Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic
by Tom Holland
New York: Doubleday, 2003
The author makes the point in his introduction that it is dangerous to draw parallels that are too broad between the Roman Republic and our own. It is tempting, however. People being what they are, they fall into patterns, and one of those unfortunately is the desire for power, the desire for wealth, and plain old vainglory. These, according to Mr. Holland, were the precipitating factors in the fall of the Roman Republic. He draws the roots of the fall to the Third Punic War, and the fall of Carthage. This was the first time that Rome went to war proactively: not because they were attacked, but that they might be attacked in the future. This signalled a change from a Republic that took reluctantly to the world stage, to one that actively expanded its borders.

Ongoing war allows for greater glory for soldiers, who then seek higher office, and further glory. Unfortunately, Rome feared kings almost pathalogically, and the threat of a new king was enough to upset the traditions Roman civilization. Added to this was the influence of the Roman mob the mobile vulgus, the moveable crowd, swayed this way and that by a powerful figure freely dispensing charity, building up a long list of clients. So it was when the Gracchi brothers decided to carry out land reform, and provide small holdings to the poor in the city of Rome.

This would have made the Gracchi almost invincible political foes, and thus the Optimates, the senatorial party, struck them down, literally. Violence had taken the place of debate and compromise in the political process, and the tool taken up is difficult to put down. Fearing kings, fearing the mob, the Roman senate needed strong men to preserve order, but did not trust them. Thus enters Gnaius Pompeius Magnus, Caius Iulius Caesar, Marcius Porcius Cato, and Marcus Tullius Cicero. These would be the major figures to shape the Republic, and eventually bring it to its downfall.

The author does not focus on the history, but also explains the culture of Rome, and how it served to shape the events that led up to the fall of the Republic. We meet the major players, and learn how their failings led to the downfall of the first Republic seen in the Western world.

Caesar and Cato are treated most sympathetically. Caesar is seen as a man pushed to the decision to attack Rome by a combination of cultural forces and the unbending principle of the Senate. Caesar, it is argued, loved Rome, and actually sought to reform it, to fix the problems. Cato is the example of Roman severitas, severity and adherence to principle. If anyone can be blamed for Caesar's decision besides Caesar, it would be Cato. Had he held less firmly to Roman tradition, Caesar may not have felt threatened. Of course, if Cato had held less firmly, he would not have been Cato.

Pompeius Magnus and Cicero come off less sympathetically. Pompey is seen as a man who wanted to be loved, wanted to be wooed by the Senate, so that he could come to the rescue of Rome. Cicero comes off as that one person who can't move on from past glory, always returning to it and boring his audience with the story of how he saved the Republic without a civil war "The shield must yield to the toga" he would declare, somewhat pompously, telling all that the time of soldiers was past, now was the time of politicians.

These men from the past come alive, and the forces and currents that moved Rome to civil war and empire are seen clearly, and perhaps can give us some insight into the dangers that fac e us as a nation, as we engage in a proactive war. This book is quite good, and well worth a reading.