February 14, 2018

Julius Caesar (Part 1)


HELLO and welcome to How to Take Over the World. This is Ben Wilson. This week we are going to be talking about Julius Caesar.

  • In order to introduce you to Caesar, I want to start by telling you about another historical figure. You have probably never heard of him. His name is Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He is still alive, he’s 80 years old and he lives in Bulgaria. He was the prime minister in Bulgaria from 2001 to 2005. He is now retired from politics. So why am I bringing up this obscure Bulgarian politician? Because when he was only six years old he was named the Tsar of Bulgaria. Less than three years later Bulgaria was invaded by the Soviets and he went into exile with his family. Now as I mentioned last podcast, the war tsar comes from Caesar. Tsar comes from czar which comes from Kaiser which comes from Caesar, which was originally pronounced Kaisar. So for 2,000 years, all the way up until the year 1946 someone somewhere in the world was using the name of Caesar to legitimize their rule. That should tell you something about the impact that he had on the world. XXX Caesar was a genius. He was an outstanding general, writer, statesman, orator, and law-giver. He founded the Roman empire over 2,000 years ago and since then dozens of empires and mini-empires have sough to legitimize their rule by claiming to be the heirs of Caesar and heirs of the Roman empire from Charlemagne to the czars of Russia, to the Kaisers of Germany, to Napoleon, to Hitler, and that’s just scratching the surface. I think, if you asked me who has the best claim to having actually taken over the world, the answer would have to be either Jesus, Mohammed, or Caesar. I think only those two, Jesus and Mohammed, can claim to have had as large an impact on human history and the way we live. So I am really excited to dig in to his life and how he did what he did.
  • But before we get started, I want to give a quick shoutout to my sources, the first time the sources I relied on most heavily were the books Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman and also Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy. Both are very good biographies and if you are looking to learn more about Julius Caesar and I highly recommend both of them. One other announcement I have been using a Gmail address for my contact information, but I have a new email. My new email is Ben@HTTOTW.com. So that is my name, Ben @ the acronym for How to Take Over the World HTTOTW, .com. If you want to get ahold of me, ask me a question, make a suggestion, or give me feedback, email me there or find me on Twitter @HTTOTW. I have stopped monitoring that Gmail address.
  • So let’s start from the beginning. Caesar was born in 100 BC and his full name was Gaius Julius Caesar. At the time it would have been pronounced Gaius Julius Kaisar. His first name was Gaius. His family names were Julius and Caesar. Julius was sort of the big family, the clan he was from, and Caesar was his branch of the family, his side of the clan.
  • By the way even though we now know it was pronounced Kai-sar and that this was actually a part of his last name, we’re still going to call him Caesar, because that’s what everyone is familiar with and that’s what we’re used to calling him.

  • And Caesar was what was called a patrician. It means he was from one of the very earliest families in Rome. Rome had very distinct and very well-defined class system, and Caesar’s family belonged to the highest class. So Caesar is born into this very old, aristocratic family. Having said that, they hadn’t been a very successful family in quite some time. They were what you would now call cash poor. They had a decent amount of property, you know a bunch of farmland, which was what allowed them to still be considered upper-class, but they didn’t have any spending money. In fact they were almost penniless. Caesar grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood called Subura, where there would have been few other aristocratic families and where he grew up around a lot of immigrants, foreigners, and pretty normal people.
  • And we don’t really know a lot about his childhood. The earliest biography of him was written on these old scrolls and some of the first scrolls shriveled up and crumbled so our oldest introduction to Caesar starts out saying “When Caesar was 16…”
  • We do know that, like most aristocratic children, he was tutored at home rather than going to a school. In terms of appearance we know he was taller than average, and quite thin with a full face and rather fair skin. Despite his apparent skinniness, he became quite good at athletics especially horseback riding. He wasn’t particularly athletically gifted but he was very determined and disciplined and made himself into a good athlete.
  • In ancient Rome, as children grew up they were expected to spend more and more time with their parent of the same sex, so Caesar would have tagged along with his father as he went to the forum and the senate and engaged in political life.
  • Rome was an unbelievably political state. That was sort of the point of life, especially for an aristocratic man. They had this word, auctoritas. Obviously the English word authority comes from auctoritas. But we don’t have a word in English that translates exactly. Auctoritas encompassed not only your authority but your reputation and your influence and your fame. And to a male born in the upper classes of the Roman Republic, increasing your auctoritas was your purpose in life.
  • There were two main ways of doing that: Gaining political office and winning military glory. Now bare with me for a second because I’m going to take a minute to explain the Roman political system. It’s really impossible to understand Caesar’s life without understanding the system he was working in.
  • The first thing you have to understand is that Rome was a very recent power. They had been this little republic on the banks of the Tiber river and then all the sudden boom they burst onto the scene. They leave mainland Italy for the first time to conquer Sicily and then boom before you know it they control the whole Mediterranean: Greece, Turkey, Southern France and Spain, Sardinia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and more. And frankly their political system was still set up to run a little city in Italy, not this massive multi-ethnic system with territory on three continents.

