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The Lessons We Learn

After conquering Gaul (primarily present day Belgium and France) and serving as its governor for an unprecedented 10-year term, Julius Caesar believed he’d earned the opportunity to lead Rome as consul. By 49 B.C., he had built massive wealth and an enormous army, and this gowing strength and influence was a growing concern for the established powers.

The sitting consul, Pompey, and the Roman senate eventually demanded that Caesar disband his army, return to the capital city, and face charges of misconduct—some of which carried the penalty of death. Humiliated, angry, and ambitious, Caesar responded with a civil war that lasted four years and ended with him becoming dictator perpetuo (dictator for life).

Later, reflecting on these events in his Commentaries on the Civil War, Caesar observes, “Experience is the teacher of all things.” 

The general’s commentaries make clear that the established order hoped he would be reasonable and peaceful. That his future choices would be shaped by Rome’s notions of his interests, by the negative consequences of his previous conflicts with authority, and by the failed rebellions of others. But this is not the lesson taught to Caesar by these experiences, illustrating a simple but profound truth: Experience can teach different things to different people.

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