“Crossing the Rubicon: Caesar’s Decision and the Fate of Rome,” by Luca Fezzi, Yale University Press, 2020, 384 pages, $35

Except for Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar is the best known conqueror of the ancient world. While his conquest of Gaul is well known, winning the Roman Civil War won him his most enduring fame.

“Crossing the Rubicon: Caesar’s Decision and the Fate of Rome” by Luca Fezzi is a fresh examination of Caesar’s activities during that war. Fezzi explores why Caesar won.

It’s a good question. Caesar was vastly outnumbered when he crossed the Rubicon. He lacked the forces to besiege Rome, much less capture it, had the Optimates opposing Caesar defended Rome.

Fezzi answers it, beginning by putting the Roman Civil War in context on several levels. After briefly introducing the main characters in the war and setting the stage with Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, Fezzi starts by examining the importance of the city of Rome to the Roman Republic. He shows that however large Rome’s territories became, Rome was the heart of the nation.

He also shows how throughout history holding Rome was key. Whoever held Rome held the nation. Rome’s legends — Horatius at the bridge, the sacred geese warning of a surprise attack and more — centered on protecting and holding Rome. He also shows how much of Rome’s expansionism, including conquering Gaul, centered on guarding Rome.

Then he explores the build-up to the war, the period from the rise of Gaius Marius through the end of Caesar’s tenure in Gaul. He shows how the populist and elitist strands of Roman politics polarized its leadership. Especially as the rivalry between Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar grew, and led to an almost inevitable conflict.

Fezzi follows by showing how decisions made at the outset of the war largely decided it, even before the first battle was fought. He reveals the abandonment of Rome by the Optimates as a product of panic. They “knew” Caesar had no choice but to submit to their will. When Caesar challenged them instead, they reacted poorly.

“Crossing the Rubicon” is a fascinating re-examination of an event that is treated as settled history. It highlights the dangers of blindly following what “everybody knows.”

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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