10 January 49 BC: Caesar crosses the Rubicon

The Roman general defies the Senate, bringing war to Rome


The first days of 49 BC found Julius Caesar in Ravenna, northern Italy, with a decision to make. After years of success in Gaul, Caesar was unquestionably Rome’s most accomplished and popular general. But to the Senate, and to his rival Pompey the Great, that made him a threat. When the Senate ordered him to resign his commission and return to Rome, Caesar knew that both his career and his life hung in the balance.

According to tradition, Caesar made his move on 10 January. He spent the day as normal, inspecting plans for a new gladiatorial school and feasting with his chief companions. Once night had fallen, however, he set out with a small group of friends, riding south towards the Rubicon, a shallow river – little more than a stream, really – that marked the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul and Roman Italy. Bringing troops south across the Rubicon into Italy was a treasonable offence, punishable by death. Little wonder, then, that at the water’s edge he hesitated. “Even now we can turn back,” he said, “but when we pass this little bridge, it means war.”

According to the historian Suetonius, it was now that the gods intervened. Suddenly there appeared “a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed”. As some of the soldiers stepped towards him, the apparition grabbed one of their trumpets, “rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with a mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank”. That, Suetonius wrote, was the signal that Caesar wanted. “Let us go where the omens of the gods and the crimes of our enemies call us!” he shouted to his men. “Alea iacta est! | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

10 January 1430

To celebrate his wedding to Isabella of Portugal, the Burgundian ruler Philip the Good founds the Order of the Golden Fleece. Later adopted by his Habsburg successors, it becomes the pre-eminent Catholic order of chivalry, considered the most prestigious in the world.

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10 January 1769

French marshal Michel Ney is born in Lorraine. Dubbed "the Bravest of the Brave" for his role during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, he will be executed after Waterloo for deserting Louis XVIII in favour of his old master, Napoleon.

10 January 1776: Common Sense fires up America

Thomas Paine’s revolutionary tract urges colonists to cut ties with Britain

In the autumn of 1774, the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine arrived in the New World. The American colonies were in open revolt; already the first shots had been fired in what would become the War of Independence. But to his disappointment, Paine found that many Americans were not yet ready to contemplate the ultimate breach. “Their attachment to Britain was obstinate,” he recalled, “and it was, at that time, a kind of treason to speak against it. Their ideas of grievance operated without resentment, and their single object was reconciliation.” This, Paine decided, was where he must come in.

By the end of 1775 Paine had finished work on a tract entitled Common Sense, which was published 10 days into the new year. The first half was a blistering attack on the principle of monarchy, which he regarded as contrary to reason and enlightened values. Then Paine turned his attention to America, urging the colonies to organise a Continental Conference and elect a Congress to govern a new republic, guaranteeing “freedom and property to all men, and… the free exercise of religion”.

Common Sense was a sensation, selling at least 75,000 copies in its first year. Some American papers reprinted it in full; in taverns, rebel activists read it aloud. But there was a twist in the tale. In traditional radical fashion, Paine fell out with his publisher about his share of the profits, and both accused the other of deception and fraud. So much, then, for common sense. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

10 January 1778

Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern systematic plant and animal classification, dies in Uppsala, Sweden.

10 January 1811

The largest slave revolt in North American history was violently suppressed by militia and regular troops outside new Orleans. Around 95 slaves were killed or executed as a result of the revolt.

10 January 1862

American inventor and industrialist Samuel Colt died in Hartford, Connecticut. Colt was the first person to make the mass manufacture of revolvers commercially viable.

10 January 1863: Tunnel vision comes to fruition

The London Underground opens to a sceptical public

For its critics, the arrival of the London Underground marked the moment the capital descended into bedlam. The idea of a subterranean train had first been mooted in the 1840s, but work did not begin on what became the Metropolitan Railway until 1860.

What sceptics called “the Drain” was not universally popular. Some warned that the tunnels would collapse under the weight of the houses above; others thought an underground railway so infernal that convicted criminals should be “condemned to round trips”. And the construction work infuriated locals. It was all a “monstrous tyranny and oppression”, one grumbled.

But by January 1863, the first trains were ready to roll. On Friday 9 January, a special train packed with politicians made the first journey – though the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, declined to join then, explaining that at the age of 78, he wanted to spend as much time above ground as possible. All went well, and the next day, Saturday 10 January, it opened to the public.

To general astonishment, the capital’s new Underground proved a triumphant success. On that first day alone, 38,000 people descended into the earth to ride between Farringdon Street and Bishop’s Road, Paddington. The carriages were divided into three classes and lit by gas; as one pleasantly surprised passenger put it, they were “so lofty that a six-footer may stand erect with his hat on”.


“For the first time in the history of the world,” said The Daily News, “men can travel in pleasant carriages, and with considerable comfort, lower down than gas pipes and water pipes… lower down than the graveyard.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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