Before He Was a General …

Julius Caesar was a Marine.

SPQR 001Before the Empire, Rome was not a sea-faring nation and the early Republic did not have an effective navy.  This changed with the First Punic War (264-241 BC) against the maritime city of Carthage.  Rome was nothing if not serious about its military and naval prowess.  By 256 BC, Rome had a navy of 330 ships, the most popular of which included the two-deck quadrireme (with two banks of oars) and the quinquereme, which were galleys with five decks and three rows of oars.  These were not “row boats” as a modern person might imagine them.  The quinquereme required 300 men (mostly slaves) to propel it through the water.p

After the end of the Second Punic War (202 BC), Rome discarded its standing navy in favor of relying on ships provided under contract and treaty with noted maritime cities.  In time, Roman coastal settlements and their overall economy suffered as a result of pirates operating with impunity in the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum) and this provided an impetus for Rome to reestablishment its naval legion [1].

Julius Caesar was born into a minor aristocratic family that claimed descent from the mythological son of Aeneas, supposedly the son of Venus. According to Pliny the Elder [2] the cognomen Caesar originated with an ancestor who was born by caesarean section, but there are three additional explanations for the origin of this name: (1) An ancestor was known for having a thick head of hair; (2) he had bright gray eyes; and/or, (3) he killed an elephant in battle.  Julius Caesar issued coins featuring images of elephants, which suggests that he favored the third possible origin of his name.  In any case, the Caesar family were not particularly influential.  Julius Caesar’s father was Gaius Julius Caesar, a man who reached the level of praetor, the second highest of the Roman Republic’s elected magistrates.  He governed the province of Asia through the influence of his prominent brother-in-law, Gaius Marius.  Caesar’s mother was Aurelia Cotta, a very influential family that produced several consuls.

Julius was educated by Marcus Antonius Gnipho, a noted orator and grammarian from Gaul, and although not much is known about Julius’ youth, it has been said that he was educated in the art of war by a former primus pilus, or the senior centurion of the first cohort in a Roman legion.  His military tutor would have instilled in him the expectations of a Roman military or naval officer.  What we do know is that Caesar’s formative years were turbulent.  Between 91-88 BC, Rome experienced the so-called Social War, which had to do with the policy governing Roman citizenship and social status.  At the same time, Mithridates of Pontus [3] threatened Rome’s eastern provinces.  Domestic confrontations existed between the optimates (upper class) and populares (advocating reforms in the interest of the masses).  Rather than representing political parties, these two groups were loose confederations of like-minded individuals.  Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius, was a popularis, while Marius’ protégé Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was an optimas.  Rivalry between these two groups led to civil war.

Both Marius and Sulla distinguished themselves during the Social War and they competed for overall command of the war against Mithridates. Initially, command was given to Sulla, but it was later passed to Marius.  Upset, Sulla led his army to Rome (the first time a Roman general ever threatened Rome with his army), reclaimed his entitlement of command, and forced Marius into exile.  Once Sulla departed Rome to campaign, Marius returned at the head of a makeshift army.  He and his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna seized the city, declared Sulla an enemy of Rome, and through his army took revenge on Sulla’s supporters.  Marius died in 86 BC, but his supporters remained in power.

In the next year, Julius Caesar’s father died suddenly, so at the age of sixteen years, Julius became head of the family.  In 84 BC, Julius was nominated as Flamen Dialis, high priest of Jupiter.  The position not only required a patrician [4], it also required that the position holder marry a patrician.  To satisfy this requirement, Julius broke off his engagement to Cossutia, a wealthy equestrian [5] plebeian, and married Cinna’s daughter, Cornelia.

Once Sulla defeated Mithridates, he returned to Rome to finish his civil war with Marius’ followers.  He re-took Rome in 82 BC and had himself appointed as dictator [6].  Sulla wasted no time destroying statues and other symbols of Marius.  He also ordered his body exhumed and thrown into the Tiber River.  By this time, Cinna was already dead, killed by his own men during a mutiny.  The proscriptions of Sulla, issued daily, ordered hundreds of his political enemies killed or exiled.  Thugs were hired to track down these enemies and kill them.  Sulla then targeted Julius Caesar, a nephew of Marius (and son-in-law of Cinna).  By Sulla’s decree, Caesar was stripped of his inheritance, Cornelia’s dowry, and his priesthood [7].  Caesar, however, a young man with integrity, refused to divorce Cornelia.

