Caesar: Life of a Colossus: Review

Gaius Julius Caesar was one of the most famous men to ever live. His is a name that demands instant recognition. Even 2,000 years after his death, he still commands attention and respect. Yet Julius Caesar’s rise was by no means a guaranteed one. Unlike many other men who achieved kleos, like Alexander the Great or Thutmose III, he didn’t have his golden opportunity handed to him so easily. He is instead exemplary of another class of men – those who had to earn it all from relatively little. Gaius Julius Caesar was born into an aristocratic but undistinguished family whose fortunes were at a relatively low ebb. At the end of his life he was the wealthiest and most powerful man that Rome had ever produced to that time. How did he do this?

I always start the year off by reading a biography or autobiography of a great man. To launch 2017, I visited my list of 20 men, decided on Caesar, and selected a massive tome Caesar: Life of a Colossus.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a noted classical historian whose work I’ve encountered before (In the Name of Rome). In Caesar, he tells the story of the most famous of all Romans from the most public to the most intimate aspects of his life. What emerges is an immensely complicated man, whose talents got him to where he was, but who probably never even sought the power that he wound up with until he was forced to.

Julius Caesar leading troops

The Caesarian Talent Stack

In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams advises readers not to focus on achieving perfection at one specific skill, but to become good at a wide variety of skills. In other words, your odds are better when you get a B-B+ in a lot of different skills instead of one A and a line of Cs or Ds afterward. This is what he calls a “talent stack.”

When reading Caesar, it struck me immediately that Gaius Julius Caesar had an immense talent stack, arguably one of the most potent and formidable that has ever been possessed by any man. Julius Caesar may not have been the god of any one particular phenomenon, but he was damn near flawless at pretty much everything that he did (which included many things Scott Adams recommended):

  1. Second language (Julius Caesar, like most of the Roman aristocracy, was educated in both Latin and Greek, and good enough to use both languages for theatrics)
  2. Overcoming shyness (He was just about the least shy person in history, to the extent that he was cuckolding about half the aristocracy and famously passed along a love letter written to him by another man’s wife to an opponent during an intense debate in the Senate)
  3. Rhetoric (Not Cicero, but almost as good – Cicero himself commented that had Caesar devoted himself exclusively to rhetoric, he may have been the best in Rome at the skill, but the latter was too smart for that)
  4. Writing (He began writing at an early age, and his Commentaries are arguably the first masterpiece of business writing)
  5. Conversation (His charm was hard to resist, and he made certain to keep people in his thrall by being pleasant and lively at almost all times – one incident saw him sharply rebuking some of his subordinates for their displeasure of eating food with myrrh instead of olive oil when dining at the home of an important person)
  6. Persuasion (one of the best of his time in all its aspects – individual and crowd psychology, frame control, etc.)
  7. Soldiering (probably not as good as the ultimate gods of war like Alexander the Great, Geghis Khan, Subutai, and I may attempt to argue, the Duke of Marlborough, but better than 99.9% of anyone that’s ever lived or ever will live)
  8. Communications “technology” (Julius Caesar was very good at and used all the means available to him, including building projects in Rome, allowing him to bypass his enemies and get his own message out)
  9. Boldness/willingness to accept conflict/risk (possibly related to overcoming shyness, but I thought it was important enough to merit its own point – Julius Caesar famously refused orders from the dictator of his youth, Sulla, only delayed if it brought him a clear advantage, and was willing to take massive risks with money and in politics – but only if he thought his chances of winning were good)
  10. Lack of fear to spend money (as readers of The 48 Laws of Power know, being a miser is not the path to power, and Gaius Julius Caesar spent money he didn’t have to buy power which paid off in the long run)
  11. Branding (in everything from the way he dressed to how he framed his reputation, Julius Caesar was a prototype for the Stumped model, cultivating a personal brand that paired his name with concepts that allowed him to stand out in everyday life and even disrupt the strategy of his enemies in the civil war)
  12. Work ethic (Julius Caesar was always at work and attentive to detail, he was unrelenting)
  13. Luck (it can’t be escaped – Julius Caesar had good fortune in everything from tactical matters to arriving on the scene at a period when much of the old established Roman elite were culled by Sulla’s proscriptions, allowing more ample room at the top of the Republic)

