11 Lessons in Leadership From Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar always fascinated me because of the massive list of his accomplishments and his palpable charisma that still seems to reach you even 2,000 years later. Usually, Caesar is remembered as a great soldier, but his life was far more complete than that. He was a great entertainer, seducer, statesman, writer, and more.

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus. There, I went over Caesar’s character and talents. Now I’d like to share with you the lessons Julius Caesar can teach us about power and persuasion:

Caesar: Life of a Colossus review

You’ll first note that an abridged version of this post was originally published on Return of Kings.

1. Build Your Talent Stack

If you’re familiar with the work of Scott Adams, you’ll recall the concept of a “talent stack,” where it’s better for you to have a B or B+ in a lot of different skills rather than one A and a list of Cs down the ticket. This, he says, will increase your odds of overall success by a very significant degree.

When you look at the life of Julius Caesar, it’s clear that he had a massive stack of abilities that he was very great in, whether it be rhetoric, soldiering, tolerance for risk and conflict, and down on through the line. There was almost nothing that he wasn’t at the very least good in, compared to his rivals like Pompey who had a talent stack that had far less depth.

Julius Caesar decided what talents he needed on his path to domination in his own time. This invites you to envision your own future and where you want to be. Done? Now ask yourself what skills you’ll probably need to get there. Now do a little each day to get a solid B in each of them.

2. Get Good At All Avenues of Communication

Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic (and Civil) War still stand as a classic to students of both Latin and military history. His contemporaries like Cicero marveled at their simplicity and the directness of the action that left the reader without doubt as to what had transpired. The Commentaries weren’t simply for posterity’s sake, however. They allowed Caesar to build his brand and keep in touch with his base back in Rome while he was abroad for so many years. By staying in the forefront of the people’s minds, his power grew.

In our own time, there are far more methods of communicating with the masses, and you should get good in all of them and understand the prime function of each. Email is for building relationships. Twitter is for aggressive provocation. Instagram for showing status, and so on. Each acts as a funnel to broaden and maintain your base.

3. Always Choose Notoriety Over Fitting In

Even when he was just starting out and had no power, Julius Caesar found ways to stand out. He was actually one of the noted fashionistas of his era, always dressing better and more uniquely than the other men around him:

Caesar reveled in standing out from the crowd, and dressed in a highly distinctive way. Instead of the normal short-sleeved senator’s tunic, which was white with a purple stripe, he wore his own unconventional version. This had long sleeves that reached down to his wrists and ended in a fringe. Although it was not normal to wear a belt or girdle with his tunic, Caesar did so, but perversely kept it very loose. Sulla is supposed to have warned the other senators to keep an eye on that ‘ loose girded boy.’ It is just possible that this style was intended to serve as a reminder of his earlier designation for the flaminate, given that the flamen was not permitted to wear knots in his clothing, but it may simply have been mere affectation. Whatever its purpose, the result was the same. Caesar dressed so that he was recognizably a member of a senatorial family, but at the same time marked himself out as not quite the same as his peers.

Later on in life, Julius Caesar also made it a priority to stand out in politics as well, bringing cases against noteworthy Roman elites and supporting contrary causes, such as his argument not to execute those men involved in Catiline’s conspiracy. For Caesar, fitting in was fading out.

Julius Caesar fashionista dress style toga

4. Be Lively and Pleasurable at All Times

Julius Caesar went out of his way to be a source of pleasure, no matter who he was meeting with. He was a lively companion at all times, friendly and charming to everyone that came in contact with him. Even in heated political debates he didn’t lose his humor. One of the best examples of his social intuition was during a winter break from the Gallic campaigning season when he sat in the house of a local aristocrat:

Socially Caesar entertained and was entertained by the local aristocracy, many of whom had only possessed citizenship for a generation or so. Suetonius says that he regularly filled two dining halls, one with his officers and Greek members of his staff and the other for civilian citizens. On one occasion in Mediolanum, he dined at the house of one Valerious Meto, and the party was served with asparagus accidentally dressed in bitter myrrh rather than the normal olive oil. Caesar ate it without comment or change of expression, and rebuked his companions when they loudly complained. The patrician from one of Rome’s oldest families was the perfect guest and always a lively companion.

This won him many friends that he of course influenced.

5. Associate Yourself With Popular Causes

Julius Caesar was a noted popularis politician, meaning that he was associated with popular causes. In his early career he tried his hardest to support the popular general Pompey (already a marquee name) and staged grand and spectacular entertainments during his time in the post of Aedile which oversaw public infrastructure. In the voting assemblies, he associated himself with a broad range of citizen classes and in the courts he prosecuted unpopular public officials. This dovetails with the next lesson that Caesar can teach us…

6. Keep Your Power Base as Broad as Possible

When he was dictator, Julius Caesar enacted a legislative program that addressed all segments and classes of society. In his youth, he lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t exactly prestigious, but it did allow him to converse with the poorer classes that Roman senators often didn’t know very well. To give it a modern analogy, Julius Caesar didn’t live in a bubble. He knew senators, equestrians, and the poor. He even championed the residents in the provinces abroad, such as those in Cisalpine Gaul who hadn’t been given citizenship but wanted it. When he received his Gallic command, this came back to help him, big league.

Always look to cooperate with many people and classes. See if their interests entwine with yours. Don’t make enemies unnecessarily.

