The name Caius Julius Caesar is probably the best known roman name of all time. Everybody has heard of him and most of us also know that he was proclaimed dictator for a lifetime.
But why did Caesar proclaim himself dictator and not king? What was his intention behind avoiding the title of king?
Let`s find out!
Caius Julius Caesar did not want to be king for historical reasons. The Romans had a strong antipathy against the monarchy that was deeply rooted in the beginnings of the Roman state.
Why did Rome not have kings?
If we want to find an answer to why Caesar did not want to be king we have to investigate why Rome wasn`t ruled by kings in the first place.
Early Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings until the Romans expelled them around 510 BC.
The answer to this is that the Romans were ruled by kings during the early days of Rome even before the roman republic. The time of the early roman kings is poorly documented and most of what we think to know about these early roman kings are myths and tales.
We only know that early Rome after was ruled by several Etruscan kings until about the year 509 BC. I wrote an entire detailed article where I present both the myth and the reality of how Rome was founded. Please Click here to get to my article.
We don`t know for sure why the Romans decided to get rid of their king. All we know had been passed down in highly patriotic roman tales and has to be used with a grain of salt.
Let’s take a look at these tales and understand why the Romans hated the concept of a monarch so passionately.
Who was the first king of Rome?
According to the roman founding myth, the founder and first king of Rome was a man called Romulus. Romulus descended from Iulus, the son of the Trojan Aeneas.
Since the Romans didn`t really have an idea about how Rome was founded they started creating a myth that would connect Rome with the trojan war.
According to the myth, a trojan named Aeneas (coincidentally the son of the goddess Venus) escaped the destruction of troy together with his son Iulus (by the way, that Iulus was claimed by Caesar as the progenitor of the Julius clan giving Caius JULIUS Caesar a direct link to both the gods and the founders of Rome) and other survivors of Troy’s destruction.
So Julius Caesar basically claimed to be a descendant of the godess Venus. That might sound a little crazy to us but it for sure came in handy when Julius Caesar had to justify why he was chosen to rule Rome as dictator for lifetime.
But not only Caius Julius Caesar used the past to legitimize his claim for power. Medieval dynasties and the Holy Roman Empire did the exact same thing. Do you wonder why it was called the Holy Roman Empire and how the name is conected to the idea of legitimation through the past? You can find more information about that in my article here.
Kind of like the legendary greek figure Odysseus Aeneas and his Companions were also forced to wander through the Mediterraneum before they found a new home somewhere around the area of modern-day Rome. Plus, the son of Aeneas, went on to found the city of Alba Longa in around 1060 BC where his Descendants would rule for many centuries.
The last two kings of Alba Longa were brothers called Numitor and Amulius. The just Numitor should have been king but was expelled by his tyrannic and cruel brother.
In an attempt to destroy the bloodline of Numitor Amulius forced the daughter of Numitor, Rea Silvia, into Priesthood. And that priesthood demanded its priests to stay virgins.
One night Mars, the Roman god of war, visited Rea Silvia and got her pregnant with twins. These twins were called Romulus and Remus.
Amulius, their granduncle, was outraged and ordered that the two infants should be thrown into the river Tiber.
Luckily they were put into a basket and due to the influence of the gods were driven back to the shores. It was at the shore that the two infants were found and nurtured by a wolf before they were found and adopted by the Shepherd Faustulus. By the way, that is also the reason why there are a lot of statues of the wolf and the two children in Rome.
Romulus and Remus grew up, returned to Alba Longa where they overthrew their greatuncle and reinstated their grandfather Numitor.
But Romulus and Remus did not stay in Alba Longa for long since they wanted to start their own city.
It was in the Year 753 BC that Romulus took up the plow and created a furrow around the area where he wanted to build his city. According to the roman historian and writer Titus Livius, he wrote the book „Ab urbe condita“, Romulus choose Palatine Hill. One of the 7 hills Rome stands upon.
Romulus proclaimed that nobody should ever cross that sacred border of Rome (the so-called Pomerium) while bearing weapons.
Remus, who was quite amused by the fact that his brother gave such importance to a simple furrow, decided to jump over the furrow while still bearing his weapons.
Romulus, in an approach of anger, killed his brother.
After killing his brother Romulus needed people to inhabit his city. He transformed Rome into an asylum for the suppressed and pursued and promised life in freedom.
The asylum that Romulus according to legend established was of high political importance for the self-image of Rome!
Whenever roman senators were debating if defeated former enemies should be granted the roman civil right the asylum was used as an argument that Romulus, the founder of Rome himself, wanted Rome to integrate foreigners and former enemies.
Many men grabbed that opportunity and settled in Rome. Many of them being criminals who were running from the law, slaves who had escaped their masters, and other sorts of criminals.
A truly illustrious group, one could say!
But that led to another problem: There were almost no women. In typical rustic roman fashion, it was decided to steal women from their neighboring people, the Sabines.
The early Romans invited their neighbors together with their women, daughters, and mothers for a feast. And when their guests started to feel the effects of intoxication they were expelled. The women who were held back by the Romans were (forcefully) married to their kidnappers.
Of course, the sabinian men had no intention of accepting the abduction of their women. They armed themselves and marched onto the settlement that would later be known as Rome. Heavy fights broke out between the Romans and Sabines until the women stepped in and ended the violence between their new husbands and their families of origin by forcing them to accept a peace treaty.
