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Crossing the Rubicon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

C.T.H.R. Ehrhardt*
University of Otago


Everyone knows that Caesar crossed the Rubicon because his political enemies at Rome had manoeuvred him into a position where he would soon be forced to leave his province, give up his imperium, and return to Rome as a private citizen, there to be put on trial, found guilty and have his political career ended. Yet over thirty years ago, Shackleton Bailey, in less than two pages of his introduction to Cicero's Letters to Atticus, destroyed the basis for this belief, and in the three decades since, no one has been able to rebuild it. Everyone also knows that Caesar, when he crossed the Rubicon, was grossly outnumbered and conquered Italy only through his own rapidity and his enemies' sluggishness and incompetence; yet this belief was irreparably shattered by H.-M. Ottmer in 1979, in a book which professional scholars have practically ignored. The justification for this article is that it may bring to others' attention the real state of researches on the circumstances of Caesar's invasion of Italy, and perhaps even inhibit further restatements of exploded beliefs.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1995

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1 Gelzer, M., Caesar (Wiesbaden 1960 6) 154 and 173-4Google Scholar (= Caesar, transl. Needham, P. [Oxford 1968] 169-70, 190-91Google Scholar), gives the orthodox position with his customary clarity and fullness of documentation; for more recent restatements, see e.g. Hillman, T.P., Historia 37 (1988) 248-9Google Scholar; Wylie, G., Latomus 51 (1992) 557Google Scholar; Sirianni, F.A., AC 62 (1993) 219-21Google Scholar; Will, W., Julius Caesar (Stuttgart etc. 1992) 129Google Scholar; Carter, J.M., Julius Caesar, The Civil War Books I & II (Warminster 1991) 712Google Scholar.

2 Bailey, D.R. Shackleton, Cicero's Letters to Atticus 1 (Cambridge 1965) 3840Google Scholar. Brunt, P.A., JRS 76 (1986) 1232Google Scholar, claims (18 n.23) to have refuted Shackleton Bailey's arguments, but has not. Note that Cicero's letters are cited according to the traditional system and also by Shackleton Bailey's arrangement, indicated by a number and S.B.

3 Ottmer, H.-M., Die Rubikon-Legende: Untersuchungen zu Caesars und Pompeius' Strategie vor und nach Ausbruch des Bürgerkrieges [Wehrwissenschaftliche Forschungen, 26] (Boppard am Rhein 1979)Google Scholar. L'Année Philologique lists four reviews: Borle, J.-P., MH 38 (1981) 187Google Scholar; Richard, J.-C., Latomus 41 (1982) 702-3Google Scholar; Pelling, C.B.R., Gnomon 54 (1982) 212Google Scholar; Seager, R., JRS 74 (1984) 211Google Scholar. The first three are all ‘brief reviews’, the last is in a collective review of four books on Caesar. Even Will (above, n.l) is unaware of Ottmer's work, though his bibliographical knowledge is impressive. Only Carter (above, n.1) 165-6 cites Ottmer, without apparently realising the importance of his work.

4 ‘… and since men generally stated, that if he returned [from Gaul] as a private citizen, he would have to follow Milo's precedent and make his defence before the judges in a court surrounded by armed men. Asinius Pollio makes this opinion more likely, by reporting that Caesar, when he looked over his enemies slain and scattered on the battlefield of Pharsalus, stated verbatim, “They wanted this; after so many great achievements, I, Gaius Caesar, would have been found guilty, had I not sought help from my army.’” Plutarch, , Caesar 46.1Google Scholar, gives the same story, with a slightly different wording in Greek (‘They wanted this; they brought me into such an impasse that I, Gaius Caesar, who had been victorious in the greatest wars, would actually have been condemned, had I dismissed my forces’), and relates that Asinius Pollio said that Caesar spoke these words in Latin, but they were written down in Greek by Pollio— the reason for the change of language is not explained; Peter, , Historicorum Romanorum Reliquiae 2 (Leipzig, repr. 1967) 68, frg. 2, 2a, 2bGoogle Scholar (who argues, ibid. LXXXXII-III, for a mistake in Plutarch's text, which should state that Caesar spoke Greek, but Pollio reported the statement in Latin, as he did with Caesar's [alleged] remark on crossing the Rubicon—see Suetonius, Divus Julius 32, Plutarch, , Pompey 60 and Caesar 32Google Scholar).

5 For details see, e.g., Deissmann-Merten, M., Der Kleine Pauly 5 (1975) 1209Google Scholar.

6 To the references in Broughton, Magistrales of the Roman Republic (MRR) 1 (Lancaster, Pa. 1951) 93Google Scholar, under the tribune L. Apuleius, add Cicero, , De Rep. 1.6Google Scholar; Livy 7.1.9; the section of the elogium from the Augustan Forum (ILS 52) concerning his exile is unfortunately lost.

