by William H. Benson
August 26, 1999
Born in 100 B.C., Julius Caesar was by training a politician and an orator (second only to Cicero). But he understood that to achieve the kind of immense power he wanted, he needed military fame. So for nine years he lived with his army in tents and fought alongside his soldiers as they attacked and conquered the native tribes of Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium). He then built a bridge, crossed the Rhine River, and beat back the Germanic tribes. Finally, on August 26, 55 B.C. Julius Caesar’s Roman ships sailed for Britain, but as his soldiers waded ashore they were attacked.
“They had to jump from the ships, stand firm in the surf, and fight,” Julius Caesar wrote later of that day. His bold amphibious raid swelled his reputation in Rome, and a year later he returned to the British Isle, but this time with 30,000 men.
Many of his foes across Europe felt his heavy crushing fist, and knew they had been beaten by the best. Caesar proved that he was a military genius, for he only lost two of the dozens of battles in which he personally fought. Julius Caesar handed Europe over to Rome.
His experiences in Gaul and Britain he wrote down in a straight-forward manner that he entitled Commentaries on the Gallic War. This work became well-read, and schoolchildren across Europe for centuries studied Latin by conjugating verbs from Julius Caesar’s Commentaries.
Then, he and his army in 48 B.C. headed south to Rome, crossed the Rubicon River, and conquered Rome itself. Having carved out a huge empire for Rome, he then made himself dictator for life, and he was not even 50 years old yet. He promptly went to work. He unified the calendar and brought time under his control. He stopped corruption in commerce. He sailed to Egypt and fell in love with Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile. So, most of Europe and the Mediterranean world lay at his command.
Julius Caesar epitomized the word “ambition”. Ruthless, he had a consuming need for power, to force people to bend to his wishes, and an excessive need to achieve greatness. In a small and insignificant mountain village, he told his soldiers, “I would rather be the first man here, than the second man in Rome.” As a young man he had read the life of Alexander the Great and began crying. When asked why, he replied, “At my age Alexander had conquered so many nations, while I have done nothing that is in any way remarkable.”
He became an effective politician, a military genius, a conqueror, a wise administrator, a capable writer, and a great speaker. Was there anything this enormously talented and driven man could not do? The answer is “Yes”, for he could not placate his enemies–those who were horrified at his naked grasp for power and his disregard for the people’s voice–the Senate. Brutus and Cassius and others eventually ganged up and stabbed him to death, at the age of 56, probably the greatest tragedy of the ancient world.
Who in the twentieth century compares equally to Julius Caesar. Fortunately, very few, if any, for the world would not survive should we have an excessive number. Perhaps only Hitler, in terms of a ruthless and unabashed grasp for territory and power, equalled Caesar.
In terms of statesmanship few in American history fully approach the scope and size of Julius Caesar’s administrative achievements. Perhaps only Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln even come close. And yet, within the American Republic, its citizens specialize in ambition.
In last week’s issue of Newsweek Robert J. Samuelson wrote, “We are a nation of ambitious people, and yet ambition is a quality that is hard to praise and easy to deplore. It’s a great engine of American creativity, but it also can be an unrelenting oppressor, which robs us of time and peace of mind. . . . The impulse pervades every walk of life.”