Born in Rome on July 12 or 13, 100 BC, Caesar belonged to the prestigious Julian clan; yet from early childhood he knew controversy. His uncle by marriage was Gaius Marius, leader of the Populares. This party supported agrarian reform and was opposed by the reactionary Optimates, a senatorial faction. Marius was seven times consul (chief magistrate), and the last year he held office, just before his death in 86 BC, he exacted a terrifying toll on the Optimates.
At the same time he saw to it that young Caesar was appointed flamen dialis, one of an archaic priesthood with no power. This identified him with his uncle’s extremist politics, and his marriage in 84 BC to Cornelia, the daughter of Marius’s associate, Cinna, further confirmed him as a radical. When Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Marius’s enemy and leader of the Optimates, was made dictator in 82 BC, he issued a list of enemies to be executed.
Although Caesar was not harmed, he was ordered by Sulla to divorce Cornelia. Refusing that order, he found it prudent to leave Rome. He did not return to the city until 78 BC, after Sulla’s resignation. Caesar was now 22 years old. Unable to gain office, he left Rome again and went to Rhodes, where he studied rhetoric; he returned to Rome in 73 BC, a very persuasive speaker. The year before, while still absent, he had been elected to the pontificate, an important college of Roman priests.