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Ancient and modern

What it really means to cross the Rubicon (Theresa May’s about to do it)

Caesar’s remark is widely misinterpreted. The real version fits Article 50 better

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

Last week many commentators drew on the Ides (15th) of March, the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BC, to reflect on the signing of Article 50 and Julius Caesar’s famous cry ‘The die is cast’ (iacta alea est) in 49 BC, when he crossed the River Rubicon into Italy and started the civil war against Pompey. But they got it wrong: it does not mean ‘no turning back’.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Caesar-Pompey power struggle, Caesar knew the consequences of this moment. Our sources describe the build-up. Caesar is camped with his troops in Ravenna. Messages are flying back and forth between him and Pompey in Rome. When his final offer is turned down, he secretly sends a force ahead to the Rubicon and spends the rest of the day without a care in the world — enjoying a few local shows, checking out his planned gladiatorial school, and entertaining guests for dinner.


He then excuses himself and with a few men in a hired cart (not to attract attention) makes his way to the Rubicon by night. And gets hopelessly lost. They continue on foot, find a shepherd who knows the way, and arrive at dawn.

It is here that he pauses, pondering with companions the magnitude of what he is about to do. Plutarch’s account continues: ‘Using an expression common among those about to take a desperate and unpredictable chance, he said “Let the die be thrown up in the air” and hurried across the river.’

And that is the point. Alea in Latin meant ‘gambling, risk-taking, hazard’ and ‘die’ only figuratively. For who knows where dice will fall? And that is what Caesar, the ultimate chancer, meant by
those words.

That is also much more appropriate for the impending Brexit. Whatever anyone says — politician, Leaver, Remainer, Eurocrat, commentator — no one has the remotest notion what the outcome will be. No wonder Mrs May and her team, like Caesar, hesitate at this Rubicon moment.


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