The formation of the Triumvirate (Caesar, Pompey and Crassus) was already a step in the direction of undermining and overthrowing the Republic and replacing it with the rule of one man. But relations within the Triumvirate were now beginning to crack. The question was really very simple. Who would be the future ruler of Rome?
Crossing the Rubicon
The conquest of Gaul enabled Caesar to amass an even more fabulous fortune than that of Pompey. He succeeded in strengthening his political base in Rome, and at the same time he directed the attentions of the people towards new horizons. Hitherto the conquest of the world had reached only to the circle of the Alps. Although his two expeditions to Britain did not leave any tangible results, they enormously enhanced his prestige. In going beyond the established bounds, Caesar opened a new scene of achievement, extending even to the foggy shores of Britain – at the very boundary of the known world.
He returned to Rome to celebrate his triumph with an astonishing display of gold, silver, slaves and other loot. With this plunder he was able to pay off his debts and then bribe the mob and create a mass of political clients. Always the astute politician, Caesar played upon the seething discontent of the lumpenproletariat in order to build up the Caesarist party in Rome. Together with a powerful army of soldiers hardened by years of war in Gaul, he had a strong base from which to launch his bid for power. Caesar’s main base was always the army.
The formation of the Triumvirate (Caesar, Pompey and Crassus) was already a step in the direction of undermining and overthrowing the Republic and replacing it with the rule of one man. But relations within the Triumvirate were now beginning to crack. The question was really very simple. Who would be the future ruler of Rome? Pompey was now once more the favoured candidate of the senate and the aristocracy, who saw in him a counterweight to Caesar. The latter was away in Gaul, where his victories were so many stepping stones on the road to power. For the senatorial party, this was now the main danger.
At this point the Triumvirate suffered a mortal blow. Crassus, the man who defeated Spartacus, was desperate to win military glory that could compare with that of Pompey and Caesar (a victory over an army of slaves was somehow not sufficient). He therefore set out for the East, where he participated in a campaign against the Parthians. But things did not turn out as he anticipated. In 53 BC his legions were defeated at Carrhae (now Harran in Turkey) by a smaller Parthian force made up of armoured heavy cavalry and horse archers. Later the Parthians lured him into their camp, where he was seized and murdered. It was said that the Parthians poured molten gold into his mouth as a symbol of his thirst for riches. If it is true, it was a fitting end for the man who killed Spartacus and had thousands of slaves crucified.
With this blow, the Triumvirate was dead. Now a struggle opened up between Caesar and Pompey for control of the Republic. In the persons of Pompey and Caesar the two rival focal points in the state came into hostile opposition. Pompey had at one time been a supporter of Sulla and the aristocracy, but subsequently flirted with the populares and became a close ally of Caesar. Now he joined the senate, and appeared as the defender of the Republic and the aristocratic party. On the other side stood Caesar with his legions. This contest between the two most powerful individualities could not be decided by peaceful debates in the senate.
Caesar was the supreme political opportunist, a man who knew how to subordinate means to ends, always acting with great resolve and the most unerring perspicuity, and executing his plans calmly, with the greatest vigor and practical skill. For Hegel, Caesar was right because “he furnished a mediating element, and that kind of political bond which men’s condition required.” In other words, Caesar balanced between the two opposing forces. But in the process, he concentrated all power into his hands. This is the real meaning of Caesarism.
The class basis of Caesarism
Caesar the adventurer attracted to his banner all kinds of discontented elements, as Syme explains:
“When Caesar went to war with the government, avid and desperate men in his party terrified the holders of property. But not for long – they were a minority and could be held in check. The cause of Caesar’s heir was purely revolutionary in origin, attracting all the enemies of society – old soldiers who had dissipated gratuities and farms, fraudulent financiers, unscrupulous freedmen, ambitious sons of ruined families from the local gentry of the towns of Italy. The hazards were palpable, and so were the rewards – land, money and power, the estates and prerogatives of the nobility for their enjoyment, and the daughters of patricians for their brides.” (Ronald Syme, The Roman revolution, p.130, my emphasis, AW.)