  • The Roman Republic had three branches of government. The first we’ll talk about is the senate. This is the one you have probably heard of. But it isn’t like the US senate. It was a body of 300 to 600 members. The exact number fluctuated and that’s because senators were not popularly elected. They were citizens from the wealthy elite who had advanced in their career a little and had political aspirations. Once you were admitted to the senate, you were in for life, unless you did something really bad, then you could be expelled, but otherwise you stayed in. The Senate was the central political body and the beating heart of Roman politics. They met most days and debated legislation, conducted foreign relations, and chose regional governors, among other powers.
  • The second branch was magistrates. This was basically the executive branch. Magistrates were elected. There were many different kinds of magistrates, starting with pretty low levels like military tribunes and then working your way up with Quaestors, Edials, Tribunes of the Pleb, and then finally and these are the ones you will want to remember, you had eight praetors, and at the very top you had two consuls. Consul was the very highest position you could hold in Roman government. It was kind of like president, except there were two at once. Once you had been a praetor or a consul, you were often sent to govern one or Rome’s provinces, one of the regions it had conquered. Generally, you would get elected as a low-level magistrate first, and then you would be made a senator, and then senators would eventually be elected to higher level magistracies and if you were really successful then eventually you would become a Praetor or maybe even a consul, and then go be a governor. So these are the magistrates, they are temporary positions held by senators. They commanded the military, supervised building public works and holding public festivals, and oversaw day-to-day management of the government. And by the way, every position only lasts for one year. You are consul for only one year, you are governor for one year. And when I said Rome’s system was built for a small city-state, this is one area where you see that. I mean it’s no problem to only be governor for a year when your province is another city-state in Italy. But when your province is in modern day Turkey, what was then called Asia, and you don’t speak the language and you don’t know the customs and you have to figure it all out and try to accomplish whatever you want to do in just a year? That is a pretty inconvenient system. So anyway that is the magistrates.
  • The third branch of government was the popular assemblies. These were voting bodies made up of all adult male citizens in the Roman Republic. These assemblies had the power to actually pass legislation. That legislation would usually be given to them from the Senate with a recommendation. So the senate also had a lot of power over legislation, but the assembly didn’t have to follow that recommendation. They also chose the magistrates. And these popular assemblies were not permanent, this was just the citizens coming together to vote on something important. The Senate was deliberately and explicitly drawn from the upper classes, but not the popular assembly. There was a notion in Rome that the government was supposed to reflect the will of the people. Rome was a Republic. The actual term was Res Publica, which translates literally to a public thing, or public concern. A monarchy or kingdom was a private thing, it was basically run for the benefit of the king, but the Res Publica was a public concern and its purpose was to serve everyone.
  • I mentioned that this system of government was built for a city-state. Another way that was true was the power held by the senate. That’s fine when you are a little city-state republic, and you’re starting to get some money, starting to come up and so people star to immigrant into your city and the nobles basically say “Hey, you can come in and be a part of Rome, you can be a citizen and have a vote. But we are going to have one branch of government to protect our interests and it’s going to make sure we stay on top because we were here first.” That kind of makes sense, right? I’m joining their thing they get some extra say. But if you were born in a city-state in Turkey, you’ve never been to Rome, you don’t speak Latin, and you were conquered by Rome, well then this Roman senate that is bleeding you dry with taxes, starts to make less sense.
  • Now very briefly I also need to explain the background of Caesar’s family. As I mentioned they were no longer wealthy or prominent, but their fortunes changed a little when Caesar’s aunt married a man by the name of Marius. Marius was also from an aristocratic family of little note, but he became a war hero. He becomes really popular in Rome, he’s a man of the people, he stands for the common man. Eventually there is a civil war and Marius gets exiled. But then he comes back and he becomes this authoritarian ruler in Rome. He’s not ruling alone, he’s kind of co-dictator with a guy named Cinna.
  • So Caesar comes from a poor family, but he has a super powerful uncle. Also his father marries someone from a very wealthy, very powerful family. So Caesar has kind of a mixed bag. He has a poor family with little prestige but very famous uncle and some okay political connections through his mother. 
  • At age 14, his uncle Marius dies, and at age 16, his father dies, and as the oldest male, Caesar was now in charge of his family, including his sister and his mother, and their household of servants and slaves.
  • Around the same time, he is named as a very important priest. The position is called Flamen Dialis. And the Flamen Dialis was really respected, it was an ancient priesthood dating back to the very earliest days of Rome. And the thing about that is Caesar would always be respected, but that was also going to be the end of his political career. The Flamen Dialis had all these really old ancient rituals he had to observe. He had to have mud around his bed, he couldn’t sleep outside of Rome for more than three days, he couldn’t ride a horse, he couldn’t see a dead body. And so Caesar was not going to be able to have a political or military career with those sorts of restrictions. But he doesn’t come from a wealthy family and it’s a decent living. So it’s not the worst spot for him.
  • He also gets married to Cinna’s daughter. And that’s pretty cool. Now that Marius is dead, Cinna is the sole ruler in Rome, and by far the most powerful man there. So this is another great connection for Caesar to get to marry his daughter. And besides the political connection it appears that this marriage was a good match and both were happy, though Caesar was certainly not faithful. Caesar was a notorious womanizer for his entire life. In ancient Rome there was no real concept of male adultery. It wasn’t expected that men would be faithful to their wives and a wife certainly could not divorce her husband for having a lover. So Caesar had a lot of lovers, and this was known, nevertheless his marriage to Cinna’s daughter appears to have been happy.
  • When Caesar is 18 his life changes a lot. There is this general named Sulla, and he starts a civil war. Remember Caesar’s father-in-law Cinna had been in charge, well he is killed, and now Sulla becomes dictator. And the dictatorship of Sulla is truly nightmarish. He was a staunch enemy of these guys Marius and Cinna, and so he starts exterminating all his enemies, all the guys who were friends of Marius and Cinna. Hundreds of people are killed. Soon, he develops an even more efficient way to take care of these people. He just posts lists of condemned people and says uh yeah anyone who wants to kill any of these people can pick up a reward. This is called the proscriptions. And it causes this horrible murderous chaos where most of the people are killed not because they’re on the list but because people want their property. It reminds me a lot of the French Revolution.
  • Here is how it was described by the ancient historian Plutarch “Lists of proscribed people were posted not only in Rome, but in every city in Italy. There was nowhere that remained free from the stain of bloodshed – no god’s temple, no guest-friend’s hearth, no family home. Husbands were butchered in the arms of their wives, sons in the arms of their mothers. Only a tiny proportion of the dead were killed because they had angered or made an enemy of someone; far more were killed for their property, and even the executioners tended to say that this man was killed by his large house, this one by his garden, that one by his warm springs.”
  • Well luckily Caesar isn’t proscribed, despite his close connection to Marius and Cinna. Why? Well because he’s young, he’s not particularly remarkable or powerful, and he’s poor. No one really wants his stuff. So he basically skates under the radar.
  • Except, he is this priest, the Flamen Dialis, and when Sulla realizes that one of the most important priests is married to Cinna’s daughter and says “Hey, it’s cool. I’m not going to murder you. I just need one thing from you. Divorce your wife and marry someone that I pick out. Someone who is close to me and my friends. Not Cinna’s regime.”
  • Now he also says this to a bunch of other people and they all agree to it. Divorce was very common in Rome. So it’s no problem. Sulla says get divorced and okay, I’d rather not get murdered, so I’ll get divorced. But this is where you get the first idea that this Caesar kid might be special. Because he says no. And why did he say no? It’s hard to go back 2,000 years and get in someone’s head. I’ve heard a few different rationales but the only one that really makes sense to me at the end of the day is he refused to divorce his wife because he just didn’t want to. That was just Caesar he liked being in control he didn’t like being told what to do and he would rather risk his life than divorce his wife just because someone else says he has to.
  • Well Sulla strips Caesar of his priesthood and sends order for him to be arrested so that he can be executed. So Caesar takes off for the hills and goes hiding in the countryside of southern Italy. For weeks he is moving from town to town every night, just trying to stay hidden while Sulla’s soldiers are looking for him. He contracts malaria and things turn very dire when he is caught by a Roman soldier. He has to use all his money to bribe the soldier to not turn him in. It looks like it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught again and this time he won’t have bribe money because he’s all out. But then he finally catches a break.
  • Remember how Caesar’s mom comes from a wealthy, prominent family? She convinces a couple relatives to go beg for Caesar’s life. So they do, and Sulla agrees to spare him. But he gives them a warning. Sulla was what is called an optimate, I assume at the time it was pronounced like optimates or something like that. But the optimates favored giving more power to the senate and favored the interests of the wealthiest Romans. But Marius, Caesar’s uncle, and Caesar himself were populists. They tended to take the side of the middle class and less well-off Romans, and wanted more power for the popular assemblies.
  • And so as Sulla tells these guys that fine, I’ll spare the life of this kid Cesar, he says quote “Remember – this young man who you have been so desperate to save will one day destroy the optimates you have worked with me to preserve. For in this Caesar I see many a Marius.” So clearly even at this young age, he could see that there was something special about this kid.
  • Well Caesar comes back to Rome. Still married to his wife. And the guy must feel special. Of everyone in Rome, he was the only one to look this authoritarian in the eye and say screw you I’m not doing what you say and he survives. Having said that, he wasn’t about to press his luck. So he doesn’t spend long in Rome before he takes off. He goes to serve in the military in a Roman region that they called Asia. It’s in the area that we now call Turkey. Remember Sulla had kicked him out this priestly position as Flamen Dialis so now he has the chance to have a normal political career and serve in the military. For Caesar it was a blessing in disguise.
  • Caesar goes to Asia and he’s serving at a pretty low level. He’s still young, he’s only 19 years old. This is 80 BC. While fighting there, he distinguishes himself and wins what is called the civic crown. It’s basically Rome’s version of the medal of honor. In fact it’s almost exactly like the medal of honor, you won it by demonstrating extraordinary bravery in combat, usually by risking your life to save a fellow citizen. So this is a pretty big deal for him. He continues to serve in Asia for a couple more years when in 78 BC, Sulla dies. Caesar figures it’s safe to come home now so he does. He moves back to Rome to the lower-middle-class neighborhood that he grew up in, Subura.
  • In Subura, he basically works as a lawyer. And he’s a really good one, he’s known as one of the best orators, one of the best speakers, in Rome. In Rome, trials are very different from modern trials. They’re usually held in a very public place where basically anyone can kind of wander in and out, and as a consequence the crowd plays a big role in these trials. It’s still a trial by jury, but the emotions of the crowd could greatly affect the outcome. So Caesar is learning to speak and make arguments. And not highly logical legal arguments, but this is a great training ground for how to speak to the masses. How to convince a large body of people in a speech.

