10 January 2020

Caesar crosses the Rubicon

Act of defiance that started a civil war and coined a phrase


Caesar's ambitious designs on power were behind his programme of conquests in Europe
Caesar's ambitious designs on power were behind his
programme of conquests in Europe
The Roman general Julius Caesar led his army across the Rubicon river in northern Italy in an act of military defiance that would plunge the Roman Republic into civil war on this day in 49BC.

The course of the Rubicon, which can still be found on maps of Italy today, entering the Adriatic between Ravenna and Rimini in northeast Italy, represented the border between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul, over which Caesar had command, and what was by then known as Italia, the area of the peninsula south of the Alps directly governed by Rome.

One of the most powerful politicians in the Roman Republic after forming an alliance with Pompey and Crassus known as the First Triumvirate, Caesar had spent much of the previous decade expanding his territory through the Gallic Wars, taking control of much of modern-day France and northern Italy and extending the borders of the Republic as far as the Rhine.  He was the first Roman general to invade Britain.

The troops under his command - the 13th Legion - numbered more than 20,000 men who had seen Caesar’s military skills develop and were fiercely loyal.

Caesar had an army of  soldiers who were fiercely loyal to him
Caesar had an army of  soldiers who were
fiercely loyal to him
Caesar was hugely ambitious and made sure news of his exploits was regularly conveyed to Rome, where he had growing support.  None of the wars he waged to conquer the Gauls had been sanctioned or even authorised by the Senate, but such was the delicate balance of power in the Republic that he had been allowed to continue.

Matters came to a head, however, in 50BC when Caesar’s former ally Pompey, who had allied himself with Rome following the death of Crassus and the break-up of the Triumvirate, decided that the threat to his own power posed by Caesar had become too much.  As the most powerful figure in the Senate, he ordered Caesar to stand his army down and return to Rome to answer charges of waging illegal wars.

Unwilling to risk being found guilty of treason, Caesar had no intention of returning to Rome under such conditions. He also knew he could not lose face in front of his loyal troops or his supporters in Rome.

He drew up a plan of campaign and on January 9, 49BC, while Caesar was in Ravenna to examine plans for a gladiator school, his army was assembling at the border with Italy, on the banks of the Rubicon river.

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Caesar arranged for a chariot to collect him after he had taken dinner in Ravenna and took him to join up with his troops by the Rubicon, knowing that to cross it would be in violation of Republican law, which forbade any general in the provinces to lead an army into the territory of Italia, and would inevitably provoke a civil war.

Caesar won power after a war spanning four years
Caesar won power after a war
spanning four years
Suetonius claimed Caesar hesitated, in two minds about whether he should set off a chain of events from which there would be no turning back, but was persuaded by an apparition sent by the gods.  The following day, he led his army across the river and the march on Rome began.

The conflict that followed took four years to reach a conclusion and involved battles in the Balkans, Greece, Egypt, Africa and Spain but the fall one by one of Pompey and his allies.  Pompey himself fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated.  Caesar became the dictator of Rome in 45BC, presiding over changes that would lead to the collapse of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire.

The phrase ‘crossing the Rubicon’ has since entered the English language as an idiom used to describe taking irrevocable action or taking a decision to precipitate a situation that cannot be reversed.

The Fiume Rubicone is little more than a stream in places on its 80km journey from the mountains to the Adriatic
The Fiume Rubicone is little more than a stream in places
on its 80km journey from the mountains to the Adriatic
Travel tip:

When the main E55 highway between the cities of Cesena and Rimini in Emilia-Romagna reaches Savignano, it crosses a narrow stretch of water that has since been accepted as the Rubicon, the dividing line between Cisalpine Gaul and what was then considered Italy, which Julius Caesar crossed with his army to take over the Roman state. The modern-day Fiume Rubicone flows for around 80km (50 miles) from the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic Sea through the southern part of the Emilia-Romagna region, entering the sea at San Mauro Mare. The river's name is thought to derive from the Latin word rubeus, meaning "red" - the colour the water frequently assumes due to mud deposits.

The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna contains some of the finest examples of Byzantine art in Europe
The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna contains some of
the finest examples of Byzantine art in Europe
Travel tip:

Ravenna, about 40km (25 miles) north of the Rubicon, became the capital city of the western Roman empire in the fifth century. It is known for its well preserved late Roman and Byzantine architecture and has eight UNESCO world heritage sites. The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Europe, famous for its superb Byzantine mosaics.  The poet Dante died while living in exile in Ravenna in about 1321. He was buried at the Church of San Pier Maggiore in Ravenna and a tomb was erected there for him in 1483.


Also on this day:

987: The death of former Doge of Venice San Pietro Orseolo

1890: The birth of silent movie star Pina Menichelli

1903: The birth of car designer Flaminio Bertoni

1959: The birth of football coach Maurizio Sarri


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