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The Longest Year in Human History (46 B.C.E.)

September 18, 2019


In the summer of the year 46 B.C.E., Julius
Caesar returned to the city of Rome as a victorious general. All of his military opposition had been squashed,
and all of his enemies, save for Labienus and a couple of Pompey’s sons, had either
been killed or forced into submission. This precise moment, when Caesar returned
to the city, was a major turning point in Roman history. For years, Roman politics had been getting
weirder and more dysfunctional, but now was when things really go off the deep end. Before Caesar could even make it back to the
city, the Senate took it upon itself to offer him unprecedented political power. His Dictatorship, which was due to expire
in a few months, was extended for an additional 10 years. This was unheard of, as the Dictatorship was
supposed to be a 6 month emergency measure. Why did the Senate do this? If Caesar made a power grab, many in the Senate
feared the worst. By preempting him, the Senate believed that
they could keep Caesar within the bounds of the law, and by attaching a time limit to
their offer, they would be able to revisit this whole arrangement in 10 years time. By then, Caesar would probably be in a weaker
position than he was right now, and with a little luck they might be able to push him
into retirement. The Senate also gave Caesar permission to
serve as Consul consecutively for the next 5 years, which, when paired with the Dictatorship,
would give him a free hand to push through pretty much whatever legislation he wished. Alongside this, Caesar was also handed a bunch
of new powers. I’m not going to go down the laundry list,
but they included the power to declare war and issue pardons whenever he wished. This was some real authoritarian stuff. The Senate still held onto some legislative
authority, but they were making one hell of a gamble. When Caesar returned to Rome, he asked the
Senate to meet him outside the pomerium. He told them that he had conquered new territory
for Rome, and that he had been hailed as Imperator by his armies. He formally asked their permission to cross
the pomerium under Triumph. In fact, he said that he qualified for four
Triumphs. One for Gaul, one for Egypt, one for Asia
Minor, and one for North Africa. It’s worth briefly examining each of these
claims. In Gaul, he had annexed a bunch of territory
and been hailed as Imperator. Gaul was totally legit. In Egypt, it gets more complicated. If you remember, Caesar lost a battle, then
won a battle, then negotiated a settlement where he handed a Roman province over to the
Queen of Egypt. Giving away a province is kinda the opposite
of conquering territory. The Egyptian campaign should not have qualified
for a Triumph. In Asia Minor, Caesar won a decisive battle,
but all he really did was restore the status quo. That doesn’t really count as “conquering new
territory,” although I guess it’s debatable. As for North Africa, this one is really complicated. Caesar won a decisive battle, but in this
case it was against his own countrymen! For the sake of public relations Caesar argued
that King Juba of Numidia was the brains behind the North African campaign, but this was not
true. After Caesar’s victory, he shifted some of
the Numidian client kingdom into one of Rome’s existing provinces, which is kind of just
an administrative thing but I guess technically counts as conquering new territory. Of Caesar’s 4 proposed Triumphs, 3 were questionable. Nevertheless, the Senate signed off on all
of them. I’m going to spend a few minutes going through
each of Caesar’s four triumphs, but if this piques your interest at all you should know
that I made a video where I break down each step of the Roman Triumph in excruciating
detail. Learning about the Roman Triumph ruins every
parade you see for the rest of your life. Caesar’s four triumphs would be celebrated
on four separate days in the order in which they occurred. Gaul, then Egypt, then Asia Minor, then North
Africa. The conquest of Gaul was Caesar’s greatest
achievement, and the Gallic Triumph would serve as its living monument. Remember Vercingetorix? The so-called King of the Gauls? Six years ago, Vercingetorix lead a united
Gallic army that almost succeeded in pushing the Romans out of Gaul. Caesar eventually captured Vercingetorix and
defeated the united Gallic army, after which Rome would to establish a permanent presence
in Gaul. For the intervening six years, which included
the entirety of the Roman Civil War, Vercingetorix had been rotting in a Roman jail. Why didn’t they just kill him? Well, for the Romans, few things were more