  • By the way this set me to wondering, is a legal education a good background to taking over the world? Because Vladimir Putin studied law so it just made me wonder. So I decided to look at presidents of the united states and use that as a sample. In the United States, tons of our politicians are lawyers. It’s the most common profession in congress. And if you go back to the start of our country, most presidents of the United States were also lawyers. 7 of the first 10 presidents were practicing attorneys at some point. But as time went on, that number steadily decreased. Of the last 10 men elected president, only 3 completed law school and only 1 was ever a practicing attorney and that 1 was Richard Nixon. I think that’s because in the early United States only wealthy land-owners could vote. And making arguments in very formal logical terms is helpful when you have a small audience of highly educated people. But now in an era when not only can everyone vote, but you can communicate with everyone via television and the internet you need to be able to make appeals to the masses. And a legal education doesn’t necessarily prepare you for that in today’s world. If you look at the 2016 election, someone who had been a practicing attorney, Hillary Clinton, was beat by someone with extensive experience in reality television, Donald Trump. And many people think it’s because she was making these very formal, logical arguments while he was out there appealing to people on a very emotional level. Both being an attorney and being on reality television teach you how to communicate, but in very different ways. And in Caesar’s world, being a legal advocate was at least as much like being a reality TV star as it was like being an attorney in today’s world. So in Caesar’s day you could learn to communicate with the masses by being an attorney, but nowadays a legal career is a perfectly fine way to earn a living, but if you are looking to learn how to influence people on a massive scale, you are going to have get your communication skills from somewhere else. Okay, end of tangent.
  • One thing to note from this time in Caesar’s life is the way he dresses. Everyone in his social class wears the same thing, and that is a basic short-sleeved toga. Well Caesar wears a long sleeve toga that has a little bit of fringe on the sleeves. It’s not too different from what people normally wear. People can still pick him out as a member of the ruling elite, but it’s just different enough that it makes him stand out, marks him as special.
  • It reminds me a little bit of Steve Jobs with his jeans and black mock neck. Again it’s not something wildly different from what a silicon valley executive might wear, but it’s enough to be distinctive. Both of these guys wanted to get attention and set themselves apart, without being ridiculous or distracting from what they actually had to say. And both of them did that masterfully through their dress, among other ways.

