Julius Caesar cover photo

Julius Caesar: How To Influence An Empire | Nudge Podcast with Phill Agnew

Check out the Episode Page & Show Notes on Julius Caesar

Key Takeaways

  • Julius Caesar used costly signaling to win the hearts and minds of his people
  • Costly signaling describes how the meaning and significance we attach to something is felt in direct proportion to the expense with which it is communicated
  • Once captured by pirates and held for ransom, Julius Caesar demanded the pirates increase his ransom to be freed, knowing that placing a higher ransom on his head would increase his perceived worth and grow his influence back in Rome
  • Julius Caesar was willing to do costly things that other generals weren’t willing to do:
    • Went into massive debt to throw extravagant public parties
    • Forgoed the acceptance of significant awards
    • Memorized all of his soldier’s names 
    • Ate the same food his soldiers ate
    • Slept outside in the freezing cold with his soldiers 
    • Paid his soldiers more than anyone else and got them better armor
  • Costly signaling is abundant in nature and has survived evolutionary pressures
    • The ability of a peacock to survive, despite its cumbersome tail, conveys a genuine genetic fitness to potential mates  
  • To win influence, you often have to give up the things you gain with that influence
  • Sometimes competence alone is not enough; it must be signaled as well 
  • Celebrate your success with others instead of hoarding your influence
  • Putting yourself at genuine risk when attempting to reach your goals will only make people believe in you more


  • Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman that turned the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. He was adored by his soldiers, beloved by the people he led, and was the first Roman figure to be deified. Today, he is considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time. 
  • In this episode, Phill Agnew analyzes the leadership tactics used by Julius Caesar, the methods he used to influence and convince others, and strategies you can apply in your job and elsewhere
  • Check out these Podcast Notes on how Jose Mourinho used Caesar-like strategies to become one of the most decorated football managers in history  
  • Host – Phill Agnew (@p_agnew)

Caesar Using Costly Signaling When Kidnapped By Pirates  

  • While sailing back to Rome following Julius Caesar’s first successful battle as a young military leader, he was captured by pirates and held for ransom 
  • After hearing the pirates announce his ransom of 20 talents of silver, Caesar asked, “Don’t you know who I am?” and insisted the pirates raise his ransom to 50 talents
  • This is irrational behavior from Julius Caesar, but he understood the power of costly signaling; he knew that placing a higher ransom on his head would increase his perceived worth and grow his influence
  • Caesar’s ransom was ultimately paid, and he was freed. He ultimately raised a fleet to capture and crucify his pirate kidnappers 

How Julius Caesar Used Costly Signaling

  • Costly signaling: the meaning and significance we attach to something is felt in direct proportion to the expense with which it is communicated
    • Examples: a hand-drawn picture carries more meaning than a printed photo, a diamond ring feels more important than a silver ring, asking someone out on a date in-person works better than over a text message, etc.
  • Julius Caesar knew that returning to Rome with a 50 talents ransom paid would boost his reputation more than a 20 talent ransom would 
  • Caesar spent extraordinary amounts of money that he didn’t have to host public parties and feasts in an effort to boost his popularity
    • He went into significant debt to convey his commitment to the people 
    • He borrowed as much as 60x his annual salary to throw these parties
  • Other military leaders were not willing to take on such costs, and Caesar began to separate from them in terms of popularity 
  • Julius Caesar did not invent costly signaling; it is common throughout nature and was a focus of Charles Darwin’s 

Costly Signaling in Nature

  • Charles Darwin was dumbfounded as to why the peacock evolved to grow such an extravagant tail
  • Darwin could not understand why the peacock’s tail was so large; the oddity of the peacock’s tail contradicted his theory of evolution 
  • In 1975, Darwin’s conundrum was answered by biologists Amos Zahari who developed the theory of costly signaling
  • According to Zahari, costly signals are harder to fake and therefore more believable 
  • The ability to survive, despite a cumbersome tail,  conveys a genuine genetic fitness to potential mates
  • Less fit specimens lack the agility to avoid predators when handicapped with a long tail 

Costly Signaling in Roman Leadership Positions 

  • Costly signaling was prevalent in the Roman church, where individuals would give up their personal liberties to prove their commitment to the given priesthood position  
  • In one of Julius Caesar’s early priesthood positions, he wasn’t allowed to ride a horse, he couldn’t leave Rome for more than three days, and he always had to sleep within touching distance of mud 
  • These sacrifices were done to show Caesar’s commitment to God 

Julius Caesar’s Best Example of Using Costly Signaling 

  • After winning several military battles in modern-day Spain around 60 BC, Caesar was awarded the greatest honor any military member could achieve, a Triumph   
  • A Triumph is a massive ceremony to publicly celebrate and sanctify the success of a military commander
    • There were only a few Triumphs each decade throughout the Roman Empire
    • A Triumph would easily be the pinnacle of any Roman’s life; it’s like combining a Nobel Prize, Oscar, and Gold Medal into one  
  • When Julius Caesar was offered a Triumph, he gave it up, saying that he didn’t need it 
  • A Triumph would have done wonders for his popularity, but declining it elevated his aura to legendary status
  • Declining the Triumph was the ultimate costly signal: the meaning and significance Romans attached to Caesar was in direct proportion to the expense he occurred, and giving up the biggest prize of all signals that expense more than anything else could 

