Hearing good things about Tom Holland’s popular histories of Rome, I decided to read one.

Review: Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, Tom Holland, 2003.

There are certainly other popular histories on the Roman Republic, but the subject isn’t as popular as the Roman Empire, and I get the sense that most of them start with, understandably, the compelling subject of Julius Caesar, founder of the Imperial Julio-Claudian dynasty.

This is an extremely compelling and readable account of the Roman Republic starting with the usual place its decline is marked from, the murder of the reforming Gracchi Brothers in 133 and 123 BC.

Holland doesn’t follow the usual academic structure of following the chronology and political themes of the Republic’s collapse. He’s interested in capturing the personalities and the spirit of the Romans, the people that gave us so many cultural gifts and, up close, are so alien. The narrative flow wanders back in time on occasion, at just the right moment, to give us the context of the developing disaster. A timeline is helpfully provided to anchor the reader as well as maps and extensive notes, usually form ancient sources.

Of those ancient sources, Holland admits we have only a few of the accounts the Romans wrote of those times to build a story from.

Holland has two great themes, two causes for Republican collapse.

The first echoes the moralists of the time. The simple Roman people had become too rich, particularly after 146 BC when the wealth of the East and Carthaginian silver mines flowed to the capital. The territories especially became too great of a source of wealth for the Roman elite not to grasp with rapacious publicani, private tax collectors, provincial governorships, and military commands to win even more honor and conquer more rich lands.

The second is the Roman culture, a worldview that emphasized competition, the pursuit of honor and glory but was so distrustful of the brilliant and ambitious that elaborate checks on their power had developed, the strange, cluttered system of Roman government. But, increasingly, the Roman elite were no longer willing to just bask in the limelight of a mere year’s long consulship, the Republic’s most coveted office. They wanted those jobs as governors and commanders and tax farmers.

The Romans, by Holland’s light, were a rapacious lot in terms of glory and money. What, asked the other peoples of the Mediterranean, could you expect from a city whose founders were suckled by wolves?

The wealth – extracted through tribute, taxes, and looting – of the East fueled a wave of villa building among the rich. Pompey built a vast theater. Fish farming became a craze. Foppish young men, like Caesar in a too loose toga, began to be seen.

The famed Roman courts were one arena of this competition for honor and office. They had the general outlines of ours, but combat was conducted by private parties. Both defense and prosecutor often represented clients or political factions. In following the career of Cicero, we learn how he carefully honed his rhetoric – and his gestures and the stage managing of appropriate histrionics among the witnesses, audience, and accused – to become the most famed attorney in Rome and attain a consulship. Acknowledging the theatrics of the profession, Holland notes that prosecutor and actor derive from the same Latin word.

To show the truth behind some charges, Holland gives us the account of one publican charged with extorting from provincials. On conviction, he happily went into exile – at the site of his supposed crimes where the locals welcomed him back.

But he was not the usual sort of publican. King Mithridates of Pontus invaded Roman Greece. Despite his reputation with the Greeks as a “matricidal barbarian”, they worked with him in a vast conspiracy that, overnight, killed 80,000 Romans and Italians in Greece. But, despite the usual Roman claim that it conquered in self-defense or to preserve its honor, Sulla made a peace treaty with him. There were more important things than avenging dead Romans. He had to get back to Rome to battle with Marius.

And the East had other effects on the Roman patricians, the commanders of legions like Pompey and Caesar. In Egypt, Pompey began to become enamored of the deeds of Alexander the Great and his quest for a world state. In Holland’s view, Caesar, when he took up with Cleopatra, perhaps begin to envision a fusing of Oriental and Roman political ideals, a theocratic monarchy to rule the world. The East, after all, had less of a problem with god-kings than the prickly Romans did.

Even the unbending and austere Cato, after being governor of Cyprus, began to rationalize a Roman Empire as a force for good benefitting its non-Roman subjects.

