was oriented towards political life.
Leaning into the classics, it seems that he showed literary and oratory skills very early. He demonstrated this in his writings. Despite a certain lack of robustness, he received a full physical training. He thus became a skillful Horseman and a military man capable of self-sacrifice.
A model mother
In addition to his paternal influences, Caesar owed much to the advice of his mother, Aurelia. His family, the Cotta family, was equally prestigious.
Their respect for Roman tradition and rigor in the moral virtues of the time were passed on to Julius Caesar. They were very precious to him during his life. The greatest proof of the admiration he felt for his mother was the unusual affection for the time he showed her during his lifetime.
The difficult beginnings of a famous career
In 84 BC, Julius Caesar’s father died, making him the pater familias according to Roman tradition. It is also the year of his sixteenth birthday and therefore his accession to adulthood.
In a city dominated by Cinna, the successor of Marius, repudiating his wife Cossutia and marrying Cornelia, Cinna’s daughter, allows him to benefit from a rapid ascent. In the midst of the purges of the partisans of the aristocracy, he was entrusted with the priestly office of flamen dialis.
But not all Rome supported Marius and Cinna. Indeed, against them stood Sulla, a successful military man with manifest political power. In 83 BC, Sulla returned to Rome after fighting in the provinces. He claims dictatorial powers and begins to purge his opponents. That is, in the very entourage of Julius Caesar.
The latter, however, managed to escape. Perhaps because of his youth, perhaps because of his priestly function. Perhaps again because of his harmless appearance or perhaps because of the little wealth that Sulla could steal from him.
Julius Caesar, a bold young politician
Caesar’s marriage with Cornelia, however, had one drawback. If he wanted to win Sulla’s friendship, he had to repudiate her and marry his niece. Perhaps more motivated by love than political intelligence, Caesar refused.
So his only alternative was to flee Rome and wander in northern Italy. There, however, he caught malaria. He bribed several soldiers not to be delivered, and he was even captured by pirates. Nothing broke his resolve.
“Tell your master that in Caesar, only Caesar Reigns and no one else.”
- Julius Caesar to Sulla.
Sulla eventually granted him his official pardon, but Caesar’s cunning led him to flee further east. It seems that in any adversity there is always a profit to be made. Julius Caesar shot two.
On the one hand, the dictator confirmed him with his priestly order. This gave him some immunity, while also explicitly prohibiting him from holding political office or participating in military actions. On the other hand, his influence in the province of Asia Minor allowed him to fight in Lesbos.
With Sulla’s death in 78 BC, Caesar returned to Rome as a military hero. Then he can begin his brilliant political career without hindrance. The rest of the life of this seemingly harmless and frivolous young man is now part of the story.