There could be even more, but this is what stood out to me the most in my notes. Gaius Julius Caesar was also fortunate to be raised in an education system that absolutely convinced him of his and Rome’s superiority, but this was true of all other Roman aristocrats. With regards to timing, his contemporaries also had the fortune of coming at a time where the bench was thin. What readers of the Masculine Epic who have also read Caesar will note throughout the book is that it was Julius Caesar’s incredibly deep talent stack which ultimately allowed him to surpass his contemporaries. This can be seen in a few examples:

  1. Cicero was the greatest orator and arguably writer of the time, but he lacked the theatrics, showmanship, boldness, and innovative communicational ability of Julius Caesar, to say nothing of his lack of military ability that the Romans prized most.
  2. Crassus was fabulously wealthy and used his wealth as the means to acquiring power. He also didn’t lack a talent for soldiering. Yet, he wasn’t nearly as skilled in the art as Caesar or Pompey, and lacked deep communicational power or theatrics.
  3. Pompey was a genuinely gifted soldier and very cunning, with no lack of flair for theatrics (he once planned to celebrate his triumph in a chariot pulled by elephants and was stopped only by logistical considerations), but was lackluster in rhetoric and writing. In short, his ability to communicate was far more limited than Julius Caesar.

Then there were less talented individuals who were strangling the machinery of the Republic and preventing Rome from enacting needed reforms. Such individuals included Cato the Younger, who had a flair for branding, taking advantage of the name of his famous ancestor and building an image of a man of stern and strict morals. Because of his distinguished line, he emerged as a leader of the optimate faction. Yet, while Cato would seem a good candidate to write or teach philosophy, he comes across as extremely lacking in social intuition and grace. I could see him annoying the people he socialized with rather than persuading them.

Here are a few passages of Julius Caesar using his talent stack that stood out to me.

Bypassing Enemies

When Julius Caesar began his consulship, his enemies, Cato and his consular colleague Bibulus foremost among them, attempted to stop him in anything that he did. As soon as his term began, he brought forth a land bill before the Senate. Though everyone agreed that the bill was a good one, Cato filibustered the session, claiming that there should be no innovations during this term. Not willing to back down (he never did), Julius Caesar declared that since the Senate wouldn’t act, he’d go directly to the Roman people.

Probably the next day he held a meeting in the Forum, and once again made every effort to be reasonable. He summoned his colleague Bibulus to the Rostra and asked him his opinion of the land bill in full view of the crowd. The mood of the crowd was certainly favorable to Caesar. Nevertheless, Bibulus repeated Cato’s argument that whatever the merits of the bill, there should be no innovations in his year of office. Caesar kept trying to persuade his colleague, and told the crowd that they could have the law if only Bibulus would consent. He lead the chant that called upon his fellow consul to agree, but the pressured Bibulus only shouted that ‘you shall not have this law this year, even if you all want it.’ After the crass comment, Bibulus stormed off. Roman magistrates were not elected to represent anyone, and neither they nor senators were answerable to any sort of constituency. In this way Roman politics differed markedly from the theory if not necessarily the practice of modern democracies. Yet in the end the will of the Roman people was supposed to be sovereign and for a consul to express such disdain for the voters was a serious error. Caesar had pressured him into making the mistake and now built upon this success. He summoned no more magistrates to his meeting or meetings but instead called upon distinguished senior senators. This was entirely normal practice, and Caesar began with Crassus and Pompey. Both enthusiastically supported the bill. Pompey spoke of the need to reward with land the soldiers who under his own command fought so well for Rome. He also reminded them that the spoils won by his armies had given the Republic ample funds to make the distribution practical. Caesar worked on the crowd some more, getting them to beg Pompey to ensure that the bill became law. Always so susceptible to adulation, he announced in reply to Caesar’s questioning that if anyone took up the sword to stop the bill, then he was ready with his shield. The threat was more than a little clumsy. It delighted the cheering crowds, but made many senators nervous. Cato and Bibulus had blocked Caesar in the senate, but raising the stakes in the struggle had not deterred him or his backers. In the end, Caesar was at least as stubborn and determined as they were.

