Rubicon, The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland

Book Review by Ursus

Rubicon surveys the dying decades of the Roman Republic, from the great civil war with Rome's Italian allies to the reign of August Caesar. It traces the events and characters that sealed the fate of the five hundred year old Republican government.

The book begins with a short prologue of Julius Caesar's famous hesitation before the now infamous river. We are then treated to a general survey of the Roman Republic and its mores. The first major event described is the Social War between Rome and its Italian client states. We are then treated to the prophecies of the Sibyl and a looming threat of unrest through the Roman world. The book then surveys in turn the usual events: The Grachhi Brothers; Marius and Sulla and the Mithradates War; Cicero and Crassus, Pompei and Caesar, Antony and Octavian. Rubicon concludes with the peaceful death of Augustus after decades of turbulence.

Tom Holland manages to give a fresh new spin on a very old subject. His prose mercifully reads like a novel more than a historical lecture. The author imbues his work with a keen eye for cynical humor, and the quirks of Roman culture are paraded with dripping poignancy. Holland never shrinks from depicting the gritty side of the late Roman Republic and its chief statesmen. Through it all, though, there is a sense of wonder regarding those traits that made Rome noble and descent - qualities that were passed through a crucible in the warlords' quest for an imperial throne.

Holland is not unbiased, however. He shares many authors' prejudices in portraying the Republic as a civil virtue on display while painting the Empire with shades of Oriental despotism. While there is some truth in this, it's an old and all too easy cliché. Roman citizenship - whatever that ultimately came to mean - did not become universal until well after the Republic's death. While there were a variety of means by which a Roman subject could become a full citizen, it was left to the Empire to make this a more working reality. The civil virtues of the Republic, therefore, were fairly constrained. It is under the Empire that Rome is gradually transformed from a city-state into a cultural ideal with broader appeal.

It is also under the Empire initiated by Augustus that Romans know their fullest measure of peace for several generations. The old government of divided powers between annually elected magistrates simply couldn't marshal the resources necessary to defend so vast a territory. As an example: once Pompei was finally given full command of the Roman fleet, the pirates that had heretofore been terrorizing the Mediterranean were defeated in a matter of months. There could have been no clearer indication of the weaknesses of the Republic and the relative virtues of a "strong man" government. If Rome were to survive in face of its enemies, a singular and pronounced will would have to helm the State.

The Republican bias notwithstanding, Holland's book is an enjoyable and educational read, both to beginners and to those already familiar with the subject matter. Obviously some people will try to draw connections between Rome's late Republic and modern day America.

The efficiency of a stronger executive power in the face of adversity, balanced against the perceived loss of liberties accruing from increased executive power, is a timeless theme. Those who would argue on either side of the debate need a good grounding in history. On that level - and on many others - Rubicon succeeds quite nicely.

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