How Greatness Destroyed Julius Caesar | Aristotle & Magnanimity

Out of all our Famous Men, few have names as recognizable and as legendary as that of Julius Caesar. Caesar’s story is the story of a man who had the potential for greatness, knew he was worthy of greatness, and displayed great actions. He conquered all of Gaul, he created the Julian calendar, which is still used today, and he was so beloved by the common people that he was called Father of the Country. And then, he was murdered by his best friend. This leads any student to ask the question: what went wrong? 

In the early stages of his career, Caesar exhibited the Aristotelian virtue of magnanimity. Aristotle describes this moral virtue as “the adornment of virtues” because the magnanimous man possesses the perfection of each virtue. In this way, the magnanimous person is worthy of great honors. However, the magnanimous man also knows he is worthy of great honors, and responds by aiming his efforts at deeds of virtue. For Aristotle, not everyone can be magnanimous. The magnanimous person must have both the opportunity and the means to achieve great acts. 

Julius Caesar had both. 

This episode is brought to you by Famous Men of Rome, a collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth, it’s perfect for young explorers of Classical History.

His Background

Caesar was born into a turbulent Rome. The Republic was seeing a civil war between two political factions: the optimates, a traditional group favoring government by the Senate and the populares, which favored popular assemblies. Caesar had close ties to the populares, and to preserve his life, fled Rome before he had the chance to establish himself in Roman society. Caesar lost his friends, inheritance, and years in his homeland, and saw firsthand the effects of a government strictly by Roman Senate nobles. While this may have stunted many men’s political careers, Caesar knew he was worthy of greatness, and jumped into public life as soon as the leader of the Optimates died. He spoke out about political questions and supported the causes of the plebeians. He also formed one of the most powerful political alliances in Roman history known as the First Triumvirate.

This led to his being elected to several public offices. 

His influence and power grew, and soon he was appointed governor of Spain. Even this early in his career, Julius Caesar knew he was worthy of great honors. Legend has it that as he was traveling through Spain he stopped in a small village for a night. While speaking with his companions about the area, he said  “Poor as this village is, I would rather be first here than second in Rome.” Perhaps he meant that he would rather rule on behalf of the people in a smaller territory such as Spain rather than be subjected to a rule of the Senate elites again.

By the time Julius Caesar left Spain, he   was firmly entrenched against the nobles of the Senate and he had gained a reputation as a strong leader. 

In fact, Caesar was so successful in Spain that he was appointed consul when he returned to Rome. 

Military Career

Caesar continued to succeed politically, and by the age forty, he was given the command of an army. Soon, he made his way to Gaul with the mission of conquering the territories between the Roman border and Germanic tribes. 

It was in Gaul that Caesar’s extraordinary military career began. Gaul was a region consisting of many nations that spoke many languages. The Gauls were known for being fierce fighters, ruthless in battle. However, Caesar conquered all of Gaul in just a few years. 

Caesar’s recognition of his extraordinary potential translated to his soldiers’ sentiments towards him. Caesar’s army greatly respected him and exhibited exceptional loyalty towards him.

In return, Caesar treated his soldiers the way Aristotle describes the actions of a man of magnanimity. He was strict in his discipline, but friendly with the men. He never asked them to do something that he wouldn’t: he marched on foot through inclement weather with his men, he fought on the front ranks with them, and he shared in their hardships. 

Caesar spent eight years engaged in wars in Gaul and Britain. During this time it is said that he conquered three hundred tribes or nations, took eight hundred cities, fought battles with three million men, and took a million prisoners. 

These successes made Caesar greatly revered by the common Romans. They shouted his praises, and offered him unwavering support. However, the nobles of the Senate began to fear Caesar’s power and made several attempts to curb his popularity. 

Most notably, the Roman consul and former Optimate lieutenant Pompey ordered Caesar to disband his army. Caesar, knowing his capabilities of greatness, refused. He responded by leading his soldiers through Italy to the Rubicon River, where he crossed into Rome, igniting a Civil War between himself and Pompey. Caesar marched on Rome, and, beloved by plebeians, citizens, and soldiers alike, was welcomed into the city as the people’s leader. He bloodlessly assumed power, as Pompey and his fellow nobles fled Rome. 

