The Civil War by Julius Caesar – 2

Julius Caesar’s own account of the civil war he fought against Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) and his successors from 49 to 45 BC is divided into three parts. I have previously summarised parts one and two. This is a summary of the third and final part.

Part 3: The great confrontation (112 sections)

1 to 6: Caesar in Italy – Pompey’s preparations

Caesar returns to Italy where he temporarily takes the title dictator in order to carry out the legal functions of the absent consuls and senate. He oversees elections in which he is elected consul for the next year, 48 BC. Caesar adjudicates legal cases, solves bankruptcy cases, officiates at the Latin religious festivals, then relinquishes the dictatorship and hurries to Brundisium.

Here he is presented with an ongoing shortage of ships. Pompey has had a whole year in which to gather forces in Greece and Asia, which Caesar proceeds to itemise. Thus Pompey holds all the ports along the Adriatic coast and Caesar lists the squadrons and their officers, with Marcus Bibulus in overall command. (This Bibulus had been aedile then consul in the same years as Caesar and had a number of bitter grievances against him.)

7 to 19: Negotiations in Epirus

Caesar manages to ferry some legions over to Palaeste but many of the ships returning to transport more are intercepted by Bibulus and burned, with their crews and captains aboard. The Pompeian Marcus Octavius besieges Salonae and the townspeople resort to desperate measures to break the siege.

Caesar sends a peace envoy to Pompey. Obviously it is carefully crafted for inclusion in this narrative and cannily states that the best time to negotiate is while both sides are equally balanced. Caesar offers to disband his armies in 3 days if Pompey will do the same and both submit to the adjudication of the Senate and people of Rome.

In the meantime Caesar marches to Oricum where the townspeople disobey the Pompeian commander Lucius Torquatus and open the gates to him. He marches on to Apollonia where the people, again, refuse to disobey a) a consul who b) has been accepted by the entire Italian people, so that he commander, Lucius Staberius, is forced to flee. Same happens at Byllis, Amantia and all the towns of Epirus who send envoys promising to obey Caesar.

Pompey is marching his army at top speed to Dyrrachium but is panicking, with troops deserting. Near the town Pompey orders a camp built and makes his senior officers, centurions and men renew their oath of allegiance. Beaten to Dyrrachium, Caesar builds a huge camp nearby and decides to spend the winter under tents.

Caesar’s next cohort of troops to be transported from Brundisium is setting out when the commander receives message that the entire coast is patrolled by Pompey’s navy and turns back. One ship continues, is intercepted, and everyone on board is put to death. That said, Pompey’s navy can’t put into any of the ports which are now controlled by Caesar and so run short of food and drinking water.

A Pompeyan officer named Libo asks to see Caesar and offers a truce. But when he refuses to send envoys on to Pompey Caesar realises he’s playing for time. Bibulus, commander of the Pompeian fleet, contracts illness aboard ship and dies. Caesar hears after the war that when his closest advisers began to discuss peace with Pompey the latter shut them up by asking rhetorically what he could want from a life or reputation granted by Caesar i.e. to live at Caesar’s will? I.e. Pompey would never have listened to Caesar’s peace proposals.

The two armies are camped not far from each other either side of the river Apsus, and the common soldiers arranged a ceasefire. This was escalated into a formal meeting between officers, with the soldiery on both sides wanting peace. But Caesar emphasises it was the Pompeian officers who refused compromise. Caesar’s legate or second-in-command for his entire command in Gaul, Titus Atius Labienus, has gone over Pompey’s side and makes a haughty speech demanding Caesar’s head. After that, no negotiations are possible.

20 to 22: Trouble in Italy

A digression describing the short career of Marcus Caelius Rufus who makes several ill-conceived political initiatives in Rome, before being banned from political life and expelled from the city. Nonetheless he invited back the rabble rouser Titus Annius Milo from exile in Massilia and together they try to foment a kind of slave rebellion in central Italy. But when Milo offered money to a garrison Caesar had put in place in the town of Cosa, they killed him on the spot. End of revolt and digression.

