January 10th is traditionally said to be the day on which Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, precipitating the great civil war that began the end of the Roman Republic, and its transformation into an empire. I say “traditionally”, however, because the exact date is not reported in any ancient source, but is rather reconstructed from what is known about the events in question.
The Rubicon was the boundary between the province of Italy and that of Cisalpine Gaul, the latter being Caesar’s field of military action for the previous decade. Since it was illegal for a commander to bring an army into Italia, and the Senate had ordered him to stand down from his command and disband his army, this action was effectively a double defiance of the Republic, and a declaration of war against it. Had he been defeated and captured by the forces supporting the Senate in its opposition to him, he would certainly have suffered the ignominious death of a traitor. Caesar was thus committing himself at this point to either achieve complete political domination of the Republic by military means, and hence its effective overthrow, or die trying.
It was on this occasion, therefore, that Caesar famously pronounced the words which Suetonius reports (Divus Julius 32) as “Alea jacta est – the die is cast”, which is now a proverbial expression in many languages for reaching a point of no return. Plutarch, however, in his Parallel Lives, claims that Caesar said them in Greek, quoting the comic poet Menander, and in a slightly different grammatical form: “ἀνερρίφθω κύβος – let the die be cast.”
(Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, 1875, by French painter Adolphe Yvon (1817-93). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Either way, perhaps the strangest thing about this affair is that the precise cause of the conflict, in terms of WHY Caesar felt the need to do this, is not clear, and was not clear in antiquity. Two chapters before the crossing of the Rubicon, Suetonius discusses various explanations for his behavior. The last of these is a direct and cited quotation from the De Officiis, a philosophical treatise on political ethics written by Cicero in the latter months of 44 BC, after Caesar’s assassination.
“Quidam putant captum imperii consuetudine, pensitatisque suis et inimicorum viribus, usum occasione rapiendae dominationis, quam aetate prima concupisset. Quod existimasse videbatur et Cicero scribens de Officiis tertio libro semper Caesarem in ore habuisse Euripidis versus, quos sic ipse convertit: nam si violandum est ius, regnandi gratia, violandum est: aliis rebus pietatem colas. (εἴπερ γὰρ ἀδικεῖν χρή, τυραννίδος πέρι / κάλλιστον ἀδικεῖν, τἄλλα δ᾽ εὐσεβεῖν χρεών.)
Some think that he was seized by habit of ruling, and that, weighing his own strength and that of his enemies, he used the opportunity to seize domination, which had lusted. (“Concupire” is a highly negative word in Latin.) This seems to have been the estimation of Cicero as well, when he wrote in the third book of the De Officiis that Caesar always had upon his lips these verses of Euripides (Phoenissae, 524-5), which he himself translated thus: ‘If, for the sake of ruling, the law must be violated, then it must be violated; in all other matters, keep to duty.’ ”
Cicero’s attempt at delicacy in the original passage, which names neither Caesar nor Pompey, did not, of course, stave off his eventual proscription and execution after the defeat of Caesar’s assassins, and the ascent to power of his supporters.
“Est ergo ulla res tanti aut commodum ullum tam expetendum, ut viri boni et splendorem et nomen amittas? Quid est, quod afferre tantum utilitas ista, quae dicitur, possit, quantum auferre, si boni viri nomen eripuerit, fidem iustitiamque detraxerit? Quid enim interest, utrum ex homine se convertat quis in beluam an hominis figura immanitatem gerat beluae? Quid? qui omnia recta et honesta neglegunt, dummodo potentiam consequantur, nonne idem faciunt, quod is, qui etiam socerum habere voluit eum, cuius ipse audacia potens esset. Utile ei videbatur plurimum posse alterius invidia. Id quam iniustum in patriam et quam turpe esset, non videbat. Ipse autem socer in ore semper Graecos versus de Phoenissis habebat, quos dicam ut potero; incondite fortasse sed tamen, ut res possit intellegi: ‘Nam si violandum est ius, regnandi gratia, violandum est; aliis rebus pietatem colas.’
Is there, then, any object of such value or any advantage so worth winning that one should sacrifice the reputation and name of a good man? What is there that so‑called expediency can bring which is as great as what it takes away, if it steals from you the name of a good man, and strips you of the sense of honor and justice? For what difference does it make whether a man changes himself into a beast, or bears savagery of a beast under the figure of a man? Again, those who disregard all that is right and honest as long as they secure power, are they not doing the same as he who wished to have as a father-in‑law that man by whose effrontery he might gain power for himself? (This refers to Pompey, who married Caesar’s daughter.) It seemed to him advantageous to secure supreme power by the odium which fell upon another; and he did not see how unjust this was to his country this was, and how wrong morally. But the father-in‑law himself used to always have on his lips the Greek verses from the Phoenissae… ‘If, for the sake of ruling, the law must be violated, then it must be violated; in all other matters, keep to duty.’ ”