49-44 BC



‘Then, catching up with his cohorts at the river Rubicon, the point at which his province ended, he paused for a moment, and understanding what a huge thing he was planning, he turned and spoke to the men with him. “Even now we could turn back; but once we cross that tiny bridge, then everything will depend on armed force.”’ - Suetonius, late first century AD.1

All this has made him [Caesar] so powerful, that the only hope of standing up to him rests on one citizen [Pompey]. I really wish that the latter had not given him so much power in the first place, rather than waiting till he was strong before fighting him.’ - Cicero, 9 December 50 BC.2

Gaul had provided Caesar with glory and wealth. By 50 BC there was no serious fighting and there was every indication that the series of devastating defeats inflicted on each rebellion had combined with the careful diplomatic efforts of the proconsul to create a stable new province for the Republic. The willingness of the vast majority of the tribal leaders to accept Roman rule was not just a question of personal loyalty to Caesar. His murder six years later did not provoke fresh outbreaks of unrest in Gaul. Like any other successful Roman commander he had reaped great personal benefits from his victories, but this should not obscure the gains his conquests had brought to Rome. Formally, the Republic now had a new source of revenue, although this had to balanced against the costs of garrisoning the province. Transalpine Gaul and the important land routes to Spain were secured, while Italy itself was now much better shielded from invasion by northern tribes following in the footsteps of the Cimbri and Teutones. There was no imminent threat to Italy from this direction, and such strategic concerns were not foremost in Caesar’s mind when he initiated his campaigns. Yet they were no less real for all that and it was undeniable that in this respect the conquest of Gaul was beneficial to Rome. However, throughout history expansion has tended to benefit individuals far more than states, and this was certainly true of Roman imperialism. Trade with Gaul was important before Caesar’s arrival, but his campaigns helped to open up new markets - for instance in Britain - to Roman merchants and allowed them to operate in very favourable conditions in the new province of Gaul. Fortunes were made even more rapidly by Caesar’s senior officers and staff, who shared in his generous distributions of plunder and slaves. He was also not one to hoard his own new-found wealth, but spent lavishly on his building projects and planned entertainments, and at a more personal level offered interest free loans or even gifts of money to men he wished to cultivate. Many Romans who had never been anywhere near Gaul gained from its conquest.

There were benefits to the Republic - and even more to individuals - from the victories in Gaul, but all were dwarfed by the immediate and irrevocable change these brought to Caesar’s personal fortune and status. By 50 BC he was wealthier, had a more extensive network of friends and clients, and could boast of greater and more glorious achievements than any other senator except for Pompey For several years he had made it clear that he intended to seek a second consulship on his return to Rome. His electoral success was virtually guaranteed, for he had always been popular with the voters and now had even more money with which to court their favour. Long established law, restated by Sulla during his dictatorship, decreed that a ten- year interval should elapse between consulships. This had been set aside in Pompey’s case in 52 BC, just one of many unorthodox steps in his career, but the law remained in force and Caesar had no desire or need for preferential treatment in this respect. He planned to put his name forward as a candidate for election in the autumn of 49 BC, to assume the consulship in January 48 BC, ten years after he had laid down the office at the end of his first term as consul. The controversies of that year still dogged him, and Caesar knew that he would be prosecuted as soon as he became a private citizen. For that reason he wished to go straight from his proconsular command into the second consulship. The law put forward by all ten tribunes of 52 BC - admittedly in at least one case after some initial reluctance - had granted him permission to become a candidate without actually entering the city in the normal way. Pompey and Crassus had done the same thing in 71 BC, waiting with their armies outside Rome and only crossing the formal boundary of the city when they actually assumed the consulship. Once he had become consul - ideally with a sympathetic colleague, perhaps even one of his own former legates such as Labienus - Caesar would be in a position to present new legislation, rewarding his veteran soldiers with land and confirming his settlement of Gaul. Other bills could have been tailored to add to his popularity with various sections of society. Back in the heart of public life, he would have had a year in which either to win over his political enemies or, at the very least, make himself so strong that they would not risk attacking him in the courts. We do not know what he planned after that, and it is more than possible that he had no clear idea himself at this stage and intended to await events. A fresh provincial command would have been one option, perhaps against the Parthians to avenge the stain of Crassus’ disastrous defeat at Carrhae. Alternatively, he may have hoped for some appointment similar to Pompey’s, allowing him to hold imperium and control legions while hovering just outside Rome.3

In the event, nothing worked out as Caesar had planned. Instead of coming back home to a second consulship, a Gallic triumph, games honouring his daughter and general acknowledgement as Pompey’s equal as the two foremost men in the Republic, he returned as a rebel. His opponents held very different ideas about the manner in which he should return, and so increasingly did Pompey There were attempts at negotiation, many offers of compromise, but in the end it proved impossible to find a settlement that all were willing and able to accept. Stubbornness, pride and suspicion on all sides, as well as deep personal enmities in a few cases, all contributed to this impasse. So did misplaced optimism, leading to the belief that opponents would back down. Some had seen the possibility of civil war for more than a year before it actually broke out, but very few of the key participants actually wanted it. Most, including Caesar and Pompey, were gradually and reluctantly drawn into a situation in which they decided that they no longer had any other acceptable alternative. It would be very hard to say when war finally became inevitable. The Civil War was not fought over great issues or between conflicting ideologies, but was about personal position and dignitas - most of all that of Caesar. In later years, especially for men living under the rule of Rome’s emperors, some were inclined to see Caesar as aiming at revolution and monarchy from his early youth. No contemporary evidence supports such claims, while his actions certainly give no hint of such plans. A peaceful return to take up a pre-eminent position within the Republic, his prestige, influence and auctoritas acknowledged by all other senators, even those who disliked him, was what Caesar craved. Having to resort to armed force to protect his position was a sign of political failure, for Pompey as much as for Caesar.4


