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Julius Caesar at the Rubicon

Julius Caesar at the Rubicon Tragedies and Triumphs Visual Arts

It’s the first month of 49 B.C., and a Roman general has a big decision to make. He’s considering whether to break a law, long enforced by the Roman Republic which he serves.

The last decade of his life has been a good one. Governing Gaul—as modern-day France and Belgium were once known—Julius Caesar is popular with the locals. Rome’s Senate, however, views Caesar’s growing power and popularity as a threat.

The Senate has ordered Caesar to resign his command and disband his army. If he doesn’t follow that directive, Caesar will be considered an “Enemy of the State.”  

Pompey—another Roman General with lots of power and once a friend of Julius Caesar—has a different set of orders. The Senate wants him to be sure that Caesar does what he’s been instructed to do.

What is the ancient law which Caesar is pondering? No Roman general is allowed to cross a stream in Northern Italy, known as the Rubicon River, if he is crossing with his troops who are bearing arms.

What is the consequence of breaking that law? Any general who crosses the Rubicon, with armed troops, is committing treason against Rome.

Caesar, who is staying in the northern Italian city of Ravenna, is considering his best course of action when he receives some bad news. His Senate allies have been forced to leave Rome.

This does not bode well for Caesar.

If he crosses the river with his army, he will surely start a civil war. Pompey is on his way to make sure that Caesar and his troops do not cross the river but, if they do, are cut down before reaching Rome.

If Caesar can defeat Pompey, and reach Rome with his army, how can he prevail there if his supporters have been forced to flee and no-longer hold power?  

Suetonius, the ancient historian with access to official imperial records, relates how Julius Caesar decides to proceed:

When the news came [to Ravenna, where Caesar was staying] that the interposition of the tribunes in his favor had been utterly rejected, and that they themselves had fled Rome, he immediately sent forward some cohorts, yet secretly, to prevent any suspicion of his plan; and to keep up appearances, he attended the public games and examined the model of a fencing school which he proposed building, then - as usual - sat down to table with a large company of friends.

However, after sunset some mules from a near-by mill were put in his carriage, and he set forward on his journey as privately as possible, and with an exceedingly scanty retinue. The lights went out. He lost his way and wandered about a long time - till at last, by help of a guide, whom he discovered towards daybreak, he proceeded on foot through some narrow paths, and again reached the road.

Coming up with his troops on the banks of the Rubicon, which was the frontier of his province, he halted for a while, and revolving in his mind the importance of the step he meditated, he turned to those about him, saying: “Still we can retreat!  But once let us pass this little bridge, - and nothing is left but to fight it out with arms!”

Even as he hesitated this incident occurred. A man of strikingly noble mien and graceful aspect appeared close at hand, and played upon a pipe. To hear him not merely some shepherds, but soldiers too came flocking from their posts, and amongst them some trumpeters.

He snatched a trumpet from one of them and ran to the river with it; then sounding the “Advance!” with a piercing blast he crossed to the other side. At this Caesar cried out, “Let us go where the omens of the gods and the crimes of our enemies summon us! THE DIE IS NOW CAST!”

Accordingly he marched his army over the river; [then] he showed them the tribunes of the Plebs, who on being driven from Rome had come to meet him, and in the presence of that assembly, called on the troops to pledge him their fidelity; tears springing to his eyes [as he spoke] and his garments rent from his bosom. (Suetonius, quoted by William Stearns Davis using the Bohn Translation, in Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, Volume 1, at pages 149-150.)

Caesar’s decision changes the history of Rome. He and his soldiers defeat Pompey and, by 46 B.C., Caesar is the dictator of Rome. He remains in charge until he is assassinated, in the Roman Senate, on the 15th of March in 44 B.C.

The days of the Roman Republic, and its governance by a Senate and Consuls, are now over. In its place is an Empire, which will be ruled by emperors and their hereditary successors.

Caesar’s successor—his great-nephew and adopted son who changes his birth name, Gaius Octavius, to Caesar Augustus—becomes the first head of the Roman Empire.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5186stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Apr 25, 2019


Media Credits

This 19th-century illustration, called "Caesar Crossing the Rubicon," is an artistic rendering of Julius Caesar's famous decision to defy Roman law. Image online, courtesy the all-history.org website.

 

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