Wednesday, February 21, 2024

RETRO Episode 105: Crossing the Rubicon

RETRO: This week Shauna and Dan explore the phrase Crossing the Rubicon. Dan takes a guess at the origin of this phrase, but can't even get the right "ancient crosser of things". It's a mix of Crash Course World History and etymological fun on this week's Bunny Trails! Don't forget to be awesome!

Originally aired March 24, 2021. 

Click to read more

Cold open for you this week. Shauna and I were not able to get together to record this week, so we are bringing you a retro episode. I originally looked at one of our six episodes, which were all released on April 25, 2018 when we first launched. But boy was our audio quality not awesome. And we were clearly figuring things out on our format and the editing. So I decided on something a little later from the archives. In fact, you can listen from about episode 50ish onward and be fine. But I think we have gotten better with experience.

But this week, we are bringing you episode 105: Crossing the Rubicon. I clearly misunderstood the history around the phrase, and Shauna clears it up for me during the episode. Before we jump in, I want to say a huge thank you to our long-time patron Pat Rowe for her support, and our top patron Mary Halsig Lopez. All of our patrons support us with a small monthly amount to ensure Bunny Trails is free every week for everyone else. If you want to join them, and get some pretty awesome perks, head over to to learn more!

And with that, let’s jump into Crossing the Rubicon, which originally aired March 24, 2021.

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 105: Crossing the Rubicon
Record Date: March 21, 2021
Air Date: March 24, 2021


<Dan start the intro music>

Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Dan, I was inspired to write this episode due to our recent volunteer work and your recent episode concerning the Ides of March.

We are getting full-on Caesar up in here. This week… we are crossing the Rubicon.


Crossing the Rubicon means

to cross (also pass) the Rubicon, to take a decisive or irrevocable step at a critical moment of some undertaking or enterprise.

So, why do we say crossing the Rubicon? Why not the ocean… or the Grand Canyon?

Dan, I’m guessing you know something about this one?

Let’s blame Caesar.

Julius Caesar was a part of the big rulers named the triumvirate in Rome, along with Crassus and Pompey. He was made governor of and took power in many areas of Gaul and built up four armies while ruling there. He moved north in Britain. While he was away, Crassus died in battle. Pompey and the Senate decided they wanted Caesar to relinquish his power and ordered his return. He knew he’d be tried for a bunch of things and be jailed, maybe worse, if he did so without his army. However, it was against the law for him to cross the river from Gaul into Italy accompanied by an armed force. Of course he decided to commit treason and start a civil war by crossing the river with his army in tow. And this river was the Rubicon.

This is a shortened and not-as-good version of an overview of the rise of the Roman Empire from a fantastic Crash Course video on YouTube, starring author John Green… it is excellent. It’s part of their World History series and is titled: The Roman Empire. Or Republic. Or...Which Was It?: Crash Course World History #10 The link will not be in the dooblydo, because we don’t have one of those here… but we will share it on our Patreon. states:
Rubicon, Latin Rubico, or Rubicon, small stream that separated Cisalpine Gaul from Italy in the era of the Roman Republic. The movement of Julius Caesar’s forces over the Rubicon into Italy in 49 bc violated the law (the Lex Cornelia Majestatis) that forbade a general to lead an army out of the province to which he was assigned. His act thus amounted to a declaration of war against the Roman Senate and resulted in the three-year civil war that left Caesar ruler of the Roman world. “Crossing the Rubicon” became a popular phrase describing a step that definitely commits a person to a given course of action.

I found a few explanations that bring us a little farther back in time from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, compiled by Randle Cotgrave and originally published in 1611.

Franchir, ou passer, le Rubicon translates as to cross, or pass, the Rubicon

OED tells us
In allusive use, with reference to to cross (also pass) the Rubicon at Phrases: a boundary, a limit; esp. one which once crossed entails irrevocable commitment; a point of no return.In quot. 1613: a course of events to which one is irrevocably committed after passing a point of no return.

1613 Robert Dallington’s Briefe Inference on Guicciardines Digression in Aphorismes Ciuill & Militarie
He hath passed his commission (as Caesar did,) and is waded vp to the chinne through the bloudie Rubicon, and so is become Rebell to his Soueraigne Lord the Emperour, as also to the state of the Church.

