Caesar became governor of the southern strip of Gaul (modern France), and other adjacent lands. Between 58 and 50 B.C. he defeated the Celtic Gauls, conquering a huge area corresponding to modern France and Belgium. Caesar also crossed the English Channel to punish the Celtic Britons for helping their fellow Celts in Gaul, though he made no effort to conquer Britain permanently.
The Gauls—distant relatives of the Celts—were brave, hospitable, clean, loving bright-colored clothes, and enjoying feasts and quarrels. The Gallic tribes were governed either by kings (in the southwest and in the north) or by an aristocracy with appointed chief magistrates (in the central region). To give his achievements against the Gauls maximum publicity in Rome, Caesar wrote his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.
Caesar found Gallic society divided into three chief classes: the magicians and seers, or druids; the nobles, for whom he used the Roman word equites; and the common people, or plebs. As in Rome, a Gallic noble would have a group of dependents subject to his orders. A Gaul who refused to comply with the order of a magistrate was excluded from the religious sacrifices and from the company of his fellows. Mostly rural elsewhere in Europe, the Celts in Gaul were developing fortresses and urban trading centers.
The Gauls were excellent craftsmen in precious metals, bronze, iron, pottery, and textiles. For centuries they had traded with the Greeks and Etruscans, and they had also had contact with Iranian nomads skilled in metalwork. They expressed their own artistic ideas in mediums adapted from others, and they even struck their own coinage. In Britain they also used as money iron bars of a fixed weight. They fought from fast, two-wheeled, two- horse war chariots. In earlier times Celtic spear carriers had gone into battle naked as a means of invoking magical protection, and had beheaded their enemies and hung the heads on their saddles. They drank vast quantities of wine and beer and gorged themselves on roast pork; while they feasted bards played and sang to them.
Like most peoples in that stage of development, the Celts were obsessed with magic, celebrating seasonal changes with festivals and sacrifice. They had a rich variety of gods and goddesses, some of them animal in form or closely associated with an animal, notably Epona, a goddess-mare and great queen. Some of the gods and goddesses were threefold, and the Celts often depicted them with three heads or three faces. Sacred trees, groves, and forest shrines also played a part in Celtic religion.
In Caesar’s day the Gauls still performed human sacrifices. Some victims were killed by a sword or spear, and their blood was then smeared on trees; others, chiefly criminals, were burned alive in groups in large wickerwork animal images, or drowned, or hanged. The druids, who were recruited from the children of the fighting nobles, foretold the future while in a frenzy or trance, preserved the secret knowledge of the magic rites, and arbitrated quarrels. Like the singers of the heroic tales of Greece, the druids also transmitted orally from generation to generation the sacred religious and legal wisdom of the tribe, including belief in the immortality of the soul.
During Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, Crassus had become governor of Syria, where he was drawn into war against the Parthians. At Carrhae in Mesopotamia in 53 B.C., however, the Parthians defeated and killed Crassus. The triumvirate had begun to fall apart even before that, when Pompey’s wife, Caesar’s daughter Julia, died in 54, severing the close personal link between the two men. Pompey, who had been commander in Spain, stayed in Rome as the most powerful politician there and became the first sole consul in Roman history in 52 B.C. A revolt in Gaul kept Caesar busy until 51 B.C. When it was over, Caesar challenged Pompey for supremacy.
In 49 B.C. Caesar defied an order from the Senate to give up his command and stay in Gaul, and he led his loyal troops south across the Rubicon River boundary, beginning a civil war. Within a few weeks Caesar was master of Italy. He then won another war in Spain, and in 48 B.C. he defeated Pompey’s troops in Greece, to which most of the Senate had fled with Pompey. Pompey took refuge in Egypt, where he was murdered by troops of King Ptolemy XII. Unaware that Pompey was dead, Caesar traveled to the East and to his famous love affair with Ptolemy’s queen and sister, Cleopatra. After new victories over former troops of Pompey in Asia Minor, North Africa, and Spain, he returned to Rome in triumph in 45 B.C. Less than a year later, on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., he lay stabbed to death on the floor of the Senate at the foot of Pompey’s statue, the victim of sixty senators who thought of themselves as heroic tyrannicides.
During his brief dominance, Caesar had carried the subversion of the institutions of the Republic further than had Marius, Sulla, or Pompey. Unlike Sulla, he could be merciful to conquered enemies. But he was consul five times; he took the title “Liberator,” and his dictatorship was twice renewed, on the second occasion for life. As dictator he arrogated to himself many of the powers that usually belonged to the consuls, the tribunes, and the high priest, and he packed the Senate with his own supporters.
Caesar showed a deep interest in the social and economic problems of Rome. He gave his veterans grants of land in outlying provinces; he tried to check the importation of slaves into Rome because they were taking work from free laborers; he made gifts to the citizens from his own private fortune and sharply curtailed the dole of grain that the Gracchi had instituted, forcing the creation of new jobs. He admitted Gallic nobles to the Senate; he issued the first gold coins; he reformed the calendar to bring it into line with the solar year.
The Roman populace seems to have regarded Caesar as a benefactor and as the restorer of order and prosperity. His opponents said he was planning to be crowned king, and they may have been right. They also accused him of wishing to be worshiped as a god, and here they were probably wrong. But he was personally autocratic and had ridden roughshod over the Roman constitution.
After Caesar’s death, the assassins, to their surprise, found the public hostile. To escape punishment, they were forced to agree to accept the terms of Caesar’s will. This document was in the hands of his former aide, the unscrupulous consul Mark Antony, who delivered a fiery funeral oration in Caesar’s praise. He goaded the mob to fury against the conspirators, who had to flee from Rome. Antony’s control proved only temporary, for Caesar had adopted his grandnephew Octavian and had left him three quarters of his huge fortune.
Only nineteen years old, Octavian was ready to fight for his inheritance. He was supported by Cicero, who warned the Romans that Antony wanted to be a dictator. To freeze out the murderers of Caesar—Brutus and Cassius—Octavian reached an agreement with Antony and with Lepidus, a former general to Caesar, and the three formally joined in the Second Triumvirate for five years. Reverting to Sulla’s policy of widespread proscriptions, executions, and confiscations, the triumvirs raised money by terror. With their new forces, Octavian and Antony defeated Caesar’s assassins in Macedonia at Philippi in 42 B.C., whereupon Brutus and Cassius committed suicide.
Antony moved to the East, and Octavian took over most of the West. Rivalry between them was postponed when Antony married Octavian’s sister in 40 B.C., and in 37 the triumvirate was renewed for another five years. Sextus was defeated, Lepidus was dropped by the other two triumvirs, and Octavian ultimately controlled the entire West. Now calling himself Imperator Caesar, he was highly regarded in Italy as the bringer of order and justice.
In the East, meanwhile, Antony had fallen in love with Cleopatra, who bore him three children. After a victory over the Parthians in 34 B.C., Antony made his own bid for empire. He put forward Cleopatra’s young son by Julius Caesar as the legitimate heir to Rome, and he assigned Roman provinces to her and to their own three children. Octavian broke with Antony in 33. He cleverly roused the Romans to a war of the West against the East, which he said Antony now represented.
At Actium, off the coast of Greece, Octavian’s ships won a critical naval battle in 31 B.C. Antony and Cleopatra fled to Alexandria and committed suicide. At thirty-two Octavian had become master of the entire Roman heritage. The Mediterranean world was now virtually united under one master, and the Republic had come to an end.