“The liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs.”
James Madison, Federalist no. 41
Rome has always loomed large as the most powerful of the ancient republics, the superpower and hegemon of its day. It also carries about it the unmistakable air of tragedy, that in acquiring the might to survive in a dangerous world, Rome lost the very constitution which lead to its rise. In Rubicon, Holland has stitched together an eminently readable narrative of the fall of the Roman republic. It was felled not by Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon or Octavian vanquishing the armies of Marc Antony but by the steady erosion of its institutions. Most salient of all was the murderous reign of Sulla, who turned his armies on Rome a generation before Julius and destroyed the checks on individual ambition which sustained the republic for four hundred years. Holland is at his best in charting the course of these ambitions as order collapses—Cicero’s fumbling self-promotion, the vanity of Pompey, the wickedness of Clodius, Cato’s harsh but noble conservatism. I would have liked for him to spend more time on the structural causes of the republic’s fall, namely the decline of the free peasantry and the corrosive effects of military adventurism which created armies loyal to generals and not to Rome. One also cannot help but worry that the very readability of Holland’s account could only come with heavy scholastic liberties (especially given the fragmentary nature of contemporary sources for the period, a disproportionate amount of which were written by Cicero himself.) Nonetheless, Holland’s account is an undeniably dramatic, gripping, and ultimately successful portrait of dark and troubled times.
The Last Years of the Roman Republic
by Tom Holland
Anchor Books, 2003
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