  • One other thing that is kind of random but just struck me. Caesar was a light eater. He didn’t eat or drink much. When I read this I remembered that Napoleon and Steve Jobs were also light eaters, so then I had to go look up Putin’s eating habits and yep, all four of them were known as light eaters, especially early in life. Isn’t that interesting? I think part of it is they all grew up without much money, so they needed to save money and one of the first things they cut was excessive food. That’s something good to remember for those of us who maybe eat out a little more than we should. But I think there’s something else at work as well. I think they were just so focused on accomplishing their goals, that they didn’t want to take the time to think about food or sit down for long meals. It’s such a random connection between the four people I have covered so far, and yet in a weird way I think it tells you a lot.
  • Well after a few years of working the courts in Rome, he decides it’s time to further his education and become an even better communicator. And at the time Greece was where the best education could be found. So he takes off on a boat bound for Greece.
  • But Caesar doesn’t make it. He’s captured by pirates. When they board his ship they’re delighted to find a young Roman noble on board. They hold him hostage and let his servants go and say “Tell everyone we’re holding Caesar ransom for 20 talents.” A talent was a sum of money, and 20 talents was a fairly hefty sum. And Caesar hears this and says “20 talents??? I’m worth more than that! You should charge 50.” The captors are a little confused but they think sure, we’ll charge 50. And this is kind of the way Caesar acts with his captors the entire time they hold him hostage. Here’s how Plutarch describes it, quote:
  • “…he held them in such disdain that whenever he lay down to sleep he would send and order them to stop talking. For thirty-eight days, as if the men were not his watchers, but his royal bodyguard, he shared in their sports and exercises with great unconcern. He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians, and often laughingly threatened to crucify them all. The pirates were delighted at this, and attributed this boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth.”
  • Well Caesar’s friends and servants quickly raise the 50 talents. They don’t go all the way back to Rome and get it from friends and family, instead they just go to local communities and raise it on loan. Caesar would be expected to pay it back when he could. Which is not good because he’s totally broke at this point. So when Caesar gets free, he wastes no time. He goes to the nearest towns, and they’re in Roman territory, and he says “Hey, I need men and I need ships.” And he quickly raises a little fleet and band of soldiers. He immediately sails them back to the cove where he was being held. He does this so quickly that the pirates are still there and he captures them.

  • He takes all their booty and their money, including the ransom money that he had just paid them. He pays back the people who had helped free him. And then remember how he told the pirates he was going to crucify them and they thought he was joking? Well here is the thing, crucifixion is an agonizing form of torture and he had kind of become friends with these pirates. So he grants them mercy. But not by letting them go. He grants them mercy by having their throats cut before they are crucified. He saves them from the torture, but he still has them killed and hung up on crosses as a warning to others.
  • I think this story really captures the strange combinations and contradictions of Caesar’s personality. Cruel and yet merciful. Charming and yet imperious. And beneath it all he has this magnificent self-assuredness. This inner-belief. He never doubted himself, never. Not even when he was captured by pirates and ought to fear death, he acted like he was in total control of the situation, and in many ways was in total control of the situation as a result.
  • Well after this he finally does make it over to Greece. He proves to be an adept pupil and a gifted orator, but it’s not too long before he interrupts his studies. In Asia, there was this rebellion, this king named Mithridates sends some of his forces to invade some of Rome’s allies in the region. Well Caesar holds no official position in the military. He’s just a loyal citizen. And he’s studying. This doesn’t really concern him. But what does he do? He sails over to the war-zone and starts putting together an army of men from Rome’s local allies in the region. And then he takes that little army and goes and beats Mithridates forces and frees the region.
  • This illustrates a really important attribute of Caesar. Confidence. He had no military command, no real legal right to raise troops and fight on behalf of Rome. All he had was a desire to win glory on behalf of himself and his country. And yet, despite his lack of official authority, all these city states just got in line and gave him their men and then the men went and followed him, they fought for him. He must have exuded supreme confidence for these men to be willing to follow him.
  • I think there’s something else to it. I don’t quite know what to call it. It’s something like bravery combined with audacity and recklessness. I’ll call it daringness. You know the game chicken? It’s where two people either run at each other or drive at each other and the first one to turn aside loses? Caesar would be awesome at that. Because he had a high degree of daringness. He fully committed, he was always willing to gamble, always willing to push the envelope just a little more, and he never wavered. It’s the same attribute you need in order to launch a startup.

