Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
© 2003 Tom Holland
407 pages, including index
As a student of history, Rome holds a particularly strong fascination for me. Having been brought up in western civilization, Roman history is my history. I can see echoes of it in my everyday life, from the words I use to the ways in which I think. Despite its importance, it has been quite some time since I refreshed myself in its history, and so this week I read Rubicon: the Last Years of the Roman Republic. The author begins by stating that narrative history is starting to come back into vogue now, and that is the style in which he intends to write. For my part, I prefer narrative history to any other kind I know about.
More than two millennia after the Republic’s collapse, the “extraordinary character” of the men — and women — who starred in its drama still astonishes. But so too — less well known perhaps than a Caesar, or a Cicero, or a Cleopatra, but more remarkably than any of them — does the Roman Republic itself. If there is much about it we can never know, then still there is much that can be brought back to life, its citizens half emerging from antique marble, their faces illumined by a background of gold and fire, the glare of an alien yet sometimes eerily familiar world.
– from the preface
Holland begins with “The Paradoxical Republic”, where he examines the character of the Republic itself, telling the reader of its many contradictions: that it urged its citizens to care for glory above all, but that it also also tried to corral that zeal for glory into purposes that would increase the stature of the state: that its citizens were both free and tyrannized, and that despite all of its problems there existed “an almost religious sense of community”. Here he introduces about the growing influence of populist politics versus patrician politics — a theme is woven throughout the book. In “The Sibyl’s Curse”, Holland addresses a kind of morbid fear that Roman citizens had about the splendor of their Republic, that one day its own citizens would destroy it. I was unaware of the “prophecies of Sibyl”, but according to Holland three books of prophetic sayings were hidden in one of the temples and consulted during moments of great crisis.
Beginning with the third chapter, the book becomes less background and more narrative. Like all narratives, this is one driven by characters, and the first is the character of Sulla. Holland puts to pen Sulla’s rising fortune and influence and his conflict with Marius, leading to the civil wars, the existence of which surprised me the first time I heard about them so many years ago. Sulla, Crassus, and Marius all dominate the first part of the book. Sulla is perhaps the most difficult to put one’s finger on, Crassus perhaps the easiest. Given that Sulla and Crassus were both characters in the Roman fiction I’ve been reading, my interest in them was particularly heightened. In “Fame is the Spur”, Holland introduces the young character of Caesar, who will return — obviously, given the book’s title.
Caesar emerges as Sulla and Marius are passing way into death and as the Republic is now driven by the likes of Pompey and Crassus. Holland is not just interested in political power, however. He also visits men like Cato and Cicero, who will be voices questioning the way the Republic is crumbling until the end of the book. (Holland mentions two trials of Cicero’s: one was in Imperium, and the other was in Roman Blood. Holland’s description holds firm with both Harris’ and Saylor’s, increasing my appreciation for both. They seemed to have been able to render a story while keeping it true to the facts at hand, assuming all three of them are not engaging in an authorial conspiracy. The latter third of the book begins with the First Triumvirate, and the beginning of the end for the Republic. We can see the Republic’s old ideals fading even as they are championed.
The book does not end with the Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. Holland continues, describing the war between Marc Antony and young Octavian. Holland titles this “World War”, and this is typical. The narrative is somewhat informal, and Holland has a tendency to impose 20th century terminology on the history of the past. He refers to Marius’ putsch, calls Pompey the “Generalissimo”, and describes Caesar’s war in Gaul as consisting of a “blitzkieg“. The latter is somewhat amusing given the location (Gaul being France), but I didn’t enjoy the “imposition”. This is a matter of taste, of course, but it seemed to detract from the purity of the text for me. Overall, though, I found the book to be quite enjoyable. It raised a lot of issues for me, personally.