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The Debunker: Was Caesar the Emperor of Rome?

by Ken Jennings

July is the first month of the year named for a specific person. Well, January, March, May, and June are all named for Greek or Roman gods, but July is named for a real historical person: Julius Caesar. Caesar was born in the month of July, which is why, in 44 BC, Rome renamed the summer month of Quintilis "Iulius" after the ambitious, toga-wearing general. We've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to cross the Rubicon this month and set the record straight about the life and death of the ancient world's biggest celeb. Friends, Romans, countrymen: lend him your ears.

The Debunker: Was Caesar the Emperor of Rome?

If you look up the word "Caesar" in the dictionary today, there it is, right between "caduceus" and "Caesar salad." It's now uncapitalized, says Webster's, and just means "emperor" or "dictator." For centuries, German kaisers and Russian czars have borrowed their imperial title from "Caesar," a name that originated as the cognomen (Roman family nickname) of Julius Caesar. As a result, it's often taken for granted that Julius Caesar was emperor of Rome—the most famous emperor, to many people. But that's not historically true.

----- The Debunker

After the Roman civil war began in 49 BC, Caesar was appointed "dictator" of the Roman Republic, giving him full authority to deal with the military emergency. He wasn't the first such dictator; the consul Sulla had revived the title thirty years earlier. The scene in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which Caesar refuses to let Antony crown him as a king is apparently historically accurate, as Appian, Suetonius, and Plutarch all attest. At the time of Caesar's assassination, Rome was still a republic and had no emperor. Like many other Roman commanders before him, Caesar used imperator as a military title, but it didn't come with an emperor's throne.

It was after Caesar's death that his adopted heir Octavian rose to power, restyling himself "Augustus Caesar" by taking his adopted father's family name as his own. As Augustus reorganized Rome into an empire, he consolidated many new powers into his position as tribune, including sole imperium (military authority) in Rome. He created the office that his successors would refer to as imperator (or emperor), and those successors would even transform his family name, Caesar, into a formal royal title. This was a gradual process that took decades, but by historical consensus, Augustus is considered the first imperator of the Roman Empire. Julius, on the other hand, was the last consul and dictator of the Roman Republic.

Quick Quiz: :Who wrote the 1811 Piano Concerto No. 5 that's more popularly known today as the Emperor Concerto?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.