10 Things Julius Caesar Almost Did

Gaius Julius Caesar was the most famous Roman of all time. One of the most talented individuals in history, Caesar was a great general and a notorious rake. He was usually a reformer who championed causes that the masses liked, but was utterly selfish and ruthless when it came to his own advancement. He originally had no intention of becoming dictator or causing the final overthrow of the republican constitution, but felt that these things were forced on him. Unlike his predecessor Sulla, he was not a brutal ruler, and was famed for his clemency, but was assassinated anyway.

These are all things that are fairly well-known, but Caesar was such an enigmatic figure that he often found himself in dangerous or just downright odd situations. The things he almost did could have changed history just as much as the things he actually did. Here are 10 of them.

10. He was Almost Killed as a Teenager

In the late 80’s BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla returned from a war in the east and took power by force in Rome, expelling and executing his rival Lucius Cornelius Cinna. He ruled as a military dictator for the next few years. Infamously, much of Rome’s aristocracy was killed in Sulla’s proscriptions, some for supporting Cinna, but others just so the dictator could take their money. During these days, Sulla demanded that Caesar divorce his wife Cornelia, who was Cinna’s daughter. Caesar refused to do so.

He fled Rome, moving from place to place in the Italian countryside as a fugitive. Eventually, his mother and some friends were able to persuade Sulla to spare Caesar’s life. Julius Caesar would go on to become dictator himself decades later, but it might not have ever happened had events gone slightly differently in the late 80’s BC.

9. He Almost Became Flamen Dialis

When Caesar was a teenager, he was in line to become Flamen Dialis. This was one of Rome’s senior priesthoods. In service to the supreme god Jupiter, it was a prestigious honor, but it came with a lot of restrictions. The holder was forbidden from traveling outside the city, riding, or even touching a horse. In practice, it was difficult for the Flamen to hold public office, and because of the restrictions on travel and transport, the Flamen certainly could not command troops. For these reasons, most of Rome’s elite had no desire to hold this priesthood, despite its prestige.

As part of his earlier confrontations with the dictator, Sulla stripped Caesar of this honor, since it was arranged by Cinna and the youth had never been formally invested with it. Had this not been so, his career would have been very different. In another one of those ironies common to his life, the dictator who had antagonized him had made it possible for Caesar to one day succeed him.

8. He was Almost Ruined by Creditors

Julius Caesar came from an aristocratic, but not wealthy, family. Romans of his station were expected to enter politics, but campaigning then, as now, was expensive, and back then, campaigning basically came in the form of bribing voters. Since Caesar did not have a lot of money, he needed to borrow it. He racked up staggering debts in his campaigns for office. If he should have failed, his creditors could have ruined him simply by calling in his loans.

That did not happen, because Caesar was consistently successful, winning the offices of Quaestor, Aedile, Praetor, Pontifex Maximus, and Consul. The electoral victories showed his creditors he could be relied on. Eventually this proved the case, as after his consulship, he secured a profitable command in Gaul and would go on to pay them back.

7. He Almost Saved Catiline’s Conspirators

Towards the end of 63 BC, the Senator Catiline, after having failed to win the Consulship, attempted to organize a coup in Rome. Exploiting the class divisions then gripping the Republic, he ginned up support, but his plot was quickly discovered by Cicero, who was serving as Consul at the time. Catiline was not in Rome, but his co-conspirators were all arrested.

The Senate then debated what to do with these men. The normal punishment was exile, but Cicero insisted on their execution. The painful memories of Sulla were still fresh, and Cicero, the greatest orator of the time, said in as many words that these men were a threat to do the same things as Sulla had done. His arguments were naturally well-received.

When it was Caesar’s turn to speak, he acknowledged that the prisoners had done a great wrong, but that the senators should not let their emotions get the better of them, because they would be setting a precedent for generations to come. A great orator in his own right, his arguments began to instill some doubt in his colleagues. Perhaps exile was better after all, especially since Caesar made the argument that death would be an easy way out for the conspirators, while exile would make them live with their disgrace for the rest of their lives.

Cicero needed to get involved again and sway the Senate to put the conspirators to death. That Caesar came close to succeeding despite the seriousness of the situation and Cicero’s oratory shows how persuasive he was. It was a skill he would take advantage of later.

Julius Caesar Roman Senate

6. He Almost Retired Early

At the same time the Senate was dealing with Catiline’s conspiracy, Julius Caesar was elected Praetor. This was the office just below Consul. Unfortunately, Caesar found himself embroiled in controversy early in his tenure. Desiring to grow his power base, he associated himself with the Tribune Metellus Nepos, who was a rabble rouser and contributed to great public disorder in the city when attempting to pass his legislation. Caesar took a lot of the blame for this unrest. The Senate stripped him of his office. He attempted to hold on, but when threatened by force, he declared that he would retire from public life.

The next night, a crowd of supporters showed up at his home and begged him to reconsider. He calmed them all down. The Senate approved of how he handled the situation and decided to call him back to his post. His year as Praetor went on as normal afterward.

It is likely that Caesar manufactured the spectacle, especially given his credit problems. Still, had things gone a little differently, his career could have ended prematurely.

