Was Julius Caesar an effective leader?
But it is unfair to compare Julius to Augustus; putting them in context, Julius had already undertaken the controversial land reform. Augustus was not in a position to undermine the patrician authority any more than Julius had already done so. Augustus was hailed as saviour of Rome for bringing an end to civil war, Julius was not. So a comparison of the two by Yavetz is unfair. Caesar military accomplishments were phenomenal. There is relatively little historical debate surrounding his effectiveness as a military leader.
So it is more important to take into account his military service over his political career. It is important to compare Caesar’s achievements to that of Pompey Magnus. Tom Holland cites Caesar as the first man in Rome, but Pompey, Caesar’s senior by six years had equalled if not surpassed Caesar’s accomplishments. He is an apt man to compare Caesar to. He had won his fortune and glory from his military campaigns in Africa, the East and against the pirates of the Mediterranean.
In his early career, by his mid-twenties Pompey had fought alongside Sulla and been hailed as Imperator by his troops at the age of 23.
In comparison, Caesar was addressed as such by his at the age of 41. In 67BC Pompey was given powers by the senate to tackle the pirate threat. He was given sole authority of all coastlines and the Roman navy. With Caesar, he fought for the rights of land for his veterans. These powers surpassed any previously given to a general of the Republic before. But Pompey had come from a noble patrician family, the opportunities were opened to him; Caesar faced obstructions throughout his life and forced his way to the top. Caesar had come from a fallen family and this served to his detriment.
Pompey was a man who shied away from the political scene; unlike Caesar he was not interested in becoming the foremost political man of Rome. Pompey did not upset the status quo, he had fought for Rome and was content with their adoration and the political influence he gained; his appetite was sated by that alone. Caesar’s ambition pushed him further, to the point where he would fight against his own nation. Besides that fact that the two men had different aims, if Caesar had acted like Pompey then he would have been a more effective leader, most likely succeeding in his aims legitimately.
Both were popular politicians, seeking reform for the public, but Caesar acted unlawfully. The comparison brings leads to Caesar’s political career. Promising at first, indisputably gaining the rank of second orator within the Republic. 9 But he was not a man who clamoured for the adoration of the patricians. Early on he established himself as a populares. Prior to his first major position of authority as Consul Caesar held lesser positions within the Republic: Aedile and Pontifex Maximus. To all these positions of power Caesar took only one route.
He used bribery, put on lavish public displays or games and used his funds to build grand public buildings; ‘his munificence was the key to his appeal’. 10 These tactics were common to the Romans at this time, as a democracy, it was the rich who bought votes in order to achieve their ambitions, and Caesar mastered this art. In this Caesar was incredibly effective, he was, on the face of it, a Roman politician; buying votes and slandering his opponents led him to success. His consulship of 59BC gave an indication as to what dictatorship under him would be like.
Using traditional political methods Caesar was elected as first consul of Rome. Early in his year of consulship Caesar brought forward a bill to repay the veterans of Pompey’s legions and set out an agenda with the interest of the people at its heart. The Senate opposed his every move. Caesar’s first political mistake came when he had Marcus Cato arrested. This antagonised the majority of Rome, and is first evidence that he was involving his personal vendettas and ego in his political decisions; Freeman argues it was a foolish move on Caesar’s part11.
It was one of his greatest weaknesses as a statesman and therefore led him to be ineffective as a politician. He did not try hard enough to persuade the Senate to his view. And their obstinacy left Caesar with little choice, so arguably his unsuccessfulness as a politician was not his own failings, but that of the Republic’s structure, placing those with an economically vested interest in charge? Caesar’s opponents during his stretch in Gaul prepared the end of his career. For his crimes in challenging their authority; ‘Caesar’s sin… was not that he was subverting the Roman constitution…
but he was loosening the oligarchy’s overbearing grip on it. ’12 Caesar through his military campaign in Gaul and his use propaganda undermined the authority of the Senate. He did learn from the past, the brothers Gracchi, two populares tribunes, who had attempted reforms in land ownership to equal distribution, similar to Caesar’s own land proposals had been murdered. Caesar, although he did not escape the same fate, avoided it for many years because of his military backing. Whilst he had the support of Pompey in the Senate, and bribed support of tribunes, Curio and Longinus, Caesar was safe from persecution.