  • When you launch a startup you have to coordinate all these people. And at the beginning you basically lie to them. You go to get your product manufactured and they say okay we can start on a manufacturing deal but you have the money for this, right? You’re going to be able to pay us? And you say yeah totally. In the mean time you are talking to your funders and they are saying “If we give you this money, you have a manufacturing deal where you can use it, right? You can actually produce your product?” And you say, “Oh yeah, totally.” And you’re doing the same thing with distributors and employees and regulators and a ton of different parties. It’s this whole house of cards. And if you’re successful, it’s not a lie because it all comes together, and you’re right! You get the funding and the manufacturing deal and the distribution deal and everything else necessary to make it happen. But at the center of it all is a single person with this confidence and this daringness.
  • And Caesar had that. And I think it’s what allowed him to just walk up to these city-states and say “Everyone is getting on board. Everyone is volunteering troops and we’re going to go fight Mithridates.” And it works. He raises his army, he fights, and he wins.
  • Well shortly after this incident he goes back to Rome again. He serves as a legal advocate again, and he’s elected to a new priesthood. This time he’s elected as a pontif, which is not nearly as restrictive a priesthood as the Flamen Dialis that he was as a teenager. He also gets elected a military tribune, so he’s serving as a middle-ranking military officer. And by the way, it might seem weird that Caesar becomes a priest and a military officer at the same time but that was Roman society for you. They mingled civic, religious, and military service very closely. Both religious authority and military command would add to your auctoritas so it would not have seemed weird to the Romans for someone to be a priest and a military officer. In fact, it’s possible that his medal of honor is one of the things that helped him get elected a pontiff.
  • Also, around this time Caesar has a daughter named Julia. Any daughters he had would be named Julia, just like his sister, his aunt, and his mom, because women literally did not have first names in Roman society. They didn’t really have a big public role, so they just used the feminine version of their last name and if someone had multiple daughters, they were numbered, so if your last name was Julius, the women in your family would be named Julia 1, Julia 2, Julia 3, Julia 4, etc.
  • Well at this point Caesar is progressing normally up the ladder of power. Military tribune was usually the first step on that ladder of power, and the next step is Quaestor. So he runs for Quaestor and is elected. As Quaestor he will be like an assistant or advisor to the governor of a region. Almost like a chief of staff. Caesar gets assigned to Spain.

  • But before he heads out to Spain two people close to him die: His aunt Julia and his wife Cornelia. He holds elaborate funerals for both of them. At his aunt’s funeral he displays images of his uncle Marius, which is good propaganda but highly controversial, since he had been something of an authoritarian. But he was still beloved by the masses and this is popular with them. It doesn’t have any immediate pay-off since he’s about to leave for Spain, but he’s thinking ahead. The funeral for his wife was unexpected because young women typically didn’t receive big elaborate funerals. They didn’t have any military conquests to show off and their progeny weren’t old enough to be a tribute to them, so they just had quite family funerals. That Caesar has this big funeral for her is a sign of his genuine love and affection for her, and it’s touching to the people. So this is also a very popular move. Last episode we talked about how effective it can be to make these grand displays of power. Well this demonstrates how effective showing a little bit of vulnerability and sensitivity can be. Well anyway after the funerals he takes off for Spain.
  • He gets there and his main task is to perform an audit. He does it. Does it well and effectively and it takes him most of the year. But while he is there, he visits a temple, and in this temple there is a statue of Alexander the Great. And Caesar realizes that he is about the same age as Alexander the Great was when he died. He’s in his early-30s, he would have been about 32 or 33. And he gets physically upset. He may have started crying. And when someone asks what’s wrong he says he’s realizing Alexander the Great had conquered the whole world at his age, and he hasn’t done anything.
  • And this motivates Caesar. He doesn’t want to keep messing around out at the end of the world in Spain, he wants to go where the action is, he wants to gain serious fame and fortune for himself. So he leaves Spain a little early and goes back to Rome. He gets elected to a position where he’s in charge of a major highway. And he accomplishes some major upgrades which will win him some big kudos with the general populace, even paying out of his own pocket at times for upgrades and renovations.
  • Then in 65 BC at age 35 he is elected to the next highest position on the ladder. The position is called aedile (e-dial). He’s in charge of a bunch of basic civic services within Rome. One of the big functions, and one of the reasons people wanted to be elected aedile, is you are in charge of throwing games and festivals. And every year the aediles are trying to throw bigger and bigger games and festivals than the year before. Rome has a public budget for this stuff, but because this is a chance to increase your own popularity and auctoritas, people always go way past the budget. And when they do they just pay out of their own pocket. Well Caesar goes further than anyone else before him. He goes all out. He throws these incredible games. 320 pairs of gladiators all in silver armor, huge feasts and public works. It’s extravagant and expensive and he pays for it.

