Crossing the Rubicon

‘They wanted it. Were it not for the support of my army they would have passed judgement upon me in spite of my achievements.’ (Caesar looking at the bodies of dead senators after Pharsalus)

By 50 the mood in Rome was increasingly tense. The fear was similar to that in anticipation of Pompey’s return in 62, but probably even worse, for Caesar was perceived now as a more open revolutionary, and his province, with its large, veteran army, lay on Italy’s own border. Many Romans feared that this force would be turned against the state in a bid for dictatorship. A much smaller group of senators, led by Cato and including many of the House’s most influential members, was determined that Caesar should not be allowed to return to normal politics, since his new-found wealth and prestige would make it difficult to oppose him. Were he allowed a second consulship, it was feared that his behaviour this time would be even worse than in 59. Everyone realised that Pompey’s attitude would be decisive, but his intentions remained unclear. Stopping Caesar from arranging to stand in absentia (and so retaining his army) for the consulship required at the very least Pompey’s inaction, while if it came to a war, he was the only one capable of matching Caesar’s military might. Yet if Caesar was defeated and killed or exiled, this would remove Pompey’s last serious rival, leaving him with massively greater power, influence and wealth than anyone else within the Republic. This in itself threatened monarchy, but Cato and his supporters clearly believed this to be the lesser of two evils. At worst Pompey was a less skilful politician than Caesar and so would have greater difficulty in exploiting his position, but it seems likely that they hoped in some way to negate him. Perhaps the only real chance for the Republic would have been to accept Caesar’s return and continue to have two leading senators or principes far outstripping their fellows and so balancing each other’s power. Even if this had occurred, there was always the risk that the two would fall out at a later date and that a war would result. In the event, intransigence on both sides prevented any compromise.

In 51 Caesar had tried to have his command extended until the very end of 49, presumably so that he could then move directly into the consulship for 48, but the measure was successfully opposed in the Senate, in part because Pompey failed to support it. This was followed by several attempts to have Caesar recalled immediately, using the argument that the war in Gaul had already been completed. Pompey opposed these moves, and in March 50 made it clear that Caesar ought to be permitted the original extent of his governorship, no more and no less. The failure to support his old ally more fully encouraged the belief that there was a split between the two.

In the meantime Caesar had been employing the profits of his campaigns to buy influence and friends at Rome. One of the consuls of 50, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, allegedly received 36,000,000 sesterces (as a guide an ordinary soldier was paid 1, 000 sesterces a year), enough to cover the great debts he had incurred in restoring the Basilica Aemilia (originally built by an ancestor) in the forum. Paullus did not support his colleague Marcellus in his attacks on Caesar. More active support was purchased from the tribune of the plebs Caius Scribonius Curio, at the cost of 10,000,000, which also went mainly to his many creditors. Curio was highly talented, but unreliable, having been involved with many of the scandals of the last decade, and had previously been vocal in his condemnation of Caesar. Now he proved vigorous in his support of Caesar’s objectives throughout his year as tribune. In the Senate he argued that Pompey’s Spanish command should end at the same time as Caesar’s post, although it in fact had several years still to run. More than a few senators responded favourably to this idea, hoping that in this way open war between the two men could be averted. When the Senate finally voted on this proposal on 1 December 50, it was carried by 370 votes to 22. However, in the same session Marcellus arranged for them also to vote separately on whether Caesar and Pompey should be removed from their commands. A large majority was in favour of Caesar laying down his governorship, and as big a majority against forcing Pompey to do so. Rejecting the Senate’s decision that both should give up their armies, Marcellus and a group of supporters went to call on Pompey. Giving him a sword, they requested that he take action to preserve the Republic. Pompey neither accepted nor declined this task, and the city’s uncertainty deepened. Then, a few days later he seemed to have declared himself openly, and took command of two legions, I and XV. Veterans from his old armies were summoned to Rome.

Curio’s term as tribune expired later in the month, but another of Caesar’s supporters, Mark Antony, had been elected to the office and continued his work. In the meantime Caesar had written to the Senate, recounting his many victories won on Rome’s behalf and his other services to the state, reminding them that he had already been granted the right to stand for consulship in absentia, and offering to lay down his command, provided that Pompey did the same thing. If he did not, then Caesar felt that he was obliged to retain his legions as protection against the faction opposed to him. The letter included the scarcely veiled threat that he was also willing to free Rome from the tyranny of this faction. On the same day that this was read in the Senate, Scipio, Pompey’s father-in-law, proposed issuing a decree that Caesar must hand over his legions by a set date— probably some time in the summer—but the measure was vetoed by the tribunes. Another group of senators, this time headed by Caesar’s father-in-law; Calpurnius Piso, asked leave of absence to visit Caesar in his province and negotiate with him, but this was refused. Curio acted as Caesar’s representative and proposed various compromises, at first that Caesar would give up the main military province, Transalpine Gaul, later extended to Cisalpine Gaul. He would remain governor of Illyricum with command of just one legion, but must be allowed to stand in absentia for the consulship. If the offer was serious, and we have no reason to doubt that it was, this would have made it virtually impossible for Caesar to fight a civil war and seize power by force. Pompey seems to have been tempted, but Cato and his associates so detested Caesar that they simply would not accept his standing for election without first becoming a private citizen, and therefore subject to prosecution. Another suggestion, supported by Cicero, was that at the same time Pompey should leave Italy and actually go to govern his Spanish provinces. One of the consuls for 49, Lucius Lentulus Cornelius Crus was violently opposed to any compromise, and continually insulted both Antony and Curio.

