The river Rubicon; “Alea iacta est

During the Roman republic, the river Rubicon marked the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul to the north-east and Italy proper to the south. Governors of Roman provinces were appointed promagistrates with imperium (roughly, “right to command”) in their province(s). The governor would then serve as the general of the Roman army within the territory of his province(s). Roman law specified that only the elected magistrates (consuls and praetors) could hold imperium within Italy. Any promagistrate who entered Italy at the head of his troops forfeited his imperium and was therefore no longer legally allowed to command troops. Exercising imperium when forbidden by the law was a capital offence. Furthermore, obeying the commands of a general who did not legally possess imperium was also a capital offence. If a general entered Italy whilst exercising command of an army, both the general and his soldiers became outlaws and were automatically condemned to death. Generals were thus obliged to disband their armies before entering Italy.

So when Julius Caesar on January 10, 49 BC uttered the famous words, “Alea iacta est“ or “The die is cast” as he led his army across the River Rubicon in Northern Italy, he was very much aware of what would happen, as were his enemies, his soldiers, friends and family.

A Dreadful Fall from Grace

[Vergil], Catalepton 3

Note: Although the subject of this poem is uncertain, most scholars consider it to be Pompey the Great.

Behold the one whom Goddess Glory had lifted up on high,
    Yes, higher even than the throne of heaven;
Supported by a mighty reign, this fellow shook the earth,
    The whole great earth, with all its lands, in war;
He broke the power of Asia’s kings and battered down their peoples,
    And he was on the verge of bringing slavery,
So hard to bear, to you, Rome – yes, even to you
    (For everything else had fallen to his spear),
When suddenly this chieftain, in the middle of the struggle
   To rule all things, was toppled from his seat
And driven from his fatherland to suffer exile. Such
    Is the will of Goddess Fortune; in a flash,
With such an affirming nod as this, the hour that deceives
    Deals out the lot of every mortal thing.

Aspice quem valido subnixum Gloria regno
    altius et caeli sedibus extulerat:
terrarum hic bello magnum concusserat orbem,
    hic reges Asiae fregerat, hic populos:
hic grave servitium tibi, iam tibi, Roma, ferebat
    (cetera namque viri cuspide conciderant)
cum subito in medio rerum certamine praeceps
    corruit, e patria pulsus in exilium.
tale deae numen: tali mortalia nutu
    fallax momento temporis hora dedit.

Bust of Pompey the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, 106-48 BCE).  Augustan copy after an original dating to 70-60 BCE.  Now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Venice.  Photo credit: Carole Raddato.

Tigranes II of Armenia (King of Armenia c.95-56 BC, ruler in Syria 83-69 BC), AR Tetradrachm, 15.90g, Antioch. Diademed, draped bust right, wearing Armenian tiara ornamented with star between two eagles / BASILEWS TIGRANOU, Tyche of Antioch seated right on rocks, holding palm-branch, before her swims the river-god Orontes, monogram on rocks, all within wreath. Bedoukian 36. 

This extraordinarily high quality coin comes from one of the many eastern kings to vex the Roman Empire in their long history. Tigranes the Great, for a time, held a vast amount of territory, stretching from Syria and the coast of the Mediterranean to the foot hills of the Caucasus Mountains and the coast of the Caspian Sea.

Tigranes fought against the expanding Romans to protect his boarders and though he lost to the Roman general Lucullus at the battle of Tigranocerta, he continued to resist both the Romans and the Persians in defense of his kingdom. He ultimately made an uneasy and embarrassing peace with Pompey Magnus which allowed him to keep his kingdom, now much reduced, until this death in 55 BC.

It has been suggested that the star on his crown may be an early representation of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in 87 BC. 

Cura Annonae

Bread stall, from a Pompeiian wall painting

Throughout most of the Republican era, the care of the grain supply (cura annonae) was part of the aedile’s duties. The annona was personified as a goddess, and the grain dole was distributed from the Temple of Ceres. As early as 440 BC, however, the Roman Senate may have appointed a special officer called the praefectus annonae with greatly extended powers. An emergency cura annonae was an important source of influence and power for Pompeius Magnus (“Pompey the Great”) in his later career. Under the Principate, the position of praefectus annonae became permanent, while a range of privileges, including grants of citizenship and exemption from certain duties, were extended to ship-owners who signed contracts to transport grain to the city.

A large part of the city’s supply was obtained through the free market. Prices in the city were invariably high, and merchants could count on making a profit. Grain was also collected as tax in kind from certain provinces; some of this was distributed to officials and soldiers and some was sold at market rates.

Grain supply was an important issue for the Gracchi, with the elder brother Tiberius Gracchus arguing that consolidation of Roman agricultural lands in the hands of a few had pushed landless Romans into the city, where they found poverty rather than employment. Under the grain law of Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC, a portion of the grain collected as revenue for the state was sold at a subsidised rate to citizens. The grain supply was a consistent plank in the popularist platform for political leaders who appealed to the plebs. But the unpopularity of these laws led to more conservative laws attempting to rein in the Gracchi reforms such as the lex Octavia and the lex Terentia Cassia.

The price of grain became a major issue when the Roman province of Sicily revolted repeatedly, thus pushing the price to unaffordable levels. Lowering grain prices became an important part of the political platform of the radical popularist Saturninus, who acquired the office of plebeian tribune an unusual three times.

In 58 BC, the patrician-turned-plebeian Clodius Pulcher advanced a popularist political agenda in his bid for the tribunate by offering free grain for the poor. The expense was considerable, and Julius Caesar later reformed the dole. Augustus considered abolishing it altogether, but instead reduced the number of the recipients to 200,000, and perhaps later 150,000.