Thanet Writers Spotlight Julius Caesar

Seb Reilly highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and politician Julius Caesar, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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The history of Thanet in writing is intrinsically linked to the records of Ancient Britain. Britain was first mentioned in writing by Pytheas of Massalia, a Greek geographer and explorer, who tracked Britain’s coastline around 325BC, during which he named the promontory of Kantion, which at the time was the land of the Cantii, and in modern vernacular is the county of Kent. Thanet was not noted in writing until Julius Solinus some six hundred years later in the 3rd Century, when he named the Isle of Thanet as Thanaton, or Athanaton, as no poisonous snakes or venomous creatures would live on it. Between the two, however, one writer documents a specific bay in Thanet in great detail, though he does not name the area. That writer was arguably the most famous Roman, Julius Caesar.

Perhaps most famous as the first Caesar of Rome—in a dictatorial capacity—Caesar was a populist leader who pushed a rhetoric of being a man of the people. He fought against the elitism of the Senate and ruled through military force. As both a politician and a military tactician, Caesar was highly gifted, yet as often happens with self-imposed leaders his downfall was dramatic and final.

The name ‘Caesar’ had multiple ancestral origin stories, including an ancestor born by caesarean section (from caedere, the Latin verb ‘to cut’), born with a thick head of hair (caesaries in Latin), born with bright grey eyes (oculis caesiis in Latin), or who killed an elephant in battle (elephant is caesai in Moorish). Whilst the actual answer may not even have been known to Julius Caesar, he obviously favoured one story as he issued coins that featured elephants.

Caesar’s visit to Thanet, which predates the earliest discovered Roman writings in Britain by eleven years, came during his campaign to conquer Western Europe, which he documented in Book IV of an eight-book volume called Commentarii de Bello Gallico, or Commentaries on the Gallic War. This was reportedly written by Caesar’s own hand, and was an account of his triumphs over several years recorded in third-person, with Caesar as the protagonist and hero.

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The events that led to Caesar landing upon Thanet’s shores are varied, but can be traced back to single moment early in his political career, after Caesar’s entry into high-level politics in his early thirties. His wife died shortly after he took up a political role, and following her funeral Caesar travelled to Hispania, in what is now southern Spain. There he came face to face with a statue of Alexander the Great. Realising he was the same age as Alexander had been when the statue was carved, Caesar became infuriated at how little he had accomplished in comparison. He vowed to increase his influence and power, and requested he be discharged from his duties so he could return to Rome. This request was granted, and Caesar returned. He married Pompeia, the granddaughter of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a now-deceased family-friend and former dictator of the Roman Republic. With Alexander the Great still on his mind, Julius Caesar set to work.

Caesar was appointed curator of one of the oldest Roman roads that led into Rome and took out huge loans to reconstruct it. He amassed incredible debts, yet his efforts meant voters coming to Rome would see the work he had done before they even arrived in the city. He was elected to higher office, and borrowed more to put on impressive games, outshining his rivals. He was suspected of being involved in two attempted coups, though neither went much beyond the planning stages and no proof of his involvement was presented. He was also accused of bribery in order to sit as a judge at a notable trial, which brought him further public attention. Caesar then ran as Pontifex Maximus—the chief priest of the Roman state religion—and won with a comfortable majority against two older, more experienced candidates. His campaign had put him even further into debt, but he now had an official residence and was a political heavyweight, and as a politician he was not liable for his debts, unlike private citizens.

With his newfound status, Caesar was able to wield greater influence amongst the controlling elites of the Roman Republic. He was accused by some of his detractors of participating in a grand conspiracy to seize control of the Republic, which he denied, and after a subsequent investigation he was found to be without guilt. Those who were—including one of his accusers—were executed. Caesar ascended to praetor, or magistrate, reaching the same political title as his father had before him.

Caesar again courted controversy when the festival of the Bona Dea was held at his official residence. It was a women-only event, yet a young man disguised himself as a woman and gained entry so he could attempt to seduce Caesar’s wife, Pompeia. He was caught and prosecuted, though at the trial Caesar did not give evidence, as the young man’s family was one of the most powerful in Rome. This gained Caesar favour, but brought about his divorce, as he decided his wife must be above suspicion.

