What's the Big Deal About Julius Caesar?

[Dear Cecil:]

What’s the big deal about Julius Caesar, esp. in the past?

In Germany, the ruler was once called the Kaiser. In Russia, the Tsar. Both terms are derived from Caesar’s clan name. Roman Emperors once took the surname Caesar. Jerez, Spain is a corruption of his name (that’s in fact, where we get the wine Sherry, from), as is Jersey, England.

People were at one time, at least, almost obsessed with the guy, it would seem. But why? He was never even Emperor. Just “Dictator for Life”. What did the guy even accomplish, that was so spectacular? Or (let me rephrase my question), at the very least, why were so many people and places named for him?

[Jim B.]

Now, for the rest of you on these boards, simply remove the bracketed material. And kindly answer my question:).

Beat the hell out of everyone who came against him, and permanently altered the Roman political system. Conquered Gaul, and for that alone he would be remembered among the great military leaders of history.

He was never Emperor because the office did not exist yet, because he had yet to create the framework it would be based on.

Caesar was the title of the Roman Emperors that ruled a large swath of land for a long period of time, Kaiser and Tsar are about more than just Julius.

Vercingetorix defeated Caesar in at least two occasions. But to suffer eventual defeat says something about the victor. Winning a battle means you are the better (or luckier) field commander. Losing the war means you lack the science to finally defeat your enemy.

Julius Caesar was succeeded by Gauis Octavius, whom he adopted and who was thereafter known as Gauius Julius Caesar Octavianus. The name Augustus (“majestic” or “venerable”) was conferred on him by the Senate, and he generally went by Augustus Caesar, since it suited his purpose to emphasise his adoptive affinity with Julius Caesar. Augustus in turn adopted his designated successor, Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was thereafter known as Tiberius Caesar.

Tiberius was followed by Claudius, who wasn’t adopted, but he was a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty by birth, and that was a sufficient basis for him to adopt the name “Caesar”. He adopted his successor, Nero, and by then it was pretty well established that the Emperor, if he didn’t bear the name Caesar, would assume it.

Caligula came between Tiberius and Claudius.

But the point remains. Julius Caesar was a big deal because his immediate descendants were big deals; it suited their purpose to promote his image and their successes added to the fame of the Caesar name.

He did win his way into becoming a de facto emperor for life. His victory at Pharsalus against Pompey was not just militarily brilliant, it unified most of the major factions (or destroyed whoever was still threatening him.) That makes him a Hideyoshi and an Ieyasu, but without the title of Shogun.

But he did take the title of “Dictator” - eventually for life - which had some similarities to the original idea of a Shogun, i.e. a military figure taking supreme power to deal with a crisis. The difference was that, unlike Japan, Rome not only had no history of one man rule, it had a massive cultural aversion to the idea “kingship” - hence the conspiracy and assassination on the Ides of March.

The arch-manipulator Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus’s neat trick was to consolidate all the power in his hands while appearing to respect the old Roman prejudices against kingship and in the early years it very much suited him to emphasise his relationship to the Gaius Julius Caesar the Dictator. Then, as **UDS **points out it became established as part of the titles related to imperial rule - often given to the current emperor’s designated successor - although they had absolutely no relationship to original Julius Caesar family.

That’s something of a digression, IMHO. Julius Caesar and Alexander were ballyhoo’d for one basic reason: they conquered at a time when victorious generals were believed to be highly favored by the gods. That’s what made his acceptance as an absolute ruler, after the republic, easier to swallow by most Romans.

You would very likely have never heard of him, but for Shakespeare’s dramatized version of his life and death.

Sure, just like few people would know of George Washington, but for M.L. Weems’ cherry-tree story.


Only two people who actually lived have a month named after them. Julius Caesar and his nephew Gaius Octavius Caesar

**July **for Julius Caesar

**August **for Gaius Octavius Caesar aka Augustus Caesar

Being murdered as he was cemented his appeal. Little is more dramatic in politics than being betrayed to one’s death at the height of one’s triumph. See also Abraham Lincoln.

