Crossing the Rubicon

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The idiom "Crossing the Rubicon" means to pass a point of no return, and refers to Julius Caesar's army's crossing of the Rubicon River (in the north of Italy ) in 49 BC, which was considered an act of insurrection and treason. Julius Caesar uttered the famous phrase "alea iacta est"—the die is cast—as his army marched through the shallow river.


During the Roman republic, the river Rubicon marked the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul to the north-east and Italy proper (controlled directly by Rome and its socii (allies) to the south. On the north-western side, the border was marked by the river Arno, a much wider and more important waterway, which flows westward from the Apennine Mountains (its source is not far from Rubicon's source) into the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Governors of Roman provinces were appointed promagistrates with imperium (roughly, "right to command") in their province(s). The governor would then serve as the general of the Roman army within the territory of his province(s). Roman law specified that only the elected magistrates (consuls and praetors) could hold imperium within Italy. Any promagistrate who entered Italy at the head of his troops forfeited his imperium and was therefore no longer legally allowed to command troops.

Exercising imperium when forbidden by the law was a capital offence. Furthermore, obeying the commands of a general who did not legally possess imperium was a capital offence. If a general entered Italy whilst exercising command of an army, both the general and his soldiers became outlaws and were automatically condemned to death. Generals were thus obliged to disband their armies before entering Italy.

Julius Caesar[edit]

Julius Caesar paused on the banks of the Rubicon.

In 49 BC, perhaps on January 10, G. Julius Caesar led a single legion, Legio XIII Gemina, south over the Rubicon from Cisalpine Gaul to Italy to make his way to Rome. In doing so, he (deliberately) broke the law on imperium and made armed conflict inevitable. Suetonius depicts Caesar as undecided as he approached the river, and attributes the crossing to a supernatural apparition. It was reported that Caesar dined with Sallust, Hirtius, Oppius, Lucius Balbus and Sulpicus Rufus on the night after his famous crossing into Italy January 10.[20]

According to Suetonius, Caesar uttered the famous phrase ālea iacta est ("the die has been cast").[1] The phrase "crossing the Rubicon" has survived to refer to any individual or group committing itself irrevocably to a risky or revolutionary course of action, similar to the modern phrase "passing the point of no return". Caesar's decision for swift action forced Pompey, the lawful consuls (C. Claudius Marcellus and L. Cornelius Lentulus Crus), and a large part of the Roman Senate to flee Rome in fear. Caesar's subsequent victory in Caesar's Civil War ensured that punishment for the infraction would never be rendered.


  1. ^ Lives of the Caesars, "Divus Julius" sect. 32. Suetonius gives the Latin version, iacta alea est, although according to Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Caesar quoted a line from the playwright Menander: "ἀνερρίφθω κύβος", anerríphthō kȳbos, "let the die be cast". Suetonius' subtly different translation is often also quoted as alea iacta est. Alea was a game played with a die or dice rather than the actual dice themselves, so another translation might be "The game is afoot."

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Coordinates: 44°05′35″N 12°23′45″E / 44.093029°N 12.395834°E / 44.093029; 12.395834