Posted by James Raider on 8 September, 2013 at 11:16 pm. 41 comments already!

2181 years ago a Roman consul Gaius Popillius Laenas, delivered one of the earliest known “Line In The Sand” ultimatums against King Antiochus IV of Syria.   Is there a message buried in a two millennium old event that might inform Barack Obama as he rattles the military might over which American voters handed him title of Commander In Chief (CIC)?

Antiochus was a descendent of Seleucus, an Alexander the Great general who had taken Syria as his quarter of Alexander’s Empire upon the young Emperor’s untimely death. Antiochus had violently conquered, pillaged, and generally run amuck around the Eastern Mediterranean controlling Israel, capturing Cyprus and overrunning all of Egypt, except for Alexandria.

The Line In The Sand

When Antiochus decided to also take control of Alexandria in 168BC, Rome’s tolerance for his exploits withered. Rome’s Senate appointed a Roman Consul as its ambassador to stop Antiochus’ further advance.  The Senate sent Gaius Popillius Laenas, bestowing in Popillius Authority to carry the full power of Rome’s military might, and to speak and act on Rome’s behalf.  The assignment commissioned Popillius to stop a powerful army marching under Antiochus’ leadership.

In 168BC Rome was the most powerful nation on Earth with the largest army. Popillius’ commission might have seemed straightforward enough, were it not for the fact that the Roman Senate dispatched their envoy by ship along with only a dozen attendants (lictors) in support.

History tells us that Popillius landed at Alexandria, and confronted King Antiochus confidently leading a wall of Syrian soldiers marching along the Nile toward the great ancient city.  The confrontation was apparently short and effective.  Antiochus intructed Popillius that Rome had no business in Egypt, to which Popillius replied that neither did Syria.  Then Popillius did something which must have taken some degree of daring and courage.  He told Antiochus that he was offending the Roman Senate, and the people of Rome and that he had been instructed to make the King return to Syria. What scene that must have been – a dozen men facing an army, and telling its leader to go home.

Not surprisingly, the request was met with laughter, and the 168BC version of Oh yah, you and whose army?  with Antiochus asking,  “how are you going to make me go home? Where is your army?”

Popillius explained to Antiochus something like, “I am everything that is Rome. I am Rome. I am Rome’s largest army. Go home.”

Popillius, with King Antiochus

If observed from one hundred feet above the setting just outside Alexandria through the eyes of a falcon, this is one of those moments in history, which would have provided boundless admiration for an almost solitary Roman Consul.  Gaius Popillius Laenas remained steadfast through the exchange, and with another, “No,” from Antiochus, Popillius drew a complete circle around the King in the Egyptian soil, with his staff.

Against the backdrop of the Syrian army looking on, Popillius instructed their King, “Before you step out of this circle, think again, and when you do step out of it, be facing East, and go home to Syria.”

History informs us that King Antiochus IV turned around and marched with his army out of Egypt.


Much can be learned from Popillius and his superiors in 168BC, including:

1.  Understand the power you have at your disposal and how to use it.

2.  Establish its most effective and beneficial application.

3.  Effectively negotiate with a strategy to do so, rather than ad libbing on the fly with whatever non-sense your ego feels necessary.

4.  Delegate authority.  If you’re surrounded by head-nodding advisors, the bench isn’t deep enough to be delegated any authority.  Deepen your bench.

5.   Deliver the message concisely, clearly, emphatically and with uncompromising confidence.  That dramatically affects the reception of the message.

6.  Here is a simple one which seems a long reach for the current CIC – Mean what you say.

7.  When you set out on a mission, have a plan and hold the determination to implement it.

8.  Don’t blink.

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