Brilliant. Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic is simply brilliant. An account of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, ending with the first emperor Augustus, the book makes full use of the cast of fascinating characters, including Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, to give us narrative history at its best.
As Holland acknowledges at the start of the book, the range of surviving evidence makes our knowledge of the times somewhat lopsided, dominated by the writings of a small number of powerful Roman men. It is as if writing a history of the Second World War “which relies solely upon the broadcasts of Hitler and the memoirs of Churchill”. That warning is a healthy reminder that many of the vivid character sketches are based on what a handful of their enemies said of them; almost certainly some have been traduced by the narrowness of the historical record. Likewise, some of Holland’s generalisations such as how “no friendship in Rome was every entirely devoid of political calculation” are somewhat heroic given quite how many people over quite how many centuries are caught up in those broad brush descriptions.
Evidence is plenty, however, to give us the broad picture including – what most caught my attention – just how violent the Roman Republic was, even during its apparently peaceful democratic days. The ability to marshal men to threaten or actually carry out violence was frequently the decider at key moments in the Republic’s history rather than the outcome of the nominally semi-democratic elections for ruling posts.
The emphasis on the broad sweep of events means the reader does not get bogged down in the details of numerous names of different minor figures; the flip side is that this is very much a top line history of the biggest events and the most famous people. A fabulous introductory history rather than the definitive detailed work.
One thing to note about the audio version of the book: the narrator’s voice is excellent, the production qualities less so with background noises present more than usual in a top flight professional audio book and with some odd pauses, especially in the first half, that suggest editing done not quite right.