a marble bust of Julius Caesar

How Julius Caesar Started a Big War by Crossing a Small Stream

In 49 B.C. on the banks of the Rubicon, Julius Caesar faced a critical choice. To remain in Gaul meant forfeiting his power to his enemies in Rome. Crossing the river into Italy would be a declaration of war. Caesar chose war.

Conquering Hero

A bust from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples depicts Julius Caesar, whose popularity skyrocketed after his conquest of Gaul, threatening the power of Rome’s nobility.
Photograph by De Agostini
This article appears in the March/April 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.

On January 10, 49 B.C., on the banks of the Rubicon River in southern Gaul (near the modern-day city of Ravenna), Julius Caesar and the soldiers of the 13th Legion waited and weighed their options.

The Rubicon is, in reality, little more than a stream. Its significance to Rome lay in its location, marking the official border between Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, the region south of the Alps governed by Julius Caesar. Despite its appearance, crossing this humble river would have serious consequences. According to the law of the Roman Republic, any provincial governor leading troops across the border back into Italy would be declared a public enemy. It was, quite simply, an act of war.

Huddled against the biting cold, many of the soldiers of the 13th Legion of the army of the Roman Republic had served under Caesar for much of the previous decade. They had witnessed the honing of his skills as a military and political strategist, subjugating Gaul (corresponding to much of modern-day France and northern Italy), extending the bounds of the Roman Republic as far as the Rhine, and all the time shoring up his influence back in Rome. Alarmed by his growing power, the Senate ordered Caesar to set aside his command.

Caesar had no intention of obeying the Senate, and he knew perfectly well what the consequences of his insubordination would be. He understood that civil war would most likely ensue between himself and the Roman nobility, led by his strongest rival and former ally: the brilliant military commander Pompey the Great. If Caesar chose to cross the Rubicon, there would be no turning back.

Down to the River

The day before the crossing, Caesar acted as if nothing unusual was happening. The conqueror of Gaul attended a public event in Ravenna and carefully examined plans for a gladiator school. Secretly, he had ordered his cohorts to proceed to the banks of the river and wait for him there. Later, during dinner that night, he told his guests he would have to leave them for a moment. A chariot pulled by mules from a nearby bakery was waiting for him outside, and after a considerable delay in finding the exact position of his troops, he eventually managed to join them on the bank. Here he mulled the agonizing choice that lay before him.

Writing around a century and a half later, the historian Suetonius produced an account of this moment that reveals the legendary status the event had attained in the Roman mind. Still unsure whether to advance, a man of extraordinary height and beauty appeared, clearly sent by the gods. “The apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: ‘Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast.’”

The Path to Power

Caesar was not the first person to openly violate the law of the republic. Social tensions created by the rapid expansion of Roman territory had plunged the political system into crisis for much of Caesar’s life. During his youth, generals and politicians often exploited their military victories to take political control of the state.

Born around 100 B.C., Caesar’s boyhood was marked by the Social Wars, a series of struggles in which Rome’s Italian allies fought for the right to Roman citizenship and its privileges. In 81 B.C. Sulla was appointed dictator. Sulla defended the rights of Rome’s increasingly discredited noble rulers against the populares, the Senate faction who represented the interests of non-noble citizens clamoring for reform.

Caesar’s career was marked by this atmosphere of frenzied competition for power between nobles and populists. In 60 B.C. he allied with the general Pompey and another powerful politician, Marcus Licinius Crassus, so the three of them could dominate the republican system for their own benefit. The immediate result was Caesar’s consulship in 59 B.C., during which he sidelined the Senate and passed various laws aimed at winning him popular support.

Stung by Caesar’s affronts, the powerful aristocratic faction in the Senate—known as the optimates—were waiting to pounce on him when his consulship ended, when he would be left without official immunity and highly vulnerable to his enemies. Revealing his lifelong instinct for survival, however, Caesar cut a deal with Pompey and Crassus, enabling him to leave for Gaul to achieve the military glory that would, in turn, increase his grip on power.

Eight years later, at the beginning of the year 50 B.C., Caesar had subjugated Gaul, to the great benefit of the republic, which had won valuable territory to defend it against invasions. But the main beneficiary of the wars was undoubtedly Caesar himself. Awash with Gallic gold, he shrewdly targeted financially embarrassed senators who, in return for Caesar’s “generosity” in paying off their debts, declared themselves his unconditional allies. At the same time, he had at his back a trained, experienced, and fiercely loyal army. Caesar’s combination of wealth and military clout struck fear and loathing into the hearts of senators back in Rome—not least his erstwhile ally, Pompey, who since Crassus’s death had been moving politically closer to the aristocratic optimates.

