July was named in honor of Rome’s slain leader Gaius Julius Caesar (100–44 BC). “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered), he declared after one victory. These three words summarize his passion. Caesar lived to conquer—by sword, word, or seduction.
While still in his teens, Caesar plotted a brilliant career, beginning with marriage to Cornelia, a daughter of Rome’s political leader. Two years later a civil war swept the dictator Sulla, a rival of Caesar’s father-in-law, to power. He demanded that Caesar divorce Cornelia and wed his stepdaughter. When he refused, Caesar was condemned to death. Fleeing into the countryside, he contracted malaria. His mother persuaded the Vestal Virgins, the most influential women in Rome, to plead for her son’s life. Sully relented, and Caesar returned to Rome—not yet twenty but a survivor of political and personal peril.
By age thirty, Caesar had proven himself a fearless commander, a gifted orator, a dutiful husband to an impeccably virtuous wife, and a loving father to their daughter. After Cornelia died in labor, Caesar married Pompeia, granddaughter of the dictator Sulla. Her enormous inheritance subsidized the lavish spending that paved his way up the ladder of political offices.
Caesar’s military conquests carved out vast new territories for Rome, including most of modern France, Switzerland, Belgium, southern Holland, western Germany, and the British Isles. His legions—a battle-hardened army that, as he put it, “could storm the very heavens”—captured 800 cities, towns, and forts and killed or enslaved, by his account, millions of their residents.
Wary of Caesar’s growing power and popularity, in 49 BC the Senate issued an ultimatum demanding surrender of his command. Instead Caesar broke a long-standing tenet of Roman law and led one of his legions—some 5,000 men—across the Rubicon River into Italy. In a brilliant blitzkrieg, he swept through Italy, with town after town opening its gates in surrender.
With almost no bloodshed, Caesar gained control of Rome’s military and treasury. He initiated a program of social and governmental reforms, introduced the twelve-month “Julian” calendar, centralized the Republic’s bureaucracy, and won designation as “dictator in perpetuity.” With each new role and responsibility, the brilliant tactician evolved into a more astute statesman and governor.
When Caesar pursued his remaining enemies to Egypt, the warrior quickly turned into a lover—this time of Egypt’s 22-year-old queen Cleopatra. Striking if not conventionally beautiful, she came to him as his equal, the ruler of an opulent realm and soon the mother of his only son. When Caesar brought his Egyptian prize to Rome, he scandalized its residents by placing a statue of Cleopatra next to Venus in the goddess’s temple.
Caesar’s foes feared that the overreaching ruler would soon declare himself emperor. In 44 BC, on the fifteenth, or ides, of March, a gaggle of senators ambushed him on his way to the Senate. Stabbed again and again, he fought back with his metal stylus. But when Brutus, whom he loved as a son, raised his dagger, Caesar cried out, “You too, child!” and collapsed, bleeding to death from 23 wounds.
After his death, Byzantine emperors began using “Caesar” as an indication of prestige. The title evolved in the Slavic languages as “czar” and “tsar” and served as the basis for German’s “kaiser.”
Dianne Hales is the author of LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. The Italian American Commitee on Education (IACE) in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute of New York City recently hosted a fun webinar on my new book, “A” Is for Amore, available to download free at diannehales.com. You can listen to the lively conversation with Maria Teresa Cometto and IACE students above.