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Crossing The Rubicon Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History; the Roman Republic from 146 BC to 46 BC Notes

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Consider the collapse of Republican politics in the 50's and early 40's BC, and Cicero's response to it (especially his attitude to Caesar). Why did Caesar march on Rome? Could the Senate as a body have fulfilled the role in the state which Cicero expected of it, or was his Republic beyond saving?
When Caesar crosses the Rubicon on January 10 th 49 it marked a point of no return for the Roman people, civil war and the end of their republic was unavoidable. It is important to consider why he resorted to the extreme measure of actually marching on Rome with his veteran thirteenth legion when he knew it would embroil him in a fight to the death with his old allies and his old friends; did he want to set himself up as dictator for life, as he eventually did, already or was he simply afraid of the consequences if he gave up his army?
Furthermore was the senate strong enough to be able to stand up to such a threat as it had done before or had years of anarchy in the state weakened it to the point that it was beyond saving? These are the essential questions when considering the final years of the republic. In his speech, pro Sestio, which was delivered in 56, Cicero sets out the tenets of the Republican constitution as a rallying call for all loyal citizens to come to its defence; something he feels is necessary given the current trends of constitutional abuse and anarchy which were troubling the smooth running of government. This is a particularly revealing speech because it shows both the ideal version of the state as Cicero sees it and the fact it was relevant at this time indicates that the system was in real trouble. The speech is essentially a plea for an ideal constitution based on a government run by the optimates, who Cicero defines as men striving to govern in accordance with the wishes and interests of all good citizens ("the foremost men and saviours of the state"), and centred on rule by the senate; essentially it was hostile to both absolutism and democracy because he saw the popularis politicians using the people in a cynical attempt to secure more power for themselves. He comments on these men highlights the civil discord which was the defining feature of republican politics at this time, "For, in so large a body of citizens, there are great numbers of men who, either from fear of punishment, being conscious of their crimes, seek to cause revolution and changes of government; or who, owing to a sort of inborn revolutionary madness, batten on civil discord and sedition." In reaction to this he harkens back to the original founders of the constitution and the way they set up the government so that the city could be ruled in the best possible way, which in his mind means by the senate. The Senate was set up as the guardian, the president, the defender of the State; they willed that the magistrates should be guided by the authority of this order and should act as if they were ministers of this great council." (Cicero, Pro Sestio 137). He is not, however, arguing for a narrow oligarchy with the senate, which comprised of the wealthiest and most aristocratic men, completely all powerful, but rather a wide oligarchy made up of all the best men materially and morally in Italy. "Moreover, they wished that the Senate itself should be supported by the prestige of the orders which came next to it, and should always be ready to protect and enlarge the liberty and interests of the commons." (Cicero, Pro Sestio 137). This musing on the once strong origins of the constitution follow a long and detailed

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