ALEXANDER THE GREAT: WHO’S YOUR DADDY?
Everyone has to have someone to look up to for inspiration. Julius Caesar had Alexander The Great. Alexander had probably mythical (but that didn’t matter to the Ancient Greeks) Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War.
Alexander was born in 356 BCE to Philip, the king of Macedonia, a bit of a backwater in the collection of impressive city-states we know today as Greece. Until Philip came along, Macedonia had been a bit of a joke, getting sand kicked in its face by the larger, richer city-states of the day – Athens, Sparta, Thebes and even foreign invaders such as Persia. Philip changed all of that. Sent to Thebes, then the greatest city in Greece, as a VIP hostage (sons of lesser foreign kings were often taken as glorified hostages to make sure the lesser king kept his vow of loyalty, but they were raised in the royal court of their captors and general treated very well) as a young man, he studied under their greatest generals and learned the arts of war. When he finally ascended to the throne of Macedonia, he invested heavily in improving their military capability. He then used his new army to conquer other relatively weak city-states and take their natural resources, which, in turn, helped him further invest in building his military capability. And so on and so forth.
His biggest contribution to warfare was the introduction of his phalanx infantry corps wielding ridiculously long spears (some might even suggest he was compensating for something, like men who buy sports cars and throw a personalised number plate on them) known as the sarissa. The sarissa was about 4–6 metres (13–20 ft) in length and weighed approximately 5.5 kg (12 lb) to 6.5 kg (14 lb). They were made of wood, with a sharp iron head shaped like a leaf on the pointy end, and a bronze butt-spike on the other end, which could be jammed into the ground to stabilise the spear in the event of an enemy charge. To begin to imagine what fighting a Macedonian phalanx was like, imagine having a regular sword and trying to fight someone holding a broomstick 2-3 times the length of a very tall person with a sharp pointy bit on the end.
Now imagine fighting 256 men each holding a sarissa, in a densely packed formation of 16 files with 16 men in each file, who had been drilled over and over to be able to swing quickly and accurately in unison, front, back, left, right. The sarissa was so long that, when deployed, there were five rows of pointy bits protruding from the phalanx in front of the first row of men. So even if your horse managed, somehow, to avoid the first row of pointy bits, there was no freaking way it was going to get anywhere close to the troops.
Philip used this new phalanx to conquer or demand submission (just by giving them a hard stare with his one remaining eye, having lost the other to an arrow during a battle) of most of the Greek city-states, unifying them into a league with himself as the top dog, with the intention of taking a massive, unified Greek force to conquer Persia, as payback for a succession of earlier Persian invasions of Greece.
Unfortunately, before he could fulfil that ambition, he was assassinated at the age of 46, supposedly by a jilted homosexual lover, possibly planned by one of his many wives, Olympias, and his son to Olympias – Alexander. There’s no real evidence to confirm that ancient suspicion, but it’s quite possible, as both Olympias and Alexander had tension with Philip due to his taking of a new Macedonian wife (his seventh) who, it was said, would bear him a true heir to the Macedonian throne. Olympias, on the other hand, was from Epirus, so Alexander, of course, was only half-Macedonian.
After his demise, the fragile league of Greek city-states he had put together rebelled. It was up to his 20 year old son and heir, Alexander, to pull them back into line. Fortunately, he had two things going for him – his father’s impressive military machine, and his strategic brilliance as a military commander.
Alexander wasn’t wet behind the ears when he took over his father’s empire, either. At age 18 he had fought alongside his father at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE, in command of the left wing, accompanied by a group of Philip’s experienced generals, where he had exterminated the infamous Sacred Band of the Thebans, the elite force of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers. The theory of banding together homosexual lovers was that they would fight to the death to protect their mate. And it worked pretty well – until they faced Philip and Alexander and their phalanx of guys holding massive phallic spears.
He had also been tutored by the most famous philosopher-scientist of his day – the great Aristotle, student of Plato. From Aristotle, Alexander developed a taste for exploration and enquiry that would eventually lead him to explore and conquer two-thirds of the world known to the Greeks of his time.
What made Alexander such a memorable general is that he managed to combine brilliant strategic insight with a willingness to throw himself into the fray. I’ve often wondered what was going through his mind when he put his life on the line, over and over again. My guess is that he saw those situations as a win-win. If he won the battle, often taking on armies many times bigger than his own, and in strange lands with unusual weapons like battle elephants, he knew he would go down in history. If he died in the process, he would also go down in history as fearless warrior, like his personal hero, Achilles, who died during the siege of Troy. Alexander reportedly always kept his personal copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow at night – beside a long dagger.
It’s also possible that Alexander believed Philip wasn’t his real father – he was instead sired by a god. There’s a great story in Plutarch that, on the night of Philip’s marriage to Olympias, he found her in bed having some kind of sexual intercourse – with a snake. She was, according to Plutarch, part of a snake-worshiping cult of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and was having sexy times with the god Jupiter Ammon, aka Zeus, took the form of the snake to knock Olympias up and father a child who was half-god. This may sound ridiculous to modern ears – and yet there are around two billion Christians on the planet who believe Jesus’s mother, Mary, was impregnated by a god, so Alexander’s story should be given at least as much credence. He, at least, conquered two-thirds of the known world in his lifetime, which attests to his godly abilities. What did Jesus accomplish in his lifetime? To get arrested and executed? Coincidentally, they both are said to have died around the same age.