These were the shock troops that he used as a battering ram to shatter the senate’s hold over state power. But the real class basis of Caesarism was not the lumpenproletarian rabble in Rome, but a section of the oligarchy: not the old established aristocratic families that dominated the senate and opposed him at every step, but that class of Roman capitalists, the “new men”, the bankers and financiers, especially in the provinces, who felt excluded from power and recognition and were greedy to lay their hands on the fruits of state power. These rich men imagined that they were using Caesar and the mob to advance their own interests, whereas in reality Caesar was using them (and their money) to grab power for himself. This relation has been repeated many times in later history, and has a close parallel with the relationship between the French bourgeoisie and Louis Bonaparte, and that between the German capitalist class and Hitler.
In spite of everything, Caesar was in difficulties. The murder of Clodius had weakened the leadership of the Popular Party. Cicero was using his very considerable oratorical and literary skills to attack Caesar. They had now succeeded in detaching Pompey from Caesar and were using his considerable authority to oppose him. His enemies still controlled the senate and Pompey’s army was still intact. Moreover Caesar’s conquests in Gaul were not as sure as they seemed. At any time, one or other of the tribes might rise up in revolt against the Roman oppressors.
Under these circumstances, it was essential for Caesar to keep hold of his office – and his army. If he lost his position even for a short time, he would be open to prosecution by his enemies at Rome:
“If he gave way now, it was the end. Returning to Rome a private citizen, Caesar would at once be prosecuted by his enemies for extortion or treason. They would secure lawyers reputed for eloquence, high principle and patriotism. Cato was waiting for him, rancorous and incorruptible. A jury carefully selected, with moral support from soldiers of Pompeius stationed around the court, would bring in the inevitable verdict. After that, nothing for Caesar but to join the exiled Milo at Massilia and enjoy the red mullet and Hellenic culture of that university city. Caesar was constrained to appeal to his army for protection.” (Ronald Syme, The Roman revolution, p.48.)
Syme’s analysis is obviously correct. But it is open to serious doubt whether Caesar would be allowed to go into a comfortable exile where he could enjoy the fish cuisine for the rest of his days. It was far more likely that his enemies in Rome would hand him over to the public executioner. The question therefore arose as to what would happen when the period of his office was over. Would he voluntarily give up control of his legions? Here the question of state power as armed bodies of men emerges with full force.
In June 51 BC the question of Caesar’s military leadership in Gaul was raised in the Senate. In the meantime, Pompey let it be known that he also had his differences with Caesar. It was now clear that the destiny of Rome would be settled in an open struggle between the two generals. Although the senate was theoretically in command, in reality it was already a spent force. It could issue decrees and make eloquent speeches, but ultimately everything boiled down to a show of naked force. Not speeches and resolutions, but swords and lances would decide matters.
Despite this evident fact, the senators continued to play out the constitutional farce. The strange and incurable disease, which Marx described as parliamentary cretinism, is by no means a modern invention. In November 50 BC the senators solemnly voted (by 370 votes to 22) that both Pompey and Caesar should dissolve their armies. Since neither man had the slightest intention of doing such a thing, this was a pointless exercise. In any case, it was clear that the senate needed Pompey’s legions to use against Caesar. This is shown by the fact that the Consul elected that year took the step of leaving Rome and placing a sword in Pompey’s hands.
For his part, Caesar showed that he understood how to play the game of constitutionalism as well as the senate. He sent letters to Rome laying out all the legal arguments that would justify his retaining control of his legions. The consul Lentulus, who belonged to the aristocratic party, proposed a motion in the senate that Caesar must lay down his military command by a specific date. This proposal was vetoed subsequently by the Tribunes, one of them a young supporter of Caesar called Marc Anthony. The time for constitutional ballet dancing was now clearly over. On 7th January Lentulus proposed the application of the so-called ultimate decree against those tribunes who had vetoed his proposal. Marc Anthony and his comrades understood the meaning of this and fled from Rome to join Caesar.
