Saturday, November 12, 2005

BOOK: Tom Holland, "Rubicon"

Tom Holland: Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. Little, Brown, 2003. Abacus, 2004. 034911563X. xxxi + 430 pp.

I noticed this book in the bookstore a few months ago; I think I even took it off the shelf and briefly looked at it; but for some reason, I then put it back and gave it no more thought, not even when I saw it there again during my visits to the bookstore in the next few weeks. For some reason I must have got the idea that the book probably focuses on military history (which I find boring), or that it's one of those works that tend to be too enthusiastic about ancient Rome and are often written by conservative American authors who like to imagine themselves as distant heirs of the Roman Empire and who would like to believe that the present American imperialist efforts will bring peace, trade, and prosperity to the whole world in the same way that Roman imperialism brought it to the Mediterranean in the ancient times. Anyway, since I completely and utterly hate and despise ancient Rome, and am not particularly interested in it anyway, these prejudices were sufficient to dissuade me from giving the book any further consideration.

But then, a few weeks later, the Guardian published a review of Tom Holland's latest work, Persian Fire, a book about the Greek-Persian wars. The review was very positive and also mentioned that the same author wrote Rubicon a couple of years ago. I remembered that this was the book I had ignored in the bookstore, and decided that I might give it a try after all. Besides this review, another thing that made me change my mind was the fact that the book focuses on perhaps the most interesting period of Roman history: the dramatic and unstable first century BC, when the Roman republic was shaken by civil wars, slave rebellions, conspiracies, increasingly bitter and violent power struggles on an increasingly large scale, until it was finally demolished and replaced by what was for all practical purposes a monarchy. I read, some years ago, a selection from Plutarch, containing the biographies of five or six notable Romans from that period; although I found that I am generally bored by Plutarch, I also felt that the transition of the Roman republic into empire was a very interesting topic. I later also read, and was delighted by, Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March, an epistolary novel set in the last days of Caesar. Anyway, all of this persuaded me that reading Rubicon, which is a nice narrative history of that period, would be a good idea,

This is an absolutely stunning book — and I don't use that word lightly, as I'm not terribly fond of the word ‘stunning’ and of seeing books referred to as stunning. But in this case I think it's quite justified. Not since I read Gibbon some eight or so years ago have I enjoyed a work of narrative history so much. There aren't any boring passages in this book; the story keeps moving all the time; there is something arresting on every page, nay in every paragraph, in every sentence; if we could send a journalist to live among the ancient Romans for a few years or decades and send us reports about their life, their character, and their political development, he could hardly have a better overview of the persons involved, of their thoughts and actions and their relations to each other, and he could hardly write it up any better than Holland does in this book.

The topic of the book is, for me at least, a melancholy one. I consider the transition of the Roman state from a republic to an empire to have been one of the greatest and most tragic mistakes in history. When I read about the decline and fall of the Roman empire in Gibbon, I was not surprised that the Roman empire collapsed, but that it survived for as long as it did, seeing how thoroughly rotten to the core it had been for so many centuries. But then it has to be admitted that the Roman republic was, at the time of its collapse, also a rotten structure in many aspects. After reading this book, my impression is that the main reason for the collapse of the republic is in its growth, and in its failure to adapt appropriately to the growth.

For example, one major problem that allowed people like Caesar and later Augustus to seize power was the fact that too many people ended up being loyal to an individual politician rather than to the Republic itself. Perhaps it would have helped if the people had been more closely involved in political decisionmaking, if there had been an explicit written constitution (rather than just a set of traditions and customs), and if people living outside the city of Rome had been given the opportunity to feel that the republic was also theirs, not just something imposed on them by the Romans. Then perhaps it wouldn't be so easy for e.g. Caesar to return from his ten years of campaigning in Gaul with a large military force that felt loyalty only for him personally and not for the senate or the state as an abstract concept. In the distant centuries when Rome was a small city-state, and its soldiers were just patriotic inhabitants of the city, it wouldn't be so easy to get them to march on Rome and try to set up one particular person as a virtual monarch over it. But now, with soldiers coming from various parts of Italy, and probably from other areas of the Roman republic as well, what was Rome to them? Naturally enough, whether Rome would be a republic or a monarchy didn't really make the slightest difference to them. We may say that the Romans lost their freedom by losing their republic, but these soldiers wouldn't have lost anything. So when Caesar told them to cross the Rubicon, it isn't at all surprising that they did so, and without hesitation.