  • Now when I say Caesar paid for all this, you may remember that Caesar was not particularly wealthy. In fact, he was kind of poor. So how is he spending so much? One word: Debt. A minimum property qualification for a member of the highest social class was 400,000 sestertii. So that’s how much you had to own in order to be considered a member of the highest class. By the way, is the plural of sestertius, which was a type of currency, it was a small silver coin. So that’s a small fortune. 400,000 Sestertii. And how much debt does Caesar have? 31 million sestertii. That is a huge and crushing amount.
  • This goes back to the daringness I was talking about. He’s taking on all this debt, but he knows that if he has a successful political career he’s going to be able to pay it back. How? Well if you’re a governor of one of Rome’s further away provinces, there is the chance to make yourself rich. Especially if there is a war, you conquer cities and take all the spoils you can. So Caesar is taking out all these debts with that expectation. It’s a big bet. There are hundreds of senators and only a handful of provinces where you can be governor. But he has this daringness so he’s going to make the gamble. By the way, I do not recommend this as a personal strategy. Caesar was trying to accomplish something very specific and had a very clear path to doing so. In today’s world, in this day and age, huge, crushing personal debt is almost never the answer.
  • Well after he is aedile, Caesar keeps moving up the ladder. He was elected a Praetor in 63 BC. Remember that’s the step right below consul. In the same year, the election for Pontifex Maximus is held. The Pontifex Maximus was the chief priest of the whole Roman Republic. Remember, Caesar had already been elected pontiff, and there were 15 pontiffs in what was called the college of pontiffs. The Pontifex Maximus was the head pontiff and historically it had been chosen by the college of pontiffs, but the rules had just been changed to make it a popular election. Well this is good news for Caesar who has just been throwing one of the greatest parties ever seen in Rome as aedile and getting very popular with the masses as a consequence.
  • So he decides to run for Pontifex Maximus, and the other two candidates were way more experienced and established. Had it still been decided by the other pontiffs, one of them would have won for sure. But Caesar wins. So he’s the chief priest, the Pontifex Maximus, which by the way, is still the name of the pope. This gives him tons of “air time” so to speak in public rituals and religion. The people have a chance to see him looking important all the time and that is a huge boost to his career. He also gets a state-sponsored home as chief priest. It’s kind of like the white house. So for the first time he gets to move out of Subura and into this great mansion right at the heart of Rome. So this is a big deal for his career, not for its own sake but because of what it’s going to mean for his political career going forward.
  • And again, a priesthood is just sort of a position that you hold as you do other stuff. It’s not a job. So Caesar still serves as Praetor the next year. Caesar spends his year as Praetor in Rome. It’s a little bit up and down, he has a few minor accomplishments as well as a few minor scandals, but he gets through them all. Now remember Praetors and Consuls were usually sent to be governors after their year in office. Consuls would usually get the cool foreign commands with lots of warfare. Praetors would get commands that were a little less prestigious.
  • So after his year as Praetor he gets sent back to Spain, this time as governor. Spain is kind of frontier territory, and not very wealthy, but it’s a perfectly fine post for the year after being a praetor. Also at this time, Caesar’s debts are getting so big that he basically has to sneak out of Rome. As Praetor he couldn’t be prosecuted, because he was in public office, and as governor he couldn’t be prosecuted, because he was in public office, but there was a narrow gap during which he could be sued by his creditors for all these debts he’s racking up and not paying off. So he sneaks out of Rome in the middle of the night and sails to Spain. Now I just said he was looking to be governor and make himself rich, but this wasn’t what he was looking for because Spain wasn’t where the real action was. this is Caesar’s next step, but it’s still just an intermediary step, and he knows that. 
  • He comes in to Spain, he’s energetic, he raises new troops, and he gets to work fixing stuff up. Brigandage had been a big problem so he is cleaning up crime. There were also a few rebel tribesmen who didn’t want to submit to Roman rule. And previous governors hadn’t wanted to deal with it so they just kind of let them do their thing. But Caesar is itching for a fight, so he decides he’s going to put them under Roman rule. And initially he has a lot of success. Speed is always a really important attribute to these great conquerors and Caesar is no different. He attacks quickly and decisively. He beats these Spanish rebels in a few initial engagements, and then he pursues them to the Atlantic coast where they take refuge on a small island. His first attempt to take the island fails. But one attribute that Caesar had plenty of was persistence. So he summoned warships from another city in Spain, Cadiz, and uses those to surround the island and force the rebels to surrender. He sailed up the coast to where there were more rebels, and the sight of his forces scared them in to capitulation. These big oared warships were completely unknown to tribesmen in this area and they would have seemed like tanks, it was advanced technology they had never seen. So they are intimidated and awed and they quickly surrender.
  • When these people surrender, he accepts their surrender, doesn’t seriously punish them, does his best to turn them into tax-paying Roman subjects, and moves on. This is a strategy you see Caesar use time and time again. He was absolutely ruthless in war, but the second that war is over, he’s very forgiving and turns his former enemies into allies in very short order.
  • After a year in Spain. He’s defeated the rebels and accomplished all his goals. And governors only serve for a year, so he heads back to Rome. On the way out of Spain, his party passed a small mountain village. A friend jokingly asks hey do you think there are political struggles in such a poor and dirty village as this? His friends laugh at these poor backwards peasants, but Caesar gets serious and says quote “I would rather be the first man in a village like this, than the second man in Rome.”
  • I love this because it shows the absolute clarity Caesar had around his goal. He wanted to be the first man in Rome. The most powerful man. That was it. That kind of clarity and focus is really powerful. So many people are held back because they do not have a clear vision of what they want in life. They do not have a clear goal. But Caesar very obviously did.
  • He gets back to Rome and he’s got two objectives: Be elected as consul and celebrate a triumph. A triumph was basically the greatest honor you could achieve as a Roman. It was given to generals for exceptional military service. Your men had to nominate you, and if they nominated you, then you could apply to the senate and if they granted it to you, then you get to come into Rome wearing a wreath of laurels and celebrate your achievements in a huge parade. Caesar’s men had nominated him for a triumph, and the senate was inclined to give it to him. And by the way, these were a huge deal. A triumph would add massively to your auctoritas. At any given time in the senate there were between 300 and 500 senators; and yet you would only have a handful of senators who had ever earned a triumph. Maybe 4 or 5. A triumph would for any Roman politician be the literal crowning achievement of their political and military career. Now Caesar is 40, he’s just had some really cool success, and this seems like the career pinnacle.
  • He also wants to run for consul. In fact he’s been running for consul, just like Napoleon he was a prolific letter-writer, and he’s been writing letters back to Rome his whole time in Spain to make sure he has support when he comes back and runs for consul. And the elections are scheduled to occur right after he gets back. Now Caesar is in a minor bind because by Roman law you are not allowed to enter Rome before you celebrate your triumph, and if you do, you give up the ability to have a triumph celebrated at all. A triumph would take a few weeks to organize. In the mean time you just have to wait outside the city gates. And to run for consul you have to go into Rome and literally stand for election. You have to be there, inside the city gates. So Caesar has to stay outside the gates if he wants to celebrate his triumph but he has to go in them if he wants to run for consul.
