Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – Crossing The Rubicon

Caesar’s brilliant victories in Gaul had opened that province to the Romans. Pompey, the second greatest Roman of his day, was serving as consul in Rome and was watching jealously the growing reputation of his great rival. He broke openly with Caesar and attached himself to the old aristocratic party. Caesar now demanded the consulship, knowing that because of the jealousy of his enemies his life would not be safe in Rome without the security of that office. The senate, acting by the orders of these enemies, issued a decree that he should resign as proconsul, or governor, of Gaul and disband his legions by a stated day. That crisis had now come.

On the next day Caesar called before him the thirteenth legion, the only force he had at Ravenna, and from a pulpit in front of the praetorium he told them the story of what had happened at Rome — of how the senate had outraged the tribunes of the plebs, whom even the violent Sulla had respected. Then Curio, just arrived, declaimed with indignant fervor against the violence and fury of the consuls and Pompeius, and when he concluded, the veterans could restrain their ardor and devotion no longer. Five thousand martial throats roared forth an oath of fealty, and as many swords were waved on high in mad defiance of the senate and the Magnus.

It was a great personal triumph for Casar. He stood receiving the plaudits, and repaying with a few gracious words or smiles each protestation of loyalty. Drusus, who was standing behind the pro-consul, beside Curio, realized that never, before had he seen such outgoing of magnetism and personal energy from man to man, one mind holding in vassalage five thousand. Yet it was all very quickly over. Almost while the plaudits of the centuries were rending the air, Caesar turned to the senior tribune of the legion.

” Are your men ready for the march, officer ? ”

The soldier instantly fell into rigid military pose. ” Ready this instant, Imperator. We have expected the order.”

” March to Ariminum and take possession of the town. March rapidly.”

The tribune saluted and stepped back among his cohort, and, as if some conjurer had flourished a wand of magic, in the twinkling of an eye the first century had formed in marching order; every legionary had flung over his shoulder his shield and pack, and at the harsh blare of the military trumpet the whole legion fell into line.

Drusus at once saw that everything was ready for departure. By nightfall it was evident that the pro-consul intended to waste no time in starting. Caesar’s words were terse and to the point. ” Curio, you will find a fast horse awaiting you. Take it. Ride at full speed after the legion. Take command of the rear cohorts and of the others as you come up with them. Lead rapidly to Ariminum.”

And Curio, who was a man of few words when few were needed, saluted and disappeared in the darkness. Drusus followed the general out of the praetorium.

Caesar motioned to Drusus to sit beside him in the carriage. Antiochus clambered upon the front seat. The autumn season was well advanced. The day, however, had been warm. The night was sultry. There were no stars above, no moon, no wind. A sickening miasmal odor rose from the low, flat country sloping off toward the Adriatic — the smell of overripe fruit, of decaying vegetation, of the harvest grown old. There had been a drought, and now the dust rose thick and heavy, making the mules and travelers cough and the latter cover their faces. Out of the darkness came not the least sound save the creaking of the dead boughs on trees whose dim tracery could just be distinguished against the somber background of the sky.

No one spoke. How long Drusus drifted on in reverie he could not say. Perhaps he fell asleep. A cry from Antiochus startled him out of his stupor. He stared about. It was pitch dark. Antiochus was bawling, ” The lantern has jolted out! ”

To relight it, in an age when friction matches were unknown, was practically impossible. The only thing to be done was to wait in the road until the morning, or until the moon broke out through the clouds.

” Drusus,” remarked the proconsul, ” you are the youngest. Can your eyes make out anything to tell us where we are ? ”

The young man yawned, shook off his drowsiness, and stared out into the gloomy void.

” I can just make out that to our left are tall trees, and I imagine a thicket.”

” Very good. If you can see as much as that here, it is safe to proceed. Let us change places, Antiochus. I will take the reins. Do you, Drusus, come and direct me.”

Caesar took the reins and went off at a furious pace. Drusus speedily found that the general’s vision was far more keen than his own. Indeed, although the road, he knew, was rough and crooked, they met with no mishaps. Presently a light could be seen twinkling in the distance.

” We must get a guide,” remarked the imperator decisively. They at last approached a small farm-house, where they aroused the countrymen. As a result Antiochus resumed the reins and sped away with a lantern and a stupid peasant boy at his side.

But more misfortune was in store. Barely a mile had they traversed before an ominous crack proclaimed the splitting of an axletree. The cheap hired vehicle could go no farther.

“‘T is a sure sign the gods are against our proceeding this night,” expostulated Antiochus ; ” let us walk back to the farmhouse, my lord.”

Caesar did not deign to give him an answer. He deliberately descended and clasped his paenula over his shoulders. Again the proconsul was all resources. With almost omniscience he led his companions through blind mazes of fallow land and stubble fields, came upon a brook at the only point where there appeared to be any stepping-stones, and at length, just as the murky clouds seemed about to lift, and the first beams of the moon struggled out into the black chaos, the wanderers saw a multitude of fires twinkling before them and knew that they had come upon the rear cohort of the thirteenth legion on its way to Ariminum.

Caesar skirted the sleeping camp and soon came out again on the highroad. There was a faint paleness in the east; a single lark sang from out the mist of gray ether overhead ; an ox of the baggage train rattled his tethering chain and bellowed. A soft, damp river fog touched Drusus’s face. Suddenly an early horseman, coming at a moderate gallop, was heard down the road. In the stillness the pounding of his steed crept slowly nearer and nearer; then, as he was almost on them, came the hollow clatter of the hoofs upon the planks of a bridge. Caesar stopped. Drusus felt himself clutched by the arm so tightly that the grasp almost meant pain.

” Do you hear? Do you see? ” muttered the imperator’s voice in his ear. ” The bridge—the river — we have reached it ! ”

” Your excellency— ” began Drusus, sorely at a loss.

” No compliments; this is the Rubicon, the boundaries of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. On this side I am still the proconsul—not as yet rightly deposed. On the other, Caesar the outlaw, the insurgent, the enemy of his country, whose hand is against every man, every man’s hand against him. What say you? Speak ! speak quickly ! Shall I cross? Shall I turn back? ”

” Imperator,” said the young man, struggling to collect his wits and realize the gravity of his own words, ” if you did not intend to cross, why send the legion over to commence the invasion? Why harangue them if you had no test to place upon their loyalty? ”

” Because,” was his answer, ” I would not through my own indecision throw away my chance to strike.

But the troops can be recalled. It is not too late. No blood has been shed. I am merely in a position to strike if so I decide. No ; nothing is settled.”

The light was growing stronger every moment, though the mist still hung heavy and dank. Below their feet the slender stream — it was the end of the season—ran with a monotonous gurgle, now and then casting up a little fleck of foam as it rolled by a small bowlder in its bed.

” Imperator,” said Drusus, while Caesar pressed his hand tighter and tighter, ” why advise with an inexperienced young man like myself ? Why did you send Curio away? I have no wisdom to offer, nor dare proffer it if such I had.”

” Quintus Drusus,” replied Caesar, sinking rather wearily down upon the dry, dying grass, ” if I had needed the counsel of a soldier, I should have waited until Marcus Antonius arrived ; if I had needed that of a politician, I was a fool to send away Curio; if I desire the counsel of one who is, as yet, neither a man of the camp nor a man of the Forum, but who can see things with clear eyes, can tell what may be neither glorious nor expedient, but what will be the will —” and here the imperator hesitated —” the will of the gods, tell me to whom I shall go.”

Drusus was silent ; the other continued : ” Listen, Quintus Drusus. I do not believe in blind fate. We were not given wills only to have them broken. The function of a limb is not to be maimed, nor severed from the body; a limb is to serve a man. Just so a man and his actions are to serve the ends of a power higher and nobler than he. If he refuse to serve that power, he is like the mortifying limb —a thing of evil to be cut off. And this is true of all of us; we all have some end to serve ; we are not created for no purpose.” Caesar paused. When he began again, it was in a different tone of voice. ” I have brought you with me because I know you are intelligent, are humane, love your country, and can make sacrifices for her; because you are my friend and to a certain extent share my destiny; because you are too young to have become overprejudiced or cal-loused to pet foibles and transgressions. Therefore I took you with me, having put off the final decision to the last possible instant. And now I desire your counsel.”

” How can I counsel peace ! ” replied Drusus, warming to a sense of the situation. ” Is not Italy in the hand of tyrants? Is not Pompeius the tool of coarse schemers ? Do they not pray for proscriptions and confiscations and abolition of debt ? Will there be any peace, any happiness in life, so long as we call ourselves freemen yet endure the chains of a despotism worse than that of the Parthians ? ”

Caesar shook his head. “You do not know what you say. Every man has his own life to live, his own death to die. Quintus Drusus, I have dared many things in my life. I defied Sulla; it was boyish impetuosity. I took the unpopular and perilous side when Catilina’s confederates were sent to their deaths ; it was the ardor of a young politician. I defied the rage of the senate while I was a praetor; still more hot madness. I faced death a thousand times in Gaul, against the Nervii, in the campaign with Vercingetorix; all this was the mere courage of the common soldier. But it is not of death I am afraid, be it death on the field of battle or death at the hands of an executioner, should I fall into the power of my enemies. I fear myself.”

Caesar was no longer resting on the bank. He was pacing to and fro with rapid, nervous steps, crushing the dry twigs under his shoes, pressing his hands together behind his back, knitting and unknitting his fingers.

Drusus knew enough to be aware that he was present as a spectator of that most terrible of all conflicts — a strong man’s wrestle with his own misgivings. To say something that would ease the shock of the contest — that was the young man’s compelling desire, but he felt as helpless as though he, single-handed, confronted ten legions.

