Episode 50 – Julius Caesar versus John Churchill

Today, we head on over to the Military bracket, starting with the most famous general of all time, a man so well known that July is named after him, Julius Caesar. The second man, far less well-known outside of Great Britain, John Churchill, was also known as the Duke of Wellington, who led an allied victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim, which we shall learn more about in episode 59.

My primary sources for the Roman General include the titanic book, Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy, Titans of History by Simon Sebag Montefiore, and History’s Greatest Generals by Michael Rank which also includes Churchill. For the Duke of Marlborough, I will also use The Churchill’s: In Love and War by Mary Lovell and Heroes: History’s Greatest Men and Women, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. 

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was born to a patrician family on either July 12 or 13 BCE. Little is known of his early years as we begin to hear about the young man around the year 85 BCE when his father died during the civil war between Julius’ uncle-in-law Gaius Marius and the Roman General Cornelius Sulla who we met in episode 32. 

When Marius was in command of Rome, things went swimmingly for the young Caesar, but when Sulla eventually won the war, things went south. It got so bad that his mother’s family and the Vestal Virgins went to Sulla to protect him from execution. It is here that the famous quote of Sulla comes into play, warning those trying to save Caesar’s life that he may turn out to be as dangerous of a man as his uncle, “In this Caesar, there are many Mariuses.” 

Marius had awarded Caesar the title of Flamen Dialis known as the high priest of Jupiter and was married to Lucius Cornelius Cinna‘s daughter Cornelia. Cinna was a supporter of Marius, which became a burden on the young Julius. When Sulla took away the priesthood along with many financial benefits from Caesar, he may have done him a favor. As the Flamen Dialis, Julius could not leave Rome for any length of time or be part of an army. This was no longer an issue, so thinking it might be a good time to leave Rome, Caesar decided to head to the military serving under Marcus Minucius Thermus in Asia and Servilius Isauricus in Cilicia.

When Sulla died in 78 BCE, Julius decided that it was safe to head back to Rome to pursue a legal career. He purchased a modest residence in Suburba, a kind of red-light district of Rome. His family’s financial situation was dire post-Sulla’s stripping them of their inheritances. Caesar had to head out to rejoin the army to plunder areas, not under Roman control to regain their wealth.

On the way across the Aegean Sea, Caesar was kidnapped by pirates and held prisoner.  A story is told that the pirates demanded a ransom of 20 talents of silver, but Julius, who felt insulted, insisted that they ask for 50. Caesar also warned them that he would come back for them after he was released. 

Julius raised an army and made good on his promise. After capturing the pirates, he had them crucified fulfilling a promise that the pirates had taken as a joke. Caesar’s reputation began to take build.

When the rising Roman returned to the capital, he was elected to the post of military tribune, the first step in a political career. After that, he was elected quaestor in Spain for 69 BCE. 

Since this is a military bracket battle, I’m going to move on from the political side of Caesar and focus on his military prowess. Which began here. It was also when his wife Cornelia died. Two years later he was to marry the granddaughter of Sulla, Pompeia. This would last for six years.

Financially, Caesar was almost bankrupt, so he allied himself with the wealthiest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who took care of many of his bills. To pay off his new mentor, Caesar headed to Spain and began his streak of winning battles along with reforming the legal system there. 

When his term was up, Caesar returned to Rome where he divorced Pompeia and married the daughter of Pompey the Great, Calpurnia. This solidified the “First Triumvirate” of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar. 

It was here that Caesar would work his way into a governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. While there, in 63 BCE, Julius came upon a statue of Alexander the Great. As Michael Rank puts it in his book History’s Greatest Generals, Caesar “broke down and wept before it. The 30-year-old realized that the Macedonian had already conquered the world at his age, while he was an administrator in a backwater Roman province who had frittered away his youth.”

Caesar began his campaign in Gaul to both pay off his debts and to achieve the glories of battle. Julius’ first major battle was the Battle of Bibracte. This was part of the Gallic Wars and a struggle that Caesar turned into a significant victory over the Helvetii, just when things looked bleak for the Romans.

Later that same year, the Suebi tribe attempted to cross the Rhine River and attack the Romans. Even though they had a hundred thousand men to Caesar’s 40,000, the Roman’s once again proved victorious. The Suebi never tried to cross the Rhine and attack Caesar ever again.

Next up were the forces of the Gallia Belgica, also known as the Belgae, which numbered over 275,000. This would be one of Caesar’s fiercest foes. Strabo, the 1st-century Roman historian, said this about the Belgae, “The whole race which is now called both Gallic and Galatic is war-mad…. Although not otherwise simple…. And therefore, if roused, they come together all at once for the struggle, both openly and without circumspection, so that for those who wish to defeat them by stratagem they become easy to deal with.

So, instead of engaging them directly, Caesar decided to harass them. Small battles ensued almost all won by the Romans. One by one, the individual tribes making up the colossal army were subdued, and only the Nervii stood in Caesar’s way. A see-saw fight ensued, but in the end, it was Julius’ brilliance as a tactician that won the day.

In 52 BCE, Caesar was to face his greatest challenge to date, the rebellion of the Gaulic tribes under their elected leader, Vercingetorix. Caesar puts it thus when describing the prelude to the revolt, “The chieftains of Gaul called the councils in remote spots deep in the forests and bemoaned the death of Acco; they realized that the same fate could well befall any of them; they pitied the common plight of Gaul; by pledges and gifts they encouraged men to start the war and risk their own life in the cause of the liberty of Gaul.”

The rebellion pitted about 60-75,000 Romans against a Gaulic force of 300,000. The final Battle of Alesia, one that I will cover in episode 77, was one of the most brilliant sieges within a siege ever conducted in world military history. The aftermath of the crushing of the Gaulic tribes would free Rome from the northern threat for centuries to come. It also would make Caesar a very wealthy and dangerous to the Roman establishment.

The First Triumvirate was no longer as Crassus had died in battle and Pompey was now siding with Caesar’s opponents in the Senate. When Julius and his armies entered Italy by crossing the Rubicon, the next Roman civil war was on. 

At first, Caesar attacked Pompey’s allies in Spain. A large number of senators along with Pompey headed to Greece to battle it out with his Roman adversaries. At the Battle of Pharsalus which we will learn more about in episode 82, Caesar defeated the more massive army led by his former ally, Pompey, causing the latter to flee to Egypt where he was assassinated.

There were two more battles that Caesar won before returning to Rome. First, he defeated Pompey’s sons in Spain and then the last of the senatorial armies in Africa. Neither took him much time, mere months, which is a very short time in the ancient era.

When he was murdered on March 15, 44 BCE, Caesar left a republic that was safer from outside invaders, but the Republic was for all intents and purposes was finished. Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, would reshape Rome into an Empire. 

Michael Rank, in his book, History’s Greatest Generals, he writes this about Caesar’s legacy. “perhaps his strongest recommendation comes from no less than Jesus Christ himself. In the early first century, Jewish religious leaders laid a logical trap at the teacher’s feet, wanting to end his ministry for fear of him stirring up an Israeli rebellion against Rome and bringing down the imperial sword upon their necks. They asked him if it was incumbent to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, a pagan political entity many Israelites believed would be defeated by the coming Messiah. He held up a denarius to the crowd that bore the visage of Caesar and enquired as to whose picture was engraved upon it. Receiving the answer, Jesus said, ‘Rend unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.’

Such is the legacy of a man who was so powerful that even the founder of Christianity acknowledged that he controlled the political domains of Earth.”

Time to move on over to our next contestant, the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill.

John Churchill Duke of Marlborough
John Churchill Duke of Marlborough

Born on May 26, 1650, to Sir Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Drake, at the estate of Churchill, in the parish of Broadclyst in Devon. When John was a young boy, the English Civil War was nearing its end. The Churchill’s were on the wrong end of the conflict as Sir Winston was a staunch Royalist. With Oliver Cromwell taking control, the Churchill’s were heavily fined, which caused the family to become impoverished. Their time at the Ash house was difficult but as his descendant, British Prime Minister in the 20th century, Winston Churchill said that the conditions at Ashe “might well have aroused in his mind two prevailing impressions: first a hatred of poverty … and secondly the need of hiding thoughts and feelings from those to whom their expression would be repugnant”.

When the Restoration brought the monarchy back to Great Britain in 1660, the Churchill family’s fortunes began to brighten. When King Charles II took the throne, John’s father was able to get his son into prestigious schools. The young Churchill served as a page to the Duke of York, which turned out to be quite a coup as this man was to be the future King James II.

Adding to his rise, Churchill married Sarah Jennings, a woman who would be very influential as an attendant to Princess Anne, the future Queen. If you saw the movie The Favorite, you will see a fictionalized account of Sarah as Anne’s first favorite.

Starting in 1667, John Churchill became an ensign in the King’s Company. During the Anglo-Dutch War, which was a subset of the Franco-Dutch War, fought between 1672 and 78, Churchill proved himself to his superiors as a solid, if not brilliant leader. The alliance between France and England was terribly unpopular, which would later lead to a war between the two powers of Europe. His leadership was evident at the Battle of Entzheim and Salzbach in 1675.

In the coming years, much of Churchill’s energy was devoted to diplomacy between the numerous countries in Europe, all vying for different outcomes. It also was a period of rapid advancement for the young man. The family finally had recovered much of its wealth to the point that they were now living in a much more comfortable situation.

During the times, the central tension throughout Europe and within Great Britain was the warfare between the Catholic-led countries and those who followed Protestantism. Churchill lived in this post-Thirty Years’ War Europe. This came to a head in England when James II came to power in 1685.

The Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion against the king, which Churchill was asked to quell. While he did his duty with efficiency and speed, John Churchill was conflicted. He informed the king that while he was loyal to him, he would not convert to Catholicism and would remain allied to his Protestant faith.

Churchill reasoned that he was not going to suffer the same fate as his father had during the English Civil War. Churchill also saw the writing on the wall, James was not going to last very long as the King of England. William of Orange was making noise in Holland which John had heard loud and clear.

When William invaded England, the Duke of Marlborough was sent to defend the realm. Early on, the now Lieutenant-General, allowed his men to defect to the other side, eventually taking many of his closest men over to William’s side. King James II saw that his best general was no longer by his side, so he decided to abdicate and leave England for France.

While William never really trusted Churchill completely, he knew that he was a brilliant general. Instead of keeping him in England, he decided to make him the head of British forces in the Low Countries in 1701. These countries would become Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

William III’s death in 1702 was when John Churchill’s career went into overdrive. Queen Anne thought so highly of him, in part because of the strong influence on her by John’s wife Sarah, that the Queen gave him a dukedom and made him captain general. Churchill’s command of the army at the beginning of the War of Spanish Succession allowed him to show off his genius, beating opponent after opponent, pushing the French to the border of collapse. 

It was his command of the combined forces of the British, Dutch, Hanoverians, Hessians, Danish and Prussian armies against the French and Bavarians on August 13, 1704, that etched the name of John Churchill in the annals of greatest generals. The Battle of Blenheim, which we will describe in more detail in episode 58, was a resounding victory of Churchill. His note to his wife, written on a tavern bill was “I have not time to say more, but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen and let her know her army has had a glorious victory.”

In honor of his victory, Queen Anne gave him the funds to build Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire near Woodstock. His influence, along with his wife’s, was enormous. Churchill’s reputation throughout Europe soared. He was not done fighting and leading his troops to victory. Wins at Ramillies in 1706, Oudenarde in 1708 and Malplaquet in 1709 against the French and their expansionist king, Louis XIV showed how brilliant a military man he was.

Sarah’s relationship with Queen Anne went sour beginning in 1709 and ultimately broke off the next year. This allowed enemies, mostly men jealous of the Duke of Marlborough, to isolate him and his wife away from the court of the Queen. Churchill was not a man to take this lightly as he knew that the Queen’s health was poor. Since she had no children, Churchill decided to align himself with her potential successor, the soon to be King George I, at the time, the elector of Hannover.

When Anne died in 1714, the Churchill’s were back in favor although John’s health began to deteriorate. In 1716, he suffered two debilitating strokes which kept him confined to Blenheim. On June 22, 1722, at the age of 72, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, died of another stroke. As the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, no slacker as a military mind said of Churchill, “I can conceive of nothing greater than Marlborough at the head of an English army.”

Time to head on over to the scorer’s table.

First is the length of time in service to their country or people for 15 points. Julius Caesar began his military service to Rome in about 80 BCE and served until his assassination in 44 for a total of 36 years. John Churchill began in 1667 and ended in 1714 for a total of 47 years. The Englishman receives the full 15 points with the Roman general getting 12.

Next up is the 20 points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Both men had enormous effects on the world, but I’ve got to give the slight edge to Churchill. He halted French expansionism and helped with the rewriting of many European nation’s borders, especially in the Low Countries. Caesar did influence the regions that the Romans controlled, but I don’t think it was as important or made any fundamental changes that the English general did. Another win for Churchill with him getting 20 points and Caesar getting 15.

Next up is their lasting effect of world history. Caesar had a month named after him, has been an iconic symbol of what a dictator can be and his dismantling of the Roman Republic, and along with his adopted son Augustus, created the Roman Empire which would influence world affairs for centuries to come. The Duke of Marlborough, was an amazing general and he did put a significant check on France and their expansionistic plans, but I can’t see how it can compare with his Roman counterpart. Twenty-five points for Caesar and 15 for Churchill.

Now for the big point giveaway for how they affected their country for the better. Rome had to endure two costly civil wars, one between Sulla and Marius and another between Caesar and Pompey. Caesar sought to end this and provide a more stable Empire instead of the old and corrupt Republic. His vision, which would be finished by Augustus, would create this new system which would make Rome one of the greatest empires in world history, bringing wealth and power to it. John Churchill helped make Great Britain one of the most powerful and wealthiest nations in the world for the next three hundred years. Still, it is hard to underestimate the enormity of what Caesar did for Rome. For this reason, I am giving him a slight edge with Caesar receiving the full 40 points to Churchill’s 37.

The man moving on, with a really narrow victory of 92 to 87 is Julius Caesar. He will face off in the next round against the winner of the battle between the Byzantine General, Belisarius and the Russian hero who fought against the Mongols and defeated them for the first time, Dmitri Donskoi.

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