23 to 30: Antony runs the gauntlet

The Pompeian Libo takes a fleet of 50 ships and blockades Brundisium, capturing some military and grain transport ships. Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) sets a trap and captures one of Libo’s ships. Also, after a while, they run short of water, since the entire coast is manned by Caesarians, so Libo abandons the blockade. It is now January 48 BC, one year after Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

Caesar implores reinforcements and eventually Mark Antony and Fufius Calenus sail a fleet of troops across the Adriatic, pass Dyrrachium, where they start to be pursued by Pompeian forces, but by good fortune, make port at Nymphaeum. The Pompeian ships out at sea were hit by a gale and many driven ashore and wrecked. Caesar makes one of many comments about the sheer luck involved in warfare.

Both Pompey and Caesar learn where Antony has landed (with 3 legions of veterans, one of recruits and 800 cavalry) at the same time, strike their camps and go to join/attack him. Pompey gets there first but, as Caesar approaches from behind, realises he risks being caught between two armies and so retreats to Asperagium.

31 to 38: The lieutenants in Macedon

Description of the wretched behaviour of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio as governor of Syria, extorting and mulcting the province, before being summoned by Pompey to Macedonia.

Meanwhile, having linked up with Antony, Caesar sends envoys to nearby parts of Greece to test their loyalty. A rather complicated description of the reception of three separate envoys Caesar sends to different parts of Greece, leading up to a confrontation between Scipio – who force marches his army into central Greece – and the Caesarian Gnaeus Domitius Domitian, with 2 legions and 500 cavalry.

39 to 58: Stalemate at Dyrrachium

Caesar leaves the port of Oricum in the charge of Manius Acilius and marches inland. Pompey’s son Gnaeus storms Oricum with a sophisticated attack, then goes on to Lissus where he burns the thirty transport ships left by Antony. A very effective young admiral, aged only 26 or so.

Caesar marches to Asparagium to confront Pompey, sets camp and next morning brings out his army in battle array to settle the issue. But Pompey doesn’t rise to the bait. Caesar adopts a different strategy and force marches his legions back to Dyrrachium. Pompey builds a camp on a defensible height.

It now becomes clear the war is going to last a long time. Pompey refuses a direct fight and his strong fleet controls the entire coast, preventing Caesar getting supplies or reinforcements from Italy. Caesar decides to surround Pompey’s camp and blockade it. Pompey counters by building a long wall, dotted with forts designed to encompass as much territory as possible. This leads to constant sniping and skirmishing between the sides along these extended lines, which Pompey always wins.

It’s an unusual position. Normally an army besieges another when the other is a) defeated or tired and b) numerically smaller. Here Caesar has fewer forces than Pompey’s which a) had not fought at all b) were numerically superior and c) were better provisioned. Caesar, however, dries up Pompey’s water supplies, leading to great hardship.

Around section 50 there is a gap in the manuscript and when it resumes we are in the middle of a set of firefights in which Pompey appears to have tried to break out of his fortifications, being only with difficulty forced back. One particular Caesarian fort stood alone against a Pompeian legion for four hours and, when it was finally relieved, Caesar generously rewarded and promoted its leading fighters.

Every day Caesar lines up his army offering to fight but Pompey refuses. Caesar sends envoys out to towns further and further afield in Greece to win their loyalty. Caesar sends Aulus Clodius, a mutual friend, to parlay with Scipio, who is now in central Thessaly and in a powerful position, both as Pompey’s father-in-law and as commander of an army in his own right. But after initial talks, on the following days Aulus is excluded from conferences and nothing comes of it.

Caesar’s tactic of surrounding and starving out Pompey begins to work. Horses are going short of provisions, men are going hungry.

59 to 74: Setbacks for Caesar

Pompey takes advantage of the insider knowledge of two Gaulish chieftains who Caesar had promoted, brought with him and trusted, but who had become corrupt, extorting and embezzling money. When Caesar berated them for this they fled Caesar’s camp with money and Gaulish men and went over to Pompey. They now provided Pompey all the information he needed to break through a weak point in Caesar’s fortifications down by the sea, massacring Caesarean cohorts, until Antony arrived and stabilised the situation.

In a second battle, there is a confusing description of an attack on a lesser camp Pompey had partly abandoned which leads at first to success by Caesar, then, when Pompey arrives with reinforcements,  to the panic-stricken rout of Caesarean forces trapped between various defensive walls. When the rout is complete, Pompey parades his prisoners and Labienus has them all executed in sight of their comrades. One’s tentative sympathy for Labienus for standing up to Caesar’s illegal behaviour shrivels and disappears.