Caesar began to set up a new government, enacting many governmental reforms, most importantly uniting the provinces under a centralized, cohesive rule. 

Soon, Caesar left Rome to defeat his enemies for the final time. He met Pompey in Greece, and engaged in two months of skirmishes, which culminated in an epic eight hour battle. 80,000 men fought for the future of Rome, but in the end it was Caesar who emerged victorious. 

Caesar continued to Spain and Northern Africa, swiftly defeating the remaining Senate nobles. 

The Returning Victor

Caesar returned to Rome as Dictator and was welcomed home with a magnificent celebration. For four days Rome hosted spectacular processions, parades, and shows. Golden chariots drawn by breath-taking horses carried Caesar’s officers through the city. Hundreds of soldiers bearing banners with scenes from Caesar’s battles filled the streets. Elephants and camels from Asia and Africa were paraded around Rome, followed by prisoners carrying valuable articles obtained by Caesar during his conquests. Plays, circuses, gladiator combat, wild beast hunts, and chariot races were abundant. Feasts were served to all the people. The Romans had never seen such a celebration, and grew very loyal to Caesar. 

And the Romans continued to show their loyalty well into his dictatorship. He was called Father of his Country by the people. They carved statues of him to be displayed in public buildings and squares. He was even given a grand chair, made like a throne, in the Senate chamber, honors that no one in the Roman republic had enjoyed before him. 

However, there were unhealthy side effects to this unrestrained praise. As Caesar’s power grew, many, especially the Senate nobles, feared that he desired to be king. This was a common fear in Rome, dating back to its founding, and one that had served them well in the past, as it had protected them from the rule of tyrants. 

Caesar vehemently denied this accusation. Despite this, the nobles felt sure that he would make himself king if they did not stop him. Now, it must be noted that this was an effort made in vain: the Roman Republic had ceased to exist as a republic since the consulship of Sulla, with wealth and desire for power corrupting the Senate. Even Caesar’s death could not restore the Republic of old. 

His Death

Nevertheless, these men formed a plot to kill him in the Senate House on the Ides of March. Included in this group of plotters was Junius Brutus, an intimate friend of Caesar’s. Despite his close friendship, Brutus felt that it was his duty to protect the Republic from dictatorship. 

On the day of his death, Caesar entered the Senate chamber in his normal fashion, bowing and smiling to the people as he took his seat. 

As the Senate proceedings began, Caesar rose to address a group of men who approached him. As he ascended from his chair, he was stabbed in the side with a sword. The chamber was quickly filled with chaos, confusion, and excitement, as the plotters continued to attack Caesar. Caesar valiantly tried to defend himself, fighting off attackers with a writing stylus, until he saw his dear friend among the ranks of attackers. Shakespeare famously wrote that upon seeing his dear friend, Caesar cried out, “You too, Brutus!” and stopped resisting. 

Caesar fell dead, and the conspirators joyously exited the Senate building, proclaiming their victory to the people of Rome. The people, however, were enraged with the Nobles, and threatened to put them to death for their act. As the plotters fled Rome, the people mourned the death of their leader. 

So, how did we get here? How did greatness, arguably true greatness, go so wrong? 

When Aristotle outlined the virtue of magnanimity, he wrote that it primarily deals with honor. 

Shakespeare describes this relationship in his play Troilus and Cressida, when he writes, “Life every man holds dear; but the dear man holds honor far more precious dear than life.” Because honor is the proper reward for excellent actions, the magnanimous person is justly concerned with honor. After all, it is proper that the Good and the Beautiful and the Virtuous be made evident to all. However, in a world ruled by elites of the Senate, where the Good, the Beautiful, and the Virtuous had ceased to stand as a model, it is no surprise that the nobles only saw the honor given to Caesar as a personal praise rather than a testament to true virtue, and ended Caesar’s life because of it. 

So what should we do? We may not be Julius Caesar, but the call for the magnanimous man or woman and the call for each of us living out our regular humble lives is the same. It’s a call to live uprightly, to pursue virtue, to treat each other and conduct ourselves honorably. And that is a call that inevitably leads to a greatness all its own. 

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