12 Jan Caesar uttered one simple word and the the revolt was over (PHILLIP BARLAG)
It was 47 bc. Julius Caesar stood before his army, the most powerful that Rome had ever assembled. For fifteen years they had marched through Europe, fighting Germans, Gauls,
and even other renegade Roman armies. They had crossed the English Channel to become the first Romans to encounter the mystical and terrifying island to the north. They had followed their commander to the ends of the earth, defeated every enemy, and stared down death. Now they were back on the Italian peninsula and in open revolt.
The time had come to call due all of Caesar’s promises: back pay, land to farm, an end to endless campaigning, and no more fighting other Romans.
These were the incentives he had used to keep his army motivated. But conquest after conquest came and went, and they were always just one more victory away. Enough was enough.
At first the army simply refused to march on. Then inaction turned to discontent, and resentment boiled over into fury. The deadliest army in the world cut itself loose from its moorings, angry and leaderless, and whipped itself into a frenzy. Thousands of soldiers from the most elite fighting unit in world history rose up. Instead of fighting foreign enemies, the army ravaged its own. They began turning against the citizens they were sworn to protect and against their commander.
It didn’t happen all at once; the mood of the army had grown sour steadily over some time. During most of this insurgency, Caesar wasn’t with his men, however. He was in Egypt floating down the Nile on a pleasure cruise with the charming queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. While taking his ill-timed vacation, Caesar had turned over command of the army camped in Italy to his lieutenant, Marc Antony, who lacked Caesar’s charisma and leadership skill. It did not take Marc Antony long to lose control, and with Caesar in Egypt, Antony failed to stem the tide of sinking morale.
Once Caesar learned of the critical situation back home, he wasted no time returning to Italy to confront his troops. Without pausing to gather bodyguards or take any precautions for his personal safety, he marched straight to the front of his troops and quietly and confidently took the podium. If he was anxious as he faced his army, he didn’t show it. Standing before thousands of trained killers who in the last days and weeks had savaged the surrounding area, he remained calm and stone-silent. He stood at the head of his army until all of his troops fell into quiet respect for their commanding officer. Before he had even spoken a word, he had leveled the playing field.
Caesar uttered one simple word. Then he fell silent, letting his single utterance permeate the air. At first the soldiers were confused. Was he only going to say just one word to address their grievances? And then the weight of the word sank in.
Caesar didn’t use force, bringing in other troops to suppress the revolt. He didn’t threaten violence or use intimidation to take back control.
With that one word, the revolt was over. But what was so magical about it? How could any leader have so much authority, so much gravitas, that he could break the murderous resolve of a treasonous army with such little effort?
Caesar’s deafening single word was disarmingly simple. It took a moment for the gravity of this word to sink in, and its impact cannot be understood without some brief context. Caesar was a member of the Julii family, one of Rome’s most ancient and revered lineages, which traced its ancestry all the way to the goddess Venus herself. To be a Julii
was thought to have been literally descended from the gods. As head-scratching as that may seem to us today, Caesar’s troops believed it, and whether Caesar believed it or not, he sure went out of his way to remind people of his divine origins. But despite his godly lineage, Caesar had long projected an image to his troops as a common man. He marched beside them. He ate with them in the mess hall and shared many of their hardships. The contrast between how he acted and how he would have been expected to act was not lost on his troops; they loved him for it. To signify the close bond, Caesar called his men comrades—a much more powerful term than citizens. Outside of the army camps, class and family lineage mattered, but when they were responsible for each other’s lives, Caesar—unique among the leaders of his time—and his soldiers were equals. His choice of the word comrade was deliberate. It engendered loyalty.
When confronted with the rebellion of the army, Caesar’s use of the word citizens told his men that they were no longer his army. Caesar was saying, “You’re not my soldiers anymore. You don’t belong in my army. I don’t need you. You are average Roman citizens.” When the troops came to realize what he had said, they were devastated. Gone was the bond forged over fifteen years of fighting together. Gone was their shared destiny. And—perhaps most important—gone was their equality. With one word, Caesar had asserted his social, political, and moral authority. He had evoked the Roman class system and reminded them of the contrast between himself and them.
For the men of Caesar’s army, the weight of this authority coming down on them at once was crushing. It broke their resolve. The army began to cry out, begging for forgiveness. They couldn’t bear the thought of losing their special status as comrades with Caesar, descendant of the exalted goddess Venus.
When his men cried out, Caesar ratcheted up the pressure. They could have all their banal demands. He would get a new army—one that he would anoint with his lineage. He would finish the civil wars and bring peace to Rome, and that army was the one that would be steeped in glory, honor, wealth, and prestige.
The revolt crumbled into dust; it was dead, done in by the power of one word. The army begged to be forgiven and returned to their privileged status. They begged to be punished. They begged to get back to work.
At first, Caesar pretended to be indifferent to their cries. Eventually, he “allowed” himself to be persuaded. One more campaign together, he vowed, and then they would have all that had been promised and more: land, money, and glory— and, most important, they could retire as his veterans, his favorites, his comrades. And so promised, so done. Shortly after, they sailed for North Africa and crushed the last significant opposition in the civil war. Caesar was now the undisputed and sole ruler of Rome.