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Remarks on Julius Caesar

The termination of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey forms a new epoch in the Roman History, at which a Republic, which had subsisted with unrivalled glory during a period of about four hundred and sixty years, relapsed into a state of despotism, whence it never more could emerge. So sudden a transition from prosperity to the ruin of public freedom, without the intervention of any foreign enemy, excites a reasonable conjecture, that the constitution in which it could take place, however vigorous in appearance, must have lost that soundness of political health which had enabled it to endure through so many ages. A short view of its preceding state, and of that in which it was at the time of the revolution now mentioned, will best ascertain the foundation of such a conjecture.

Though the Romans, upon the expulsion of Tarquin, made an essential change in the political form of the state, they did not carry their detestation of regal authority so far as to abolish the religious institutions of Numa Pompilius, the second of their kings, according to which, the priesthood, with all the influence annexed to that order, was placed in the hands of the aristocracy. By this wise policy a restraint was put upon the fickleness and violence of the people in matters of government, and a decided superiority given to the Senate both in the deliberative and executive parts of administration. This advantage was afterwards indeed diminished by the creation of Tribunes of the people; a set of men whose ambition often embroiled the Republic in civil dissensions, and who at last abused their authority to such a degree, that they became instruments of aggrandizement to any leading men in the state who could purchase their friendship. In general, however, the majority of the Tribunes being actuated by views which comprehended the interests of the multitude, rather than those of individuals, they did not so much endanger the liberty, as they interrupted the tranquillity, of the public; and when the occasional commotions subsided, there remained no permanent ground for the establishment of personal usurpation.

In every government, an object of the last importance to the peace and welfare of society is the morals of the people; and in proportion as a community is enlarged by propagation, or the accession of a multitude of new members, a more strict attention is requisite to guard against that dissolution of manners to which a crowded and extensive capital has a natural tendency. Of this the Romans became sensible in the growing state of the Republic. In the year of the City 312, two magistrates were first created for taking an account of the number of the people, and the value of their estates; and soon after, they were invested with the authority not only of inspecting the morals of individuals, but of inflicting public censure for any licentiousness of conduct, or violation of decency. Thus both the civil and religious institutions concurred to restrain the people within the bounds of good order and obedience to the laws; at the same time that the frugal life of the ancient Romans proved a strong security against those vices which operate most effectually towards sapping the foundations of a state.

But in the time of Julius Casar the barriers of public liberty were become too weak to restrain the audacious efforts of ambitious and desperate men. The veneration for the constitution, usually a powerful check to treasonable designs, had been lately violated by the usurpations of Marius and Sylla. The salutary terrors of religion no longer predominated over the consciences of men. The shame of public censure was extinguished in general depravity. An eminent historian, who lived at that time, informs us, that venality universally prevailed amongst the Romans; and a writer who flourished soon after, observes, that luxury and dissipation had encumbered almost all so much with debt, that they beheld with a degree of complacency the prospect of civil war and confusion.

The extreme degree of profligacy at which the Romans were now arrived is in nothing more evident, than that this age gave birth to the most horrible conspiracy which occurs in the annals of human kind, viz. that of Catiline. This was not the project of a few desperate and abandoned individuals, but of a number of men of the most illustrious rank in the state; and it appears beyond doubt, that Julius Caesar was accessory to the design, which was no less than to extirpate the Senate, divide amongst themselves both the public and private treasures, and set Rome on fire. The causes which prompted to this tremendous project,'it is generally admitted, were luxury, prodigality, irreligion, a total corruption of manners, and above all, as the immediate cause, the pressing necessity in which the conspirators were involved by their extreme dissipation.

The enormous debt in which Caesar himself was early involved, countenances an opinion that his anxiety to procure the province of Gaul proceeded chiefly from this cause. But during nine years in which he held that province, he acquired such riches as must have rendered him, without competition, the most opulent person in the state. If nothing more, therefore, than a splendid establishment had been the object of his pursuit, he had attained to the summit of his wishes. But when we find him persevering in a plan of aggrandizement beyond this period of his fortunes, we can ascribe his conduct to no other motive than that of outrageous ambition. He projected the building of a new Forum at Rome, for the ground only of which he was to pay $4,ooo000,000; he raised legions in Gaul at his own charges; he promised such entertamments to the people as had never been known at Rome from the foundation of the city. All these circumstances evince some latent design of procuring such a popularity as might give him an uncontrolled influence in the management of public affairs. Pompey, we are told, was wont to to say, that Caesar not being able, with all his riches, to fulfil the promises which he had made, wished to throw everything into confusion. There may have been some foundation for this remark: but the opinion of Cicero is more probable, that Caesar's mind was seduced with the temptations of chimerical glory. It is observable that neither Cicero nor Pompey intimates any suspicion that Caesar was apprehensive of being impeached for his conduct, had he returned to Rome in a private station. Yet, that there was reason for such an apprehension, the positive declaration of L. Domitius leaves little room to doubt: especially when we consider the number of enemies that Caesar had in the Senate, and the coolness of his former friend Pompey ever after the death of Julia. The proposed impeachment was founded upon a notorious charge of prosecuting measures destructive of the interests of the commonwealth, and tending ultimately to an object incompatible with public freedom. Indeed, considering the extreme corruption which prevailed amongst the Romans at this time, it is more than probable that Caesar would have been acquitted of the charge, but at such an expense as must have stripped him of all his riches, and placed him again in a situation ready to attempt a disturbance of the public tranquillity. For it is said, that he purchased the friendship of Curio, at the commencement of the civil war, with a bribe little short of half a million sterling.

Whatever Caesar's private motive may have been for taking arms against his country, he embarked in an enterprise of a nature the most dangerous: and had Pompey conducted himself in any degree suitable to the reputation which he had formerly acquired, the contest would in all probability have terminated in favour of public freedom. But by dilatory measures in the beginning, by imprudently withdrawing his army from Italy into a distant province, and by not pursuing the advantage he had gained by the vigorous repulse of Caesar's troops in their attack upon his camp, this commander lost every opportunity of extinguishing a war which was to determine the fate, and even the existence, of the Republic. It was accordingly determined on the plains of Pharsalia, where Caesar obtained a victory which was not more decisive than unexpected. He was now no longer amenable either to the tribunal of the Senate or the power of the laws, but triumphed at once over his enemies and the constitution of his country.

It is to the honour of Caesar, that when he had obtained the supreme power, he exercised it with a degree of moderation beyond what was generally expected by those who had fought on the side of the Republic. Of his private life either before or after this period, little is transmitted in history. Henceforth, however, he seems to have lived chiefly at Rome, near which he had a small villa, upon an eminence, commanding a beautiful prospect. His time was almost entirely occupied with public affairs, in the management of which, though he employed many agents, he appears to have had none in the character of actual minister. He was in general easy of access: but Cicero, in a letter to a friend, complains of having been treated with the indignity of waiting a considerable time amongst a crowd in an anti-chamber, before he could have an audience. The elevation of Caesar placed him not above discharging reciprocally the social duties in the intercourse of life. He returned the visits of those who waited upon him, and would sup at their houses. At table, and in the use of wine, he was habitually temperate. Upon the whole, he added nothing to his own happiness by all the dangers, the fatigues, and the perpetual anxiety which he had incurred in the pursuit of unlimited power. His health was greatly impaired: his former cheerfulness of temper, though not his magnanimity, appears to have forsaken him; and we behold in his fate a memorable example of illustrious talents rendered, by inordinate ambition, destructive to himself, and irretrievably pernicious to his country.

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