He adopted his customary approach to reach compromise before using force, but his arrogant approach to the Senate destroyed any moderate support for him. 13 He was forced into a dilemma which compromised his personal integrity. Whether to surrender his legions, be tried for his crimes, or act as Sulla had done, cross the Rubicon and take Rome? His instinct following failed negotiations was to fight. He did not try hard enough to persuade the Senators, his early political tactics employed no personal integrity and he only sought the fastest solutions. He expected his demands to be carried out, and when they were not he would act with force.
He was wrong to expect politicians, a typically unreliable group of people to support him. His approach though had effect and he did succeed in taking control of Rome. On that basis it seems that whether he took Rome by force or by political manoeuvring did not matter so long as in the end he had Rome. To the provocative actions by the Senate and Pompey, Caesar acted calm and calculated. He had expected not to be greeted as a returning hero; ‘the optimates were now firmly gripping the senatorial reins, driving toward a showdown with Pompey as their hired sword’14.
Caesar attempted to reach compromise but was heavy handed in his approach. He did not openly call for civil war. Although he was forced into a difficult decision, was he justified in crossing the Rubicon, a military decision with potentially an enormous political impact? He certainly the support of the ordinary Roman people, Caesar knew how to make his fellow citizens feel good about themselves15; he created a propaganda machine with his book The Conquest of Gaul, retelling his achievements and those of his soldiers. Even whilst away in Gaul he sent funds to be used on the construction of public buildings.
His actions while he was away in Gaul had one purpose; to prepare for his triumphant return to Rome and take up the top spot in the politics of Rome. Whether he did this by force or not did not seem to matter to him, if necessary he could rely on his soldiers and he knew it. His legions would follow him wherever he led them: The legions of Gaul had been willing to cross the Rubicon. What, after nine years of campaigning, were the traditions of the distant forum to them, compared to the camaraderie of the army camp? And what was the Republic, compared to their general?
There was no one capable of inspiring a more passionate devotion in his troops than Caesar. 16 Caesar was certainly in a position where he was capable of taking power. As for justification, it is almost certain that he would not have been permitted to continue in Rome on his return nor allotted the triumphs he was entitled to. Caesar took what he perceived to be rightfully his, as arguably the first man of Rome it would be unreasonable for him not to receive respect at the very least. From Caesar’s perspective he was perfectly justified both in his actions and the way in which he carried them out.
It can only be asked, what would have happened if he had been tried? Arguably the braver man would have accepted trial; Caesar chose the less challenging option open, and understandably so. He was not as sure of himself as he had been, having learnt from his mistakes. This is evidenced firstly in that he did not go to trial, for fear of failure, and took time in consideration before crossing the Rubicon. Although in 49BC he had only one legion, his customary tactic of speed and surprise proved all that was required to take Rome. He showed effective leadership in this scenario by acting skilfully and seizing the advantage for the civil war.
This strident move by Caesar served to intensify Pompey’s natural cautiousness and Rome was abandoned by the Republic. Caesar was extremely effective at taking advantage of a situation and was an expert in predicting and preparing for the actions of others. Caesar gratified the Roman people, and proved that he would not be a tyrant by pardoning his senatorial opponents. This clemency of Caesar’s although magnanimous did not win the affection of his rivals. 17 Through acts of mercy he preserved the rivals who went on challenging his authority during his dictatorship.
This is indication to his integrity, but proved to be a factor in his death, and therefore a clear fault, but his decision making. Politically he was not capable of challenging his opponents. Caesar’s actions created resentment among the remaining senators. The few who remained refused to meet him and he failed to force them to do so, even the moderates; As long as he carried a populist agenda his clemency towards the optimates could only work against him. 18 When he demanded the release of emergency funds from the state treasury he was vetoed. He foolishly believed his demands would be met.
He had become accustomed to a military style, ‘he did not have the time or the temperament to moderate this habit of command now’. 19 Like his first consulship he bypassed the Senate and used the peoples’ assembly to pass his legislation, even as a dictator. This is a poor reflection on his leadership; even with a strong military presence Caesar could not force the Senate to do as he wished. His aim to unite Italy under a Roman banner, with everyone a citizen of Rome failed and to be succeeded by Augustus. His style during war had replaced some subtleties of diplomacy that he had exercised previously in politics.
And this tactic although for the most part got results, was a tactless strategy. As a result he created dislike among even those more reasonable or loyal to him. Caesar made a number of political blunders early on in his dictatorship. On his fourth triumph in 48BC, for the campaigns in Africa, he ridiculed Cato’s suicide. Cato was one of the most respected former Senators of the Republic, and by publicly mocking him; Caesar angered even his own followers. On another occasion, in retaliation to Brutus and Cicero’s obituary to Cato, Caesar wrote his Anticato, further public scorn on his most stubborn former rival.