I have a few favourite stories about Alexander. The first one that comes to mind is the Siege of Malli, which took place at the end of 326 BCE at the location of the city of Multan in modern Pakistan. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years.
Getting frustrated at how slowly the siege of the Malliian citadel was proceeding, Alexander, completely ignoring the enemy archers, threw a ladder up agains the wall of the citadel and quickly climbed over it, disappearing from the view of his troops, who were all still on the outside. He was quickly followed only by three of his men, including Peaucestas, who always carried the “Shield of Achilles” (supposedly the actual shield from Troy) for Alexander. We can only imagine how excited the Maliians must have been to have such a stupid enemy! The mighty king Alexander, feared across the world, had thrown himself over the wall, practically alone, making himself an easy target for their arrows!
One of the men who went with him, Abreas, was immediately killed by an arrow to the head. Alexander was also shot by a three-foot long arrow – it somehow entered his chest and protruded out of his fucking neck! He fell to his knees and the Mallian who had shot him ran up to deliver the final blow – but Alexander thrust his sword into the man’s chest, killing him, and then pulled himself upright by holding on to a branch and defied the rest of the Maliians to come and fight him. I like to think of him standing there like Bruce Lee – silent, hand stretched out, just wiggling his fingers at them with the “come here” signal.
Peaucestas wasn’t having any of that shit, and quickly threw the Shield of Achilles over him and turned to face the enemy, ready to protect his general and king for as long as possible.
Of course, Alexander’s men on the outside of the wall were nearly hysterical when their king had done what they had not been brave (or foolish) enough to do, and then quickly followed. Certainly, many died in the process, although I suspect most of the Mallian arches had turned their focus on trying to cut the head off the snake (little did they know who his true father was!).
They catapulted over the wall and saw Alexander lying in a pool of his own blood with a big bloody arrow sticking out of his neck – and they went completely batshit crazy. They slaughtered everyone in the citadel – old men, women and children. It was a complete bloodbath, a mass slaughter.
Now let’s ignore the brutality of that for a moment and think about Alexander. Why would he put his life on the line that that? Was it an act of bravery or stupidity?
Maybe both. Or maybe it was that thing I talked about earlier. Maybe he didn’t care what happened to him in battle, as long as it was glorious. This was a very Macedonian mindset. Alexander wanted to live up to the standard of Achilles (who died by an arrow shot by Paris). He wanted epic poems to be written about him and memorised by Macedonian children for centuries to come. That, perhaps, is what success looked like for Alexander. It wasn’t about money or power. It was about glory. Achieving as much of it as possible during your lifetime – and by glory I mean taking on incredible challenges, rushing headfirst into battle, laughing in the face of your enemies and danger – and dying in the middle of trying to achieve it. Living a glorious life and dying a glorious death.
As it turned out, his death was anything but glorious. He died a few years after the Mallian siege, either from some kind of rapid disease like malaria or from being poisoned by his enemies. We don’t really know. Taking a big fucking arrow through his chest couldn’t have helped, either.
The other story about Alexander that comes to mind is one of his most epic battles – Gaugamela. This took place in 331 BCE close to the modern city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan against the “king of kings” of the Persian empire – Darius III. The Persians had the largest and richest empire the world had ever seen and the army to go with it. They had previous invaded Greece a number of times, and now Alexander brought the fight to them. Many thought it was an act of suicide. Having the sarissa was one thing – having to face the full might of the Persian army was another. For a start, they had fucking WAR ELEPHANTS. This was the first time most Greeks had ever seen an elephant, let alone a war elephant. It must have been like facing an enemy who turned up with a battalion of mecha-Godzillas with frikkin’ lasers on their frikkin’ heads.
Not only did they have war elephants, the Persians also had more men – way more men. Alexander brought about 47,000 troops into battle. According to the ancient sources, Darius had somewhere between 250,000 and one million. Modern estimates are more in the range of 90,000 – 120,000, but that’s still a huge advantage. And the Persians had the home ground advantage. They knew the terrain and were more used to the climate. Oh and did I mention they had fucking war elephants?!?
Okay, they only had fifteen war elephants, but still, that’s like fifteen mecha-Godzillas. They also had two hundred chariots with razor-sharp scythes on the wheels, chassis and yoke poles. The idea being you would ram your chariot through the enemy’s infantry, chopping off the legs of anyone who got too close.
Darius, by the way, tried to prevent the battle from even happening. He had already been defeated by Alexander a couple of years earlier at the earlier Battle of Issus, and knew what he was facing. So this time he chose a battlefield that had the two mighty rivers of Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and the Tigris, running between it and the direction that Alexander was approaching from. He sent a force of 5000 men to the first river that had to be crossed, the Euphrates, hoping to prevent Alexander from crossing or, if some of his men did manage to successfully cross while being attack from the opposing bank, weed out his numbers even further. Crossing a deep, wide and torrential river isn’t easy at the best of times and even less so for an ancient army with horses, shields, swords, 8 meter long spears, baggage and who have just marched across a desert to get there, so they have no boats or rafts, except those they can build on the spot, and who are exhausted – from weeks of marching across fucking desert.
