Tag Archives: Cicero

Book Review: “Rubicon” by Tom Holland

I recently finished “Rubicon” by Tom Holland. What follows is first the Publisher’s Weekly review, because it gives a good summary of the book, and then my thoughts on this excellent book.

After a palace coup demolished the reign of King Tarquin of Rome in 509 B.C., a republican government flourished, providing every person an opportunity to participate in political life in the name of liberty. As Holland, a novelist and adapter of Herodotus’ Histories for British radio, points out in this lively re-creation of the republic’s rise and fall, the seeds of destruction were planted in the very soil in which the early republic flourished. It was more often members of the patrician classes who had the resources to achieve political success. Such implicit class distinctions in an ostensibly classless society also gave rise to a new group of rulers who acted like monarchs. Holland chronicles the rise to power of such leaders as Sulla Felix, Pompey, Cicero and Julius Caesar. Some of these leaders, such as Pompey, appealed to the masses by expanding the republic through military conquest; others, like Cicero, worked to reinforce class distinctions. Holland points to the suppression of the Gracchian revolution-a series of reforms in favor of the poor pushed by the Gracchus brothers in the second century B.C.-as the beginning of the end of the republic, providing the context into which Julius Caesar would step with his own attempts to save the republic. As Holland points out, Caesar actually precipitated civil wars and helped to reestablish an imperial form of government in Rome. With the skill of a good novelist, Holland weaves a rip-roaring tale of political and historical intrigue as he chronicles the lively personalities and problems that led to the end of the Roman republic.

(From the Publisher’s Weekly review. )

I’ve long had a fascination with the characters and politics of ancient Rome, whether it be the Republican Period or the Imperial Period that followed the fall of the Republic. However, the most fascinating time for me, perhaps because of the vivid and larger-than-life characters in the cast, the gruesome violence of its politics, and the sheer scale of the stage (from the tip of Spain west to the far shores of the Black Sea east, from the shores of Britain north to the deserts of Africa and the Nile south), is the period as the Republic began to falter and fail and the Roman Empire began to ascend.

Perhaps this period has gained even more currency with me recently because so much of our own politics in many ways echoes the arguments and politics of the Roman Republic. As I have listened, and occasionally participated in, debates and discussions about the role of government, I have heard arguments not unlike those that once were made in the Forum by senators of Rome. How much power should government have, what government should, and shouldn’t, do for the people, whether we should engage in wars far across the ocean, whether we should be nation building, what should we do with the many millions of people immigrating across our borders, who should be an American, and so on, and so on. Long before the modern American Republic encountered these issues, the Roman people—under the Republic—debated these issues from in the Forum of Rome.

With these thoughts in mind, as well as a love for gritty and real bare knuckle politics of ancient Rome, I picked up Tom Holland’s book. Told in a narrative style with vibrant language, the story reads with novel like ease and speed. But for footnotes and awareness of the history being accounted from other sources, I might have wondered at the fictional like quality to it.

All the great names of Roman history are present. Julius Caesar and his legions. Marcus Cicero, the oratorical giant. Pompey the Great, hero and megalomaniac. Cleopatra, seducer, queen and Pharaoh-goddess. And, of course, my favorite, Cato, the Spartan like idealist and champion of Republican principles, falling upon his sword rather than surrender to dictatorship as Caesar’s army marches on Utica.

I usually confine my gym reading to “fun stuff,” like novels and other brain candy. However, I found that Holland’s history was sufficiently enjoyable that I had difficulty picking up other books for the duration of the read, including at the gym. For those who complain that history is boring, a list of “one thing after another,” Holland’s Rubicon may be for them. For in it, they may find that ‘yes,’ history does seem to repeat itself, but no, it is not just one thing after another, nor is it boring. Roman history, especially in Holland’s telling, is as vibrant, alive, and violent as the Italian operas that their descendants would write over fifteen hundred years later.

Rubicon is, ultimately, a tragic tale marked by violence, civil war, conquest and the fall of the world’s longest standing republic. As the turmoil begins to end, we see Octavian rise as the second Caesar, but really as the first emperor, of Rome. His long life and mostly peaceful reign were a marked difference from the tumultuous years of the Republics fall, and they gave rise to a different period in Rome’s, and the West’s, history. It would be more than seventeen hundred years before another republic with Rome’s staying power was established.