And here is a portion from another of Dallington’s aphorisms:

to cross (also pass) the Rubicon, to take a decisive or irrevocable step at a critical moment of some undertaking or enterprise.

1624 John Reynolds Votivæ Angliæ Or, the Desires and Wishes of England
If you wil couragiouslie resolve to cut this Gordion knot with Alexander, and to passe this Rubicon with Cæsar, you shall then trulie and tryumphantlie participate of the ones Fame, and of the others Glorie.

1626 Robert Folkestone Williams · Birch's Court & Times Charles I  
Queen Dido did never more importune Æneas's stay at Carthage, than his mother and sister do his continuance here at London... But now he is past the Rubicon.

1644 Kenelm Digby · Two treatises: In the one of which, the nature of bodies; in the other, the nature of mans soule; is looked into: in way of discovery, of the immortality of reasonable soules
Here we haue passed the Rubicon of experimentall knowledge: we are now out of the boundes that experience hath any iurisdiction ouer.

1672 John Dryden · The conquest of Granada by the Spaniards
This noyse may chill your Blood, but mine it warms: We have already past the Rubicon.

1711 in the 10th Report of the Great Britain Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts Appendix V
The bancks of the Boyn.., the ould Rubicon of the Pale.

1727 Daniel Defoe · The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Col. Jacque, commonly call'd Col. Jack, who was born a gentleman, put 'prentice to a pick-pocket, was six and twenty years a thief, and then…  
Having thus passed the Rubicon (Trent) and set my Face Northward.

1771 Junius · Stat Nominis Umbra [Letters of Junius]
The very soliloquy of Lord Suffolk, before he passed the Rubicon.

1829 Sydney Smith · The works: including his contributions to the Edinburgh Review
The moment the punishment passes this Rubicon, it becomes less and less, instead of greater and greater.

1847 Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre I. vii. 118   
A pause—in which I began to steady the palsy of my nerves, and to feel that the rubicon was passed.

1862 Mary Elizabeth Braddon · Lady Audley's Secret
He was behindhand in his education, and had not yet passed the intellectual Rubicon of words of two syllables.

Rubicon also became an important aspect in card games.
Definition of Rubicon in Cards:
A target score which increases the penalty of a losing player who fails to reach it, spec. the score of 100 as a critical score in piquet, or 1000 in bezique; the failure of a loser to reach this score. Frequently attributive, designating a variety of bezique or piquet in which such a target operates.
1873 ‘Cavendish’ Laws Piquet
French piquet is sometimes played without the rubicon.
Rubicon was shortly after used as the official name of some versions of card games.
1882 a ‘Cavendish’ book was published titled The laws of Rubicon piquet, adopted by the Portland Club and in 1887 The Laws of Rubicon Bezique

We are given a little more detail in Robert Frederick Foster’s 1897 book Foster’s Complete Hoyle
Rubicon piquet, for two players. The chief difference between this game and the usual form, Piquet au cent, is in the manner of declaring... Rubicons. If either or both players fail to reach 100 points in the six deals, the one having the most is the winner, and adds to his own score all the points made by the loser, with 100 in addition for game.

Before these books were released, the word rubicon was ‘verbified’, as Dan, you like to call it - specifically relating to these card games.

OED gives us the definition for the verb rubicon:
To defeat an opponent whose total score is less than 100 (in piquet) or 1000 (in bezique)

From the 1881 ‘Cavendish’ release of Laws of Piquet
But if B makes only 99 points, B is rubiconed.

1954 Isaac Deutscher (Biographer and historian) The Prophet Armed: Trotsky: 1879-1921
This book is a part of The Prophet series. Here is an excerpt from a synopsis provided by Verso Books (, quote:
“This first volume of the trilogy, originally published in 1954, traces Trotsky’s political development: his early activities, the formation and crystallization of his distinctive and motivating idea—the permanent revolution— his long feud and final reconciliation with Lenin and Bolshevism, and his role in the October insurrection of 1917. The volume ends in the year 1921, when Trotsky, then at the climax of his power, unwittingly sowed the seeds of his own defeat.” - end quote

Mike Davis shared this review:
“In the 1930s, Trotsky, with a handful of followers, attempted to block the path of Stalin’s relentless hurricane of betrayal and murder. His epic defence of the soul of the Revolution against its bureaucratic executioners was a torchlight in the storm. In one of the very greatest modern biographies, Isaac Deutscher redeems the legacy of this astonishing revolutionary and humanist thinker.”