In a rare moment of reflection, Caesar comments that Pompey’s forces made a very big mistake in attributing this victory to themselves when the cause of the catastrophe had mostly been the panic of Caesar’s own side, who crushed and trapped each other in their panic to escape the constricting fortifications.

The Pompeians boasted they had won a great victory when it had not been a battle at all, had not been fought in an open space, when most of Caesar’s forces had been prevented from coming to the rescue by the tight space. Above all they showed a failure to grasp the fundamental contingency of battle where big events can hinge on tiny accidents.

They did not recollect the common chances of warfare, how often trifling causes, originating in a false suspicion, a sudden alarm, or a religious scruple, have entailed great disasters, whenever a mistake has been made in an army through the incapacity of a general or the fault of a tribune; but just as if their victory were due to their valour and no change of fortune could occur, by reports and dispatches they proceeded to celebrate throughout the world the victory of that day (Book III.72)

In other words, pride before a fall. Hubris.

75 to 81: Caesar moves to Thessaly

After this setback, Caesar assembles his army and makes a big speech to restore morale (we have read scenes like this in the Gallic Wars). Then Caesar that night abandons the whole siege strategy and sets them off in stages marching south inland towards Apollonia. For the next few days Caesar adopts the same tactic, sending the baggage off ahead at midnight, then setting the unencumbered troops off a few hours later.

Caesar summarises the strategies going through both his and Pompey’s minds. He is interested in drawing Pompey away from the coast and his supply lines, but risks getting caught between him and Scipio’s army, so is keen to reach Apollonia as soon as possible to link up with the legions he had assigned to Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus.

Unhappily for Caesar, Domitius had meanwhile struck the camp he’d built near to Scipio’s and gone foraging for food i.e. making it harder for Caesar to hook up with him and combine against Scipio. But, as it happened, he encountered the treacherous Gauls mentioned above. They parleyed in peace and the Gauls boasted about their Famous Victory and that Caesar had turned tail and run. Thus alerted to what Caesar was doing, Domitius sent out scouts, contacted and then linked up with Caesar’s army.

Caesar marches on to Gomphi, the first town in Thessaly whose ruler, Androsthenes, hearing exaggerated rumours of Caesar’s defeat, had defected to Pompey, withdrawing his population into the town and sending messages to Pompey asking for quick help.

Bad idea. Caesar invests the town as soon as he arrives and by the end of the afternoon has stormed its walls and given the town over to his troops to plunder and make an example of. He then hurried on to Metropolis, which had also defected and the townspeople barricaded themselves inside. Caesar presented some survivors from Gomphi who, when they told their story, the Metropolitans opened their gates and threw themselves on Caesar’s mercy, He was very careful to preserve them from harm and so the message was spread around the region that Caesar was merciful and it was alright to submit to him.

Caesar marches on into open countryside where crops are ripening. Since food is a constant worry for an army on the move, he decides to make this the base of operations.

82 to 84: Pompey follows

Pompey arrives nearby, makes camp, addresses his troops, makes Scipio joint leader. Caesar mockingly describes how everyone in Pompey’s camp was now over-confident of victory and how all Pompey’s political hangers-on were already squabbling about who will get which magistracy or priesthood once they returned victorious to Rome, the kind of petty politicking which Cicero describes the letters he wrote from Pompey’s camp (Atticus. XI.6).

It is impossible not to enjoy Caesar’s gloating. He may be a genocidal military dictator but he was shrewd, effective and extremely experienced. Throughout his account he emphasises the role even tiny tremors of fortune can make to outcomes. And so we realise the profound foolhardiness of Pompey’s hangers-on and their bickering and arguing about who shall have which office and who shall confiscate which dead Caesarean’s property back in Rome. They think war is as guaranteed as a bought election, as bribery and suborning in politics, not realising how contingent it can be.

But he who remains most focused and mindful is able to take advantage of those little reversals of fortune. So while Pompey’s entourage politicked, Caesar brought out his forces every day and practised and trained on the plain between the two camps.

85 to 101: The battle of Pharsalus

Caesar does this for several days in a row but Pompey refuses to bring his army out to face him. Eventually Caesar abandons hope of tempting Pompey to an open battle, and was striking camp and had begun actually marching off in search of fresh cropland, when he noticed that Pompey’s army had that morning come out a little further from their ramparts than was customary. He has finally agreed to fight.

Caesar gives a (presumably fictional) account of Pompey’s speech to his advisers, saying they will wrap the battle up by using overwhelming cavalry on Caesar’s exposed right flank. Then Labienus is made to give an over-confident speech, introducing an oath that he will not re-enter the camp unless as victor and making all the other leaders swear it. Reminds me of the ofermōde of Earl Byrhtnoth at the Battle of Maldon a thousand years later. In other words, this is a very literary motif.

Caesar describes his deployment of his forces, then his final speech to his men, reminding them of his repeated attempts to negotiate peace. (Hmm, is this what you would say to an army to fire them up before a battle? Or is it placed here for purely political effect?)

Expecting Pompey to rely on his cavalry and knowing his own is weak, Caesar made the vital decision to post an unusual fourth line of infantry borrowed from each legion behind his own cavalry. And so when Pompey’s cavalry attacked, it at first stunned and moved backwards Caesar’s men. But at the height of the engagement Caesar ordered this fourth line to come out from behind his cavalry and attack Pompey’s cavalry from the side. This confused and panicked Pompey’s cavalry and they took heavy casualties then fled the battlefield to the nearest hill.

This was the decisive moment of the battle. Seeing his cavalry repulsed, Pompey left the battlefield and went to his tent in his camp. This fourth line then massacred Pompey’s slingers and archers who had been left exposed by the flight of the cavalry, then attacked the main block of his infantry from the side and behind. That was enough to break Pompey’s lines and create a rout.

The Caesarians pursued them right up to the walls of their camp, scaled them, opened the gates and rampaged. They discovered the tables of the generals laid with fine wine and food expecting a victory feast.

Meanwhile Pompey removed his general’s insignia, mounted a horse and fled out the back gate. He rode to Larissa, picking up a few senior officers on the way and reached the coast with an entourage of 30, where he went aboard a civilian grain ship, plunged in despair.

A significant number of Pompey’s army escaped to nearby hills. Caesar told his men not to plunder the camp but come with him. He built a wall fencing the Pompeian survivors from the river i.e. water, then waited. In the morning they all came down and surrendered, pleading for their lives. Caesar granted them all clemency, and ordered his men to treat them well, sending the legions with him back to the camp to rest.

Caesar claims that of Pompey’s army about 15,000 fell but 24,000 surrendered. He captured 180 military standards and nine eagles. He describes it as the Battle of Thessaly (the name of the region) though later history came to call it the Battle of Pharsalus (the nearest town).

Caesar cuts away to news of the victory arriving at a) Brundisium, where another Pompeian fleet was blockading the Caesarians and b) at Sicily, where Caesar’s fleet was suffering from an attack of fireships led by Gaius Cassius.

102 to 105: The death of Pompey

Pompey flees by ship through the Greek islands, to Mytilene, to Cilicia, and on to Cyprus. Everywhere he and the lieutenants who followed him went they found the towns and citadels closed against him.

Pompey raises money from tax collectors in Cilicia and sails to Pelusium in the Nile Delta. (Caesar includes none of the details which Plutarch included in his Life of Pompey a hundred years later, not mentioning Pompey’s intention of collecting his wife Cornelia and youngest son Sextus from Mytilene, or the council of advisers he convened to discuss where to go next and which reluctantly settled on Egypt.)

Caesar gives a very schematic account of the conversation among the advisers to young King Ptolemy XIII when they hear of Pompey’s arrival on the coast of Egypt. Caesar bluntly describes Pompey going in a small boat to the Egyptian shore where he was murdered by Achillas and Lucius Septimius. It’s interesting to compare and contrast Caesar’s blunt unornamented account with the more artful and unbearably moving account of Plutarch.

Caesar arrives in ‘Asia’ i.e. the west coast of Turkey, and devotes a half a page to describing the various omens and prophecies of his victory which he discovers had been observed out in the superstitious East.

106 to 112: Caesar at Alexandria

Caesar takes half his troops by ship to Alexandria. He lands and takes it upon himself to adjudicate in the civil war between young Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra. This had a legitimate basis. Old king Ptolemy Auletes had been deposed by his people and only restored by the money and army raised and sent by Pompey/Rome. Before his death Auletes had written a will dividing the kingdom between his eldest son and daughter and asking the people of Rome to see that it was carried out. Caesar had a copy of this will which had been found at Pompey’s camp.