  • Caesar appeals to have the senate change the law to let him stand for election as consul in absentia, and the senate is ready to agree but he has this enemy in the senate, named Cato, and we’ll hear more about Cato next episode when he and Caesar will really be at each other’s throats, but Cato uses a filibuster to block it. An exact filibuster like you see used in the US Senate sometimes today. He just talks until the day ends and the senate doesn’t have a chance to vote to allow Caesar to stand for election in absentia. So now Caesar is going to have to pick between celebrating his triumph and standing for election as consul.
  • Many people spend time agonizing over this type of decision. You might expect him to agonize over it and delay the final decision until the last possible moment.
  • But no, Caesar immediately strides up to and through the city gates, effectively giving up the triumph. Think about what he’s doing. This is like someone coming up to me and saying, “Hey, tomorrow can be national Ben day, and everyone in the nation will celebrate your life and achievements. It will be a holiday and for a whole day everyone will toast your name and say how great you are. But you won’t be able to run for president until you’re 36.” In America you have to be 35 to be president. Think of how ambitious you have to be to say that tradeoff isn’t worth it. But that’s what Caesar does. Remember he knows what he wants. He wants to be the most powerful man in Rome. And you don’t get that from celebrating one triumph. So he’s moving forward. 
  • Well he comes in and he does get elected consul along with another guy, remember there are always two. But remember how consuls only serve for one year, after which it is expected that they will go out and run a province. Well the province they would run was determined by the senate before their term as consul. For Caesar and the other consul, Bibulus, it is determined that they will be sent together to deal with the “woodland and country lanes of Italy.” It was a slap in the face. He was hoping to get sent to Asia or Gaul, or somewhere foreign and exotic where there was war. A place where he could make his name and fortune. But the other senators could see how talented Caesar was, and how fast he was rising, here’s this guy who is pontifex maximus and consul and he won the civic crown, the Roman medal of honor, and he’s handsome and a good speaker, and in limited action appears to be a very good general. So they didn’t want this guy to take too much power for himself, so they were trying to put a check on him by giving him this very minor post for when he was finished being consul.
  • This is disastrous for Caesar. His whole political gambit has been based on the idea that he would be able to serve as an important governor and in so doing make enough money to pay off his debts. There’s no way he’s going to make enough money to pay off his huge debts by running the woodlands and country lanes of Italy. So Caesar decides he needs to do something radical. So he forms an unexpected alliance. At the time, the most powerful men in Rome were two guys named Pompey and Crassus.
  • Pompey was a war hero. An unbelievably gifted general who had commanded troops in multiple major wars. He was beloved by his troops and by the people of Rome. Nevertheless, he was not a very gifted politician. Because he kept getting called away to fight these wars he didn’t have a normal senatorial career and he never really figured out how to navigate the political system. Now that he was home and not fighting anymore, the main thing he wanted was an allocation of land for his veterans. Soldiers at this time usually came from the ranks of the urban poor in Rome, and when they came home from a war, they didn’t have a job or anything to do. So Pompey is trying to get a land allocation so that they have somewhere to go to be farmers. But like I said, he wasn’t a very gifted politician, and he was having trouble passing this through. Part of it was because he had this enemy, the other most powerful guy in Rome, Crassus.
  • Crassus was unbelievably rich. In fact, he was the one funding most of Caesar’s debts. He was cunning, calculating, intelligent, and ruthless. He had fought in some wars and performed admirably, but not on the scale of Pompey. He was powerful not because of his military career but because he was a very shrewd businessman. It’s interesting to hear about his career because Crassus was basically a property developer. He had a huge staff of slave artisans, and he would buy buildings and renovate them. He also had Rome’s first fire-brigade. The first fire department of Rome, except they were privately owned by him. In Rome’s poor and crowded streets, fires would break out pretty frequently. He would wait until a fire broke out, and then as the fire raged buy property near the fire at a steeply discounted rate. Then he would send in his firemen, and save as much of the property as they could, and now he’s got perfectly good working property where he can charge rent that he had bought at a steeply discounted rate.
  • Crassus and Pompey were enemies because of a conflict they had had early in their military careers. Crassus thought Pompey was stealing credit for a military victory of his. They were both ex-consuls and one of the reasons they opposed each other is they both wanted to be most powerful man in Rome, so they each wanted to stop the other guy from accomplishing too much.
  • And I mentioned Pompey wanted that land allocation, well Crassus also had legislation that he badly needed passed. There were some reforms concerning tax collection abroad that would profit him greatly. So Pompey and Crassus both need legislation passed really bad, and neither one of them can get it done alone, especially while they both oppose each other.
  • Caesar comes in and brokers a deal. He proposes a three way alliance while he is consul. Pompey will get the land for his veterans, Crassus will get his tax reforms, and Caesar will get assigned to a different post-Consul governorship than the woodlands and country lanes of Italy. It seems kind of obvious on paper but no one suspected it because Crassus and Pompey HATED each other. It must have taken all of Caesar’s considerable charm and persuasiveness to get them to agree to it. But they do. This alliance becomes known as The First Triumvirate.
  • But now they have a different problem. When the other senators become aware of this alliance they are very alarmed. The three most powerful people in Rome, all united together? They are scared that they will monopolize power, and leave nothing for the rest of them. So now a bunch of senators oppose them just to stop them from accomplishing stuff. And they say as much, when Caesar proposes some really good legislation that is difficult to criticize, they oppose it saying “Yeah now is not the time. Don’t get me wrong the legislation is great, it’s tough to criticize, but we better wait until later to pass it.” And there is no reason to do that except to deny Caesar the credit.
  • The result is that Caesar has to push really hard to get all this stuff passed. He has to use some legally sketchy techniques but it all goes through in the end. Including getting his post consul assignment changed from the countryside of Italy to a very prestigious command in Gaul. Gaul roughly corresponds to modern day France. It was exotic because it extended up into Northern Europe, which was very foreign to the Romans. Also, there were conflicts bubbling up there. It was clear to everyone that it would soon spill over into open war. And open war was good for your checking account if you were a governor. This all happens in 59 BC. Caesar is 40 years old. He leaves for Gaul the next year. He is finally going to have his opportunity to make his fame and fortune.
  • And this is where I leave you this episode. All we have really covered is his rise and it’s not even complete. Caesar was born in very unfavorable circumstances for someone with his ambitions. He was born without a significant fortune to work with, without great family political connections, and when he was only a teen Rome was taken over by a man who hated him and his family. It took him until he was 40 to even have a chance to prove himself at the highest level. But now he was going to get his chance.

