Caesar, the Crossing of the Rubicon and the Situation in Rome at the Time

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After Julius Caesar finished subduing Gaul in 51 B.C., he defied the Republican tradition of victorious Roman generals not being allowed to return to Rome with their armies out of fear they would try to overthrow the government, which is exactly what Caesar did. The Rubicon River in present-day northern Italy was the line that Caesar was not supposed to cross with his army. By crossing the Rubicon Caesar declared war on the political establishment of his day. For many historians it marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. To this day “crossing the Rubicon” describes a decision from which there is no return. By crossing the Rubicon Caesar gambled that he could not only beat his military rival Pompey but also could also outmaneuver conservative politicians like Cicero and Cato. Some historians say Caesar’s move marked the end of period in which foreign adventures created larger armies and more powerful generals and it was only a matter of time until they threatened the political status quo.

Caesar marched into Rome with his army in and seized control of the government and the treasury and declared himself dictator while Pompey, in command of the Roman navy, fled to Greece. Five years of civil war followed. Caesar defeated Pompey in a series of land battles that took place throughout the Roman empire over a four years period. After Caesar led a successful campaign in Iberia (Spain), he defeated Pompey in Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt. The Ptolemies refused to provide quarter for a loser and had him executed and cut off his head. This made Caesar the unchallenged leader. Caesar said, “It is more important for the state that I should survive...I have long had my fill of power and glory; but should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace.”

The crossing of the Rubicon — a small stream in northern Italy that defined the border between Rome and its northern provinces— was a pivotal event in Roman history and the creation of the Roman Empire and ultimately modern European culture. While serving as governor of Gaul, Caesar amassed a personal fortune and displayed his military skill in subduing the native Celtic and Germanic tribes. Caesar became so popular with the masses, he presented a threat to the power of the Senate and to Pompey, who held power in Rome. Under these condition, the Senate called upon Caesar to resign his command and disband his army or risk being declared an "Enemy of the State". Pompey was entrusted with enforcing this edict. [Source:]

While Caesar was away in Gaul, Crassus was killed and Pompey became leader. Pompey wielded great power and declared Caesar a public enemy and ordered him to disband his army. Caesar refused. When he moved his army from Gaul into Rome's formal territory, it was interpreted as a declaration of war against Rome. Caesar reached the border of greater Rome at the Rubicon River. He then he plunged his horse in the water, shouting , “The die is caste."

According to to Republican tradition, victorious Roman generals were not allowed to return to Rome with their armies out of fear they would try to overthrow the government. In January 49 B.C., Caesar was staying in the northern Italian city of Ravenna. He had to decide whether to obey the Senate's command or ignore it and march his army southward to confront Pompey, plunging the Roman Republic into a bloody civil war. An ancient Roman law forbade any general from crossing the Rubicon and entering Italy proper with a standing army. To do so was treason and a point of no return.

Rubicon location in northern Italy

Timeline of Events Around the Time Caesar Crossed the Rubicon
58-50 B.C.: As governor of the province, Caesar conducts a series of military campaigns to conquer Gaul, boosting his political career, bringing him the wealth and endearing him among the Roman masses.
50 B.C.: Following his victories in Gaul, Caesar attempts to return to Rome with his army, a breach of Roman law, and his former ally Pompey and his enemies in the Senate order him to either disband his army or stay of Italy proper.
January 10-11, 49 B.C.: Faced with an ultimatum from the Senate, Caesar and the 13th Legion cross the Rubicon, the official border between Gaul and Italy, a decision that leads to civil war.
49 B.C.: As Caesar advances on Rome, Pompey and his allies retreat south, ultimately fleeing Italy for Greece. Caesar defeats Pompey’s forces in Spain.
48 B.C.: Caesar pursues Pompey across the Adriatic and decisively defeats him at the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece. After the loss, Pompey flees to Egypt where he is assassinated.
46 B.C.: Caesar defeats Pompey’s remaining followers at Thapsus in North Africa. Caesar becomes dictator of Rome. [Source: Fernando Lillo Redonet, National Geographic History magazine, March-April 2017]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Book: “Rubicon — The Last Years of the Roman Republic” by Tom Holland (Doubleday, 2004)

