Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 8, Issue 2  /  

A Tale of Two Caesars: Contemporary Lessons from Divergent Caesarian Strategies

A Tale of Two Caesars: Contemporary Lessons from Divergent Caesarian Strategies A Tale of Two Caesars: Contemporary Lessons from Divergent Caesarian Strategies
Special Forces Operations – Ukraine. Image by ArmyInform -, CC BY 4.0,
To cite this article: Mainardi, Benjamin E., “A Tale of Two Caesars: Contemporary Lessons from Divergent Caesarian Strategies,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, fall 2022, pages 31-36.


As Russian forces face mounting setbacks and increasingly effective resistance in their invasion of Ukraine, a certain degree of sensationalism among foreign policy analysts and journalists remains. Declarations of the inevitability of Ukraine’s victory seemingly draw more so on the very legitimate and morally grounded emotional resonance of the Ukrainian cause than the firm foundations of historical military precedence.[i] While it is certainly true that the Russian military’s performance in the war has thus far been lackluster and likely surprising even to the Kremlin, this does not necessarily mean that failure for Russia is all but guaranteed. There are still many escalatory options, conventional and nuclear, that remain in the Kremlin’s hand to be played as the war continues. Indeed, there has been an observable change in the conduct of Russian forces, paralleling the “end of the first phase” of the conflict.[ii] After failing to capture Kyiv and depose the Zelenskyy government in what may have been an attempted fait accompli maneuver, the conduct of Russian forces has increasingly targeted the people of Ukraine – infamously including the Bucha Massacre and levelling of Mariupol.[iii]

For many, the war in Ukraine has been perplexing and difficult to follow with victories and setbacks reported one after the other. The Kremlin’s aims appear to be amorphous as well, seemingly changing by the week in relation to the tides of the war. In times of great complexity, international relations commentators as well as foreign policy and military analysts often return to their “strategic canon” to illuminate the present. While applied history certainly holds great value, that attempted by such commentators too often relies on an exceedingly narrow body of literature that frequently proves itself less than sufficient for the nuances of the object of comparison. Those analysts, planners, and scholars seeking to engage in critical applications of history to the present must broaden their frames of reference and means of analysis to better capture the distinctive characteristics of their present objects of observation.

Perhaps no western historical figure is as underutilized in contemporary applied historical analysis as Gaius Julius Caesar. Among the most well-known historical figures of all time, his life and works have stood for thousands of years as pillars of the West’s political and strategic canon. And yet, in many of today’s examinations of strategic theory, strategy-making, and contemporary foreign policy analysis, lessons which may be drawn from antiquity are almost entirely confined to Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian Wars, and perhaps Sun Tzu’s Art of War.[iv] For centuries, however, military leaders from Montecuccoli to MacArthur were reared on Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) and Commentarii de Bello Civili (Commentaries on the Civil War). Caesar’s wars and, more importantly, narratives provide not only a framework for connecting how wars are prosecuted and attaining one’s political aims, but are themselves an example of how to influence the public’s perception of war. In these ways, the lessons which may be drawn from these works, albeit flawed in their historiographical veracity, are as relevant today as they have been for generations of warfighters, strategists, and political leaders.

A Historiographic Note

It is important to acknowledge that Caesar’s own writings, like those of all political figures, are narrative works with the distinct objectives of yielding political capital in his career as a Roman general and politician – essentially synonymous roles in Roman society by his time. What this means for the discerning historian and modern observer is that his writings should not necessarily be accepted at face value. What does not follow, however, is that they should be written-off as useless relics fit only for classicists. The case is similar for other contemporary sources, such as the letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Yet the biased narratives that virtually all works of antiquity present indicates the values of their time and author. They are likely to mirror reality through the writer’s own lens. Thus, the historian must piece together a patchwork of biases and likelihoods to paint a picture of what indeed occurred.