7 The ‘trials of the Scipios’ are an insoluble tangle; for the sources and an introduction to the arguments see MRR 1.369Google Scholar (under ‘Tribunes of the Plebs’); 370 nn.3, 4; 375-6 (under ‘Tribunes of the Plebs’); 377-8 nn.2-4; 3 (Atlanta, Ga. 1986) 189; Walbank, , Commentary on Polybius 3 (Oxford 1979) 244-5Google Scholar. The story was presumably known to Cicero (De Or. 2.249; De Prov. Cons. 18), but it is not known in what version.

8 On this see the old but pertinent remarks of Oman, Charles, Seven Roman Statesmen (London 1902; reprinted 1927) 290-91Google Scholar.

9 For the details of the fracas between Milo's and Clodius' escorts on the Via Appia, and Clodius' murder by Milo's men, see Asconius pp. 31-32 Clark (= 27-28 K-S); for the mullets, Dio 40.54.3.

10 Ad Att. 7.3Google Scholar (126S.B.) 11; 8 (131 S.B.) 5.

11 To ensure the election of Pompey and Crassus to the consulship of 55 B.C., Plut, . Pomp. 51.5Google Scholar; Dio 39.31.2. Expected for the consular elections for 53, Cic, . Ad Att. 4.16 (89 S.B.) 6Google Scholar.

12 Suet, . Div. Jul. 28.2Google Scholar; Dio 40.44.1.

13 Cic, . Ad Q. Fr. 3.4 (24 S.B.) 1Google Scholar, cf. 3.2 (22 S.B.) 2; Ad Att. 4.18 (92 S.B.) 1Google Scholar; 3.

14 For Caesar's emphasis on his dignitas as his reason for beginning civil war, see BC 1.7.7; 9.2; Cicero, , Ad Att. 7.11 (134 S.B.) 1Google Scholar; for Scipio's account book, Polybius 23.14.7-10 with Walbank's commentary, 3.245-7.

15 Cf. Caelius to Cicero, , Ad Fam. 8.14 (97 S.B.) 2Google Scholar, only after the middle of 50 B.C., and Cicero himself, Ad Att. 7.1Google Scholar (124 S.B.) 2-3: only in October 50 does Cicero face the fact that being ally to both Pompey and Caesar, which had been the foundation of his political behaviour for the previous five or more years, was no longer possible.

16 App, . BC 2.4546Google Scholar; Caesar, BC 2.4344Google Scholar (who does not mention Pollio). The discrepancies in detail between the two may give some indication of how Pollio, in his history, ‘corrected’ earlier accounts, to give himself more prominence, while at the same time exculpating himself. For a similar possible instance of self-advertisement, Plut, . Caes. 52.6Google Scholar. In general see Peter, , HRR2 2. LXXXVIIII–LXXXXGoogle Scholar.

17 Peter, , HRR2 2.68, frg. 2bGoogle Scholar.

18 Sources in MRR 2.327Google Scholar, especially Dio 45.10, which is not drawn from Pollio's history.

19 ‘I see that at a time like this, there is much more need for legions than for provinces, which in any case can be recovered with no trouble’, Cic, . Ad Fam. 10.31 (368 S.B.) 6Google Scholar.

20 Sources in MRR 2.326, 329Google Scholar.

21 Cic, . Ad Fam. 10.31 (368 S.B.)Google Scholar, with Shackleton Bailey's notes, especially the penultimate one.

22 Ibid. 11.9 (380 S.B.) 1, with Shackleton Bailey's note.

23 In general on Pollio, see Bosworth, A.B., Historia 21 (1972) 441-73Google Scholar; also Badian, E., CR n.s. 8(1958) 159-62Google Scholar.

24 ‘My claims on Antony are too great, his benefits to me too well known; so I shall withdraw myself from your difference and will be the victor's booty’, Vell. 2.86.3.

25 ‘… where the ex-praetor Asinius Pollio fought a most glorious war against him’, 2.73.2.

26 Malcovati, H. (ed.), Oratorum Romanorum Fragmenta (Turin 1955 2), no. 174, frg. 40, p. 525Google Scholar.

27 ‘… was all so untrue that not even Pollio himself dared to include it in his histories’. Sen, . Suas. 6.15Google Scholar.

28 The Roman Revolution (Oxford 1939) 56Google Scholar.

29 Nisbet, R.G.M. and Hubbard, M., Commentary on Horace, Odes Book I (Oxford 1970) xxxvixxxviiGoogle Scholar.

30 App, . BC 5.130Google Scholar; 144.

31 Otago Daily Times 2 May 1995.

32 R. Syme (above, n.28) 317-8.

33 ‘Who took up arms with more justification?’, Lucan 2.126. The answer, at least from pro-Augustan writers, plainly was that Pompey had right on his side: Vergil, , Aen. 6.834-5Google Scholar; Velleius 2.49.2-3.

