Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003) – 2

Including the timeline, the text of Rubicon is 400 pages long. Julius Caesar, whose life and death signified the end of the Republic, makes his first appearance on page 111. In other words, three-quarters of the text is devoted to the 70 or so years covering the super-famous events of: the life of Julius Caesar, the civil war with Pompey, Caesar’s assassination just as he was about to assume absolute power, the civil war between his assassins (Brutus, Cassius) and Caesar’s adopted heir Octavian in partnership with Caesar’s closest ally Mark Anthony; and then the war between Octavian and Anthony which ended with the latter’s defeat and suicide and the former’s ascent to supreme power in about 30 BC.

This is probably the most famous part of Roman history, covered in hundreds of thousands of papers and articles, tens of thousands of books, and scores of Hollywood movies. How does Tom Holland handle it?

A pacy page-turner

To quote the title of a Somerset Maugham book, with ‘The Mixture as Before’. The narrative is fast-moving and pacy, with enough facts and dates to give a sense of thriller-style, page-turning momentum.

Holland likes using flashy ‘contemporary’ references to make it all feel more accessible or relevant to our times (‘stormtroopers’, ‘big business’, ‘financial lobby’, ‘hit squads’, ‘glad handing’ 202, ‘moral majority’ 212, ‘low rent’, ‘gangster chic’, ‘star quality’ 233, ‘mutually assured destruction’ 294, ‘blitzkrieg’ 307).

In the same spirit some of the chapter titles are quotes designed to make it all sound cool and referential (chapter titles like ‘Luck be a Lady’, ‘Return of the Native’ and ‘The Debt to Pleasure’).

All the chapters have jokey sub-headings. ‘The winner takes it all’ is a humorous reference to the Abba song, ‘Mutually assured destruction’ a reference to a completely different realm of human activity. They are perky and humorous but my heart sank when I came to the one titled ‘The war against terror’ (p.169).

Oh dear. A touch of the Mary Beards. Thinking that making references to 9/11-related events makes your history more relevant, when it often does the opposite – as the years pass, what was once a cool, topical reference itself becomes dated and dusty, until it eventually requires a footnote of its own to be understood. The war against terror was the talk of the town in 2003 when this book was published, but has been superseded by a number of other impressive crises since.

But those are details. The main point is that Holland’s handling of the key characters in the story, described in pop psychology (‘the two old enemies were at daggers drawn’) dressed up in airport thriller phraseology, makes the narrative fantastically gripping and exciting to read.

Holland brings the crucial players of these fraught decades – Sulla, Pompey, Cicero, Cato, Caesar, Lucullus, Crassus, Clodia – to life with a vividness I’ve never encountered before. And he very effectively sets these characters amid the relentlessly poisonous machinations of republican politics. Holland takes you deep into a world of toxic and unending political and personal rivalries, feuds and conspiracies. It is, as no less an authority as Boris Johnson is quoted as saying, a gripping read.

It’s also fantastically complicated. You need to get to know each of the main players and then follow Holland’s detailed description of how they reacted to (or created) each successive political crisis in a state which seems – in his account – to be permanently teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

But his account has other merits. The fast-moving narrative is regularly interspersed with passages which slow down to describe Roman culture and values, or key locations and buildings in ancient Rome, or aspects of the arcane, over-complex and ever-evolving Roman constitution. I found these consistently illuminating and interesting.

Rather than try to capture the impossible complexity of the political story, in this blog post I’ll list the most interesting social and cultural facts that Holland describes.

Social and cultural history

Fathers and children

A Roman father was at liberty to reject a baby born to his wife. He had to undertake a ceremony to actively accept it as his own. Many sons and more daughter were abandoned on the city’s many rubbish dumps (a fact Mary Beard repeats several times in her history of ancient Rome, SPQR) (p.112). A third of babies died before reaching their first year. Which might be why Latin has no specific word for ‘baby’.

As soon as possible, boys were taught to harden their minds and bodies in readiness for warfare and citizenship. Girls were prepared for marriage. Many were married off as soon as legally possible, aged 12. However, daughters never ceased to be wards of their fathers i.e. owed more allegiance to father and family than to their husband. A daughter who didn’t try to influence her husband in the name of her father’s interests was regarded as a bad daughter (p.115).