” Oh! Imperator,” he cried, ” do not desert us. Do not desert the commonwealth ! Do not hand us back to new ruin, new tyrants, new wars ! Surely the gods have not led you thus far and no farther ! But yesterday you said they were leading us. To-day they still must guide ! To you it has been given to pull down and to build up. Fail not ! If there be gods, trust in them !

Caesar shook himself. His voice was harsh.

” I must accomplish my own fate!” he said ; and then, in a totally different tone : ” Quintus Drusus, I have been a coward for the first time in my life. Are you ashamed of your general ? ”

” I never admired you more, Imperator.”

” Thank you. And will you go aside a little, please ? I shall need a few moments for meditation.”

Drusus clambered part way up the slope and seated himself under a stunted oak tree. The light was growing stronger. The east was overshot with ripples of crimson and orange, blending into lines each more gorgeous than a moment before. The wind was chasing in from the bosom of the Mediterranean and driving the fleeting mists up the little valley. The hills were springing out of the gloom ; the thrushes were swinging in the boughs overhead and pouring out their morning song. Out from the camp the bugles were calling the soldiers for the march; the baggage trains were rumbling over the bridge. But still below on the marge lingered the solitary figure, now walking, now motionless, now silent, now speaking in indistinct monologue. Drusus overheard only an occasional word, ” Pompeius, poor tool of knaves ! I pity him ! I must show mercy to Cato if I can ! Sulla is not to be imitated ! The republic is fallen ; what I put in its place must not fall.” Then, after a long pause, ” So this was to be my end in life — to destroy the commonwealth ; what is destined, is destined ! ” And a moment later Drusus saw the general coming up the embankment.

” We shall find horses, I think, a little way over the bridge,” said Caesar ; ” the sun is nearly risen. It is nine miles to Ariminum ; there we can find refreshment.”

The imperator’s brow was clear, his step elastic, the fatigues of the night seemed to have only added to his vigorous good humor. Antiochus met them, evidently relieved of a load of anxiety. The three approached the bridge ; as they did so a little knot of officers of the rear cohort rode up and saluted. The golden rim of the sun was just glittering above the eastern lowlands. Caesar put foot upon the bridge. Drusus saw the blood recede from his face, his muscles contract, his frame quiver. The general turned to his officers.

” Gentlemen,” he said quietly, ” we may still retreat, but if we once pass this little bridge, nothing is left for us but to fight it out in arms.”

The group was silent, each waiting for the other to speak. At this instant a mountebank piper sitting by the roadway struck up his ditty, and a few idle soldiers and wayfaring shepherds ran up to him to catch the music. The man flung down his pipe, snatched a trumpet from a bugler, and, springing up, blew a shrill blast. It was the Advance. Caesar turned again to his officers. “Gentlemen,” he said, “let us go where the omens of the gods and the iniquity of our enemies call us ! The die is now cast !”

And he strode over the bridge, looking neither to the right hand nor to the left. As his feet touched the dust of the road beyond, the full sun touched the horizon, the landscape was bathed with living, quivering gold, and the brightness shed itself over the stead-fast countenance, not of Caesar the proconsul, but of Caesar the insurgent.

The Rubicon was crossed.

Abridged from “A Friend to Caesar”

Rubicon (roo bi kon). – Gaul: a Roman province, a part of which comprises what is to-day France. -Pompey (pom’pi). – legion (le’jun): a division of the Roman army ; a legion contained from three thousand to six thousand men.— Ravenna (ra ven’a). — praetorium (pre to’ri um) : the general’s tent. — tribunes (trib’unz) of the plebs (plebz): tribunes of the people; officers elected to protect the people. Sulla (sul a): a cruel self-appointed dictator of Rome, a little older than Caesar.– Curio (ku’ri o). Pompeius (porn pe’yus). Magnus (mag’nus): the Great, a title given to Pompey by Sulla. — Drusus (droo’sus).— centuries :divisions of the Roman army, generally containing a hundred men each. — Imperator (lm pe ra tor): commander, leader. — Ariminum (a rim T num). — cohort (ko’hort) : one of the ten divisions of a legion. — Antiochus (an ti’s kus).—miasmal (ml az’mal): malarial.—paenula (pe’nu la): cloak. — Cisalpine (sis al’pin) : on this side of the Alps ; used with reference to Rome, meaning ” on the south side of the Alps.” — Marcus Antonius (mar’kus an to’nl us) : Mark Antony.— proscription: the publication of names of persons condemned to death. — praetor (pre’tor): a magistrate next below the consul in rank. — Catilina (kat i li na): a Roman conspirator. — Nervii (ner’vi i) : a tribe of the Belgians in Gaul. Caesar’s conquest of them was the most remarkable victory of his Gallic (gal’ik) campaigns.— Vercingetorix (ver’sin jet’o riks) : the chief of the Nervii. —Cato (ka to): a Roman patriot. —The Advance : a military bugle call.