Caesar was born into a patrician family, the gens Julia, which claimed descent from Iulus, son of the legendary Trojan prince Aeneas, supposedly the son of the goddess Venus. The cognomen “Caesar” originated, according to Pliny the Elder, with an ancestor who was born by caesarean section (from the Latin verb to cut, caedere, caes-). The Historia Augusta suggests three alternative explanations: that the first Caesar had a thick head of hair (Latin caesaries); that he had bright grey eyes (Latin oculis caesiis); or that he killed an elephant (caesai in Moorish) in battle. Caesar issued coins featuring images of elephants, suggesting that he favored this interpretation of his name.
Despite their ancient pedigree, the Julii Caesares were not especially politically influential, although they had enjoyed some revival of their political fortunes in the early 1st century BC. Caesar’s father, also called Gaius Julius Caesar, governed the province of Asia, and his sister Julia, Caesar’s aunt, married Gaius Marius, one of the most prominent figures in the Republic. His mother, Aurelia Cotta, came from an influential family. Little is recorded of Caesar’s childhood.
In 85 BC, Caesar’s father died suddenly, so Caesar was the head of the family at 16. His coming of age coincided with a civil war between his uncle Gaius Marius and his rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Both sides carried out bloody purges of their political opponents whenever they were in the ascendancy. Marius and his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna were in control of the city when Caesar was nominated to be the new high priest of Jupiter, and he was married to Cinna’s daughter Cornelia. Following Sulla’s final victory, though, Caesar’s connections to the old regime made him a target for the new one. He was stripped of his inheritance, his wife’s dowry, and his priesthood, but he refused to divorce Cornelia and was forced to go into hiding. The threat against him was lifted by the intervention of his mother’s family, which included supporters of Sulla, and the Vestal Virgins. Sulla gave in reluctantly, and is said to have declared that he saw many a Marius in Caesar.
Caesar felt that it would be much safer far away from Sulla should the Dictator change his mind, so he left Rome and joined the army, serving under Marcus Minucius Thermus in Asia and Servilius Isauricus in Cilicia. He served with distinction, winning the Civic Crown for his part in the Siege of Mytilene. He went on a mission to Bithynia to secure the assistance of King Nicomedes’s fleet, but he spent so long at Nicomedes’ court that rumors arose of an affair with the king, which Caesar vehemently denied for the rest of his life. Ironically, the loss of his priesthood had allowed him to pursue a military career, as the high priest of Jupiter was not permitted to touch a horse, sleep three nights outside his own bed or one night outside Rome, or look upon an army.
Hearing of Sulla’s death in 78 BC, Caesar felt safe enough to return to Rome. He lacked means since his inheritance was confiscated, but he acquired a modest house in Subura, a lower-class neighborhood of Rome. He turned to legal advocacy and became known for his exceptional oratory accompanied by impassioned gestures and a high-pitched voice, and ruthless prosecution of former governors notorious for extortion and corruption.
The Roman historian Suetonius describes Caesar as “tall of stature with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes.”
Using the Latin alphabet of the period, which lacked the letters J and U, Caesar’s name would be rendered GAIVS IVLIVS CAESAR; the form CAIVS is also attested, using the older Roman representation of G by C. The standard abbreviation was C. IVLIVS CÆSAR, reflecting the older spelling. (The letterform Æ is a ligature of the letters A and E, and is often used in Latin inscriptions to save space.)
In Classical Latin, it was pronounced [ˈɡaːjus ˈjuːljus ˈkajsar]. In the days of the late Roman Republic, many historical writings were done in Greek, a language most educated Romans studied. Young wealthy Roman boys were often taught by Greek slaves and sometimes sent to Athens for advanced training, as was Caesar’s principal assassin, Brutus. In Greek, during Caesar’s time, his family name was written Καίσαρ, reflecting its contemporary pronunciation. Thus, his name is pronounced in a similar way to the pronunciation of the German Kaiser.
In Vulgar Latin, the plosive /k/ before front vowels began, due to palatalization, to be pronounced as an affricate, hence renderings like [ˈtʃeːsar] in Italian and [ˈtseːsar] in German regional pronunciations of Latin, as well as the title of Tsar. With the evolution of the Romance languages, the affricate [ts] became a fricative [s] (thus, [ˈseːsar]) in many regional pronunciations, including the French one, from which the modern English pronunciation is derived. The original /k/ is preserved in Norse mythology, where he is manifested as the legendary king Kjárr.
Caesar’s cognomen itself became a title; it was promulgated by the Bible, which contains the famous verse “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. The title became Kaiser in German and Tsar or Czar in the Slavic languages. The last tsar in nominal power was Simeon II of Bulgaria, whose reign ended in 1946. This means that for two thousand years after Julius Caesar’s assassination, there was at least one head of state bearing his name.