As a commander Caesar made use of the same psychological skills he had used in getting a mass base in Rome. He won popularity with his troops who thus became loyal to his person. He cemented this by promising them land. The Senate in Rome guessed his intentions and moved to prosecute him for his conduct as consul. A test of wills followed. The senate ordered him to return to Rome. He refused. This was tantamount to a declaration of war. Cicero, who hated Caesar, raged against “this insane, miserable fellow”. Finally, the senate sent Pompey to oppose the rebel, arms in hand.
Caesar responded by a characteristically daring gesture. He was now in Cisalpine Gaul, with a relative small number of troops. It would seem that he stood no chance against Pompey’s legions. Yet he did not hesitate for a second. On 10th January he reached the little river Rubicon which traditionally constituted the northern frontier of Italy. To cross it at the head of an army would be an act of open rebellion. With a theatrical gesture and the famous words “the die is cast” he crossed the river. Typically, even the words he used come from the gambler’s vocabulary. That immortal phrase meant simply: there is no turning back. The civil war had started.
Caesar balances between the classes
Cicero, who stood for the Republic – that is to say, the interests of the old aristocratic senatorial party - was playing a double game. He had sided with Pompey because he hoped to use his old enemy to crush Caesar, after which the senate could dispose of Pompey and return to business as usual. The spectacle of civil war between the two erstwhile allies filled him with ill-concealed glee:
“The point at issue is this, and it is over this that the men in power are going to fight: Pompey has made up his mind not to let Caesar be elected consul without his first surrendering army and provinces, while Caesar is convinced that his personal security depends on his keeping his army … So their old love-affair and their detestable alliance have not decayed into furtive bickering but have erupted into open war.” (Cicero, Letters to Friends, VIII, 14.)
Cicero and the senate thought that Cesar could be easily defeated. They thought they could count on the cities of northern Italy to resist Caesar’s advance. They were mistaken. Despite their numerical disadvantage, Caesar’s forces advanced rapidly, meeting with little resistance. Part of the reason for this was that Italy had been plundered and exploited for too long, and the provincials were now utterly indifferent to the fate of Rome and its Senate. The other reason was that Caesar’s agents had already bribed the Latin cities to stay out of the conflict.
Cicero complained bitterly that many wealthy Latin families were only too pleased to accept this offer to remain neutral in the civil war. As often happens in history, the men of wealth were not anxious to place their lands and fortunes at stake even in a conflict in which their class interests were involved. Even in Rome many wealthy families that had supported the senate tried to remain neutral once the fighting began in earnest. They tried to remain on good terms with both sides, until it became clear which side was more likely to win.
Always a smart politician, Caesar encouraged these wavering enemies in the belief that he was not so bad after all. He spread the idea that he was a defender of Liberty and that the name of Caesar was synonymous with “clemency”. To back up this impression, he sent letters to Pompey offering peace on the most generous terms. Even his most implacable enemy Cicero was fooled by this and agreed to act as mediator between the two generals. But this was all a farce designed to win time for Caesar and disarm the enemy.
Unlike Cicero, Pompey was not fooled. Alarmed at Caesar’s rapid advance (he had expected more help from the Latins), Pompey hastily left the City and went South to the port of Brindisium, where he set sail for Greece. He sent messages to the senate that this was just a tactical move to gather the necessary forces in the provinces with which to defend Rome. As a matter of fact, this was probably true. Thinking in purely military terms, Pompey realised that it was pointless to try to make a stand against Caesar in Italy. His idea was to regroup his armies in Greece, from which he could command the riches of the East and slowly strangle Rome by cutting of its supplies of corn from Egypt. This was not a bad idea. After all, how long could Caesar retain his support of the Roman populace once they had no bread to eat?