7. In-Group With Your Subordinates

Going further, Julius Caesar’s treatment of his legions showed exemplary skill in the forging of a collective, shared identity that went even deeper than their being members of the Roman polity. Famously, he knew the names of all of his centurions, building with them an intimate rapport. He trained alongside the men with equal physical vigor as they exercised. Further:

When Caesar addressed his troops it was always as ‘comrades,’ never ‘men’ or ‘soldiers.’ He and they were all good Romans, serving the Republic by fighting against its enemies and also winning glory and plunder along the way, which he took to share with them most generously. Already they had won two great victories. Mutual trust grew up gradually between the commander, his officers, and soldiers as they came to know and rely on each other. Pride in themselves and their units was also carefully fostered. Decorated weapons, some inlaid with silver or gold, were issued, most probably as rewards for valor, marking the recipients out as exceptional soldiers and making them feel special. The Roman military system had always sought to encourage boldness in its soldiers, but in Caesar’s legions this ideal was taken to an extreme.

It is not surprising that when he needed them, Julius Caesar’s troops were there for him with religious devotion.

Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon

8. When Using Rhetoric to Persuade, Never Start With Facts

Julius Caesar knew that facts are of limited value to get attention and influence people. He studied in the best rhetorical school of his time, in Rhodes. Although he had many instances of brilliant and persuasive oratory, one of Caesar’s best was when he dissuaded mutinous legions:

The latter had camped on the outskirts of Rome, when without warning Caesar quietly rode into their lines and climbed up onto the podium that was usually constructed near the headquarters. As news of his arrival spread the soldiers clustered around to hear what he had to say. He asked them what they wanted and they replied, recounting their long and difficult service and reminding him of the promises he had made to them over the years. Finally they demanded that they all be discharged, which seems to have been intended to remind him that he wanted them for his new campaign, but could not take their loyalty for granted. Caesar’s reply began calmly, which made it all the more shocking. In the past the soldiers had always been his ‘comrades,’ but now he addressed them as ‘citizens’ and told these mere civilians that he willingly released them from service since that was what they wanted. The soldiers were stunned by this casual dismissal and their commander’s gentle reassurance that he would in time give them all the rewards that he had promised.

Just as on campaign, Caesar had seized back the initiative and now it was his soldiers who struggled to regain their confidence and determination. Men began calling out that they volunteered for further service with him, and then one of the leaders of the mutiny repeated this request more formally. Caesar declined the offer, but then repeated his promise to assign land and the promised gifts of money to all of them – by this time it seems he had adopted a tone of gentle reproach as though he was saddened that his own men doubted the truth of his promises. Perhaps at this point he turned to leave, making the mutineers even more desperate as they begged him to take them back and lead them to Africa, assuring him that they would win the war for him without any need for other troops. Now Caesar relented, but in a complete reversal of his speech at Vesontio in 58 BC, he said that he would take all of them except for the Tenth legion. He reminded the veterans of the Tenth of all his past favors, and said that for their ingratitude he would now discharge the, but that each man would still get all that he had been promised after his victory in Africa. Their immense pride in their unit challenged, and their devotion to their old commander reignited, the legionaries of the Tenth begged Caesar to decimate them as long as he took them back. Gradually, and with feigned reluctance, he allowed himself to be persuaded and announced that this time there would be no executions.

9. Always Disrupt the Strategy of Your Enemies

One notable instance of this was when Julius Caesar used his brand of clemency against the Pompeians in the civil war, who were envisioning being increasingly punitive even against those who had remained neutral during the hostilities. Caesar’s clemency made his enemies grow increasingly unhinged, and as a result, made them lose face with the public and disrupted their strategy in the field.

And that episode was far from the only time he did this.

10. Control the News Cycle With Action

One of Julius Caesar’s calling cards was that he always took care to dictate the news cycle rather than having it dictate him. His Commentaries of course are the best example of this, but he also did this on the tactical level to rapidly control the flow of information in his favor. In Gaul, for example, a defeat in a skirmish began to be talked of as a major setback for the Romans. Not wanting to embolden his enemies, Caesar mobilized immediately and reversed the situation with swift punishment, not allowing the flow of information to embolden the Gauls who may want to take up arms against him.

Julius Caesar triumph

11. Your Displays of Power Must be Cognizant of Your Time

The mistake that ultimately caused Julius Caesar’s undoing was the way that he displayed power as dictator after his victory in the civil war. His typical dress consisted of the following garb:

Apart from his formal powers Caesar stood out in many ways. His family claimed descent from the kings of Alba Longa, a city that no longer existed since the Romans had absorbed it early on in their history. On formal occasions he now took to wearing what he claimed was the costume of these monarchs, notably calf-length boots in red leather. The reddish-purple tunic and toga of a triumphing general, which he now wore at festivals and formal meetings, also had regal associations. To this he added a laurel wreath – an honor that he is said to have especially relished because of his growing baldness – and in 44 BC this seems to have been replaced with a gold version.

He also, famously thanks to Shakespeare, refused a crown from Mark Antony, but it only served to associate Caesar with kingship in the mind’s eye further. Though the people loved him, Julius Caesar lost touch with a crucial segment of society – that old class of senators who held the old republican ideals in high esteem. To them, his behavior was a bridge too far. It served too easily as confirmation bias that he aspired to a formal kingly role. This made it easier for people like Cassius and Brutus to persuade themselves and others that killing him was a necessary act of tyrannicide.

Julius Caesar, knowing the republican ethos of Rome, should have made a rare display of modesty and surrendering some of his power (if only in appearance) after attaining the dictatorship to dissolve any rumors of him desiring supreme, un-republican power. He did the opposite and it cost him his life. This was a mistake that his adopted son and heir, Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, would not make.

And neither should you. Imagine what scenarios could lead to your demise just as much, or even more, than your triumph.

Now take the lessons you learned here and add the master persuasion filter you’ll find only in Stumped.