Background Behind Caesar’s Rubicon Crossing

Fernando Lillo Redonet wrote in National Geographic History magazine: “Caesar’s career was marked by this atmosphere of frenzied competition for power between nobles and populists. In 60 B.C. he allied with the general Pompey and another powerful politician, Marcus Licinius Crassus, so the three of them could dominate the republican system for their own benefit. The immediate result was Caesar’s consulship in 59 B.C., during which he sidelined the Senate and passed various laws aimed at winning him popular support. [Source: Fernando Lillo Redonet, National Geographic History magazine, March-April 2017 /*]

“Stung by Caesar’s affronts, the powerful aristocratic faction in the Senate—known as the optimates—were waiting to pounce on him when his consulship ended, when he would be left without official immunity and highly vulnerable to his enemies. Revealing his lifelong instinct for survival, however, Caesar cut a deal with Pompey and Crassus, enabling him to leave for Gaul to achieve the military glory that would, in turn, increase his grip on power. /*\

“Eight years later, at the beginning of the year 50 B.C., Caesar had subjugated Gaul, to the great benefit of the republic, which had won valuable territory to defend it against invasions. But the main beneficiary of the wars was undoubtedly Caesar himself. Awash with Gallic gold, he shrewdly targeted financially embarrassed senators who, in return for Caesar’s “generosity” in paying off their debts, declared themselves his unconditional allies. At the same time, he had at his back a trained, experienced, and fiercely loyal army. Caesar’s combination of wealth and military clout struck fear and loathing into the hearts of senators back in Rome—not least his erstwhile ally, Pompey, who since Crassus’s death had been moving politically closer to the aristocratic optimates. /*\

Rubicon at one of its narrower points

“After the fighting was ended in Gaul, Caesar was obliged to stand down from his position as governor, disband his army, and so lose the immunity his official position had given him. Pompey and his new optimate allies hatched a plan to seize the moment to take Caesar to court. By accusing him of corruption and abuses of power during his time in Gaul, they hoped to bring his political career to an end. /*\

“But Caesar stood his ground in March 50 B.C. He would not stand down as governor of Gaul, as stipulated, but would instead stay on until the end of 49 B.C., proposing that in the summer of that year, he would stand for election to become consul for a second time. Faced with such obstinacy, his enemies in Rome scrambled to increase the pressure on the rogue governor. They reiterated to the Senate that since the military campaign was over, Caesar must disband his army, and a new governor of Gaul be elected to replace him. /*\

“The hostile atmosphere in the Senate convinced Caesar that he needed to defend himself militarily and politically. He moved some of his troops into the north of Italy, at the same time extending his influence in the corridors of power. Bribery continued to be the most effective tool. In a particularly spectacular coup, he even managed to buy off the consul Lucius Aemilius Lepidus Paullus for a colossal down payment of some nine million denarii. In return, the consul promised not to support any initiatives against him during his remaining term of office.” /*\

Pompey Becomes Sole Consul as Tensions with Caesar Rise

While Julius Caesar was absent in Gaul, the ties which bound the three leaders of the Triumvirate — Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great), and Marcus Licinius Crassus — together were becoming weaker and weaker. The position of Crassus tended somewhat, as long as he was alive, to allay the growing suspicion between the two great rivals. But after Crassus departed for the East to take control of his province in Syria, he invaded Parthia, was badly defeated, lost the Roman standards, and was himself killed (53 B.C.). The death of Crassus practically dissolved the triumvirate; or we might rather say, it reduced the triumvirate to a duumvirate. But the relation between the two leaders was now no longer one of friendly support, but one of mutual distrust. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]


The growing estrangement between Pompey and Caesar was increased when the senate appointed Pompey “sole consul” in 52 B.C. This was not intended as an affront to Caesar, but was evidently demanded to meet a real emergency. The city was distracted by continual street fights between the armed bands of Clodius, the demagogue, and those of T. Annius Milo, who professed to be defending the cause of the senate. In one of these broils Clodius was killed. His excited followers made his death the occasion of riotous proceedings. His body was burned in the Forum by the wild mob, and the senate house was destroyed by fire. In the anarchy which followed, the senate felt obliged to confer some extraordinary power upon Pompey. On the proposal of Cato, he was appointed “consul without a colleague.” Under this unusual title Pompey restored order to the state, and was looked upon as “the savior of society.” He became more and more closely bound to the cause of the senate; and the senate recognized its obligations to him by prolonging his command in Spain for five years. \~\