Caesar was appointed to govern Hispania Ulterior, but before he could leave Rome he needed to satisfy his creditors. He asked one of Rome’s richest men, Marcus Licinius Crassus, to help, in exchange for political support. Caesar then left to take the role before his term as praetor had ended to avoid becoming a private citizen and therefore open to being prosecuted for his debts. In this new role, and thanks to his leadership and conquests, he was hailed as imperator by his troops. He also reformed debt law. By the time he returned to Rome, the senate had agreed with his troops and offered him the title of imperator. This would mean returning to Rome in triumph with public celebrations, but he would need to wait outside the city until the election for the next two consuls—the most senior magistrates in the Republic—was over. Caesar wanted to stand for consul but was not allowed to in absentia, so he declined the title of imperator and rejected the triumph, instead standing for and winning the election.

As consul, Caesar enacted several changes, the most notable of which being the redistribution of public lands to the poor, which was achieved through some tactical alliances. He also safeguarded his own position and immunity from prosecution for the irregularities that occurred whilst he was in office. Soon after he completed his term he left to govern the provinces he had assigned himself throughout southern Europe.

By his mid-forties Caesar was in charge of four legions, yet was in significant personal debt. Initially, he set out to quell potential discord in Gaul (France). This escalated, leading to a series of military campaigns known as the Gallic Wars. For posterity, Caesar documented these campaigns as the eight-book volume Commentarii de Bello Gallico. Due to a lack of alternative viewpoints, Caesar’s accounts are taken as fairly accurate, though the obvious bias to himself and his own glory needs to be considered. As a gifted orator, Caesar knew how to spin a yarn, and even in defeat—which, admittedly, was rare—he appears magnanimous and, to some degree, the victor.

Following extensive battles throughout Gaul and the surrounding territories, Caesar reached the northern coast of what is now France. Across the channel he could see a thin sliver of coastline, illuminated white from the cliffs. He knew of Britain from the writings of Pytheas—as an educated man he would have studied these—but the coast of mainland Europe was the edge of the known world and many Romans believed Pytheas’ documenting of Britain to be an elaborate hoax. Caesar could now see it with his own eyes, and imaging the glory of not only discovering, but conquering this new land, assembled his armies to cross the Channel.

A tribune was sent, but he dared not land as he did not wish to abandon himself and his ship to the barbarians he could see watching him from the coastline, so he instead returned, and Caesar set out across the water in full force.

Initially Caesar’s boats attempted to land at Dover but, as they neared the natural harbour, they were faced with armed Britons amassing on the clifftops. Caesar could see the disadvantage of landing on lower ground, and of being so outnumbered, so instead the fleet travelled along the coast to an area of open bay, where they dropped anchor. Recent archaeological studies have concluded that was Ebbsfleet, which is an area in Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet.

As Caesar’s boats arrived at the bay, the Britons gathered to fight, riding horse-drawn chariots up and down the beach and generally being scary barbarian-types. The Romans were unfamiliar with chariots, though obviously the idea stuck as after Caesar’s return they became increasingly popular within the military and the games.

The battle itself was documented in great detail by Caesar, and it was one he almost lost. The Romans got out of their boats and the Britons attacked, nearly defeating them in the shallows. It was only when the Romans fired catapults from the boats—forcing the Britons back—that the infantry reached the dry ground of the beach where they were able to enact their highly efficient military manoeuvres and beat the Britons, and even that is only based on Caesar’s own writing. He stated himself he was unable to pursue them, and instead they set up a large camp, remains of which were recently discovered.

The ferocious tides and harsh weather of the British coastline caught Caesar—a Mediterranean native—by surprise, and soon his troops were running low on food. Many of the boats had been damaged by the weather, with some wrecked completely. The Britons then returned and attacked again, hoping to force Caesar into staying through the winter, putting them in a position of strength. Eventually, after a long period of attacks, negotiations began.

With winter on its way, Caesar retreated to Gaul, and had hostages shipped to him across the Channel. Even then, only two tribes felt threatened by Caesar; the rest ignored his requests for hostages entirely. If Caesar had been planning an invasion, he quickly rewrote his motivations to instead show it as a reconnaissance-in-force beyond the known world. This brought him much acclaim, and also brought the Romans to the attention of the British kings.

