January 10. 49 BC. In what is the upper end of modern Italy, an army gathers on the northern banks of a river. Thousands of men, some Roman citizens, many not, wait patiently. Having fought battle after battle in Gaul over the preceding years, they await a lecture from a man they have followed to victory time and time again.
This man walks out before them. Having earned their loyalty in the campaigns they have been fighting, his men have absolute faith in him, and he knows it. Which is why he is about to ask them to commit treason. The river they stand before, the Rubicon, is the line between mainland Italy, and cisalpine Gaul. This line is the boundary of the Republic, and to go to the south of it places these men into proper Roman territory.
Having been recalled to Rome, tradition demands that this man surrenders control of his legions, and return to Rome as a citizen instead of a general. But the call to greatness is too much to resist. He has decided to cross this river at the head of an army, and take control of the entire Roman Empire. To follow him across the water, his men would consign themselves to the same destiny as their commander. Victory, or death, the punishment for their crimes.
This man is non-other than Julius Caesar. Arguably one of the finest military minds to ever lead a force in combat, he has supreme confidence in his men, as well as his own ability. He now addresses the men arrayed before him. He explains the intent he has in crossing this small, shallow river, and utters a phrase that was to become as much a part of his legacy as almost anything else.
alea iacta est.
The die is cast. Once they cross this river, the dice have left the gamblers hand. There can be no undoing their actions, and from this moment, there are only two possible outcomes. Total success, or devastating failure.
Earning their place in history, Caesars men surge forward, and with the uttering of that famous phrase, the 13th legion has just invaded mainland Rome, and begun a civil war.
With time of the essence, Caesars legion marched south with incredible purpose. Their speed was unprecedented, and they very nearly caught the messengers running in front of them. This speed lead to Pompey (Caesars rival in terms of power and influence) to flee to the south, due to the belief that the might of all Caesars forces were bearing down on the Roman capital, allowing Caesar an easy (and pivotal) victory.
Caesar's action started a civil war, and signaled the death of the Roman Republic. While the concept of civil war is often intense, it was mostly Caesar trying to draw Pompey into pitched battle, and so consolidate his power. But the civil war was a minor consequence of his invasion. Caesar became the dictator of the entire Roman Empire, in control of its vast territories and resources. Despite attempts by senior Romans to remove him from power, and return Rome to a republic, there was no undoing what had been done. And upon his passing, Caesars adopted son Octavian followed his footsteps and became the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. With the crossing of this small river, the world has changed, and there is no going back.
With an automatic death sentence being passed on each one of them for crossing this river, Caesar and his men were driven by absolutes. Their only way to survive was to win, and their only way to win was to devote everything they had to their goal. Their march south, and their subsequent engagements, clearly show this desperate devotion. Every man in Caesars force would have been aware of the penalty for their actions, lending a powerful incentive to both their sword arms, and their legs.
Caesar could not have been a successful leader were it not for his ability to commit absolutely to his goals. His success in invading Rome, as well as his success in the incredible battle of Alesia (to be covered in a latter article), were directly achieved through his commitment to achieving his desired outcome.
If there is one take away from the life and victories of Gaius Julius Caesar, it is that to achieve victory, it is often necessary to commit everything, in a win or die attempt. The phrase uttered by Caesar as he crossed the Rubicon, alea iacta est, is one that more people should contemplate. The die is cast.