Another thing: as the Roman state grew, so did the resources available to its most influential people. I imagine that in the early centuries a wealthy and influential senator might have owned an agricultural estate somewhere near Rome; but later, after Rome had annexed territories all over the Mediterranean, an influential politician might command the wealth of entire provinces and use it to further his private goals. They were now dealing with the sort of vast sums of money that enabled them to practically raise their own personal armies. Roman politics had always been a fiercely competitive field, with nothing to hold a politician's ambitions back except the influence and ambitions of his competitors. But now, when some of them practically had armies of their own, this sort of competition eventually led to civil wars, and besides it made it increasingly difficult for others to hold them back. This is similar to what sometimes happens in the economy: once all the companies in a particular branch are huge and powerful, they have for all practical purposes an oligopoly, because the entry barrier is so high that it wouldn't be realistic to expect a new competitor to appear in the market. And just like such companies would tend to merge into ever larger ones, until a single one was left with a monopoly on the market (assuming there is no government to keep it in check), so did the power in Rome eventually end up gathered in the hands of just a small handful of people (e.g. a triumvirate), and finally in those of a single person.

Maybe the fall of the Roman republic is a nice example of what can happen when you allow individual people, or small groups of people, to become too influential, too powerful, too wealthy compared to others. This is not a very hopeful message for our times. I don't think it's possible, in the long term, to sustain a democracy if you have a tiny elite of astronomically wealthy (and correspondingly powerful) people. It may be a democracy in form, but it will be an oligarchy in substance, and eventually it will turn into a dictatorship (or its more genteel counterpart, monarchy).

Incidentally, I don't wish to leave the impression that I'm terribly fond of the Roman republic. I just think it's vastly preferrable to the Roman empire. Otherwise, I'm aware that the republic had many faults as well; it seems to have been more like an oligarchy for all practical purposes; it's true that many important officials were elected by the masses of the people, but (1) probably only a relatively small proportion of the people had the right to vote (no women, no slaves, and no people who weren't able to come to Rome and vote there in person), and (2) the candidates were always from the ranks of the establishment anyway, and (3) the voters were basically sheep that could always be bought by a bit of demagoguery and some bread and circuses. (À propos the voters being sheep: cynics will be delighted by the fact, mentioned on p. 94, that elections were held in “an enclosure filled with barriers and aisles, of the kind used to pen livestock. The Romans called it the Ovile, or ‘sheepfold’.”) Still, even as an oligarchy, I consider it vastly preferable to a monarchy. Surely the excesses of a Nero or a Caligula, let alone an Elagabalus, would have been impossible in a republican framework.

There are few likable characters here; but this is hardly surprising, as they are after all nothing but a bunch of dirty, corrupt, power-grubbing politicians. I almost started feeling sympathetic for Caesar as a rising politician, admiring his determination, his daring, his ability, but after all you can't help remembering that he will end up becoming a tyrant, that he'll be responsible for atrocious horrors in Gaul, etc. Indeed his assassination is one of my favourite and most cathartic moments in all of history. If only everyone who dares to set himself as a ruler over others was treated in the same brisk and efficient way!

Cicero rather disappointed me, what with his changing of sides and so on. He may have been a good orator, but as a person he lacked integrity.

Pompey was not so bad as he seemed initially; at least he fought for the republic in the last years. And amidst all the depravity of the period, the fact that he and his wife seemed to be genuinely fond of each other (p. 250) was quite touching.

My favourite character, though, was Cato. Until reading this book, I had a fairly poor opinion of him; he seemed a stern, dour person, a killjoy overly fond of the antiquated rustic virtues of early Rome. But in this book, well, how can you help admiring him? Unlike almost any other politician mentioned in this book, he was willing to set principle above expedience, honesty above corruption, virtue above decadence, and unlike almost everyone else at the time he seemed to genuinely care about preserving the old republican constitution of the Roman state rather than allowing it to turn into a monarchy. And in the end, the most admirable thing of all, he preferred to commit suicide rather than to live in a Rome that would no longer be a republic and he no longer really a free citizen. I know that in our modern culture, suicide is usually looked down upon, as a pathological and cowardly thing do to; but I think it's precisely the opposite: it's a splendid and bold thing to do; it means taking one's destiny into one's own hands in the most literal way possible; and it's based on the realization that life is not priceless, and that not every kind of life is worth putting up with.

Anyway, let me repeat once again that this is a really fine book about a fascinating period of history. I certainly look forward to reading more of Holland's work in the future.


Blogger jin said...

I saw this book in the bookstore too and was wondering if it was any good. Anyway, Gibbons book is in the stores too and for a very small price (4000 Sit, or 20$)

What do you advice, which one is better for someone who knows the basics but would want to know more about that period?


Saturday, November 12, 2005 9:27:00 PM  
Blogger Nadezhda said...