Pompey’s military reasoning may have been sound, but politically his decision to abandon Rome was a disaster, and in a civil war, factors relating to politics and morale play an even more decisive role than in other wars. To the senate and the people of Rome it looked like panic and an act of cowardly betrayal. Caesar’s veteran army, hardened by years of warfare in Gaul, sliced through the opposition like a hot knife through butter. The senate’s resistance collapsed. Towns and villages opened their gates along the way and Caesar stood before the gates of Rome, his enemies having fled. The city was now at the mercy of Caesar. The Senate awaited its fate like a condemned man waiting for the morning of his execution, while the populace awaited its Liberator with suppressed elation. Both were in for a surprise.
Caesar’s tactic from the beginning was to manoeuvre between the classes to concentrate the state power into his hands. When in April 49 BC he finally appeared before Rome, he did not order his army to enter and sack the city but, observing the laws and customs, halted respectfully at the gates. The aristocratic party must have been astonished. All of a sudden, the noose that had been tightening around their plump necks, slackened. Yes, Caesar seemed to say to them, I respect the rule of law and the sacred constitutional rights of the Roman Senate. But like so much of the politics of the period this was just play-acting. Caesar was prepared to let the senate retain the shadow of power, and encouraged them in the belief that they were still in charge, as long as he held the real power firmly in his hands.
The real state of affairs was quickly revealed. Caesar was now in complete command of the situation. He entered Rome in triumph at the head of his army. As the crowds roared their adulation, a slave stood behind him on the chariot whispering in his ear: “Remember, you are only a man”. All this was done in the name of the senate and the Roman people. But the senate was powerless in the face of his military might. It meekly named him dictator, which was supposed to be a temporary position for a six-month period.
As always, Caesar’s actions were determined by two fundamental considerations: money and force, and the two were closely linked. His real power base was the legions, but soldiers have to be paid. Ever since he had left Gaul he had been promising to reward his troops handsomely for their services. Unfortunately, although he had huge quantities of loot in Gaul, he lacked ready cash to make good his promises. This had already led to one mutiny and he could not afford discontent among the troops to spread any further. They now held Rome and its treasure within their grasp and there was no time to be lost. Caesar demanded the keys to the Treasury as a matter of urgency. But one of the tribunes, acting in the name of the laws and the constitution, refused, whereupon Caesar showed the precise limits of laws and constitutions by threatening to kill him. Needless to say, the gates of the Treasury were opened rather quickly.
Having established his base in Rome, Caesar now took the initiative on the military front. He first went to Spain where, with some difficulties, he smashed Pompey’s most important base of support. The truth is that at this stage in the conflict, the result was still in the balance and at one point it looked as if Caesar would be defeated. But in the end his adventurer’s luck did not desert him. The stage was now set for the decisive battle against Pompey in Greece, where the latter was attempting to assemble a powerful army.
Caesar had the support of the plebeian masses in Rome and the Popular Party, although he himself was an aristocrat, a member of the tribe of the Julii, one of Rome’s oldest families. He was supposed to be fighting for the rights and freedom of the People, whereas Pompey was supposed to be fighting for the rights and freedom of the senate and to defend the Republic. The problem was that these rights and freedoms were mutually exclusive. The Republic and its institutions had been long monopolised by a privileged aristocracy of slave-holders, and behind the banner of the Republic it was the rights and freedoms of these wealthy exploiters that were what was really being defended.