The Romans and Sabines decided to join forces and the kingship over Rome was shared between the roman Romulus and the king of the Sabines Sabines Titus Tatius.
Romulus went on to rule Rome for a total of 38 years until 715 BC. The creation of the senate, the organization of the army, structuring the population into curiae, and also the difference between patricians and plebeians are traced back to him (at least according to the founding myth).
When Romulus died during a thunderstorm his corps disappeared. It is said that Romulus was included in the world of the Roman gods. That’s by the way the first time a roman ruler was deified, a procedure that would be quite common after (and Including) the death of Caius Julius Caesar.
He was succeeded by 6 other kings, all of them being portrayed in stereotypes.
You probably noticed that the entire story seems highly mythologic. And you are right, the real story of how Rome was founded (or better how Rome grew together) is a much less mythologic story.
If you like to check out the scientific answer to how Rome actually started existing (and why Rome probably wasn`t founded in the sense of an official founding act like in the tale of Romulus) I would like to recommend you my article here (especially it’s second half).
Who were the early kings of Rome?
Romulus was succeeded by the kings Muma Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius and the Etruscans Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius and Tarquinius Superbus as kings of Rome. Only the last 3 might be historic persons, the first 4 are probably only mythical persons.
The actual sources to all these kings are quite poor. But historians estimate that at least the last of the Etruscans, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus might have been people who really lived.
Each of the kings is described in a quite stereotypical way and every king is responsible for one of the main early Roman achievements.
Lucius Tarquinius Priscus for example was portrayed as the man who built the cloaca Maxima, the main canalization of Rome.
Now that might not sound too glorious but remember, the exact same canalization was still used after the fall of the Roman kings, after the fall of the Roman republic, and during the roman empire after the birth of Christ!
The Canalisation was a highly important and dominant part of the city!
The last roman king was Tarquinius Superbus, who like his two predecessors was not Roman but Etruscan. And he was portrayed as an extremely tyrannic, immoral, and through and through malicious man.
Tarquinius Superbus, the last roman king, was overthrown in 509 BC. And with his rule, the time of the Roman kings also ended.
If you want to read more about the shocking reason why the Romans overthrew Tarquinius Superbus I would recommend you our article on the topic.
Why did Romans despise the institution of the King?
Even after getting rid of him the reputation that the last king Tarquinius Superbus had earned stayed in the collective memory of all Romans and was transferred onto the institution of kingship!
For the Romans, a king was automatically seen as a danger that had to be dealt with!
And although it was sometimes necessary to name a dictator with king-like powers that office was always temporally limited.
So to return to the question:
Why did Caesar not want to be King?
As already mentioned, after the expelling of Tarquinius Superbus the reputation of the whole institution of monarchy was badly damaged.
And as a result of that, the Romans did their best to prevent any sort of recreation of the monarchy after they had gotten rid of their king.
All the important public offices were limited to one year and were shared by two independent colleagues.
That was done with the intent that if a high-ranking public official had a colleague (preferably one that he didn`t agree on when it came to politics) it would be much harder for him to accumulate the amount of power that would be necessary to overthrow the state. That concept was actually engraved in roman politics, more on that here.
A good example of two high-ranking public officials who simultaneously held the office of consul was Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius. Historians are pretty sure that both men hated each other. Click here for my article with the reason why Crassus and Pompejus hated each other.
By the way, have you ever wondered why Marcus Licinius Crassus (like many Romans) had 3 names? You can find the answer to how Roman names worked here!
Remarkably a few years later, in 60 BC, both men were able to put aside their hate and join the first triumvirate. They joined in an attempt to trick the system that was designed to limit the political power that one man could legally have.
To emphasize that every citizen (and not only a king) was responsible for politics the roman state was even called „Res publica“, the public matter!
The only part where the title of king survived the fall of the roman monarchy that supposedly happened in 509 BC was in religious affairs.
Click here for more information on why the roman monarchy was overthrown and find out why 509 BC (also the year that Athens got rid of its dictator) might have not been the actual year but been chosen for strategic purposes.
There was for example the „rex sacrorum“, the king of the sacred.
But since the rex sacrorum (the king of the sacred) was excluded from any sort of military or political service (one enabled the other) he did not hold any real power.
The rex sacrorum mainly proclaimed the dates of festivals and performed monthly sacrifices.
With the deeply rooted roman antipathy against the monarchy and after all the Efforts the Romans had gone through to prevent the establishment of another roman king it would have been extremely unwise for Caesar to claim the title of a king!
Actually, even Caesars’ successors, the emperors of the Roman empire, were not called kings.
Caesars’ direct successor Octavian, who became known as Augustus, would refer to himself as „primus inter pares“, as a first among equals.
Now claiming to be the first among equals is obviously a contradiction. If you are the first you are not equal to the others. But the word „King“ was avoided and that was the important part!
So in conclusion: Julius Caesar did not want to be king since he knew what happened to the last Roman king, more on that here. He knew that the word king had such a bad reputation amongst the Romans that calling himself king would do him more harm than good.
Since Julius Caesar was declared as a dictator for a lifetime he already had all the power one could have over the Roman state.
By the way, Dictator was a regular public office in ancient Rome. It did not have the negative connotation that we have. But that is a story for another post.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time