As the only constant in history is change, as I closed the book, I could not help but wonder how long our republic will last. I don’t mean to speak doom and gloom by saying so, only to point out that human nature is tends to bring about repetition of history, including the failures of democracies and republics alike. How long can ours last? Even if it is only at mid-point or, to be optimistic, a relative beginning, what duration can it have? And will the causes of Rome’s fall also cause ours to fall?

Detail of a Bronze Sculpture Bust of Cato the Younger

Practice Tip #11: Strengthen your Memory

I am not known for my elephant-like memory, mostly, because I do not have one.  Like most people, my memory is pretty average (if not below average).

To compensate, I write everything down, keep careful a calendar events and meetings I need to attend, calls I should make, and tasks to finish. I take notes at meetings, and I take notes while I research, especially of where I can find things again. I even make notes in the margins of books I own so that I can return to points I liked during a first read.

Sometimes my average memory seems worse when I am put on the spot. I feel flustered, I stutter, and, worse, I forget my facts, points, and ideas. I could fill a whole post with the verbal flubs I’ve made while standing behind a pulpit or on a podium. But I won’t. You’ve got better things to do than read about my faux pas.

That said, I can’t hide the fact that there are times when I need data, information, or names and Google just isn’t an option. No matter how much we would like to avoid it, there are some things that we must memorize, if just because it’s more useful to have facts, ideas and information at our tongue tip than it is to check Google or our smart phone every time we need it (or when a judge, client, or opposing counsel demands it).

Influence doesn’t come from being able to Google an answer; anyone can do that. Influence comes from knowing the answer already, and having it when you need it. That’s right: great orators and influencers–guys like Marcus Cicero, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln–don’t use Google. They just recall it when necessary.

So what’s a guy to do if he has an average memory?

Apparently, all most of us have is an average memory, but we can all improve it. In 2003, Nature magazine reported on an f.M.R.I. test that scanned the brains of the eight people who finished near the top of the World Memory Championships (yeah, it exists). As it turns out, their memories weren’t any better than those of normal  people (read: you and me). Says writer Joshua Foer:

Researchers put the mental athletes and a group of control subjects into f.M.R.I. scanners and asked them to memorize three-digit numbers, black-and-white photographs of people’s faces and magnified images of snowflakes as their brains were being scanned. What they found was surprising: not only did the brains of the mental athletes appear anatomically indistinguishable from those of the control subjects, but on every test of general cognitive ability, the mental athletes’ scores came back well within the normal range.

So what’s the trick to pulling up data when you need it? Using different parts of your brain, parts that are more geared for memory than where we usually store data.

There was, however, one telling difference between the brains of the mental athletes and those of the control subjects. When the researchers looked at the parts of the brain that were engaged when the subjects memorized, they found that the mental athletes were relying more heavily on regions known to be involved in spatial memory.

Spatial memory–that’s the area of the brain that remembers, just like it sounds, space and distance around a person, their environment.

The Roman statesman Cicero once criticized Jul...

Image via Wikipedia

Interestingly enough, this type of memorization is not new. Cicero, the Roman politician that I mentioned above, rose from obscurity to the Roman consulship on the strength of his orations alone, even drafted his book on oratory, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, with techniques that included using spatial memory to recall important facts when necessary. Foer explains:

The point of the memory techniques described in “Rhetorica ad Herennium” is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. It advises creating memorable images for your palaces: the funnier, lewder and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.”

In other words, maybe you won’t remember the banal or mundane, but you’re bound to remember the obnoxious.

What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I learned, is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity. For example, one of the most popular techniques used to memorize playing cards involves associating every card with an image of a celebrity performing some sort of a ludicrous — and therefore memorable — action on a mundane object.

For more, check out the article by Foer in the New York Times Magazine here, and look into strengthening your memory.

Remembering what you need to recall, when you need it, is worth the effort. It might not make you this generation’s Cicero, but it certainly won’t stop you in your quest to become it. In fact, it might even help.

(h/t to Joshua Foer for his fascinating article)