The following year, Caesar returned with eight hundred ships, and landed once again on the south coast of Thanet. He immediately marched on Kent, and through a series of battles and skirmishes eventually took the county, bringing the four kings into a state of truce and agreeing a tribute. He then left, with all his forces, as winter was once again approaching. The Romans did not return for nearly a century.

Despite Caesar’s ‘man of the people’ rhetoric, he was raised privileged. Forty-six years before first invading Thanet, he was born Gaius Julius Caesar in Rome on 13th July 100BC to the Julia family, one of the most ancient and powerful gens—or patrician families—in Ancient Rome. The family line claimed descent from Iulus, who was the son of Aeneas, the legendary Trojan prince, and supposedly child of the goddess Venus. Caesar’s father, also named Gaius Julius Caesar, was a praetor and governor or the Asian province. His mother, Aurelia Cotta, was a plebeian of the gens Aurelii Cottae, a highly influential political dynasty. In some respects, Julius Caesar was born to rule.

Caesar grew up around war, with his coming-of-age years taking place during the Social War between the Roman Republic and smaller Italian tribes. At the same time, Roman politics was fiercely divided into two factions: the optimates and the populares. Neither were official political parties, but rather two sides of a wide-ranging political spectrum. Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius, was an outspoken popularis who advocated for reform in the interests of the people and promoted the authority of the Popular Assemblies. Gaius Marius’ protégé, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was an optimas who promoted the authority of the Senate. During Caesar’s childhood these two sides had pushed further towards extremes. As Caesar came into his teenage years the rivalry between Marius and Sulla led to civil war, including Sulla marching his army upon Rome—the first time an army had ever marched upon the city—which inevitably made a great impression upon the young Julius Caesar. Sulla took control of Rome, but later left on a military campaign and Marius returned with an ally, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, and a new army, seizing control and purging the city of Sulla’s supporters.

At the age of sixteen Caesar became head of the family, as his father died for no apparent reason whilst putting his shoes on. A year later he was nominated to become the new high priest of Jupiter, as the previous incumbent had been killed by Marius’ followers. Marius himself had died a few years prior, but his populist ideals still stood in place, and Cinna was now consul to the Roman Republic. To become the new high priest, Caesar had to be a patrician and also married to a patrician, so he ended his betrothal engagement and married Cornelia, Cinna’s daughter. As part of his new position, Caesar was not allowed to touch a horse, sleep outside his own bed for three nights or outside Rome for even one, or look upon an army.

A few years later, Sulla returned to Rome and, at the Battle of the Colline Gate, seized the city and control over the Republic. Cinna was killed by his own soldiers in a munity, and Sulla appointed himself dictator, a position traditionally allotted for six months, but with no term limit. Statues of Marius were torn down, and Marius’ body was removed from its grave and thrown in the River Tiber. As Marius’ nephew and Cinna’s son-in-law, Caesar was targeted and had his dowry, inheritance, and priesthood stripped. Refusing to divorce his wife, Caesar went into hiding, and was later spared from further repercussions thanks to his mother’s appeals on his behalf. Aurelia Cotta’s family supported Sulla, and with their considerable political weight she was able to lift the threat.

To avoid further antagonising the new dictator, and now free from the regulations of the priesthood, Caesar enlisted in the army. He served on several campaigns and found a natural home in the army, winning the Civic Crown for serving with distinction.

Sulla later re-established consular government and resigned his dictatorship, retired, and died a year later. Caesar returned to Rome, mocking Sulla for surrendering rule. He used his military earnings to purchase a small house in a lower-class neighbourhood of Rome called Subura and turned his career to legal advocacy. He became known for his public speaking, ruthlessly prosecuting former governors for corruption and extortion. He then travelled to Rhodes to study under Apollonius Molon, the man who taught the legendary Roman writer and orator Cicero.

