Julius Caesar: The Lasting Legacy of Rome’s Revolutionary Leader

Featured & Cover Julius Caesar The Lasting Legacy of Rome's Revolutionary Leader

Julius Caesar may not have ruled the Roman Republic for an extended period, but his legacy remains formidable. From his early beginnings as a young aristocrat to his rise as a victorious military leader, Caesar’s ambitions, relentless conquests, and political reforms cemented his status as a revered leader. Despite his swift rise to unmatched power, his assassination led to civil unrest and the fall of the Roman Republic, ultimately marking the dawn of the Roman Empire. Caesar is esteemed for his strategic brilliance and studied for the profound effects his actions had on Western civilization — including these five significant ways his life and legacy shaped the world.

His Death Triggered the Rise of the Roman Empire

In 49 BCE, Caesar was a successful military general and popular political leader, having adeptly led the Roman army in Gaul for eight years. However, his growing influence clashed with the Roman Senate’s desire to maintain power within the republic. As his governorship of Gaul ended, the Senate demanded he disband his legions and return to Rome alone. Instead, Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon, leading his army across a small stream separating Italy from Gaul. This act violated Roman law and sparked a four-year civil war between Caesar’s forces and those of his former ally Pompey, with Caesar emerging victorious.

Returning to Rome in 46 BCE, Caesar became the republic’s dictator. After two years and several more military victories, he declared himself dictator perpetuo — dictator in perpetuity. This unprecedented authority eroded the traditional checks and balances of the Roman Republic, prompting a group of senators to assassinate Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE. His death plunged Rome into further chaos, leading to a power struggle among his key supporters, most notably his adopted heir Octavian (later known as Augustus). This culminated in the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus as the first Roman emperor.

He Spread Roman Influence Throughout Europe

Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, which included modern-day France and Belgium, as well as parts of Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, was crucial in spreading Roman influence throughout Europe. It added substantial land and wealth to Rome’s holdings.

In 55 BCE, Caesar led his first of two expeditions to Britain. Though neither this nor the subsequent trip the following year succeeded in conquering the land, the expeditions laid the groundwork for Rome to eventually dominate much of the British Isles. These conquests were not merely about land and riches but were integral to Caesar’s ultimate political ambitions. By increasing his military support and popularity among the people, Caesar set the stage for his pursuit of greater power in Rome. As he conquered more regions, he integrated the republic’s legal and political systems and boosted trade by expanding the network of roads leading to and from Rome. The famous bridges Caesar built on the Rhine River during the Gallic Wars are among the many aqueducts ancient Rome is renowned for.

He Introduced the 365-Day Calendar

In 46 BCE, Caesar, advised by Greek astronomer Sosigenes, reformed the Roman calendar. The traditional calendar, based on lunar phases, often fell out of sync with the solar year. The new system, influenced by the Egyptian calendar, was based on the solar year, calculated at 365.25 days. It was divided into 12 months, with an additional day added every four years to ensure the calendar remained aligned with the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The Julian calendar — named for Caesar — was implemented on January 1, 45 BCE.

This calendar became the predominant timekeeping system in the Western world. However, its calculations were slightly off, causing the solar year to run about 11 minutes shorter than expected. By 1582, this discrepancy had added up to a 10-day error. It was corrected by the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Nonetheless, the Julian calendar’s method of measuring time continues to structure our lives today.

He Changed Political Strategy

Caesar’s political ambition and reforms had a lasting impact on political thought and practice in Rome and beyond. One of his most powerful strategies was cultivating support from common Roman citizens and his army, which bolstered his rise to power.

After naming himself dictator of the republic, he enacted several revolutionary political reforms: he supported redistributing land to veterans and the poor, canceled debt and rent payments temporarily, and planned a public library, among other initiatives. His populist approach was effective. After his death, the Senate granted him divine status, making him the first historical Roman to achieve such status.

He Inspired a Shakespeare Play

Caesar was not only hailed as a master orator in his time but also as a celebrated author. His writing style, praised for its clarity and elegance, survives in very few published works; his war memoirs, Commentarii De Bello Gallico (an account of the Gallic Wars) and Commentarii de Bello Civili (an account of Rome’s civil war), are the only surviving primary texts. His Gallic Wars account is particularly popular for its insight into Roman geographic and military history and as a beginner’s guide to learning Latin.

Moreover, Caesar’s extraordinary rule inspired one of the most famous works by one of history’s greatest playwrights. William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar remains an enduring classroom and theatrical favorite, offering a vivid exploration of one of history’s most influential rulers.

Julius Caesar’s legacy extends far beyond his time as a leader of the Roman Republic. His death paved the way for the Roman Empire’s rise, his conquests spread Roman influence across Europe, and his calendar reform remains a foundational timekeeping system. His political strategies transformed governance in Rome, and his life and works continue to inspire literature and historical study.

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