The pressure on Caesar had built up gradually. When Cato had condemned his actions against the Usipetes and Tencteri in 55 BC, there had been no realistic prospect that the Senate would act upon his proposal and actually hand the proconsul over to the Germans. The triumvirate had been renewed at Luca and between them Pompey, Crassus and Caesar - especially the first two because they were actually in Rome - were too strong to oppose. Domitius Ahenobarbus could only be denied the consulship for a year, but his ambition to replace Caesar in the Gallic command was blocked without too much difficulty. The death of Julia weakened the bond between Caesar and Pompey. That of Crassus fundamentally shifted the balance of Roman public life, since so many leading men had been under obligation to him for past loans or favours. His surviving son Marcus was neither old enough nor able enough to step into his father’s shoes at the centre of this network of clients and political friends. Some of these men now attached themselves to Pompey and some to Caesar, but the bonds could not instantly become as strong as the ones to Crassus, who had devoted much effort over many years to expanding his political capital as much as his financial wealth. Many of the strongest critics of Caesar had also in the past been hostile to Pompey, which made his appointment as sole consul in 52 BC on the motion of Bibulus backed by Cato all the more striking. Cato did stress his continued personal independence, bluntly telling Pompey that he would advise him for the good of the Republic but that this did not imply any personal friendship between them. This no doubt contributed to his failure to gain the consulship. However, for the moment at least, Pompey, through his new marriage and willingness to restore order to the State, had become more acceptable to many of the leading men in the Senate. These liked to be known as the ‘good men’ (boni) - or sometimes the ‘best’ (optimates) - and came predominantly from very well-established families. In 52 BC they willingly supported Pompey as a means of dealing with the violence that was disrupting public life, especially since, apart from Milo, virtually all the casualties from the trials in the new court were partisans of Clodius. Cato had even said that Milo ought to be acquitted as one who had deserved well of the Republic for disposing of his dangerous rival.5

In 51 BC Marcus Claudius Marcellus was consul and began a concerted attack on Caesar, who was his personal enemy. The ultimate source of this hostility is obscure, though a major factor was doubtless the resentment of the virtual monopoly of grand and important commands held by the triumvirate. Under normal circumstances, such opportunities for serving the Republic and winning glory ought to have gone to men from the great aristocratic families - men like Marcellus himself, his brother and cousin. Pompey was too strong to attack at present, but Caesar appeared to be vulnerable. Marcellus openly declared his intention of having Caesar recalled from his command, arguing that his great victory over Vercingetorix, which the Republic had marked with a public thanksgiving, showed that the war in Gaul was now over. This justification was necessary, since in 55 BC Crassus’ and Pompey’s law had granted Caesar a new five-year command in Gaul. Marcellus also argued that Pompey’s more recent law concerning provincial commands superseded the tribunes’ law granting Caesar the privilege of becoming a candidate for his second consulship without actually returning to the city. As early as March Pompey expressed his disapproval of the consul’s intentions. Apart from his ties with Caesar, it was deeply insulting to have his own law challenged in this way, especially since clauses in the law itself had forbidden alteration of it by subsequent meetings of the Senate or Assembly. He made it clear that he would never support any move to have Caesar recalled before his legal term as proconsul had expired.

In July questions were asked in the Senate about the legion that Pompey had ‘loaned’ to Caesar after the defeat of Cotta and Sabinus, and he was urged to take it back under his direct command. Grudgingly Pompey declared that he would do so, but refused to be coerced and set no date for recalling his troops. Marcellus kept up the pressure and, after a postponement, managed to ensure that the Senate would debate the matter of Caesar’s province on 1 September. The Senate met outside the formal boundary of the city, so that Pompey could once again be present. He again stated his view that it would not be proper for the Senate to rule on this question at the moment. His father-in-law Metellus Scipio did put forward a motion for the issue to be raised again on 30 March 50 BC, and it seems unlikely that Pompey disapproved of this. In fact Marcellus was able to secure a fuller debate much earlier than this on 29 September. Once again Pompey was present. Marcellus put forward a motion very similar to that of Scipio decreeing that the Senate should address the issue of the ‘consular provinces’ on or after 1 March. This was approved. Further measures, one to bar any tribune from vetoing the decision of that debate, and another to begin the process of discharging any of Caesar’s soldiers who had served for their full legal term - which at this period was most probably sixteen years - or had other grounds for honourable discharge were debated. Both of these proposals were vetoed by two or more tribunes, as was another dealing with appointments to propraetorian provincial commands that would also have affected the number of men waiting for commands when Caesar’s term expired.6

Marcellus had not won outright, but neither had he altogether lost. Caesar was still formally acknowledged as rightful governor of his three provinces when the consul laid down his office at the end of the year. Earlier in the year he had shown a sign of his frustration with working solely through the proper channels in the Senate. In 59 BC as part of his agrarian legislation Caesar had established a colony at Novum Comum in Cisalpine Gaul north of the River Po. Throughout his time in Gaul, he had also treated the Transpadanes as citizens even though they as yet had only Latin status. Marcellus ordered a former magistrate of the colony to be flogged, a punishment from which citizens were exempt, telling the man to go back to Caesar and ‘show him his stripes’. It was a crass act, which disgusted Cicero when he heard about it, and indicates just how bitterly Marcellus loathed Caesar. Even if he had not secured the proconsul’s recall, Marcellus had raised serious questions over his future. Some of Pompey’s comments during and after the debate on 29 September certainly encouraged Caesar’s opponents. He stated that he could not countenance the removal of Caesar from his command until 1 March 50 BC, but that after that his attitude would be different, which rather suggests that he believed that the command granted to Caesar by his own and Crassus’ law would expire on that date. Asked what his attitude would be if a tribune vetoed the Senate’s decision at that point, Pompey’s answer implied little closeness with his ally and former father-in-law. He said that it did not matter whether Caesar opposed the Senate himself or via the agency of a tribune - either by implication would be wrong. Cicero was not in Rome at the time - having gone reluctantly to govern Cilicia as a result of the new regulations introduced in 52 BC. Fortunately one of his correspondents - the same Caelius Rufus he had successfully defended in 56 BC and who was now aedile - sent him a detailed account, which mentions one last question put to Pompey: ‘“What if,” someone else said, “he wants to be consul and still retain his army?” To this Pompey responded mildly, “What if my son wants to attack me with a stick?” These words have made people suspect that Pompey is having a row with Caesar.’7

