A guided tour of the last days of the Roman Empire

Review – Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

History is an interest I have only lately acquired. I believe my interest in history began shortly after I wasn’t required to remember five salient points about the First Five Year Plan. But it has taken a good decade, and then some, for me to actively seek out and read an actual book of history [1].

OK. So much for the build-up – the book: Rubicon by Tom Holland. It covers the last 100 or so years of the end of the Roman Empire, with a focus on the latter half. Starting with Marius and Sulla, we’re given a quick guided tour of the expansion of the empire and the implications of this expansion. The good things about the tour include interesting snippets of information about the personalities involved – Julius Caesar used to be a “loose-belted” dandy in his youth; rich Romans were curiously obsessed with fish; Mark Antony might have been bisexual, and more in the same vein.

That the tour is “guided” ensures that one rarely lingers at some spot interesting only to a few – one is ushered along the timeline, from dictator to dictator, pausing only briefly at scenes of great battles (Carthage, Gaul, Alexandria) and civil wars (revolts caused or put down by Sulla, Spartacus, Cicero, Caesar (both Julius and Augustus)). At the end of this book, I felt a bit like coming off a road trip with my parents. I’ve seen all the places I’m “supposed” to have visited on a trip to XYZ town; all meals (strictly vegetarian) were eaten on time, no sleepless nights or mad rushes to the train station or airport… I feel I’ve “completed” something I set out to achieve, but there’s an unstated promise to myself to visit these places again someday, on my own, or with my friend J who abhors lists of all sorts.

Good things about Rubicon:

– It is a surprisingly fast read for a book that’s mostly about two thousand year old politicians and despots.
– It accomplishes all it sets out to achieve – which, I assume, is to give the layperson a chance to quickly understand the most important aspects of an entire civilization. I may act snooty about my parents’ preferred method of sight-seeing now, but traveling with a check list isn’t entirely without merit.
– It does not read like a text book. There are foot-notes, but you’re never in danger of losing yourself in asterisk marks and pluses and other assorted special characters. The language is not cumbersome or dry, which brings us to the not so great things about this book.

Tom Holland has a weird habit (weird for a historian, that is) of dropping any numbers of allusions all over the book. Here’re a few samples:

Sulla, first in consternation and then in mounting fury, retired to his tent.

It was Lucullus… who had first made the rumors of incest public. No smoke without fire-and there must have been something unusual about Clodius’s relations with his three sisters to have set tongues wagging.

Caesar would one day talk of rolling a die when he faced the gravest crisis of his life, and his taste for the metaphor must surely have derived from his childhood.

I appreciate Holland’s wanting to make ancient history sound less ponderous. But frankly, I’d prefer that he leave emoting to novelists and the outright guessing to super-market magazines. Holland is at his best when he states facts, and in this case, I strongly believe the facts are interesting enough to never really need the props that he so eagerly supplies.

The book covers considerable breadth, and understandably, that is achieved at a cost. If you’re the sort who loves to read about battle-ground tactics or the intricacies of political tap-dancing, prepare to be disappointed. Holland deals with such matters only cursorily. Be it Julius Caesar’s defeat of Vircingetorix or Pompey’s manipulations of the Senate in the months leading to Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, there are any numbers of fascinating stories that receive no more than a passing mention here. Had I not been fortunate enough to have read a book and a half from Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, I’d not know enough to miss these stories.

Bottom line: Rubicon is a good book for history neophytes like myself, whose knowledge of Rome is limited to information (at times gravely distorted) from Shakespeare, the odd Hollywood tent-pole, and Goscinny and Uderzo [2]. However, this is just the beginners’ course. Any extra credits on how little democracy has changed since the birth of the Republic; why despite all its ills, democracy still appears to be a lesser evil than the alternatives, and lessons, if any, for modern super-powers – you’ll have to do on your own.

[1] History disguised as travelogues, or sugar-coated as fiction; movies and documentaries that involve one or more of the following persons or entities are all classified under entertainment, not history: Tony or Ridley Scott, Jeremy Irons, Geoffrey Rush, either half of Brangelina, Eric Bana or anyone-who-looks-as-good-as-Bana in a mini skirt (forgive me, I meant to say toga / battle dress (whatever)), a major Hollywood studio, or a Major Hollywood Studio once removed (which plugs the HBO loop-hole).

[2] Whose most important insight into the Roman psyche is captured in those famous words: “Ils sont fous, ces Romains!” also known as “These Romans are crazy!”

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4 comments so far

  1. Falstaff on

    Ah! The Caesars. The man to read, of course, is Suetonius. Such a delightful wealth of historical detail, with the odd bits of mythology thrown in. Good stuff. Plus, for truly sublime fiction versions – you have read Graves’ Claudius series, right?

  2. J. Alfred Prufrock on

    The bottom line – is it worth buying?

    And I hate to admit it, but Falsie is right about Graves.

    J.A.P.

  3. DoZ on

    Falstaff: Am afraid I haven’t read Suetonius or Graves. Thanks for the tip, though. Will definitely read them now.

    JAP: Holland’s worth a read if you don’t know much about that period – but if you do, then I doubt that this book will offer new insights.

  4. Michael J. Farrand on

    You can read more about Marius and his fight with the Teutons in my poem “The Man Who Saved History“.


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