Monday, August 27, 2012

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2003) is a non-fiction book covering the events in Rome of the first century B.C., and is a wonderful introduction to the fall of the Republic.  If you don’t normally read non-fiction, don’t let the fact that it is put you off.  It is a fantastically written book--the prose keeps the complex narrative moving while always injecting bits of wit or personal accounts from ancient sources.  This is no dry history book—it reads more like a novel.
Holland's central thesis asserts that the intense personal ambition instilled in Romans from birth led to their downfall.  Can you imagine growing up in a house with an entire room devoted solely to the accomplishments of your ancestors?  With their wax effigies are arranged so that they stare down at you as if to pass judgment on your worth?  If it sounds serious, it’s because it was deadly serious to the Romans.  Rising to the highest levels of government was the pinnacle to which all Roman males aspired.  Enhancing the might of the Roman Republic was to enhance your own personal prestige and dignity.  To a large measure, this intensity powered the rise of Rome from city to regional power, and with the defeat of Carthage, to the undisputed master of the world.

The problems set in when men of such incredible ambition came up against the constraints of the Roman constitution (more a loose collection of laws and customs than any single entity).  A long succession of Romans began to fiddle with the system, looking for ways to exploit it to their own betterment.  In short, somewhere along the way, men ceased to fight for the interests of the Republic and, instead, sought personal power.  This culminated in the final generation of the Republic with men like Sulla and Caesar who finally brought down the house of cards.

I say that Rubicon is an "introduction" because Holland focuses so heavily on the role of personal ambition in the Republic's downfall at the expense of other broader issues.  Judging by his obvious command of the history, I'm sure this was done on purpose, but I worry that those not as familiar with the time period might miss the importance of these crises.  Given the parallels between the class structure of Roman society and that of modern America, these kinds of issues and the ways in which they are dealt with are of particular interest.

My major gripe about Holland’s approach is that he enters the story a bit too late to give a good accounting of some of these issues, picking up the narrative in force with Sulla’s exploits in the 90s B.C.  Most folks cite the tribuneship of Tiberius Gracchus (133 B.C.) as the key event that instigated the century-long series of crises that eventually led to the fall.  Holland glosses over both the Gracchi in the opening pages and devotes little time to discussing the hallmark of their campaign—land reform.  Likewise, the career of Marius is relegated largely to the sideline.  He, more than any other, was most responsible for bringing about the shift in loyalty of armies from the Republic to the general in command of the force! 

In spite of my few minor quibbles, Rubicon is the best non-fiction book I’ve read about the fall of the Roman Republic.  The writing is truly exceptional!  Folks looking to get fully immersed in this period should also check out Colleen McCullough’s ‘Masters of Rome’ series.  While fiction, it is firmly based in primary sources and really brings the personalities of the great men to life.  

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