Roman Gally 001Instead, Caesar went into hiding —which he accomplished by presenting himself to a tribune for enlistment into the naval legion, formed when Sulla decided to rid Mare Nostrum of pirates.  Caesar had traveled at great danger to himself to the port city of Ostia Antica.  Questioned carefully, as all candidates for legion service were, Julius admitted that he was a wanted man by order of the dictator, Sulla.  After presenting his papers to the tribune, an endorsement under the seal of Marius, he was quietly accepted for service aboard a galley.  Because of his relationship to Marius, it is likely that young Caesar was appointed to serve as hastatus posterior, the lowest centurion rank, which would have placed him in command of eight to ten marines (also, milites) [8].

After four months of serving aboard ship as a tesserarius (watch commander) on coastal patrol, Julius Caesar was anxious for combat.  What young officer doesn’t want to test his courage —prove his own worth?  He would get his wish at the pirate fortification at Methymna on the island of Lesbos.  Julius felt he was ready; he felt that his men were ready.  It has been said that young Caesar inquired of his centurion the number of enemy inside the fort and he was told that the number of enemy didn’t matter; whether there were five men, or five hundred men, these Roman Marines were going to take that fort with the number of men at their disposal —about one-hundred in total.  The conversation, if it occurred, provides an interesting insight into the mindset of the Roman legionnaire.  Winning a battle was important, of course, but it was secondary to honorable service as Roman soldiers.

Caesar, who wisely remained wary of Sulla, stayed in Asia with the legions for several years.  After serving aboard the Roman galley, he fought under Marcus Minucius Thermus [9] in Asia, and Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus [10] in Cilicia [11].  By every account, young Julius Caesar was an exceptional officer whose self-confidence and arrogance knew no limitation.  As stated earlier, Caesar’s military career began during Sulla’s anti-pirate campaigns and he served with distinction during the siege of Mytilene, for which he was presented with the civic crown.

Young Julius CaesarIn 79 BC, Sulla resigned the dictatorship, re-established consular government, and retired to private life.  He died in the next year, aged 60 [12].  Learning of Sulla’s death, Caesar felt safe enough to return to Rome —but he was a citizen without means, having forfeited his inheritance and his wife’s wealth.  For a time, Caesar turned to the law and served as a legal advocate.  In this profession, he was quite efficient and well known for his oratory, passionate advocacy, and ruthless prosecution of corrupt officials.  Striving for perfection, Julius traveled to Rhodes to study rhetoric under Apollonius Molon, who had been Cicero’s teacher.  En route to Rhodes, however, Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and held prisoner for ransom in Pharmacusa.

Held as a captive for 48 days, Julius Caesar maintained an air of superiority over his captives.  He participated in their games, exercised with them, and when he was tired of listening to their babble, he would command them to silence.  He also recited poetry to his captives and ridiculed them and mocked them for their lack of understanding.  For their part, the pirates found young Caesar entertaining.  When they demanded twenty talents of gold [13] for his release, Julius demanded that they require fifty.

Once the ransom was paid and Caesar was released, he returned to Rome, raised a fleet of ships, and pursued his captors with utter determination.  He had them imprisoned in Pergamon and demanded their execution.  The governor of Asia refused, however, preferring instead to sell them as slaves.  Julius Caesar would have none of this —so he returned to the seacoast and had them crucified, as he had promised he would do while he was still in captivity.  The pirates apparently thought he was joking with them; he wasn’t.  Although, as a demonstration of mercy, Julius Caesar had their throats cut before crucifixion.  He left their bodies to rot.

There are many lessons to be learned from history.  This one may offer modern leaders a worthwhile perspective in how to deal with brigands, pirates, and terrorists.


  1. Froude, J. A. Life of Caesar.  Gutenberg e-Text, 1879.
  2. Goldsworthy, A. Caesar: Life of a Colossus.  Yale University Press, 2006.
  3. Thorne, J.  Julius Caesar: Conqueror and Dictator.  Rosen Publishing, 2003


[1] Pirates, as with brigands, took advantage of weak military control wherever they could, thriving on the fringes of warfare along neglected coastlines.  Rome initiated several campaigns against Mediterranean pirates over its long history, the first of which likely occurred between 80-67 BC.  Beyond booty, pirates also kidnapped citizens and held them for ransom.  If the ransom was not paid, then the pirates would sell their captives into slavery.  In 67 BC, for example, the Legate and former consul Pompey was charged by the senate with ending piracy.  By commandeering Greek-made galleys and organizing them into thirteen fleets, Pompey managed to scatter (not eradicate) the pirates in less than two months.  In his war against pirates, Pompey took 20,000 prisoners, impressed 90 ships, and recovered enormous treasures.