Unfortunately for Darius, the roughly 5,000 men he sent to stop Alexander were too smart and they scattered as soon as he approached.
Eventually the two armies lines up on opposite sides of the battlefield, preparing to meet on the following day. On the morning of the battle, Alexander’s soldiers were alarmed that he wasn’t up before dawn, summoning them to his tent to review the day’s battle plans, as he usually did. There had been no sound at all from the king’s tent. Was he dead? Murdered in his sleep? Poisoned? Taken early by the gods? Snake bite? Scorpion?
None of these things – he was fine – in fact, he was dandy. When he was finally roused from his fitful sleep, and informed that Darius’ troops, all one million of them, were already in battle formation, while Alexander’s were still in their pyjamas, he laughed and told his generals that it was all going to be okay. Relax, guys! I’ve got this!
He told them he’d been up late the night before, stressing out over the following day’s battle plan, when, finally, it came to him in a brilliant flash – and then he fell straight to sleep, a deep, deep sleep. Now he was up and confident that his plan was going to work.
“What’s the plan?” they asked?
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. “You’ll see soon enough.”
Now imagine you’re Darius for a second. You are the king of kings of the mighty Persian empire. This puny young rascal, whose empire is five minutes old, and consists of puny Greeks, but has already somehow, incredibly, defeated your troops once, is now having a nice, old sleep in, while you’ve got your one million troops lined up in neat battle formation – on the first day of October, in Iraq. It’s Autumnal weather, probably getting up around 31-38 degrees Celsius (89 – 100 degrees F) in the middle of the day, so it’s pretty warm. And your men are just standing there, waiting, waiting – for the guy who is sleeping in. Should you attack while your opponent isn’t ready? Or is this some kind of cunning ruse, a trap to lure you in? Surely this Alexander must have something up his sleeve? So you stay in position – and your men are getting hot and restless and tired from standing in formation. No to mention your freaking war elephants.
Eventually Alexander’s puny army of 47,000 appears on the field of Gaugamela. But his formation is all wrong. Instead of putting them in a straight line, Alexander’s forces are in a diamond pattern. In those days, generals would typically put their infantry in the middle of the line, and their cavalry on the wings. Alexander has followed that basic plan, but his cavalry are angled away from the Persian line, like the top of a diamond. Highly unusual. Alexander himself was in the centre, with his sarissa phalanx and his own cavalry division made up of his best and brightest, the Companion Cavalry.
Finally, the battle commences, and the two lines run towards each other. The battle takes places in a flat piece of desert, so there’s dust rising up from the feet of hundreds of thousands of men, horses, chariots and fucking war elephants, making it nearly impossible to see more than a few metres in front of your face.
Suddenly Darius sees Alexander and his right wing, dash to the right away from the battle field! It’s over! The young punk has chickened out! Ahura Mazda, the chief god of the Zarathustran religion, had prevailed and brought his people victory at last over these barbarian Greeks!
Which is exactly what Alexander wanted him to think.
When Darius gave the order to his own left flank to pursue Alexander and make sure he is captured and killed, it opens up a gap in Darius’ line, which Alexander’s phalanx drives open even further with their 8 metre long spears. And as soon as that gap is wide enough, Alexander turns his cavalry sharply ninety degrees and plunges through the gap, straight at Darius. Behind him, his archers hold down Darius’ left wing and prevent them from rushing back in to fill the gap.
Meanwhile, thinking Alexander had abandoned the field, Darius had launched the main body of his forces against Alexander’s left wing, believing his scythed chariots would cut them to pieces. But Alexander had a plan for that, as well. Just before the chariots crashed into Alexander’s infantry line, they parted, like the Red Sea before Moses, creating a gap that allowed the chariots to pass right through. Then, once the chariots had passed through them, the infantry swarmed around them, firing arrows at the backs of the drivers, and they were cut down. Of course this manoeuvre didn’t work in every instance, and, according to the ancient author Diodorus Siculus, the results were horrifying: Such was the keenness and the force of the scythes ingeniously contrived to do harm that they severed the arms of many, shields and all, and in no small number of cases they cut through necks and sent heads tumbling to the ground with the eyes still open and the expression of the countenance unchanged, and in other cases they sliced through ribs with mortal gashes and inflicted a quick death.
Darius, realising almost too late that Alexander was not running away but instead was coming directly towards him, hurriedly ordered his cavalry to block Alexander’s path. When Alexander couldn’t reach Darius to personally kill him with his sword, he is said to have thrown a spear which barely missed Darius, and instead killed the charioteer beside him. Some of the Persians, unable to see clearly thanks to the dust and commotion, thought the king had actually been killed and they panicked, fleeing the field. Others followed in their footsteps and gradually Darius’ guard evaporated. Alexander meanwhile tried to force his way through to the king, using his sarissa phalanx and cavalry to bludgeon what remained of the king’s defences. The king, realising that all was lost, turned and scarpered away from the battle. Alexander chased after him for a while, but eventually turned back to make sure the battle was concluded successfully.