Marriage politics

Because more girls than boys were likely to be abandoned at birth, there was a permanent imbalance between the sexes, with fewer eligible wives. Thus there was no such thing as a ‘spinster’ (unmarried older woman) in ancient Rome (p.118). When it came to marriage, love was nothing, politics was everything. Which explains why we read of the marriages of the most powerful being contracted or terminated with surprising speed and ruthlessness, as the political situation shifted and the need for a new marriage alliance became clear.

Caesar’s first marriage

Which is why a young Julius Caesar accepted with alacrity the offer of the daughter of Rome’s strongman, Cinna, in marriage, because it tied him to the ruling administration. But after Cinna was murdered by his own troops and Sulla returned to Rome for his second and longer period of dictatorship, Caesar’s canny marriage became a liability.

In fact his marital alliance might even have prompted Caesar’s execution in the massacre of his opponents which Sulla carried out. In the end Caesar was lucky – other contacts and connections redeemed him in Sulla’s eyes. The dictator simply ordered him to divorce her.

To everyone’s surprise, Caesar refused to and, knowing the likely consequences, promptly left Rome to join a Roman army campaigning in the East, in Anatolia. Here he made his name in the siege of Mytilene, capital of the island of Lesbos, which was holding out against Sulla’s imposition of Rome rule.

An aristocrat’s house

An aristocrat’s house wasn’t considered a home. It wasn’t somewhere he could retreat to privacy and intimacy. On the contrary it was a stage on which he displayed his magnificence. The hall of Julius Caesar’s father’s house was lined with the wax death masks of his successful ancestors, with lines connecting them backwards in time all the way to Aeneas, legendary prince of Troy and forebear of Romulus and, through him, back to the goddess Venus herself.

An aristocrat’s house was more like an office, with the hall full of clients queueing to ask favours or political colleagues waiting to discuss deals. They didn’t smoke because no-one smoked because tobacco hadn’t been discovered. Otherwise they would have been full of smoke-filled rooms and grateful clients kissing the hands of their patron, promising loyalty in return for favours, exactly as in The Godfather.

Staffing the Roman army

The Roman Army had no military academy; there was no education or training in military affairs. Instead staff officers were appointed on the basis of contacts and family. There was some meritocracy in the field (the best officers were promoted) but it began with, and was rooted in, belonging to the senatorial or aristocratic elite and having the right connections (p.124).

For hundreds of years the Roman army had been manned by peasant farmers recruited off the land and officered by their social superiors. But by the last century BC two big things had changed. The pattern of peasant smallholdings which used to lattice the Italian landscape had been severely eroded. The rich had been buying up land for a century or more to such an extent that, when Spartacus led his rebels through central Italy, they found themselves moving through an agricultural wasteland, vast fields manned by slaves in chain gangs with only the very occasional large villa and farm complex. The peasant smallholder, the backbone of the Roman army, had disappeared.

Second thing was that, while military campaigns were restricted to Italy, they were generally of short duration. Even the first Punic War in Sicily wasn’t very far away and troops could be rotated. But once armies were sent to Carthage (149 BC) or against Mithradates in faraway Turkey in the 90s, or even further east towards Armenia or Parthia, then these were campaigns far from home which might last for years.

An army made up of peasant farmers who volunteered to fight for one year was no longer nearly enough to supply the Republic’s needs. Which is why in 107 BC Gaius Marius had been forced to abandon a time-honoured rule that the army only admitted citizens with property, and to pass a new law admitting the poorest of the poor to the army. The state would supply their arms. In other words, the legions had become professionalised (p.166). In a telling summary Holland says that, possession of a farm was longer the qualification for being a soldier – it became the reward.

Roman law

The one area of life which competed with the military as the launch pad for a career in public life was the law. The Republic had no public prosecutor or police service. Therefore law cases were taken out by private individuals and prosecuted, in public, by the best advocates.

Law cases were heard in public. There were two permanent law tribunals set up in the Forum. This meant law cases had always been public performances, where advocates used all the tricks in the book, including mimicry, appeals to the audience, brutal sarcasm and threats, to win the crowd and a judge over. Knowledge of the law was considered secondary to eloquence, in the widest sense.