Applying Caesar’s Strategies to Modern Life 

  • Examples of applying Julius Caesar’s costly signaling strategies to modern life:
    • A president giving up their inauguration in favor of fixing the economy 
    • A CEO who takes a 50% pay cut instead of doing a round of layoffs
    • A billionaire space entrepreneur gains more trust from the people if he puts himself in the passenger seat on a dangerous space flight
  • To win influence, you often have to give up the things you gain with that influence 

How Julius Caesar Used the Red Sneakers Effect  

  • Julius Caesar conveyed signaling through the clothes he wore 
  • He wore a long-sleeve togo instead of the standard short-sleeve togo that was common for the time 
  • Wearing the long-sleeve togo signaled that he was different from his peers, and not someone who blindly followed convention 
  • The tactic of dressing differently to communicate competence and status to your peers is known as the Red Sneakers Effect
  • The researcher of the Red Sneakers Effect, Francesca Geno (@francescagino), noticed the phenomenon at scientific conferences where everyone wore the same thing, except for a few people who always showed up to the conference in scruffy red sneakers
    • Paradoxically, the ones who showed up in red sneakers were always the most qualified professionals and the ones with the most experience
    • Geno launched a study to explore her observation and found that those wearing non-conforming dress at scientific conferences were significantly more productive and successful in their fields than those wearing conforming attire
  • Dressing differently can signal competence and status 
  • Those who dress differently typically have the competence to back up their unique style

How Julius Caesar Got His Army to Adore Him   

  • One of Julius Caesar’s greatest strengths was the commitment of his army
  • Caesar earned the commitment of his army through – you guessed it – more signaling
  • Julius Caesar memorized the name of all of his soldiers
  • He had hundreds of soldiers, and knowing each by name required a commitment that most other generals didn’t have time for
  • Knowing every person’s name in the group you lead is a simple, but genius leadership tactic
  • Caesar addressed his army differently than the other generals, calling them comrades and not soldiers
    • This address was less hierarchical and made it seem like he was addressing them as equals
  • Julius Caesar ate and slept with his soldiers, which was not something that generals did
    • Soldiers ate low-quality food relative to generals and slept outside in freezing temperatures while most generals slept inside
  • Julius Caesar was much older than his soldiers and suffered from epileptic fits that were triggered by the low-quality food and poor night’s sleep 
  • He paid his soldiers better than other generals, bought them better armor, and would even have special pieces of armor commissioned for his bravest soldiers

How Julius Caesar & Frederick the Great Used Marketing to Feed Their Armies 

  • The Civil War with Pompey was Julius Caesar’s most important battle
    • Pompey was another Roman leader who fought Caesar for control of the empire 
  • Historically, no armies could fight in the winter because it was impossible to sufficiently feed an entire army 
  • The only option of sustenance for Caesar’s army was a terribly-tasting bread grown by the locals 
  • Julius Caesar happily ate the bread in view of his soldiers, and spent as much time as he could eating it in front of them, calling it the “food of kings” 
  • This is similar to Frederick the Great’s strategy of getting his army to eat the potato, a food that none of them wanted but one that could solve their forthcoming famine
    • Frederick the Great made the potato artificially scarce 
    • Then he cultivated massive potato farms around his residence, patrolled by guards 24/7
    • Peasants wanted to eat the potato, now viewed as food for kings, so they stole from Frederick the Great’s farm and started consuming it 
    • The potato became widely consumed and remains an established part of the Austrian and German diet to this day 
  • Julius Caesar’s costly signaling with the horrible bread paid off: his soldiers ate it with him, they had enough calories to fight in the winter, and they ultimately defeated Pompey in the civil war 

Applying Julius Caesar’s Tactics in Your Professional Career 

  • Caesar knew that competence alone wasn’t enough; he had to signal competence as well 
  • Giving up an award will win you more praise than accepting it 
  • Remembering the names of your team will make you seem diligent 
  • Celebrate your success with others instead of hoarding your influence
  • Putting yourself at genuine risk when attempting to reach your goals will only make people believe in you more
  • Rory Sutherland’s definition of costly signaling: the significance we attach to something is felt in direct proportion to the expense in which it’s communicated 

Phil Agnew’s Costly Signaling Test for the Nudge Podcast 

  • Host of the podcast Phill Agnew did an A/B test on an advertisement for his show
  • One ad used costly signaling where the text for the ad was superimposed on a billboard, and the other ad had the same text but was superimposed on a normal background
  • The advertisement on the billboard signaled that Phil spent a lot of money to promote his show, while the other one did not
  • After running the ad, 7.9% of people who saw the billboard version said they’d listen to the show, while only 3.9% of people who saw the control version said they’d listen
Source: Nudge Podcast
Nudge with Phil Agnew : , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Notes By Stan Rizzo

More Notes on these topics

Top Insights and Tactics From

31 Best Podcasts of All Time

FREE when you join over 35,000 subscribers to the
Podcast Notes newsletter

No Thanks