Caesar made himself master in succession, of Italy, Spain, and Greece, and finally routed his enemy at Pharsalia in Greece. This battle finally decided the destiny of the Roman Republic, although in reality it was settled long before. In reality, Caesar and Pompey represented different factions of the same oligarchy. In the words of Ronald Syme:
“The ambition of generals like Pompeius and Caesar provoked civil war without intending or achieving a revolution. Caesar, being in close contact with powerful financial interests and representatives of the landed gentry, was averse from any radical redistribution of property in Italy. He maintained the grants of Sulla. Further, many of his colonies were established on provincial soil, sparing Italy. A party prevailed when Caesar defeated Pompeius – yet the following of Caesar was by no means homogeneous, and the Dictator stood above parties. He did not champion one class against another. If he had begun a revolution, his next act was to stem its advance, to consolidate the existing order.” (Ronald Syme, The Roman revolution, p.194.)
If Pompey had succeeded in defeating Caesar, the outcome would have not been substantially different. Instead of one gang of marauding Mafiosi, there would have been a different gang in charge. That is all. Almost certainly the dictatorship of Pompey would have been more open and bloody, like that of Sulla, whereas the dictatorship of Caesar was more discrete and hypocritical, and one-man rule was disguised by the fig-leaf of “respect” for the Republic and its laws and constitution. But whoever won, in reality the old Republic was dead. All that was left was a name and an empty husk that was ready to be blown away by the slightest breeze.
“This important change must not be regarded as a thing of chance; it was necessary – postulated by the circumstances. The democratic constitution could no longer be really maintained in Rome, but only kept up in appearance.” (Hegel, op. cit., p. 311)
Cicero and the other leaders of the republican faction attributed the corrupt state of the republic to individuals and their passions. Cato said of Caesar: “His virtues be damned, for they have ruined my country!” They therefore considered that to preserve the Roman Republic was to eliminate its chief adversary. This showed a complete failure to understand the nature of the state and of the Roman State in particular. As Hegel points out:
“But it was not the mere accident of Caesar’s existence that destroyed the Republic – it was Necessity. All the tendencies of the Roman principle were to sovereignty and military force: it contained in it no spiritual centre which it could make the object, occupation, and enjoyment of its Spirit. The aim of patriotism – that of preserving the State – ceases when the lust of personal dominion becomes the impelling passion. The citizens were alienated from the state, for they found in it no objective satisfaction;” (ibid.)
The Republic died because it could no longer exist. In Cicero’s writings we see how all public affairs were decided by the private authority of the more eminent citizens – by their power, their wealth. All political transactions were accompanied by riots, murders and tumult. There was no longer any security for the rich, or satisfaction for the poor. Such conditions, if they are prolonged without any perspective of a lasting solution, inevitably give rise to a yearning for stability, and consequently the emergence of the Party of Order, which must be expressed by subordination of all to a single will: the rule of a Strong Man.
In this civil war many interests were at stake. In most cases on both sides it was a case of naked self-interest, a desire either to defend existing fortunes (frequently the result of the looting and confiscations carried out by previous regimes, notably that of the dictator Sulla) or, on the contrary, to seize the estates and offices of those who held them. But there were some idealists, like Cicero and Brutus, who seemed to be genuinely attached to the cause of Republicanism and were convinced that they were fighting for “freedom”, whereas in the opposing camp there must have been others who believed exactly the same thing.
Among those who had joined Pompey’s force was Cicero, the most outspoken opponent of Caesar, who, however, was shocked by what he saw and heard in Pompey’s camp. Here he soon grasped the reality of the situation as he listened, horrified, to the bragging speeches of Pompey and his officers. “His words were so bloodthirsty that I trembled to think of his victory,” he wrote.
These gangsters were already sharing out the plunder and offices that they would obtain, even before they had won the war. But one little detail had escaped them: the war was not won. Pompey also made a serious political blunder: he had called upon the kings of eastern lands to come to his aid. This was a propaganda gift to Caesar, who, as we have already noted, was a very skilled propagandist. When it became known in Rome that Pompey was enlisting the aid of barbarian kings to conquer Rome, Pompey’s support, already weakened by his desertion of Rome, plummeted, while that of Caesar’s party increased in the same measure.