According to one first century author, Curtius, the Persians lost 40,000 men to the Macedonian’s 100 – 1200. Another ancient author, Appian, claims 300,000 Persians were killed. Regardless of the accuracy of those estimates, the result was the same. The Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great over 200 years earlier, was now effectively over. Alexander now ruled Greece and the Persian Empire, which included modern Egypt, Libya, Turkey, and all of the Middle East.
Darius III was captured by one of his own governors, executed, and left in the middle of the road to distract Alexander from pursuit. Alexander took the corpse back to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, for an honourable funeral.
So what can we learn from Alexander?
Fortune Favours The Bold
Alexander may have inherited a terrific military machine from Philip, but a lot of his success, especially after he left Greece, had more to do with his bold strategies than the strength of his phalanx alone. His strategy at Gaugalema is my favourite example of that. Facing overwhelmingly larger forces, he did what nobody expected him to do. He thought outside of the box and came up with a plan so crazy it worked. He applied his brains to the situation, rather than rely solely on brawn, or, in this case, the size of his army. All of us find ourselves in situations where we are facing massive odds and it’s tempting to take the path of least resistance, just lie down in front of the steam roller and let it flatten you like a pancake. But maybe we can all try to find a little bit of Alexander in us, and come up with a plan, think our way out of disaster by being bold. Sure – it might not work. But I don’t think Alexander really cared if it worked or not. In his mind, he was either going to live or die like a hero. Of course, statistically speaking, there are probably more people who try bold things, fail, and we never hear about them. We only hear about the ones where the boldness pays off. As Napoleon, someone who admired Alexander and Caesar, said: “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” Speaking of Napoleon…
JULIUS CAESAR: DON’T CROSS THE STREAM!
Big Julie gets a bad rap. He’s often associated with the fall of the Roman Republic and, while he certainly played a role in it, he was just one of many people who contributed to the end of a bold social experiment that lasted for a few hundred years. There’s a lot we can learn from his story and plenty that’s relevant to understanding the world around us today.
Gaius Julius Caesar (in English we normally ignore the Gaius) was born in 100 BCE to a family that had a long history in Rome. He was of the patrician class, meaning his family could trace its roots back to the earliest families that created the Roman Republic. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the wealth that often went with being patricians, and wealth was critical if you wanted to rise through the ranks of Roman power, known as the “cursus honorum”, the career ladder for patrician men. You needed wealth to bribe the populace to vote for you in elections, to put on entertainments for the masses, to build temples and roads as a demonstration of your love of Rome, and to buy your way out of legal trouble when your enemies came after you. Caesar’s father died when Julius was quite young and soon after he got himself into a great deal of trouble.
Rome in the early years of the first century BCE was going through bloody factional violence. Two powerful generals, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, were duking it out to see who was the most powerful man in the land, and this lead to actual blood in the streets. Both men were responsible for executions of members of enemy factions, political purges of other Romans, culminating in beheadings under Sulla, known as the ‘proscriptions’.
Violence of this kind had been going on in Rome for a few decades, starting with the assassination of the Gracchi brothers and hundreds of their supporters, who had the temerity of trying to pass a law whereby the rich elite would have to give up some of their extensive land holdings to the poor. The lives of the working classes was brutal, as it has been throughout all of human history, while the top one percent, the patricians, aristocrats and elite, were living in mansions and eating stuffed goose off of gold plates. The aristocratic Romans shut that reforming shit down by having Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters clubbed to death. When his brother Gaius tried to pass a similar law ten years later, the aristocrats came after him and his supporters, too. He committed suicide before they could grab him, but three thousand of his supporters weren’t as lucky. They were arrested and executed – for passing a law that threatened the wealthy elite. A lot of history, and a lot of modern conflicts, comes down to the rich either trying to either grow or defend their mountain of gold coins. I find it’s very useful, when considering the genesis of wars and political machinations, to start with the question popularised by one of Caesar’s contemporaries, the lawyer, politician and author Cicero: cui bono? (Who benefits?)
Marius died, and Sulla ended up as the last man standing, being declared dictator, an official title bestowed upon a leading citizen in times of great duress and the breakdown of normal government. Unfortunately for Caesar, who was Marius’ nephew though marriage, and was married to the daughter of one of Marius’ closest allies, Cinna, he ended up on Sulla’s shit list. When Sulla demanded Caesar divorce his wife as a show of fealty, Caesar told him to go fuck himself and went into hiding, stripped of his inheritance and titles (he was a member of the priesthood). He was eventually granted clemency through the pleading of his mother and others close to Sulla. Instead of returning to Rome, Caesar decided to join the army, biding his time until Sulla was out of the picture.
This all happened before Caesar was 20 years of age.
When he heard Sulla had died a couple of years later, he started his voyage back to Rome. Along the way he was captured by pirates. Seriously. FUCKING PIRATES. They held him captive and demanded a ransom for his safe return. When he heard how much they were asking for, he laughed in their faces and called them stupid. “Don’t you know who I am?”, he snorted in derision, and demanded they ask for more money, which they did, probably wondering who the fuck he was.
When the ransom was paid, they sent him on his way, but before he left, he assured them with a smile that he would one day return and execute every mother-fucking last one of them. They had a good laugh about that, and were probably still laughing about it when he did return and crucified every mother-fucking last one of them. But he wasn’t an animal – he had their throats slit before he crucified them. So say what you like about Julius Caesar, but he had a sense of humour, and always did what he said he was going to do. So there’s that.
