“Crossing the Rubicon” means making a difficult decision that can’t be reversed. It comes from a turning point in Roman history. It saw the rise of Julius Caesar and the fall of the republic.
The Rubicon was a stream in northern Italy and a political boundary. South of the stream was civilian space under the citizens’ self-government. North of it was conquered territory under a military governor and his army. The law prohibited the governor from crossing the stream with his troops and entering civilian space.
On January 10, 49 BC the military governor broke the law. He was Caesar and he crossed the Rubicon with his troops. It was practically a declaration of war on the Roman government, and the government treated it as such.
Why did he cross the stream? Earlier, the Senate fired Caesar from his job as governor but HE refused to accept their decision. Caesar was Rome’s greatest general, a warlord who commanded the victorious legions that had marched over the Alps and conquered Gaul (roughly, France and Belgium). The Senate feared and hated him but the Roman people loved him. So did his soldiers, who won victories and loot under his command.
Caesar considered himself bigger than the Senate so he crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome. The Senate had an army of its own and what followed was five years of civil war. The conflict was bloody, expensive and revolutionary. Rome was never the same again.
So the original “crossing the Rubicon” wasn’t just a difficult and irrevocable decision but an aggressive act that ignited a military conflagration. It was, in its own way, a Roman Pearl Harbor.
And that made crossing the Rubicon a potential public relations nightmare for Caesar. It threatened to brand him as the man who started a civil war. And yet, he sidestepped the problem and came out on top.
It’s worth paying attention to how Caesar did it – because, let’s face it, every successful career has to cross a Rubicon or two.
Caesar put three strategies into effect:
- Focus on the problems you solved. Caesar published a book about the civil war. In it he does not say that he took the first step, acted as an aggressor or began the war. Instead, as he writes, his action was purely defensive and reactive. An evil elite took over the Roman Senate. They fired Caesar and threatened violence to the public officials who defended the poor. As a result they forced Caesar to rise on behalf of the rights of the Roman people and to march on Rome.
- Say nothing yourself. If you have to do something illegal it’s best not to remind the public of it. Caesar’s book mentions crossing the Rubicon…not at all. He simply ignores the unpleasant reality that he broke the law and defied the Senate and the legally established government of his country. As far as Caesar is concerned, crossing the Rubicon never happened.
- Let others make boldness your brand. On the other hand, when it comes to selling an illegal and audacious act to your inner circle, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Unlike Caesar’s “official” version of the civil war, his advisors’ memoirs state that their chief made a bold declaration when he crossed the Rubicon. According to one version he said “the die is cast” while another version has him say “let the dice fly high.” It was the equivalent of the defiant pirates’ cry, “hoist the Jolly Roger!” It wasn’t just witty but bold and naughty. Caesar was delighted to let others present him this way but he couldn’t possibly do so himself. They spun him as dangerous and brilliant, which added to his reputation and unsettled his enemies.
At some point in our career, we all have to do something unpopular. Occasionally we have to do something aggressive and that may even skirt the limit of acceptability. If that’s the case, take the following steps to avoid having to take a hit to your reputation. Focus on the problems you solved, never mention it afterwards but let your people celebrate your boldness and your wit. That’s the real lesson of the Rubicon.
Barry Strauss is the author of The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination.