Every now and then I get the pleasure of diving into a book that makes me sit up and go wow! Tom Holland's book, Rubicon made me do just that. It's a quick, nearly breezy account of the last century of the Roman Republic, and how politics, personal rivalries and a cast of very strong wills brought down the Republic, and formed the base of the Roman Empire.
The story begins, quite naturally, with a very brief overview of the beginnings of the Romans, in a little village on the banks of the Tiber river in Italy. The founding is a fantastical story, of twin brothers with a murderous rivalry, and the kingdom that they found. But oddly enough, the kingdom that they create doesn't last very long before the people rise up against it and put in a new style of government -- a representative one, where two magistrates will share power -- but only for a year before two new ones are elected to replace them. The small republic starts to grow and acquire land, and make a few enemies along the way.
Enemies such as the Carthaginians, a powerful trade city based in Africa, and to the north, ever seething barbarians waiting to swoop down the boot of Italy to devour Rome. And Rome, quite naturally, fights back, raising her own armies, and eventually defeating one opponent, and holding back the other. And with conquest comes land, and ever increasing demands. The government grows, as do the armies, and societal changes are coming.
Beginning at the first century or so bce, Rome is on the cusp of change. The empire has grown to include parts of North Africa, much of Spain, and a strip along southern France. One general, Marius, has managed to rise to the rank of consul, despite his lowly birth, and proves to be the right man in the right place as German tribes migrate south to Rome. He is elected to consul a record six times, breaking all tradition, and causing the moneyed elite, the patricians, to be more than a little worried. One of them is Sulla, once a friend of Marius, and now his most bitter enemy. And to defeat Marius, Sulla will do the unthinkable -- march on Rome with his legions...
From Sulla to Crassus, Pompey and Cicero, and finally Julius Caesar himself, we see the Roman republic tear itself apart. While Tom Holland doesn't stop for very long on any one person or topic, this book is a good way to get an overview of just why the republic fell, and why it was replaced with an emperor and lost what representative government that it had.
While the writing here is rather breezy in spots, and Holland does tend to linger on scandals just a bit too long, for anyone who is interested in the history of the Roman Republic and Empire should find this one an entertaining read. The stories are compelling, and the writing is fairly good, moving along at a very brisk pace. While some events are breezed over, such as Cataline's conspiracy, and the Servile wars with the native Italians and Spartacus, the picture that it presents hangs together fairly well. I came away from this one with a better grasp of what happened in that last century of the republic, and able to understand just why the various personages in the story acted and felt the way that they did.
In addition to the narrative, there are quite a few maps scattered throughout the text, two inserts of black and white photographs of places and people in the story, and a timeline of events. There is also a bibliography, and index to give some ideas of where to go reading next.
Where this book really works would be as a nonfiction reference to Colleen McCullough's wonderful series, The Masters of Rome. Here the reader will find just what happened to Sulla in between the two books, The Grass Crown and Fortune's Favorites, an omission that has always bothered me with the series.
All in all, four stars overall. The narrative is a bit too breezy for my tastes, but it does give a quick, fairly accurate look at the end of the Roman Republic. If all that you've seen of Rome has been various movies or miniseries, this would make a good start in finding out what really happened. History fans should be well pleased with this one. Recommended.
Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
2003; Anchor Books
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