Marcus Porcius Cato commanded tremendous respect, if only moderate practical support, in the Senate due to his outspoken and sternly moral views which recalled those of his famous ancestor; Cato the Elder His intransigence was a major factor in making the Civil War inevitable. (AKG Berlin/Erich Lessing)

On 7 January 49 the Senate met and passed its ultimate decree, the senatus consultum ultimum, which called on the magistrates to use any means to defend the state. Caesar’s supporters among the tribunes felt threatened with physical assault if they remained in the city. Disguised as slaves, they were hidden in carts and fled north to join Caesar, as did Curio. In the coming months Caesar’s propaganda would exploit the threats made to the tribunes of the plebs, for this office was held in particular respect and affection by the population as a whole. In the days to come Pompey and the Senate began to prepare the war effort against Caesar. Scipio was given command of Syria and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, consul in 54 and a longtime opponent of Caesar, received the Gallic provinces.

The news reached Caesar at Ravenna on 10 January. He spent the day watching gladiators training and held a previously arranged dinner in the evening, but secretly issued orders for several parties of soldiers to travel in civilian clothes carrying concealed weapons to Ariminum (modern Rimini), the nearest town in Italy. With him he had only a single legion, XIII, and apparently some 300 cavalrymen. Late in the evening he excused himself to his guests, and then departed for Ariminum in a carriage drawn by two mules. One tradition claims that in the night they lost their way, and it was only after they had found a local guide that they returned to the right road and reached the river Rubicon, which marked the boundary of his province. Commanders were barred by law from leading troops outside their province without the Senate’s express permission, so crossing the river would turn Caesar into a rebel. In some versions Caesar paused uncertainly for some time, discussing with his officers what he should do. One of these was Asinius Pollio, who later wrote a history of the war (now sadly lost), so it is possible that he was truly indecisive and that these accounts are not simply inventions intended to heighten dramatic tension. Less likely is the story that they were confronted by the vision of a god playing pipes. However long it took, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, uttering the famous line ‘the die is cast’—alea iacta est in Latin; although some versions claim that he spoke in Greek.

Caesar and his men occupied Ariminum without a fight and were soon joined by the tribunes. There was widespread fear of what he would do next. Cicero’s correspondence from the early weeks of 49 is filled with gloomy forecasts of the bloodshed which everyone was sure would accompany the advance of the Caesarian army. In Gaul, Caesar and his legions had fought very aggressively and often with extreme brutality, some sources claiming that over a million people had been killed in less than a decade. Perhaps, as some modern commentators claim, many expected the legions to behave in no less harsh a manner now that they had burst into Italy and Cicero on one occasion even wondered whether Caesar would not prove more like Hannibal than a Roman general. Yet we should remember that nearly all Romans, including Cicero and many opponents, had revelled in Caesar’s victories over foreign enemies. Cato had wanted to have Caesar prosecuted for breach of faith when he attacked during a truce, and was not primarily concerned with the massacre of barbarian tribesmen. Far more worrying to contemporaries was the precedent of every civil war and rebellion fought in the previous 40 years. Marius had massacred any opponents he could catch when he seized Rome in 87. Sulla had made the process more formal, with the proscriptions, long lists of names posted in the forum. Any citizen proscribed lost all his legal rights; this made it legitimate for anyone to kill them and in doing so they would gain a share of the victim’s property that would otherwise go to the state. Rome’s civil wars were not fought between rival political ideologies but rival individuals, and normally ended in the death of all those on the losing side. There was no reason to suspect that Caesar would be any different, and the political violence he had employed during his consulship only seemed to make this more likely.

In fact the war did not begin as anyone had expected. Caesar moved quickly, seizing towns with the limited forces at his disposal rather than waiting to gather his legions. He was largely unopposed, but the advance of his army was not accompanied by massacre or atrocity and his soldiers were under strict orders not to loot. There was a strange, phoney war quality to the first few weeks. Caesar in particular, was trying to show that he was still willing to compromise. Messages went back and forth as he suggested various compromises. Pompey and his allies replied by saying that they could not negotiate while Caesar commanded troops on Italian soil, and that he must return to Cisalpine Gaul before anything could be discussed. Yet Pompey did offer to leave for Spain once Caesar had laid down his command. Caesar refused the offer, perhaps not trusting the Senate or maybe feeling that he had gone too far to withdraw at this stage. Even so, both sides continued to claim publicly that they still hoped for a negotiated settlement, and were only thwarted by the enemy’s intransigence.

Mark Antony acquired at an early age a reputation for wild living and radical politics. Though abler than most, he was fairly typical of the disreputable supporters on which Caesar had to rely. After Caesar’s death he emerged as one of the most important leaders of the Caesarean faction. (Kingston Lacy, National Trust Photographic Library)

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