Over the next couple of decades he climbed slowly up the cursus honorum, but because he was relatively poor, he had to borrow a shit ton of money, mostly from the richest guy in Rome at the time, Crassus. Crassus probably funded a lot of guys, covering his bets. The name of the game in Rome, if you had money, was to have as many people in your debt as possible, in order to make sure that when they were in positions of power, they would support policies that favoured your particular interests. And nothing much has changed. Today’s politics runs in very much the same way. The political campaigns and careers of individuals are financially supported by the wealthy who expect payback if their candidate wins. Today that process is hidden more than it was in ancient Rome, but the result is the same. Democracy is an illusion for the most part. You end up with the candidates that the elite want you to vote for.
In 63 BCE, while Cicero was one of the two consuls, Rome had another civil war, this time lead by Lucius Sergius Catilina, known in English as Catiline. Catiline had run against Cicero in the elections and lost, largely because he was another economic reformer, who wanted to make life better for the working class, and most of the wealthy elite were against any such reforms. He was hauled up on charges dating back to the Sulla proscriptions by members of the elite, but was acquitted. Then, according to Cicero, Catiline hatched a conspiracy to murder the consuls and other aristocrats and overthrow the Republic. The conspiracy was revealed (whether or not it was real, we don’t really know, it’s certainly possible) and Catiline got the fuck out of dodge, returning later with an army, which was defeated. Catiline himself was killed during the battle, his corpse later found, out in front of his men’s. He was called a traitor by Cicero and the elite – but was still loved by the working class as someone who tried to reform the system and improve their lives a little.
Crassus’ biggest political foe in those days was a guy called Pompeius Magnus, known to us as Pompey the Great. He called himself “the Great”, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him. He had been a successful general, often leveraging the hard work done by other generals, and taking credit. Along the way, he made himself very rich. Caesar befriended both men, convinced them not to go toe-to-toe like Marius and Sulla, and together the three of them formed a secret pact, whereby they would use their combined leverage to rule Rome. This is known as the “First Triumvirate”.
In my opinion, Caesar doesn’t get enough credit for acting as the peacemaker in this situation. He possibly prevented a continuation of the decades of blood in the streets by negotiating a political compromise. At least that may have been one of his objectives. Both Pompey and Crassus had ready access to wealth and soldiers, and both had egos the size of Jupiter, so it’s entirely likely that they could have come to blows if tensions had continued to rise.
Unfortunately, however, Caesar didn’t prevent war for very long.
He used their combined pull to get himself elected as one of the consuls of Rome, equivalent to a President or Prime Minister, the highest position on the cursus honorum, in 59 BCE. Rome always had two consuls at any given time who took turns running Rome, month on, month off, and the position lasted for one year. While consul, Caesar finally managed to fulfil the dreams of the Gracchi brothers, by passing a land reform law. To prevent opponents from doing to Caesar what earlier generations of the rich had done to the Gracchi, Pompey filled Rome with soldiers. Although one of the richest men in Rome, he had an interest in seeing the law passed, as a way of rewarding many of his retired veterans with some land.
After his tumultuous year as consul, Caesar was granted a five-year stint as the military governor of a distant Roman province – Gaul, basically modern France, which was fairly new territory for Rome, and was inhabited by a bunch of Celtic tribes the Roman thought of as barbarians. Caesar ended up spending ten years as the governor of Gaul, an unusually long time (which caused a lot of complaints in the Senate), and managed to accomplish a number of objectives. He whipped the Gauls into shape, going to war with one tribe after another until they submitted to Rome. He wrote his own accounts of these battles as reports to the Senate, which were widely published in Rome, and helped build his reputation as a brilliant, bold and brave military strategist. Luckily for us, his reports are one of the rare documents from the first century BCE that survive.
During his decade in Gaul, he defeated a number of Germanic tribes which were trying to move into Gaul, was the first Roman to invade Britain (despite common beliefs that the land itself was a myth), siphoned off a massive amount of the wealth from his province into his own bank account (a fairly standard manoeuvre for Roman governors at the time), and developed a very strong loyalty from his large Roman army due to his brilliant strategic mind, many great victories, and his willingness to be one of the men, living with them, enduring their hardships, and leading from the front when going into battle.
Unfortunately, during his decade in Gaul, the alliance he had put together with Crassus and Pompey started to fall apart. Crassus got himself killed during an ill-conceived invasion of Persia. His army was destroyed, and he was captured, beheaded, and molten gold poured down his throat. “Oh you like gold? Here, eat as much as you want.” Needless to say, this was a major disgrace for the glory of Rome.
And then there were two.
Pompey started to worry about Caesar’s increasing popularity and wealth rivalling his own. He had the Highlander mentality – “There can be only one!” Some of the Senators in Rome were also worried about Caesar and were determined to put him on trial for corruption and embezzlement when he returned to Rome. This was the sport of the elite in those days – nearly everyone embezzled during the provincial governorships and the game was to keep as much of it as you could, buying off your opponents in the Senate to avoid legal trouble which, if it went against you, could result in having your assets confiscated and exile from Rome. In many ways, it reminds me of the mindset of modern corporations. They after often caught out cheating, stealing, bribing and lying. Corporate mathematics appears to go something like this: if the profit to be made from illegal and immoral behaviour exceeds the cost of fines, legal support and brand damage if we get caught, then let’s proceed. Not much different from the mindset of the Roman elite.