prestigious than having a foreign king walk in one’s Triumph. This Roman tendency towards humiliation and
cruelty extended Vercingetorix’s life six years. Caesar’s Gallic Triumph kicked off with wagons
carrying paintings depicting Caesar’s various victories over the Gauls. These were followed by even more wagons hauling
captured Gallic treasure. Walking alongside these wagons were an assortment
of Gallic prisoners, including the so-called King of the Gauls, Vercingetorix. After this, Caesar made his entrance by crossing
the pomerium and making his way up the Via Sacra before cheering crowds. As the name would imply, the Via Sacra was
home to Rome’s largest temples. As Caesar was passing the Temple to Fortuna
the goddess of luck, one of the wheels on his chariot snapped and he was thrown onto
the street. To the superstitious Romans, it appeared that
the goddess of luck had finally abandoned Caesar. After a brief delay, another chariot was found
and the Triumph continued. As Caesar approached the Gallic Triumph’s
grand finale, he decided to climb the steps to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on
his knees in an act of penance. Hopefully the goddess of luck would find this
pleasing. After this bit of public humiliation, Vercingetorix,
the so-called King of the Gauls, having played his part, was strangled to death. The rest of the Gallic prisoners met the same
fate. An important part of the Triumph was that
Caesar’s soldiers were permitted to cross the pomerium and follow behind him along the
Triumphal route. By the end of the Triumph everybody was pretty
loose, if you know what I mean, and it was customary for the soldiers to entertain the
crowd by singing rude songs. Suetonius, writing 150 years after the fact,
had access to sources that are now lost to us, and went to the trouble of transcribing
one of the songs that Caesar’s army sang during the Gallic Triumph. It went a little something like this: “Romans, watch your wives, here’s the bald
adulterous whore / We pissed away your gold in Gaul and come to borrow more.” A few days later, after the partying had settled
down a bit, it was time for the Egyptian Triumph. As part of a negotiated settlement with Egypt,
Caesar had taken Cleopatra’s sister and former rival Arsinoe captive. Arsinoe was a former Queen herself, and as
such she would become the second monarch to walk in one of Caesar’s Triumphs. By all accounts Arsinoe was young, charming,
attractive, and probably fluent in both Greek and Latin. We don’t know what she said or did, but whatever
it was the crowd immediately took a liking to her. Before too long, people were calling on Caesar
to spare her life. Caesar, sensing the mood of the crowd, gave
in to popular demand and allowed Arsinoe to take up residence in a Roman temple. There’s no doubt that this move annoyed Cleopatra,
but when you think about it geopolitically, Rome having a potential heir to the Egyptian
throne in their back pocket seems like a pretty smart move. A few days later, it was time for the Asia
Minor Triumph, which celebrated Caesar’s 5 day campaign that ended with the Battle of
Zela. This would have been the weakest of the four
Triumphs, and it’s probably no coincidence that none of the ancient sources have anything
to say about it. And then, a few days later, it was time for
the grand finale, the North African Triumph. This Triumph was pitched as a celebration
of Caesar’s victory over King Juba and the Numidians in North Africa. As usual, the Triumph kicked off with a bunch
of giant paintings. One of the first paintings depicted the Pompeian
general Scipio stabbing himself in the stomach and tossing himself into the sea. Many in the crowd understandably found the
painting offensive. Why were they being shown the deaths of Romans? Where were the Numidians? Minutes later, another painting came into
view. This one depicted the last moments of Cato’s
life, with the Senator laying in bed ripping out his own intestines with his bare hands. This was disgusting, even by Roman standards. It was now crystal clear that Caesar was much
more concerned with celebrating the deaths of his fellow Romans than he was with the
defeat of the Numidians. The crowd turned against the Triumph. Minutes later, the prisoners came into view. The most prominent person here was the new
King of Numidia, a young child, probably under the age of 6. This child would be the third monarch to walk
in one of Caesar’s Triumphs, which was an incredible accomplishment, and a record would
never be broken. But the crowd had no interest in this achievement. They were in a sour mood, and found the idea
of putting an innocent child to death repulsive. The crowd started to get rowdy, and when Caesar