Here is the excerpt from The Prophet Armed containing our phrase:
Miliukov..described it [sc. the Manifesto] as the crossing by the nation of the rubicon of constitutional government.

A Quick Thank You

We want to give a quick shout out to our amazing Patrons who have sponsored today’s episode.

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez.

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. But even though Shauna and I volunteer our time, there are still real costs to making this show, including hosting fees, equipment maintenance, domain costs, and more.

And we turn to you, our listening community, to help cover those costs. To do that, we use Patreon, a service that allows you to support the creators and artists you love. If you are in a financially stable place, and would like to support this educational artform, we encourage you to check out the options at

Find links to our Patreon and everything  we do at

Pop Culture and Modern Examples

Book - 2004 M. Ruppert Crossing Rubicon

2004 Richard Dawkins Ancestor's Tale
In the case of epidemics, for once there really is a natural rubicon: a critical mass of infections above which the virus..suddenly..increases its rate of spreading.
I debated adding this to the modern examples, despite it being a mere 17 years ago… it just seems like the before-times? And interestingly, there were a number of people on social media sites who used crossing the Rubicon in regards to the pandemic, vaccines, and first steps back out into the world.

For example:

Next up, we have a song by Bob Dylan titled Crossing the Rubicon from his album Rough and Rowdy… this is an album that came out in the year 2020. Here are some of the lyrics:
    Well, the Rubicon is a red river
Goin' gently as she flows
Redder than your ruby lips
And the blood that flows from the rose
Three miles north of purgatory
One step from the great beyond
I prayed to the cross, I kissed the girls
And I crossed the Rubicon

And finally, the group that inspired this episode - Team Rubicon. From their website, here is part of the organization’s story.
January 12, 2010. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake shakes Port-au-Prince.
In moments, hundreds of thousands were injured, infrastructure and buildings were destroyed, countless were made homeless. In the days following, many traditional aid organizations were slow to establish relief efforts, citing dangerous and unstable working conditions. Troubled by the scenes in Port-au-Prince and the lack of proper aid, two Marines, Jake Wood and William McNulty, decided to act. Gathering supplies and volunteers, the small group of veterans, first responders, and medical professionals deployed to Haiti in the days following the earthquake.

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon at the head of his legions and marched on Rome, it marked a point of no return. The phrase “crossing the Rubicon” has since survived in reference to any group committing itself to a risky course of action.

Crossing over the Artibonite River, the natural border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the small team of eight volunteers called themselves “Team Rubicon” in reference to the Rubicon River in Rome – by crossing their Rubicon, the team acknowledged they were irrevocably committed to their task of helping those in need.

The small group focused on populations often overlooked or underserved by traditional aid organizations. By applying medical and leadership skills honed by years of service in the military, Team Rubicon provided aid to thousands of survivors of the Haiti Earthquake. From this initial operation, a larger organization grew, one committed to helping underserved communities impacted by disasters.

Wrap up...
I love phrases based on historical events. It’s awesome that we can track things back to something that is significant to the entire world - or a big part of it. Crossing the Rubicon is another one of those phrases that can be used in a positive or negative statement, but the meaning itself is more straightforward. It indicates a turning point and one from which there is no return, no going back, no do-overs. I think we are at one of those points in the world’s history now, but then I wonder how many times people have thought that to be the case… But then, history remembers things a little differently and with far different priority than we do in the right now.


That’s about all the time we have for today. If you want to connect with us, the best place to do that is on our Patreon, or on Twitter. We are bunnytrailspod on all of our social media accounts, but we are most active on Patreon and Twitter, so stop by and drop us a line!

Becoming a Patron is a great way to support the show, but there are several free ways that could help us out, too. If you have a few minutes, leave us a review on your podcasting app, or on

You could also share the show with your friends. Helping other people discover shows you like is the single best way to help grow your favorite podcast. And the only thing it costs you is a few minutes of your time!

One last note, if you ever wanted to send something to Bunny Trails HQ, you can use PO Box 1359, Derby, KS 67037

<Dan - Start the OUTRO>

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember...

Words belong to their users.

No comments:

Post a Comment