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A Movable Coup: A history of armed marches toward the capital, from Caesar to Wagner

When Wagner chief Evgeny Prigozhin ordered his troops to advance toward Moscow on June 23, historians couldn’t help but recall similar coup attempts in the past. In the aftermath of the air crash in Russia's Tver Region that has possibly claimed Prigozhin's life, The Insider looks back on the most memorable armed marches and discovers fascinating similarities – as well as blatant differences – with Evgeny Prigozhin's revolt.

  • Caesar's civil war: Capturing Rome in 66 days

  • The 100 days of Napoleon Bonaparte: “Saving” France

  • Mussolini's March on Rome: avenging the “mutilated victory”

  • The Kornilov affair: A right-wing threat

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Caesar's civil war: Capturing Rome in 66 days

On January 10, 49 BC, Roman general Gaius Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, a small river making Italy's northern border at the time. Despite the legal obligation to disband his legions on the border, he pushed on, effectively declaring war on Rome.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon
Caesar crossing the Rubicon

Gaius Julius Caesar became consul in 59 BC, joining general Gnaeus Pompeus Magnus (Pompey) and affluent politician Marcus Crassus in what would go down in history as the First Triumvirate and dividing power in the Republic among the three of them. Pompey was given a command in Spain and Lybia. With a five-year command in Syria, Crassus controlled the east, and Caesar took off for Gaul to wage a war. Crassus made an ill-advised move against the Parthian Empire and was killed in the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. The triumvirate was therefore reduced to an alliance between Caesar and Pompey.

By contrast, Caesar’s Gallic campaigns turned out to be successful, with detailed reports of his battlefield glory delivered to Rome along with gifts to his allies and the plebs. The general was quickly gaining popularity among common Romans. Aristocrats and the Senate perceived Caesar's growing ambitions and support as a direct threat. Caesar’s many triumphs were also unsettling for Pompey, who ruled the nation as the sole consul, enjoying the bustling social life of the capital.

Caesar’s authority in Gaul expired on March 1, 49 BC. The Senate was quick to accuse him of abusing power and breaking the law in his capacity as consul. Caesar asked for the possibility of running for consul in absentia because Roman politicians were immune from judicial prosecution. However, in 50 BC, Pompey ordered that Caesar give up his armies and return to Rome to stand trial.

In return, Caesar suggested mutual disarmament. The Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of this proposal – 370 votes for to 22 against – yet Pompey refused, leaving Caesar no choice. Returning to Rome without his army would have cost him not only his political career but also his life.

Returning to Rome without his army would have cost Caesar not only his political career but also his life

And so, Caesar crossed the Rubicon and declared war by saying “Ālea iacta est”(“the die is cast”). He believed he was doing it “for the state”: rei publicae causa. The general underlined his reluctance to shed his compatriots’ blood and the importance of keeping the losses on both sides to an absolute minimum. He also insisted he’d always been a proponent of peace, positioning the civil war as a forced choice on his part.

Pompey's army was less experienced and prepared than the Gallic legions. Aware that time was on his side, Caesar made sure his march toward Rome was fast. Pompey fled from Italy to Greece, followed by many senators. With no one at the helm, the capital surrendered to Caesar. The civil war was over in just 66 days. A year later, Caesar won a decisive victory over Pompey in the Battle of Pharsalus despite the latter's numerical advantage.

Caesar's popularity with the troops became another ace up his sleeve. In Picenum, Pompey's soldiers, already demoralized by Caesar's rapid advancement, refused to take orders from their commanders. Many Pompeians abandoned their camp in Auximum before the battle: some returned home, while others joined Caesar. In Alba, nine Pompeian cohorts abandoned their pretors. Meanwhile, Caesar spared former Pompeian allies, well aware of the benefits for his political image.