But while he was debating all this with young Ptolemy Caesar learned that an Egyptians army was approaching Alexandria, led by the same Achillas who murdered Pompey. Caesar is mocking of its make-up of ex-slaves, criminals and Romans gone to seed.

But it leads to serious fighting, as the Egyptian army seizes most of the city, trapping Caesar and his much smaller forces in a particular quarter. The main threat comes in the harbour where the Egyptians attempted to seize the 50 warships which they had sent to help Pompey and which had now returned to base. With these the Egyptians could cut off Caesar’s escape or prevent him being supplied. Caesar manages to lead an attack on these ships and burns them all.

Then he secures the Pharos, the island which controls Alexandria’s harbour and fortifies the part of the city he holds. Ptolemy’s younger daughter, Arsinoe, goes over to the attackers but soon sows dissent and splits its leadership. Meanwhile, the king’s tutor and regent Pothinus continued sending messages of encouragement to Achillas until he discovered by Caesar and executed.

And so ends in mid-struggle Caesar’s account of the Civil War, explaining why the narrative continues without a break into the separate text known as The Alexandrian War.

Thoughts

Obviously the book has an epic feel, overflowing with compelling details about one of the most turbulent and tragic events in classical history. It’s breath-taking in itself to be reading the eye witness accounts of the central protagonist in one of the great events in Western history, as if we could read Napoleon or Hitler’s diaries.

But the real eye-opener is Caesar’s stamina. He came straight from carrying out eight years of relentless warfare in Gaul into a further five years of intense civil war in theatres all around the Mediterranean. Caesar’s ability to manage all this, to get up every morning with full commitment, a ferocious grasp of detail, making the right calls about tactics and strategy, about political manoeuvring, assessing a never-ending stream of opponents and allies, is quite breath-taking. Superhuman stamina and ability. No wonder many contemporaries came to think of him as a god.

The war instinct

There is a certain keenness of spirit and impetuosity implanted by nature in all men which is kindled by the ardour of battle. This feeling it is the duty of commanders not to repress but to foster, nor was it without good reason that the custom was instituted of old that signals should sound in every direction and the whole body of men raise a shout, by which means they thought that the enemy were terrified and their own men stimulated. (III.92)

Video

There are many videos of the Battle of Pharsalus. I found this one clear and thorough.


Related links

Roman reviews

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003) – 1

High speed and racy

As the corny ‘triumph and tragedy’ subtitle suggests, Holland isn’t aiming at originality or depth. He is aiming at writing a gripping, gung-ho, boys’ own adventure narrative history of the Roman Republic, and he does it very well indeed. Rubicon won a history prize, was shortlisted for several others, and opens with no fewer than five pages of laudatory reviews from a host of famous historians and authors (Ian McEwan, A.N. Wilson, Beryl Bainbridge Joanna Trollope), many of whom chose it as their book of the year. It was even described as ‘gripping’ by Boris Johnson, than which there can be no higher praise.

Despite all this puffery, for the first 40 or so pages I was quietly horrified at the casual speed with which Holland skips through Rome’s prehistory and early history:

In a memorable manoeuvre on page 6, we are in the 360s BC in one sentence and then, two sentences later, in the 260s BC. A century flashes past in the blink of an eye.

Rome’s epic conflict with Carthage, the three Punic wars which lasted off and on from 264 and 146 BC, are dispensed with in just two pages (7 and 8) with the third and final Punic war and the destruction of Carthage knocked off on just one page (page 34). By page 10 it is already the 140s BC and Rome has conquered Macedon (the most important kingdom in Greece), Sicily and a good deal of Spain i.e Holland has skipped over400 years of history in a few pages.

The Achaean War, which marked the final ascendency of Rome over Greece and climaxed in the brutal destruction of Greece’s most prosperous city, Corinth, in 146 BC (the same year Carthage was razed to the ground) is dealt with thus:

Meanwhile, just in case anyone was missing the lesson, a Roman army spent the same spring of 146 rubbing it into the noses of the Greeks. That winter a ragbag of cities in southern Greece had presumed to disturb the balance of power that Rome had established in the area. In a war that was over almost before it had begun, a Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp, and the ancient city of Corinth reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. (p.35)

As you can see, instead of detail or analysis the reader gets a cheerfully brisk, slangy summary, which sounds like a stagey narrator of a novel, mixing a kind of tabloid journalism with dated schoolboy slang (‘rubbing their noses in it’). ‘A Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp.’ How would you characterise that sentence? Prep school patois? Anyway, the book is like this from start to finish, written in a deliberately irreverent, casual, prep school slang and hyper-vivid vernacular. No wonder Boris liked it so much.