A Preface on War in Caesar’s Time

As Clausewitz observed, “every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.”[v] Just so, the raison d’état of war in the ancient Roman world is nearly unrecognizable to the modern observer. By today’s standards, war for Rome was almost always total in its aims and prosecution.[vi] It was frequently waged to its fullest extent possible with great violence to soldiers and civilians alike. Nor was the plundering and razing of villages, towns, and cities taboo among contemporary Mediterranean civilizations; it was, in fact, often viewed as an “upside” of war from which the army and state would profit.[vii] One side, often the Romans, subjugated the other and the enemy was decimated, frequently reduced to a state of slavery. Indeed, the later historian Tacitus, a Roman himself, observing Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s wars in Britain, declared “[the Romans] make a desert and they call it ‘peace.’”[viii]

Modern scholars have begun to critique Roman, and particularly Caesar’s, conduct more closely than did earlier readers of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War. Rightfully so, such authors note that by any measure of today, Caesar would be a war criminal likely guilty of genocide.[ix] While there were fewer restrictions on the conduct of war in Caesar’s time, there were contemporary objections to how he prosecuted his wars – most notably by Cato the Younger – albeit not entirely morally informed but politically motivated as well.[x] How substantively Caesar’s war against the Gauls differentiates itself in brutality, however, from the earlier conquests of Alexander III of Macedon or that of Scipio Africanus in the Third Punic War, who were revered then and often now, is not clear. Yet the common people of Rome seem to have largely approved of Caesar’s actions, relishing his dispatches on the conquest of Gaul and mollified in the aftermath of his Civil War. Thus, reflecting upon the actions of Caesar and the public reception of them must be tempered by a certain understanding that Roman culture of the first century BCE maintained intrinsically different norms surrounding war than we do today.

The Gallic Wars (58–50 BCE)[xi]

Caesar’s wars against the peoples of Gaul – roughly modern France, Belgium, and portions of Germany – were the conflicts that earned him the wealth and influence to eventually contend for dictator of Rome. Prior the Gallic Wars, however, Caesar was but one of many notable figures in the Roman Republic. For their part, the Gauls were a distinct cultural group from the Romans, and one which the latter considered to be uncivilized. As the Gauls were not a unified state, but rather a culturally similar collection of individual societies, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul unfolded over almost a decade of conflict with various coalitions of Gallic tribes and, on occasion, Germans.

The conduct of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was waged with sternness and brutality common to Rome’s wars against “barbarians,” a fact which Caesar at no point attempts to obscure in his Commentaries. Quite the contrary, he frequently relates that enemies, both combatants and civilians, were killed or sold into slavery. He razed town after village, destroying not only Gallic military strength and political order but also cultural heritage and identity. For example, in the capture of the town of the Atuatuci, Caesar relates:

“As many as four thousand were killed, and the rest were pushed back into the town. The next day the gates – which no one was now defending – were broken open and our soldiers sent in. Caesar auctioned the booty acquired in the town in a single lot. The buyers reported to him that the number of heads amounted to about fifty-three thousand.”[xii]

Of course, Caesar did accept the surrender of numerous tribes and towns, showing relative clemency to their inhabitants. It would be, however, a truly unique conqueror who does not accept the voluntary subjugation of an opponent.

Throughout the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s Commentaries couch his purpose for waging the conflicts in a three-fold pitch to the Roman people at home. The first being his assertion of his role in defending the liberty of the Gallic individual from tyrannical outsiders and oppressive regimes. The second, that his conquest of Gaul will eliminate the historic threat that the people of Rome have long feared from the North. And finally, that doing so elevates the prestige of Rome itself. Given Caesar’s ultimate victory in his conquest of Gaul and ensuing immense popularity with the common people of Rome, it can be presumed that they generally accepted this tripartite narrative thereby ratifying his conduct and achievements. In many ways, both in conduct and rationale, it is a method similar to those employed by European conquerors during the age of colonialism. Perhaps unsurprising, given that many of the colonial-era’s captains were reared on Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars.