came into view they angrily demanded that he spare the boy’s life. Caesar didn’t have much of a choice. He enrolled the young king in a prestigious
school and left it at that. When you add together each of Caesar’s four
Triumphs, he hauled 2,000 tonnes of silver across the pomerium. Currency conversion across two millennia is
pretty much impossible, but just so you get a proper sense of scale that much silver would
be worth a billion dollars today. The scale of Caesar’s personal wealth had
grown to that of a small country, and it was time to use that wealth to begin meeting some
of his obligations. At the top of his list were his legions, who
in return for sacrificing so much, had received nothing but a bunch of promises. Caesar gifted each of his soldiers 1 silver
talent, which, bearing in mind that currency conversion is pretty much impossible, would
have been equal to like 10 or 15 year’s wages. Centurions were given two silver talents,
and officers and command staff were given four silver talents. This was extremely generous, and everybody
knew full well that this was coming right out of Caesar’s pocket. But the spending spree was just getting started,
because Caesar then turned around and gifted every Roman citizen the equivalent of like
4 month’s wages. This was a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome
one. The Roman aristocracy looked down their noses
at this blatant political pandering, but since it was a private donation, they were in no
position to do anything about it. Despite this flurry of generosity, Caesar’s
full debt to his soldiers had not yet been paid. This is a rough estimate, but something on
the order of 22,000 soldiers were currently up for retirement, and that number would only
grow in the years to come. The Roman state owed every one of these men
a plot of farmland and a cash bonus, and it was Caesar’s responsibility to make sure that
happened. But 22,000 was a big number, and even with
unlimited funds, coming up with that much farmland would be tough. This would require a political solution. Luckily, Caesar was at the height of his political
power. He had just been appointed Dictator for an
additional 10 years, and was at the very beginning of a 5 year run as Consul. His first move was to push a bill through
the Senate setting up a mechanism through which farmers could sell their land to the
government at inflated prices. This meant that Rome’s failing farmers would
be eligible for a little cash bailout. Of course, since this was a voluntary program,
the full redistribution of 22,000 farms would take many, many years. Now that Caesar’s veterans were being dealt
with, some important political decisions needed to be made. The chaos of the Civil War had devastated
the Senate. The size of the Senate tended to fluctuate
year to year, but if you assumed perfect health and attendance it could top out at like 800
members, although in practice 300 was pretty typical. As you might imagine, the Civil War had pushed
a lot of Senators into early retirement, and, well, death, and by the year 46 Senate membership
was down in the danger zone. Some back of the envelope calculations said
that there would not be enough qualified Senators to properly staff Rome’s provinces. Caesar would do three things to solve this
problem. He would expand the pool of available candidates,
he would widen the filter that produced qualified candidates, and he would temporarily lower
the qualifications themselves. This whole thing was super consequential and
it would ruffle a lot of feathers, so let’s get into it. Caesar widened the pool of available candidates
by using his dictatorial powers to unilaterally appoint hundreds and hundreds of new Senators. Who were these new Senators? They were basically everybody that Caesar
had come into contact with over the last 15 years. A bunch of these new Senators were retired
centurions from his legions. It goes without saying that these guys were
loyalists. He also appointed a bunch of aristocrats from
the small and medium sized cities that dotted the Italian countryside. Caesar had turned to this group for financial
support during the Civil War, and this political kickback only strengthened their loyalty to
him. It was a canny move, since these aristocrats
were a pretty influential. And some of these new Senators came from outside
Italy. During the Gallic Wars, Caesar had made commitments
to some Gallic aristocrats in exchange for their support. Appointing these Gauls to the Roman Senate
was a way of finally making good on these commitments. Let’s make a few things clear about these
Gauls. For starters, these people had been given
Roman citizenship ages ago. They were fluent in Latin. They wore Roman clothing. Their children got Roman educations. Nevertheless, the appointment of ethnic Gauls
to the Roman Senate caused an uproar. On the streets of Rome, people started telling
a joke that went something like this: “The Gauls have crossed the pomerium! They’re asking for directions to the Senate
House!” There was a lot of loose talk at the time
about Senators showing up unable to speak Latin, sporting Gallic facial hair, wearing
Gallic clothing, practicing Gallic religion, but none of this was true. It was all just wild paranoia. By the time Caesar had finished making all
of his appointments, the Senate had quadrupled in size. Over time the Senate would shrink back down
to normal, but this would take at least a generation. As I said before, Caesar had good reasons
for packing the Senate, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that at its heart, it was
a power grab. The vast majority of the Roman Senate were
now personally loyal to Caesar. But the Senate packing thing wouldn’t entirely
solve the problem at hand. The only Senators that were allowed to serve
as governors were the ones who had been elected to one of Rome’s two highest offices, Consul
and Praetor. Because of the Civil War, many of Rome’s former
Consuls and Praetors were either dead or retired. It would take quite a long time to filter
this expanded pool of politicians up the cursus honorum, so Caesar widened the filter by increasing
the number of annually elected Praetors from 8 to 10. But widening the filter wouldn’t entirely
solve the problem either. As a stopgap measure, Caesar used his dictatorial
authority to appoint a bunch of under-qualified politicians to the provinces. Caesar’s old job as governor of Cisalpine
Gaul went to one of the Senate’s lowest ranked Senators, Marcus Brutus. Fifteen years his junior, Brutus was the son
of Caesar’s favourite mistress, and despite the fact that Brutus had sided with the Pompeians
during the Civil War, Caesar was happy to take him under his wing. Caesar also singled out 10 loyal former Praetors
and awarded them with something called “the dignity of an former Consul.” This was a totally made up thing, but Caesar
argued that it would be improper for certain provinces to be governed by anybody lacking
the dignity of an former Consul. In truth, it just a way for Caesar to reward
his allies for their years of service. Whatever. Caesar packaged these power-grabby political
reforms with some more general anti-corruption stuff. This included a provision that said that any
governor convicted on corruption charges would be automatically expelled from the Senate. This fight against corruption was one of Caesar’s
hobby horses. He believed that corrupt governors needlessly
antagonized the locals which put Rome at risk. The corrupt aristocracy didn’t much like these
reforms, but they weren’t in a position to do anything about it. Taken as a whole, this was a staggering number
of reforms to come down all at once. That’s how it felt at the time, too! Most of these bills were conceived and written
up in Caesar’s home, and would only see the light of day when it was time for the Senate
to provide their rubber stamp. Cicero even notes that a few of these proposals
showed up with his own name attached to them, which was quite the surprise! Now that the immediate political problems
were out of the way, Caesar turned his eye to the public. Rome had a tonne of systemic issues that had
been in a state of neglect since before the Civil War. The largest of these, and the one that had
the most direct impact on the lives of everyday citizens, was the Grain Dole. Quite simply, the Grain Dole provided free
or subsidized grain to Rome’s poorest citizens at the state’s expense. The significance of the Grain Dole is kinda
hard to wrap your head around, so think of it like this. For most of world history, most people spent
most of their money on food. The Grain Dole took 320,000 of Rome’s poorest
citizens and eliminated their largest household expense. This was one of the most effective government
run anti-poverty programs in world history, and frankly nobody would improve on it until
the basically modern welfare state. But after years of neglect, cracks were beginning
to show. Poor citizens were having a hard time getting
onto the Grain Dole without bribing bureaucrats. This was made worse by the fact that families
who maybe a generation earlier had qualified for the Grain Dole were able to keep their
names on the lists long after rising out of poverty. Rich people were collecting benefits that
were intended for poor people. This was leading to a lot of social resentment. Caesar dramatically restructured the Grain
Dole. He cut the number of eligible recipients in
half, from 320,000 down to 150,000, but he also implemented political stronger oversight