"I know that in our modern culture, suicide is usually looked down upon, as a pathological and cowardly thing do to; but I think it's precisely the opposite: it's a splendid and bold thing to do;[...]"

Actually, you're right. I've heard stories of people commiting suicide in the most brutal ways, ways that spoke volumes about their bravery. Suicide is not for cowards. Cutting veins is, but then again I've never heard of someone who'd actually die from a punctured (peripheral) vein.

Sunday, November 13, 2005 9:51:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...


I don't think this is an either/or question. Rubicon is about the Roman republic, with the emphasis on its political history the 1st century BC. It contains very little about earlier periods, nothing at all about later ones, and little or nothing on other aspects of the Roman civilization (e.g. society, economy, religion, art, etc.).

Gibbon, on the other hand, is (as the title suggests) about the decline and fall of the Roman *empire*. His narrative begins in the age of the Antonines -- i.e. in the 2nd century AD -- and continues all the way up to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, and actually concludes with a chapter or two on the history of the city of Rome since the middle ages. As can be expected from an 18th-century author, this is narrative history of the traditional sort -- the focus tends to be on politics, wars, diplomacy, and the like.

If you saw Gibbon for $20, I suspect it's in a single volume, which probably means it's an abridged edition. Complete editions are usually in several volumes (three in Penguin Classics, six in Everyman's Library and in the Easton Press edition, eight in the Folio Society edition). The full text is in the public domain, and can be found on various web sites, such as here. I suggest that you take a look and see if you like his style -- Gibbon is one of the greatest masters of English prose style, and if you find that you enjoy it, it would be a pity to read an abridgment. His rolling periods, opulent diction, and unfailing irony are legendary.


I was pleasantly surprised by your positive attitude towards suicide. I really didn't expect it. I personally don't see why cutting veins would be particularly cowardly compared to other methods of suicide, because in my opinion a considerable part of the courage necessary to commit suicide is needed not merely to stand the pain but to find the resolution and fortitude to actually seriously contemplate the act of ending one's own life.

Anyway, when it comes to cutting veins, I have also heard that this is not a very reliable method (or, as the venerable alt.suicide.holidays FAQ says, "razors are pretty tricky to hold when they are covered with blood"). Or perhaps people aren't doing it the right way :)

Sunday, November 13, 2005 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger Nadezhda said...

I wouldn't call my attitude towards suicide a positive one. I merely mentioned that to commit a suicide one has to be exceptionally brave. These are people who attempt it and succeed. Ironically enough - if these people used the courage they obviously posess and applied it to everyday situations, then they might have avoided suicide altogether.

People who cut their veins or take pills (though the latter is a bit trickier) are usually the ones who are troubled and are seeking attention or just trying to get noticed, so they could solve their problems. Pills are usually a soft option because people take what they have at home (usually not very strong) and rarely take enough to reach the lethal dose. Also, the pills take time to absorb in the intestinal tract and this makes that sort of suicide slow, which enables the suicider to be found and rescued. There are methods to kill oneself by cutting veins (or arteries, but these are more deeply set) but one has to know which one to cut. As with many things: to know where and what is crucial. But I won't elaborate further. ;)

Monday, November 14, 2005 4:42:00 PM  
Anonymous James B. Cole said...

I was somewhat disappointed by the book's ending. After going into so much (fascinationg) detail earlier on, the author leaves many loose ends at the end. For example, did Augustus cancel all elections? What happened to consuls and tribunes? Did Augustus specify a successor and his powers?

Saturday, December 16, 2006 8:27:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Hm, you're right, some kind of epilogue would be nice. This reminds me of the curious feeling I had when I finished Robert Massie's Dreadnought --- after 800 pages about the naval arms race in the decades before the WW1, the book ends exactly at the point when war finally breaks out :)

Here are some things I found in the Wikipedia:

Consuls still existed after the introduction of empire, but they didn't have much influence. I think they were more or less appointed by the emperor.

As for the tribunes, it seems that the emperors assumed all the power that had traditionally belonged to a tribune, although not the title itself.

As for the succession, Augustus made sure that his step-son Tiberius would inherit his position -- they actually reigned together in the last few years of Augustus' life. After the latter's death the Senate confirmed Tiberius as the emperor, but this was mostly just a formality.

Saturday, December 16, 2006 3:49:00 PM  
Anonymous andangk said...

I have not read the book. But no Tacitus in the index?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 9:54:00 PM  
Anonymous colin prout said...

It is my favourite history book. A fascinating period of history and a great story. Tom Holland tells the story with the clarity and with the right balance of narrative and analysis. Colin Prout

Friday, December 13, 2013 4:36:00 PM  

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