The Civil War (49–45 BCE)[xiii]

On January 10, 49 BCE, so we believe, Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon River, escalating the long-boiling civil strife in Rome to open war. In contrast to the Gallic War, however, Caesar’s war against Pompey and the Senate was one of internal division whereby Caesar sought to reestablish order amongst a people who largely shared his own cultural heritage – understanding of Roman norms and values – as well as political tradition. His prosecution of the Civil War thus necessitated an entirely different modus operandi centered on unifying the Roman population and winning the unconvinced to his political position, rather than simply breaking the will of resistance. Caesar’s strategy in this conflict is best stated in his own words:

“Let us see if in this way we can willingly win the support of all and gain a permanent victory, since through their cruelty others have been unable to escape hatred or make their victory lasting – save for Lucius Sulla, and I do not intend to imitate him. This is a new way of conquest, we grow strong through pity and generosity.”[xiv]

From this letter, Caesar outlined the framework that guided his warfighting doctrine. His goal became to minimize the brutality of war through forgiveness and rehabilitation to facilitate a lasting reestablishment of political order. His comment on a “permanent victory” is a pointed contrast to the man he mentions, Lucius Sulla. Sulla had been the victor of Rome’s last major civil war in 83–81 BCE. His prosecution of that conflict was notably similar in brutality to Caesar’s own exploits in Gaul and yielded him power over Rome, but nonetheless imbued the Roman state with the ailments that set the stage for Caesar’s civil war.

In his conduct of the Civil War, Caesar largely adhered to his “strategy of mercy.” Routinely, he granted clemency to and often integrated the soldiers of his adversaries. Should those benefitting from his mercy not decide to join him, he sent them home, sometimes supplied with money and food. [xv] Not only did this often provide supplementary manpower, but these soldiers were the very Roman citizens who held voting power in the ostensibly still functioning Roman electoral system. By granting his erstwhile opponents clemency, he often bought their political favor and good will. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these sentiments appear to largely have been confined to the average individual. For upper-class Romans, Caesar’s clemency was a knife to the heart for their sense of self and prestige, seemingly a contributing factor to his later assassination.

In many ways, Caesar’s warfighting conduct was so thoroughly subordinated to political ends that it began to undermine his forces’ operational efficiency and ability to achieve victory. Towards the end of the war, one finds that many of the Pompeiian commanders had already been pardoned by Caesar at least once and decided to take up arms again. Regardless, Caesar’s treatment of the common Roman soldier with “pity and generosity” appears to have succeeded in achieving his desired outcome: preeminence in the Roman Republic. Whilst his assassination by Roman elites – many of whom he had granted clemency to during the War – shortly after casts aspersions on the full efficacy of his victory, it is notable that his chosen successor Gaius Octavian, later Caesar Augustus, ultimately secures the political system laid down by Julius Caesar with the general support of the wider Roman public.

Reflections for Today, as Seen Through Russia’s War Against Ukraine

In both the Gallic Wars and Civil War, Caesar sought to attain ends which included not only the cessation of armed conflict but also the establishment of a civil order following the war. Yet the methods which he utilized to do so are radically different in nature. Whereas Caesar pursued harsh retributions against and the subjugation of the Gallic peoples, bordering on the genocidal, he operated in the Civil War in precisely the opposite manner. In large part, Caesar’s divergent strategies can be explained by the contrast in who he was fighting.

The Gauls were a foreign people living in independent societies. Caesar’s unrelenting conduct in the war sought to break not only the military capacity of these groups but also the societal will of the Gallic peoples to resist the Roman yoke. For which his brutality served its purpose. In contrast, the Civil War was waged against fellow Roman citizens who shared much of the same norms and institutional experiences of Caesar himself. As Romans, the population already existed in a socio-political order largely akin to that which Caesar was attempting to establish. Moreover, as active members of Rome’s body politic, the soldiers and commanders of the Pompeiian faction were themselves political actors feeding into Roman society’s opinion of Caesar’s new order. Whether Caesar’s clemency in the Civil War was motivated by genuine humanity or cynical calculations, as is hotly contested by historians, is not necessarily important to the strategy’s value as a way of attaining his political ends.

Over two thousand years later, another would-be conqueror has embarked on the first major conventional war Europe has seen in decades. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the crescendo of nearly thirty years of Russian irredentism birthed in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conduct of the war, however, is remarkable for many reasons but particularly in its reflection of both of Caesar’s quintessential conflicts.