After the fighting was ended in Gaul, Caesar was obliged to stand down from his position as governor, disband his army, and so lose the immunity his official position had given him. Pompey and his new optimate allies hatched a plan to seize the moment to take Caesar to court. By accusing him of corruption and abuses of power during his time in Gaul, they hoped to bring his political career to an end.

But Caesar stood his ground in March 50 B.C. He would not stand down as governor of Gaul, as stipulated, but would instead stay on until the end of 49 B.C., proposing that in the summer of that year, he would stand for election to become consul for a second time.

Faced with such obstinacy, his enemies in Rome scrambled to increase the pressure on the rogue governor. They reiterated to the Senate that since the military campaign was over, Caesar must disband his army, and a new governor of Gaul be elected to replace him.

The hostile atmosphere in the Senate convinced Caesar that he needed to defend himself militarily and politically. He moved some of his troops into the north of Italy, at the same time extending his influence in the corridors of power. Bribery continued to be the most effective tool. In a particularly spectacular coup, he even managed to buy off the consul Lucius Aemilius Lepidus Paullus for a colossal down payment of some nine million denarii. In return, the consul promised not to support any initiatives against him during his remaining term of office.

Pompey Versus Caesar

The deadline for Caesar to lay down his command, March 50 B.C., came and went. An emergency briefly offered a way out of the stalemate: The Parthians were threatening Rome’s eastern borders and the Senate was asked to send two legions to defend the province of Syria. Pompey declared that he would send one if Caesar sent another. Caesar surprisingly accepted, perhaps to demonstrate a willingness to compromise. According to Caesar’s own account of these tumultuous years, The Gallic Wars, the legion assigned to Pompey was Caesar’s anyway. Keeping his promise, Caesar handed over the 15th Legion, quartered in Cisalpine Gaul, only to find out that the Parthian threat had petered out and that both legions now lay firmly under the control of Pompey in Italy.

Far from undermining Caesar’s confidence, Pompey’s deceitful maneuver only seemed to stiffen his resolve. Throughout that year, the brinkmanship between the two generals grew, and nerves stretched to breaking point. A false rumor spread that Caesar had set out from Gaul with four legions. The statesman and orator Cicero vainly tried to find a peaceful solution to the conflict while a sense that the republic was becoming increasingly ungovernable took hold in the capital. Alliances shifted continually: One of Caesar’s most loyal lieutenants, Labienus, decided to switch sides to Pompey.

Meanwhile, Pompey had convinced himself that his forces were stronger than Caesar’s and that his charismatic leadership would enable him to recruit as many men as he wished in Italy. According to the late first-century historian Plutarch, a contemporary of Suetonius: “When they said that if Caesar was heading to Rome they could not see what troops could withstand him, Pompey boastfully replied with a smile: ‘Legions will spring up anywhere I stamp on the ground in Italy.’”

Marcus Caelius Rufus, an aristocrat, summarized the situation in a letter to Cicero in the fall of that year: “The closer we come to this inevitable clash, the more apparent the danger. At the heart of the issue is this: Pompey declares he won’t allow Caesar to be elected consul unless Caesar relinquishes control over his army and provinces; Caesar, on the other hand, is convinced his status is threatened if he gives up his troops ... So now ... their scandalous liaison isn’t stepping behind the scenes ... but exploding into full-scale war!”

Most of the terrified senators were willing to grant the concessions Caesar was asking for to avoid war. In December, when the plebeian leader Curio persuaded the Senate to vote on the proposal for Caesar and Pompey to lay down their arms at the same time, 370 senators voted for it and just 22 against. But the faction opposing Caesar immediately went against the spirit of this decision. They sought out Pompey in the Forum and dramatically placed a sword in his hand, begging him to take command of Italy’s troops to save the republic. They urged him to take command of the army and of as many additional troops as he wanted to recruit himself. Although he was breaking the law, Pompey accepted the mission.

