49BC: ‘Alea iacta est!’ (The die is thrown!) With these words, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy at the head of an army.
A Roman aristocrat, Gaius Julius Caesar was a very successful general, in Spain in the late 60s BC, and in Gaul in the 50s. Caesar was a fast, decisive, determined and adaptable general, enabling him to subdue the famously bellicose Gauls. Like most Romans, he used this experience to propel himself up the political ladder, but much more distinctively, Caesar also used the power and prestige gained through military success to become the sole dictator of the Roman Republic.
Caesar’s victories in Gaul had amassed him great power, and a large, effective, and loyal army. By the last years of the 50s, the powerful men back in Rome, the Optimates, fearing Caesar’s power and abilities, started to act against him, trying to limit his scope for action, hoping that by stopping him achieving his next aim, a consulship in 48, they might be able to bring him down. Caesar resented this, but to his credit, negotiated with Pompey until early January 49, when finally the Senate formally declared against Caesar, decreeing that he must dismiss his army by an appointed day and granting Pompey and the other magistrates increased authority to deal with the situation. Caesar felt this left him little choice but to fight, and on 10 January 49, Caesar made the momentous decision to cross the Rubicon at the head of an army, an action which instantly made him an enemy of Rome. The civil war that followed was an all out victory for Caesar. He defeated Pompey, Antony, and their supporters, and became the dictator of Rome. It is hard to tell whether he wanted to become dictator, or whether it was the only way he thought he could secure and maintain the supreme position at Rome which he felt he deserved. It is also difficult to know whether he realised that his actions would destroy the Republic for which he had fought so many wars. Whatever his motives, it is clear that others did not agree with his position.
On the Ides of March 44 (the 15th), Caesar was stabbed to death by a group of conspirators, some of which were his own supporters. The conspirators may have thought they were restoring the Republic, but their subsequent inaction allowed Octavian, later the Emperor Augustus, to return to Rome, claim Caesar’s heritage, and win the following bloody civil war, which put the last nail in the coffin of the Roman Republic.