Photo Credit: Leomudde/Wikimedia Commons
Julius Caesar was said to be so far in debt that, on the morning of the 63 BCE election for chief pontiff, in which he was a candidate, he told his mother as she kissed him goodbye “that if he did not return to her as chief pontiff he would not return at all.”
As it happened, Caesar did return as chief pontiff, his very expensive bribery paying off handsomely. But that victory would not end his debt worries. Immense ambitions require immense amounts of cash. As a result, each step of Julius Caesar’s march to immortality was dogged by creditors. In fact, the mountain of debt Caesar amassed guided his every political move. It was, in part, responsible for his march on Rome and the other events that followed – the civil war, the fall of the Republic, his assassination and the snuffing out of democracy for almost two thousand years.
That one man’s personal debt could cause such a chain reaction seems improbable. But it’s not when that man is the most powerful man in the world. Caesar would find many people willing to help him out with his debt – for a price.
Caesar’s financial troubles are brought to mind by the recent New York Times investigation into President Donald J. Trump’s finances, which revealed a career flush with business losses and financial lifelines. As a result, according to the Times, Trump “is personally responsible for loans and other debts totaling $421 million, with most of it coming due within four years.” And this is what we know about. Trump’s very secretive finances may not be fully captured by the tax documents and it’s quite possible his obligations are significantly larger.
The Times could not identify all the sources of Trump borrowed money but his biggest creditor appears to be Deutsche Bank. The debt will need to be repaid, and Trump has backed it all with his personal guarantee, meaning Deutsche Bank can claim his assets if he defaults. To avoid that, Trump would need to raise the cash some other way. That’s the worrisome part. Most Wall Street banks have refused to lend to him for years. Who, in that case, will lend him the funds to repay his debts, and what will they want in return?
Caesar’s debts, unlike Trump’s, weren’t business-related. They were assumed in his single-minded mission to acquire political power. Running for office was expensive in Rome, as it is in America today, and though Caesar came from an ancient patrician family, the Julii had run into hard times. He borrowed to fund his election campaigns, to stage Olympic-type games, and to dole out free grain and other typical expenses of candidates and officeholders.
Caesar found a source of almost endless wealth in Marcus Licinius Crassus, whose fortune and greed were legendary. Rome lacked anything like a modern fire department, so Crassus would dispatch his own private fire brigade to the site of a conflagration – but refuse to extinguish it until the poor owner agreed to sell him the property. Only after the transaction was agreed to would Crassus send in the firefighters.
In 61 BCE, Crassus came to Caesar’s rescue with a loan of 830 talents, “an immense sum, amounting to about an eighth of Crassus’ fortune – and he was the richest man in Rome,” writes Caesar biographer Christian Meier. It might be worth around half a billion dollars today.
The problem with Crassus, from Caesar’s viewpoint, was that he expected to be repaid. And to do that, Caesar had a bigger prize in mind – the consulship. It was Rome’s highest office, something like president or prime minister, except two men held the job jointly, for a one-year term. If Crassus supported him, Caesar promised to cut taxes. (Sound familiar?)
To guarantee victory in the 59 BCE election, Caesar brought a third member into his cabal, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, the greatest military hero of the day. Pompey the Great, as he has come down to us, would bring votes, senatorial support and even more wealth. But Pompey needed his recent military victories confirmed and land provided for his returning troops. These things Caesar promised, and thus was completed the First Triumvirate, eventually sealed by Pompey’s marriage to Caesar’s daughter, Julia. Caesar was duly elected, and he proceeded to ram through his entire legislative agenda “with an unexpected ruthlessness,” Meier writes.
Perhaps Caesar’s greatest weapon was that “unlike all the others,” Meier goes on to say, he “had no particular respect for the Roman order.” (Again, sound familiar?) Caesar did not hesitate to break Rome’s political norms, the traditional ways of acting that had guided the Republic for almost 500 years. These norms were meant to keep ambitious men like Caesar in check, and they worked until men like Caesar started ignoring them.
True, Caesar was not the first. It started in the 130s BCE, when populist politicians began taking legislation directly to the people, without the customary senate support. The leaders of this effort, the brothers Gracchi, died violent deaths, Tiberius killed by a senatorial mob and Gaius taking his own life before the mob could. In the 80s, the general Sulla created a model for Caesar when he marched on Rome, defeated his rivals and had himself set up as permanent dictator.
The norm-busting precedents were there, and Caesar wasted no time adding to them. First, he had hated political opponent Cato arrested and hauled off to prison mid-debate. Then, when Caesar’s co-consul Bibulus opposed the land act he had promised Pompey, Caesar’s supporters physically assaulted Bibulus, who retired to his home to issue religious proclamations. Most senators were in the pockets of the Triumvirate and those who weren’t faced street violence and worse. Caesar ruled alone for the rest of the term.
But Caesar had a problem as his time in the office was ending: his debt was monstrous, and he needed to find a new and substantial source of income. Plus, he faced numerous legal threats that could ruin him without the immunity that came with office. Unlike Trump, who can run for re-election, Caesar was barred from another term as consul for 10 years. So with the help of his Triumvirate partners, and the rump Senate, Caesar secured a five-year term as pro-consul – or governor – to portions of Gaul, essentially modern-day France and Switzerland. That office continued his legal immunity and offered Caesar a prime opportunity to get rich off the non-Roman people he would govern.
Within months of arriving in Gaul, Caesar was waging what turned out to be a decade-long offensive that we would term genocide. Figures are impossible to estimate, though the Greek historian Appian wrote that a million Gauls were killed and an equal number taken captive – the slave trade was a great source of revenue for Caesar. (Another was the importing of wine, a drink that would come to symbolize the France that grew out of this violent Romano-Celtic marriage.) But even Gaul wasn’t enough for Caesar. When the now Pompey-led Senate finally ordered him home, and Caesar was again faced with financial and legal ruin, he once more made the convention-breaking choice: he marched on Rome. The rest, as they say, is history.
There’s no saying what Trump will do if he loses the election in November. But, like Caesar, he may decide it’s worth holding onto power at any cost.
Kenneth G. Pringle is a financial journalist, internet-news pioneer, writer and historian. He is currently heading up Barron’s Centennial Project, a year-long retrospective of the magazine’s first 100 years, after previously working with The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and APBnews.com. He earned his master’s degree in military history at Norwich University in 2019.