Which is why the Romans used the same word, actor, for a prosecuting lawyer or a performer on a stage. Though the social classes involved were miles apart, the skills required were surprisingly similar.

As well as no police force or prosecutor’s office, the Republic also had no prison system which meant that losing a high profile case led to a handful of extreme punishments – to fines, confiscations of property, or exile, or death. (When Julius Caesar suggested that the members of the Catiline conspiracy be imprisoned for life, his suggestion was laughed to scorn and Cato the Younger won the day with his suggestion that they simply be executed in the good old-fashioned way, p.208).

Anyone convicted of a crime was stripped of their citizenship and, if they set foot back in Italy after exile, could be murdered with impunity. To put it mildly, this added a life-or-death edge, excitement and bitterness, to law cases (p.125).

Cicero

The most famous lawyer from this period, and the figure we know most about in the history of the whole Republic, was Marcus Tullius Cicero, lawyer, scholar, philosopher and statesman. We know him simply because such a vast amount of his writings have survived, including no fewer than 1,000 letters.

Mary Beard’s history of Rome relies heavily on Cicero’s letters and texts and the aspects of the life of an ambitious, upper class Roman which they document in such detail.

Holland, also, uses this goldmine of information to good effect, going into great detail about Cicero’s life and achievements, or, more accurately, the way his life intertwined with the political tribulations and crises of his times. Cicero was elected to each of the principal Roman offices (quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul) on his first try and at the earliest age at which he was legally allowed to run for them. He was friend and ally of key players, such as Pompey the Great, as the Republic hurtled towards its final civil war.

Slavery

The rebellion of Spartacus and his gladiators in 73 BC, which turned into a massive slave rebellion, was treated with disappointing brevity in Mary Beard’s history. Here Holland uses the Spartacus uprising as a peg on which to hang a couple of pages describing slavery in late Republican Rome.

Slavery in ancient Rome was on an awesome scale and of numbing brutality. Possibly as many as a million slaves had been imported into Italy, where they performed a huge variety of roles. Some were the pampered favourites of the very rich who sometimes set them free (such as Cicero’s devoted secretary Tiro, whom he freed). Many were the sole slave in an ordinary urban household. But huge numbers were worked to death in the fields or in the vast mines of southern Spain: ‘Syrians toiling in Spanish mines, Gauls in chain-gangs on Sicilian estates’ (p.171).

Beard and Holland presumably used the same source when they both give the estimate that as many as 40,000 slaves toiled in the Spanish mines! Field workers in Italy wore shackles and chains, were branded, fed the minimum possible, endlessly punished with the whip or elaborate tortures and, when they were finally broken, abandoned in the countryside to die and rot (p.146).

Educated Romans’ obsession with libertas must be understood as the product of a slave society, indeed a citizen’s freedom gained meaning and spice by comparison with the radically unfree who he saw all around him and in his own household. Just like the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ tossed about by Confederate politicians and journalists in 1860s America was undermined by the presence of 4 million slaves, so all the ‘lofty’ posturing about ‘freedom’ by Roman writers must be set against the slave labour which underpinned their entire way of life.

At the great Greek free port of Delos it was said that up to 10,000 slaves might be sold in a single day (p.170).

During the late second century the Gauls beyond the Alps discovered wine and became addicted to it. The Romans sold it to them at inflated prices. By the time Caesar arrived in Gaul in the 50s BC, the price had stabilised: Romans sold Gauls a jar of wine in exchange for one slave. The result was that the Gaulish tribes were continually raiding each other to capture slaves to sell to the Romans, thus depopulating their own land, not unlike black Africans over a millennium and a half later (p.247).

Contemporaries reported that Caesar’s conquest of Gaul involved, in total, some 1 million dead and 1 million sold into slavery. (p.281)

Pompey and the pirates

During the first century the number of pirates sailing the Mediterranean increased notably. Capture by pirates became a real and continual risk. Caesar himself was captured in 75 BC. When they demanded a ransom of 20 talents Caesar indignantly insisted he was worth 50. He also promised that he would return, capture and crucify his captors, and he kept his word (p.169).

It was well known that the pirates grouped together in leagues with leaders who called themselves kings. They not only attacked ships at sea but raided and plundered inland, too. Intimidated coastal towns paid security money. Some harbours made a good living hosting pirate fleets.