I thought Mary Beard’s history of Rome often skipped through military and political events without fully explaining them, but Beard feels like the Encyclopedia Britannica compared with Holland’s speed of light race through Rome’s early history.

The last century of the Republic

Things begin to make sense around page 40 when you begin to realise that Holland is very much not writing a complete history of the entire Roman Republic (509 to 31 BC). Indeed, Holland has skipped through the 650 or so years between Rome’s (legendary) founding in 753 down to the 90s BC in little more than 40 pages. (An approach confirmed by the timeline at the end of the book: this is seven pages long and whereas the first page covers the 620 years from 753 to 133 BC, the remaining six pages settle down and cover 123 BC to 14 AD in granular detail. There’s the strategy of the book, right there.)

No, it’s not at all a history of the Roman Republic – it’s a racy account of the Republic’s final century from, say, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 down to Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony in 31 BC.

Why? Because:

  1. the last 100 years of the Roman republic is the period we have by far the best documentation for
  2. during which we know most about the characters of political leaders, because they and their supporters or enemies left copious writings, histories, speeches and letters
  3. and it’s also by far the most dramatic period, when then republican system began to break down, leading to a series of dictators and civil wars

The last twenty years of the Republic are the best documented in Roman history… (p.xxv)

Holland’s account deliberately skips the legendary founding (753), the era of kings (753 to 509), the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud (509) and the long evolution of Rome’s complex political and military administration (500s to 140s), in order to get to the juicy stories, melodramatic events and larger-than-life characters of its ill-fated last century.

Thriller style

Holland or his publishers realised there was a gap in the market for a history of Rome written as page-turning thriller. It really is written in a kind of prep school variety of lurid airport novel prose. As well as processing the content, it was entertaining to try and categorise some of the effects involved:

Ending paragraphs with a sentence. Then completing it in the next paragraph, for dramatic effect

  • No wonder that Sulla loathed him. / Loathed him and dreamed of winning the same greatness that Marius had won. (p.65)
  • Free Gaul prepared itself for war. / As did Caesar. (p.245)
  • Whatever happened the Republic would endure. / Or so everyone assumed. (p.257)
  • It was Caesar who had taught the Gauls what it meant to be a nation. Now that achievement threatened to destroy him. / Or so it seemed. (p.278)

Melodrama

  • Devastation shadowed the Mediterranean. (p.34)
  • The legions moved in for the kill. (p.34)
  • It was a moment pregnant with menace. (p.73)
  • The resulting goldrush was soon a stampede. (p.42)
  • Long-held grudges, never entirely extinguished, flared back into flames. Warfare returned to the Samnite hills. (p.50)
  • Various tribunes began to strip Lucullus of his provinces one by one, snapping at him like wolves on the trail of a wounded beast. (p.165)
  • The news spread like wildfire. (p.256)
  • Senators on the make, their nostrils filled with the scent of power, scrabbled for advancement. (p.260)
  • But still the whisperings would not be silenced. They could be heard throughout the feverish, troubled capital. (p.289)
  • As the Republic tottered, so the tremors could be felt throughout the world. (p.313)

Bombastic descriptions

  • Throughout the monarchies of the East, assorted royal poodles would jump whenever the Romans snapped their fingers… (p.37)
  • The arteries of empire were hardening with gold, and the more they hardened, so the more Rome squeezed out. (p.42)
  • The cities groaned under punitive exactions; the social fabric was nearing collapse; along the frontier, petty princelings snarled and snapped. Over the wounds of the ruined province [Asia in the 80s BC] Roman flies buzzed eagerly. (p.155)
  • The longing of the Romans for glory, which burned brightly within them and lit their city and indeed their entire empire with its flame, also cast flickering and treacherous shadows. (p.206)
  • The scent of [Pompey’s] failure hung like carrion-perfume over Rome. In the Senate scavengers whined and snarled with excitement. (p.256)