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “In 52 B.C. we begin to see clear signs of a growing rift between Caesar and Pompey. Caesar wanted to stand for the consulship again at the earliest opportunity. According to the law and to customary practice, he would have had to lay down the proconsular imperium in virtue of which he commanded in Gaul in order to enter the city and present himself as a candidate. This he was loath to do, because he was aware that as soon as he set foot in the city without the immunity conferred by his tenure of the magistracy he would be dragged into court by his many political enemies. What Caesar wanted, therefore, was a special dispensation allowing him to stand for the consulship without presenting himself in person as a candidate at Rome. That way he could go straight from his proconsular command in Gaul to his new consulship (and thence presumably to another proconsular command) without ever being open to prosecution. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Pompey at first seemed inclined to go along with this; a bill was passed through the popular assembly, perhaps with the support of the consul Pompey, granting Caesar the right to stand for office en absentia (Appian just says that Pompey did not oppose it, BC 2.25). Not long after, though, a law was passed (probably at the insistence of Pompey, as Dio 40.56) de iure magistratuum (concerning the procedure for magistrates). This law reaffirmed the principle that all candidates had to present themselves in person. The law was clearly directed against Caesar. Pompey managed to add a rider to it, belatedly, after it had passed, granting Caesar a specific exemption (Dio 40.56.3, Suet. J. Caesar 28). Broadly, there are two possible explanations for this. One, that Pompey did not intend it to be damaging to Caesar, but rather hoped to make it clear that Caesar was a special case. Two, that Pompey knew that the law would give Caesar's opponents in the senate a weapon to use against him, and deliberately concealed his own role in the authoring of the law, and only came out in favor of the rider after Caesar's representatives pressured him. Pompey's subsequent legislative efforts, in the latter part of his consulship in 52 B.C., seem to confirm that his days as a supporter of Caesar were ending. He passed a law which made it easier to prosecute for bribery in consular elections and another de provinciis which secured for himself a five year extension of his proconsular imperium for Spain; but no similar extension was sought on behalf of Caesar.” ^*^

Rupture between Pompey and Caesar

Part of the agreement made at the conference of Lucca in 56 B.C. was that Caesar was to receive the consulship at the close of his command in Gaul. He naturally wished to retain the control of his army until he had been elected to his new office. The senate was determined that he should not, but should present himself at Rome as a private citizen before his election. Caesar well knew that he would be helpless as a private citizen in the presence of the enemies who were seeking to destroy him. Cato had already declared that he would prosecute him as soon as he ceased to be proconsul in Gaul. Caesar promised, however, to give up his province and his army, if Pompey would do the same; but Pompey refused. The senate then called upon Caesar to give up two of his legions on the plea that they were needed in the Parthian war. The legions were given up; but instead of being sent to the East they were stationed in Campania. Upon further demands, Caesar agreed to give up eight legions of his army, if he were allowed to retain two legions in Cisalpine Gaul until the time of his election. This the senate refused; and demanded that he must give up his province and his whole army by a certain day, or be declared a public enemy. The senate had offered him humiliation or war. He chose war, and crossed the Rubicon (49 B.C.), the stream which separated his province of Cisalpine Gaul from Italy. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassius and Pompey

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “According to Mommsen, we may suppose that Pompey had determined himself upon a breach with Caesar as early as his sole consulship in 52 B.C.. In Mommsen's favor, the marriage tie between the two men had broken in 54 B.C. with the untimely death of Caesar's daughter Julia, and Caesar's attempts to renew it were rebuffed by Pompey. He argues that otherwise Pompey would have appointed Caesar rather than Q. Metellus Scipio as his co-consul for the last few months of 52 B.C. (but Scipio was Pompey's new father-in-law). Mommsen also argues that the staunch Catonian M. Claudius Marcellus could not have been elected consul for 51 B.C. without Pompey's connivance (but this is weak, since we have already seen that the ability of the triumvirs to influence the elections was not absolute). In fact Mommsen has an ulterior motive for locating the breach this early. He wants to argue that Pompey was feeble and indecisive for not acting decisively against Caesar as soon as he could, now that Crassus (who in a pinch would certainly side with his old friend Caesar over Pompey) was dead, having ignominiously failed to defeat the mighty Parthians. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Mommsen believes that the Optimates and Pompey planned to replace Caesar in his Gallic command in March of 49, which would leave Caesar as a private citizen (and hence open to prosecution by his political enemies) during the interval before he could assume the consulship of 48. In any case, if Pompey was actively working against Caesar he was doing his best to keep it quiet. For his part, Caesar still hoped to keep the alliance together, as is shown by his ready willingness to transfer two of his legions to Pompey's control in the Spring of 50; ostensibly this was for use in the next phase of the Parthian war, but as it turned out the legions never left Italy. ^*^