Revolutions and counterrevolutions are always a struggle of living forces. Pompey was taken by surprise by the rapid reaction of Caesar’s forces, which, against all accepted practice, crossed the sea in the dangerous winter season and enterers Greece with a relatively small force, which was later reinforced by Mark Anthony. On at least two occasions after he landed in Greece it looked as if Caesar had lost. The second of these occasions was the famous battle on the plains of Pharsalia in Thessaly, where, on the ninth of August 48 BC, the two armies met.
Pompey’s forces enjoyed a considerable advantage in numbers. Despite this, the ever-cautious Pompey did not want to engage in combat with Caesar’s veteran army. The fact was that Caesar was in serious difficulties at this point. His supplies were running out, whereas Pompey, who controlled all the main cities, had plenty of food. Therefore, despite the unfavourable balance of forces, Caesar was desperate to provoke a battle there and then, or else withdraw his army. His initial efforts failed to provoke Pompey, who only agreed to go into battle reluctantly under the pressure of the other leaders. These men were arrogant and over-confident, and, unlike Pompey, they underestimated Caesar’s army. They paid a heavy price for this excessive confidence.
The result of this battle was by no means preordained. Pompey commanded 45,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, against Caesar’s total force of 22,000. His troops were well fed and rested, whereas those of Caesar were undernourished, tired after many exertions, and had already suffered one serious defeat at the hands of the Pompeians. On the other hand, Caesar’s troops were seasoned veterans of the Gallic wars, whereas many of the opposite side were inexperienced. Above all, the result of the battle was determined by superior leadership – the over-cautious and defensive Pompey versus the bold and energetic adventurer, Caesar. Here, once again, we see the correctness of Danton’s famous advice to revolutionaries: “Audacity, audacity, and yet more audacity!”
Before the battle, as was usual, Caesar delivered a speech to his troops to boost their morale. The man who rebelled against the legal authority of the senate now attempted to justify his rebellion to his soldiers. According to Lucan, who wrote the most famous account of the battle, he used a most striking phrase: “What, after all, is an illegal act? The answer depends upon who judges it after the battle is over.” (Lucan, Pharsalia, Penguin edition, p. 157) He reassured them that, in spite of the disparity in numbers, the quality of Pompey’s forces was infinitely inferior to their own, appealing to Roman national pride and contempt for foreigners, Greeks and barbarians: “Do not think that you have a serious task ahead of you. Pompey’s army consists largely of levies from the Greek gymnasia, trained in wrestling and athletics but hardly able to carry a full weight of arms and equipment, let alone use them; and of undisciplined barbarians, shouting gibberish to each other, who hate fighting and even marching.” (ibid. p.158)
He also warned them of the consequences of a defeat: “Today will decide whether we are to be or punished for going to war. Picture to yourselves what will happen if Pompey beats us: Caesar dragged off in chains, Caesar crucified, Caesar’s head cut off and displayed on the Rostrum, Caesar’s body left unburied! And do not forget how Sulla behaved, the Sulla against whose pupil Pompey we are fighting the second civil war. He promised to spare 6,000 Marian prisoners, yet butchered them in the voting pens of the Campus Martius.” So defeat would mean certain death, whereas victory would mean an end to all their suffering: “You need not pause to think where you will sleep tonight; Pompey’s troops have comfortable quarters, which you will take over from them.” (ibid. p. 159)
In this battle, Mark Anthony distinguished himself as the leader of Caesar’s army on the left wing. To the astonishment of Pompey, his army gave way and was routed. He never recovered from the blow. After the battle, Pompey complained bitterly that he had been betrayed by the cavalry, who outnumbered Caesar’s mounted troops almost two to one. The bulk of this elite corps was composed of pampered young aristocrats, who entered the battle with the same mentality with which they would go on a fox-hunt. Caesar understood only too well the psychology of these spoilt brats of the rich. He carefully prepared an ambush, concealing a band of infantrymen, who emerged suddenly to confront the enemy cavalry, taking them by surprise.