Despite multiple written pleas from Caesar suggesting they should sit down like grown-ups and work out their differences, and despite being happily married to Caesar’s daughter Julia until her recent untimely demise during childbirth, Pompey sided – perhaps conspired – with the senators who wanted Caesar to face charges. He confidently pronounced that if, as some feared, Caesar marched his army towards Rome, all Pompey needed to do was “stamp my foot” and a massive army of Romans and their allies stationed in surrounding nations would answer his call. In these days, Rome didn’t have a standing army for national defense and it was illegal to bring armed soldiers into Italy unless you had “imperium”, the right to command troops in Italy.
When the Senate declared Caesar’s governorship of Gaul was officially terminated, he was faced with a difficult situation. On one hand, he could stay in Gaul for the rest of his days and try to convince his army to be loyal to him personally and not Rome, a tricky proposition to say the least. Even if he succeeded, it would be a kind of exile which would have been insulting to Caesar and ruinous for the family name (in those days, Romans cared a great deal about the prestige of the family name). On the other hand, if he resigned his governorship and returned to Rome as a normal citizen, he would be immediately put on trial and, quite probably, lose everything he had worked for over the course of his lifetime, still facing a permanent exile.
Of course, he had one more option – to march on Rome. Which is exactly what he did. He tried to negotiate with Pompey and the Senate first. He wanted to stand for election to another consulship in absentia. This would mean that when he returned to Rome he would have imperium long enough to buy off his enemies. But they wouldn’t reply to his letters. So, with his back against the wall, he put together a small force of a single legion, around five thousand of his most loyal men, and, uttering the famous phrase, “the die is cast” (or “let the die be cast”, depending on which ancient source you believe), crossed the Rubicon, a relatively small river, more of a stream really, that separated Italy from Gaul. Caesar had imperium while he was in Gaul, but he had none in Italy at that time, so what he was doing, bringing an army into Italy, was highly illegal.
But from his perspective, he had been backed into a corner by the Senate and Pompey. While it would be a mistake to remove all blame from Caesar, it is also a mistake to completely exonerate the Senate and Roman elite. Rome was incredibly corrupt and dysfunctional. Outside of the Gracchi, Marius and Sulla incidents which had occurred in the eighty years before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Rome also had elections that were regularly fraudulent and often violent, criminal charges were routinely brought against innocent men (or, at least, men who had done nothing worse than their compatriots), court cases were decided by bribery, the working classes were treated poorly by the elite (not to mention the slaves, who had revolted with Spartacus a couple of decades earlier), as were women and Italians from the regions outside of Rome (which had lead to the ‘Social Wars’, a semi-civil war between Rome and regional Italians when Caesar was a young man).
So it’s fair to say that while crossing the Rubicon Caesar definitely had his own interests in mind, it’s also true that Rome was broken and there wasn’t much worth protecting. The lofty ideals of the once-great Roman Republic had been squandered over the previous century, as a small section of the elite used the increasing might of the Roman army to skim the wealth of conquered provinces into their personal coffers, then used that wealth to buy influence and power back at home, making a mockery of the purported “res publica” (a Latin phrase meaning ‘public affair’).
None of us can really know what Caesar was thinking just before he took that fateful step across the Rubicon river. But my guess is that it was something to the effect of “Meh, fuck Rome, it’s done.” It probably sounded more profound in Latin.
Like populist European leaders from the twentieth century who rose to power during times of great distress, Caesar believed the time was right for a revolution. And it’s pretty hard to argue with him, unless, of course, you were one of the rich, toffee-nosed elite who lost everything. Or, I guess, the working classes who got caught up in the war, but sometimes you have to fight for a better life for your children, and let’s face it – they were being called to war anyway, but it was usually to fatten the coffers of the rich.
When Rome learned that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, there was, at first, utter disbelief. Then, panic set in. Despite Pompey’s grandiose statements about stomping his foot, there wasn’t enough time to get the word out to his forces in remote provinces, and he hadn’t believed Caesar would have the balls to attempt a direct confrontation, so he didn’t have a few legions standing near by. Pompey, like the rest of the Senate, got the fuck out of dodge. So when Caesar arrived in Rome, he waltzed in without much trouble.
He quickly set out after Pompey and his legions, some of whom were recent recruits, some who were veterans but stationed far from Italy. Pompey himself turned out to be a huge disappointment to his supporters. After losing a major battle, he fled the scene, going to Egypt, where he believed he had the loyalty and friendship of the royal family. As soon as he landed, he was beheaded on the orders of the young Egyptian king, who hoped to curry favour with Caesar, the obvious victor of the Roman civil war. Perhaps surprisingly, Caesar was livid! No barbarian had the right to execute a Roman citizen, let alone a citizen as prominent and illustrious as Pompey, regardless of their personal enmity. As a result, Caesar ended up siding in the Egyptian civil war with the young king’s elder sister and co-ruler – Cleopatra.