The question of precisely when Caesar’s provincial command expired has long been a source of academic debate and seems unlikely ever to be finally resolved. Clearly some obvious significance must have been attached to 1 March 50 BC for Pompey to select this as the date after which it would be proper to consider a replacement. This tends to suggest that the law passed in 55 BC granting Caesar an extension of his command had come into force in February of that year. Therefore the five years granted to Caesar began then and expired on the first day of March 50 BC, known to the Romans as the Kalends of March. From that point, a new governor could be appointed by the Senate and Caesar’s command would end as soon as this replacement arrived. Caesar clearly interpreted the law differently and may have preferred to see it as having granted him an extension of his original five-year command, the new period not commencing until the first was complete. However, he does not seem to have made any formal announcement as to when he believed his command should legally end. It is perfectly possible that the original law was imprecise, for it was likely to have been prepared in considerable haste and at a time when the alliance between the triumvirate was strong. The situation was further complicated by the bill passed by all ten tribunes, granting Caesar the right to stand for election without having to present himself in person as a candidate. He took this to mean that he should not be replaced in Gaul until the elections had occurred, a period of some eighteen months if his term ended in March 50, and he intended to wait till the consular elections in the autumn of 49 BC.8

Domitius Ahenobarbus had wished to take over the command in Gaul for some time and since his praetorship had also attacked Caesar’s consulship. Cato was equally vocal in his criticism and repeatedly stated his intention of prosecuting Caesar for the events of 59 BC, and had even taken an oath to that effect. More recently he had taken to declaring that Caesar would stand trial just as Milo had done, with armed soldiers surrounding the court. Bibulus had also lost none of his resentment, though for the moment, just like Cicero, he found himself despatched as provincial governor, in his case to Syria. Marcellus, his brother and cousin were all equally hostile, and Metellus Scipio was at best unfriendly. All were united in their desire to prevent Caesar from returning to a second consulship and avoiding trial. Yet for all their bitter hatred, none of this would really have mattered if Pompey had decided to give his full support to Caesar, since this would surely have allowed the latter to secure everything he wanted. Pompey had proconsular imperium and a formed army in Spain. Without him there was no force with which to threaten Caesar, still less to fight him if it came to open conflict. Caesar’s opponents could achieve nothing without Pompey’s support, as the failure of Marcellus to recall him from Gaul in 51 BC clearly demonstrated. Equally, Caesar would struggle to remain in his command and return to Rome as he wished without Pompey’s backing, or at least, neutrality. As was so often the case, what Pompey was thinking was not clear to anyone else. Caelius already suspected a rift between the two remaining triumvirs in the autumn of 51 BC. Pompey’s position was extremely strong and, in the end, his greatest concern was how to profit from and maintain this dominance. His old ally Caesar needed his help to get what he wanted. So did Caesar’s opponents, to whom Pompey had become closer in the last few years. If Caesar came back with all the wealth and glory of his Gaulish victories then he would become Pompey’s equal and perhaps, in time and given his greater political skill, eventually his superior. Yet if Caesar was disposed of altogether, as Cato, Domitius, the Marcelli and their allies wanted, then they would have less need of Pompey, and he might easily find himself reduced to the comparative political impotence that had been his fate when he returned from the east in 62 BC. For the moment Pompey held the advantage, showing both Caesar and his opponents that they needed him, but that neither could take his aid for granted.9

The new year seemed to augur well for Caesar’s enemies. Another Marcellus was consul, after being acquitted on a charge of electoral bribery, with Lucius Aemilius Lepidus Paullus as his colleague. The latter was the son of the Lepidus who had rebelled in 78 BC, only to be suppressed by Pompey. In spite of this, he was not believed to be especially well disposed towards Caesar either, and was anyway currently more concerned with his efforts to rebuild in grander fashion the Basilica Fulvia et Aemilia, a great monument to an earlier member of his family. One of the new tribunes was Curio the Younger, who in 59 BC had been one of the few men to criticise the triumvirate publicly. Cicero’s lively correspondent Caelius was close to the tribune at this time. Both were prominent members of a generation of young Romans notorious for their wild lifestyle, which, combined with their grand ambitions, often placed them into debt. Mark Antony was another of this group of reckless youths, and Curio is said to have first introduced him to the pleasures of mistresses, drinking and a flamboyantly luxurious lifestyle. The consequence of this was that Antony was soon massively in debt, and Curio’s father banned him from their house lest his own son proved too willing to pay his friend’s way. More recently Curio had spent a huge sum on staging spectacular funeral games in honour of the Elder Curio, who died in 53 BC. He even constructed a wooden amphitheatre that revolved and could be divided into two semi-circular theatres for individual theatrical performances. A little later he had married Clodius’ widow, the forthright and forceful Fulvia. These young men - they were still ‘adolescents’ in the Roman understanding of the term - were talented, but did not seem at all stable to the older generation.