Confrontation Between Caesar and Pompey

Plutarch wrote in “Lives”: “Caesar had long ago resolved upon the overthrow of Pompey, as had Pompey, for that matter, upon his. For Crassus, the fear of whom had hitherto kept them in peace, having now been killed in Parthia, if the one of them wished to make himself the greatest man in Rome, he had only to overthrow the other; and if he again wished to prevent his own fall, he had nothing for it but to be beforehand with him whom he feared. Pompey had not been long under any such apprehensions, having till lately despised Caesar, as thinking it no difficult matter to put down him whom he himself had advanced. But Caesar had entertained this design from the beginning against his rivals, and had retired, like an expert wrestler, to prepare himself apart for the combat. Making the Gallic wars his exercise-ground, he had at once improved the strength of his soldiery, and had heightened his own glory by his great actions, so that he was looked on as one who might challenge comparison with Pompey. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. c.46-c.120), Life of Caesar (100-44 B.C.), written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden, MIT]

“Nor did he let go any of those advantages which were now given him both by Pompey himself and the times, and the ill-government of Rome, where all who were candidates for offices publicly gave money, and without any shame bribed the people, who, having received their pay, did not contend for their benefactors with their bare suffrages, but with bows, swords, and slings. So that after having many times stained the place of election with blood of men killed upon the spot, they left the city at last without a government at all, to be carried about like a ship without a pilot to steer her; while all who had any wisdom could only be thankful if a course of such wild and stormy disorder and madness might end no worse than in a monarchy. Some were so bold as to declare openly that the government was incurable but by a monarchy, and that they ought to take that remedy from the hands of the gentlest physician, meaning Pompey, who, though in words he pretended to decline it, yet in reality made his utmost efforts to be declared dictator. Cato, perceiving his design, prevailed with the senate to make him sole consul, that with the offer of a more legal sort of monarchy he might be withheld from demanding the dictatorship. They over and above voted him the continuance of his provinces, for he had two, Spain and all Africa, which he governed by his lieutenants, and maintained armies under him, at the yearly charge of a thousand talents out of the public treasury.

Roman Empire with territories conquered by Caesar in Gaul and Belgium and by Pompey in the Asia and North Africa

“Upon this Caesar also sent and petitioned for the consulship and the continuance of his provinces. Pompey at first did not stir in it, but Marcellus and Lentulus opposed it, who had always hated Caesar, and now did everything, whether fit or unfit, which might disgrace and affront him. For they took away the privilege of Roman citizens from the people of New Comum, who were a colony that Caesar had lately planted in Gaul, and Marcellus, who was then consul, ordered one of the senators of that town, then at Rome, to be whipped, and told him he laid that mark upon him to signify he was no citizen of Rome, bidding him, when he went back again, to show it to Caesar. After Marcellus's consulship, Caesar began to lavish gifts upon all the public men out of the riches he had taken from the Gauls; discharged Curio, the tribune, from his great debts; gave Paulus, then consul, fifteen hundred talents, with which he built the noble court of justice adjoining the forum, to supply the place of that called the Fulvian. Pompey, alarmed at these preparations, now openly took steps, both by himself and his friends, to have a successor appointed in Caesar's room, and sent to demand back the soldiers whom he had lent him to carry on the wars in Gaul. Caesar returned them, and made each soldier a present of two hundred and fifty drachmas. The officer who brought them home to Pompey spread amongst the people no very fair or favourable report of Caesar, and flattered Pompey himself with false suggestions that he was wished for by Caesar's army; and though his affairs here were in some embarrassment through the envy of some, and the ill state of the government, yet there the army was at his command, and if they once crossed into Italy would presently declare for him; so weary were they of Caesar's endless expeditions, and so suspicious of his designs for a monarchy. Upon this Pompey grew presumptuous, and neglected all warlike preparations as fearing no danger, and used no other means against him than mere speeches and votes, for which Caesar cared nothing. And one of his captains, it is said, who was sent by him to Rome, standing before the senate-house one day, and being told that the senate would not give Caesar longer time in his government, clapped his hand on the hilt of his sword and said, "But this shall."