  • So the first takeaway is patience. If Caesar had died at age 40 no one would remember his name. If he died at 45 almost no one would have remembered his name. Caesar was one of the most charming, talented, intelligent, well-spoken, and brave men of his time and of ALL TIME, and yet it still took him well into his 40s until he accomplished his goal of becoming the first man in Rome. When you see Mark Zuckerberg becoming a billionaire at age 23 it can be discouraging. But the story of Caesar goes to show that no matter how good your strategy is, sometimes things just take time, and you have to learn to be patient.
  • The second takeaway is focus. I know I talk about this in just about every episode but that’s because it is so important. Caesar knew EXACTLY what he wanted to accomplish and he worked his whole life for it. That is so simple but so powerful. You can see it when he is forced to choose between the triumph and the consulship. He doesn’t even have to think about it. He isn’t distracted by side adventures, other goals, or cool offers, because he knows exactly what he is trying to do.
  • The third thing I want to talk about is luck. Romans believed it was better to be lucky than good. Caesar was viewed to have extraordinary luck. We don’t know what he did to deserve the civic crown, the Roman medal of honor when he was a young man, but we know it was very dangerous, and he was lucky to survive. Many of his elections through the years were very close but he just happened to get lucky and win every time. He was lucky to come along at a time when someone like Crassus could fund his political career. He gets all these lucky breaks. But it wasn’t really luck. I see this all the time in basketball. I love basketball. And if you watch, say LeBron James, you’ll notice the ball always just bounces to him. In the moment it really does seem like luck. But what’s really happening is the accumulation of tiny advantages so that when something lucky does happen for him, he can take advantage of it and when it happens for his opponent, they can’t. I remember when I was quite a bit younger I got into an elevator and a very famous politician also got in. I realized I had nothing to say to him, nothing to pitch him, I was just a college student with nothing to offer or ask. But I’m sure that for someone else, that would have been their lucky career break. Some great up and coming political mover and shaker who just needed face time with the right politician, the right connection. And so that elevator ride wasn’t lucky for me because I wasn’t prepared, but for someone who was prepared, it would have been lucky.
  • The same thing has been happening with this podcast. I’ve gotten a few lucky breaks of people in prominent positions who share the podcast or help me out in some cool way. And if you’ll allow me to say so, that’s because I bust my ass and I think the end product is pretty good. I get on podcasting Reddit threads all the time and see people wondering how they can get their lucky break with their podcast, and the answer is if you make good content, the luck will usually come to you. It certainly did for Caesar.
  • Okay, there is more to discuss about the life of Caesar, including basically his entire career as a general. He will be at war for the ENTIRE rest of his life. He’s on the cusp of invading Gaul, and not long thereafter he will take over Rome as emperor and come to control most of the known world. So tune in next time to find out how Julius Caesar really does take over the world. Until then, thanks for joining me.

About Episode

In the first episode on the life of Julius Caesar, I analyze his rise and some of the fundamental character attributes that made him great, analyze some of the ways Caesar was like Steve Jobs and Napoleon, and look at his political strategies

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