34 Caes, . BC 1.7Google Scholar.

35 Ad Att. 7.9(132S.B.)2Google Scholar.

36 MRR 2.174Google Scholar.

37 Ibid. 258-9; see especially Cicero's letter to Tiro of 12 January 49, Ad Fam. 16.11Google Scholar (143 S.B.) 2.

38 MRR 2.259Google Scholar.

39 BC 1.15.3Google Scholar; Ottmer (above, n.3) 28.

40 Carter (above, n.1) 165 suggests that ‘legions were capable of marching over long distances and under favourable conditions a maximum of about 30 km. a day.’ An Alpine crossing in early winter does not constitute ‘favourable conditions’.

41 BC 1.18.5Google Scholar; Ottmer (above, n.3) 28.

42 ‘The soldiers of the Thirteenth Legion, which was on the spot (because he had summoned this legion at the beginning of the disturbance; the others had not yet come together), unanimously cried out that they were prepared to defend their general and the tribunes of the plebs against the wrongs done to them’; ‘he summoned the remaining legions from their winter quarters and ordered them to catch up with him’, BC 1.7.8 and 8.1Google Scholar.

43 Cic, . Ad Att. 7.13 (136 S.B.) 2Google Scholar; Caes, . BC 1.4.5Google Scholar; Hirtius, , BG 8.54.1-3Google Scholar.

44 From new levies in Gaul’, BC 1.18.5.Google Scholar Carter (above, n.1) 175 only comments on the possible identity of the Nortean king; he makes no remarks about the ‘new levies’.

45 Dio 40.65.4 is aware of new levies by Caesar in 50 B.C.

46 Suet. Div. Jul. 56.1; cf. BG 8 prooem. 2; 8.

47 A legion contained ten cohorts, but in the early imperial army the first cohort was twice the size of the others (Webster, G., The Roman Imperial Army [London 1985 3] 109-10Google Scholar). Caesar twice (BG 7.65.1Google Scholar; BC 1.18.5Google Scholar) speaks of raising forces of 22 cohorts; the most likely explanation for this unexpected number is that, after the cohorts had had their basic training, they were to be formed into two legions, each of nine ordinary and one double-sized cohort, as under the early empire.

48 I dispatched this letter on the Ides of October, the day on which, as you write, Caesar brings four legions to Placentia’, Ad Att. 6.9 (123 S.B.) 5Google Scholar.

49 You know … however that I was appalled at the news in your letter about Caesar's legions’, Ad Att. 7.1 (124 S.B.) 1Google Scholar.

50 See Cornelius Nepos' Life, especially capp. 6-7; 15.3.

51 Cicero's Letters to Atticus 3 (Cambridge 1968) 277Google Scholar; similarly Tyrrell, R.Y. and Purser, L.C., The Correspondence of M. Tullius Cicero 3 (Dublin 1890) 249Google Scholar; Gelzer (above, n.1) 168 (= English translation 184); and even the normally acute Will (above, n.1) 139.

52 BG 8.24.3 and 54.3Google Scholar; BC 1.7.8Google Scholar.

53 Ad Att. 7.4Google Scholar (127 S.B.) 2 with 7 (130 S.B.) 6.

54 Cf. Pollio's claim about his position in Spain in winter 44-43, to justify his inactivity, Ad Fam. 10.31 (368 S.B.) 1 and 4Google Scholar.

55 Ad Fam. 8.14 (97 S.B.) 2Google Scholar; cf. 11 (91 S.B.)3.

56 On luck, see BC 3.68.1Google Scholar; on Caesar's, Plutarch, , Caesar 38Google Scholar.

57 E.g. Jackson, W.G.F., The Battle for Italy (London 1967) 128Google Scholar, early October 1943, ‘The autumn rain began … Fifth Army … was wallowing in thick yellow mud'; 157, mid-December 1943, ‘material superiority … useless … until the spring weather returned’; 278, in 1944 ‘The Plain of the Romagna … formed a thick glutinous mud’; 280, September 1944, ‘four days’ heavy rain brought operations to a muddy halt’; 281, ‘During 26 October all the bridges over the Savio were swept away’; 288, ‘On 26th November the rain began again’.

58 Ad Att. 7.22Google Scholar (146 S.B.) 1; 24 (148 S.B.); 8.9a (160 S.B.) 2; 11 (161 S.B.) 7; 14(164 S.B.) 1.

59 In the harshest and coldest places, in the bitterest winter, they finished off the war by marching’, Ad Fam. 8.15Google Scholar (S.B. 149) 1. For a perhaps flattering sketch of Caelius' character, see Austin, R.G., M. Tulli Ciceronis pro M. Caelio Oratio (Oxford 1952 2, repr. 1956) xivxviGoogle Scholar.

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