This illustration, by the Italian artist Bartolomeo Pinelli (c. 1781-1835), depicts Julius Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon—a small stream that, in Caesar’s day, marked the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. The crossing of the Rubicon occurred in 49 BCE, after negotiations broke down between the soon-to-be dictator and his political and military rivals in Rome. Caesar, whose appointment in Gaul was about to expire, wanted to stay with his loyal army while his agents in Rome orchestrated a political campaign to elect Caesar to high office. The Senate, however, thwarted the general’s plans by refusing to allow Caesar to run for office in absentia. Caesar was uncomfortable with this decision, as he knew that he would be vulnerable to legal and physical attacks from his political enemies during that brief period of time between relinquishing his military command and successfully winning his next election bid in Rome. Furthermore, Caesar questioned the good faith of his opponents, for they had already declared their intention to prosecute him, and they also propped up Caesar’s rival, Pompey, as a champion of Rome who would defend the state. Caesar, unwilling to make himself powerless before his rivals, marched troops across the Rubicon in 49 BCE—as a result, Julius Caesar broke Roman law and defied the Senate by leading his forces out of his assigned province. It was an iconic point-of-no-return moment that marked the beginning of the civil war that transitioned Rome from a republic into an authoritarian empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
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- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.