Caesar's popularity with the troops became another ace up his sleeve

“Having ended the wars, he celebrated five triumphs, four in a single month, but at intervals of a few days... [The Insider's note: a triumph was a Roman holiday to celebrate battlefield glory; Caesar's triumphs marked his victories over Gaul, Pontus, Africa, and Egypt.] and another on defeating Pompey’s sons. In his Pontic triumph he displayed among the show-pieces of the procession an inscription of but three words, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered,’ not indicating the events of the war, as the others did, but the speed with which it was finished.” (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar 37.1-2) In the first weeks of 44 BC, Caesar was proclaimed a “lifelong dictator”.

Similarities: Caesar also took up arms against a politician who had been both his personal friend and political ally. His revolt was also motivated by the threat of his prosecution by the government. From the onset, the traveling speed and combat skills of his legions exceeded those of his adversaries.

Differences: Lacking the capacity to defend the capital, Caesar's adversaries chose to abandon it. All Roman armies of the epoch were private; the republic did not have a regular army, leaving control of its military power in the hands of a group of noblemen.

The 100 days of Napoleon Bonaparte: “Saving” France

On February 26, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte left the island of Elba with a small fleet of six vessels, on board the brig Inconstant, to land in France on March 1. Cannes and Grasse surrendered without any resistance.

Troops greeting the returning Napoleon
Troops greeting the returning Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte had taken control of the French state by 1800, and in 1807, he already ruled over an empire that stretched across all of Europe. Sustaining defeat in Russia in 1812, he ceded Spain to the Duke of Wellington and eventually abdicated on April 6, 1814, to be exiled to the tiny island of Elba in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the coast of Tuscany.

Since his fall, Bonaparte’s opponents widely advertised the image of a “Corsican Ogre”, a bloodthirsty despot driven solely by self-interest. The new monarchy also contributed to the anti-Napoleon myth. Oppression of freedom, his spirit of despotism, his thirst for conquest – none of his sins went unnoticed. Benjamin Constant, a Franco-Swiss political thinker from among the pioneers of European liberalism, criticized Napoleon from the pages of De l’esprit de conquête et de l’usurpation dans leur rapports avec la civilisation européenne (“On the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation in Their Relation to European Civilization”). Constant even avoided using the exiled emperor’s name, referring to him only with the personal pronoun. Moreover, as Louis XVIII admitted, François-René de Chateaubriand’s brochure titled De Buonaparte et des Bourbons et de la nécessité de se railler à nos princes légitimes, pour le bonheur de la France and celui de l’Europe (“On Buonaparte and the Bourbons and the necessity to rally around our legitimate princes for the happiness of France and Europe”) brought him more benefits than a 100,000-strong army.

However, Napoleon’s propaganda apparatus did not remain idle either. Everyone on board the Inconstant who could write and read was tasked with copying the two proclamations Napoleon had prepared for the army and the people of France. His address to the army was more radical than the one to the nation: Napoleon instructed every man to abandon the white colors of the royal family in favor of the French Revolutionary tricolor cockade. Napoleon cited the Bourbon rule, which was pushing the nation toward disaster, as the reason for his return. He claimed his decision to return to France had been dictated by the urge to save its glorious people from undeserved humiliation.

Napoleon cited the Bourbon rule, which was pushing the nation toward disaster, as the reason for his return

Indeed, the Bourbon state lacked sustainability by any standards. Russia had forced a constitutional order on the French monarchy, seeing it as the only way to ensure government authority, but even a constitutional monarchy could not satisfy France – especially considering that the ministries, the army, and the financial system, among other things, did not change since Napoleon's times. The Bourbons and their ultra-royalist supporters strove to return lands to their old-time owners, oppressed Napoleon's aristocracy and peasants, and pushed the country back to feudalism. Furthermore, having little need to maintain a large army, they fired a great many officers with one-half of the regular pension. The military detested even the white flag which the Bourbons introduced instead of the tricolor used by revolutionaries and Napoleon.

The official address published on March 25 in Le Moniteur Universel – which Napoleon positioned as his official outlet – justified the emperor's return as follows: “The army that was so worthy of our homeland became the object of shameful neglect; ...summoned by the will of the brave who have always been loyal to him, the Emperor has returned.” Napoleon emphasized he'd met no resistance on the way to the capital. Thus, he underlined the non-violent nature of his “mutiny” in yet another address to the army on March 25: “Not a single drop of blood was shed.”

