History: the Run-up to Rome and Julius Caesar

As we dive a little deeper into Julius Caesar, the play, let’s take a look at what leads up to the events of the play. In other words, what’s the context in which play begins? Well, the play begins with Julius Caesar, the man, returning for a triumph. But for what military victory?

The triumph that we witness in the opening scenes took place in history in September of 45 BC. But to get the full story, we need to go a little further back. Not all the way back to 100 BC when Caesar was born; but it does help to go back to the early 80’s BC. In his late teens, Caesar was the head of his family, and Rome was embroiled in a civil war between his uncle Marius and Sulla. While he had many lovers by this point, including one Servilia Caespionis (who just happened to be the mother of Marcus Brutus), Caesar married the daughter of one of his uncle’s allies, Cinna. By this wife Cornelia, he fathered a daughter Julia in 82 BC. However, Sulla won the war, and in order to leave town (and possible political retribution), Caesar joined the army, returning only after Sulla’s death in 78 BC.

Once back in Rome, Caesar went into law and grew a reputation in his ability to sway crowds with his words. After another tour of military duty in Asia, he began his political career with an election as a military tribune and it was at this point that he began to work with Pompey (who was once a lieutenant under Sulla). Caesar’s wife Cornelia died in 69 BC, and after returning from executing his political duties in Spain, he married Pompeia, the granddaughter of his former political enemy Sulla (and a distant relative to Pompey as well) in 67 BC. They would be divorced in 62 BC.

By the time he was elected Consul in 60 BC at the age of 40, he was already politically aligned with Crassus, a former military commander under Sulla. Pompey was not an ally of Crassus, though Pompey was a great military leader, and one who also commanded under Sulla. Caesar was able to bring the two of them together (even marrying off his daughter Julia–from his first marriage–to Pompey): the trio became what was known as the First Triumvirate, and together they ruled Rome through their political and financial influence. After Caesar divorced his second wife Pompeia, he married Calpurnia, the daughter of a senator, in 59 BC, when he was 41 and she was just 16.

While Caesar was on a military campaign in Britain, the political alliance was fraying. When Pompey’s wife (and Caesar’s daughter) Julia died in 54 BC (and Pompey refused another political marriage suggested by Caesar) and Crassus died in 53 BC, the First Triumvirate was over.

In 50 BC, Pompey won the Senate’s support in ordering Caesar to return from Britain, and disband his army. In January of 49 BC, fearing that if he returned to Rome without his army, he would be arrested, Caesar crossed the Rubicon and entered Rome with his army. Many of the senators fled the city, fearing that Pompey’s army was not up to the task of repelling the returning Caesarean army. And the Roman Civil War had begun.

In 48 BC, Caesar, left Rome in the hands of Mark Antony, and chased Pompey and his supporters (which included Caesar’s co-Consul of 60 BC and current governor of Syria, Bibulus, as well as Marcus Brutus) to Spain, where he defeated Pompey’s lieutenants, but was unable to capture Pompey himself. Late in 48 BC, Caesar defeated Pompey’s forces at the Battle of Pharsalus. Following the battle, Brutus apologized for his actions, and Caesar–now appointed dictator with Antony as his second in command–forgave him. Caesar was willing to pardon Pompey as well, but he had escaped to Egypt.

And this, my friends, is where the story gets–as the kids these days might say–a little “cray cray.”

Egypt was embroiled in its own civil war. Pharaoh Ptolemy XII had been an ally of Pompey’s throughout the 50’s. But by his death in March 51 BC, Ptolemy XII was sharing the rule of Egypt with his daughter Cleopatra VII (yes, that Cleopatra). Ptolemy XII had meant Cleopatra and his son Ptolemy XIII to rule together, but within months of his death, their relationship was adversarial, and Cleopatra fled to Syria, which was governed by Bibulus.

When Pompey fled to Egypt in 48 BC, Ptolemy XIII saw an opportunity to gain Caesar as an ally. Ptolemy had Pompey captured. Caesar arrived to take Pompey back to Rome, where he could publicly pardon Pompey as he had done with many of Pompey’s followers, only to find that Ptolemy had had Pompey beheaded. Caesar didn’t take the news well. He captured the capital and the palace.

Twenty-one year old Cleopatra snuck back into the Egypt, the capital, and the palace (in a legend, she was rolled up in a carpet)… and into fifty-two year old Caesar’s heart (not to sound too corny). They became lovers, and within the year, she had given birth to a son Caesarion, “Little Caesar.” During this time, Caesar allied himself with Cleopatra against Ptolemy XIII, defeating him at the Battle of the Nile in January 47 BC, and Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile. Cleopatra then made her younger brother Ptolemy XIV her co-ruler.

Caesar returned to Rome before going after Pompey’s political supporters in 46 BC in Africa and Pompey’s sons and last supporters in Spain during March 45 BC. After these military victories, he returned to Rome in September of 45 BC, when he received triumphs for his successes, and named Octavius his heir in his will. And that’s when the play begins.

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