“Yet the demands which Caesar made had the fairest colours of equity imaginable. For he proposed to lay down his arms, and that Pompey should do the same, and both together should become private men, and each expect a reward of his services from the public. For that those who proposed to disarm him, and at the same time to confirm Pompey in all the power he held, were simply establishing the one in the tyranny which they accused the other of aiming at. When Curio made these proposals to the people in Caesar's name, he was loudly applauded, and some threw garlands towards him, and dismissed him as they do successful wrestlers, crowned with flowers. Antony, being tribune, produced a letter sent from Caesar on this occasion, and read it though the consuls did what they could to oppose it. But Scipio, Pompey's father-in-law, proposed in the senate, that if Caesar did not lay down his arms within such a time he should be voted an enemy; and the consuls putting it to the question, whether Pompey should dismiss his soldiers, and again, whether Caesar should disband his, very few assented to the first, but almost all to the latter. But Antony proposing again, that both should lay down their commissions, all but a very few agreed to it. Scipio was upon this very violent, and Lentulus, the consul, cried aloud, that they had need of arms, and not of suffrages, against a robber; so that the senators for the present adjourned, and appeared in mourning as a mark of their grief for the dissension.

“Afterwards there came other letters from Caesar, which seemed yet more moderate, for he proposed to quit everything else, and only to retain Gaul within the Alps, Illyricum, and two legions, till he should stand a second time for consul. Cicero, the orator, who was lately returned from Cilicia, endeavoured to reconcile differences, and softened Pompey, who was willing to comply in other things, but not to allow him the soldiers. At last Cicero used his persuasions with Caesar's friends to accept of the provinces and six thousand soldiers only, and so to make up the quarrel. And Pompey was inclined to give way to this, but Lentulus, the consul, would not hearken to it, but drove Antony and Curio out of the senate-house with insults, by which he afforded Caesar the most plausible pretence that could be, and one which he could readily use to inflame the soldiers, by showing them two persons of such repute and authority who were forced to escape in a hired carriage in the dress of slaves. For so they were glad to disguise themselves when they fled out of Rome.

Triumph for Pompey

Situation in Rome 51 B.C.

Suetonius wrote: “At last [51 B.C.], when all were thunder-struck at his actions and wondered what their purpose could be, the consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, after first making proclamation that he purposed to bring before the senate a matter of the highest public moment, proposed that a successor to Caesar be appointed before the end of his term, on the ground that the war was ended, peace was established, and the victorious army ought to be disbanded; also that no account be taken of Caesar at the elections, unless he were present, since Pompeius' subsequent action [i.e., in correcting the bill after it had been passed and filed, as explained in the following sentence] had not annulled the decree of the people. And it was true that when Pompeius proposed a bill touching the privileges of officials, in the clause where he debarred absentees from candidacy for office he forgot to make a special exception in Caesar's case, and did not correct the oversight until the law had been inscribed on a tablet of bronze and deposited in the treasury. Not content with depriving Caesar of his provinces and his privilege, Marcellus also moved that the colonists whom Caesar had settled in Novum Comum by the bill of Vatinius should lose their citizenship, on the ground that it had been given from political motives and was not authorized by the law. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum, Divus Iulius” (“The Lives of the Caesars, The Deified Julius”), written A.D. c. 110, Suetonius, 2 vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: William Henemann, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 3-119]

“Greatly troubled by these measures, and thinking, as they say he was often heard to remark, that now that he was the leading man of the state, it was harder to push him down from the first place to the second than it would be from the second to the lowest, Caesar stoutly resisted Marcellus, partly through vetoes of the tribunes and partly through the other consul, Servius Sulpicius. When next year Gaius Marcellus, who had succeeded his cousin Marcus as consul, tried the same thing, Caesar by a heavy bribe secured the support of the other consul, Aemilius Paulus, and of Gaius Curio, the most reckless of the tribunes. But seeing that everything was being pushed most persistently, and that even the consuls elect were among the opposition, he sent a written appeal to the senate, not to take from him the privilege which the people had granted, or else to compel the others in command of armies to resign also; feeling sure, it was thought, that he could more readily muster his veterans as soon as he wished, than Pompeius his newly levied troops. He further proposed a compromise to his opponents, that after giving up eight legions and Gallia Transalpina, he be allowed to keep two legions and Gallia Cisalpina, or at least one legion and Illyricum, until he was elected consul.

