I heard this book before I read it. When it was published in 2003 it was serialised for Radio 4’s Book of the Week and I used to listen to it in the car on the way to work. I didn’t know much about the Romans then, but I knew who the big hitters were, and I think it was the cast of characters in Rubicon that first grabbed me: Spartacus and Crassus; Pompey and Caesar; Cicero and Cato; Antony and Cleopatra; Augustus. It amazed me that these people could all have lived at the same time, through the same stories, in relationships that swung anywhere between loving each other and killing each other. Later, when I actually read the book, I immediately felt that once wasn’t enough. I went from the last page straight back to the first and read it through again; something I’ve never done with any other book. And Rubicon planted a seed in me. Over the course of the next few years I read, re-read and absorbed into my bones several dozens of books about ancient Rome, an obsession that eventually led me to write a book about it myself.
Rubicon is about how Rome went from being a republic where people were citizens to a monarchy where people were subjects. This is one of the great stories, and Holland treats us to a real immersive experience, recreating the Roman mindset as convincingly as he spins the narrative and as vividly as he rounds out the characters. In the Republic, noblemen were raised for excellence and relentless competition. The only measure of a man was victory: in the law courts, which were not dissimilar to a gladiatorial arena; or in the polling pens; or on the battlefield. This hothouse atmosphere produced a breed that was extraordinarily able and self-confident, and that by 100 BCE – the year Julius Caesar was born – had come to dominate the whole of the Mediterranean.
But the culture was built on a paradox: ambition was the cardinal virtue, but it was always cut off short. Hundreds of years before, the Romans had cast out their kings, and they didn’t want them back; so, while you were expected to be a high achiever, you had better not aim too high. The consulate was the highest political office, and there were two of them. Supreme power was always shared. In addition, the term of office was just a year, then you had to wait ten years before you could be consul again. That was the genius of the constitution – no one could get too big.
The system worked until Rome began to rule foreign territories directly; then, as the empire grew broader, the political ceiling began to look a bit low. By the 80s BCE, aristocrats like Crassus and Pompey became rich enough to raise their own legions – all in the name of the Republic of course. And as Rome took on its ‘civilising mission’ in earnest, a new office had to be instituted: the proconsulate. A proconsul would typically be away from Rome for years, campaigning in places where Republican civic values had little currency, and with a huge army that might become more loyal to him personally than to the Senate and people. From the 80s to the 40s BCE the Republic dropped in and out of chaos as politics revolved more and more around strongmen while conservatives in the Senate strove to maintain the status quo. The Republic had always been characterised by bitter rivalries, but when Cato – the staunch defender of back-to-basics values – went head to head with Caesar, the flamboyant and popular conqueror of Gaul, the stakes were very much higher. In the old days, Caesar would, like any other citizen, have had to submit to a prosecution for his unconstitutional acts, and this probably would have ruined him. But in the old days he wouldn’t have had what amounted to a private army of eight legions behind him. On one level then, Caesar crossed the Rubicon and went to war with the Senate because he could, and because it was a matter of personal survival.
But there was more in the mix than that – there was foreign exoticism, and the lure of kingship, even divinity. The peoples Rome conquered were used to having kings, and some of them were happy to worship their lords as gods. This must have been heady temptation to a man like Caesar, infinitely ambitious, and removed from the grounding atmosphere of Rome for years. When the civil war took him to Egypt, he became genuinely besotted with Cleopatra, and the attraction was more than just physical – he was making love not only to a queen, but a living goddess. Both were anathema to any true Republican; but that’s not what Caesar was any longer, if he ever had been. There was scandal when he had a son by Cleopatra, and outrage when he brought her back to Rome. There were rumours of him moving the capital to Alexandria, where Caesar himself was now worshipped as a god; and talk that he meant to crown himself king. This was all too much for the spirit of the Republic, or what was left of it: thus followed the Ides of March in 44 BCE.
But there is another reading of the assassination of Caesar, which brings me to why I have just read this book again. Recently I listened to a lecture by Michael Parenti, who gives us a class-based analysis of the late Republic that is not entirely convincing, but certainly fresh and interesting. He portrays Caesar as a progressive politician – kind of an ancient FDR – concerned for the welfare of the lower economic classes, and he offers a compelling list of Caesar’s reforms in support of this. In contrast, Caesar’s enemies in the Senate are shown to be a landed oligarchy fighting to hold onto their wealth and privilege. It is certainly true that much of Caesar’s conflict with the Senate revolved around land grants to veteran soldiers in reward for military service. His conservative enemies were very much opposed to parcelling out land to the proletarii in this way. Parenti also points out another truth: anyone who tried to share out the economic pie more fairly in ancient Rome, from the Gracchi brothers through to Caesar himself, tended to get murdered by ‘aristocratic death squads’. There isn’t much in Rubicon, or in anything else I’ve read for that matter, to support this reading, but it is certainly something I want to explore further. It seems anachronistic to read history in terms of modern progressive ideals, but if you look up the 2nd century BCE Gracchi brothers (or, indeed, John Ball in the 14th century, or the Levellers during the English Civil War), you will see that these ideas are not as modern as we might think. Here’s Parenti’s lecture.
The thing about the Republic is that it died hard, and it lingered. Octavian, who later rebranded himself Augustus, became Rome’s new strongman through a combination of civil war, massacre and patronage. But he became legitimate by posing as a defender of Republican values and going to war against Mark Antony who, in the manner of his old mentor, had set himself up as a god opposite Cleopatra. When he established what would become the Roman monarchy in 27 BCE it was a masterpiece of spin. It had a Republican constitution and all the same old offices. Augustus was, on paper, a proconsul, but his province ranged across the empire, and it gave him twenty legions. His term of office was limited: everyone understood that it would just keep getting renewed. When he died forty-one years later, democracy, such as it had been, was barely a memory.
Having re-read this book, I now find myself lining up some other old favourites, particularly Caesar’s commentaries, which tell us, in his own words, how he conquered Gaul and then brought down the Republic. Caesar’s work, like that of all the ancients, is weird, and sometimes repulsive; but still, to me, fascinating. The Romans were different from us, and will always be mysterious; but they are not unknowable, and I can think of no better book than Rubicon if you want an introduction to them. It’s an irresistible blend of scholarship and accessibility, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about history, or just enjoys a barnstorming read.