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

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4 responses to “Book Review: “Rubicon” by Tom Holland

  1. Sounds like a great book — Thanks for the review! I’m adding it to my already-way-too-long reading list. As a recent convert to Roman history, it may be just the thing for me.

    I wish I could give a more intelligent response to some of your questions about lessons for America in the history of the Roman Republic. There’s no question that there are parallels between Roman history and the history of any great power. The comparisons become that much more substantial when one talks about another great republic. One of the more obvious lessons is that no great nation, not even a great republic with a proud democratic tradition, can take its continued existence, much less its continued dominance, for granted. But it can be hard to see the threats when you are (or, perhaps, more accurately, perceive yourself to be) on top. Being able to recognize that something may be an echo of a previous experience is the first step toward being able to intelligently evaluate its real ramifications.

    I’m reminded of something I heard earlier today about the fact that the nuclear containment problem going on in Japan right now should be regarded as a rare, and very valuable, real-world learning opportunity (not, of course, to in any way minimize their current human impact) that needs to be carefully studied. Likewise, even if separated by 2000 years, the somewhat parallel histories of great republics are a valuable real world resource for the one that follows after.

    • Great insight, Curt. Although the comment about history being “one thing after another” sounds like a dismissal by the disinterested student, it might also be a comment on the cycle of civilizations (a point that I am sure is not new or original). It would be hubris for us to assume that the country can stay great without considering both the history that has preceded us (and which we are in very many real aspects a result of) and the changes going on around us in our own world, not to mention what the results of our politics and policy decisions might be.

      At least raising a private army is not an acceptable manner of politics in our modern state…

  2. I read Rubicon a few years back, and found it an excellent review of those tumultuous times. History repeats itself (albeit in new clothing) because human nature does not change–the reason socialism does not and never will be a successful method of organizing entire societies. The same sun shines on us as on the ancient Romans–and it can set on us as well.

  3. Pingback: Beware the Ides of March… | What they didn't teach in law school

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