33. ‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland, a guest review by Tom Gray.

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.

2. ‘Persian Fire’ by Tom Holland.

I’m not going to say this was an easy read, but I liked it a lot. It was a good way to absorb a much greater understanding of a period in history about which I knew very little. I would almost certainly re-read it. And, its one of the books which moved to the apartment from the house with Mum, so she definitely planned to revisit it – the first was April 2010. Mum had a lovely habit of popping her name or initials, and the date she completed the book into the ones she considered keepers, and in some favourites there are two or three dates. Others have places – the book I am reading now has ‘Crete ’93’ inside it, it’s one of her holiday books of which there were never less than three.

Goodness me, what a marvellous tome this is though! Definitely not a quick read, but striking a very clever balance between delivering solid history and fleshing it out so well that you find yourself wondering who will win the battles even though you already do….my knowledge of Greek and Persian history not previously being extensive, I genuinely wasn’t sure sometimes. (but we all know about Thermopylae if nothing else, thanks to 300 and Gerard Butler’s six-pack!)

The introduction draws the parallels between ancient and modern history, reminding us once again of the paramount importance of understanding history. The divide between East and West has existed for millennia. If the Persian attempt to conquer Greece had succeeded, the world we live in would be a very different place, not the least because who knows when democracy would have evolved if it hadn’t in Athens around 2500 years ago.

In the first half of the book, Mr. Holland reconstructs brilliantly for us the rise and rise of the first super power, the Persian Empire. Skullduggery, bloodthirsty warfare, treachery, incest, rape and pillage, betrayal, impalings, lots of them, greed; its all there. And then we reach its pinnacle; the Great King Xerxes. I have to say that the King of Kings looked more like a marcher in the Sydney Mardi Gras to me when I saw 300, but Mr. Holland gives us a skilled despot, capably wielding virtually limitless power across a vast empire. Its awesome.

And then…the war with Greece.  The famous battles, Marathon, Salamis, Thermopylae, but a host of twists and turns, political intrigues, the Spartans, the Persian sack of Athens…this part was particularly hard to put down as the principal characters spring to life, and the future of the world hangs in the balance.

A first for me, and I’m delighted to report that an investigation of the Wall of Books revealed another of his, Rubicon. Which I’m looking forward to.

Remember to post a comment if you like the sound of this one. I’ll post it to you….cheers


EDIT; And Persian Fire has gone to it’s new home. What a read!