J. Reuben Clark III Lecture: Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?

At the annual J. Reuben Clark III Lecture in Classics and the Classical Tradition, classics professor Robert Morstein-Marx of UC Santa Barbara discussed Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon and examined why the representation of this significant moment in history is more myth than historical fact.

PROVO, Utah (Apr. 2, 2015)—Are ancient writers of history guilty of embellishment? At this year’s J. Reuben Clark III Lecture, UC Santa Barbara classics professor Robert Morstein-Marx examined what he calls the Rubicon myth, suggesting that Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon was falsely represented by early historians.

In the traditional story, Caesar is believed to have forded across the Rubicon and onward to Rome in a blatant act of disobedience to the commands of Pompey, the leader of the Roman senate. As far as the myth goes, Caesar takes a moment and pauses at the edge of the riverbank to contemplate the implications his crossing will have for the future of Rome.

IMG_3582 Caesar decides to cross, and it is here where Caesar is reported to have coined the popular phrase “the die is cast.” Caesar and his men forged onward, thus marking the point of no return for not only Caesar but for the Roman Republic as well. It is believed that this act alone ushered in the onslaught of civil war that ensued for the next 20 years.

However, Morstein-Marx said that this traditional history is far from the truth. He explained that one reason for this comes from the late recording of the event; contemporary accounts of Caesar’s Civil War do not mention the crossing. Significant histories of the event were not written until nearly two centuries after the event.

“An interesting feature of all the three quite late historical accounts is that they are so similar in the key elements of the scene, even in the language itself,” Morstein-Marx explained. “It’s clear that they all depend on a common, earlier source.”

That common source, Morstein-Marx said, is the eyewitness account of Gaius Asinius Pollio, who was a participant on the Caesarian side of the civil war. Pollio’s account was written 20 years after the event, when many of the witnesses and participants of the event were still alive.

“If we read the story with some care, we discover that it devastatingly undercuts various elements of the picture we’ve all started with in our minds of Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon,” said Morstein-Marx.

Myth #1: Caesar Forded the River

One example Morstein-Marx pointed to was the common idea that the Rubicon was a ford that Caesar crossed through on horseback in the daytime. “If we pay close attention to the story, there’s nothing about splashing across a ford,” said Morstein-Marx. “Caesar rode on that long journey from Ravenna to Rimini of over 30 miles not riding a white horse but in a carriage, indeed, by night.”

Morstein-Marx said that the idea of Caesar crossing a ford came from the epic poem of Lucan, which provided Morstein-Marx’s first example of literary revisionism of the Rubicon story. “The suspicion is strong that Lucan himself must be responsible for introducing this element that would turn out to be central to our reimagining,” said Morstein-Marx.

He added, “Lucan needs a ford because his whole account is shaped to represent Caesar as a transgressor of both law and nature. An effortlessly traversed bridge had to go. Caesar must be made to violate forcibly a natural and civic boundary.”

Myth #2: Caesar Crossed Illegally

Morstein-Marx said that Lucan’s description of fording the river served as metaphor. The transgression of nature—the fording—represented legal and political transgression. He said that this gave rise to the idea that Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon was illegal, when in reality contemporary letters about the Caesarian civil war never indicated that there was anything unlawful about Caesar’s crossing.

“If the crossing of the Rubicon then had no specific legal significance, we begin to wonder why even in the Pollio version there is such emphasis on the moment of crossing itself,” Morstein-Marx said.

Myth #3: Caesar Cast the Die

He explained that in the version written by Pollio, Caesar is said to have paused at the far bank to ponder the metaphorical step he was about to take, that is to say to cross the point of no return and cast the die.

But the die had already been cast, Morstein-Marx argued. “Before Caesar had even set out on his night’s carriage ride, he had already sent across the river a small body of men bearing arms under civilian dress whose mission was to enter the city at night and ensure it did not close its gates to their commander when he arrived.”

Morstein-Marx said that the scene is therefore suspect, regardless of the fact that it came from the eyewitness account of Pollio. As such, he added that the scene should not be used to understand Caesar’s true character.

Truth #1: Ancient Historians Aren’t Always Trustworthy

“If you’re not a classicist or ancient historian, you may well be scandalized that one of Rome’s greatest so-called historians [Pollio] could possibly be accused of making something up for literary purposes,” Morstein-Marx said.

He continued, “Well, there is no way to sugar coat the pill for you. That’s what ancient writers of history frequently did.” He added that writers of history in antiquity were literary artists, which is the most reasonable explanation for why many historical accounts from antiquity are more or less embellished.

“Although they understood it was a cardinal rule to report the truth and avoid untruth, they tended not to define the truth in the punctilious, killjoy way modern historians tend to do,” Morstein-Marx joked.

He continued that though this would not come as a shock to classicists and ancient historians, it is nevertheless valuable to try to understand why Pollio would have fabricated Caesar’s moment of contemplation on the bank of the river.

“By these means, Pollio expressed the idea that this was a moment of human decision-making, fallible decision-making, with literally unimaginable consequences for the future, embraced unflinchingly by the key agent,” Morstein-Marx argued.

Truth #2: Pompey “Crossed the Rubicon”

After he crossed the Rubicon, Caesar surprisingly did not march on the capital, Morstein-Marx said. Rather, he only sent some of his men to control the roads around the city and adopted the idea of a settling with the republic to avoid armed conflict.

IMG_3575Morstein-Marx explained that Caesar even yielded to the basis of his dispute with Pompey, the Roman leader at the time of Caesar’s invasion.

“The fact that the civil war came so close to a settlement weeks after the Rubicon had been crossed and before any significant shedding of blood raises a question of counterfactual history,” said Morstein-Marx. “When is it historically respectable for a scholar to say that things might well have been different?”

In this light, Morstein-Marx argued that the Caesarian civil war could have been avoided altogether. As a result, he said there would have been no Ides of March—the date of Caesar’s murder, which ended Caesar’s civil war—and no devastating cycle of civil wars that then followed suit.

In the end, however, Caesar’s proposal to Pompey came to nothing, Morstein-Marx said. Rather, he said that the Pompeians added on preconditions that Caesar would not accept, and thus Caesar resumed his march down the Adriatic back of the Italian peninsula.

“The Roman world was now almost irrevocably committed to a savage war against itself,” said Morstein-Marx. “And yet now it looks as if it was Pompey, not Caesar, who crossed the Rubicon in the metaphorical sense, pushing past the point of no return and taking a decision that left virtually no out but war.”

Myth-Truth #1: Caesar Did “Cross the Rubicon”

Returning to the embellished passage written by Pollio, Morstein-Marx said that when he wrote about Caesar crossing the Rubicon 20 years after the fact, the event had taken on greater significance from years of devastating civil war.

“By having Caesar announce that he’s fully and counterfactually aware of the terrible consequences that will follow from his action, Pollio gives this moment truly tragic poignancy,” Morstein-Marx said.

He concluded, “Though Pollio’s literary and tragic version is dubious history, it may actually speak to us even more profoundly than a more historically correct version, since we too have observed in our own lifetime catastrophes of human judgment whose possible consequences we might have pause to think over a little bit longer.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

The J. Reuben Clark III Lecture in Classics and the Classical Tradition was established in honor of J. Reuben Clark III, a professor of classical languages and French and the founder of classics as a formal field of study at BYU. Clark passed away in 1992.