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Presumed course of the Rubicon

Rubicon (Rubicō, Italian: Rubicone) is a 29 km long river in northern Italymarker.The river flows from the Apennine Mountainsmarker to the Adriatic Seamarker through the southern Emilia-Romagna region between the towns of Riminimarker and Cesenamarker.

"Crossing the Rubicon" is a popular idiom meaning to pass a point of no return. This phrase is often used by journalists in newspapers. It refers to Caesar's 49 BC crossing of the river, which was considered an act of war.

Since the river has changed its course many times through the years, it is impossible to confirm exactly where the original Rubicon flowed when Julius Caesar crossed it.


The river is notable as Roman law prohibited the Rubicon from being crossed by any Roman Army legion. The river was considered to mark the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul to the north and Italy proper to the south; the law thus protected the republic from internal military threat. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army in 49 BC, supposedly on January 10 of the Roman calendar, to make his way to Rome, he broke that law and made armed conflict inevitable. According to historian Suetonius, Caesar uttered the famous phrase ālea iacta est ("the die is cast").

Suetonius also described how Caesar was apparently still undecided as he approached the river, and the author gave credit for the actual moment of crossing to a supernatural apparition. The phrase "crossing the Rubicon" has survived to refer to any people committing themselves irrevocably to a risky and revolutionary course of action – similar to the modern phrase "passing the point of no return". It also refers, in limited usage, to its plainer meaning of using military power in a non-receptive homeland.

Location confusion

After Caesar's crossing, the Rubicon was a geographical feature of note, but only for a few years, until Emperor Augustus abolished the Province of Gallia Cisalpina (today’s northern Italy), and the river ceased to be the extreme border line of Italy. Augustus’ decision caused the Rubicon to lose a great deal of importance, and as memories faded, the name “Rubicon” gradually disappeared from local toponymy.

After the Roman Empire fell, and during the first centuries of the Middle Ages, the coastal plain between Ravennamarker and Riminimarker was flooded many times. The Rubicon, together with other small rivers of the region, often changed its course during this period. For this reason, and in order to supply fields with water after the revival of agriculture in the late Middle Ages, during the 14th and 15th centuries hydraulic works were built to prevent other floods and to regulate streams. As a result of this work, these rivers eventually started flowing in straight courses, as they do today. As the centuries went by, several rivers of Italian Adriatic coast between Ravenna and Rimini have at times been said to correspond to the ancient Rubicon. The Via Aemilia (National Road N°9), still follows its original Roman course as it runs between hills and plain. Attempts to deduce the original flow of the Rubicon can be done only by studying written documents and other archaeological evidence such as Roman milestones which indicate the distance between the ancient river and the nearest Roman towns.

It is important to underline that the starting point of a Roman road (some kind of “mile zero”), from which distances were counted, was always the crossing between Cardo and Decumanum, the two basic streets in every Roman town, running north-south and east-west, respectively. In a section of the Tabula Peutingeriana, an ancient document showing the network of Roman roads, a river in north-eastern Italy labeled “fl. Rubico” is marked at a position 12 (Roman) miles (18 km) north of Rimini along the coastline; is the distance between Rimini and a place called “Ad confluentes,” drawn west of the Rubicon, on the Via Aemilia.

In 1933, after various efforts spanning centuries, the river called Fiumicino, crossing the town of Savignano di Romagna (now Savignano sul Rubiconemarker), was officially identified as the former Rubicon. The final proof confirming this theory came only in 1991, when three Italian scholars (Pignotti, Ravagli and Donati), after a comparison between Tabula Peutingeriana and other ancient sources (including Cicero), showed that the distance running from Rome to Rubicon river was . Key elements of their work are:

  • The locality of San Giovanni in Compito (now a western quarter of Savignano) has to be identified with old Ad Confluentes (“compito” means confluence of roads and it is synonymous with “confluentes”);
  • The distance between Ad Confluentes and Rome, according to the Tabula Peutingeriana, is ;
  • The distance from today’s San Giovanni in Compito and Fiumicino river is 1 (Roman) mile (1.48 km),


Mouth of the Rubicon today

Today there is very little evidence of Caesar’s historical page. Savignano sul Rubicone is an industrial town and the river became one of the most pouted in the Emilia-Romagna region. The intense exploitation of underground waiters in the upper course of the Rubicon, together with natural dying of its ring, has reduced its flow. It was a minor river even during Roman times (“parvi Rubiconis ad undas” as Lucan said, a rough translation being "to the waves of [the] tiny Rubicon"). The Rubicon has since lost its natural route except in its upper course, between low and woody hills.


  1. Lives of the Caesars 'Divus Julius' sect. 32. Suetonius gives the Latin version, iacta alea est, although according to Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Caesar quoted a line from the playwright Menander: ἀνερρίφθω κύβος / anerriphthô kubos, or "let the die be cast". Suetonius' subtly different translation is often also quoted as alea iacta est. Alea was a game played with a die or dice rather than the actual dice themselves, so another translation might be "The game is afoot."
  2. Pignotti R., Ravagli P., Donati G., "Rubico quondam finis Italiae" - Città del Rubicone, pag.3 - October, 1991

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