[2] Gaius Plinius Secundas (23-79 AD) was a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher; he was a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and a friend of Emperor Vespasian.  Pliny the Elder died while attempting to rescue a friend and his family by ship during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

[3] Also known as Mithridates the Great (reign from 120-63 BC), he was of Persian origin and king of Hellenistic-era Pontus, a large area surrounding the Black Sea.

[4] Originally, the word patrician suggested the ruling class of families in ancient Rome.  It was a significant distinction in the Roman kingdom and early Republic, but less so by the time of the late Republic and early Empire.

[5] The Roman equestrian order ranked second to the senatorial class.  In modern parlance, a male equestrian would be a knight.

[6] A dictator of Rome was a magistrate entrusted with the full authority of the state to deal with a military emergency or to undertake a specific duty.  Generally, dictators were appointed to no more than six months in office.  Sulla’s appointment included no such restriction.

[7] Eventually, Sulla lifted his retribution against Julius Caesar, mostly through the intervention of Caesar’s mother’s family, which included allies of Sulla.  Even afterward, however, Sulla remained wary of Julius Caesar.  He could see “many Marius’” in him.

[8] Roman military ranks only generally equate to modern military structures.  Formalized rank came as a result of reforms instituted by Marius, but the term “commander” was generally applied only to consuls (politicians of high standing), dictators, and occasionally to praetors.  Beneath the commander was the legatus(legate), a general rank officer appointed for three-year terms.  This distinction is important because the legions were always subordinate to the proconsul (or governor) of the province to which they were assigned.  Legates were generally drawn from the Roman Senate.  Below the commander and legate were tribuni militum (military tribunes) organized in six ranks.  The senior of these (tribunus laticlavius) (also, second-in-command) would in time become a senator, the others served as equestrians (knights) and were generally equivalent to modern-day majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels.  The third highest officer in the legion was the praefectus castorum, also equivalent to modern-day colonel, but more on the order of a senior chief warrant officer elevated from the enlisted ranks (centuri).  Each legion was divided into ten cohorts (each cohort roughly equivalent to a battalion).  The senior-most cohort centurion was also called Primus Pilus (first centurion or also, tip of the spear).  Each cohort consisted of three manipula; each of these had two centuries, each ranging from 60-160 men.  Each century was commanded by a centurion (roughly, captain) and assisted by junior officers called Optio (roughly, lieutenant).  Within cohorts, centurions were ranked as follows, from senior-most following primus pilus: Primus prior, pilus posterior, princeps prior, princeps posterior, hastatus prior, and hastatus posterior.

[9] Soldier and statesman, Thermus directed efforts against Mytilene on the Island of Lesbos, suspected of harboring pirates.

[10] A staunch supporter of Sulla, Isauricus was appointed proconsul governor of Cilicia with the responsibility of clearing out pirates within his province.  His command lasted from 78-74 BC, which included the naval and land forces.

[11] The south coast region of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

[12] Sulla’s dictatorship is generally believed to have destabilized the Roman Republic to such an extent that it eventually caused the collapse of the republic.

[13] A talent is a weight of measure of roughly 67 pounds.  Twenty talents would equate to 1,340 pounds; 50 talents would roughly equal 3,350 pounds of gold.

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US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

8 thoughts on “Before He Was a General …”

  1. “The number of enemy didn’t matter; whether there were five men, or five hundred men, these Roman Marines were going to take that fort with the number of men at their disposal”. I’d say that philosophy is inherent in our Corps.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating stuff Mustang….. reminded me of my four years of Latin in HS…. I was told it was really a great foundation… 🙂 Not sure of what.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Roman navy controlling the Mediterranean is roughly the same size of the present US Navy attempting to control the world’s seas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Meanwhile, the US Navy has 1.5 admirals for every commissioned vessel. We need fewer admirals and more commanders.


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