The Moment of Fate

As the year 49 B.C. opened, Caesar sent the Senate a letter from Ravenna, giving them his final word on the matter. He again offered to resign his command at the same time as Pompey, but the Senate interpreted his proposal as a gesture of arrogance. Pompey and the consuls prevented a vote on the proposal in the letter and passed a motion declaring Caesar a public enemy. The motion was vetoed by Mark Antony, the newly appointed plebeian tribune and crucial ally of Caesar who would prove to play a fateful role in the last stages of his life. Even so, negotiations went on until the very last moment. Caesar even said he would stand down if he were allowed to keep just one legion and govern the province of Illyria, in the modern-day Balkans. The proposal might have been acceptable but was rejected due to fierce opposition by Cato the Younger, one of Caesar’s most implacable opponents.

The Senate met again and passed a decree calling on the consuls to defend Rome against any attack. The tribunes Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius (a relative of the famous Cassius who later conspired to assassinate Caesar) exercised their veto, but it was rejected by the Senate. Fearing for their lives, Mark Antony and Cassius fled Rome disguised as slaves and joined Caesar in the north.

Writing later in The Civil Wars, Caesar recalled how he had been waiting for the Senate’s response for days “[to see] if matters could be brought to a peaceful end by any equitable act on the part of his enemies.” But he now realized there was no other way and started preparing for the final showdown. Around January 10, when he learned of the Senate’s decision, he ordered the 13th Legion to take up their riverside positions, exhorting them to defend the honor of their general whom they had served for nine years. They in turn swore to avenge the insults against him and the tribunes.

Caesar now had the backing of a loyal army who would follow him to victory or death. According to the poet Lucan, Caesar declared: “Here I abandon peace and desecrated law. Fortune, it is you I follow. Farewell to treaties. From now on, war is our judge.”

After the Crossing

The choice facing Rome was either decades of more factionalism and political chaos, or accepting a strongman to impose reform, and set its affairs in order. On swiftly passing to the far bank of this minor river, Caesar set the republic hurtling down the second course.

Since crossing the Rubicon, Caesar and his legions had expelled Pompey and his troops from Italy. But this campaign was just the beginning. In the attempt to destroy Pompey and his extensive allies across the Roman world, Caesar was forced to cover astonishing distances, putting down a revolt in modern-day Marseille in France before routing Pompey’s loyalists in Spain at the Battle of Ilerda in June.

The following year, 48 B.C., Caesar dedicated to pursuing Pompey across Greece. Crossing to Egypt after his defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus, Pompey threw himself on the mercy of Ptolemy XIII, who immediately had him murdered. The Egyptian ruler evidently saw where the tide of Roman power was flowing.

Shortly after the removal of his military rival, Caesar arrived in Egypt, where he patched up the dynastic struggle between Ptolemy and his sister, Cleopatra VII. Little knowing she would become the last of the Ptolemaic monarchs who had ruled Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra spent much of that same year as Caesar’s lover, sealing her reputation in the Roman world as a femme fatale who would later “ensnare” Mark Antony.

As the Alexandrian romance eventually faltered, war once again proved the constant in Caesar’s life. Despite the death of their captain, Pompey’s supporters had regrouped in order to avenge him, and Caesar was forced to buckle on his armor again, briefly returning to Rome before dealing a crushing blow against his enemies in modern-day Tunisia in 46 B.C. Even then, resistance to the new order bubbled up in the following months. Caesar only delivered the death blow to Pompey’s stubborn followers in Spain a year later, in 45 B.C.

Having returned to Rome, he continued implementing significant reforms in the year of life left to him. These included improving land and grain distribution, as well as the reorganization of local government across Italy. No doubt Caesar hoped for many years of life to enact his reforms—but where he had defeated his enemies on the battlefield, he proved more vulnerable in the corridors of power. On that infamous March day the following year, he succumbed to the assassins’ knives.

What would have happened had Caesar not made that fateful river crossing five years previously? What would have happened if the republican old guard that assassinated him had prevailed over Mark Antony, reinforced republican power, and steered the Roman world away from autocratic rule?

In the event, he was succeeded by his adopted son, Octavian, who consolidated the drift toward authoritarian leadership, later becoming the Emperor Augustus. Under this brilliant, implacable leader, the new Roman Empire buried the old, aristocratic infighting to become a global power, whose astonishing legacy continues to shape the modern world.

Historian Fernando Lillo Redonet has written numerous studies of the classical world, including on gladiators and the supernatural.

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