Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Review: Rubicon

For many citizens of the United States, the tale of the Roman republic, its path from tyrannical city-state nascence through its long metamorphosis to empire over some 500 years, is fascinating. And for obvious reasons. After all, the so-called Founding Fathers drew much inspiration from the concepts and ideals of the Roman republic. And, while it may seem trite and cliché, nonetheless the question persists: Might that ancient historical path foreshadow the ultimate fate of our own republic? It was this question in particular, along with a curiosity for Rome spawned by my many encounters with the detritus of their civilization (from England to Portugal to Hungary), that drew me to Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic.

Rubicon is largely the tale of the last century of the Roman republic, centered around the two cataclysms that ultimately killed it.

The first of these is the civil war between factions loyal to Lucius Cornelius Sulla and those allied with Gaius Marius, two estranged friends vying, in that uniquely Roman way, for power and authority. The war shook the Republic to its roots and introduced the precedent of dictatorship, ostensibly as a temporary measure to prevent the Republic's destruction. Holland explains the various causes, the intense political rivalries, the unyielding ambition of Roman ideals that led to the event.

He then goes on to show how the aftermath of the war, the seething enmities that it bred, the challenges it posed to Rome's constitution was the seed of destruction that eventually led to the subsequent civil conflict some 40 years later. This was the war started when Julius Caesar, confronted with either capitulation and disgrace or open rebellion, made his throw for immortality and led his legions across the Rubicon against the Roman Senate.

Holland's recounting is populated with vividly drawn personalities: Cicero, the master orator with the quaking heart; ruthless Crassus, the unloved but much feared third pillar of the First Triumvirate; Pompey the Great, conqueror of Asia, slave to his own personal insecurities; noble, unyielding Cato; brilliant and dangerous Caesar; and many more besides. Holland gives life to all those Romans who, up to now, had been little more than a roster of names.

This book is not a dry recitation of facts and dates. Rather, the narrative is driving, colorful. Holland depicts Roman civic life, with all its values, its social mores, its discipline and its decadence. Through his accounting, readers come to understand what it meant to be a citizen of Rome: the quasi-egalitarian notion of entitlement, the inalienable rights that citizenship rendered (in theory, if not actually in practice). Nor does Holland neglect to describe the decadence and moral squalor of Rome at its most debased: the misogyny, the utter insignificance of slaves, the depraved cruelty.

Holland writes with wit and sharp insight. Throughout the work, his affection for Rome and its various significant personalities is apparent. At times, I admit, this affection borders on condescension. But it is difficult, I imagine, to avoid such sentiment given the buffer of some 2000 years of hindsight. And, all in all, Holland's well-researched and thoroughly-sourced book treats Rome and its denizens with respect, even reverence.

In fact, I found the story to be quite poignant. Especially toward the end of the book, when Holland recounts the panic and bewilderment of all those ancient Republicans who come to realize that their beloved republic is dying and that it cannot be saved.

Too late, Cicero found his voice, after a long period of cringing and hoping it would all blow over. His elegy to the love of his life, the Republic, thunders and howls, like the groaning of a ship succumbing to the sea: "Life is not merely a matter of breathing. The slave has no true life. All other nations are capable of enduring servitude --but our city is not. So glorious is it to recover liberty, that it is better to die than shrink from regaining it."

He spoke these words shortly before his name appeared on a proscription list composed by Caesar's heir, the ruthless gangster, Octavian. Holland says that when the bounty-hunters found him, Cicero tore open his toga to bare his throat to his executioner. He was a Republican --a Roman Republican --after all.

No comments: