Caesar’s Road to the Rubicon—Rome Goes to War

From a lecture series presentd by Garrett G. Fagan, Ph.D.

With three large egos involved, it was inevitable that tensions within the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus would rise. Yet how did the situation deteriorate so drastically that, when Caesar crossed a small river, known as the Rubicon, on January 10, 49 B.C., it was akin to a declaration of war on Rome?

Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

In April of 56 B.C., Caesar went down to the town of Luca, which was the closest town to the border of Italy. It was as far south as Caesar could go without relinquishing his proconsular power by leaving his province. Troops of senators went up to pay their respects. Pompey and Crassus were invited up to this conference. Caesar met with them, and the differences between the three men—the triumvirate—were patched up. Four important decisions came out of this conference.

Learn more: Building the Roman Republic

The Roman Republic on the Ropes

Image of Ceaser for the Caesar’s Road to the Rubicon article
Julius Caesar

First of all, Caesar, who believed that his conquest of Gaul was still not entirely complete, had his command in Gaul extended for a further five years. As a balance, Pompey was given a command in Spain and Libya, giving him control over several legions there.

He was given a special dispensation that he could govern his provinces through representatives while he himself stayed in Rome. Pompey seemed to have liked the high life of the city and did not fancy going off to Libya or Spain for long periods of time. He was not like Caesar, who enjoyed life on campaign.

Image of Pompey
Pompey

With Pompey in command in Spain and Libya and Caesar’s command extended, Crassus realized that he was being massively outshadowed by his peers and wanted some of the glory. His only real military success had been 14 years previously with the suppression of the Spartican rebellion, and that had been sullied by Pompey’s appearance.

Crassus wanted military glory, and he was given a five-year command in Syria and the east. It was fully expected he would attack Rome’s only civilized neighbor in the east, the Parthian Empire, which he did.

Image of Crassus for Rubicon article
Crassus

In addition, Crassus and Pompey were to be consuls in 55 B.C. to ensure that all these commands were properly voted through the various assemblies. It must be stressed that all of these decisions were made between the three men without reference to the Senate at all.

They were basically carving up the empire among themselves and would then rely on violence and intimidation to ensure that their desires were met. Clearly the Roman Republic was on the ropes.

Caesar sent down some of his troops who were on furlough to “help” in the election of Pompey and Crassus for the consulship of 55 B.C., which nevertheless was delayed because of virtual anarchy in Rome until the early part of January 55 B.C. In due course, Pompey and Crassus did become consuls and the various commands were doled out exactly as they were supposed to be.

Learn more: Antony and Cleopatra’s Death Pact

A Family Death and a Failed Invasion

If one were looking at the situation in 55 B.C., one would think it looked like the triumvirate had been restored to power. But in fact, the years 54 B.C. through 49 B.C. saw the dissolution of the triumvirate and a civil war between Pompey and Caesar.

In the first place, in 54 B.C., Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, died in childbirth. The marital link between Pompey and Caesar was thus broken, and it was not renewed.

Painting of The defeat and death of Crassus at the hands of the Parthians
The defeat and death of Crassus at the hands of the Parthians

Then, as proconsul in Syria, Crassus set off with great pomp and ceremony to attack the neighboring Parthian Empire in 53 B.C. The Parthians had done nothing to deserve Crassus’s invasion; he simply attacked them for military glory. Crassus took his armies and 40,000-men heavy Roman infantry into the heartland of the Parthian kingdom.

Crassus, however, was completely incapable of dealing with the Parthian form of warfare, and his army was crushed at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C. in northern Mesopotamia. Crassus himself, along with his son, was killed in battle.

Pompey the Traditionalist, Caesar the Tyrant

Pompey and Caesar were left alone in their alleged alliance. The following year, in 52 B.C., the situation in Rome got even worse. Fighting between gang leaders, Clodius and Milo, basically blocked government. Eventually, an enormous street fight just outside of Rome resulted in a fire in the Senate house that burned many parts of the city.

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There was widespread disorder and rioting. In 52 B.C., the Senate declared the ultimate decree, the senatus consultum ultimum, and appointed Pompey sole consul for the year to restore order, which he did by violence and force, bringing troops into the city. This sole consulship was unheard of and seems to have been a way to avoid creating an outright dictatorship.

By 52 B.C. Pompey was aligned more closely with the Senate than he had been before. He had worked on its behalf to put down the violence that had besieged and disrupted the republic for so many years. A rather ominous event took place in 52 B.C. when Pompey married the daughter of a leading optimate senator, a man who was well-known to be an opponent of Caesar.

Pompey’s alliance with the conservative optimates seems to have gotten stronger. From 52 B.C. to 49 B.C., the calls for Caesar’s recall from his proconsulship in Gaul and for his prosecution for his behavior as a consul in 59 B.C. grew increasingly more strident.

Learn more: Hannibal: Rome Holds Its Breath

Pompey did nothing firmly to block these moves against Caesar, but he did not fully support them either. Pompey began to be convinced by the conservative elements in the Senate that he was the protector of the traditional way of Roman life, against the threat of Caesarian tyranny. Caesar wanted to come back from his proconsulship, of course, and take on a second consulship. Negotiations heated up as Caesar’s command in Gaul came to a close at the end of 50 B.C.

The negotiations between Pompey, Caesar, and the Senate grew more intense. Caesar, it must be said in his favor, showed a high degree of reasonableness. In December of 50 B.C., he made a final proposal that both he and Pompey disarm simultaneously. The Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of this proposal, 370 votes for to 22 against.

“The Die Is Cast”

Caesar crosses the Rubicon

Despite the fact that the Senate had voted in favor of this proposal, the optimates prevailed on Pompey to mobilize to save the republic from the threat of Caesar’s tyranny. The situation could not have been clearer in Caesar’s mind. If he returned to Rome without his troops, with Pompey now mobilizing his troops, it would be the end of Caesar’s political career and possibly his life.

If, on the other hand, he entered Italy under arms, it would be declaring war on the Roman state. He brought his legions down to the border between Gaul and Italy to a small, unimportant stream called the Rubicon. He stared across the stream where Italia, his own fatherland, patria, lay. He considered his options.

Learn more: The Final Days of Julius Caesar

He knew that if he brought his legions across, he would bring untold misery to massive numbers of people in what promised to be an enormous civil war. The entire resources of the Roman state arrayed against him. On the other hand, he wrote himself, his own personal reputation in the state demanded that he not give in to his personal enemies, who were doing everything they could to see him humiliated and defeated.

After mulling over his options, he gave the order for his cavalry to advance, rode his horse across the stream under arms, and declared war on the state, we hear, with the phrase alia iacta est: “the die is cast.”

What happened next was for all intents and purposes a Roman world war that was to see eventually Caesar raised to the position of uncrowned king of the Roman state.

Keep reading:
Alexander Hamilton: His Ideal Republic
An Icon of History: Thomas Jefferson’s Bible
Chariot Racing: Ancient Rome’s Most Dangerous Sport

From the lecture series A History of Ancient Rome
Taught by Garrett G. Fagan, The Pennsylvania State University
Images Courtesy of:
First Triumverate: By Andreas Wahra, Diagram Lajard [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Caesar: Peter Paul Rubens. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Pompey: By Jebulon (Own work. Sculptor unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Crassus: By Gautier Poupeau from Paris, France (Crassus) [CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Death of Crassus: By Vassil (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Crossing the Rubicon: By Jacob Abbott [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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