Monday, November 9, 2020

Review of Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland

This review is written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History, Empires

Elaborate Description

Rome’s history tells a story of how the city’s memories shape its future. Precedents shaped the decision made in the future starting with the liberation of the city from kings, to being a free republic, to an empire of the republic, and finally the empire controlled by an emperor. The republic form of Rome is the centerpiece of this book. Focusing on the last circa 100 years of the republic and mostly on the characters that changed its future. Tom Holland utilizes culture to explain their actions and shows the impact on the people of the city.

A seemingly paradoxical culture in many ways such as cherishing freedom above all else but desire slaves. Freedom was a signature of Rome, embedded in their utilization of citizenship. A status most honored. Freedom provided for free speech, property rights, and other legal rights. Freedom was relative to those who did and did not have citizenship. The slave revolts of Spartacus did not want to end the system of slavery, but wanted citizenship and have their own slaves (except Spartacus himself who did want to abolish the system of slavery).

Competition for wealth and political power was everyone’s game. Having that power was tenuous, as competitors were always trying to rise. Holland describes this competition as savagely meritocratic. Privileges held by birth did not guarantee status. Merit via achievements was honorific, but extreme achievement was a threat to the state. As merit earn political power, too mush achievement can facilitate supremacy over the state.

An aversion to change but always changing due to demands from citizens and constitutional reforms. One such change was allowing everyone, even the plebeians (lower class), to get elected. The problem was that getting elected required a lot of time and resources which only the patrician (upper class) had, which is why the aristocracy accepted the change. Given the representation of the city was usually (always) from the patrician, the plebeians were tyrannized much like during the time of kings. A general representation of the Roman political system would be to define it by how well it worked, not whether it was logical. Anything inefficient would be abolished. Change had to be rooted in tradition.

A Roman army was meant to serve whoever was constitutionally appointed to serve rather than loyalty to any particular general. Before the professionalization of legions, only those with property could fight for Rome. Those with property had more incentive to protect Rome. When Rome wants and influence expanded, wars became long lasting making protection of property difficult. The property requirement to join a legion was eliminated and was used as a reward for war rather than an incentive. When the state started to supply the armor and weapons, the legion was professionalized.

War required an honorable reason, it could not be a simple conquest for gold or power. Moral rectitude was required for war. Even though extremely warped, Rome claimed that the empire was won in self-defense, not bullying. Proclaiming that Roman values and institutions were superior, that they had a civilizing mission. There proclamations are different compared when Rome had initially begun to conquer. Conquered regions were kept their own regulations, not replaced with Roman laws. A pretense that there was no change.

The death of the republic was in some ways gradual and in other, very sudden. As Caesar become too politically powerful, he gained many enemies which wanted him gone. Rather than relinquish the achievements earned, Caesar took an example from Sulla and used the legions to go against Rome. Sulla created a precedent by keeping his legions and using them against Rome itself. Caesar officially went against Rome by crossing the Rubicon, hence the term Rubicon used as a crossing point of no return. The ensuing battles created a power gap, filled by victors. Opponents of the victors were sentenced to death, eroding free speech. Without free speech, there was no more republic epitomized in that even private property was easy confiscated by a commissar. Many actions by the first emperor Augustus, were seen as a defense of the republic while gradually reducing the peoples’ rights.

The way Tom Holland wrote the book makes history fun to learn without simplifying the complex nature of an entire people. From the specific people that changed how Rome behaved, to the pressures they were under, and the impact on everyone, Holland wrote a very holistic narrative. This book was tailored for how the republic fell which creates the problem that very little written on the rise of empire as to make it slightly difficult to understand the political change.

Book Details

Edition ISBN: 9780385503136
Pages to read:   387
Publication:     2003
1st Edition:      2003
Format:            Hardback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5