This day in history – January 10, 49 B.C. – “Alea iacta est” – start of the Great Roman Civil War

Politics in the Roman Republic was a brutal business.  The rivalry between the patricians was accentuated by the class divisions between patricians and plebeians.  Yet these were manageable so long as the Republic was confined to Italy.  However, Rome’s victories in the Punic Wars with Carthage and the ensuing wars with Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire turned the Republic into an Empire.

By the middle of the second century BC, Rome was the pre-eminent power in the Mediterranean.  Carthage and its Empire in North Africa, Spain and Sicily were annexed.  Macedonia was now a Roman province and Greece had accepted Roman supremacy.  The Seleucids had been expelled from Asia Minor which was now ruled by Roman clients.  The Seleucids and the Ptolemies of Egypt while nominally independent did not dispute Rome’s preeminence.

This military success led to the ultimate collapse of the Republic.  The Republic (and for that matter the later Empire) never solved a basic problem – how to control the loyalty of armies in the provinces.  Soldiers in the field tended to offer their first loyalty to their commanding general (the dispenser of loot), rather than a bunch of querulous Senators in Rome.  At the same time the social tensions in Rome were getting worse.  The aristocracy had got rich on the loot in the provinces.  However, this prosperity was not flowing downwards.  With an influx of slaves peasants were being forced off the farms into unproductive idleness in the cities where jobs were scarce.  Attempts by the brothers Gracchi to enact land reform led to their lynching.

The tensions erupted into civil war in the beginning of the first century.  It started first with the Social War – a revolt of Rome’s Italian allies.  It next broke out between the supporters of the populist general and military hero Gaius Marius and the representative of the aristocracy Sulla.  For the first time in Roman history a general marched his army into Rome.  Sulla’s victory in the civil war led to brutal proscriptions of his enemies.  However, his constitutional reforms were largely eliminated after his death.  His primary legacy was to make it clear that it was the army and not the Senate that controlled Rome.

Factional squabbling recommenced after Sulla’s death in 78 – interrupted briefly by the Spartacus revolt and the reorganization of the Eastern Mediterranean by Sulla’s protege Pompey.  In 60 BC saw an attempt to overcome the factional strife when Julius Caesar helped create an alliance between the two most powerful men in Rome – Pompey and Crassus.  The First Triumvirate was sealed by the marriage of Caesar’s daughter Julia to Pompey.   The arrangement was ultimately doomed to failure.  Crassus envious of Pompey’s previous military glory tried to obtain some of his own by initiating an unnecessary war with Parthia.  It resulted in his death at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC.

Meanwhile, Caesar won military glory by conquering Gaul – a military success that dwarfed any of Pompey’s previous triumphs.  Julia’s death in childbirth in 54 BC accelerated Pompey’s move to the side of the old aristocracy who detested the populist Caesar (who himself was a political heir of Marius – his aunt’s husband).

In 50 BC as Caesar’s proconsular governorships of the Gallic provinces (which gave him immunity from prosecution) expired, the Senate forbade him from running for consul (the highest civilian office in Rome that also granted him immunity from prosecution) in absentia.  He was also ordered to disband his army.  The command was akin to asking Caesar to commit suicide since his enemies were waiting to prosecute him for his alleged crimes as governor.

Caesar’s armies were at the Rubicon, the border of the Roman province of Italy.  Crossing the Rubicon was an act of treason and a declaration of war.  However, the Senate had left him no choice in the matter.

Plutarch and Seutonius (contemporaries of each other) disagree whether Greek or Latin was the language used for the famous phrase.

Ἑλληνιστὶ πρὸς τοὺς παρόντας ἐκβοήσας, «Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος», [anerriphtho kybos] διεβίβαζε τὸν στρατόν.

He [Caesar] declared in Greek with loud voice to those who were present ‘Let the die be cast’ and led the army across.

— Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 60.2.9


Caesar: … “Iacta alea est”, inquit.

Caesar said … “the die has been cast”.

— Suetonius, Vita Divi Iuli (The Life of the deified Julius), 121 CE, paragraph 33

The die was indeed cast in the game of thrones and Caesar ordered his army across the Rubicon – unwittingly adding two phrases to our lexicon.

The resulting Civil War led to the triumph of Caesar and his proclamation as dictator for life.  He showed clemency to many of the Pompey supporters he defeated, but many of them were unwilling to support a quasi-king.  This led to the assassination of Caesar and more civil wars, until Caesar’s great nephew Octavian stood alone among the rubble.  Now renamed Augustus he would proclaim himself Princeps (first citizen) and transform the Roman Republic into the state we now call the Roman Empire.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *