It is a tired old trope, perhaps because of its enduring truth; history repeats itself. And drawing parallels between the late years of the Roman Republic and the modern United States is almost irresistible to anyone with an understanding of the period; the rise of populist demagogues, the increasing influence of a powerful military-complex, and the steady erosion of democratic ideals are all forces which precipitated the fall of the what at the time was the world’s greatest nation and democracy, and you don’t have to look hard for such trends in the political and cultural machinations of the current western superpower, the USA.
Understanding this history then, could be considered vital if we are to avoid repeating it. But condensing such a volatile, fractious history into an accessible and even enjoyable read is a task verging on the impossible. In Rubicon, Tom Holland does this spectacularly, by articulating centuries of history into a thoroughly entertaining read, and in doing so succeeds where many have failed before him.
As the name suggests, Rubicon begins with one of history’s most familiar scenes; Julius Caesars’ pause on the banks of the Rubicon, as he wrestled with a decision which would have vast and far reaching implications for him, his troops, and for the entire western political trajectory for the millennia to come; to march his troops on Rome and secure his political future.
Many adaptations of this moment and the events which followed, from Shakespeare to HBO, have centred on Julius Caesar, his march on Rome, and the civil wars that followed and eventually culminated in the death of the republic. But Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon did not happen in a vacuum; it was the culmination of almost a century of democratic decay, a period which is almost criminally neglected in popular history, a neglect which Rubicon addresses. The Italian wars of independence, the great rivalry between Sulla and Marius, Pompey’s conquest of the east and the Mithridatic Wars are just some of the fascinating events preceding Caesar, events which rarely get a mention in popular culture and adaptations (Colleen McCullough’s epic 7-volume Masters of Rome is a notable exception, and a must-read for Roman history buffs). This crime of omission is made doubly so by the fact that barely any other period or place in antiquity is so well documented.
Not so with Rubicon. Rubicon takes the reader back to the 2nd and 1st century Roman Republic, which had existed and prospered for centuries, and whose democratic, diplomatic and military institutions still shape the modern world. He explores the myriad pressures that gradually moulded the Roman psyche, which had for centuries abhorred the very notion of autocratic rule, and steered it towards dictatorship. He explores the demands of Italian nations’ for citizenship, and the civil conflicts that followed (and which would define Roman politics for decades to come).
The subtitle of this book is apt – the triumph and tragedy of the Roman republic – and indeed it is littered with both. The tragedies of Crassus in the deserts of Syria and Cato’s brutal suicide in North Africa, and the triumphs of Rome and her domination of the Mediterranean are explored in equal measure, as Tom Holland humanizes the countless fascinating characters who defined this period, from the populist demagogue Clodius to the patrician heavyweights Marius and Sulla, and the rivalries, hopes and dreams of ordinary men which shaped these events.
Perhaps the only criticism I can make of the book is that it ends so soon; leaving the periods that followed to other historians, many of whom sadly lack Mr Holland’s eloquence. Still, we can hardly blame him for that.