Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

Crossing the Rubicon

When Caesar arrived in Cisalpine Gaul at the close of 50 he established himself at Ravenna, a town near the Adriatic and the southern frontier of his province. Thence he wrote to the Senate offering to give up Transalpine Gaul and only retain Cisalpine Gaul and two legions until his election as consul in the following July. This letter was received by the new consuls as they entered the Senate House on the 1st of January 49, and Mark Antony and Cassius, tribunes of the plebs, insisted on its being read. The Senate refused to deliberate on the offer, but opened the momentous debate as to what steps were to be taken against Caesar. Pompey could not come into the city as he was in command of an army, but his father-in-law, Scipio, stated on his behalf that he would do nothing for the State if any weakness or hesitancy was shown; and Scipio's proposal that Caesar should be ordered to lay down his command before a certain day or be declared a public enemy was carried. Cicero alone of the optimates  opposed this and positively clamoured for a compromise, but he was not in Rome at the time when these affairs were going on, and perhaps his opinion would in any case have had no weight. Pompey certainly never sought his advice.

Cicero was in a curious position just now. He had been to Cilicia as provincial governor, and just returned to Italy expecting a Triumph on account of some slight victory he had won. The Senate was in no haste to decree him a Triumph, and this put him into a bad mood for a civil war on its behalf, and unless he gave up the idea of a Triumph and dismissed his lictors he might not enter the city. Thus his wisdom had not the weight which his eloquence in the Senate would have given it. His conviction was, as he wrote to Atticus in words that have since become famous: that an unjust peace was better than the most just war. Being a Roman he never for a moment meant any but civil war in his remark; he probably did not think any foreign war unjust.

Cicero stands apart in many ways from all other Romans of his day. He had many faults, the chief of them being his concern to stand well in public opinion, and this led not only to undignified exhibitions of vanity, but in this great crisis he could not bring himself to sacrifice all for the losing side and yet was miserable lest Pompey, Cato, and the others should despise him. He had also many virtues, and his love of peaceful pursuits is not the least of them. He was temperamentally opposed to war, and perhaps misled even himself by the many petty reasons which he found for keeping aloof from it. He owed Caesar money, which it was inconvenient to repay, and for him war meant leaving Rome, the only place in the world where he was happy; and there were vicious other considerations of personal interest, which he spreads before us in his frank way in letters never meant for the world; but his coolness really sprang from the fact that there seemed to him at first no lofty ideal for which to fight. To him as to Curio, it was a personal struggle between Pompey and Caesar to gain the tyranny. In after years the opposition against Caesar took another form, that of a fight for freedom, and then Cicero was not found wanting. Now he tried to persuade himself that he owed as much to Caesar as to Pompey, but in vain, for, as the whole world knew, Pompey had brought about his return to Rome from his miserable exile.

After Scipio's proposal was carried it was vetoed by Mark Antony and Cassius, but their right of veto was questioned and disregarded. The Senate then met outside the walls in the temple of Bellona, and Pompey appeared and praised its decision. He heard, he said, that Caesar's army was so disaffected that it alone would suffice to defeat him. It would certainly desert when it got to Italy and, counting the two legions which Caesar had sent for Syria and eight in Spain, he had ten legions. He raised more legions in Italy after the war broke out. Piso, Caesar's father-in-law, and Roscius the praetor, volunteered to go and inform Caesar of the Senate's proceedings, for no regular embassy was sent, but they had scarcely time to go and return when, on the 7th of January 49, martial law was declared. At once the tribunes of the plebs, fearing that they would be murdered, as tribunes had been in previous revolutions, fled, disguised as slaves, to Caesar's camp. Not only had the tribunes' veto been taken from them, but the Senate allowed various other unconstitutional acts. The provinces, including Gaul, were portioned out without any legal formalities; both the consuls left the city; and in the city men who were not magistrates were allowed lictors. A general control of the revenue, as well as the army, was given to Pompey, and he was even authorized to call on private individuals for contributions.

News of these preparations was carried to Caesar at Ravenna, and he harangued the legion he had with him, complaining of Pompey's defection and the extraordinary measures taken against him in Rome, and roused its anger by recounting the evil treatment of the people's tribunes. He wound up with this charge: "You who have served the republic so faithfully under my leadership for nine years, and have fought so many successful battles and pacified Gaul and Germany, I call upon you to defend my name and fame against my enemies."

The soldiers answered with enthusiasm that they were ready to avenge the wrongs done to their general and the tribunes of the plebs. Caesar then started with this legion for Ariminum (Rimini), a town on the south side of the Rubicon, the southern boundary of his province. To cross the Rubicon was to break the law, and so this was the decisive moment of his life. It was the first step of the civil war which was to destroy the republic and bring back (in all but name) kings to Rome. It is said that he sent on some picked troops to take Ariminum and then followed toward evening with a small escort. When he came to the Rubicon he stopped and gazed at the stream, hesitating for the last time as to his future course. Then he turned to his companions and said, "My friends, if I do not cross this river I am lost, and if I cross it evil will fall on the whole world." Then, as if impelled by some force stronger than himself, he bent his way onward, saying as he did so, "The die is cast!"

To Ariminum, where Labienus gave him great pain by stealing away, came private remonstrances from Pompey. He replied that if Pompey departed for Spain, and if the levies were disbanded and regular government restored, he would disband his army. Pompey answered that he would go to Spain if Caesar first dismissed his army and returned to Gaul, but it was suspicious that he fixed no date for his own departure. Caesar's sole reply was to begin to capture Italian towns, and he soon discovered that most of them were indignant at the treatment that he had received, and were full of enthusiasm for him as the democratic leader.

When the news that the war had begun came to Rome a sudden terror fell on the city. Another victorious general was about to march on her, with fierce Gauls and Germans in his train. The senators met and discussed the situation and, after debating all night, most of them left the city at dawn. The consul Lentulus even, on entering the temple of Saturn to open the Treasury and take out the necessary funds for Pompey, was smitten with a sudden panic and fled, believing that Caesar was nearing the gates. Pompey showed himself utterly unprepared and determined from the first to leave Rome and Italy to Caesar, and Cicero believed that he meant from the first to collect foreign forces, cut off Italy's food supply and then invade Rome and massacre everybody. Cicero had a vivid imagination, but he tells is that this was the common talk in Pompey's camp and that he was not gossiping but giving firsthand information. Cicero was not the only angry optimate:  Favonius told Pompey bitterly that now the time had come for him to stamp his foot and see if the legions would spring forth. Pompey gave no reason for his departure except these Sulla-like threats, but before he left Rome he menaced all who remained there that they should be treated as if they had gone over to Caesar's camp. He was even angry with Jupiter Capitolinus for staying in his temple there, Cicero said. "It seems to me," wrote the orator to Atticus, "that never in any country has any statesman and leader behaved so disgracefully as our friend, and I am sorry for his plight: he has left the city in which and for which it would have been glorious to die." A day or two later he wrote again, "I won't take up the fact that he made Caesar great and armed him against the republic, that he helped him to pass laws by violence and against the auspices, that he added Farther Gaul to Caesar's province, that he became his son-in-law, that he acted as augur for the adoption of Publius Clodius, that he was more anxious for my recall than to prevent my exile, that he extended Caesar's term of provincial government, that he aided him in every way in his absence; even in his third consulship, after he had undertaken the defense of the State, he caused the ten tribunes of the plebs  to introduce the bill by which Caesar was allowed to stand for the consulship in his absence and sanctioned it by a law of his own, and he resisted the consul Marcellus when he wished Caesar's governorship of Gaul to end on the 1st of March. I will pass over all these points, but now what can be more disgraceful, what more confusing than this departure, or rather this base and dastardly flight from Rome? What submission could be worse than abandoning one's country?

The city was left unprotected, and Pompey went first to the two legions at Capua, whither he summoned the 20,000 veterans who had received lands in Campania by Caesar's agrarian law. Thence he started for Brundisium, on the east coast, ready to leave the country at Caesar's approach. Meanwhile Domitius Ahenobarbus had garrisoned Corfinium against Caesar and sent messengers begging Pompey to come to his assistance. He represented that Caesar might be enclosed between two armies and cut off from his supplies. It was, Cicero thought, Pompey's crown of dishonour that he sent no aid. Caesar had been joined by two more legions from Gaul, and he proceeded to circumvallate the town. As he was about to complete his lines, the messengers came back from Pompey and got through; Domitius eagerly read the general's letter, and his face fell when he found that he would have nothing to do with the defense of Corfinium and ordered him to leave at once and join him, as he was on his way to Brundisium. He dared not tell the soldiers, as there was no getting through Caesar's lines, and they would have insisted on instant submission; but they guessed when they saw his anxious face, and suspicions of his treachery were aroused when they saw him in constant consultation with his intimates.