5. He Almost Invaded the Balkans Instead of Gaul

After his consulship, Julius Caesar was given three provinces in Northern Italy and Southern Gaul to govern. This gave him some flexibility as to where he wanted to campaign. Originally, the legions he had at his disposal were concentrated in northeast Italy, suggesting that he was planning on a campaign in the Balkans. There was some unrest in Illyricum on the east coast of the Adriatic. It was an area that would give Rome trouble for decades to come, with a great revolt breaking out in the first decade of the first century AD. Caesar’s attention may also have been on the powerful Kingdom of Dacia, which contained rich gold deposits.

Ultimately, bigger unrest in Gaul with the migration of a tribe called the Helvetii drew his attention north and west. Investing himself there, he would continue campaigning in Gaul until the entire province was subdued. The plan for Gaul does not appear to have been set in stone, though. Julius Caesar’s military exploits might have taken on a different character if a few things changed.

4. He Almost Got Stuck in Britain

Several years into his Gallic campaigns, Julius Caesar set his sights on Britain. Few Romans had ever been there. It was considered a wild place at the end of the world. Characteristically, Caesar wanted to be the first Roman general to ever stop foot there. It would get everyone talking!

It was a risky game, though. The weather and waters in the English Channel were as notorious then as they are now. On multiple occasions, Caesar’s forces had tremendous difficulty in transporting troops, horses, and equipment across the Channel. Getting back from the island was even more difficult. On the first campaign, in 55 B.C., a fleet of reinforcements was blown away in a storm, which also seriously damaged Caesar’s own fleet as well as his fortifications. He needed to furiously repair his ships to get away.

On the second campaign, in 54 B.C., the weather intervened again, with a storm doing even worse damage to Caesar’s fleet than the previous year’s. After another furious attempt at repair and a short campaign, Caesar faced further difficulty from the weather in getting back to Gaul. He only barely managed it.

Perhaps nowhere was Caesar’s lucky streak more apparent than in his British campaigns, where he barely managed to escape barely stranded on the island twice. Had things been a bit different, he might have died an urban legend for having dared to step foot there, rather than lived on as the most famous of all Romans.

3. He Almost Did Not Cross the Rubicon

“The die is cast” is one of the most famous quotes attributed to Julius Caesar, but it has become a catchphrase stripped of its original meaning. A little further inspection reveals the element of chance behind the words, as indeed, the crossing of the Rubicon was an immense gamble. Caesar never wanted to do it or intended to. He tried to negotiate a settlement, but his enemies in the Senate, like Cato the Younger, were determined to prosecute him come hell or high water, even though the vast majority of the Senate wanted a peaceful settlement.

Caesar took this not only as a threat to him, but as a grave indignity after what he saw (and the standards of the time would consider) as a great service to Rome and its people for conquering Gaul and ending forever the threat of a Celtic invasion of Italy, which the Romans had been paranoid about since the Gauls sacked Rome in 390 BC.

Seeing no other option, Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army. Ultimately, the political impasse brought about the civil war that followed, where had a few cooler heads prevailed, Caesar would have been willing to make an honorable settlement.

Julius Caesare Rubicon

2. He Almost Lost The Civil War He Started

One of Caesar’s closest calls came at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in modern Albania. Since his enemies, led by Pompey the Great, were mobilizing their resources in Greece, Caesar decided to cross from Italy in the winter of 48 B.C., and take the fight to them to prevent them from growing stronger. Supplying his forces proved a big problem, though, and he made an attempt to capture the main enemy supply depot at Dyrrhachium. Unable to take the town by storm before Pompey arrived, both sides settled in for a siege, constructing fortifications and counter-fortifications against each other.

After several weeks, Pompey discovered a weak, incomplete section of Caesar’s fortifications and sent a sizable force to attack it. Caesar’s line broke and men fled in panic from the field. Had Pompey redoubled his attack, he probably would have beaten Caesar and destroyed his army. Instead, Pompey halted the attack, as he believed Caesar’s troops had been defeated. He had always wished to avoid a direct confrontation with Caesar’s army, which was far more experienced than his own raw recruits. Instead, his goal was to gradually whittle his enemy’s forces down by siege and skirmishes.

Breaking off the siege of Dyrrhachium, Caesar withdrew. According to Plutarch, he is supposed to have dryly remarked that Pompey’s army would have won that day if only it had been commanded by a winner.

1. He Almost Invaded Parthia

After winning the civil war and establishing his dictatorship, Julius Caesar was not supposed to have stayed in Rome for long. He was planning a campaign against the Parthians, who had annihilated an army led by his former partner Marcus Licinius Crassus a decade earlier. The Parthians fought in a very different style than the Romans, with their cavalry-based army proving a formidable foe for Rome’s infantry-based forces.

Whether Caesar would have had more success against the Parthians than Crassus did is unknown, because his assassination on the Ides of March intervened only three days before he was to set out for the campaign.

On a macrohistorical level, Caesar’s premature end and his failure to begin a campaign against the Parthians might have been decisive in halting further Roman expansion to the east. The Euphrates became more or less the fixed boundary of the Roman Empire for centuries afterward, with only a brief expansion by Trajan in the second century to the Persian Gulf, which his successors quickly reversed.

Further Reading

Caesar: Life of a Colossus

In the Name of Rome