“But when the senate declined to interfere, and his opponents declared that they would accept no compromise in a matter affecting the public welfare, he crossed to Gallia Citerior, and after hearing all the legal cases, halted at Ravenna, intending to resort to war if the senate took any drastic action against the tribunes of the commons who interposed vetoes in his behalf. Now this was his excuse for the civil war, but it is believed that he had other motives. Gnaeus Pompeius used to declare that since Caesar's own means were not sufficient to complete the works which he had planned, nor to do all that he had led the people to expect on his return, he desired a state of general unrest and turmoil. Others say that he dreaded the necessity of rendering an account for what he had done in his first consulship contrary to the auspices and the laws, and regardless of vetoes; for Marcus Cato often declared, and took oath too, that he would impeach Caesar the moment he had disbanded his army. It was openly said too that if he was out of office on his return, he would be obliged, like Milo [who had been accused and tried for the murder of Publius Clodius], to make his defence in a court hedged about by armed men. The latter opinion is the more credible one in view of the assertion of Asinius Pollio, that when Caesar at the battle of Pharsalus saw his enemies slain or in flight, he said, word for word: "They would have it so. Even I, Gaius Caesar, after so many great deeds, should have been found guilty, if I had not turned to my army for help." Some think that habit had given him a love of power, and that weighing the strength of his adversaries against his own, he grasped the opportunity of usurping the despotism which had been his heart's desire from early youth. Cicero too was seemingly of this opinion, when he wrote in the third book of his De Offics [3.82; cf. 1.26] that Caesar ever had upon his lips these lines of Euripides [Phoenissae, 524ff.], of which Cicero himself adds a version: 'If wrong may e'er be right, for a throne's sake/ Were wrong most right — be God in all else feared.'

Triumph of Caesar

Battle of Wills Between Pompey and Caesar

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “The crisis over Caesar's command built during the year 50, as the Senate feared the power and popularity which Caesar's victories, described in glowing and regular dispatches, would bring upon his return. In March of that year Caesar proposed to the Senate via his quisling, the tribune C. Scribonius Curio, that both he and Pompey should surrender their commands; the Senate approved this idea overwhelmingly, but Pompey balked and the deal was off (a sign of the weakness even now of the coalition between Pompey and the Catonians). Cato was unable to force the Senate to insist, and Pompey began to gather his forces. Even now Caesar had a final and reasonable offer, that instead of the ten legions he now had he would be content with only one legion and the province of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyria, or two legions and Transalpine Gaul. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Possibly he also was offering to become a private citizen in the interval before his next election as consul. But Pompey was now committed, and his advocates had their way in the Senate. Caesar was declared an outlaw, and the Senate passed the senatus consultum ultimum, the declaration of martial law. Thus Pompey briefly became the representative of the republic against the man of destiny. But the alliance between those who opposed Caesar on principle and those who opposed him out of loyalty to Pompey was never a firm one. A mere two months later Caesar was master of all Italy. He had won over the hearts and minds of the people by sparing the lives of those who resisted him and by scrupulously not taking money except as loans from friends. Three years later the civil war, fought in Northern Greece, Spain, and Africa, was over.” ^*^

Fernando Lillo Redonet wrote in National Geographic History magazine: “The deadline for Caesar to lay down his command, March 50 B.C., came and went. An emergency briefly offered a way out of the stalemate: The Parthians were threatening Rome’s eastern borders and the Senate was asked to send two legions to defend the province of Syria. Pompey declared that he would send one if Caesar sent another. Caesar surprisingly accepted, perhaps to demonstrate a willingness to compromise. According to Caesar’s own account of these tumultuous years, The Gallic Wars, the legion assigned to Pompey was Caesar’s anyway. Keeping his promise, Caesar handed over the 15th Legion, quartered in Cisalpine Gaul, only to find out that the Parthian threat had petered out and that both legions now lay firmly under the control of Pompey in Italy. [Source: Fernando Lillo Redonet, National Geographic History magazine, March-April 2017 /*]