The early stages of Russia’s invasion appeared targeted towards a quick victory, seemingly emphasizing the capture of Kyiv alongside an attempted coup. Perhaps informed by its relatively bloodless and popular success in annexing Crimea, the Kremlin may have believed that should the Ukrainian government be toppled quickly, Russian troops could enter as a force for order welcomed by the Ukrainian people. Certainly, the 2014 annexation of Crimea was made possible by a population largely identifying with Russian culture, reminiscent of Soviet institutions, and acceptive of the new political order – of course, heavily influenced by Russian information operations.[xvi]

Before the war, Putin’s 2021 manifesto, “On the Historic Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” signaled his cultivation of a narrative laying the groundwork for Russo-Ukrainian unification through a stylized version of the connectedness of both nation’s histories and identities.[xvii] The failure of a supposed coup plot and to capture Kyiv quickly has, however, left the Ukrainian government in power and hardened its resistance.[xviii] Thus, rather than bringing Ukrainians into Russian fold, the invasion galvanized renewed Ukrainian nationalism.

In the wake of the collapse of a possible semi-peaceful reunification modus operandi, the Kremlin seems to be reshaping its own three-part narrative – strikingly similar to that of Caesar’s tripartite narrative justifying the Gallic Wars – of countering Western encroachment on Russia’s national security interests, liberating the Ukrainian people through conducting the denazification of Ukraine, and reviving the “prestige of historic Russia.”[xix] This narrative implicitly signals a shift in audience away from the Ukrainian people and towards the Russian public – just as Caesar’s corresponding strategic narratives altered based on the domestic versus foreign enemy of his wars. So too then, does the conduct of Russian forces appear to be increasingly brutalizing as the perception of Ukrainians within Russia’s strategic narrative has changed.[xx]

The rapid shift in identifying Ukrainians as a people with shared Russian identity and Soviet heritage to that of a foreign other is manifesting in what appears to be an unfolding cultural genocide.[xxi] As such, in a bleak reflection of the contrast between Caesar’s wars in Gaul and Civil War, the Kremlin may believe, or increasingly come to believe, that the necessary conduct of its war has shifted from ostensible “pity and generosity” used for reunification to necessary brutality to break Ukraine’s will. It remains to be seen, however, if Russia is ultimately willing and able to create a desert and call it peace, short of nuclear use, that is.


As with all efforts to apply history directly to the present – particularly in the context of a still unfolding conflict – there are a great number of unknowns that, until likely long after, will not be resolved and thus impact the accuracy of any comparison. History’s value for scholars and practitioners seeking to make sense of the present resides then in its ability to undergird one’s perspective and demonstrate possible outcomes. Over-reliance on a small sampling of literature from over several thousand years of human civilization, runs the risk of misdiagnosing strategic situations, misunderstanding decision making processes, and most perilously, producing confirmation bias in one’s preconceived conclusions. By expanding the historical frame of reference scholars and practitioners alike draw upon, they can – hopefully – not only avoid the perils of misapplied history but also account for a wider array of situations, choices, and outcomes that a select few tomes cannot hope to encompass.