Freedom was not some universal aspiration or desired state for the Romans. It was a chance to prove you were better than somebody else. Nobody questioned slavery – not even the slaves. Spartacus was unable to convince his followers in Italy to flee. Instead, they wanted to live there like their former masters and paid the price.

Holland’s book is full of incident and detail.

We get the background on Sulla, the first Roman to lead an army on Rome and to be involved in the killing of Roman commanders. A dissolute, poor young man lived with lowlifes – prostitutes, actors, and drag-queens — until the age of 30 when he cashed in on his good looks and charm. A famous courtesan left him her estate. He would go on to become Rome’s first absolute dictator, a man who nailed names up on the Forum doors, a notice that their lives and fortunes were now forfeit. Yet, he never forgot his lowlife friends in his days of power, even paying the untalented ones to stop embarrassing themselves. And he lived up to his self-given nickname Felix, “Lucky”. He died in bed.

And, ambiguously, he resigned his dictatorship before he died. It was this – and his contempt of the plebians – that endeared him to some Senators and would eventually, in Holland’s eyes, cause them to hatch a plot against Caesar, a man, after achieving absolute power, who showed no signs of giving it up.

As for Pompey, Holland reminds us that he was not just some old guy bested by Caesar but a noted Roman general in his own day. The Roman Senate gave him a three-year remit to take care of piracy in the Mediterranean – the Roman war on terror. He accomplished his mission in three months. But Holland also shows he was a vain man always looking for acclaim and woefully self-deluded when called upon to defend Rome from Caesar. It turns out that he could not, just by stamping his feet, raise enough men to defeat Caesar, his former father-in-law. He was also mocked by his political opponents for being too fond of his wife.

The one Roman people didn’t make fun of was Crassus, the richest man in Rome, and a sinister political operator frequently switching sides. He once remarked that you never had enough money until you could pay for your own private army. Most famously, he made money by showing up at burning buildings and buying them from the owner. But he also made plenty of money by adding names to Sulla’s proscription list. The East held sway over him too. Searching for glory and riches, he led an army to one of Rome’s greatest defeats at Carrhae. His head ended up as a prop in a local performance of Euripedes’ The Bacchae.

And, of course, there is Caesar. Holland concentrates more on his political scheming and vote getting than battlefield exploits, and his portrayal is less sympathetic than that in Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography. There is no doubting that his conquering of Gaul and invasion of Britain was an illegal – Caesar himself had recently introduced laws against such acts by governors –a quest for fame and fortune, but it’s hard not to see him as a good alternative to the chaos of the ostensible Republic. Even Cicero noted, after Caesar’s assassination, that the Romans had their freedom back. But did they have their Republic back? Even Holland admits that Caesar’s famous clemency against his foes was a sign he didn’t intend to be another Sulla. (On the other hand, Caesar, in the cleanup of Roman opponents in Spain, seems to have become increasingly less tolerant and more brutal towards these holdouts.)

Holland also looks at many other things. The increasing resort to armed gangs to murder and intimidate political opponents and their connection to the collegia, the small communities throughout Rome that sometimes combined organized crime and political action with more commercial activities. We hear of the many Roman women, shut out of former political life, who influenced events whether through mothering, whispering secrets with lovers, or being the center of political scandals. Following the austere, childhood of Caesar, we learn it was that it was not atypical. There are surprisingly few toys in Roman archaeological sites. Roman children were started early on their duties as citizens and mothers. We hear of Sibylline prophecies of doom for Rome.

The one thing I would quibble about is that I don’t think the book gives enough coverage to Sulla’s great political opponent, the Roman general Marius. In my reading of Roman history, Marius’ military reforms, while perhaps the only option at the time for solving the problems of levying citizens for Rome’s constant wars, not only created the private armies he, Sulla, Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, and Octavian used but also laid the groundwork for the destruction of the Western Empire. As Adrian Goldsworthy argued in How Rome Fell, more Roman soldiers died there at the hands of other Roman soldiers than barbarian.

3 thoughts on “Rubicon

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