tl;dr Rubicon is a great narrative of a commonly-studied historical arc, and the author’s understanding of Roman culture makes it a compelling read. 8.5/10
Popular History and Rome
The fall of the Roman Republic is probably the most-discussed historical era. It is documented by many primary sources, and many later Roman historians themselves wrote about the events of those years. The Romans were very aware of their own history, and when their cultural norms and legal structures began to break down, many of them noticed.
Of course, the explanations given by those Romans were not always sound. The Romans were a superstitious people who lacked the modern methods of historical analysis. Additionally, they had a habit of combining the historical record with propaganda. Because of this, their observations can feel fragmented and unbelievable. It is the task of a historian to wade through the sources available, combined with scientific or archaeological data, and determine what really happened. This is no easy feat, especially since the Romans lived in a setting of intense emotion, propaganda, and factionalism.
An equally difficult task is given for the writer of popular history.
While the academic historian has to obey certain rules for valid research in his subfield, the popular historian is bound by a single, extremely difficult rule: be interesting. This can be tough.
Tom Holland does not disappoint. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic is a masterpiece of popular history.
The experience of reading a book is a separate thing entirely from the factual content it contains. There is little of meaning to be said about the content of Rubicon, since its subject matter has been covered by writers at least thousands of times over as many years.
Rubicon focuses on the waning years of the Roman Republic, starting in with the wars against Carthage and ending with the glorious reign of Rome’s first and best Emperor; where Holland makes his mark is not in the re-telling of ancient stories but in the weaving together of the many threads into a coherent narrative.
Holland consistently leaves the reader swimming in the deep waters of Roman history and culture, eschewing cheap and easy comparisons to modern events except in a telling quote from the introduction, taken from Machiavelli’s own analysis of Livy, to remind us why the study of history is always relevant:
Prudent men are wont to say – and this not rashly or without good ground – that he who would foresee what has to be should reflect on what has been, for everything that happens in the world at any time has a genuine resemblance to what happened in ancient times.
The exact comparisons meant to be drawn from this turbulent political collapse are left as an exercise to the reader. (For someone more interested in explicit comparisons to modern politics, Mike Duncan, creator of the amazing The History of Rome podcast is more explicit in his new book The Storm Before the Storm.)
I would prefer not to simply summarize the book. It is great, and you should read it. Instead, I want to focus a bit on its most important character: the man who crossed the Rubicon in the famous event referenced in the title.
Holland finishes the preface to the book with two quotes from famous Romans: Julius Caesar and the historian Sallust.
“Human nature is universally imbued with a desire for liberty, and a hatred for servitude.”
Caesar, Gallic Wars
“Only a few prefer liberty – the majority seek nothing more than fair masters.”
(Sallust wrote many great Roman histories. An incredible translation of two of his works by Quintus Curtius can be purchased on Amazon here: Sallust: The Conspiracy Of Catiline And The War Of Jugurtha.)
There is more than a hint of irony to these quotes, as the reader will find with a close analysis of the book. Caesar brought servitude to many, many thousands of conquered Gauls (and others), and their repeated rebellions against him is precisely what he means by a “desire for liberty”. Caesar himself would personally bring about the destruction of the Republic that many of his fellow elite Romans held so dear, but we should be careful about this: the Republic was already rotten to the core, the virtuous Roman farmer having been replaced by slave labor on large estates, and Caesar can just as well be said to have saved Rome as to have destroyed its republic.
Sallust, who was an influential follower of Caesar and a very good historian, coined in a single line the reason why the republic fell. All of the elite’s rhetoric amounted to nothing against the poverty and indignation of the Roman people, who were more than happy to give up their “liberty” in exchange for their lives. Caesar, born to an elite although not especially wealthy family, was much loved by the plebeians – a fact that made him the sworn enemy of other patricians. The great Cicero, who considered Caesar to be a grave threat to his beloved Republic, wrote in a speech railing against one of Caesar’s two “successors”, Mark Antony:
“In that man were combined genius, method, memory, literature, prudence, deliberation, and industry. He had performed exploits in war which, though calamitous for the republic, were nevertheless mighty deeds. Having for many years aimed at being a king, he had with great labor, and much personal danger, accomplished what he intended. He had conciliated the ignorant multitude by presents, by monuments, by largesses of food, and by banquets; he had bound his own party to him by rewards, his adversaries by the appearances of clemency. Why need I say much on such a subject? He had already brought a free city, partly by fear, partly by patience, into a habit of slavery. With him I can, indeed, compare you [Mark Antony] as to your desire to reign; but in all other respects you are in no degree to be compared to him.”
Cicero, although a brilliant man and perhaps history’s most influential writer, judged Caesar incorrectly because of his own attachments and blindness to the failures of Rome.
For my own feelings on Caesar, I’ll finish by deferring to Alexander Hamilton, one of the core architects of the United States of America.
The greatest man that ever lived was Julius Caesar.