Caelius was convinced that Curio planned an all-out attack on Caesar, but one of his first acts as tribune was to propose a new programme of distributing land to the poor. The hostility of the consuls effectively blocked this and instead he put forward bills for a new grain dole to citizens in Rome, and a five-year programme of road building in Italy. At the same time he began to make it clear at public meetings that he supported Caesar’s cause. Later there was talk of Caesar buying his support by paying off his massive debts with gold from the spoils of Gaul. Velleius Paterculus mentions rumours of a bribe of 2.5 million denarii, while Valerius Maximus talks of the staggering sum of 15 million. Gossip doubtless inflated the figure, but in one sense Caesar was doing for Curio effectively what Crassus had once done for him, covering his staggering debts in order to gain a useful political ally. There was also talk of Paullus benefiting on the scale of 9 million denarii, helping him to complete his building plans. Both men were ambitious Roman aristocrats and looked to their own advantage when they switched to supporting Caesar. For the moment they had been persuaded that it was in their interest to support him. Curio was probably frustrated by the blocking of his bills, which gave him no incentive to aid the leading men in the Senate.10

The profits of his victories had allowed Caesar to win useful friends amongst the magistrates. When Marcellus duly raised the question of Caesar’s command on 1 March 50 BC his colleague did not support him, but the real counter-attack was led by Curio, who focused most of his attention on Pompey’s position. If Caesar was to be replaced in his Gallic command, then the tribune argued that it would only be fair, as well as safe for the Republic, if Pompey simultaneously gave up his extraordinary command of the Spanish provinces. He had already voiced this proposal at public meetings to the approval of the crowd. Caesar certainly approved of the tactic and may well have suggested it in the first place. The Spanish command had been renewed in 52 BC and still had several years left to run, so there were no legal grounds for this proposal, but it was a reminder of Pompey’s unprecedented position. It placed him and Caesar on the same level, suggesting that either both or neither should enjoy the honours voted to them by the Roman people. More personally, it was clearly intended to show Pompey that it was to his advantage to maintain the alliance with Caesar, since his own position might not in reality be as strong as he thought. Adding this element to the debate raised the stakes, but took back some of the initiative from Caesar’s opponents. They were at first stunned, and for several months there was deadlock, with Curio vetoing any attempt by the Senate to act against Caesar. In April, Caelius wrote again to Cicero:

As for the situation of the Republic, all contention is focused on a single cause, namely the provinces. At the moment Pompey seems to be backing the Senate in demanding that Caesar leave his province by the Ides [13th] of November. Curio is utterly determined to prevent this - he has abandoned all his other projects. Our ‘friends’ (you know them well!) are afraid of pushing the issue to crisis point. This is the scene - the whole thing - Pompey, just as if he was not attacking Caesar, but making a fair settlement for him, blames Curio for making trouble.

At the same time he is absolutely against Caesar becoming consul before giving up his province and army. He is getting a rough ride from Curio, and his entire third consulship is attacked. You mark my words, if they try to crush Curio with all their might, Caesar will come to the rescue; if instead, as seems most likely, they are too frightened to risk it, then Caesar will stay as long as he wants.11

It is not clear why Pompey chose 13 November as the new date for the end of Caesar’s command. It was not much of a concession, since he would still have had the best part of a year to wait before the consular elections in the autumn of 49 BC. It might have been acceptable to Caesar if he wanted to stand for the consulship in the elections at the end of 50 BC, but he does not seem to have made any attempt to secure exemption from law decreeing a ten-year interval between consulships. In any case, given the circumstances he may have decided that this was unlikely to succeed. By June, Caelius was reporting that Marcellus suggested negotiating with the tribunes, but the Senate voted against any such compromise. Curio continued to insist that Caesar’s command should not be discussed independently and that he must be treated in the same way as Pompey. A year before there had been talk of Pompey going out to Spain - now some suggested that either he or Caesar should go to deal with the Parthians. Cicero was very nervous that the latter might launch an all-out invasion of Rome’s eastern provinces before he could give up his own post as governor of Cilicia - knowing that once an attack occurred it would be dishonourable for him to leave. That summer the Senate decided to take one legion from Pompey’s and another from Caesar’s armies and send the troops out to bolster Rome’s forces on the Parthian border. Pompey decided to send the one that he had loaned to Caesar in 54 BC, and which had been campaigning with him ever since. Effectively this meant that Caesar lost two legions, but before he sent the men on their way he gave each soldier a bounty of 250 denarii, a sum amounting to more than one year’s pay. The whole affair seemed even more suspicious when the two units marched back to Italy and then remained there, no one making any effort to send them overseas. A young member of the Claudian family had collected the troops from Gaul and returned claiming that Caesar’s entire army was disaffected. It was just what Pompey wanted to believe.

Soon afterwards Pompey fell ill, suffering from a recurring fever that may possibly have been malaria. Apparently spontaneously, people throughout Italy began praying and making offerings for the return to health of the man who had performed such great services to the Republic. When he recovered the celebrations were ecstatic, crowds greeting him all along his route as he went from Naples back to the outskirts of Rome. Pompey had always thrived on adoration, whether from his wives, his soldiers or the people, and was deeply moved. More dangerously he interpreted this enthusiasm as a clear sign of widespread devotion to his cause. While still ill he had sent word to the Senate that he was willing to resign his command, assuring them that Caesar would do the same. Curio responded by saying that that would be fine, as long as Pompey laid down his post first. By August Caelius was speaking to Cicero of the prospect of civil war. ‘If neither of the two sets off on a Parthian war, then I can see great discord ahead, which will be decided by cold steel and brute force. They are both well prepared in spirit and with armies.’12

Yet there was little enthusiasm for conflict beyond the immediate partisans, as was shown when the Senate debated the issue on 1 December. Curio again proposed that both Caesar and Pompey should give up their commands simultaneously. The consul Marcellus split this into two and presented separate motions to the House. The first, that Caesar should resign, was passed by a big majority, but the second asking Pompey to do the same was defeated by a similarly large margin. When Curio responded by asking the Senate to divide on the motion that both men should resign, the result was highly revealing. Only twenty-two senators voted against this, but no fewer than 370 backed it. The ‘back bench’ pedarii had lived up to their name and voted with their feet, even though most of the great names had been with the twenty-two. Marcellus dismissed the meeting, declaring ‘If that is what you want, be Caesar’s slaves!’, and the votes were ignored. It had not been a victory for Caesar, since a clear majority had wanted him to lay down his provinces and his army, while supporting Pompey’s claim to retain his command. Yet in the end what it had shown was that nearly the entire Senate wanted peace above all else. They were certainly not committed to Caesar’s cause, but nor were they eager to risk civil war on behalf of Pompey, still less of Cato, Domitius and their associates. By this time Cicero had come back to Italy from his province and his view was similar. He felt that Caesar’s demands were outrageously excessive, but even so preferred to grant them rather than allow the Republic to tear itself apart. He, like many others, remembered the dark days of the struggle between Sulla and the Marians and had no wish to see such ghastly strife repeated. In his view there was still the chance for compromise and a peaceful settlement. Perhaps there was, but the mood of the main participants in the dispute had hardened to the point where war was becoming more and more likely.13