Government publications called Napoleon a usurper and accused him of recruiting hard labor inmates and mercenaries from among Toulon gangs to fight in his Italian campaign. In his directive, Louis XVIII declared Napoleon Bonaparte a “traitor and insurgent”. Journal des Débats, a Paris-based literary and political publication, presented Napoleon as a stranger to the French nation, making a point of the Italian spelling of his name and his Polish, Neapolitan, and Piedmontese connections. Bonaparte was pictured as foreign to the human race in general. He was described as an Attila, Genghis Khan, Nero, “a maniac who has fallen through rage into imbecility”, – and a cannibal.

But the nation disagreed. Napoleon continued his advancement into the mainland, facing no pushback. The troops deployed to defend Grenoble sided with him. To stop Napoleon, the Bourbons sent Marshal Ney, who pledged to bring him back “a captive – in an iron cage!” On March 10, nine days after landing in France, Napoleon entered Lyon. Crowds cheered: “Long live the Emperor!” Upon arriving in Lons-le-Saunier to arrest Napoleon, Marshal Ney gauged the attitude of his troops and addressed them: “Soldiers! The Bourbon cause is lost for good. The legitimate dynasty, which France elected for itself, is ascending to the throne. The emperor, our lord, shall from now on reign in this glorious land.”

On March 20, Louis XVIII and his court fled to Belgium, and Napoleon reclaimed the Tuileries Palace. Paris welcomed back its emperor with an unbridled enthusiasm Napoleon had not seen even after the biggest conquests.

Paris welcomed back its emperor with an unbridled enthusiasm Napoleon had not seen even after the biggest conquests

Bonaparte insisted on liberalization, which encouraged his former opponents, most notably Benjamin Constant, to side with the rebellion. Constant was commissioned to write the “Additional Act to the Constitutions of the Empire”: a list of liberal constitutional amendments. He consented, hoping to change the spirit of Bonaparte's regime. In particular, he abolished preliminary censorship and lowered the electoral threshold.

Despite Bonaparte’s attempts to appease Europe, Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia rejected all negotiation offers. The Napoleonic era came to a decisive end with the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was forced to abdicate for the second time on June 22, 1815. On July 8, Louis XVIII ascended to the throne and announced amnesty for all, except “traitors and perpetrators of the second ascension of Napoleon”. Marshal Ney was executed by firing squad.

The 100 days sealed Napoleon's fate, condemning him to eternal exile. France also took a heavy blow, having to pay contributions and sustaining territorial losses. However, Napoleon’s reinstallation quickly transformed into the mystical myth of an emperor who knew no defeat.

Similarities: The mutiny initially targeted mostly the military. Its stated objectives involved “saving” France and restoring the prestige of its army. Napoleon invoked the need for change and underlined the peaceful nature of his intentions. He enjoyed a certain popularity among the masses and used propaganda press to cement his position.

Differences: Napoleon was an exiled emperor, not an ordinary general, let alone a private army sponsor. In France, Napoleon enjoyed the support of powerful political forces. Formally winning the revolution, Napoleon still lost the greater war: from the onset, the allied nations never treated his return as a domestic French matter, viewing it as a threat to peace and order in Europe.

Mussolini's March on Rome: avenging the “mutilated victory”

On October 27, 1922, the paramilitary units of the National Fascist Party, known as Blackshirts, set out toward Rome to claim power over Italy. Prime Minister Luigi Facta was about to declare a national emergency, but King Victor Emmanuel III refused to sign the order. On October 29, he asked the leader of the protesters, Benito Mussolini, to head the government.

Benito Mussolini (center)
Benito Mussolini (center)

The fascist movement emerged in Italy in March 1919, four months after the end of WWI. Its core consisted of former elite military units: Alpini, the alpine corps, and Arditi, the stormtroopers. The party, which was initially called the Italian Fasces of Combat, did not get a single mandate in the 1919 parliamentary election, but in the fall of 2022, after its transformation into the National Fascist Party, it counted over 300,000 members.