Caesar ended up back in Rome rather briefly, where he was declared dictator just long enough to be elected again as consul. He then resigned the dictatorship and left Rome to mop up Pompey’s forces and allies. This took him a few years. When he finally returned to Rome the Senate (albeit a Senate made up mostly of his supporters and people who owed their very lives to him) asked him to be dictator for life. He pushed through a series of reforms that most modern historians agree were sensible and justified.
His reign, as it turned out, was fairly short. Just before he was to leave Rome again to revenge the execution of Crassus by the Persians, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a cabal of these same Senators, stabbed to death, ironically enough, at the feet of a statue of Pompey, during a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March (the middle of March, and a day Romans recognised as a deadline for settling debts) in 44 BCE. Most of the people wielding the daggers were former enemies, men who had sided with Pompey during the civil war, and who had subsequently received clemency from Caesar. Unlike Sulla, he didn’t have his enemies murdered. He forgave them. He turned the other cheek. And they killed him for it. The man who dealt the final blow was Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead conspirators, who had been quite a close friend of Caesar’s and who Caesar had fostered from a young age – perhaps because Caesar had a long running affair with Brutus’ mother, Servilia. Some wags suggested Brutus might actually have been Caesar’s illegitimate son, although for the maths to work out, Caesar would have had to have fathered him at age fifteen. After the civil war, in which Brutus had sided with Pompey’s faction, Caesar forgave him and made him governor of Gaul and, later, urban praetor (essentially the mayor of Rome). This, apparently, wasn’t enough for Brutus, who, like the other conspirators, allegedly feared that Caesar wanted to make himself king of Rome, despite him repeatedly turning down the title when it was offered to him. The last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, had been overthrown 450 years earlier in 495 BCE during an uprising lead by Brutus’ famous ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus.
According to legend, Caesar’s dying words were “You too, child?”
William Shakespeare used a modified version in his famous play: “Et tu, Brutus? (And you too, Brutus?) Then fall, Caesar.”
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning! Not having any official male heir of his own (he did have an illegitimate son with Cleopatra, but there was little chance of him ever being accepted by the Romans as Caesar’s heir), in his will Caesar left a large portion of his inheritance to his great-nephew, Octavianus, the son of his sister’s daughter, who he also adopted posthumously. Octavianus was only 18 years old when Caesar died and had only just begun his military training. Despite his parents warning him against it, Octavianus travelled to Rome to claim his inheritance and accept the new name bestowed upon him by the adoption – Gaius Julius Caesar. One thing lead to another and there was another civil war, another triumvirate, another civil war (really just one long civil war with a few breaks to catch their breath), and, eventually, Octavianus was the last man standing. He adopted a new name – Augustus Caesar…. and that’s a story I’ll get to later in the book. Suffice to say that the assassination of Julius Caesar didn’t restore the Republic – if anything, it just assured its demise.
What can we learn from Caesar?
Forgiving your enemies is a worthy and honourable thing to do – but keep a bodyguard around you at all times, just in case. Watch your back! Caesar refused to keep one, believing that if his enemies wanted him dead, then fair enough, they should be given their chance. Hardly the mindset you’d expect from a ruthless dictator, but exactly the mindset you’d expect from a Roman general who had put his life on the line for over a decade and come out on top every time. Seriously, it’s the boldness of his actions that impress me the most. He had almost the entire Roman elite against him, which included some very successful generals, like Pompey, and even some of his own protégés, like Titus Labienus (we had a fun nickname for him on the Caesar podcast, see if you can guess it) and Brutus. It would have been entirely natural to think “oh well, I’m out-gunned, better take my beating” and retire into exile with his tail between his legs. But no! That’s not the Caesar way! Caesar, inspired, I think, by his hero Alexander The Great (I’ll take about him in the next chapter, be patient, my friends), marched boldly into the abyss of the unknown and danger. BRING IT ON. COME AT ME, BRO. Was this hubris? Vanity? Ego? Perhaps. But he had ten years in Gaul behind him, not to mention a legion of tried and true soldiers who had his back. But , more importantly, I think, he also had the courage of his convictions. Why should he be punished for doing nothing different from the men who came before him, that is, “wetting his beak” (as the Mafia would say) while putting his life on the line for ten years to conquer Rome’s enemies and send untold wealth back home? Yes, he also killed hundreds of thousands of people, and while some Romans didn’t like some of his actions in that regard, it wasn’t anything unusual for Rome. It had become the superpower of the Mediterranean through conquest. He knew that his enemies wanted to see him taken down, not because of his actions, but because of the threat he posited to their own domination of Roman politics. And Caesar was not going to bow down before them. He took the Alexanderish position of “Regardless of whether I live or die, glory will be mine.” He figured that if he died trying to reform Rome, then at least he gave it the ol’ Roman try. If he succeeded, well, then he would be remembered forever. And he was right.
Corruption Leads to Revolution
When a society becomes corrupt beyond repair, someone will eventually rise up to try to fix it or take advantage of the decay. Sometimes, like the Gracchi and Catiline, they will fail, often because they are taking on the combined wealth and force of the elite. But, occasionally, as in the case Julius Caesar, they will succeed.
