Reading a history textbook is a lot like being at the end of a line of players in the old game, “telephone,” in which a message is passed along in whispers from one person to the next. By the time it gets to the end of the line, the message has often changed quite a bit, and is often shorter and less detailed than it was at first — if it is not hilariously wrong!
By the time an event is narrated in a textbook, it has likely passed through many hands and tellings: The textbook author has herself read it in an article, whose author, in turn, read it in a historical anthology (such as one of the Cambridge “companion” volumes). The authors of the anthology, in turn, may have read an account of the event in a famous monograph written by an eminent historian of the last century, and so forth. But what was the original “message” in this game of telephone? What did the first narration of the event sound like?
Take the story of Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon: He knew, both as a matter of tradition and according to Senate declarations, that to cross the Rubicon into Italy with his army amounted to a declaration of war and an act of treason against Rome. His decision to cross the the river in 49 BC led to a war and to developments in his life which have had incalculably many consequences for all subsequent history. Even the phrase, “to cross the Rubicon,” has become a proverbial way to express the idea of taking an action which cannot be reversed.
So what was that first Rubicon-crossing like? Thanks to the internet, we can easily get close to the original telling of this story.
When it comes to the history of ancient Greece and Rome, there is no better resource for those of us who are not Classics scholars than the Loeb Classical Library. The LCL is a collection of over 500 volumes of the most essential surviving literature of the ancient world, presented in the original Greek and Latin with facing-page English versions.
The Loeb project began in 1911, so many of the translations are now in the public domain. These have been gathered into a digital library of PDFs called Loebolus (or “little Loeb”), which can be downloaded either individually or complete in one file. There are also more browser-friendly versions of many of these available on LacusCurtius and at the Perseus Digital Library.
The LCL includes three volumes containing five of Caesar’s own historical works but, alas, in none of them does he offer his own account of the Rubicon moment. But Plutarch and Suetonius, two authors who wrote less than a century after the event, offer us very compelling accounts from much farther up the “telephone” line than our textbooks!
Plutarch (in his Life of Caesar) tells us:
He [Caesar] himself spent the day in public, attending and watching the exercises of gladiators; but a little before evening he bathed and dressed and went into the banqueting hall. Here he held brief converse with those who had been invited to supper, and just as it was getting dark and went away, after addressing courteously most of his guests and bidding them await his return. To a few of his friends, however, he had previously given directions to follow him, not all by the same route, but some by one way and some by another. He himself mounted one of his hired carts and drove at first along another road, then turned towards Ariminum. When he came to the river which separates Cisalpine Gaul from the rest of Italy (it is called the Rubicon), and began to reflect, now that he drew nearer to the fearful step and was agitated by the magnitude of his ventures, he checked his speed. Then, halting in his course, he communed with himself a long time in silence as his resolution wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change. For a long time, too, he discussed his perplexities with his friends who were present, among whom was Asinius Pollio, estimating the great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity. But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, “Let the die be cast,” he hastened to cross the river; and going at full speed now for the rest of the time, before daybreak he dashed into Ariminum and took possession of it. It is said, moreover, that on the night before he crossed the river he had an unnatural dream; he thought, namely, that he was having incestuous intercourse with his own mother.
Suetonius gives his account in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars:
Then, overtaking his cohorts at the river Rubicon, which was the boundary of his province, he paused for a while, and realizing what a step he was taking, he turned to those about him and said: “Even yet we may draw back; but once cross yon little bridge, and the whole issue is with the sword.”
As he stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast,” said he.
Accordingly, crossing with his army, and welcoming the tribunes of the commons, who had come to him after being driven from Rome, he harangued the soldiers with tears, and rending his robe from his breast besought their faithful service.
It should be clear that using the internet to “go up the telephone line” and to get closer to the sources of history is a great way to make the events and stories more lively and easier to relate to, as opposed to waiting for the messages to get all the way down to the textbooks we use in the classroom.