Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Die Is Cast: Eternal Rome and the Crossing of the Rubicon

By Wendy Murray

When I lived in Assisi, Italy a few years ago I regularly took visitors to the "eternal city" -- Rome, which I found equally enchanting and vexing. As one friend (an architect) put it, "Rome is the most visceral example on the planet of the lack of city planning." I was forever lost, looking at street signs, referring to maps, and in pain from walking the endless uneven streets.

Even so, back in the day when roads were only beginning to be built, the saying held true: "all roads lead to Rome." The city has been at the fulcrum of multiple civilizations over several millennia and the ruins are evident. We ought to forbear the tangle of roads and alleys and the heaps of remnants of lost civilizations.

There isn't a region on this earth that hasn't in one way or another been touched by the legacy of Rome: its republic (c. 509 BC–27 BC) and then the empire -- Imperium Romanum (c. 27 BC–476 AD; West / AD 330–1453; East).

The Romans invented brick

This week (at least by the calendar of that time) over 2000 years ago (49 BC), Ancient Rome as it is widely understood in the popular imagination, began its rise. The Roman General, Julius Caesar, crossed the Rubicon River with a single military legion. The Rubicon marked the boundary between the Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul is modern-day France) a province to the north, and Italy proper to the south.

The young and ambitious Julius Caesar had been named governor of Gaul where
"he amassed a personal fortune and exhibited his outstanding military skill in subduing the native Celtic and Germanic tribes. Caesar's popularity among the people soared while at the same time presenting a threat to the power of the Senate and to General Pompey, who held power in Rome. Accordingly, the Senate called upon Caesar to resign his command and disband his army or risk being declared an "Enemy of the State." (Eyewitness to History)

In January 49 BC Caesar was staying in the northern Italian city of Ravenna when he confronted the decision either to acquiesce to the Senate's command or confront Pompey and plunge the Roman Republic into a bloody civil war.

Crossing this insignificant stream would show Caesar's hand and for him, mark the point of no return. The act of crossing the river was an act of treason and, if defeated and captured, Caesar would be executed, along with any soldier who followed him.

History notes that he hesitated. Ultimately however he made the decisive step, setting his destiny and launching the civil war in Rome that ultimately resulted in his ascension to dictatorship. It was a turning point in ancient history which paved the way for the rise of the Roman Empire and the birth of European culture.

The metaphor, "to cross the Rubicon," means to take a decisive and irrevocable step that commits one to a specific course, come what may. The ancient playwright Menander wrote in his play Arrhephoros, cited by the ancient writer Plutarch:
 He [Caesar] declared in Greek with loud voice to those who were present 'Let the die be cast' and led the army across. (Plutarch, Life of Pompey)

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