This work sparked anger and hilarity amongst the Romans for its absurdity; ‘Cato’s reputation, far from being diminished by Caesar’s attack, was raised to new heights’. 20 Caesar had allowed a personal vendetta and his ego to be embroiled within his politics again. Cato had been the man responsible for the main opposition to Caesar during his consulship and his time in Gaul. He also had Cleopatra come from Egypt with his illegitimate son Caesarion which caused scandal. Caesar did not learn from his mistakes and rectify them as he had done so as a general.
These are just a number of examples of how Caesar stumbled in the political arena. Caesar was not so skilled in the practice of challenging his rivals in the Senate. Cicero often publicly humiliated Caesar, for instance proclaiming that the festival of Lyra was to happen at Caesar’s decree, not by the gods. He was also unable to shake off the image that it was his intent to establish a monarchy and put an end to the Republic. A view that most historians agree on; ‘It must have been Caesar’s purpose, as a statesman, to establish a system that would continue beyond his life-time.
’21 Even his stunt during the festival of Lupercalia where he three times rejected the offer of a crown from Mark Antony only served to strengthen doubts as to what he had planned, was he simply testing the population by way of their applause to the act? It is most probable that Caesar intended to create a monarchy; he believed that his autocracy was more palatable than civil war. 22 His superior personality angered and disaffected the patrician families and to a degree the ordinary people, he was unable to maintain the support of the plebeians and garner that of the rich at the same time even with promises of high office.
Caesar was accustomed to his orders not being challenged; he could not comprehend the audacity of his opponents when they opposed him publicly. He was not at all effective a political leader, the results he gained through force caused further resentment among the elite and damaged his reputation as a benign dictator. He did not once try to allay the fears of the people that he was going to establish a monarchy or that the Republic was to be restored, he did not apologise for his more unsavoury acts such as the ridicule of Cato and he never denied any of the scandals that plagued him.
By not doing so he became more and more unpalatable to Romans’ of all class and is evidence that far from becoming more politically astute he actually declined into complacency as dictator. But, he had not completely forgotten how he had won public office and support before. He did appease the people and attempt to assure them with money. He set about great public works, rebuilding the cities of Carthage and Corinth, redirecting the river Tiber to create space to construct wondrous new public buildings; he involved the citizens of Rome and engaged them as parts and masters of the known world.
23 Caesar certainly knew how to lead a large majority to his support and he offered them an enriched life as a result. Caesar relied on the support of the plebeians for his political leadership and did everything he could to maintain it. Caesar was not as effective a political leader as he had been a military leader. He failed to adapt from the military scene into the political arena. He made a large number of mistakes and was openly ridiculed by his political opponents. He did not once try to alleviate fears that he would not restore the Republic or create a monarchy.
His style of dictatorship did not satisfy anyone nor lead to clear control. But in his defence, his aim to create a singular Roman state from the then Roman Empire was admirable and he was certainly in the process of doing so when assassinated and there is no doubt that he would have been as successful as Augustus’ had been if he had been permitted to continue. Lucius Cornelius Sulla is another appropriate man to compare Caesar to, a military man who also followed on to be dictator perpetuus.
The stark contrast between the two is that Sulla was a ruthless politician, stripping the peoples’ tribunes of their powers, and reserving positions of authority to the patrician families. Through his program Sulla held onto power wanting to bolster patrician control; whereas Caesar used bribery and outmanoeuvring of his opponents to destroy their influence in favour of his own. He was not bold enough to take the dictatorship and use its strength to engineer his control. He neither took full power for himself, nor did he hand it all back to the Senate, his third way saw a sharing of power between dictator and Senate.
This led to suspicion that he might take the tyrannical route without being as ruthless as Sulla, and so his dictatorship was doomed to failure unless he alleviated those fears, which he did not. Sulla ruled through fear, tyranny and oppression. He used proscription lists to eliminate his opponents and maintained a high military presence in Rome that would ensure his decisions were enforced. This was a very effective form of dictatorship that maintained power until he resigned in favour of the Republic. There is another clear contrast, Caesar ruled for the people of Rome not the nobility; he wiped debts and procured land for all veterans.
But does this make him an effective leader? We would certainly view him as a progressive politician, but that does not necessarily mean that he was right. Caesar had a greater plan for Rome further than his own dictatorship, to improve Rome’s position in the world. Sulla though concentrated on preserving the power to the traditional few. It is perfectly fair to compare these two, both being military men who moved onto dictatorships, but their contrasts show how different types of dictatorships can take and hold power within Rome.
