All that Caesar had…

March 4, 2007 — 4 Comments

One of the things I wanted to start doing was posting my thoughts and reactions to the books I’ve been reading. This isn’t a new thing, I’ve been recording the quotes and filling the margins for a while now. But I’ve been getting emails from people asking me how I manage to fit in reading so much. Well the first step is to give it a purpose–tell yourself that it serves a large cause or goal. For me it’s always been as preparation for life, or my job, or for school. But it’s gotten past that, so I decided to make this blog a justification for doing that.

Last week I read “Caesar” by Christian Meier. I strongly recommend you read it.

Here are my notes/quotes/thoughts.

“The individual might be permitted certain latitude and certain liberties; he might on occasion kick against the pricks. Yet there were limits, and these limits, for all their elasticity, became all the firmer the more more they were stretched.”

Society gives you just enough agency to be hopeful. To trick you into thoughts of something more–and then it kicks you in the teeth. The chains are long enough to give you running star, so the jerk backwards hits all the harder. Which is why the true great of history rejected the institutions as a whole. Their hopes, and value systems were derived internally, and thus not dependent on the approval or accomplishment or status. They gave up short term validation for long term reckoning.

“audentes fortuna iuvat” Fortune favors the bold. “Caesar also knew that not only fortune, but understanding, helps the brave. Casar was certainly brilliant at reconnaissance and planning. Yet he could also stake all on one card.”

Caesar relied heavily on this axiom–and to an outside observer he seems almost dangerously stupid. But it’s not, those are the benefits of its illusions. Meier quotes Suetonius who argued that Caesar was almost timidly bold. The paradox implies the distinction between boldness and brashness (a concept Aristotle lays out in Ethics in his advocacy of moderation). Caesar planned heavily AND made huge bets.

Society stigmatizes boldness because it fears the results. It needs timidity to maintain order. It put prudence and faith in oneself on opposite sides of the spectrum when in reality, the synergy between the two is an imperative of greatness. It’s the fingerspitzengefuhl that Rommel perfected.

“From the beginning there was something of the adventurer and the gambler in him; at first this was more a product of wilfulness, but it was increasingly nourished by the experience of how little resistance reality often offered if one took a firm grip on the fact of a situation. Fortune was of course fickle, but she could also be faithful.”

Never underestimate the leeway and freedom that society grants to mavericks and myths. We all know the brass ring is there for the taking, we’re just too afraid to reach for it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want SOMEONE to reach for it. Don’t be mistaken, they might resent you for it after you’ve got it–just look at Caesar for Christ sake–but they can never take away what happened.

The ultimate message we take from the passage is the seemingly contradictory nature of honest, diligent planning and bank-breaking bets. Only the superficial fail to see how one feeds off the other. James J. Cramer, the hedge fund runner, made his fortune off this strategy. He combined the crushing work ethic of a NASA scientist with the betting tactics of a gambling addict.

If you aren’t willing to push all the chips in the middle, all your research was for naught. That’s where Caesar excelled–ceaseless training and then the confidence to exercise it. And as crass as it sounds, he never lost track of his balls. Michael Lewis, in Liar’s Poker, called traders with that dichotomy “big swingin’ dicks.” This is where startups fail. They pursue too many paths at once, refusing to bet it all on their strongest card. Consider it the emotional equivalent of the sunk cost fallacy. Or they bet it all on one they never investigated enough to realize was doomed from the beginning.

My whole life I’ve been training for that moment. I spare no expense at the present–time or money–for that which will help me grow and learn and prepare. Nonetheless I’ve amassed a small (college) fortune that would me to walk away from school and roll the dice. Or in the future to put it all in that defining venture on which to stake a life. It would be a mistake to call this a ‘rainy day’ fund. On the contrary its for that bright sunny day where I leave the comfort of the status-quo and pursue my personal legend. And perhaps I’ll never have to use it, and that all my planning will pre-empt such a risk. This is, in and of itself, a kind of boldness–betting on at least reaching the crossroads of greatness–and I hope fortune favors it. Either way, prudence and faith are not enemies; combined they’re greater than the sum of their parts. Alone, one road or the other, they’re crippling.

