We moderns admire the idea of a merciful victor — in theory. So too did the ancients, and their admiration was just as qualified. The Roman general and dictator, Julius Caesar, whose name has become almost a synonym for leadership undone by overreach, attempted to practice a bold form of clemency soon after his accession to power. As historian and classicist Barry Strauss points out, however, mercy can be a very dangerous policy — a fact contemporary leaders can also learn from.
When Julius Caesar conquered Rome by winning a civil war, he encountered a problem facing any new executive: how to treat those who had opposed him on his way to the top. A new boss can hardly wipe the slate clean; he needs the support and cooperation of those who know the system from the inside. Caesar’s solution was bold and unprecedented and, although fatally flawed, rich in lessons for today’s leaders: he went easy on his former opponents, and in so doing created a power dynamic in his administration that eventually led to his downfall.
After seizing Rome, Caesar took office as dictator in 49 B.C. This momentous act seemed to reverse his whole career, built in opposition to an earlier dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (who ruled from 82-80 B.C.), a man whose harsh and oppressive rule began with the murder of nearly 5,000 of his enemies, most of them rich people, and confiscation of their property. Caesar himself had to go into hiding and barely escaped with his life. Caesar, however, was determined to be a different kind of dictator. Unlike Sulla, who consciously limited power to a small circle of elite and noble families, Caesar was a populist. And one of the first principles of populism is letting people live. Rather than have his enemies killed, he offered them mercy or clemency -- clementia in Latin. As Caesar wrote to his advisors, “Let this be our new method of conquering -- to fortify ourselves by mercy and generosity.” Caesar pardoned most of his enemies and forbore confiscating their property. He even promoted some of them to high public office.
This policy won him praise from no less a figure than Marcus Tullius Cicero, who described him in a letter to Aulus Caecina as “mild and merciful by nature.” But Caecina knew a thing or two about dictators, since he’d had to publish a flattering book about Caesar in order to win his pardon after having opposed him in the civil war. Caecina and other beneficiaries of Caesar’s unusual clemency took it in a far more ambivalent way. To begin with, most of them were, like Caesar, Roman nobles. Theirs was a culture of honor and status; asking a peer for a pardon was a serious humiliation. So Caesar’s “very power of granting favors weighed heavily on free people,” as Florus, a historian and panegyrist of Rome, wrote about two centuries after the dictator’s death. One prominent noble, in fact, ostentatiously refused Caesar’s clemency. Marcius Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Younger, was a determined opponent of populist politics and Caesar’s most bitter foe. They had clashed years earlier over Caesar’s desire to show mercy to the Catiline conspirators; Cato argued vigorously for capital punishment and convinced the Senate to execute them. Now he preferred death to Caesar’s pardon. “I am unwilling to be under obligations to the tyrant for his illegal acts,” Cato said; he told his son, "I, who have been brought up in freedom, with the right of free speech, cannot in my old age change and learn slavery instead.” He then committed suicide -- a death whose injuriousness to Caesar’s cause Caesar himself well understood. It prompted him to say, according to Plutarch, “O Cato, I begrudge you your death; for you begrudged me the sparing of your life.”
Cato’s death galvanized Caesar’s opponents, leaving them with a sense of shame at their own surrender. This was not assuaged by the methods Caesar used to deliver on his political promises. In order to reward his followers, Caesar had to confiscate some land from his enemies. He seized the properties of his defeated rival Pompey and some of Pompey’s former allies. But he needed more land and even a former neutral in the civil war, such as Titus Pomponius Atticus, the Roman banker and man of letters, saw his property as being at risk. There’s nothing like the fear of losing your possessions to overwhelm goodwill generated by a relatively progressive policy. And yes, Caesar did promote a few prominent former opponents to Rome’s top judicial office and promise them advancement to the highest office in the Roman state, the consulship. But real power had drained away from these offices. Important decisions lay increasingly in the hands of Caesar’s close confidantes and aides -- few of whom were nobles, and one or two just naturalized citizens.
We need look no further than the identities of Caesar’s assassins to see what the result of this poisonous dynamic was: two of their leaders were men pardoned by Caesar and elevated to praetorships, Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius. After the murder, Cicero advised Brutus not to copy Caesar’s policy of clemency. “If we want to show clemency,” he wrote, “we will never be without civil wars.” Cicero reported one of Caesar’s supporters saying that “his clemency was injurious to him, and if he hadn’t had shown it nothing bad would have happened to him.”
But that’s too simple. Clemency was not the problem; flawed and inconsistent execution was. Remember that many of the conspirators against Caesar were his friends, not his enemies. The most important was the other Brutus, Decimus Brutus, who was one of the leaders of the conspiracy along with his distant cousin Marcus Brutus and with Cassius. Decimus was one of Caesar’s best generals and close enough to the dictator to serve as a mole on behalf of the conspirators. Another of Caesar’s friends who joined the conspiracy was his longtime lieutenant Gaius Trebonius. These men came to hate Caesar for his arrogance, a quality all the clemency in the world cannot make up for, especially when the arrogance attains to such legendary heights as Caesar’s did -- even if he was careful to avoid the hated title of rex, “king.” He allowed himself to be named Dictator for Life. He snubbed the Senate and took most of the power to elect officials away from the people. He was proclaimed a god. He took a queen as his mistress, Cleopatra of Egypt, and installed her and their illegitimate son in his villa in the suburbs of Rome. He chose his grandnephew, Octavian, as his second-in-command in a grand military expedition against Rome’s greatest remaining foe, Parthia (roughly, Persia), even though Octavian was only eighteen. He left even some of his friends thinking that he would monopolize power and put an end to the republic.
Caesar chose, in other words, the path with the least benefits. He pardoned his enemies -- but only in a way that humiliated them. He gave them access to political power and spared their property, which both kept their opposition alive and alienated his allies, who wanted to see these men punished (and hoped, it seems clear, to lay hands on their confiscated property). He refused an imperial title but acted with imperial hauteur -- one perverse outgrowth of which was his dismissal of his bodyguard, a decision that made his assassins’ work even easier. The lesson being, perhaps, that there’s nothing more dangerous to power than a half-hearted humility.
Caesar’s example suggests that leaders either need to be loved or feared. While I can’t recommend that our modern politicos and CEOs expropriate and murder their opponents after acceding to power, thinking twice about extending the olive branch makes just as much sense now as it did in the last years of the Roman republic. Anyone who takes power by force has to expect to have enemies. He needs to anticipate them by rewarding his friends and affecting a modest demeanor. A certain amount of clemency makes sense, but it is no panacea -- as Caesar himself so tragically learned.
Barry Strauss is Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies and chair of the department of history at Cornell University. His latest book is The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination.