Trivia: Crossing the Rubicon

Trivia: Crossing the Rubicon

The Rubicon is a river in northeastern Italy. It is named from the Latin word rubico, which means “red” because its water is colored by red mud deposits.

“Crossing the Rubicon” is a phrase that means to commit oneself to a risky course of action or to go past the point of no return.

But why?

Well, because of Julius Caesar, that’s why.

The Rubicon marked the boundary between the Celt-inhabited part of Italy (called Cisalpine Gaul, or “this side of the Alps”) and the rest of Italy, which was controlled by Rome and its allies.

At the time, governors of Roman provinces were appointed promagistrates with the right to command (imperium). The governor would serve as head of the army, and according to Roman law, any promagistrate who entered Italy at the head of his troops forfeited his imperium.

Exercising imperium when forbidden to do so was a capital offense. Obeying the commands of a general who did not legally possess imperium was also a capital offense. If a general entered Italy while exercising command of an army, both the general and his soldiers became outlaws and were automatically condemned to death. Generals were morally and legally obliged to disband their armies before entering Italy.

In 49 AD, Julius Caesar led a legion south over the Rubicon from Cisalpine Gaul into Italy in order to make his way to Rome. In doing so, he broke the law regarding imperium. According to historical accounts, Caesar said, “the die is cast!” as he crossed the river, so he clearly knew what he was doing.

However, it did not come to a tragic end for Caesar. His decision to cross the Rubicon forced Roman leaders and a large part of the Roman Senate to flee in fear. Caesar’s Civil War ensued, and Caesar won. As a result, he never suffered any consequences for breaking the law of imperium.

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