"Jacta Alea Esto" (Let The Die Be Cast); Julius Caesar Crosses the Rubicon River

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"Jacta Alea Esto" (Let The Die Be Cast); Julius Caesar Crosses the Rubicon River

"Caesar Crossing the Rubicon" (artist unknown)
From the book "Cyclopedia of Universal History" by John C. Ridpath (1885)
Image from http://etc.usf.edu/clipart (Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: January 10, 49 BC

Today's history lesson involves the beginning of the large chapter in the career and life of Julius Caesar, Roman general, governor, politician, and patrician. By the act of crossing the Rubicon, he initiated a civil war, essentially making himself a criminal in the eyes of the Senate of Rome.


Bust of Julius Caesar (sculptor unknown)
On Display in the National Archaeological Museum,
Naples, Italy

Born in July of 100 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar belonged to a patrician family which claimed descent from refugees of the sack of Troy. Caesar forged a political career covering a number of important offices, and eventually settled on military pursuits. [If any readers wish to go into the greater details of Caesar's career, they are encouraged to do so…] Caesar also ran up huge debts, likely from the use of bribes among the lower classes and other patrician families to win a number of elections. In 62 his debts threatened to interfere with his assumption of office in Spain; therefore, Caesar turned to Marcus Licinius Crassus - the richest man in Rome - and they forged an alliance where Crassus paid Caesar's debts and the two worked together to push Caesar's political agenda in Rome.

Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus (114-53 BC)
Sculptor unknown, located in the Louvre Museum, Paris

In 60, Caesar was elected consul (essentially chief executive of Rome) for the coming year. His campaign was rife with "irregularities" and Caesar knew he would need assistance during his year of rulership. Therefore, Caesar drew Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius (better known simply as Pompey) into an alliance which became known as the "First Triumvirate." The three men pushed a political agenda which included land reform among other subjects. Roman patricians - a notoriously conservative lot - began to oppose Caesar, who was apparently the mastermind of the trio. Eventually, Caesar received three provinces (Transalpine Gaul, Cisalpine Gaul, and Illyrium) to govern, narrowly avoiding prosecution for various irregularities during his consulship. He also secured his governships for a term of five years, during which charges could not be brought against him.

Map of Roman Republic c. 60 BC (Image courtesy of www.laits.utexas.edu )

Between 58 and 52 Caesar led his legions into Gaul, spending his time conquering the land and people and enriching his own coffers to pay his still-massive debts. His coalition with Crassus and Pompey began to fray midway through his Gallic campaigns, but it stood strong until several events in 54 and 53 brought things crashing down. First, Pompey's young wife - who was Caesar's daughter - died in childbirth. Never really close before the marriage, Pompey and Caesar were soon antagonists, as Pompey began to champion the conservative Senate. A year later, Crassus raised an army and invaded the Parthian Empire. His army was annihilated at the battle of Carrhae. One historian claimed that after Crassus was killed, his severed head was brought to the Parthian commander. Knowing of the Roman's insatiable lust for wealth, molten gold was poured into the mouth of the head. [I have written before of Crassus; interested readers should go to the following link on the Burn Pit: http://burnpit.us/2010/06/battle-carrhae-romans-crushed-parthians]

With the final conquest of Gaul, Caesar now had to face his political opposition virtually alone, with Crassus dead and Pompey having flipped sides. In 52 BC, at the First Triumvirate's end, the Roman Senate supported Pompey as sole consul; meanwhile, Caesar had become a military hero and champion of the people. Knowing he hoped to become consul when his governorship expired, the Senate, politically fearful of him, ordered him to resign command of his army. In December of 50 BC, Caesar wrote to the Senate agreeing to resign his military command if Pompey did the same. Offended, the Senate demanded he immediately disband his army, or be declared an enemy of the people: an illegal political bill, for he was entitled to keep his army until his term expired.

A secondary reason for Caesar's immediate want for another consulship was delaying the inevitable senatorial prosecutions awaiting him upon retirement as governor of Illyricum and Gaul. These potential prosecutions were based upon alleged irregularities occurred in his consulship and war crimes committed in his Gallic campaigns. Moreover, Caesar loyalists, the tribunes Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius Longinus, vetoed the bill, and were quickly expelled from the Senate. They then joined Caesar, who had assembled his army at the town of Rimini. He asked for his men for their support against the Senate; agreeing, his army called for action. The Senate voted near-dictatorial powers to Pompey, who was now fully prepared to take on Caesar as an "enemy of the State."

Column from which Caesar addressed his troops
Before marching on Rome; located in Rimini, Italy

Caesar "Casts the Die"

By the end of December, Caesar knew he was opposed by the Senate, his former son-in-law and political partner Pompey, and most of the Roman patrician class. He was, however, extremely popular with the plebians (lower classes), who regarded him as a war hero. Caesar still had one legion at his command, the Thirteenth (later receiving the cognomen Gemina), perhaps a total of 5000-6500 men, veterans of his Gallic campaigns. His force left Rimini, and proceeded to advance toward Rome.

On January 10 of the year 49, Caesar and his army stood a few miles north of the Rubicon River, which marked the boundary between the Cisalpine Gaul province to the north, and Italy proper to the south. Caesar realized crossing the river was a legally-proscribed action forbidden to any army-leading general. The proscription protected the Roman Republic from a coup d'état. He received news of the Senate's action early in the day. He promptly sent some of his cavalry to ride south and secure a bridgehead on the Rubicon. According to British author Tom Holland in his book "Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic," a rather odd scene unfolded:

"Caesar…passed the afternoon by having a bath, and attending a banquet, where he chatted with guests as though he had not a care in the world. Only at dusk did he rise from his couch. Hurrying in a carriage along dark and twisting byways, he finally caught up with his troops on the bank of the Rubicon. There was a moment's dreadful hesitation, and then he was crossing its swollen waters into Italy, toward Rome."

According to the historian Plutarch, as Caesar crossed the river he quoted one of his favorite Greek playwrights Menander for the phrase that most famous. However, Caesar actually spoke in Greek when he stated, "Anerriphtho kubos" which later Roman historian Suetonius translated into its more familiar Latin form: "Jacta alea est;" which means "The die is cast."

Footnote #1: As a result of Caesar's military action, a civil war began which would last until 45. After Caesar was given lifetime dictatorial powers, opponents hatched a plot to assassinate him in the halls of the Roman Senate. After his death, further conflict eliminated the conspirators until in 30, when Mark Antony committed suicide in Egypt. Shortly afterward, Caesars nephew and appointed heir Octavian became sole ruler of the Roman Republic, later acquiring the name of Augustus.

"The Death of Caesar" by Jean-Léon Jérôme (1867), oil on canvas painting
[Note Caesar lying on floor at the feet of a statue of Pompey]
Currently at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.