Why did the general cross the Rubicon?

4 Jun
alea 2

“The die is cast” – Julius Caesar’s words as he crossed the Rubicon

Recently (ok, not that recently – I’ve been busy) my cousin and fellow author posted on Facebook that a Rubicon had been crossed because he had taken his sunglasses out of the drawer. If you’re reading in a sunny country, understand that this is a bigger deal in Scotland. A friend of his replied to ask what on earth a Rubicon was, and I suppose the question was fair enough, because these days the name Rubicon is more likely to be used of tropical drinks than of a geographical feature in northern Italy.

The short answer to the Facebook question is that the Rubicon is a river, and crossing the Rubicon means passing a point of no return. Two minutes of googling can tell you the reason that crossing a Rubicon means passing a point of no return (and indeed the origin of “point of no return”, which is one of a surprising number of expressions from aviation), but as it’s an ancient history thing, I thought I might weigh in, albeit far too late and on a different media platform.

Thousands, probably millions of people have crossed the Rubicon, which is thought to be the river Fiumicino (meaning, imaginatively, “little river”), but the significant moment was when Caesar crossed it in 49BC. It was the start of something and the end of something, a definitive moment. It was in some ways like the shot that killed Franz Ferdinand. Months and years of manoeuvring to avoid a particular scenario, and then one action revealed how the manoeuvring had actually made that same scenario near inevitable. With Franz Ferdinand’s assassination it was the First World War; in Caesar’s case it was the end of the Roman Republic, leading to half a millennium of autocratic rule by emperors. (The Roman Republic was, you see, technically a democracy, although as in the case of Athens, “birthplace of democracy”, hardly anyone could vote, and at Rome it didn’t make that much difference when they did. Much like modern Western democracy. But I digress.)

The point about crossing the Rubicon was that it marked the boundary of Italy at that time. A general in command of an army was not allowed to just march his army into Italy, for obvious reasons of public safety and avoiding coups. If you raised an army in Italy, or brought one with you into Italy, you were revolting against Rome (except in particular circumstances which don’t apply in this case and which we won’t go into here). On the other side of the Rubicon (which was not a particularly formidable river, by the way, more of a brook – hence, Fiumicino) was Gaul, where Julius Caesar was quite legitimately commanding an army, for the purpose of attacking, killing and enslaving Gauls and Britons. That might not sound very nice if you were a Gaul or a Briton, but it was the sort of thing Rome heartily approved of.

So when Caesar crossed the Rubicon he went from being an astoundingly successful Roman general to leading a revolt against Rome, and there was no going back from that. Catiline had done something similar a decade and half earlier, and it had not ended well. But Catiline was in debt, accused of all sorts of crimes, and couldn’t get anywhere in politics, whereas Caesar was rich (from all the plunder), enjoyed legal immunity because of his military command, and was one of the two most powerful men in Rome. So the more interesting question is not “what does crossing the Rubicon mean” but “why did Caesar do it?”

To understand that you have to at least dip your toes into an extremely confusing period of history. I am currently writing a novel set during the Roman civil wars of the first century BC (The Gates of Janus), so believe me when I say it is fiendishly complicated. What follows is my attempt to make Caesar’s situation easily comprehensible without over-simplifying.

The three most powerful men in Rome around the middle of the first century BC were Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and in order to increase their power they had made an informal alliance, which we usually refer to as the First Triumvirate. Caesar was a brilliant general who was popular with the common people. Pompey was a brilliant general who was popular with the upper classes. Crassus wasn’t half the general they were, but he was staggeringly rich (we say “as rich as Croesus, but we could justifiably say “as rich as Crassus” instead), which made him popular with anyone who needed funds. This arrangement sort of worked and kept the power in Rome balanced between them, staving off the threat of dictatorship, which was what everyone was worried about (especially since current politicians had lived through Sulla’s dictatorship). Unfortunately Crassus died in a disastrous war with Parthia (Persia, more or less), and Pompey’s wife, who was also Caesar’s daughter, died in childbirth. Now there was nothing holding them together, and the Senate (like Parliament) was worried that one or both of them would try to seize sole power.

Supporters of Pompey (or those who thought Caesar was the bigger threat) pushed through a bill on bribery which would allow people to be prosecuted for offences committed up to twenty years earlier. There genuinely was a problem with bribery in Rome, so a new law about it wasn’t a bad thing, but the backdating made it dangerous for Caesar, who had spent much of the previous twenty years bribing people to get into the position of power he now enjoyed. Of course, that was the whole point of the law.

Caesar was protected as long as he was a general in command of an army, but in 49BC his period of command was coming to an end. Pompey’s wasn’t. Caesar expected to be elected consul (similar to Prime Minister) for the following year, which would also make him immune, but there would be a tricky interim period during which he could be prosecuted. Caesar applied to have his command extended until he took office as consul. He was refused; many senators thought he was already too dangerous, what with his army, wealth and popularity with both the troops and the mob. One of his supporters (Caesar had bought his support – seriously, bribery was big in Republican Rome) suggested that Pompey could lay down his command early, at the same time as Caesar, to even things up. Pompey said he would – but didn’t actually take any steps towards doing it.

Suddenly a rumour went around that Caesar had already entered Italy. Caesar’s bought man in the Senate assured them it was untrue, but the current consul ordered Pompey to gather an army to oppose him anyway. Caesar (still outside Italy) said he would give up most  of his his troops and territory, keeping just a little bit so he still had immunity. Pompey was happy with that, but the Senate refused. Finally Caesar said he would be willing to lay down his command at the same time as Pompey, but if Pompey kept his command, he would “avenge his country’s wrongs, and his own.”

By now, even though no blow had been struck, Caesar was officially at war with Rome. He was declared a public enemy, Pompey was declared the protector of Rome, and Caesar’s supporters were driven out of the Senate ‘for their own safety’. Even so, when he came to the Rubicon, he still paused. Yes, he was an enemy of Rome, and Pompey was gathering an army against him, but no blood had been shed yet, and politicians could change their minds; Caesar’s friend Mark Antony would later be declared a public enemy, but go on to rule half the Empire.

“If I stop here,” Caesar reportedly said, “it will be the beginning of misfortune for me; if I cross, it will be the beginning of misfortune for all mankind.” So, being as selfless as most military dictators (or for that matter, most people), he crossed.

The rest is history. But in case it’s history you’re unfamiliar with, here it is in a nutshell: Caesar wins and becomes sole ruler, but in a semi-constitutional way. Then he is assassinated, the Empire descends into full-scale civil war, and in the ensuing chaos Julius Caesar’s heir, Octavian, increases his power base and eliminates his rivals until he is supreme leader of Rome in a very unconstitutional way. By the time he dies he is the Emperor Augustus, founder of a new dynasty.

So that’s why crossing the Rubicon is a big deal, much like breaking the summer clothing out in Scotland. By the way, an interesting fact that I discovered when doing some research for this post (yes, I do carry out research for blog posts – is that so surprising?) is that Rubicon tropical drinks are also named after Caesar’s crossing. The founders of the company left their secure jobs to start the venture, and there was no going back. Caesar may have been a dangerous man, but he had a sense of humour; I like to think he wouldn’t mind having a can of guava juice named after the most momentous decision of his career.


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