A hard core of distinguished senators loathed Caesar, many of them for personal as well as political reasons. Much of this hatred was not entirely rational. There were memories of his popularis behaviour as aedile and praetor, and even worse his turbulent consulship. To Cato and his associates Caesar was the Catiline who had never quite allowed his villainy to become so open. They saw the effect of his charm on others - on other men’s wives as often as on the crowd in the Forum - but felt that they had seen past it, which only made it all the more frustrating that others had not. It can never have helped that Cato’s half-sister had been one of Caesar’s most ardent lovers. Cato, his son-in-law Bibulus and brother-in-law Domitius Ahenobarbus had stood up to Caesar in the past and had had their moments of success. More often they had simply pushed Caesar into going further, and time after time he had got away with it, riding roughshod over them in 59 BC. They despised Caesar as a man, which made his obviously exceptional talent in public life and as an army commander all the more galling. Appius Claudius, older brother of Clodius, who had co-operated with Caesar much of the time, was obsessed with maintaining the dignity of his ancient patrician heritage. One of his daughters was married to Servilia’s son and Cato’s nephew Brutus, and another to Pompey’s eldest son. Opposition did not just come from Cato’s extended family, for families like the Marcelli and Lentuli did not like to see their current resurgence of electoral success overshadowed. For Metellus Scipio there was concern both to live up to his famous ancestors - both real and adopted - and eagerness to exploit the advantages offered by his marriage tie to Pompey.

Ultimately, no Roman senator liked to see another man excelling him in glory and influence. It was not so much what Caesar had done that provoked their hostility - most would have happily praised the same deeds, especially his victories in Gaul, if only they had been performed by someone else, or better yet by several other men so that no one individual gained too much glory. Men from established families were raised to believe that they deserved to guide the Republic, but Caesar’s eminence robbed them of much of this role. Now there was a chance to end his career - preferably in court, and a court that shared their view of the accused and the need to be rid of him, but if not, by armed force. Pompey’s aid made this possible and so, for the moment, he was useful enough for his own anomalous position to be ignored. In the future then it might be possible to discard him or at least reduce his dominance. Since he first hinted that he was not firmly committed to backing Caesar’s demands, Pompey had encouraged his opponents. Cato at least does seem to have hoped to avoid civil war, and once it began made some effort to moderate the vehemence with which it was fought. His expectation was that Caesar could be forced to submit. The attitude of his allies was less clear. Some of them clearly hoped to profit from war. Cicero was surprised and rather disgusted by the militancy he saw in many of these men. He could also see no sense in fighting Caesar after years of allowing him to become so powerful.14

Pompey’s attitude was different. Even at the end he would have been content for Caesar to return to public life so long as it was in a way that made it clear that he was not Pompey’s equal, still less his superior. This desire had hardened as the months had gone by, and Curio had made such efforts to place the two men on the same level. Crassus he had been able to accept as an equal, for he was several years his senior and had fought for Sulla. Perhaps as importantly, Pompey had always been confident that his own charisma and spectacular military exploits - three triumphs compared with Crassus’ mere ovation - gave him a comfortable advantage over his rival. Caesar was younger by just six years, but more importantly he had done nothing when Pompey had formed and led his own armies to victory, and in this respect his career was decades behind. He found it easier to like Caesar than Crassus, but perhaps in part that was because he did not see him as a competitor, at least at first. Even after Caesar’s successes in Gaul, Germany and Britain, Pompey still viewed him as a junior ally. After all he had won triumphs on three continents - Asia, Africa and Europe - and defeated many different opponents, some of them Roman, in the process and not just barbarian tribes. ‘What if my son wants to attack me with a stick?’ - the comment implied not just the ease of dealing with such a threat, but how absurdly unlikely it was that it would even happen. Pompey did not want civil war, but had little doubt that he could win it if the worst came to the worst and it occurred. Around this time he would begin to boast that he had only to stamp his foot and armies would spring up from the soil of Italy. In the end Caesar must realise that he needed to respect Pompey, accept his terms for coming back, and trust to his friendship for protection in the courts. Curio’s attack on his own position made him all the less inclined to grant too many concessions to the proconsul in Gaul. Caesar would have to see sense, but he could still be very useful to Pompey, who was aware that Cato and his allies had no great love for him either.

Caesar claimed later that he had to fight a civil war in order to defend his dignitas - his reputation. In his view the laws of his consulship had been necessary and effective, especially the land laws. Since then he had served the Republic well, defending its interests and its allies, and making Roman power respected in regions that had never before seen a legion. For these achievements the Senate had awarded him no less than three public thanksgivings of unprecedented length. Now his command was to be prematurely curtailed - at least in his view - while the law put forward by all ten tribunes in 52 BC as an expression of the will of the Roman people was being set aside both in detail and in spirit. His enemies, ignoring all his successes, were boasting of attacking and condemning him because of his consulship almost a decade ago. The great men of the Republic were not taken to court. Pompey had not been prosecuted since his youth, before he had raised his own legions. No one had ever dared to bring Crassus to trial. Simply having to defend himself would have been a great blow to Caesar’s pride and auctoritas. There was also the very real danger that he might be condemned, especially if the court was controlled by enemies. As consul his behaviour had been controversial at the very least, although innocence or guilt was seldom the decisive factor in Roman trials. Milo’s fate offered a warning, as did that of Gabinius, the man who as tribune in 67 BC had secured Pompey the command against the pirates, and as consul in 58 BC with Caesar’s father-in-law Calpurnius Piso had helped to secure the triumvirate’s position. After that he had gone to govern Syria and, largely on his own initiative, had taken his army into Egypt to restore the deposed Ptolemy XII, a highly profitable enterprise. Yet he was a deeply unpopular man and, in spite of his money and the support of Pompey, he was eventually condemned when he returned to Rome in 53 BC, going into exile.

