You would be forgiven for thinking Rubicon is a bit like Comic-con, but for people who love jewellery. It isn’t.
The Rubicon was a shallow meandering river in North Italy that ran along Ancient Rome’s boundary. To prevent trouble, the Senate decreed no general could bring his legions across such borders into Roman territory.
Over a decade Julius Caesar made a fortune subduing Gaul. He slaughtered countless people, enslaved the rest and carted off everything that wasn’t nailed down. Due to some pretty fancy footwork he also made sure the plebs in Rome knew what a hero he was. (And we think self-promotion started with Facebook and Twitter!)
With Caesar’s governorship of Gaul ending, he wanted his due reward. Being elected Consul was the ultimate accolade in Roman politics. But while the people loved their dashing hero, the Senate, seething with jealousy, plotted to arrest Caesar for treason.
Caesar knew he was safe in Gaul with his legions. The Senate didn’t have anyone with the balls to seize him in front of his soldiers. And once Consul, he would also be immune from prosecution.
But , here was the rub…
As soon as he left his legions and set foot in Roman territory he was fair game. He would be arrested, tried and punished long before he could bribe the voters and fix the election. Yet all was not lost, Caesar had a plan. What was good enough for his long-time rival Pompey ‘the Great’ was good enough for him.
Not becoming Governor of Gaul until his 40s, Caesar was a bit of a late bloomer. It is no surprise he was jealous Rome’s other darling. Pompey was leading armies and winning battles at the age of 24. He was the original baby-faced stone-cold killer and the Romans couldn’t get enough of him. They elected Pompey to an unprecedented pinnacle of power: a solitary consul. Normally consuls came in pairs; to keep an eye on each other. In addition they let Pompey keep his legions.
Unsurprisingly, the Senate refused Caesar’s request to be treated the same way. This left him with no option but enter Rome with a legion for protection. Knowing this would make him Rome’s enemy and cause a civil war, Caesar hesitated on the far bank of the Rubicon.
Just before dawn Caesar swallowed his doubts and gave the order to cross the river. He ominously added a quote in Greek from his favourite comic playwright Menander. The die is cast, he said knowing as every gambler does, once you let go of the dice there is no way back. Everything is in the lap of the gods.
As Caesar approached, the panicked Senate and Pompey fled the city.
The ensuing war tore the Republic apart.
Yet this was just a shadow of what was to come under his successors.
Defeated Pompey fled to Egypt where he was murdered by Cleopatra’s brother hoping to curry favour with Caesar. It didn’t work. Caesar sided with his intelligent and ambitious (although it must be said, not beautiful) sister.
Caesar became dictator for life and shortly after was murdered in the Senate by the very men who had tried to prosecute him. It seemed Caesar paid the ultimate price for showing clemency to his enemies. His heirs did not make the same mistake. They were savage. Their death lists decimated Rome’s great and good while filling their own coffers.
A series of bitter civil wars turned Roman against Roman and almost destroyed Rome itself. It certainly destroyed the Republic (res publica – a public thing). Eventually Marc Anthony and Caesar’s nephew fell out. Caesar’s nephew emerging triumphant rechristened himself Augustus – a prince of peace. His proclamation of the universal peace, the Pax Romana, included the first use of the word ‘gospel’ – meaning good news.
Augustus liked to pretend he was ‘Princeps’: the first among equals (a prince). In truth he was ‘Imperator’ (it meant commander and gave us the words emperor and empire). He kept a tight stranglehold on the army and his power, even to the detriment of his family. For her public infidelity, Augustus exiled his only daughter Julia to a tiny island and allowed her no visitors. Shortly after he died, she was starved to death by her husband, the new emperor, Tiberius.
With Cleopatra’s suicide Augustus dissolved the Mediterranean’s oldest surviving empire and made Egypt (Rome’s bread basket) his personal fief, ensuring he kept the plebs on side with their dole of bread and circuses.
Today the phrase ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ signifies a point of no return, where nothing remains the same. Where the past is forever lost and the future irrevocably changed.