The underlines were my emphasis. Here you saw what you would later see with the Commentaries – Julius Caesar communicating directly with his audience, bypassing his enemies to do so. Instead of fighting in an environment where his odds were bad, Julius Caesar decided to fight in an environment where his odds were good, taking advantage of his talent of persuading crowds where it was at its best. In the end, he got his way. This incident was also notable to me because it highlighted the differences between Caesar and Pompey. Pompey had an immense personal brand, but his clumsiness with rhetoric and communication was shown in this episode.

Branding

Pompey had a good brand because the Romans valued military prowess over any other attribute. Yet his overall talent stack lacked, and his choice of allies in the civil war, the optimates or “best men,” didn’t seem to live up to their name. Their mean-spiritedness, combined with Caesar’s brand of clemency (and his actions in pursuit), allowed him to dominate the propaganda war in his fight against Pompey and his allies:

From the beginning of the war few of the Pompeians had shown any inclination to compete with Caesar in displays of clemency and moderation. If anything, his policy, with its obvious implication of his personal superiority, seemed only to increase their rage and stir them to further atrocities. Cicero had been shocked by the attitudes he encountered in Pompey’s camp. Most of the leading Pompeians declared that men who had remained neutral were almost as bad as Caesar’s active partisans, and there was talk of widespread punishment when they finally led the army back to Italy.

Essentially, Caesar’s brand, his PR abilities, and his aristocratic poise (which readers of this blog will recognize as being law 34 from The 48 Laws of Power) disrupted the strategy of his enemies without even the need to raise a sword. This and other incidents throughout his career are indicative that Julius Caesar was arguably one of the earliest practitioners of the kind of fourth generation warfare that this particular niche on the internet often likes to talk about. Those looking to practice memetic warfare should study his career closely.

Julius Caesar clemency civil war

Frame

Readers of Stumped will know that frame control is a key to persuasion, especially in conversation. Julius Caesar was great in this area also. This was displayed most clearly to me when he was just about to take command of his Gallic provinces after his term as consul was over. During his last days in Rome, the rumor that he had been the submissive homosexual partner of King Nicomedes of Bithynia in his youth came up again. This was an embarrassing rumor. Contrary to the pronouncements of social justice warriors, the Romans didn’t look kindly on homosexuality, especially toward the submissive partner in the act, as this was considered a sign of extreme effeminacy and an affront to the masculinity of a man. On his first assignment overseas, Julius Caesar made a PR mistake when visiting the royal court of Bithynia, which flared these rumors. While these rumors lasted and angered him, he did have the wit to use them as a way to secure name recognition, knowing that attention is influence.

The following was the exchange:

Elated by this success, he declared in the Senate that, since ‘he had gained his greatest desire to the great grief of his enemies, he would now mount on their heads.’ Whether this was an intentional double entendre or not, one senator retorted that that would be a hard thing for a woman to do, referring to the old story of Caesar and Nicomedes, which Bibulus’ edicts had revived. Caesar quipped cheerfully back that it should not be difficult, since ‘Semiramis had been queen of Syria and the Amazons in days of old had held sway over a great part of Asia.’ It seems fitting to end the account of this year with a crude joke, as well as an episode that showed Caesar’s confidence and self-satisfaction.

Agree and amplify indeed.

Conclusion

I’m still only scratching the surface. The next post will be an overview of the overarching lessons in the application of power and influence that Julius Caesar’s talent stack allowed him to do throughout his career.

You’ll want to get the source material because you’ll want to hit the ground running at that time. To be a great man, you have to learn from the other great men that came before you. Caesar: Life of a Colossus, is among the finest sources in that genre that I’ve ever encountered.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus Review
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