Caesar could easily have suffered a similar fate, but at the very least would have been politically damaged, when any hint of vulnerability would attract further prosecutions. He would therefore be taking a great risk if he placed his trust in Pompey’s protection and gave up his command. Even if he chose to support Caesar, Pompey might not have been able to save him. In any case, Cicero’s exile had demonstrated that Pompey was not always reliable. Had Caesar given up his command he could have retained his imperium and the command of some detachments of troops and remained just outside Rome, on the reasonable basis of waiting to celebrate the triumph that must surely be awarded for his victories in Gaul. Until he entered the city and so laid down his imperium he would remain exempt from prosecution. Yet there was no guarantee that if he did this he would still be permitted to become a consular candidate in accordance with the tribunician law. While still in command of three provinces and an army of ten legions, his bargaining position was strong. After well over a year of attacks on his position, he was very reluctant to sacrifice this. He knew that his enemies were determined to destroy him. Pompey’s attitude was never easy to read. By the close of 50 BC Caesar felt himself backed into a corner, reluctant to place too much faith on his old ally.15

A century later the poet Lucan would write that ‘Caesar could not accept a superior, nor Pompey an equal.’ For him, the Civil War was virtually inevitable after Julia’s death severed the close bond between them, while Crassus’ loss in Parthia removed from each the fear that he could end up fighting alone against the other two. It was a fairly common view in the ancient world and contains more than a grain of truth. Yet this tends to imply an inevitability about the Civil War, and this should not be pushed too far. Even in the last months before the war broke out, neither Caesar nor Pompey seems to have believed that the other would not back down, or at least offer acceptable terms. The long dispute had eroded their trust in each other, however, and this made compromise far harder. They had raised the stakes, which added to their nervousness about making a mistake at the last minute. The outcome of the autumn’s elections further increased the tension. The third Marcellus would become consul in the new year, with a colleague from another noble family They had beaten Servius Sulpicius Galba, who had served competently as Caesar’s legate for most of the Gallic campaigns, one of the few patricians to serve with him for any length of time. Appius Claudius and Caesar’s father-in-law Calpurnius Piso became censors. The former began to purge the Senate of men he considered to be unfit, something that was generally seen as ironic given his own dubious reputation, and his targets were mostly men believed to be associated with Caesar. Sallust, the future historian, was expelled at this time and soon joined Caesar. An attack on Curio was thwarted by Piso and the consul Paullus, but still resulted in a brawl in the Senate during which the tribune tore the censor’s robe. There was also a vacancy in the priestly college of augurs and Domitius Ahenobarbus was enraged to be beaten in the race for this by Mark Antony, who was also elected tribune for the coming year. Most of Caesar’s opponents were united only in their hatred of him, so it would be a mistake to see their actions as co-ordinated. Yet there was a sense that the proconsul of Gaul was vulnerable, and this encouraged their hostility and so helped to make him even more suspicious and nervous. The mood on both sides was scarcely conducive to compromise.16

Mark Antony would play a major role in what followed and it is worth pausing to consider this flamboyant character. He had already proved himself to be a courageous and skilful soldier, leading Gabinius’ cavalry during the operations in Judaea and Egypt. In 52 BC he was Caesar’s quaestor and had served in the campaign against Vercingetorix, as well as the rebellions of the following year. The two men were distant relations, for Antony’s mother was a Julia, although from the other branch of the family Her brother was the Lucius Julius Caesar who was consul in 64 BC. In the familiar Roman way, Antony’s father and grandfather were both also named Marcus Antonius. His grandfather was one of the leading orators of his day, but was killed in the purge that accompanied Marius’ return to Rome in 87 BC. His father was given a special command to deal with the pirate problem in 74 BC but could not call on the resources later lavished on Pompey and was defeated, dying shortly afterwards. Antony was only nine at the time. His mother soon remarried, and the boy spent much of his formative years in the house of his step-father Lentulus, one of the catilinarian conspirators executed on Cicero’s orders in 63 BC. This may well have given little cause for Antony to like the orator, but there is no evidence that the bitter feud between the two men developed until much later. After Caesar’s death, Cicero’s rhetoric - especially his famous Philippics, a series of virulent speeches modelled on those originally delivered by the famous orator Demosthenes warning the Athenians of the threat posed by Alexander the Great’s father, King Philip II of Macedon - would do much to blacken Antony’s name. Yet in spite of the exaggeration and bias, other sources suggest that Antony had genuinely provided plenty of material with which Cicero could work. As already noted, tradition maintained that it was Curio who had first introduced Antony to wild parties, wine and women (see p.365). Whether or not this was true, there is no doubt that Antony took immediately to all such things with enormous enthusiasm and almost no self-restraint. There was a great passion in the man that seemed always ready to boil over, and which gave force and massive determination to all that he did. His oratory, his soldiering - as well as his drunkenness and womanizing - all seem to have had a power behind them that came from his personality more than skill or training. A big, burly man, it was said that he liked to be compared with Hercules, just as Pompey had enjoyed references to himself as a new Alexander. As tribune, Antony’s strident character would make him hard to ignore, and even harder for Caesar’s opponents to browbeat. Yet for more subtle negotiation Caesar would need to rely more on men like Balbus, the equestrian from Spain who privately acted as his agent. Antony was unlikely to give anyone the impression that the proconsul was keen for compromise and did not plan a radical second term as consul.17


Rumour and misinformation also played their part in the growing crisis. In October the story circulated that Caesar had concentrated four legions in Cisalpine Gaul, which was taken as an indication that he was preparing for war. In fact he had only one legion in the province, the Thirteenth, which he claimed was there to secure the border areas against barbarian raiding. In early December, shortly after the disgusted Marcellus had dismissed a Senate for wanting to disarm both men and avoid conflict, another report came to Rome claiming that Caesar had already massed his army and invaded Italy. The story was false, but the consul probably did not know this and now urged the Senate to act. Helped no doubt by Curio, but also by the reluctance of the overwhelming majority to plunge into war, the House refused. Accompanied by the consuls elect, but not by his own colleague, Marcellus went to Pompey and presented him with a sword and called on him to protect the Republic. He was given command of the two legions recalled from Gaul ostensibly for the projected war against Parthia and instructed to raise more troops. None of this was legal, since the Senate had not approved the action or granted emergency powers. Pompey told them that he would accept their charge and fight, if this proved necessary. He began trying to recruit troops, but no aggressive moves were made. In part this was because the troops were not ready to fight, but the discovery that the rumour was untrue must have played a part.

Public business went on at Rome almost as if nothing had happened. Caesar had not in fact started a war, so his opponents were determined that they would not take the blame for beginning a conflict. Marcellus and Pompey may still have been more interested in making a gesture, sending a message to the senators of their confidence and to Caesar of their determination to fight if he provoked them. They may well have still hoped that he would back down. Caesar was at a major disadvantage because he could not leave his province to negotiate in person and had to rely instead on letters or representatives. Curio tried to persuade the Senate to pass a decree condemning Pompey’s recruitment drive and instructing good citizens to ignore the call to arms. This failed, and since the tribuncian year began and ended earlier than the normal political cycle, his term of office ended and he left to consult with Caesar. What Caesar’s men did not do was as eagerly scrutinised as what they actually did and said. On 6 December Caesar’s trusted subordinate Hirtius arrived in the city, but left after just a few hours. He did not visit Pompey, and did not wait around for the meeting with Metellus Scipio which had been arranged for the following morning. Pompey told Cicero that he interpreted this as a sign that the breach with Caesar was now irreparable. However, although he and others were now expecting war, they still did not wish to initiate it.18

On 1 January the new consuls took up their office. Lentulus, who was hugely in debt, and according to Caesar boasted that he wanted to be a second Sulla, proved far more extreme than Marcellus. However, Mark Antony was now tribune and, along with one of his colleagues Quintus Cassius Longinus, was fulfilling Curio’s role. It was only through the persistence of these men that a letter from Caesar was allowed to be read out in the Senate, although the consuls prevented a debate on it. In the letter the proconsul recounted his great achievements on the Republic’s behalf and returned to the demand that he should only be forced to lay down his command if Pompey did the same, appearing to threaten war if the latter refused. Cicero, who had just arrived back on the outskirts of Rome, described it as a ‘fierce and threatening letter’. A vote was taken on a motion proposed by Metellus Scipio, stating that Caesar must lay down his command by a set day or be considered a public enemy It was passed, but promptly vetoed by Antony and Cassius. In private, Caesar’s tone was more conciliatory and he seems to have written or sent representatives to many leading figures including Cato. He offered to give up Transalpine Gaul and all save two of his legions, so long as he was permitted to retain the rest of his command and make use of the privilege granted to him by the tribunes in 52 BC. This would have balanced the forces under Pompey’s command in Italy but seriously impeded his capacity to fight an aggressive war. Cicero became involved in the negotiations, for he believed everything should be done to prevent conflict and felt that the overwhelming majority of senators agreed with him. He spoke to Caesar’s opponents and friends, and the latter agreed to a further concession, allowing him to keep just Cisalpine Gaul and a single legion. It was still not enough. Cato declared that he could not agree to anything presented in private rather than before the whole Senate, but ultimately neither he nor any of his closest allies were willing to accept anything that would allow Caesar an unhindered path to his second consulship. Even in late December Cicero had felt that Pompey had reached the point of actively wanting war. The sources are contradictory, but he probably rejected the first proposal. The second - just one legion and Cisalpine Gaul - satisfied him, but he found that he was overruled by Cato, Metellus Scipio and the rest. Overall it was hard for anyone to be too trusting in the atmosphere of suspicion and hate. Nor did the distance help. Caesar away in Gaul at the head of a veteran army was a fairly sinister figure even to moderates. His charm had no opportunity to work at such a long range.19

Senatorial meetings were becoming deadlocked, with Antony and Cassius vetoing the repeated motions attacking Caesar that were presented by the consuls. The situation was difficult, but even so Antony’s temperament probably did not help. He was a man who always struggled to contain his passions. Years later Cicero would speak of him ‘vomiting his words in the usual way’ when delivering a speech. A few weeks earlier the tribune had delivered a particularly vitriolic performance in the Senate, attacking Pompey’s whole career and threatening armed conflict. Afterwards, Pompey had commented ‘What do you reckon Caesar himself will be like, if he gets to control the Republic, if now his weak and worthless quaestor acts like this?’ Following one of the Senate’s meetings, Pompey summoned all of the senators to his house outside the city’s boundary, seeking to reassure them of his steadfast support and willingness to fight if necessary Caesar’s father- in-law Piso asked that he and one of the praetors be permitted six days to travel up to Cisalpine Gaul and talk directly to Caesar before the Senate did anything else. Other voices suggested an even larger deputation. Lentulus, Cato and Metellus Scipio all spoke against this, and these ideas went no further. Instead, on 7 January 49 BC the Senate passed the senatus consultum ultimum, calling on ‘the consuls, praetors and tribunes, and all the proconsuls near the city to ensure that the Republic comes to no harm’. There was no specific mention of Caesar - whereas the reference to proconsuls was obviously intended to place Pompey at the centre of things - but its target was obvious to all. Caesar claimed that Lentulus, Pompey, Cato and Scipio, along with many of his other opponents, were now all determined on war. Some of them may have been, but for others this may have represented the final raising of the stakes, making it utterly clear to Caesar that he could not get his way save by fighting and so must back down. The Senate’s ultimate decree suspended normal law and was not subject to veto. Lentulus warned Antony and Cassius that he could not guarantee their safety if they remained in Rome. Along with Curio, who had returned probably carrying Caesar’s letter read out on 1 January, the two tribunes disguised themselves as slaves and were smuggled out of the city in a hired wagon.20

The precise chronology of what happened over the next few days cannot be firmly established. Caesar had been in Cisalpine Gaul for some time, arriving first - or so he claimed - to canvass for Mark Antony in his bid to be elected augur and then, since this had already succeeded by the time he arrived, in his campaign for the tribunate. Lately he had stayed in Ravenna, close to the border of his province. With him he had the Thirteenth Legion and some 300 cavalry Several of our sources state that the legion was at near enough full strength, with 5,000 men, but it is questionable whether they had any reliable information about this. It is more likely that it was somewhat under strength. Since the early autumn Caesar had redeployed his army, placing some legions ready to block any threat from Pompey’s army in Spain, while the equivalent of three or four more were ready to move to join him south of the Alps. However, he had studiously avoided concentrating a field army lest his opponents use this as proof that he was seeking war. Pompey, with his vast military experience, seems to have been convinced that Caesar was not ready for an invasion of Italy. On the road from Ravenna to Ariminum (modern Rimini) the boundary between the province and Italy itself was marked by the Rubicon, a small river that to this day has not been positively identified. Caesar heard quickly of the attacks on him in the Senate at the beginning of January, of the passing of the ultimate decree and the subsequent flight of the tribunes. The news may have reached him before the fugitives. In any case he decided to act.

The Commentaries skim over what happened next, not mentioning the Rubicon at all, but later sources provide a more detailed version. Caesar spent the day in Ravenna, calmly going about his normal business as if nothing unusual was about to happen. It was probably 10 January, though yet again certainty is impossible regarding this crucial episode in the history of the ancient world. He had already despatched some centurions and legionaries in civilian clothes and with concealed weapons to seize control of Ariminum. The proconsul spent some hours watching gladiators practising and inspecting plans for a training school that he wanted to build. As night fell he bathed and went to dinner, first greeting the numerous guests invited to join him. Much earlier than usual he excused himself and left, asking them to stay and await his return. A few of his senior officers and attendants had been warned of this and met him outside. One was Asinius Pollio, who would later write a history of the Civil War, which was used as a source by Plutarch and probably Suetonius as well. Orders were also issued to the Thirteenth and the cavalry to follow him as soon as they were ready. He and several of his officers travelled in a hired carriage - Suetonius claims that it was drawn by a team of mules borrowed from a nearby baker’s shop. Then they set off into the night down the road to Ariminum. According to Suetonius an element of farce entered the proceedings when Caesar and his carriage got lost in the darkness and blundered around until dawn, when they found a guide who set them on the right path. Plutarch and Appian make no mention of this, and both state that he was already at Ariminum as dawn broke. Therefore at some stage early on the 11th he overtook the marching cohorts and came to the River Rubicon. Before he crossed the bridge, he is said to have stopped, spending some time in silent thought before beginning to talk to his officers, Pollio amongst them. He is supposed to have spoken of the cost to himself if he did not take this step, and the price the whole Roman world would pay if he did so. Suetonius claims a supernatural being appeared, played first upon a flute and then, grabbing a trumpet from one of the military musicians, sounded a blast and strode across the river, encouraging the troops to follow. It seems unlikely that Pollio was the source of this tall tale. He did presumably repeat Caesar’s final words as he decided to cross, although even here we have several slightly different versions. Plutarch maintains that he spoke in Greek, quoting a line from the poet Menander, ‘Let the die be thrown!’ (aneristho kubos). Suetonius gives the more familiar Latin expression ‘The die is cast’ (iacta alea est).21

The gambler’s phrase was appropriate, for he was embarking on a civil war when little more than a tenth of his forces were with him. Even when all his troops were concentrated, he would still be overmatched in resources by his enemies. Although with hindsight we know that Caesar prevailed, this was by no means certain - perhaps not even likely - at the time. He chose to fight because as far as he was concerned all the alternatives were worse. The Republic had become dominated by a faction who ignored the normal rule of law and particularly refused to acknowledge the traditional powers and rights of the tribunate. Yet Caesar was quite open that it was first and foremost because this faction of men had attacked him that he now moved against them. The Roman world was being plunged into chaos and bloodshed because one man was as determined to protect his dignitas as others were to destroy it. Over the preceding eighteen months the stakes had been raised in turn by both sides. Attitudes had tended to harden, suspicions had grown, and trust declined too far to give compromise a real chance. The Civil War that began in January 49 BC could not have happened without the bitter, almost obsessive hatred felt towards Caesar by men like Cato, Domitius Ahenobarbus and the others, which made them determined to prevent his return to public life as a consul. Even this would not have mattered if Pompey had not seen an opportunity to demonstrate his supremacy and show these men, as well as Caesar, that they needed to placate him. Finally, the struggle would not have begun had Caesar not placed such a high value on his prestige and position. His life up to this point had demonstrated his willingness to take risks if there was a chance of a valuable prize. Only rarely - as when he was dismissed from his praetorship - had he been willing to back down, and even then it had only been because this was clearly his sole means of continuing his career. In 49 BC that option had largely been closed to him, or at least been surrounded by risks that appeared greater even than those of fighting. The ethos of the Roman aristocracy celebrated determination and especially admired the generals who would not concede defeat. Yet for all the dubious legality of his opponents’ actions, in the end only one thing mattered. North of the Rubicon Caesar held rightful imperium and south of the river he did not. As soon as he crossed Caesar was undoubtedly a rebel, whatever the reasons that had driven him to this act. In this sense his enemies won a victory and could more readily claim to be fighting for the legitimate Republic. They were determined now to crush him by force, just as Catiline and, before him, Lepidus had been suppressed. Resorting to his army was a mark of Caesar’s failure to get what he wanted by political means. The die had been rolled, but so far no one knew what number it would show when it came to rest.

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