A decade after first being declared governor of what is now northern Italy and southeastern Europe in a bid to keep him at arm’s length, Julius Caesar announced his intentions to the Roman Senate with a simple act on January 10, 49 BCE. Leading a legion across the Rubicon River a few miles south of Ravenna, the popular general would create a shift in the future of Western Civilization by marching on the capital.
Politically ambitious since his youth in Rome, Caesar survived decades of political intrigue in the heart of the Empire by 60 BCE. Then at the head of the provincial government in modern Spain, he conquered two local tribes to extend Roman control. Determined to gain the highest office in Roman politics the following year, he announced his wish to receive the consulship of the republic. In a highly-tainted election filled with bribes at every turn, Caesar gained the seat he coveted backed by the wealth and influence of Marcus Licinius Crassus and Pompey.
When his term expired at the end of 59 BCE, Caesar worked with Crassus and Pompey to maintain a mutually beneficial political relationship. Called “The First Triumvirate” by historians, the men conspired to circumvent their enemies in the Senate. At first, the plan did not work: Caesar was forced into the frontier beyond Rome’s official borders. Content with the size of his armies, however, he colluded with his allies to maintain the position for nearly ten years, establishing a firm Roman hold on Gaul and advancing into Britain.
Pompey, capitalizing on Caesar’s absence and Crassus’ death in 53 BCE, positioned himself as the sole consul. With his former partner working to tame Gaul once again, Pompey grabbed hold of power determined to make Caesar submit to his authority. In 50 BCE, the Senate, wary of his successes in combat, ordered Caesar to return to Rome and leave his troops behind for the next governor.
Now regarded as merely a solider — if even that — Caesar faced allegations of rebellion from Pompey. Knowing he no longer received immunity from prosecution for questionable tactics and suspicious accounting practices while conquering Gaul, he gathered the Legio XIII Gemina at Ravenna in northern Italy and marched across the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BCE. According to legend, Caesar quoted a line from the Greek play Arrephoros by one of his favorite playwrights, Menander: “The die has been cast.”
Caesar only had an army at his back because of his popularity with the soldiers he commanded — it was an act of treason for any military leader to bring forces into Roman territory, particularly when he no longer had legal control of them. A man of the people, much of his procession toward the capital was treated as a victory parade by townsfolk who knew of his wins against the Gauls and Britons.
Pompey knew immediately how vulnerable Rome was. With no real army to protect himself or the senators who backed him, he fled to Capua in order to build a force of his own and ordered Domitius to return from Britain with his legions in a bid to numerically overpower Caesar. Even as his former ally and pursuer proposed terms for a fresh period of joint rule, Pompey refused.
Over the course of nine months, Caesar subjected Spain to his rule once again, arriving in Rome in December 49 BCE to receive the title of dictator. Elected consul two weeks later, Caesar’s military might would be used to chase Pompey’s armies and those of his subjects around the Mediterranean in a cutthroat civil war.
By the end of 45 BCE, Caesar managed to subdue his opposition throughout the Roman Empire. When the new year dawned — one based on the calendar he created and lent his name to in 46 — he was in position to be named Dictator perpetuo. Now a de facto Roman Emperor, he opened the door for centuries of ruthless leadership and internal warfare by his successors. He would only have the position for a month, however: a conspiracy in the Roman Senate saw him stabbed to death on March 15th.
Also On This Day:
1776 – Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense, sparking revolutionary sentiment in the American colonies
1863 – The world’s oldest underground railway, the London Underground, begins service between Paddington and Farringdon stations
1870 – John D. Rockefeller incorporates future corporate behemoth Standard Oil
1920 – World War I officially ends as the Treaty of Versailles takes effect
1946 – The United Nations General Assembly holds its first meeting, hosting 51 nations in London
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January 10 1920 – World War I Officially Ends As The Treaty Of Versailles Takes Effect