Wednesday, August 4, 2010

River crossing

Yesterday I finished reading for the second time Tom Holland's book 'Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic'. I wanted to find out why Julius Caesar (100 - 44 BC) crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC. The river Rubicon marked the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul to the north and Italy proper to the south.  Any Roman general was by law of the Roman Republic (509 - 44 BC) obliged to disband his army before crossing the Rubicon. Otherwise both he and his men were guilty of high treason and automatically condemned to death. This law was set to protect the Roman Republic from internal military threat. In 50 BC the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome because his term as proconsul had finished. He did not disband his army. Instead he used the power of his succesful army to stay in power. In retrospect we know that he defeated Pompey the Great and became Rome's (perpetual) dictator. It was generally accepted that the dictatorship ("one who dictates") was limited to 6 months. Julius Ceasar used (some say 'abused') this office to stay in power year after year. Unprecedented!

The precise event which signalled the end of the Roman Republic and the transition into the Roman Empire is a matter of interpretation. Some say Sulla's (138 – 78 BC) route to power  paved the way for Julius Ceasar. Some say it's Julius Ceasar's crossing of the Rubicon or his appointment as perpetual dictator in 44 BC. Others point at the defeat of Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC or the grant of extraordinary powers to Augustus in 27 BC.

According to me Julius Ceasar holds the key by crossing the Rubicon. Sulla misused his army too for staying in power but  in the end he resigned for the office of dictator, retiring to private life. Julius Ceasar gave the deathblow to the Roman Republic by crossing the Rubicon, defeat his "enemies" and stay in power through the office as dictator for year after year and finally as perpetual dictator.

Why did Julius Caesar cross the Rubicon?  
Tom Holland's book does not give a direct answer to my question. In a bookreview Holland says "Caesar of course had the option and the moral duty as a citizen not to cross the river. But for the ambitious Roman who he was his own  honour (dignitas) weighed heavier than the ancestral tradition (dignitas maiorum)." 
Wikipedia's answer: "In 50 BC, the Senate, led by Pompey, ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome because his term as Proconsul had finished.  Caesar thought he would be prosecuted and politically marginalised if he entered Rome without the immunity enjoyed by a Consul or without the power of his army."
Suetonius (69/75 – 130 AD) attributes the crossing to a supernatural ghost (source english and latin): "As he stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, 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."

To be honest I still don't know why Julius Ceasar crossed the Rubicon. I guess we will never really know. For me it feels like a mix of personal and group survival and being afraid of losing his personal honour. Above all I think he was an ape fighting for his personal survival and clinged to his power as general. It's vanity if you think about his whole project/ life in retrospect. Everything blown away with the wind of time. The kid of Julius & Cleopatra was murdered. He never became a grandpa.

Why is all this so important to me? What's my point? It's important because in all of us there is a part of  Julius Ceasar too. We as species 'Homo sapiens' are apes fighting for our own personal survival. Fighting for the survival of our family and the groups we live in. We all are citizens and we all are dictators. We all are Roman Republicans and at the same time Perpetual Dictators. We all are a mixture of vanity, honesty, dishonesty, cruelty, forgiveness, lust for power, need of affirmation, law abiding and law infidel. All of us are very able to kill and murder. And if you don't recognise all this is yourselves ... look better. Look!

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