“Far from undermining Caesar’s confidence, Pompey’s deceitful maneuver only seemed to stiffen his resolve. Throughout that year, the brinkmanship between the two generals grew, and nerves stretched to breaking point. A false rumor spread that Caesar had set out from Gaul with four legions. The statesman and orator Cicero vainly tried to find a peaceful solution to the conflict while a sense that the republic was becoming increasingly ungovernable took hold in the capital. Alliances shifted continually: One of Caesar’s most loyal lieutenants, Labienus, decided to switch sides to Pompey. /*\

“Meanwhile, Pompey had convinced himself that his forces were stronger than Caesar’s and that his charismatic leadership would enable him to recruit as many men as he wished in Italy. According to the late first-century historian Plutarch, a contemporary of Suetonius: “When they said that if Caesar was heading to Rome they could not see what troops could withstand him, Pompey boastfully replied with a smile: ‘Legions will spring up anywhere I stamp on the ground in Italy.’” /*\

“Marcus Caelius Rufus, an aristocrat, summarized the situation in a letter to Cicero in the fall of that year: “The closer we come to this inevitable clash, the more apparent the danger. At the heart of the issue is this: Pompey declares he won’t allow Caesar to be elected consul unless Caesar relinquishes control over his army and provinces; Caesar, on the other hand, is convinced his status is threatened if he gives up his troops ... So now ... their scandalous liaison isn’t stepping behind the scenes ... but exploding into full-scale war!” /*\

“Most of the terrified senators were willing to grant the concessions Caesar was asking for to avoid war. In December, when the plebeian leader Curio persuaded the Senate to vote on the proposal for Caesar and Pompey to lay down their arms at the same time, 370 senators voted for it and just 22 against. But the faction opposing Caesar immediately went against the spirit of this decision. They sought out Pompey in the Forum and dramatically placed a sword in his hand, begging him to take command of Italy’s troops to save the republic. They urged him to take command of the army and of as many additional troops as he wanted to recruit himself. Although he was breaking the law, Pompey accepted the mission. /*\

Events Before Caesar Crosses the Rubicon

Fernando Lillo Redonet wrote in National Geographic History magazine: “As the year 49 B.C. opened, Caesar sent the Senate a letter from Ravenna, giving them his final word on the matter. He again offered to resign his command at the same time as Pompey, but the Senate interpreted his proposal as a gesture of arrogance. Pompey and the consuls prevented a vote on the proposal in the letter and passed a motion declaring Caesar a public enemy. The motion was vetoed by Mark Antony, the newly appointed plebeian tribune and crucial ally of Caesar who would prove to play a fateful role in the last stages of his life. Even so, negotiations went on until the very last moment. Caesar even said he would stand down if he were allowed to keep just one legion and govern the province of Illyria, in the modern-day Balkans. The proposal might have been acceptable but was rejected due to fierce opposition by Cato the Younger, one of Caesar’s most implacable opponents. [Source: Fernando Lillo Redonet, National Geographic History magazine, March-April 2017 /*]

“The Senate met again and passed a decree calling on the consuls to defend Rome against any attack. The tribunes Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius (a relative of the famous Cassius who later conspired to assassinate Caesar) exercised their veto, but it was rejected by the Senate. Fearing for their lives, Mark Antony and Cassius fled Rome disguised as slaves and joined Caesar in the north. /*\

“Writing later in The Civil Wars, Caesar recalled how he had been waiting for the Senate’s response for days “[to see] if matters could be brought to a peaceful end by any equitable act on the part of his enemies.” But he now realized there was no other way and started preparing for the final showdown. Around January 10, when he learned of the Senate’s decision, he ordered the 13th Legion to take up their riverside positions, exhorting them to defend the honor of their general whom they had served for nine years. They in turn swore to avenge the insults against him and the tribunes. Caesar now had the backing of a loyal army who would follow him to victory or death. According to the poet Lucan, Caesar declared: “Here I abandon peace and desecrated law. Fortune, it is you I follow. Farewell to treaties. From now on, war is our judge.”“ /*\

