XV. A Lesson from Rome's Greatest Leaders

When to forgive, daily routines, and the case against Julius Caesar

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

To seek revenge is often worse than pointless.

Julius Caesar was well known for granting clemency to his enemies. Instead of executing his opponents, he let them live.

His acts of mercy were revolutionary acts. Conflict during the Roman Republic had escalated into a murderous war. When the populist Marius and his allies commanded Rome, they hunted down their aristocratic enemies. When the conservative forces took back control, they purged as many populist allies as they could.

Caesar’s clemency offered an end to the violence.

His policy was compassionate and smart. It showed that he was confident enough in his position to offer peace. By offering mercy, Caesar converted enemies into supporters.

Marcus Aurelius took the same route when he faced an uprising. He publicly granted clemency to the general, Avidius Cassius, leading the coup. At the same time, he prepared for war, if that’s what it came to.

What happened? Avidius Cassius’s own troops killed him. The news saddened Marcus Aurelius. He knew that it did not need to come to that.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said:

He who fights with monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

When we tangle with enemies we risk becoming too much like them. Instead of playing according to his opponent’s vindictive rules, Julius Caesar changed the norms. Unfortunately, not everyone got the message. In the end, he too was assassinated. The people who killed him ended their own lives in violence. They could not escape the cycle of vengeance they reanimated.

When we seek revenge, we play the same game our enemy does, instead of transcending it.

When Marcus Aurelius offered clemency he proved that he was more interested in what was good for Rome than petty squabbles over power.

He showed that we should act with righteousness, be forgiving, focus on what matters, and only prepare for war as a last resort.

That is the best revenge.

🎯 Action

Emulate the examples set by Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius by practicing forgiveness, focusing on the greater good rather than seeking revenge, and only preparing for conflict as a last resort.

🔗 Links

✉️ Check out What Is Stoicism? – Allan shares accessible micro-meditations, daily routines, and much more. You can find a past interview (four years ago!) I did with him here.

📗 Read this memento mori meditation on a story from Epictetus’s life. Epictetus possessed a fine iron lamp, which a thief stole. How did the Stoic teacher respond? By reminding himself that the thief harmed himself and the lamp was on loan from fate anyway:

The lamp, or lack thereof, offers us a timely, but cruel lesson. The old saying ‘you can’t take it with you’ comes to mind. From Stoic teachings the things you can afford and ultimately want, whilst nice to have or acquire, are only really borrowed (even if you own them) and are never truly yours.

Enda Harte

📕 Caesar, the mortal enemy of the Stoic Cato the Younger, is a complicated figure. Perhaps Cato would approve of this essay: The Case Against Julius Caesar.

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