12 January 2008

Crossing the Rubicon

As a historian with some interest in Astrology I have often wondered if certain days of the year are under a specific astral influence. It appears that over the centuries many days seem to attract or create certain kinds of events. There are days which subsume positive events, and others that did bring mostly negative influence. There are also days that changed the course of countries or even History itself.

January 12th is such a day, even though its significance is no longer general public knowledge and only remembered by students of ancient History. However, the event that took place on January 12th in the year we now number as 49 BCE, has created a phrase still widely used, even though its actual origin is rarely known to those who use it.
The phrase I refer to is "Crossing the Rubicon", which now means the making of an important or significant decision with consequences, a decision that cannot be undone again and will not be ignored.

It was coined by the Roman writer and historian Suetonius, who used it in the chapter about Caius Iulius Caesar in his famous work "The Lives of the Caesars". It refers to the begin of the Roman Civil War in 49 BCE, and specifically to the crossing of the Rubicon, a small river of only 29 km length in Northern Italy, by one of Caesar's legions, the Legio XIII Gemina.

The river itself was of no importance (and has by now almost completely disappeared, although parts of it can still be found today), except for the fact that it marked the official border between Italia - the central homeland of the Roman Empire, including Rome itself - and the Roman province of Gallia Cisalpina in Northern Italy (now better known as Lombardia).
Ever since the Romans drove out their king and established the Republic, they were extremely weary of potential internal conflict and created an elaborate legal system to prevent that. No legion was allowed to enter the vicinity of the city of Rome (which was exclusively garrisoned by the Praetorian Guard) and no military leader, no matter how successful, could bring his soldiers with him to Rome (with the exception of small contingents that were allowed to march in the hero's triumphal procession, but had to return to their camps outside the city before nightfall).
During the time of the First Triumvirate (59-52 BCE) between Caesar, Crassus and Pompey the ban of combat legions was extended to cover the whole of Italia.
When the Triumvirate ended - mostly because of discrepancies between Ceaser and Pompey - the Senate, dominated by more conservative elements, sided with Pompey and appointed him as the sole Consul in 52 BCE. Meanwhile Ceasar, whose great military success in Gaul had made him a hero and champion of the people, remained Governor of Gallia and Illyricum.
When his term of office ended in 50 BCE, the Senate, led by Pompey, ordered Caesar to return to Rome and disband his army. Moreover, the Senate forbade Caesar to stand for a second consulship in absentia. Caesar thought he might be prosecuted and politically marginalised if he entered Rome without the immunity enjoyed by a Consul or without the power of his army. Pompey then accused Caesar of insubordination and treason, and that led the powerful hero of Gaul to act preemptively.
By ordering his 13th Legion - the only one he had actually brought with him from Gaul - to cross the little river Rubicon, Caesar knowingly broke the law and thus de facto declared war on the Senate. The rest, as they say, is History. During the Civil War the long-established internal power structure of the Republic deteriorated, various political alliances were formed and broken, and at the end Ceasar was the undisputed ruler and dictator of the Empire. However, the conservative forces in the Senate never forgave him and subsequently murdered him on the steps of the Senate, only minutes before he would have been declared Imperator.

In modern times another "Rubicon", this time the border of technological possibilities, was crossed twice on January 12th: first in 1882 when Thomas Edison began to operate his central station in London, and the second time in 1908, when the first long-distance wireless message was sent from the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

In the USA the 12th of January has also a special Rubicon-like significance for women, especially those who campaign for equality and political participation.
While on January 12th, 1915 the US House of Representatives still rejected a proposal to give women the right to vote, it was on the very same day 17 years later that Hattie W. Caraway, a Democrat, became the first woman to be elected to the US Senate.
At first succeeding her husband, who had died while serving as Senator for Arkansas, Mrs. Caraway was then re-elected in 1938 and 1944 and stayed in the Senate for a total of 14 years.

More recently another "Rubicon" was crossed in 1991, when on January 12th the US Congress passed a resolution that authorised President George H. W. Bush to use military power to force Iraqi occupation troops out of Kuwait. The subsequently executed operation "Desert Storm" defeated the Iraqi army in a mere 100 hours and liberated Kuwait.
It did, however, also create the background and basic conditions for the illegal war against (and occupation of) Iraq that Bush's son George W. started in 2003. And like the crossing of the Rubicon by Legio XIII Gemina in 49 BCE de facto started the decline of the Roman Republic, the action against Iraq in 2003 is seen by many as the begin of the end of the USA as we knew her.

Wishing you a peaceful weekend, I remain for today

The Emerald Islander


Alexander "Sunny" Bergen said...

I wish I had your brain power and historical knowledge.

But I am quite content with my own - even though limited - capacity and happy to learn a lot from reading your most interesting daily blog.


You are most welcome.

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