so that these 150,000 people were legitimately Rome’s poorest citizens. This restored a basic sense of fairness to
the system, and despite the fact that a lot less people would qualify for the benefit,
the reforms turned out to be quite popular. When Brutus learned of Caesar’s cuts, he excitedly
wrote to a friend saying that “Caesar appears to be joining the Conservative Faction!” That friend conveyed Brutus’s thoughts to
Cicero, who responded, “join the Conservative Faction? Is he planning on killing himself?” Now that Caesar’s major reforms were up and
running, he was free to take on a brand new super secret project. This would be an utterly boring and thankless
job, but it was something that had captured Caesar’s imagination a while back and for
whatever reason he was hell-bent on tackling it now. We’re talkin’ about the Roman calendar. The Roman calendar sucked. We don’t need to go into all the details,
but for starters it was a lunar calendar, as in it followed the phases of the moon. The phases of the moon do not line up with
the solar year, which means that lunar calendars always drift out of sync with the seasons. It was the job of the Pontifex Maximus and
his College of Pontiffs to monitor this drift and to manually add extra days to the calendar
as needed. The current Pontifex Maximus happened to be
Julius Caesar, and as we know, Caesar had been indisposed for like… a decade and a
half. As a consequence, the Roman calendar was a
good 3 months out of sync, which as far as calendars go is kind of a catastrophic failure. But Caesar had just spent the better part
of a year in Egypt, where he learned that the Egyptians used a nearly perfect 365 day
solar calendar. Caesar enlisted the help of an Egyptian astronomer
named Sosigenes of Alexandria, and together they designed new Roman calendar loosely modeled
on the Egyptian system. Like the Egyptian calendar, the new Roman
calendar would be 365 days. Good start. But the Egyptian calendar did have some flaws. They evenly divided the year into 12 months
of 30 days each, which added up to 360, and then they manually added in 5 extra days at
the end of the year to make the math work. Those 5 extra days were a problem. Under the Roman system these days would be
administered by the Pontifex Maximus, and if administered incorrectly the calendar would
begin to drift again. That would not do. Caesar and Sosigenes wanted this new calendar
run on autopilot, so they took those 5 extra days and peppered them throughout the year
creating a bunch of 31 day months. The month of February was considered unlucky,
and so they bumped it back down to 28 days as it had been under the old system, and offset
this with even more 31 day months. But according to Sosigenes, even the nearly
perfect Egyptian calendar was slightly out of alignment since it did not take into account
the actual length of the year, which was 365 and 1/4 days. Under the old Roman calendar the traditional
place to insert extra days had been during the month of February, and so Caesar and Sosigenes
invented a system where an additional day would be automatically inserted into that
month on every 4th year. They made it very clear that this was not
one of those special days that the Pontifex Maximus could tinker with. This would be an automatic process, out of
the hands of the politicians. With that, the new Roman calendar was complete. But there was still a problem. The current date was still 3 months out of
alignment. So here’s a trivia question that you can bore
your friends with: “what was the longest year in human history?” Seems like a trick, but it’s not. In order to bring the Roman year back into
alignment, Caesar inserted 90 extra days into the year 46 B.C.E., making it a 445 day year,
which was 25% longer than a normal. On January 1st of the year 45, the new Roman
calendar, which is known to us as the Julian calendar, came into effect. Automating the calendar and getting it out
of the hands of politicians was a great human achievement. Aside from some minor upgrades in the 16th
century, the system devised by Caesar and Sosigenes survives more or less intact to
this day. While Caesar was busy in Rome, something was
happening out in the provinces. Without warning, the Spanish governors began
writing in requesting reinforcements. Before Caesar could even act, Rome’s two Spanish
provinces had fallen to the enemy. What enemy? Caesar’s old right hand man Labienus had joined
forces with two of Pompey’s sons. Rome’s disgruntled Spanish legions had eagerly
gone over to their side. Caesar had been caught entirely flat footed. Apparently the Roman Civil War wasn’t over
yet.

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