Caesar's camp at the Rubicon

Caesar Reaches the Rubicon

Fernando Lillo Redonet wrote in National Geographic History magazine: “On January 10, 49 B.C., on the banks of the Rubicon River in southern Gaul (near the modern-day city of Ravenna), Julius Caesar and the soldiers of the 13th Legion waited and weighed their options. The Rubicon is, in reality, little more than a stream. Its significance to Rome lay in its location, marking the official border between Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, the region south of the Alps governed by Julius Caesar. [Source: Fernando Lillo Redonet, National Geographic History magazine, March-April 2017]

“Huddled against the biting cold, many of the soldiers of the 13th Legion of the army of the Roman Republic had served under Caesar for much of the previous decade. They had witnessed the honing of his skills as a military and political strategist, subjugating Gaul (corresponding to much of modern-day France and northern Italy), extending the bounds of the Roman Republic as far as the Rhine, and all the time shoring up his influence back in Rome....Caesar had no intention of obeying the Senate, and he knew perfectly well what the consequences of his insubordination would be.”

By crossing the Rubicon Caesar declared war on the political establishment of his day. For many historians it marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. To this day “crossing the Rubicon” describes a decision from which there is no return. By doing this, Caesar gambled that he could not only beat his military rival Pompey but also could also outmaneuver conservative politicians like Cicero and Cato. Some historians say Caesar's move marked the end of period in which foreign adventures created larger armies and more powerful generals and it was only a matter of time until they threatened the political status quo.

Moment of Fate: Caesar Crosses the Rubicon

Fernando Lillo Redonet wrote in National Geographic History magazine: “The day before the crossing, Caesar acted as if nothing unusual was happening. The conqueror of Gaul attended a public event in Ravenna and carefully examined plans for a gladiator school. Secretly, he had ordered his cohorts to proceed to the banks of the river and wait for him there. Later, during dinner that night, he told his guests he would have to leave them for a moment. A chariot pulled by mules from a nearby bakery was waiting for him outside, and after a considerable delay in finding the exact position of his troops, he eventually managed to join them on the bank. Here he mulled the agonizing choice that lay before him. /*\

Caesar pausing on the banks of the Rubicon

“Writing around a century and a half later, the historian Suetonius produced an account of this moment that reveals the legendary status the event had attained in the Roman mind. Still unsure whether to advance, a man of extraordinary height and beauty appeared, clearly sent by the gods. “The apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: ‘Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast.’” /*\

“The news that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon reached Rome on January 15. Pompey’s supporters fled in a panic, believing the exaggerated rumors of the size of Caesar’s force—perhaps understandable, given Caesar’s fearsome reputation in Gaul. Rome was emptied of most of the senators and its most influential citizens. Those who stayed in the city were filled with foreboding. Writing a century later, the historian Dio Cassius described the terrifying portents Romans had seen around this time. Wolves were sighted. Earthquakes, comets, and a solar eclipse were seen, and there were reports of the birth of monstrous animals. The Capitol was struck by lightning, which damaged the statues of Jupiter and Mars. It all seemed to portend a terrible disaster for the city: a sacking carried out by vengeful and battle-hardened legions fresh from Gaul. Three months later, however, when he finally entered Rome following Pompey’s flight to Greece, Caesar imposed discipline on his men and reestablished the appearance of legality by holding a Senate meeting on the outskirts of the city. Although few senators actually attended, it sent a clear signal that he was now to be regarded as the sole authority in Rome.” /*\

Suetonius on Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, 49 B.C.

Picking up the story after Caesar receives news that his allies in the Senate have been forced to leave Rome, Suetonius wrote: “"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. [Source: Suetonius "Life of Julius Caesar" in William Stearns Davis’s “Readings in Ancient History” (1912)]

“However, after sunset some mules from a near-by mill were put in his carriage, and he set forward on his journey as privately aspossible, 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. It is even thought that he promised every man the estate of an eques, but that came of a misunderstanding; for since he often pointed to the finger of his left hand as he addressed them and urged them on, declaring that to satisfy all those who helped him to defend his honor he would gladly tear his very ring from his hand, those on the edge of the assembly, who could see him better than they could hear his words, assumed that he said what his gesture seemed to mean; and so the report went about that he had promised them the right of the ring and four hundred thousand sesterces as well [The equites as well as senators had the privilege of wearing a gold ring, and must possess an estate of 400,000 sesterces].

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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