The military and most right-wingers disagreed with the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference, which concluded WWI. Young ambitious politician Benito Mussolini, who had served in an elite Bersaglieri regiment during the war strove for personal power and the renaissance of Italy through hardline policies. When the government disbanded the Arditi in 1918, he reorganized them into gangs of men clad in black shirts and used them to terrorize political opposition across the country. Gabriele D'Annunzio, former air force pilot and like-minded politician, promoted the term “mutilated victory”, which reflected dissatisfaction with Italy's territorial rewards post-WWI. D'Annunzio and Mussolini discussed the possibility of a joint march on Rome to seize power more than once.

Meanwhile, the fascist party grew stronger. Early in October 1922, it announced possession of its own armed forces, releasing the charter of its paramilitary wing, the Voluntary Militia. Late in October 1922, Mussolini addressed his supporters at a public political rally in Naples: “I say to you with all the solemnity that the moment requires: either we will be given the government or else we must take it by marching on Rome.” The delegates gave their leader a standing ovation, chanting “A Roma!” (“To Rome!”).

The Blackshirts set out at dawn on October 28. To arm a motley, 26,000-strong militia, Blackshirts, raided military warehouses and even grabbed ancient firearms from museums. Fascists advanced toward Rome with shotguns, muskets, powder guns, golf clubs, scythes, garden hoes, dynamite charges, and table legs. They used trains, horses, carts, trucks, vans, bicycles, and even a racing car, equipping it with a machine gun.

Fascists advanced toward Rome with shotguns, muskets, scythes, garden hoes, dynamite charges, and table legs

When Mussolini ordered the mobilization of his more-or-less armed forces, the government began plotting its resistance. The military was ordered to keep Rome but offer the rebels certain liberty in the provinces. They were also destroying roads and railways, forcing Blackshirts to move on foot. Rome's defense included 28,000 troops, 86 artillery pieces, and 15 armed vehicles. They controlled bridges and gates. At first, King Victor Emmanuel III intended to proclaim martial law throughout the country but rescinded his order, unwilling to trigger a civil war. The king may have also feared soldiers might refuse to open fire on fascists. In many Italian cities, regular troops were fraternizing with Blackshirts.

Protesters carrying signs “Rome or death”
Protesters carrying signs “Rome or death”

On October 30, the king asked Mussolini to head the government. Fascist legions entered the capital triumphant, meeting no resistance. On November 1, Mussolini ordered them to return home. The retreating columns marched past the Quirinal Palace. The king, his new prime minister, and General Diaz, the Minister of War, watched them from the balcony. Victor Emmanuel even remarked: “Mussolini has saved the nation.” Romans were largely sympathetic to this view. A festive mood reigned in the city. Italy saw fascism as a better alternative to fear-instilling anarchy and bloodshed in the country.

Similarities: The country did not declare martial law The protesters did not face considerable military resistance. The revolt was mostly peaceful, with very few victims. At its core were right-wing political forces centered on elite military units that had proved themselves in the preceding war. The army destroyed roads to impede the rebels’ progress.

Differences: Mussolini was focused on active participation in the country’s politics; his ambitions surpassed communicating his demands to the government. The rebels had no grievances against the army as such. The king did not show enough political will to combat fascists and did not charge them with treason or breaking the law.

The Kornilov affair: A right-wing threat

Late in August 1917, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army Lavr Kornilov attempted a military coup in Petrograd (the name of Saint Petersburg at the time). On the day of the revolt, August 28 Old Style, the general appealed to the nation: “People of Russia, our great country is dying. Her end is near. Forced to speak openly, I, General Kornilov, declare that the Provisional Government, under the pressure of the majority of Soviets, is acting in full accord with the plans of the German General Staff and, in parallel with the upcoming beaching of enemy troops on the Riga coast, killing the army and destabilizing the country from within.” The incident went down in history as the Kornilov affair.

General Lavr Kornilov
General Lavr Kornilov

In March 1917, it was General Kornilov who announced the arrest of the royal family to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna on behalf of the Provisional Government. Like many military officers, he supported the regime, although he wasn't a radical monarchist. Kornilov did not aim to restore the crumbled monarchy. He did not seek personal power either. Instead, he viewed his revolt as forced, to an extent, and inevitable.

