January 10, 49 BCE: Revising The Tale Of Caesar’s Crossing of the Rubicon

It was a great trip to the combined annual meeting for the Society for Classical Studies and Archaeological Institute of America (SCS-AIA) in Toronto, but it definitely put me behind on my blogging schedule. No matter! Welcome to a new year, pious readers, and with it comes a reflection on immutable actions over at Forbes. For the 2,066th anniversary of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon river (and thus essentially declaring civil war with Rome), I spoke to Robert Morstein-Marx, an ancient historian and Caesar expert at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Prof. Morstein-Marx is hard at work on a book about Caesar that revises many of the narratives surrounding the dictator.

This includes the mythical depiction of the general pausing on his horse at the ford of the Rubicon river in northern Italy in order to soak in the gravitas of the moment. In reality? Caesar’s troops had already crossed the rather small river and Caesar himself later crossed in a wagon rather than on horseback. However, eyewitnesses such as Asinius Pollio and then the poet Lucan used the geography of the moment for dramatic effect. This post is about the timeline that led up to the “alea iacta est” (the die [=dice not dye] is tossed) moment and the revising of a myth, for sure, but it is also about how historians employ geography to show other boundaries: legal, emotional, and ethical ones.

…Just think of all the inaccuracies later attached to Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in 1776!

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Approximate location of the Rubicon river in northern Italy. Map provided by the Pelagios Project’s Peripleo under a CC-BY-SA.

A note about the primary sources: A timeline and the primary readings for most of these events can be found at the Attalus website for the year 49 BCE.

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