Rubicon - Tom Holland

The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic
Tom Holland
Little Brown Publishers
ISBN: 0-316-86130-8 (Amazon link)

From my booklog, it might seem as though I've not been reading much lately. That's not true. I've mainly been reading Rubicon, and the reason it took me so long isn't that it's a difficult read, or particularly long - no, it took me a while to finish Rubicon because I was savouring every page of it.

Rubicon is an astonishingly good book, an intellectual treat, one of the best histories I have read [1]. The story of the Roman Republic offers incomparably colourful drama, with its turbulent transition into the Roman Principate being, in my opinion, one of the most interesting periods of history in almost every way - political scheming, massive military campaigns, charismatic leaders, scandals, everything. In Rubicon, even the economics of the time become oddly interesting!

Rubicon's preface opens on January 10th, 49BC, with Caesar's famous pause to consider his gamble before crossing the Rubicon, but as Holland quickly points out, the Republic was in trouble for some time, and Caesar wasn't even the first to bring his soldiers into the city...

The main text starts much further back, opening with the story of Tarquin and the Sybil. Holland has a wonderful touch for explaining history - in a story dominated by huge characters (e.g. Marius, Sulla, Cato, Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, Antony, Octavian), Holland uses the early chapters to make the intangible idea of The Republic itself seem just as real and influential as any of these great men. By opening with Tarquin and the Sybil, Holland establishes both Rome's horror of kings, and the very real respect accorded to tradition and the Republic's destiny. He manages to keep both of these themes running throughout, and what I think differentiates Rubicon from other popular histories is the real understanding he brings to the motivations of the primary figures. I find Roman history fascinating as its society's values are at once remarkably modern, but yet quite alien - attitudes to public duty and celebrity, what it means to be respected, attitudes to wealth, sex, marriage, childhood, religion are all shot through with this curious mixture - events can be easily understood at face value, but the motivations often rest on values a modern western reader finds peculiar.

Rubicon is no mere coffee table history though - Holland presents an intelligent and thorough history, with the political and economic impact of major events being just as important as the body count and associated scandal. The trick is that he wears his learning lightly, and makes it all equally fascinating and accessible, and even when detailing some of the more complex political manoeuvrings during Caesar and Pompey's civil war for example, Holland never makes you feel like you're back in the classroom. In Rubicon there are no dry recitations of names, places and battles - there are descriptions of genuinely exciting events, being driven by three dimensional, fully realised historical figures with complex motivations. I really like Holland's writing [2] - he has a nicely restrained, lucid prose style, but reserves colourful descriptive flourishes for punctuating the large scale narrative with vivid portraits [3] of city life, or key events, which rival those of even the best historical fiction about the period [4]. Rubicon isn't the sort of history book you read at school - how many of you would have studied the classics with more enthusiasm as a teenager if exposed to the really interesting bits? What if you had been exposed to Holland's version of Seutonius discussing Mark Antony's copying Ceasar and going native with Cleoptara in Alexandria:

Antony, playing the bluff man of the world, chose to treat it all with disdain. "So what if I'm fucking the Queen?" he complained to Octavian. "What does it matter where you shove your erection?"

Schoolboy shock tactics aside, this quote is typical of how Holland changes tone to emphasise to the reader just how scandalous some of the events under discussion are; there is a coin on one of the colour plates showing the head of Cleopatra one side, and the head of Antony on the other. When starting this book I read the caption describing how shocking an affront to the Republic this was, a comment which didn't seem particularly meaningful. It is a tribute to Holland's writing that when I looked at the plates again after finishing the book, I appreciated just how unthinkably scandalous this coin would have been to someone like Cato.

Naturally, certain figures dominate the history of Rome, and their stories naturally dominate Rubicon - the early growth of the Republic isn't skimped on, and much of what I read was new to me, but discussion of the war with Carthage for example, is still from a mostly impersonal, historical perspective. Not until much later in the Republic's life do giant personalities appear - the story of Rome is really the story of men like Marius, Sulla, Cato, Cicero, and Caesar. For me, the story of Sulla is a particular highlight of Rubicon, although Holland seems particularly fond of Cicero, and it is with Sulla that the decline of the Republic really becomes clear. From that point on, we're no longer reading the history of a powerful city-state, we're suddenly reading a gripping tale of warring ambition between great figures - a tale which leads to the horror of civil war, and ultimately, the rise of the Principate and the death of the ideals the Roman Republic was founded on.

I think perhaps Holland is primarily interested in this theme, as he dissects the different motivations of the key figures - he emphasises how civic honour was the key reward when the Republic was small, with all offices wreathed around with checks and balances. However, with the rapid growth of the Republic, offices naturally became time extended in order to achieve real work, and some of the traditional checks and balances cannot be applied when administrating remote provinces. (This theme is of course best illustrated with Caesar's time in Gaul.) This central idea is fascinating, that the Republic encouraged the conditions of its own demise, by providing an environment where only the respect and accolades of fellow citizens is worthwhile to ambitious men, the Republic could never scale up without changing. As some point, the level of power and influence accorded a single individual necessary to fulfil their duties to the Republic basically transformed a citizen into a king equivalent, and it was only a matter of time before the traditional checks on such a person happening were no longer sufficient for them not to choose to exercise their power closer to home.

Highly recommended.

[1] For those of you keeping score at home, I have two other favourite history books. The first is John Julius Norwich's masterful history of Byzantium, which would be excellent companion reading for Rubicon. Although there is a edited down omnibus edition, I recommend the full trilogy, which starts with Byzantium: The Early Centuries. My next recommended history is quite different - Andrew Chaikin's A Man On The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts is simply one of the best books I have ever read.

[2] Holland writes descriptive prose very well, and while reading Rubicon it occured to me that Little & Brown publish a Tom Holland known for his historical horror, such as Vampyre: The Secret History of Lord Byron. It's a bit of a stretch, and probably just a coincidence of names, but can anyone confirm if this is the same person? UPDATE: The author himself later emailed me to (a) graciously thank me for the review and (b) confirm that he is the same person as the fiction author.

[3] Talking of portraits, Rubicon is decently illustrated, featuring 24 colour plates.

[4] One of my favourite fiction series set in the ancient Rome of Sulla, Pompey and Caesar is Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa mystery series, which starts with Roman Blood.

Posted: Thu - October 9, 2003 at 12:02 AM