Veni, Vidi, Vici: The True Origin of Julius Caesar’s Famous Proclamation

After crossing the Rubicon with his army in tow, Julius Caesar broke another age-old tradition of Rome’s leaders by writing his own speech—and came up with the perfect catchphrase.
A Roman coin depicts Julius Caesar.
A Roman coin depicts Julius Caesar. / CNG, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Julius Caesar’s proclamation veni, vidi, vici, better known in English as “I came, I saw, I conquered,” is without a doubt one of the most famous quotations from antiquity. It also describes one of the most famous episodes from Caesar’s eventful life, right up there with his crossing of the river Rubicon, his intriguing affair with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and his untimely assassination at the hands of disgruntled Roman senators and their hidden daggers.

Veni, vidi, vici survives in part because it has been repeated and paraphrased by many a world ruler. “We came, we saw, God conquered,” Jan III, the king of Poland, said in 1683 after the Battle of Vienna, adapting Caesar’s words for a Christian age. Winston Churchill, a great admirer of the Roman dictator, wrote, “They came, they saw, they ran away,” when Anglo-Egyptian forces overtook Sudan at the end of the 19th century. “We came, we saw, he died,” announced then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upon the death of the Libyan revolutionary Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Caesar’s voice even shows up in pop hits like “Fireball,” a 2014 single by the rapper Pitbull: “I saw, I came, I conquered / Or should I say, I saw, I conquered, I came.”

But while many people know of the quotation, few may be familiar with its full historical context. Its original meaning is a lot more nuanced than the one it has acquired today, foreshadowing Rome’s abrupt transition from a republic to an empire. According to the writings of both ancient and contemporary historians, veni, vidi, vici came to play a crucial role in Caesar’s rise to absolute power.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: The Perfect Catchphrase

Veni, vidi, vici can be traced back to three ancient sources, each of which relates a slightly different sequence of events. All sources agree Caesar uttered the three iconic words in response to his campaign against Pharnaces II, the king of Pontus, whom he defeated during the Battle of Zela in 47 BCE, bookending the Mithridatic Wars. However, they disagree on how Caesar communicated his message, and to whom.

According to The Parallel Lives of the Greek historian Plutarch, born nearly a century after the events at Zela, the general coined the phrase in a conversation with his friend Amantius. The Greek historian Appian, a few generations removed from Plutarch, claimed the phrase wasn’t spoken, but written; in his text, The Histories, he attests that Caesar penned the words in a letter informing Rome of his swift and decisive victory against the Turkish kingdom. The Roman historian Suetonius, younger than Plutarch but older than Appian, also claims the words were written down, though not in a letter. Instead, his famous history, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, notes that the words were inscribed on tablets and displayed during Caesar’s triumphal return to the Eternal City in 46 BCE. 

Historians have long debated which of these three scenarios is more likely. In her article, “Veni Vidi Vici and Caesar’s Triumph,” historian Ida Östenberg leans toward Suetonius. Although Caesar may well have uttered the words in passing before he had them written down and inscribed, she argues that the message’s brevity and alliteration—which made it the “perfect rhetorical catchphrase for a mass audience”—hint that there must have been a grand, public display. 

A sculpture bust of Julius Caesar by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci, c. 1512-1514
A bust of Julius Caesar by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci, c. 1512-1514 / Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

The large inscribed tablets, or tituli, mentioned by Suetonius were an important part of Roman military culture. Whenever generals returned to Rome from a successful campaign, they organized lavish parades to celebrate their victories. During these parades, tituli served a similar purpose as banners and billboards do today, presenting important information to large audiences. Normally, tituli conveyed practical details about their respective campaigns, such as the number of enemies slain and prisoners taken captive, the total value of treasure confiscated, or lists of towns and cities destroyed.

Caesar turned this age-old tradition on its head by presenting his audiences with a slogan as opposed to a statistic. Adding to the controversy was the fact that Caesar had penned the slogan himself, and that he did it in the first-person. By doing so, Östenberg writes, he “took advantage of a medium conventionally used to express Roman power and control over defeated enemies to show off his personal success. Veni, vidi, vici is an unorthodox and challenging self-advertisement, preceding Caesar and proclaiming the speed of his own deeds in his own words—‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’”

The Meaning of Veni, Vidi, Vici

For such a simplistic phrase, veni, vidi, vici appears to have had a number of different meanings. According to Suetonius, “I came, I saw, I conquered” indicated not “the events of the war … but the speed with which it was finished.”

Östenberg argues the phrase’s emphasis on speed not only served to demonstrate Caesar’s own talents, but also to downplay those of his political rivals, including his former ally and triumvirate member, Pompey the Great. Pompey, along with the generals Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix  and Lucius Licinius Lucullus, had been fighting Pontus for almost 20 years—a campaign Caesar was able to finish within five days of his arrival at Zela. Östenberg bases this argument on the writing of Appian, who notes that, after achieving victory, Caesar delivered the following insult:

“O, fortunate Pompey, who was considered and named Great for fighting against such men as these in the time of Mithridates, the father of this man [Pharnaces II] … ”

First and foremost, though, veni, vidi, vici was a carefully choreographed performance of self-promotion. Caesar’s penchant for oration and propaganda far exceeded his prowess on the battlefield, and his unprecedented use of first-person marks an important shift in Roman political history. Whereas previous generals attributed their personal successes to the Republic they represented, Caesar took sole credit for his military accomplishment. “In Caesar’s compressed veni vidi vici,” surmises Östenberg, “there is no mention of Rome, any magistracy or title, and his … style suggests that his victory was simply won by himself and for himself.”

By declaring “I came, I saw, I conquered,” Caesar ceased to be a cog in the republican machine. He asserted his power as a dictator, an individual and absolute ruler who would reshape Rome in his own image. Then, of course, came the Ides of March.

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