Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What is Crossing the Rubicon anyway?

Have you ever used or heard someone else use a phrase, like the one that titles this piece then realized you have no idea what it really means? Well, maybe we sort of, kind of, know what it means.

I heard a commentator say something to the effect that Paul Martin was going to have to "cross his own Rubicon" soon. I think it was in the context of his decision to step down as leader, but this was said during the election campaign itself.

I imagine that most of us understand what was meant. Martin, if he lost the election, was facing a significant decision that would likely affect the rest of his life, or something to that effect.

What I realized is that with things like Google around, I don't have to wonder what it means. I just type "Crossing the Rubicon" in the search box and there's the answer. Well, actually, there are 365,000 answers.

That's a bit much, so allow me to point you to one of the more interesting results. It's called Eyewitness to and it's #8 in Google's list. Here's the first two lines of the page it sent me to, called Julius Caesar Crosses the Rubicon, 49 BC:

The crossing of a small stream in northern Italy became one of ancient history's most pivotal events. From it sprang the Roman Empire and the genesis of modern European culture.

Cool. As you read on, you'll find that the whole site is based on the premise that some of the most interesting stories in history are best told by people who were there, or were close enough to hear about it. So the site gives you first-person (or near-first-person) accounts. It's a neat idea, and while I didn't read a lot of stuff, I think it's a first-rate resource to use when you've got to spice up something you're writing.

For example, we learn about the origins of "Crossing the Rubicon" through the tale told by this guy:

Suetonius was a Roman historian and biographer. He served briefly as secretary to Emperor Hadrian (some say he lost his position because he became too close to the emperor's wife.) His position gave him access to privileged imperial documents, correspondence and diaries upon which he based his accounts. For this reason, his descriptions are considered credible. We join Suetonius's narrative as Caesar receives the news that his allies in the Senate have been forced to leave Rome:

That's the way I like to use Google. Just put in something interesting and see where it takes you. Say, I wonder what comes up if I put in Down to the Short Strokes?

Oh. We'd best not talk about that one here. Some say it refers to golf, but I don't think that's the real origin of the phrase!

1 comment:

Melanie said...

I'm bookmarking that site. I cringe (internally) every time I hear the "down to the short strokes" phrase in a meeting. That and "rule of thumb" after listening to a fellow student who worked in the protocol office for the city of Toronto give a speech on inappropriate phrases.