Rubicon: Last Years of the Roman Republic


Tom Holland




Date Reviewed:

November 22, 2007

really liked this terrific book. It tells the history of the Roman Republic. It is stuffed with facts and personalities - which might make for a boring historical text, but Holland's excellent writing style brings all the historical figures alive. Holland fills us in on the ambitions of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus as they manuever for power and glory. The greatest glory is a triumph - a triumph is a parade through the streets of Rome, a conquering general receives the cheers of the populace, while leading a train of prisoners and booty. All the Roman bigwigs aspire to their moment in the sun, their own triumph.

Holland begins his tale of the Roman Republic at its founding - a Roman King Tarquin was overthrown in a revolt in 509 B.C. In place of the monarch, the Romans set up a republic. Since that time, no one in Rome aspired to be a king, instead they all aspired to serve the people. Of course, there were still plenty of ambitious men striving to hold political office. Holland focus most of his book on the last few decades of the republic. By that time, the voting system is complicated - there is outright bribery, there are schemes to disenfranchise people born outside of Rome, there is violence and intimidation. Although in theory any citizen could run for office, in practice the wealthy aristrocrats controlled the political office. Cicero was a rare exception - he was not a general, did not come from a family with a long pedigree - in fact, he came from one of the provinces. But on the strength of his speaking skill, he attained the office of consul, which was the highest position in the republic.

Holland does a great job introducing us to the major figures in the last days of the Republic. Before Julius Caesar, there was a fierce revolutionary named Sulla who temporarily overthrew the republic and made himself dictator. He ruled by decree, upsetting many cherished traditions. Sulla's reign scarred the republic, but eventually it seemed to have recovered, the political offices were again up for a vote. Men like Crassus and Pompey vied with Caesar to hold the top office. Pompey was a hugely successful general, beloved by the masses - when pirates threaten Rome's shipping, the panicked Senate voted war powers to Pompey that gave him incredible power. The pirates were quickly routed, and Pompey had great prestige. Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome, he was the original developer - making money on land deals. Since he sought the office of consul, Crassus tried to act like a general - he led the army that supressed the revolt of Spartucus and the slaves - his brutal response was to crucify the captured slaves all along the Appian Way, some 6000 men. Caesar made his name by leading the armies of Rome in Gaul, conquering the barbarians and capturing a huge new area for Roman rule. Holland also describes the traditionalist Cato, Marc Antony, and the Gracchus brothers who try to win power by delivering reforms that will appeal to Rome's masses.

Holland also informs us on Roman attitudes toward slavery, class divisions, traditions - Rome liked to think of itself as a very conservative place. Honor and reputation are of paramount importance.

Rubicon is the river that divides the borders of Rome from Gaul. By tradition, a Roman general must not lead his troops into Roman country, he must not threaten the home nation. When Caesar decides to lead his troops across the Rubicon, he makes a fateful decision to bring rebellion to the Roman Republic. The result is the end of the Republican and the beginning of the empire.

This book was fascinating to read. This is not a dry history tome, this book reads like a good novel. I liked it a lot. I will have to look up Holland's other book, Persian Fire.