From today’s Writer’s Alamanac with Garrison Keilor, 10 January, 2011
“It was on this day in 49 B.C. that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and launched a civil war. At the time of Caesar’s birth, in 100 B.C., the Roman Republic was falling into political chaos. It had only nominal control of its provinces, which were really under the command of their powerful governors. A few wealthy individuals were becoming increasingly corrupt, and they found it easier to settle political issues with the military than to try and honor Roman law. Caesar was born into a wealthy and well-known family, but one without much political clout. Caesar became the head of his family at the age of 16 after his father died, and he worked his way up quickly through various official positions and appointments — he was an assistant to the consul, a chief priest, a governor of Spain, and then consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. He formed the “first triumvirate” with Pompey and Crassus — Pompey was a military hero who was frustrated with the politics of the Republic, and Crassus was one of the richest people in the Republic, and is still considered one of the wealthiest people who has ever lived. Even though Pompey and Crassus hated each other, Caesar convinced them that it was worth getting over their differences, because the power and wealth that the three men had together made them hugely influential. The Triumvirate was secured when Pompey married Caesar’s daughter, Julia. Caesar was appointed governor of Gaul — what is now France and Belgium, but at that point was part of the Roman Republic. There, he recruited soldiers and conquered most of Western Europe, all the way to Britain.
But back in Rome, his political alliances were falling apart. Crassus was killed in battle, hating Pompey until the end. Pompey turned against Caesar, and after Julia died, Pompey got remarried to the daughter of one of Caesar’s enemies. Pompey had been appointed the temporary leader of the Senate and was turning the Senate against Caesar, declaring him an enemy of state. In 50 B.C., the Senate announced that Caesar’s term as a governor had ended, and demanded that he disband his army and return to Rome. According to Roman law, if a general was accompanied by a standing army when he entered the official Roman Republic from one of the Roman provinces, he would be considered a traitor. Caesar was afraid that if he obeyed Pompey’s orders and disbanded his army, he would be prosecuted by the Senate for abusing power in the past, and would have no one to defend him.
The Rubicon River formed the border between Gaul and the Roman Republic. According to legend, even when Caesar got to the river with his army, he had still not made up his mind about what he would do. With the famous phrase Alea iacta est, or “the die is cast,” he decided to cross. The historian Suetonius was born around 70 A.D., more than a century after Caesar crossed the Rubicon. He published a history of 12 Roman emperors, beginning with Caesar. Suetonius wrote: “Overtaking his cohorts at the river Rubicon, which was the boundary of his province, he paused for a while, and realizing what a step he was taking, he turned to those about him and said: ‘Even yet we may draw back; but once cross yon little bridge, and the whole issue is with the sword.’ As he stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, 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,’ said he. Accordingly, crossing with his army, and welcoming the tribunes of the commons, who had come to him after being driven from Rome, he harangued the soldiers with tears, and rending his robe from his breast besought their faithful service.” With Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, the Roman Republic was thrown into civil war. Eventually, Caesar defeated Pompey and his allies and emerged as the winner. As emperor, he made some radical changes in government. He decreased the power of the provinces, and centralized power in Rome. He eliminated much of the government’s debt, disbanded powerful guilds, and rewarded people for having children in an effort to increase Rome’s population. He set a term limit on governors, launched a huge rebuilding effort, established a police force, and modified the calendar. He made himself incredibly powerful and demanded that everyone revere him as part-deity. Despite all he did and his huge legacy, Caesar’s reign as emperor was short. He crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., and he was assassinated in 44 B.C.
Because of Caesar, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” has entered popular culture, meaning “past the point of no return.” And it is used in all sorts of contexts. In various articles written last fall, Google was “crossing the Rubicon” for the online shopping industry by making it possible for shoppers to see which local stores carry the products they want, in their store, at that very moment; Subaru was “crossing the Rubicon to sedan-hood” with its switch away from a hatchback for one of its models; Joe Biden said, “I crossed the Rubicon about not being president and being vice president when I decided to take this office.” Rubicon is the name of a recently terminated conspiracy thriller TV show, and Crossing the Rubicon is the title of an album by the Swedish band The Sounds. The Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy said, “Sometimes you don’t know if you’re Caesar about to cross the Rubicon or Captain Queeg cutting your own tow line.”
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