Julius Caesar: The First Veblen Brand

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Julius Caesar sculpture
Sculpture of Julius Caesar at Tuileries Garden in Paris

Some time back, when a friend of mine happily and proudly showed me his latest premium rage smartphone, I asked him what its specifications and cost were.  He was delighted to tell me the cost, but he was rather clueless as to what the specifications of a phone meant. After I explained to him what the specifications of a phone are all about, I asked him again about the basic specifics of the phone, namely its processor, RAM, Storage Space, and Camera details. Surprisingly, he did not know anything about any of these specifics. Interestingly, my friend bought the phone absolutely unaware of its specifications. He paid seventy-two thousand Indian rupees for it, and he appeared happy and proud to let others know that he paid a handsome amount for his phone. 

During our conversation, I realised that he was of the opinion that the greater the cost, the better the phone, for that matter, any product. Despite its users’ complaints regarding its overheating and the consequent widespread customer dissatisfaction regarding the issue, my friend bought a OnePlus 10 Pro, an overpriced phone for its specifications. He was unaware of these much-talked-about drawbacks of the phone purchased. What makes the episode more interesting is the fact that he bought the phone a week after the global launch of the OnePlus 11, another premium phone from the same manufacturer, a phone better and much cheaper than the OnePlus 10 Pro and certainly worth its cost as per the rationale of its specifications and every available review. After the launch of the OnePlus 11, it would only be a matter of time before the manufacturer slashes the price of the OnePlus 10 Pro — a market logic my friend should have known but did not know. 

One may look at the issue in question through the lens of the Veblen effect, the common human tendency to consume things because of their high price — a theory developed by and named after Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and accepted both by sociologists as well as economists. In his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen, argued that for an ostentatious display of their wealth and thereby achieving a superior social status, the rich consume goods and services that are highly conspicuous. In the process, they achieve a greater social status.  

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In his 1950 article, “Bandwagon, Snob, and Veblen Effects in the Theory of Consumer Demand,” Harvey Leibenstein says, “By Veblen effect we refer to the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption; to the extent to which the demand for a consumer’s good is increased because it bears a higher rather than a lower price.” People tend to believe that the higher the price, the greater the quality, and consequently the greater the ensuing social status. Goods and services of certain brands are considered better than their counterparts from other brands merely because they cost more. Therefore, they tend to spend money on luxury goods and services, the markers of the supposed superior social status.   

luxury goods
People tend to spend money on luxury goods and services

Though the theory of the Veblen effect was developed only in 1899, the Roman emperor Julius Caesar is credited with the invention of the Veblen effect in 75 BCE.  Discussing the life of Julius Caesar, the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch in his book, Parallel Lives, talks about the capture of the 25-year-old Italian nobleman, Julius Caesar, in 75 BCE by a band of Cilician pirates in the Aegean Sea as he was on his way to Rhodes to study oratory there under Apollonios. The Romans had never sent a navy against the Cilician pirates because the pirates supplied the Roman senators with slaves that they needed for their plantations in Italy. Consequently, piracy was quite a common phenomenon. 

Right from the moment of his capture, Caesar simply refused to behave like a captive. When the pirates told him that they had set his ransom at the sum of 20 talents of silver which is about 620 kilograms of silver, he laughed at them for being ignorant of who it was that they had captured and his worth. He insisted that the ransom must be raised to 50 talents of silver. The pirates were dumbfounded for they had never seen a hostage insisting on raising his own ransom. Normally, the captives would try to get away by paying a ransom as low as possible. Hence, they did not know what to make of Caesar’s insistence. All the same, the pirates concluded that if the captive insisted that he himself would double the ransom, there is no point in arguing with him. They consented to double the ransom. After all, it was only to their own advantage.  

Though the theory of the Veblen effect was developed only in 1899, the Roman emperor Julius Caesar is credited with the invention of the Veblen effect in 75 BCE.  Discussing the life of Julius Caesar, the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch in his book, Parallel Lives, talks about the capture of the 25-year-old Italian nobleman, Julius Caesar, in 75 BCE by a band of Cilician pirates in the Aegean Sea

Immediately, Caesar sent his entourage out to gather the ransom and settled in for a period of captivity. He made himself at home among the pirates, bossing them around and hushing them when he wanted to sleep. He made them listen to the speeches and poems that he kept composing. He rebuked them by calling them illiterates if they were either unable to understand him or were unable to appreciate his literary talents. He would participate in their leisurely activities and other exercises. However, he always addressed them as if he were the commander and they were his subordinates. From time to time, he would even threaten to have them all crucified after his release. The pirates regarded Caesar’s threats as a joke from their foolishly overconfident young captive.

On account of the unparalleled amount of ransom that the pirates demanded against the release of Caesar, back in Rome, in his absence, Caesar suddenly became very famous. He made the Romans assume that he was very special and incredibly important. In doing so, he placed a value on himself greater than anyone in Rome. As far as the people in Rome were concerned, it was not Caesar but an independent agency, the pirates, who enhanced his value resulting in an unparalleled amount of ransom. Hence, they believed that Caesar must be worth 50 talents of silver. And because Caesar was now so highly valued, his men had no trouble raising the required ransom. This demand for the exorbitant amount of ransom automatically put Caesar on the political map of Rome. 

After 38 days, the ransom was delivered, and Caesar was set free. As a man who suddenly and unexpectedly rose to great value, importance, and fame, it was easy for Caesar to raise a force. Despite holding no public or military office, he raised a naval force in Miletus (a place which is now in present-day turkey) and set out in pursuit of the pirates. He found them still camped at the island where he had been held captive, took them all as captives, and locked them up in a prison at Pergamon. He then went in person to [Marcus] Junius, the governor of Asia, thinking it proper that he, as praetor in charge of the province, should see to the punishment of the prisoners. When Junius seemed to vacillate about punishing them, Caesar went to the prison and had them all crucified. Since the pirates had treated him well during his captivity, on compassionate grounds, he slit their throats before crucifying them. 

With his capture and his smart handling of the event, Caesar effectively made himself a Veblen brand. Attributing a greater value to himself than the value of anyone else in Rome, he sold his custom-made Veblen brand, himself, to the Romans who happily consumed the brand. According to the American entrepreneur Elon Musk, “Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time.” Caesar knew the truth behind the twenty-first-century entrepreneur’s statement. Therefore, in 75 BCE, he created a custom-made brand out of himself, a unique perception of himself which would eventually match the reality, namely, what he wanted to become. 

To create a perception, one must first control one’s context. By controlling the context, one can control one’s own mind and the minds of others. By controlling the mind(s), one can create the desired perception. After creating the desired perception, one can achieve what one wants. That precisely is what Julius Caesar did. He controlled his context, controlled minds, created the desired perception (namely, a Veblen brand out of himself), enhanced his value to heights greater than that of any of his contemporaries in Rome, successfully sold himself the Romans, and in time, became ruler of the Roman empire, thanks to the Veblen brand he created out of himself. 

Images courtesy: Pxhere

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