[i] For example, see: Anne Applebaum, “Ukraine Must Win,” The Atlantic, March 22, 2022,; Charles Lipson, “Is Ukraine going to win?,” The Spectator, May, 23, 2022,; Francis Fukuyama, “Why Ukraine Will Win,” American Purpose, April 25, 2022,
[ii] Mason Clark, Frederick W. Kagan, and George Barros, Russian Offensive campaign Assessment, March 25 (Institute for the Study of War and American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, 2022), 1-2.
[iii] “Plight of civilians in Ukraine,” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, May 10, 2022,,may%20amount%20to%20war%20crimes; Cara Anna, “War Crimes Watch: A Devastating walk through Bucha’s horror,” AP News, April 10, 2022,; Marc Santora and Valerie Hopkins, “Officials in Mariupol struggle to account for the dead,” The New York Times, March 15, 2022,; “Ukraine’s Mariupol says 1,582 civilians killed by Russian shelling and blockade,” Reuters, March 11, 2022,
[iv] For example, see: Graham Allison, “The Russia-Ukraine war, the US-China rivalry and Thucydides’s Trap,” Interview by Benjamin Rhode, International Institute for Strategic Studies, April 19, 2022,; Adam Leon Kok Wey, “Thucydides Can Explain Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” The National Interest, March 16, 2022; Joel Hillison, “Fear, Honor, Interest: Thucydides’s Lessons for Ukraine,” Interview by Ron Granieri, War Room, February 23, 2022,; Paul Ryder, “What Thucydides might have taught Vladimir Putin,” Voices from The Hill, April 8, 2022,
[v] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, Translated by J. J. Graham with Introduction and Notes by F. N. Maude, New Edition: Introduction to the New Edition by Jan Willem Honig (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading, 2004), 684.
[vi] See: Frank E. Adcock, The Roman Art of War Under the Republic (Harvard University Press, 2013); Philip Sabin, “The Face of Roman Battle,” The Journal of Roman Studies 90 (2000): 1-17; John Rich and Graham Shipley, eds., War and Society in the Roman World (Psychology Press, 1993); Steele Brand, Killing for the Republic: Citizen-soldiers and the Roman Way of War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).
[vii] Jonathan Roth, “Violence and the Roman Way of Warfare,” In The Cambridge World History of Violence Prehistoric and Ancient Warfare, Volume 1: The Prehistory and Ancient Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 238-256.
[viii] Cornelius Tacitus, Tacitus: Agricola and Germany (Oxford World’s Classics), ed. Anthony R. Birley (Oxford University Press, 2009), 22.
[ix] Kurt A. Raaflaub, “Caesar and Genocide: Confronting the Dark Side of Caesar’s Gallic Wars,” New England Classical Journal 48, no. 1 (2021): 54-80.
[x] See: Kit Morrell, “Cato, Caesar, and the Germani,” Antichthon (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 73-93.
[xi] Primary Reference Text: Kurt A. Raaflaub and Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works, Gallic War, Civil War, Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War, Introduction by Cynthia Damon and Kurt A. Raaflaub (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2017).
[xii] Raafluab and Strassler, The Landmark Julius Caesar, 78.
[xiii] Primary Reference Text: Raafluab and Strassler, The Landmark Julius Caesar.
[xiv] Marcus Tullius Cicero, ad Atticus 9. 7C.
[xv] For example, Raafluab and Strassler, The Landmark Julius Caesar, 321; 326; 366; 386.
[xvi] Gerald Toal, John O’Loughlin, and Kristin M. Bakke, “Six years and $20 billion in Russian investment later, Crimeans are
happy with Russian annexation,” The Washington Post, March 18, 2020,
six-years-20-billion-russian-investment-later-crimeans-are-happy-with-russian-annexation/; Michael Kofman, Katya
Migacheva, Brian Nichiporuk, Andrew Radin, Olesya Tkacheva, and Jenny Oberholtzer, Lessons from Russia’s Operations in
Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, (RAND Corporation 2017), 16-31.
[xvii] Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” July 12, 2021,
[xviii] Denys Davydenko, Margaryta Khvostova, and Olga Lymar, “View from Kyiv: Putin’s failed blitzkrieg and the future
of Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations, March 8, 2022,; Michael Schwirtz, David E. Sanger, and Mark Landler, “Britain Says Moscow Is Plotting
to Install a Pro-Russian Leader in Ukraine,” The New York Times, January 22, 2022,
[xix] Jeffrey Mankoff, Russia’s War in Ukraine: Identity, History, and Conflict (Washington, DC: Center for International and
Strategic Studies, 2022); Amy Cheng and Reis Thebault, “Putin likens himself to Peter the Great, links imperial expansion to
Ukraine War,” The Washington Post, June 10, 2022,; Anton Troianovski, “Why Vladimir Putin Invokes Nazis to Justify His Invasion of Ukraine,” The New
York Times, March 17, 2022,; “Vladimir Putin’s
Victory Day Speech in Full,” The Spectator, May 9, 2022,
[xx] For information on Russian war crimes in Ukraine, see: “War Crimes Watch Ukraine.” Associated Press, FRONTLINE, and
Public Broadcasting Service, 2022,
[xxi] Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “Address by the President of Ukraine,” The Presidential Office of Ukraine, June 2, 2022, https://www.; “Damaged cultural
sites in Ukraine verified by UNESCO,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, June 10, 2022, https://