At last the truth spread abroad, with a rumour that he meant to escape with a few of his friends. A mutiny at once broke forth, Domitius was put under guard, and envoys went to offer submission to Caesar. Whatever the motive of Pompey's actions may have been, he made Caesar's progress through Italy a glorious one by allowing so many towns to be garrisoned against him and then to submit when he appeared; and it is far from probable that his motive, like Cinna's of old, was to spare Italy the horrors of war. In Corfinium, besides Domitius, there were five senators and a large number of Roman knights, all now at the conqueror's mercy. He let them all go and amazed the world, as his mercy continued to do throughout the Civil War. The common soldiers enlisted under his flag. Caesar then went on, on the 21st of February, to Brundisium, the senatorians evacuating every town as he approached and joining in the general flight to Pompey. He arrived before the town on the 9th of March, and found that both the consuls and a large part of the army had sailed for Dyrrachium (Durazzo) on the coast of Epirus, on the other side of the Adriatic, while Pompey remained at Brundisium with twenty cohorts. As Pompey made no move at his approach, he determined to blockade the harbour of Brundisium by embanked moles carried out from the shore on each side and continued by large square rafts, anchored at each corner. This work was only half completed when Pompey sailed away. Before going he blocked up the gates of Brundisium, barricaded the streets, dug trenches across them, and fixed sharpened stakes everywhere, hidden by hurdles and earth. Pitfalls were also placed in the roads leading to the town and the harbour. Leaving a few troops on the town wall with directions to follow at a given signal, Pompey then stole away. He had earned, however, the enmity of the townspeople, and when they saw him about to leave they mounted on their roofs and signaled to Caesar. The latter's forces climbed into the town when the last soldiers left the walls, and, being warned of the pitfalls and told of another way to the harbour, arrived in time to intercept two shiploads of Pompey's troops.

Caesar would have liked to follow before Pompey could collect a vast army in the East, where he had a great name, but Pompey had a large fleet, and he had none at hand. Moreover, it would be almost as bad to leave the Pompeian in Spain to invade Italy from that quarter. The settlement of Italy, now abandoned to him, then an attack on Spain, and lastly combat with Pompey in the East—that was the programme marked out for him.

He ordered every municipality in Italy to provide ships and send them to Brundisium, ready for his crossing at a later date, and then he secured Sardinia and Sicily, the provinces from which Rome drew its corn, thus spoiling Pompey's plan to starve Rome. Pompey had sent Cotta to Sardinia and Cato to Sicily, but both were forced to retire at the appearance of Caesar's lieutenants, Cato angrily declaring that Pompey had betrayed him. Curio, who had driven Cato from Sicily, then went on to Africa to fight the senatorians there.

Caesar himself went from Brundisium to Rome, which he had not seen for nine years. On his way he gave Cicero, who had not yet made up his mind to desert his beloved country, an interview, and desired him to return to Rome and take his place in the much-thinned Senate. Having at first feared a general proscription, Cicero had now bounded to the other extreme, and was surprised at Caesar's insistence. "I was mistaken," he wrote to Atticus, "in thinking that he would be easy to deal with. I have never met anyone less so. He said that my judgment would condemn him, and that if I did not come others would be more reluctant to do so. Among other things, he urged, 'Come and discuss terms of peace.' 'And say what I think?' I asked. 'Should I dream of prescribing to you?' he replied. 'Well,' I answered, 'I shall say that the Senate does not wish you to go to Spain or that you should take an army over to Greece; and I shall express great sorrow for Pompey's misfortunes.' 'To this,' Caesar answered, 'I am bound to object!' 'I expected so,' I replied, 'and I do not wish to be present, because if I am there at all there are many things on which I cannot possibly be silent.' Thereupon with a sigh Caesar bade me reflect. This I could not refuse to do, and so we parted. So I shall not be in his good books, but I am in my own for the first time for many days. By-the-bye, ye gods, what associates he has! What a staff of knaves and ne'er-do-wells! His parting word was most offensive: 'If you will give me no aid with your advice, I must get other councilors, for nothing shall stop me.'"

A few days later Caesar's followers had lost all human resemblance in Cicero's fertile imagination! They found Rome trembling, but the Romans, like Cicero, soon became audacious when they found that Caesar did not mean to massacre them, and one of the tribunes of the plebs  tried to prevent his opening the Treasury. Caesar (so careful of the tribunes' rights at Ariminum!) threatened him with death, and said truthfully, "You know well, young man, that it is easier for me to do it than say it."

Before the Senate, duly summoned by the tribunes, Caesar pleaded his cause, and begged for support in carrying on the government; but when they met him as Cicero had done, he told them boldly that he was quite prepared to rule by himself. He wished an embassy to be sent to Pompey, but had not time to deal with the various elements of opposition, and after only a week's stay left the city to its own devices. To the praetor Lepidus he entrusted the government in his absence. Italy was placed under Mark Antony as propraetor.