People captured by pirates and not eminent enough to be ransomed, were generally sold into the vast slave industry which fuelled Roman wealth.

Pirates, just as much as the hundreds of thousands who joined Spartacus’s rebellion, were the product of war and social breakdown. They didn’t seek to change or overthrow the system, but to live better lives, which is why they set up parallel structures of power, with their own elections and leaders.

Eventually pirates threatened the shipping lanes which were the lifeblood of Rome’s economy. In 74 BC the Senate appointed one Marcus Antonius to clear the seas, but he was roundly trounced by a pirate fleet off Crete and the chains the Romans had brought to shackle the pirates were used on their owners, who were then hung from the yardarms (p.173).

Things came to a head when, in 68 BC, a pirate fleet sailed into Rome’s own harbour, the port town of Ostia, burned the consular war fleet as it lay at anchor and then set Ostia itself alight. The people rioted in the Forum and demanded something be done, so the Senate appointed young Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to the job, giving him command of 500 ships and 120,000 men.

To everyone’s surprise it took Pompey only three months to defeat the pirates at sea, storm their final stronghold, defeat their leaders and end the scourge of piracy for good (p.175).

A new decadence

It was in these last years of the Republic, the 80s, 70s, 60s and 50s, that wealth on an unprecedented scale led to the flaunting and decadence which most of us (well, I) associate more with the Emperors.

Buildings

On his return from years campaigning in Asia, Lucius Licinius Lucullus spent the loot he had acquired abroad building huge country villas and flashy coastal palaces complete with elaborate landscaping and gardens containing rare plants. Lucullus’s longest lasting legacy to Italy was to bring back cherry trees from the area of Pontus on the Black Sea (p.186).

Julius Caesar had a villa built in the countryside and the minute it was finished, had it demolished for failing to quite reach his desired specifications (p.197).

Haute cuisine

Then as now, was associated with nobs and snobs, an indicator of decadence at a time when many people struggled to feed their families. New fads and fashions swept through the Republic’s wealthy, including the serving of dormice, scallops, fatted hares, peacocks and sows’ vulvas (p.187).

Pisciculture

Most treasured were fish and the super rich began building elaborate fish ponds which they stocked with the rarest species, lampreys and bearded mullet. Cicero and Cato railed against the ‘fish fanciers’ and the decadence which this ostentatious obsession with pisciculture signified but the fashion just spread (p.187).

Dancing

Dancing was another activity associated with licentious Greece and heartily disapproved of by stern old senators. Cicero thought that a culture that permitted dance culture was on the point of catastrophe. In all seriousness, he attributed the decline of Greece to its permissiveness about dance, which rots the mind (pages 193 to 194).

Dandies

Young Julius Caesar was a dandy (p.321), famous for the fastidious arrangement of his toga but he was far from unique. He was one of the first among an increasing band of young men about town in the 70s and 60s who paraded the latest fashions, for dress, cuisine, even haircuts. Pompey’s quiff, Caesar’s hair brushed forwards, the new generation were dedicated followers of fashion.

Slumming

Holland even describes a growing fashion for the absolutely bluest of blue-blooded aristocrats to affect a working class accent, the equivalent of Mockney, knowing and superior and ironic and satirical all at the same time (p.191).

Unrepublican, unmanly

Conservatives summed up all these traits under the heading of effeminacy. Only women should care about their hair or their clothes. The task of a Roman aristocrat was to be tough, manly, virile and hard; to cultivate the military virtues, to undergo the same vicissitudes as his men while on campaign and to live frugally and wisely back in the big bad city. What disconcerted the conservatives was that Pompey and Caesar managed to combine both, being notably stylish men about town in their twenties but also proving to be charismatic leaders of astonishingly successful armies.

In the end, it wasn’t fancy fish and foppish hairstyles which did for the Republic. It wasn’t a lack of manliness, it was the precise opposite, an excess of toxic masculinity. It was the collapse of the Republic’s elaborate, complex, multi-layered system of elections and magistracies designed to hold competitive alpha males in check, and their replacement by a simpler, more blood-soaked order in which possession of an army – such as Caesar’s battle-hardened Army of Gaul – which was the key to power.


Credit

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland was published in 2003 by Little, Brown. All references are to the 2004 Abacus paperback.

Roman reviews

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