Julius Caesar was arguably the greatest of the dictators of Rome, ruling from 49 BCE to 44 BCE. During his brief reign, Rome was transformed from a Republic into an Empire, and he set the path that Rome was to follow until its decline and eventual collapse.
Julius Caesar was born in 100 BCE to an elite family, and from an early age had the benefit of high education and training. His family traced its lineage back to Aeneas of Troy, and through him to the goddess Venus. The origin of his surname, Caesar, is unknown, with a number of different theories offering explanations. These include the fact that he killed an elephant, that he had a full head of hair, that his eyes were gray, or that he was born by caesarian section, all of which are described by words similar in sound to the name.
After a brief stint as a high priest of Jupiter, Julius Caesar joined the military. He quickly made a name for himself as a brave soldier and cunning commander. While serving in the military, one of the historic anecdotes of his life occurred: the story goes that during a trip across the Aegean, Caesar was captured by pirates. While held prisoner, he made a promise to the pirates that if he should make his way free, he would return to crucify them all. The pirates demanded a tribute of 20 talents of gold, which Caesar told them to increase to 50, so valuable a hostage was he. Upon his eventual release, he did return with an army, captured the pirates, and crucified them, staying true to his word.
When he finally returned to Rome, Julius Caesar was made a tribune, starting his path to political greatness. He soon left the military, and began pursuing his political career with his full energy. Eventually, he found himself elected Pontifex Maximus, a religious position with great power and authority. He continued to play a skillful game of politics, becoming a praetor and winning the respect of many.
Julius Caesar next turned his sights to become consul of the Roman Republic, and eventually became a consul along with two others, forming the first triumvirate of shared power. When his consul expired, he returned to the military field, leading the conquest of Gaul for which he is notably famous. The Gallic Wars lasted for many years, and during them Julius Caesar proved to all that he was one of the most brilliant military minds of the era. By the end of the Wars perhaps a million enemies of Rome had been killed, and the entire region had been brought under Rome’s domain.
In 50 BCE, Julius Caesar was ordered to return to Rome and surrender his army. Instead, he crossed the Rubicon and incited a civil war. The next year he was appointed dictator of Rome. For the next few years, he continued to expand the borders of Rome, assisting Cleopatra in the civil war in Egypt, and invading the Middle East and Africa.
Because of his lenient position towards his enemies, Julius Caesar was relatively well-liked for one in his position. The Senate gave him great honors throughout his reign, but some contingents in the Senate disliked his rule, and began plotting against him. On 15 March, the Ides of March in the Roman calendar, in 44 BCE, a group of senators assembled, called Caesar to them, and killed him. Included in the conspirators was Marcus Junius Brutus, a favorite of Caesar’s, and second in line to his succession. Traditions vary as to how the dictator reacted upon seeing Brutus in the crowd, but all reflect his dismay, as expressed in the now-famous line from Shakespeare, “Et tu, Brute?”