Sulla’s dictatorship was extremely effective at maintaining control; in comparison the method adopted by Caesar was a weak compromise that led to failure. 24 Caesar in his later political career was very weak and ineffective, unable to convey his message properly to the Roman people, and unable to keep in check the nobles. It is key to assess the modern criteria applied to an effective leader. First, there are a number of examples pertaining to his decision-making without compromising personal integrity, in his favour he was the champion of the people, his legislation was central to their progression.
But, his decision to cross the Rubicon was made for sheer political gain than anything else, as I said a braver man would have gone to trial. In my opinion his ability to fit unforeseen circumstances into a grand plan was second to none among his contemporaries. He utilised the Germans’ dread of battle with him and forced them to fight; taking advantage of their fear of losing. Although he adopted bribery and corruption in order to persuade and win over his officials in Rome such as Publius Clodius, it worked, he was extremely effective. But, he failed to induce the Senate to his side.
His lack of ability in this area doomed him to failure. Caesar was particularly excellent at maintaining morale within his camp, by ignoring the criticism of the Senate and experiencing the same hardships as his legionnaires he earned their respect and admiration. Finally, his choice in subordinates was again brilliant; Mark Antony crossed the Adriatic through storms and avoided the Republican navy to reinforce Caesar during the civil war. But on the other hand, during his dictatorship his appointment of Marcus Brutus and others to his government was a grave error.
If he had dispatched or exiled his opponents as Sulla had done it is arguable that he would not have been assassinated. But, on these criteria it must be asked whether it is fair that Caesar is judged by them? Roman morals and values were not dissimilar to our modern morals and values, Caesar governed a society that demanded as much from its leaders as we do now. They were expected to act in the same way as ours, the only difference being that our military leaders are not so prominent in the public eye as to the Romans. Caesar was certainly a man capable of individual excellence in all these areas.
But together he was not perfect enough to avoid murder. 25 The actions governed by his integrity doomed him to failure. The question of whether Julius Caesar was an effective leader is difficult to answer; there are many things to consider. He was certainly an extremely ingenuous and proficient military commander suffering few setbacks and extending the limits of Rome’s influence in six short years, the most successful man to campaign in Gaul. In that sense he was a very efficient and effective leader, but it has to be taken into account more than just his military life.
Arguably his biggest failure was his inability to gather support among the leading men of Rome or to remove them; to them Caesar’s actions were beyond reproach. 26 Their constant opposition to his leadership and his own impulsiveness served to his downfall in 44BC. 27 His personality held aspects which could be viewed as weaknesses when in Roman politics; compassion, trust in others and lack of ruthlessness. So, really and truly, returning to the question of whether he can be regarded as an effective leader because he was assassinated.
To this question I conclude that it does make him ineffective, the true cause of his assassination according to Freeman was his style of dictatorship, that his government accepted everyone, and therefore caused resentment among those who had followed him and his reconciled enemies. The men who killed him were a mixture of both his longest serving deputies and his former enemies, as examples Trebonius and Cassius respectively. If he had taken on a separate style of dictatorship or not one at all then he could have achieved his aims and not been assassinated.
In the context of effective leaders he was not as apt politically as militarily. He was certainly impressive in achieving his aims but his methods were callous.
Bibliography Barrage Marketing. Discussing the qualities of an effective leader. [Online]: http://barragemarketing. com/? p=52498 [accessed 01/08/2011]. Caesar. The conquest of Gaul. Penguin. 1982. Carson. R. A. G. The Ides of March History Today. 7:3 (1957:Mar) Dando-Collins. STD. The Ides Caesar’s Murder and the War for Rome. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2010. Fox. RLF.
The Classical World An Epic History of Greece and Rome. Penguin Books. 2006. Gelzer. M. Caesar: Politician and Statesman. Trans. Needham. P. Harvard University Press. 1968 Grant. M. The Twelve Caesars. Scribner. 1975. Philip Freeman. P. F. Julius Caesar. JR Books. 2008. Tom Holland. T H. Rubicon the Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. Abacus. 2004. Knox. E. L. S. The Roman Revolution. [Online]. Boise State University: http://www. boisestate. edu/courses/westciv/romanrev/18. shtml [Accessed 05/08/2011] Langguth. A. J. A Noise Of War. Simon and Schuster. 1994. Mich.
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