“Alea iacta est.”
(“The die is cast”)
– Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon
“So successful was Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon that it has come to stand for every fateful step taken since.”
– Tom Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
Some decisions change everything.
Julius Caesar knew he was making just such a decision. It was 49 B.C., and Caesar stood paused on the banks of the Rubicon river marking the border between Gaul and Rome. His armies were gathered with him by the river, awaiting his orders to either advance or retreat.
It was the moment where the entire history of the west hung in the balance. To remain or retreat would mean an end to Caesar’s political career and everything he had worked for all his life. To advance was to forever put an end to the Roman Republic.
The fate of an empire was at stake as he stood at the Rubicon and pondered his choice.
He was 50 years old, but had lost nothing of the energy and charm that had helped him in his meteoric rise to success as a young man. Gaius Julius Caesar had come from a very wealthy, aristocratic (or patrician) family, and cut quite the dashing figure himself. As a young man, he had established a reputation as a trend-setter, wearing the latest and greatest fashions of the day: a sheer tunic with thicker trim on the edges, and a loose belt (apparently considered sexy at the time).
His sense of style didn’t end with fashion – it came off in his personality too. When captured by pirates, he nonchalantly demanded they raise their ransom from 20 talents to 50. The people of Rome loved him – they came in droves to hear him as he gave speeches in court. He was witty, smart, good-humored, just the right amount of cocky – in a word, he was the picture of Roman manhood.
But the conservative party in the Senate had been more skeptical. The Republic’s senators were always wary of anyone who became too popular with the masses, but several were downright alarmed at Caesar’s level of sway over the public. A few acted to block his advancement, trying to create a system of checks and balances to keep the Republic stable.
Nothing was more sacred than the Republic to the Romans. It had formed 500 years previously when the last king of Rome was exiled from the city. After that, no one man had been allowed power – it was shared. That was what freedom meant, and freedom was the chief of Roman virtues.
Among other Roman virtues was ambition. Nowadays, we often frown upon ambition as a detrimental characteristic – but it was the opposite in Rome. In Roman society, there was no question of a man actively pursuing and competing against others for the highest honors and titles. To not do so was to betray your heritage and core values. Why have freedom if you didn’t do anything with it?
But there were limits to advancement. The highest position any man could claim in the Republic was consul – the chief executive office held only for a year. There were no reelections or consecutive terms. One and done was the rule, and former consuls were usually shipped off to become governors of Roman provinces.
It was something of a disappointing anticlimax for an ambitious man who’d climbed the ladder of power. Yet such was the price of the Republic and of freedom. No higher power could or ought to be held. This far, no further.
Except Romans loved going further, pushing boundaries wherever fancy took them – it was something in their blood or psyche, manifesting plainly on their growing maps showing more and more territories added and subsumed into Rome itself. In a way, Romans were trained not to believe in limits.
Such a man was Julius Caesar.
Caesar found a way to work his way into the upper echelon’s of Rome’s political scene through lots of money, luck, innate charisma, and sheer talent. He was a natural at politics, and eventually made it to being consul.
But he didn’t stop there.
While consul, he formed a political alliance with Rome’s two most powerful men – Crassus (the richest man in Rome), and the military hero Pompey the Great. This alliance became known as the triumvirate (or as “the three-headed monster,” depending on who you talked to) because of the power the three men held. Effectively, they became the rulers of Rome altogether.
When Caesar finished off his year as consul, he decided it was high time he tried his hand at military conquest. He appealed to the Senate (or ordered them) and received the posting of Governor of Gaul (what is today known as France).
So he set out with his armies and governed Gaul. Except it was Caesar, and he didn’t just govern Gaul. He conquered it.
For about 10 years, Caesar pursued a Roman version of Manifest Destiny and annexed the entirety of Gaul to Rome, extending the borders of the Republic to the Atlantic Ocean (and killing a million or so gauls in the process). Turns out that Caesar, just as with politics, was a brilliant commander. And, since it was Caesar, he let everyone know about it too – he wrote a complete account of his conquest of Gaul and had it published for everyone to read.
The news of his success made a splash in Rome. His victories were astounding, and Roman morale was high.
Except in the Senate.
In fact, Caesar’s success had the Senators quaking in their boots. A popular commander was dangerous not only because of the support he had among the people, but more particularly because of the loyalty he inspired among his own troops. Because of the way the military and government worked at the time, soldiers always placed their loyalty to their commander above loyalty to the Republic. And Caesar was very loved by his troops.
Such was Caesar’s power that it even scared his allies. Crassus had died in the years of Caesar’s absence, and the remaining “head” of the triumvirate, Pompey, was struggling with his own standing in Rome. Caesar – with armies backing him in Gaul – was a spectre that frightened Pompey into realizing the dangers this man posed to the Republic. He had to do something.
So in 50 B.C., Pompey ordered Caesar to disband his armies and return to Rome, because Caesar’s term as governor (usually lasting only 5 years, but Caesar had extended it to 10) was in fact over. Caesar knew that he had pushed the limits a little far over the years, and feared prosecution if he were to return to Rome without the powers he had lately enjoyed.
There was a back-and-forth exchange of letters as they attempted to find a compromise or solution to the Caesar problem. But the truth of the matter was that he had gone too far – he was ordered to leave his troops on the far side of the Rubicon, come to Rome, and face the Senate.
It came down to this, then: Julius Caesar with his troops at nightfall by the Rubicon, contemplating following the Senate’s orders and abiding by the law, or entering Rome with his troops (as was illegal since soldiers were not allowed within the sacred confines of the city itself), and starting a civil war that would rip the Republic apart.
He could have gone to Rome and faced charges, and the Republic would have survived, though Caesar would likely have never held any sort of power again.
It came down to which Roman ideal Caesar held more dear in his heart: was it freedom? or ambition?
He crossed the Rubicon.
Bye Bye Republican Pie
The rest, as they say it, was history. Hearing the news of Caesar’s imminent arrival with his armies, Pompey and the Senate abandoned Rome. Not too long after, Pompey was killed by the Pharoah of Egypt (who thought he was doing Caesar a favor – Caesar wept when he was delivered Pompey’s head). Over time, nearly all the senators filtered back tino Rome where Caesar pardoned them. The few who didn’t return (like the Republic’s great defender Cato) committed suicide – they refused to live when the Republic was dead.
Because the Republic was very, very dead. Sure, the Senate still met in the forum as per usual, but Caesar reigned amongst them – the sole wielder of executive power. The once-proud Senate, representative of the people’s freedom, was Caesar’s personal puppet, unable to contradict even his smallest wishes. Julius Caesar was named dictator for life, then elevated to a god. He never was named an emperor (that was for his later successors), but the seeds of the Roman Empire were sown by Caesar himself.
5 years later, a group of senators hoping to restore the Republic and their freedom stabbed Caesar to death on March 15, 44 B.C. It didn’t work. They were each hunted down and killed, and it wasn’t long before Caesar’s adopted son and heir Octavian assumed power and became known as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.
Caesar’s decision at the Rubicon had changed Rome (and therefore all of western history) forever.
The Choice of Fate
Some people, looking at Julius Caesar’s story, say that his career was inevitable, that there was no other way things could have panned out. I disagree. Whatever Caesar’s story was, it was anything but inevitable. It was a series of choices and decisions, a prioritization of principles, that led to Caesar standing at the Rubicon.
I personally think that Caesar could have chosen the other option – laying aside command and facing trial in Rome. But that would have been a Caesar of different ideals.
The question boiled down to a prioritization of the very virtues he had been taught as a Roman all his life. He had been taught to value both the Republic and ambition. To Romans, both were good and worthwhile – in fact, they were the chief virtues of Rome. Until the Rubicon, Caesar prioritized both without issue. In his mind, the advancement of his career was also a protection of the Republic. What made his decision at the Rubicon agonizing was that his ambition and the Republic were pitted against one another. Only one could come out on top.
For Caesar, the winner was ambition, as it always had been. He had stuck by his principles (funny as that sounds), and so remained consistent. That consistency is the only thing that makes his career seem inevitable.
I think we all face our own personal Rubicons. Perhaps all of western civilization won’t hang in the balance, but we have moments where we recognize a decision is going to have some significant consequences.
A selection of college major could decide a career.
A “yes” to a marriage proposal could decide a lifetime.
A slice of cake could decide your waistline (I’m kidding).
The point is, we face these moments and sometimes we face them consciously. More often than not, our decisions boil down to a question of ideals, and the hardest decisions are ones that pit our dearest virtues against one another.
And depending on which principle we stand by, the consequences will, you know, change everything.
They are starting to put ads on our blog. We do not approve these and are not getting any residuals whatsoever, so I apologize for the content. I’ll see what I can do about it.