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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Reading List: Rubicon

Holland, Tom. Rubicon. London: Abacus, 2003. ISBN 0-349-11563-X.
Such is historical focus on the final years of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Empire that it's easy to forget that the Republic survived for more than four and a half centuries prior to the chaotic events beginning with Caesar's crossing the Rubicon which precipitated its transformation into a despotism, preserving the form but not the substance of the republican institutions. When pondering analogies between Rome and present-day events, it's worth keeping in mind that representative self-government in Rome endured about twice as long as the history of the United States to date. This superb history recounts the story of the end of the Republic, placing the events in historical context and, to an extent I have never encountered in any other work, allowing the reader to perceive the personalities involved and their actions through the eyes and cultural assumptions of contemporary Romans, which were often very different from those of people today.

The author demonstrates how far-flung territorial conquests and the obligations they imposed, along with the corrupting influence of looted wealth flowing into the capital, undermined the institutions of the Republic which had, after all, evolved to govern just a city-state and limited surrounding territory. Whether a republican form of government could work on a large scale was a central concern of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, and this narrative graphically illustrates why their worries were well-justified and raises the question of whether a modern-day superpower can resist the same drift toward authoritarian centralism which doomed consensual government in Rome.

The author leaves such inference and speculation to the reader. Apart from a few comments in the preface, he simply recounts the story of Rome as it happened and doesn't draw lessons from it for the present. And the story he tells is gripping; it may be difficult to imagine, but this work of popular history reads like a thriller (I mean that entirely as a compliment—historical integrity is never sacrificed in the interest of storytelling), and he makes the complex and often contradictory characters of figures such as Sulla, Cato, Cicero, Mark Antony, Pompey, and Marcus Brutus come alive and the shifting alliances among them comprehensible. Source citations are almost entirely to classical sources although, as the author observes, ancient sources, though often referred to as primary, are not necessarily so: for example, Plutarch was born 90 years after the assassination of Caesar. A detailed timeline lists events from the foundation of Rome in 753 B.C. through the death of Augustus in A.D. 14.

A U.S. edition is now available.

Posted at October 13, 2007 17:31