Caesar advised his soldiers to strike at the faces of the young patricians, because they would be more afraid of good looks spoiled than of being wounded in any other part of their anatomy. This proved to be very sound advice: the Pompeian cavalry panicked and fled, which was a key factor that decided Caesar’s victory. Realising that the battle was lost, Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was immediately murdered on the orders of the rulers of that country, anxious to win the favours of the victors – and keep the Roman army out of Egypt, which was formally an independent state.
The dictatorship of Caesar
News of Caesar’s victory reached Rome in October, but he did not return for a period of nine months. This period was spent in the East, mainly in Egypt where, as is well known, Caesar entered into an amorous relationship with Cleopatra. In addition to fathering a son with the Egyptian princess and putting down a dangerous rebellion, Caesar also led a short and successful military expedition against Parthia (it was at this time that he was supposed to have uttered the celebrated words: “I came, I saw, I conquered” (“Veni, vidi, vici”).
Naturally, in all this time he did not neglect business. His conquests in the East provided him with a new supply of booty, with which to replenish his depleted coffers in Rome. The cash was much needed, since unpaid soldiers are likely to mutiny, which is what they did, forcing him to return to Italy in haste. Marc Anthony did not show his master’s skill in dealing with this situation, probably because his attentions appear to have been fully occupied by a beautiful mistress.
Having secured the East, Caesar returned to Rome with a spectacular triumph, which further strengthened his position and weakened that of his enemies. In the course of four days in August 46 BC huge processions wound their way through the streets of Rome including a statue of Cleopatra together with Venus (who was supposed to be Caesar’s ancestor). After the processions came the games, a lavish spectacle including wild beast hunts, in which for the first time giraffes were seen in Rome. The whole extravaganza ended with a feast. In Caesar’s absence there had been a shortage of grain, and now the populace looked to their saviour to provide all their needs. This extravagant show must have cost him a fortune.
He continued to use his wealth to bribe his opponents and his legions were never far away in the background to intimidate them if that became necessary. Having installed himself as master of Rome, Caesar took care not to push the aristocratic party too far. His measures were surprisingly moderate – and therefore disappointing to the Popular Party.
Unlike his aristocratic forerunner Sulla, and against all expectations, Caesar did not launch a reign of terror, with proscriptions and executions of his enemies and the confiscation of their property. In those cases where estates were taken from his rivals and ended up in the hands of his supporters, they were auctioned or sold. All this was intended to win over the rich and powerful to Caesar’s cause and to neutralise the extreme Republicans. This explains why he so quickly “forgave” many of his enemies and tried to attach them to his cause.
Although he posed as “the People’s Friend”, and had leaned on the masses to strike blows against the Senate and the aristocratic party, Caesar had absolutely no intention of handing power to the lumpenproletariat. That is why, once he was installed at Rome, he made strenuous attempts to conciliate the aristocratic party. This must have come as a disagreeable surprise to his partisans on the streets, who expected to be allowed to loot and burn the houses of the rich as soon as Caesar returned. Instead, he kept strict order on the streets.
In fact, as soon as he was in power Caesar took measures to clip the wings of the Popular Party by banning all clubs and associations unless they had a license (very few did). The dictator was not willing to share power either with the aristocratic or with the Popular Party. Why should he? The new ruler of Rome must appear as a force above all classes, representing “the State”. This is a common feature in all Caesarist or Bonapartist regimes.
He severely restricted the number of people eligible to receive dole in the form of free grain. But the army was another matter. The bill for the army was by now colossal, since every soldier was due to receive the equivalent of a lifetime’s wages, as well as a plot of land. The discontent in the army had already led to more than one mutiny. Caesar could not afford another one. When some of his soldiers protested about the lavish spectacle put on by Caesar on his return from Egypt he had them immediately executed and their heads displayed in the Forum “to encourage the others”. But had to take care to preserve and strengthen his real power base – the army. He therefore used the money looted from the East to pay the soldiers and created new colonies to give to his soldiers land on retirement (a very important objective for a Roman soldier).
To some extent this measure was used to resettle part of the poor population in Rome. This was doubtless a popular measure, which was intended to remind the masses that “Caesar was on the people’s side” and to arouse echoes of the tradition of the Gracchi and the populares in the past. However, these schemes had nothing in common with the revolutionary agrarian policies of the Gracchi. In the first place there must have also have been disappointment that these new lands were not in Italy but in the provinces. By this means Caesar could go some way to satisfying the masses’ hunger for land but without expropriating the big latifundia of the slave-owners in Italy.
The convulsions, revolutions and civil wars of the previous half century meant that many Romans and Italians had fallen seriously into debt, and the hash laws governing such situations threw these men completely at the mercy of voracious money lenders, casting many of them into utter destitution. Caesar was aware of this, and the dangers that it posed to social stability. But what was to be done? He faced a dilemma that was well expressed by the historian Michael Grant:
“On the one hand, something must obviously be done to rescue the ruined debtors. On the other hand, however, the rehabilitation of these unfortunate men must not be allowed to turn into a general cancellation of debts, which would destroy private property, the basis of the entire social system, and thus plunge Rome into a state of revolution: and that was what even moderate conservatives greatly feared.
“During the months that had elapsed since the beginning of the civil war, the debt crisis had become much greater. This was partly because of a shortage of currency. Money had been withdrawn from circulation to be hoarded until times became better, and such cash as could still be found had gone to pay the rival armies. This meant that whereas debtors were now receiving pressing claims for repayment, they were unable to respond to them and had to forfeit their land and other possessions instead, at wretched prices. So Caesar now began a long, patient series of attempts to deal with this harrowing situation. First, the hoarding of coin was forbidden – though such a veto, unsupported by other measures, was not very likely to prove effective. Secondly, creditors, if offered land and other property in repayment of their loans, were compelled to accept them. But in order that they should not be allowed to pay too cheap a price, Caesar also laid it down that the prices should be assessed at the sums the property in question had been worth before the civil war began – these assessments to be made by commissioners specially appointed for the purpose.
“Creditors, of course, complained bitterly. But some of them were prepared to admit that they had expected even worse. At least Caesar had not proved the totally revolutionary destroyer of private property that he had been widely feared to be. Indeed, it was reassuring for property owners to note that, even if the senior senators were against him on political grounds, the able financiers were mostly on his side. So confidence began to come back, and men started to lend money once again.” (Michael Grant, Caesar, pp. 121-2.)
To placate the poor he introduced some restrictions on the laws relating to debt and bankruptcy and suspending rents for twelve months. However, he failed to cancel all debts – one of the most pressing demands of his supporters. One of the reasons for this was that Caesar himself was owed huge sums of money by many people who he had “helped” (and turned into clients) by lending them money in the past. It was now time to call in these debts – or at least to remind the debtors of where their loyalties lay. To Caesar, cancelling debts would be like cutting off an arm – or probably some other, even more painful, extremity. None of his measures came close to touching the property of the slave owners.
This fact explains many things. History knows many revolutions and it is customary to refer to the changes made by Caesar and his followers as “the Roman Revolution”. But in fact it was a revolution that affected only the political superstructure. It did not alter in any way the existing property relations in society. In the end the same slave-owning aristocracy remained the ruling class and continued to hold economic power just as before. But it lost control of the state apparatus, and was compelled reluctantly to hand power to a military strong man.
The aristocracy was forced to share its loot with a gang of adventurers, Mafiosi and banditi, which protected them against the masses and kept order but extracted a heavy price for its services. Trotsky once compared Bonapartist and Fascist regimes to the legend of the Old man of the Sea, who sits on the shoulders of the ruling class and guides it to safety, but at the same time digs his heels into its side and spits on its bald patch.