History records that Caius Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15th, in the year 44 BC, just before he planned to preside over a meeting of the Roman Senate in the Theater of Pompey. Caesar was fifty six when he was stabbed to death by a group of Roman Senators, ending a remarkable career in which he rose from being the scion of a noble but impoverished Roman family to Dictator for Life of the Roman Republic. He had won a measure of military glory, in his conquest of Gaul, his expeditions to Britain and across the Rhine, and in the Civil War against his enemies in the Roman Senate unprecedented since Alexander the Great. He had begun to impose long needed reforms, including a much needed rework of the calendar which lasted fifteen hundred years, on the Roman State when he fell to the assassins’ blades.
What if Julius Caesar had survived the Ides of March? It is possible. Conspiracies can be uncovered and the conspirators arrested, interrogated, and then executed. Caesar might have lived another ten years or even more. What might he have accomplished?
Suetonius gives a hint of the extensive plans Caesar had for Rome:
“In particular, for the adornment and convenience of the city, also for the protection and extension of the Empire, he formed more projects and more extensive ones every day; first of all, to rear a temple to Mars, greater than any in existence, filling up and levelling the pool in which he had exhibited the sea-fight, and to build a theater of vast size, sloping down from the Tarpeian Rock; to reduce the civil code to fixed limites, and of the vast and prolix mass of statutes to include only the best and most essential in a limited number of volumes; to open to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin books, assigning to Marcus Varro the charge of procuring and classifying them; to drain the Pomptine marshes; to let out the water from Lake Fucinus; to make a highway from the Adriatic across the summit of the Apennines as far as the Tiber; to cut a canal through the Isthmus; to check the Dacians, who had poured into Pontus and Thrace; then to make war on the Parthians by way of Lesser Armenia, but not to risk a battle with them until he had first tested their mettle. All these enterprises and plans were cut short by his death.”
“For he planned and prepared to make an expedition against the Parthians; and after subduing these and marching around the Euxine by way of Hyrcania, the Caspian sea, and the Caucasus, to invade Scythia; and after overrunning the countries bordering on Germany and Germany itself, to come back by way of Gaul to Italy, and so to complete this circuit of his empire, which would then be bounded on all sides by the ocean. During this expedition, moreover, he intended to dig through the isthmus of Corinth, and had already put Anienus in charge of this work; he intended also to divert the Tiber just below the city into a deep channel, give it a bend towards Circeium, and make it empty into the sea at Terracina, thus contriving for merchantmen a safe as well as an easy passage to Rome; and besides this, to convert marshes about Pomentinum and Setia into a plain which many thousands of men could cultivate; and further, to build moles which should barricade the sea where it was nearest to Rome, to clear away the hidden dangers on the shore of Ostia, and then construct harbors and roadsteads sufficient for the great fleets that would visit them. And all these things were in preparation.”
The program of public works would have been very useful; indeed some of them were eventually carried out by Caesar’s successors, such as the Emperor Augustus. But the enterprises that might have changed the course of history were Caesar’s planned foreign military expeditions.
There was certainly more than enough reason to invade and subdue Parthia, a kingdom that bordered Rome on the East and rivaled the Republic in power and prestige. Some years earlier, Caesar’s political ally, Crassus, had tried to invade Parthia and had been defeated at the Battle of Carrhae. Not only was Crassus executed by having molten gold poured down his throat, but a large number of Roman legionaries were taken into slavery and a number of legionarial standards were taken as trophies. This was a stain upon the honor of Rome that could not be long ignored. In recorded history, Caesar’s former General Marc Antony attempted to subdue the Parthians by military force and did not succeed. Eventually the Emperor Augustus arranged for the return of the standards and the surviving Roman prisoners through diplomatic means.
Dacia, a kingdom to the north of the Danube, was also proving to be a problem. In recorded history, it was actually conquered by the Emperor Trajan in the Second Century AD and for a time was a Roman province.
It is very likely that Caesar would have succeeded in his planned expeditions to Dacia and then Parthia. Whether he would have made these two countries part of Rome or had just extracted concessions and tribute and made client states of them is open to question. Maintaining an Empire over vast distances where the swiftest form of communication was by horse mounted express and where legions moved from one theater of operation to another on their hobnailed feet is no light matter. Besides conquering Dacia, Trajan had conquered most of Parthia, the region we now know as Iraq. The problems of subduing an unruly province over such a vast distance caused Trajan’s successor, the Emperor Hadrian, to abandon the newly conquered lands in the East. This was despite the great wealth that holding that territory entailed, not to mention the advantages of having a port on the Persian Gulf.
Let’s suppose that Caesar decided to hold on to Parthia, subduing that country with not only legions, but roads, aqueducts, canals, and other public works to bind it closer to the rest of the Empire. A major threat to the East that would bedevil Rome for the rest of its existence would have been subdued. This would have major consequences for the long term survival of the Roman state.
The expedition that Plutarch describes, which would have taken a Roman Army through the lands now known as the Ukraine and Russia, into Eastern Europe and then Germany is fanciful. Distance and terrain, which was apparently unknown to Romans even at the time of Plutarch, alone would defeat such an expedition, even one led by Caesar. Vast forests, never ending steppes, not to mention unfriendly natives would have daunted any Roman expedition.
Still, the conquest of Germany, at least up to the Elbe, would likely have been attempted, if not by Caesar, then by his successors. Bringing in Germany as a Roman Province would shorten the frontier of the Roman State considerably, simplifying the problem of defense. The coal and iron resources of the Ruhr Valley, unknown at the time of Caesar, would almost certainly have discovered. Absent something like the Varian Disaster at the Teutoburger Wald, Rome would have almost certainly have held Germany and Romanized it.
How would all of this have affected the course of Roman history. With the Parthian threat subdued in the East and Germany part of the Empire, it is likely that Rome would not have fallen when it did. The tribes and petty kingdoms east of Parthia would have been little threat to an expanded Empire. A defensive line based on the Elbe would have been a stronger bulwark against the restive tribes, such as the Goths and the Huns, which played such a part in the fall of the Roman Empire?
Would the Roman Empire had survived to the present day? Would Rome have evolved into something else, just as the Eastern Empire evolved into the Christian Byzantine Empire? Would Rome have fallen anyway, if not to outside aggression, then to civil war? It is possible, whatever Rome’s ultimate fate was, that the Dark Ages would have been avoided. In any case, the world we now know would be vastly a different one, for better or ill.