Tuesday 12 July 2022

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic - Tom Holland (2003)


Rating: Excellent

At the tail-end of my recovery from a hip replacement I felt that some hard-core history reading was in order, and in fact that is a good modern phrase to sum-up the Roman Republic - hard-core. Rubicon takes us from the foundation of Rome in 753 BCE to 14 ACE, and throughout the Roman Republic is revealed as an intense example of all of humanity's worst attributes; hubris, arrogance, cruelty, a whole litany of negative attributes basically, but it is not all bad, as Rome helped give Western culture a fine political and societal framework to improve upon. It's pointless here it try to go into Roman history, but what really stood out is just how similar the modern world is to that of Rome's, in particular the USA. Both feature ego-driven political figures bent on stamping their authority on the world, expecting to bask in the glory of success and have the populous love them for it. A Roman figure such as Pompey has a modern equivalent in Donald Trump (except the Pompey actually did some work, like subduing Asia Minor). In fact there were plenty of Trumps in the Roman world, whipping up mobs to intimidate political rivals and attempting to use the law to bend the republic to their will. Both civilisations feature political back-stabbing, military might, the use of the court of law for political ends, vast inequality, unchecked hubris and assassinations. Would we really expect much to change in just two and a half thousand years? It's long been a historical cliche, but essentially we are Romans, just with better technology with more checks and balances in place that give us some higher ground morally.

Pompey the Great, Rockstar General

As for the quality of the book itself? It's right up there with the best I've ever read in terms of history books. Holland delivers the story of the Republic in great detail, but with a verve that reflects the drama of such a dynamic and tumultuous civilisation. His writing is not overly academic, but is nowhere near being dumbed down for popular consumption, it's classy writing basically. Holland delves deeply into such matters as the Roman Senate, populated with the significant historical figures from that period, such as Cicero, Sulla (whom I was unfamiliar with) and Augustus Caesar, who led the way forward out of the Republic and into Empire after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Aside from the Republic's political life, Holland does an excellent job at placing you in the heart of Rome, in its streets teeming with citizens and slaves, from the exalted individuals from noble families and the peasants living in squalor in the narrow market thoroughfares. One aspect that really stood out was the status of military generals, such as Pompey, who were tasked with taking out leaders from neighbouring regions before they could pose a threat to the Republic, if successful they were like rockstars or celebrities, treated on their return to Rome with parades and granted status and wealth. Despite this Holland reveals that whilst the Republic needed figures such as Pompey to build their empire, there existed inherent boundaries that kept such figures from becoming too powerful and endangering what was ultimately a democracy, until, that is, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy and swept all before him, beginning the end of the Roman Republic. Once again here lies historical echoes of present day America, caught in a fight between fascism and democracy on its own soil. What will future students of history be reading about our current time and will they be musing over historical parallels with the ancient world? Unfortunately it looks probable at the moment.

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