Julius Caesar (c. 100-49 BC)
A man named Julius Caesar. Shrewd and intensive, the future dictator clearly saw his path to power. Only by victory on the battlefield could a politician hope to be taken seriously as a leader in Rome.
Now 40 years old, Caesar needed a war to consolidate his power. The obvious choice was to make one of his very own in a place called Gaul (modern day France).
Senate named governor of three provinces- the only parts of Gaul that Rome controlled.
In 58 BC, on the excuse of stopping a Gaelic tribe from entering Roman territory Caesar moved his legions into Gaul. For the next decade the bold general does what he set out to do- conquer.
Tribe after tribe in battle after battle, Caesar prevailed against the Gauls again and again. By Caesar’s own accounts, it was a slaughter.
Caesar as a Military Leader
He is considered one of history’s greatest generals, he was not seen as a tactical genius. Instead, he had incredible fortitude and a genius for inspiring others.
Caesar won his soldiers’ devotion by fighting, eating, marching with them. He slept on the ground, as they did.
The Battle of Alesia
Today it is called Alise-Sainte-Reine in modern France. In 52 BC, is known as Alesia, the decisive battleground in Caesar’s campaign.
The Gauls were united under a legendary warrior. A Chief called Vercingetorix.
For Caesar this is the moment of truth. He surrounds Alesia, but he’s taken by surprise when Gallic reinforcements attack from behind.
Caesar fought two armies at once. He was outnumbered 5 to 1, but Caesar’s troops eventually win the battle, capturing the infamous Vercingetorix.
This was the last stand for the Gauls. Caesar’s victory made him one of the two most powerful men in Rome and the world.
Struggle for Rome
The other was Gnaeus Pompey (106-48 BC) long a rival of Caesar.
The struggle between these two who thrust Rome into a struggle for its own survival. The Senate recalled Caesar to Rome. He was ordered to leave his legions behind.
He was between a rock and a hard place.
He had to go to Rome. If he went unprotected he’d almost certainly be murdered by Pompey’s supporters. He believed he had no other choice but to call on the loyalty of his men.
In 49 BC, in bold defiance of the Senate, took his army out of Gaul across an unassuming little stream. The moment his army, crossed the Rubicon, his intent became obvious to all.
Caesar was marching on Rome and into Civil War, the army of one Roman generals against another- legion against legion. Caesar defeated Pompey, but this bloody struggle for power raged on.
Even after he was stabbed to death by the Senate in 44 BC, Civil War and anarchy tore Rome apart. For two decades, Romans by the thousands died by Roman swords, as one general after general entered the fray.
Agrippa, Lepidus, Brutus, Cassius, Marc Antony and Cleopatra against Octavian.
Until one man emerged triumphant.
He called himself Augustus (63 BC- 14 AD), Rome’s first emperor. The Republic was dead, Rome was now an empire ruled by a sole dictator.
The Army, at last, had a single commander, and Rome, at last, had peace. For a time, Augustus solved the problem of the army’s loyalty, by making himself the sole commander.
Rome’s first emperor, understood that to control Rome you had to control the military. The growth of the empire had slowed. Defending the borders was a gargantuan and expensive task.
Rome begins to realize that her expansion is not limitless. In his will, Augustus warns future rulers of the danger of too large an empire.
Growth of an Empire
Roman territory continues to increase- in the 1st Century AD, but at a far slower rate. Augustus added Egypt and extended the northern border to the Danube. Claudius added Britain in 43 AD.
He lost some grounds in later uprisings. Rebellions in the provinces become more frequent. More and more, voices were dissent were rising from a culture who despised Rome’s tyranny as never before.
Revolts were not a threat to supremacy, but they began to spark a change in the military’s role. Scattered uprisings continued to trouble the empire.
Little by little turning Rome’s great army from an army of conquest to one of occupation. Trajan (53 AD-117 AD) was last the Roman Emperor to substantially add to the empire.
Under his rule in 17 AD, Rome’s empire reached 2 million square miles. Trajan modern day Romania, Armenia and lands to the east.
Expanding the empire to its greatest size ever. Rome briefly held territory as far east as the Persian Gulf.
Legions patrolled a vast frontier. From the edges of the Sahara Desert to the edge of the Carpathian Mountains.
Solidifying the Empire
From the point on Rome shored up her empire. Days of conquest were over.
Hadrian (76 AD-138 AD) who formalized this policy. The walls were only partially successful against a threat that would torment Rome until the end.
Barbarians at the Gate
Romans called all people who don’t have a written language “barbarians.” No one knows why they began to pour into Southern Europe during the 2nd Century AD.
Maybe climate change, population growth or perhaps the prosperity of Rome brought them. Little by little with the tribes coming in pressured mounted on nearly every frontier.
When Germans tribes attacked Rome’s borders in 166 AD it marked a bleak milestone.
First time since Hannibal’s invasion the empire was on the defensive. For the next century, wave after wave of tribes followed the Germans into Roman territory- Goths, Franks, Persians, Parthians, Visigoths and more.
The edges of the empire would crumble into there was no more empire to penetrate. The dam had spring not one but a thousand leaks.
By the 3rd century AD barbarians were only one of the mounting crisis.
It was a time when an Emperor was far more likely to be assassinated than to die of an old age. Rulers frequently left no clear successor to the throne.
Once again, the affections became central to political power. It was a recipe for anarchy and disaster.
Feuding legions claimed 30 different emperors in just 23 years. Civil Wars broke out frequently. The Legions impressive battle record was slipping.
It was not the end of Rome, not yet. It was the beginning of the end.
The Legions were not no longer an invincible fighting machine that once conquered the world. The frontiers of the empire were no longer impenetrable. Rome herself could no longer be said to rule the world.
Boak, A. E. (2010 ). A History of Rome TO 565 AD. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
de la Bédoyère, G. (2006). The Romans for Dummies. West Sussex, England : John Wiley & Sons.