Go to the archives

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Tom Holland

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jun 06, 2016
Category: Non Fiction

Julius Caesar and his soldiers are in Gaul.

Across the river lies Italy.

In a decade, Caesar has conquered 800 cities, 300 tribes and all of barbarian Gaul — but now he hesitates.

Why? Because to cross the Rubicon River is to declare war on his homeland.

The Rubicon may, as Tom Holland notes, have only been “a narrow stream.” Still, by crossing it, Caesar changed the world: “Caesar did indeed engulf the world in war, but he also helped to bring about the ruin of Rome’s ancient freedoms, and the establishment, upon their wreckage, of a monarchy — events of primal significance for the history of the West.”

How did “a thousand years of civic self-government” come to an end? Why did the Romans tire of virtue and lose themselves in circuses and spectacles? How did “the first republic ever to rise to a position of world power” lose its way?

Those are the big questions Tom Holland addresses in “Rubicon.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

He starts with a brief chronicle of the start of Rome: ruled by kings, guided by seers, fighting to dominate cities just ten miles away. It was not a lovely city — the Tiber often flooded, malaria emptied the valleys. “The love that Romans felt for their city,” Holland writes, “was of the kind that can only see virtues in a beloved’s glaring faults.”

But almost from the beginning, Rome boasted of its virtues and dismissed its flaws. Because it equated “goodness” with “reputation,” it encouraged men to aspire to heroic status through public service. The prizes were fame and fortune.

The cost of failure was equally extreme.

Gaius Graccus, for example, was murdered, decapitated, and “lead poured into his skull” — and then “3,000 of his followers were executed without trial.” And that’s just the start of the butchery in this chronicle. Corpses become building material, heads are routinely displayed on poles. Cicero, seeing his executioners, offers his throat; Antony’s wife honors Cicero’s courage by spitting on his severed head, yanking out his tongue and stabbing it with a hatpin.

But it’s not all ambition, betrayal and violence.

Along the way you’ll meet Sergius Orata, who invented the heated swimming pool and made fortunes upon fortunes when Rome’s wealthiest citizens discovered they couldn’t live without them.

You’ll learn how Roman babies were toughened up, how badly slaves were treated, how the art market boomed.

You’ll grasp anew the original meaning of “decimation” — “every tenth man beaten to death, the obedient along with the disobedient.”

And you’ll shake your head as Lucullus has a tunnel drilled through a mountain, so he can keep fresh seawater flowing into his fishponds.

But is that more jaw-dropping than Julius Caesar building a villa and, as soon as it was finished, ordering it torn down?

And the descriptions! Sulla had “a violent, purple complexion, and all over his face, whenever he grew angry, white spots would appear.” (He was also said to lack a testicle.)  Strabo died “when the tent in which he lay dying of plague was struck by lightning.” Pompey wore “his golden hair swept up in a quiff, his profile posed to look like Alexander’s.” And Julius Caesar’s murder, usually a set piece, here reads like a scene from a thriller.

What changed along the way? “Globalizing fantasies were much in the air”— Rome found a mission to share her superior values until there was “universal” peace. Far away, the army fought, but “to the urbane consumer back on the Campus Martius, it was only distant noise.” There were shows to watch in Rome. And if none were scheduled, there was luxury shopping.

As Holland concludes, Rome won the world.

All it cost the Romans was their freedom.