This week (Jan. 10 by the Roman calendar) in 49 B.C., Roman proconsul Julius Cesar and his army crossed the Rubicon River, which marked the boundary between the Roman province of Gaul and Italy proper. In doing so, Caesar defied the Roman Senate, which had warned him that to cross the Rubicon with his army would make him an outlaw, punishable by death.
But to Caesar, crossing the Rubicon without his army would leave him at the mercy of his many enemies in the Senate, who were jealous of Caesar’s military victories and fearful of his battle-hardened and loyal army, which had just spent six brutal years conquering Gaul. Thus the Senate commanded Caesar to leave his army behind and come alone to Rome to face charges of committing war crimes during the Gaul campaign. Caesar knew he would be found guilty, regardless of the truth, and sent into exile. This would have, as he put it, “stripped me of my dignitas” — his dignity, his respect. To Caesar, a soldier and statesman, that was a fate worse than death.
And so Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and headed for Rome, expecting to battle his chief adversary, Pompey, who had assembled an army larger than Caesar’s and who had the advantage of the defensive position inside Rome’s walls. But even Pompey feared the powerful soldiers that Caesar commanded, and fled Rome, heading for Greece. Caesar followed and at the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar destroyed Pompey’s army, causing Pompey to flee to Egypt.
Returning to Rome triumphantly, Caesar was given dictatorial powers, which he used to implement a number of badly needed political, economic and financial reforms. In 49 B.C. Rome faced an economic crisis, a debt and mortgage crisis that had led to many bankruptcies, and an unpopular war in the Middle East (sound familiar?). Most of Caesar’s reforms were successful; he instituted a public works program that put people back to work, he passed a debt restructuring law that eased the debt crisis and reduced bankruptcies, and he put in place important land reforms. Indeed, it was as much for these policies as his military exploits that Rome’s citizens eventually made him dictator for life.
Of course, as the world knows, that life soon ended in a bloody murder by a gang of Senatorial conspirators on the Ides of March (Roman calendar) in 44 B.C.
Caesar died as he lived. Fearlessly. It is commonly believed that as Caesar crossed the Rubicon he shouted, “The die is cast!” Actually what he said was, “Let the die be cast high!”
The former implies that his destiny has been decided. The latter implies he will decide his own destiny.