” Roman and unused to being challenged, he was not plagued by doubts or the need justify Roman expansion. Yet he was not bound by the attitudes that had constantly inhibited such expansion or made it dependent on special circumstances. man decided, without authority, to conquer the whole of Gaul, simply because he felt it ought be conquered… He never thought to convince his opponents. He thus defends himself not by justifying his actions, but be rehearsing them. In other words, he adopts an offensive stance. He must not be constrained by petty restrictions

…this he regarded as the proper way to act; to show no consideration, to aim for total success…”

This, I liked. Tucker prefers Genghis Khan–thinking that his motives were more pure. Caesar to some conquered for the sake of conquest. He was born to privilege and simply wanted more. I disagree. I think if you ignore their social positions from birth, you’ll find their motivations to be essentially the same. They were pushed away by the system when all they wanted was to get their due. Khan was shunned just as Caesar was. Caesar never asked for civil war, he was goaded to cross the Rubicon.

So those are just some of my thoughts on the book. I thought it was fantastic and probably the best thing I’ve read on Caesar. Pick it up, learn from him.

If this is helpful at all, let me know.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

4 responses to All that Caesar had…

  1. No dude–read your history, and read Meier closer. You are only seeing what you want to see, not what Meier writes, and not what the reality is. Doesn’t Meier say that Caesar had no allies or friends beyond those that personally benefitted from his success? What does that tell you?

    Beyond that, I don’t care about purity of motives, I care about what the ultimate result is–what did all your efforts lead to? At the end of your life, what can you point to and be proud of?

    What did Caesar create? Yes, he conquered Gaul, but it’s arguable he was the reason the Roman Empire eventually fell. Caesar had the chance to re-install a republic and bring Rome back to its glory, but instead opted to rule as something close to a tyrant. No question Khan was brutal to those who resisted, but to those who capitulated, he gave almost complete autonomy, and enforced free trade and complete religious freedom across his empire. And this was 1000 YEARS AGO!

    Ask yourself, who has meant more to history, Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar? I don’t think it’s even close; Khan wins by a huge landslide. Beyond that, how did they die? Caesar, still in his political prime, in a flurry of knives from his friends. Khan died an old man, surrounded by his family, ruling everything within MONTHS of travel. Look at their legacies: The Mongol Empire is STILL unsurpassed in size of empire,

    Caesar was never really cast out–he choose to leave in order to do what he wanted, to conquer not because he wanted to create something better, but because he wanted to satiate his ego. There is a huge difference between the motivations behind Khan and Caesar, and it is obvious from what they created with their conquering.

  2. Ryan, just came across your site. I recently just ordered this book, even though this post is over a year old. Just wanted to say I enjoy your writing, as much as any collegiate student can.

  3. Wow, so glad I came across this post. After finishing Life of Caesar I realized that I’d never read anything on him from you.

    Whether you or Tucker is right about his motives (and I’m curious whether your views have since changed), I do think the main lesson you drew here was helpful.

    It is a pernicious idea that deliberate planning is antithetical to decisive action, and those who accomplish the most generally toss this concept aside.

    My favorite passage on the subject comes from Goethe:

    Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

  4. Hey Ryan,

    This is a great early piece of yours. I really enjoyed reading it.

    This is the strategy of Taleb (exposure to positive Black Swans), Buffett and Munger. A few big bets, “take a simple idea and take it seriously.”

    Also, to your last point, there’s a great quote in The Fish That Ate the Whale, where Cohen writes of Zemurray, “He seemed to strive for the sake of striving, to hustle to prove it could be done.”

    And also, “I believe Zemurray was less the sort of man who didn’t care than the sort of man who could make you believe he didn’t care. He was a human being, wasn’t he? He must have wanted status and acceptance, these being basic human desires. When he couldn’t get acceptance, he sought status; when he couldn’t get status, he sought power…”

    I think this is what you’re getting at.

    Very much enjoyed reading this post.


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