Rome had almost an entire century between the murder of the Gracchi brothers and the Caesar’s civil war in which to address the underlying issues of corruption and greed. But the very people who could have fixed the system were the same people who benefited from it. There weren’t any effective check and balances. Measures that had been put into place to allow the common people (known as the plebeians or plebs for short) to act as a check against the elite were eventually weakened and corrupted by the elite. The role of the Tribune of the Plebs had been established not long after the expulsion of the kings. This was a group of elected officials who represented the interests of the working class. Over time they were granted the power to veto legislation, introduce legislation, and call meetings of the Senate. The tribunes themselves were considered sacrosanct – no harm was allowed to come to them. However in the last century of the Republic, this form of regulation of the elite had been corrupted. Sulla, while dictator, had removed much of their power. While most of those powers were restored after his death, the reputation of the office had been forever tarnished. The First Triumvirate managed to get a member of the elite, Publius Clodius Pulcher, elected as a tribune of the Plebs through some dodgy shit involving an unorthodox adoption. Clodius (as he’s known) owed Caesar one – a few years earlier he had been caught in Caesar’s home, dressed up as a woman, during a secret religious festival that only women were allowed to attend. He was, according to Cicero, trying to seduce Caesar’s wife into adultery. Even though there was no evidence that he succeeded, Caesar divorced his wife anyway, because, as he himself said, “Caesar’s wife must be beyond suspicion”. If only he’d taken the same stance regarding himself and his supposed desire to be king! If he’d been above suspicion, he might still be here with us today. Clodius, by the way, was charged with violating the religious festival but was acquitted – thanks to his benefactor Crassus, who bribed the entire jury en masse. It’s a common problem in societies where enormous wealth resides in the hands of the few. That wealth is eventually used to manipulate and corrupt the very institutions designed to protect against them. Democracies are only as good as the protections put into place to prevent their corruption. Pass a law to regulate corruption, and some members of the elite will try to get it overturned. They will use their wealth to bribe politicians, judges, witnesses, the media, and anyone else they need to in order to get the law eliminated, weakened or altered. As I pointed out in my book “The Psychopath Economy”, there will always be psychopaths who care about nothing other than their own wealth and power. This was true in Ancient Rome and it’s true today. To protect ourselves from psychopaths, we need to build robust systems of regulation that can’t be easily influenced by wealth.
I’ll have more stories about Caesar later on in the book, so I’ll keep some other lessons up my sleeve for then.
Welcome to my new book – “Condemned To Repeat It”. I’ll be posting chapters here as I write them.
If there’s one comment I’ve enjoyed getting over and over again, in thousands of emails and Facebook messages from podcast listeners over the last fifteen years, it’s a variation on this: “I always thought history was boring, but you guys make it come alive!”
I don’t really know how history got this “boring” rap attached to it. From where I sit, a lot of history is about killing people, fucking people, fucking people over, raping, stealing, lying, cheating – and usually all of those connected together in rapid succession. History is basically stories about raping people, fucking them over, stealing their shit, killing them, and then lying about it. And that’s just the Bible!
At some point I guess people decided that the version of history that’s taught to kids should have those bits censored, so what you are left with is names, dates and bits of paper being signed. Yeah, that does sound pretty boring.
I, however, make history shows for adults, so let’s talk about adult things. The dirty shit. The evil shit. The messy shit. Because that’s what history tends to be – dirty, evil and messy shit.
Another comment I’ve enjoyed getting over the years is the one I get from American listeners who can’t handle the fact that the way I talk about their country makes it sound like it has actively participated in dirty, evil and messy shit. Those comments tend to take the form of ranty ad hominem attacks, calling me “arrogant”, “naïve” and a “communist”, because, of course, anyone who doesn’t think the United States of America rides a white horse, wears a shiny white hat, and shits gold that smells like peppermint must be an arrogant, naïve communist. And God Help You if you draw analogies between things happening in the United States today and episodes from history! Yanks really don’t like that. I’ve regularly been accused of being an “America hater” – even though my wife, whom I love very much, is American, which makes our son half-American, and my co-hosts have usually been American, and most of the culture I love is American (Lou Reed, Orson Welles, Scorsese, Tarantino, James Ellroy, Miles Davis, Jackson Pollock, Apple, etc), I visit America about once a year on average, etc. In their minds, criticism of America can only be driven by hatred of America. It’s a simplistic, childish mindset, but one that is apparently extremely common with Americans. I’ve never had German or French or Russian or Australian listeners complain that I must hate their country because I criticised its past actions. English listeners have, but not as much as Americans.
Anyway – this book is going to talk about some of my favourite stories from the history shows I’ve produced over the last decade and a half. They are probably going to be dirty, evil and messy stories but I think we can all learn something from them. Because if it’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that humans haven’t changed much over the last 2500 years. We have better tools and live longer lives on average, but we are still motivated by the same basic desires. Most of us just want to get laid, avoid starvation, have a roof over our heads, feel loved, raise our kids in relative safety, and have some fun along the way. Your basic Maslovian needs. And then there are the psychopaths, usually about one per cent of the adult population, who want to rule everyone else, and will kill, fuck, steal, lie and cheat to get into a position of wealth and power. The rest of us will usually let them do that, mostly because we can’t be bothered fighting dirty.