In something of a final adventure before beginning the political career that would define his life, Caesar was kidnapped by pirates on the Aegean Sea. He was held captive for thirty-eight days on a small island, during which he treated the pirates as inferior. He wrote poetry and read it to them, dismissing them as illiterate barbarians if they criticised his work. The pirates found his arrogance highly entertaining, especially his promises of crucifying them upon his release, which they took as a joke as they had treated him well. When they came to ask for a ransom of twenty talents of gold, he demanded they instead ask for fifty, which was then paid. He was released, and immediately raised a fleet to pursue and capture them in an act of vengeance. Once they were imprisoned, Caesar requested their execution, but the governor of Asia refused, so Caesar travelled to the prison and had them crucified under his own authority. As an act of leniency, he had their throats cut during the crucifixions.

Caesar returned to Rome during the war with Spartacus, though he was not involved. He was elected military tribune and took his first formal step into politics which, combined with his military nous, would lead him to eventually land upon Thanet’s coastline.

Following Caesar’s two invasions of Britain, he continued to wage campaigns throughout mainland Europe. By the time he reached fifty years of age he had increased territories across most frontiers, as well as going where none had gone before, and was regarded either as a military hero or a vain imperialist investing in self-aggrandisement. In total, Caesar’s armies had fought against three million men—killing one million and enslaving another million—as well as subjugating three hundred tribes, destroying eight hundred cities, and twice invading one mythical island. He was ordered by the senate to disband his armies and return to Rome, as his term as governor was complete.

Due to his spiralling debts, Caesar believed he would be prosecuted if he entered Rome as a private citizen. Having spent his younger years holding former politicians to account, he was also aware he may face consequences for his bending of legal principles. Caesar reached the Rubicon river—the boundary of then Italy—and considered his next move. After some deliberation, he crossed the Rubicon with a single legion of around three and a half thousand men, and in doing so ignited civil war.

Caesar marched on Rome, seizing control in a series of battles, and was appointed dictator, with Marc Anthony named his second-in-command. Caesar called an election for counsel, which he presided over and, of course, won. He then resigned his dictatorship and travelled to Egypt to pursue a former ally who had turned on him. He arrived, army in tow, and was presented with the severed head of his quarry, which brought him to tears. Caesar then became involved in the Egyptian civil war between the pharaoh—who was a child—and Cleopatra; his sister, wife, and co-regent queen. Caesar sided with Cleopatra and assisted her forces, presenting a united front against the pharaoh and—after much bloodshed—installing her as ruler. Caesar became enamoured with the luxurious lifestyle of the Egyptian rules, and with Cleopatra herself. He and Cleopatra had a son, though he did not marry her as he was already married. Their relationship continued for some years.

The Roman Republic increased in size considerably as Caesar continued to wage campaigns, extending into Africa and the Middle East. He was elected to serve a third term as consul, then a fourth but alone and without a colleague. Caesar had a habit of pardoning his enemies instead of prosecuting them, leading to almost universal support within the senate. Honours were bestowed upon him, and he was appointed dictator for ten years.

When he finally returned to Rome, Caesar started to make political reforms. He began the process of bringing the Roman principalities together into a single cohesive empire, as well as giving himself greater authority until he was emperor in all but name. He also changed the focus of political roles such as magistrates so instead of representing the people, they represented him.

Caesar’s life ended on the Ides of March, a few months shy of his fifty-sixth birthday. He was due to appear at a session of the senate, but several senators—including his trusted allies—had conspired against him. Marc Anthony learned of the plot the night before and attempted to warn Caesar, but was intercepted and fled as he heard the commotion. Inside the chamber, Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times. The conspirators thought this would end his iron-fist rule, however instead it was the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire. Caesar was the first Roman ruler to be deified, and the month of his birth—July—was named after him, as was the title ‘Caesar.’

All of Caesar’s campaigns after the Gallic Wars were documented by him in a similar style, and sent back to Rome in books to be presented as records of his achievements. He wrote five volumes in total, each consisting of multiple books. His influence on politics is still felt today, as it has helped shape modern western politics and political manoeuvring. His military tactics are also still acknowledged as ahead of their time. His writing has kept much of this alive, as has his legacy. Despite his many flaws, his driving ambition saw him conquer half the known world. He was, if anything, notable, and there is still much to be learned from him.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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