Kornilov viewed his revolt as forced, to an extent, and therefore inevitable

Revolutionary forces had almost stopped combat activity on the frontline. The Russian army was going through “democratization” prescribed by Order No. 1 of the Petrograd Soviet and the “Provision in the Fundamental Rights of Servicemen”. These acts considerably limited officer authority and offered significant privileges to lower ranks. Army officers struggled to maintain discipline. As early as in May 1917, General Mikhail Alekseyev reported to the capital: “Internal disarray has reached its limit; it cannot get any worse. The army has become a threat to the Fatherland, not the enemy.” On July 18, General Kornilov was appointed the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army. He immediately proposed several initiatives: introduce capital punishment for military units in the rear, militarize transport and factories, and expand the powers of army officers.

On August 14, Kornilov arrived in Moscow to attend the All-Russian Conference. His appearance was met by a standing ovation from the black-hundredists and other right-wing forces. Kornilov went on to criticize the government: “A range of legislative steps taken after the revolution by individuals foreign to the army's spirit and idea transformed the army into the maddest of crowds that values nothing except its own life.” Alexander Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, perceived Kornilov's words and popularity as a threat: “The Moscow Conference made it clear that the next blow will be delivered from the right and not the left.”

Kornilov's supporters carrying him at the All-Russian Conference in Moscow
Kornilov's supporters carrying him at the All-Russian Conference in Moscow

On August 22, Kornilov received Kerensky's request to send the Third Cavalry Corps to Petrograd and declare martial law in the capital. Convinced that he was defending the Provisional Government from a Bolshevik coup, Kornilov gave the orders.

What happened next still raises many questions. On August 24, Kornilov received Vladimir Lvov, who called himself Kerensky's “representative”, despite having no authority to do so, and offered Kornilov to install a military dictatorship, allegedly with consent from the Provisional Government. After that, Lvov returned to Petrograd, met with Kerensky as a “negotiator on Kornilov's behalf” and gave the ultimatum to “cede all military and civil power to the supreme commander-in-chief”. Kerensky and Kornilov had a convoluted phone conversation that involved vague language and left both of them feeling deceived.

On August 28, following an emergency government session, Kornilov was removed from his post “to stand trial for mutiny”. Upon receiving a telegram signed by Kerensky, Kornilov took offense and declared he assumed power in full. He called on the army and the nation to save Russia: “I prefer dying on the field of honor and battle to seeing the Russian land plunge into shame and disgrace. People of Russia, you hold the life of your country in your hands!”

Kornilov met support from generals Denikin and Klembovsky, the Union of Military Officers, and many more. In turn, Kerensky turned to Bolsheviks, who launched anti-Kornilov propaganda and began gathering paramilitary worker units. Bolsheviks issued tens of thousands of rifles to the Red Guard. When defeat became a matter of time, someone offered Kornilov to flee the headquarters. To an officer's pledge to die for him if needed, Kornilov replied: “I do not want to shed even a drop of brotherly blood.” To avert bloodshed, General Alekseyev agreed to arrest Kornilov, while denying his blame: “Kornilov made no attempt on the state.”

In October 1917, Bolsheviks seized power. Turning to them for help during Kornilov's revolt, Kerensky had contributed to this outcome. Kornilov escaped from captivity. In December, he headed the anti-Bolshevik White Army alongside generals Alekseyev and Denikin.

Turning to Bolsheviks for help during Kornilov's revolt, Kerensky contributed to their ascent to power

Similarities: The mutiny began in the military, and its goals included primarily saving the army and improving the situation on the frontline. The rebels blamed the government for deliberately aggravating the domestic situation. A major contributing factor was a complete misunderstanding among all conflict parties.

Differences: Many army commanders sided with Kornilov, and his credibility in the army was total. Following the revolt, Kornilov got arrested. In all, the Kornilov affair was characterized by chaos, in many parts determined by the general turmoil Russia was going through.

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