Well, there’s January Jones.

Calendar worthy, true indeed. However, named after the month, not vice versa.

Also “He wasn’t even emperor”. What does that mean? What’s an emperor?

The Roman title “Imperator” just means something like “general”. When Octavian consolidated power he didn’t declare himself King, instead he accumulated lots of titles from the old Republic. He didn’t have official supreme power, he was just “the First Man in Rome”. And “General” was just one of his titles. “Imperator” eventually became the title for the guy in charge of everything, but at the time of Octavian he carefully maintained the forms of Republican Rome while completely gutting the substance.

Of course all of this is in the context of the previous hundred years of increasing one man rule in the late republic. Sulla, Marius, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Antony, and so on had extraordinary power that showed how unworkable the old system was. The old system of shared limited power had broken down and successful generals were able to seize control over the state and run things to suit themselves, regardless of what official title they had. Octavian was just continuing this process to its logical conclusion, the difference is that he exercised this power for decades and put an end to the constant struggle for supremacy. And so when he died the autocratic system continued because it had been so successful under him, there was no attempt to restore the previous system of shared limited power. And so the First Man in Rome becomes equivalent to a King, but never given that title.

Never heard of the guy who’s name gave birth to 2 European royal titles? Not to mention all of the variations that the OP mentions?

Like we havent heard of any other Roman leaders. Hamlet? Maybe.

I think we have break down your question, based on the background you supply

(Warning: long post - I actually know some things about this)

  1. Why was the the historical figure Julius Ceasar so important?

As a general he was responsible for several expansions of Roman rule that were upheld for hundreds of years, most notably Gaul (modern France, more or less)
He was popular among the soldiers common people (plebs) of the City and used that position to advance his political position, ie neutralize his political enemies and concentrate all power in his own hands. This marked the end of the Roman Republic as it stood for a few hundred years. From a modern perspective replacing a ‘republic’ with an ‘empire’ under a dictator/emperor may sound like a step backwards for a society, but keep in mind that this ‘republic’ was by no means a democracy in the modern sense, but an oligarchy where all money and power was in the hands of a very small class (the senators) who traced their family ancestry to Romulus & Remus and co.

The fact that he was a) popular among the common people and b) murdered by the once ruling elite surely helped his legendary status, but this should not be overestimated. Very few emperors in this period of Roman history died of natural causes, so to speak.

At that point in time however, he could still have ended up as ‘just another’ popular political leader who was murdered because of this. That’s where Octavian who restyled himself as Ceasar Augustus comes in.

  1. Why is/was the name ‘Ceasar’ so important?

While it was Julius Ceasar who had started the whole thing, it was Augustus who consolidated the new political constellation, using the name Ceasar to underline that he was working to continue his legacy. His function as head of state and boss of everything, which we now call ‘emperor’, was at the time commonly referred to as ‘princeps’ (first citizen) - which btw is the origin of the English word Prince. If you wanted to really insult Augustus or Julius, you’d call him ‘King’ (Rex) - the rough equivalent of calling a US presidential candidate a communist.

Anyway, after Augustus it became the tradition for emperors to name themselves Ceasar.

  1. How did the name ‘Ceasar’ (Kaiser, Czar) come to signify the highest position among nobles in medieval and early modern Europe?

First thing you have to understand is the world view of people in Roman and medieval times: Caesar/Princeps/Emperor did not just mean the head of state of the Roman Empire (among other heads of state); it implied something universal: he was

Caesar was also a very good writer. Some 2,000 years later his “Gallic Wars” are still well-known. My understanding is his Latin was very readable…the book is still used by students today.

 I suppose even today there is argument over how much he was a power-hungry would be tyrant and how much he was trying to reform the system for the little guy who had seen his place in society decline ever since the end of the Punic Wars.

For centuries the study of ancient Greece and Rome was pretty much mandatory for any educated person.