Pop psychology

  • Sulpicius was not a man lacking in principle. Causes mattered to him, even to the point of destruction. (p.67)
  • Pompey always had a nose for where the richest opportunities might lie. (p.91)
  • As ever with [Sulla], opportunism was the obverse of an icy conviction. (p.101)
  • Little could happen in Rome of which Crassus was not immediately aware, sensitive as he was to every tremor, every fluttering of every fly caught in his web. (p.140)
  • Pompey could fuss with territories as though they were counters on a gaming board, rearranging them as he pleased, handing out crowns, abolishing thrones, the still-boyish master of the fates of millions. (p.179)
  • As the two rival armies sparred nervously with each other, jabbing here, feinting there, [Anthony] was always in the thick of the action, dashing, tireless, the most glamorous and discussed man on either side. (p.319)
  • The female of the Ptolemaic species had always been deadlier than the male. (p.328)

And the sometimes obsessive iteration of stock phrases

  • The Venetian fleets, taken by surprise, were wiped out. (p.273)
  • The invaders were summarily wiped out. (p.273)
  • The garrison of one legionary camp was ambushed and wiped out. (p.277)
  • The senators in Pompey’s train, impatient for action, wanted Caesar and his army wiped out. (p.320)

Above all Holland’s really obsessive reiteration of his central idea, repeated literally hundreds of times, that all Roman aristocrats were bred and trained and lived for ‘glory’ – a word which appears on every other page.

It is Roman history rewritten by Lee Child. Or maybe by the scriptwriters of Dallas, with an occasional dash of Barbara Cartland or Jilly Cooper or writers who glory in posh, stereotyped and simplified characterisation.

A tiny epitome of this is Holland’s frequent use of the word ‘whore’. In the olden days we described these as ‘prostitutes’ and I remember the good work of the English Collective of Prostitutes back in the 70s and 80s in trying to change the law to protect its members. In our value-neutral, woke times we nowadays refer to them as ‘sex workers’. Holland’s insistence on using the word ‘whore’ is a small symptom of his determination not to write some fuddy-duddy, academic tome but a rollicking Texas barnstormer of an airport novel, where men are men and women are either high society hostesses or whores, goddamit!

  • The necropolises that stretched towards the coast and the south, along the Appian Way, were notorious for muggers and cut-price whores. (p.14)
  • [Naples] ancient streets had recently begun to fill with tourists, all of them keen to taste the Greek lifestyle – whether by debating philosophy, complaining to doctors, or falling in love with a witty, well-read whore. (p.48)
  • Throughout his life Sulla deployed his charm as a weapon, on politicians and soldiers as much as on whores. (p.70)
  • Sulla, who had spent his own twenties running after whores… (p.103)
  • It would have been as insulting for Cato to be labelled a demagogue as for a matron to be confused with a whore. (p.233)

Key players

But precisely because he does focus entirely on the action-packed 1st century BC, and dwells on the lurid and blood thirsty and over-the top personalities of the key players, you do certainly emerge (slightly punch drunk) with a much more vivid sense of the characters of the successive strong men who plunged the Republic into civil wars and internecine bloodshed.

In Holland’s account the swing year is 89 BC, a year of two wars. In Italy the widespread revolt of the Italian allies and confederates against Rome, demanding equal rights and freedoms under the law, had amounted to a cruel civil war, with ethnically identical Italian people massacring each other the length and breadth of the peninsula.

But the so-called Social War coincided with the revolt of King Mithradates of Pontus in Anatolia, which hugely raised the stakes. For a ruling class constantly athirst for glory, the prospect of victory in the Social War overlapped with the potentially huge riches to be won by whoever was chosen to go and reconquer the East.

Gaius Marius makes his first appearance on page 56 as the 60-year-old leader of the Roman army sent against the Italian rebels during the Social War, 91 to 87 BC. Marius was fabulously rich and successful, having held the consulship a record six times (p.65).

Gaius Pompeius ‘Strabo’ (p.58) ‘treacherous and brutal’ (p.117) very unpopular in Rome but led successful campaign against the Italians and so was a necessary ally for Sulla.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (p.62) took over command in the Social War from Marius, leading a huge army of 13 legions which besieged and massacred the Italian rebels.

It’s with this cast that series one of Rubicon – having scooted through the previous 500 years of Roman history in the blink of an eye – really gets under way. For as Sulla brought the Social War to an end he fell into rivalry with his old commanding officer, Marius, about who would lead the army to Asia to defeat Mithradates. Sulla was elected war leader, but Marius politicked against him.

Sulla’s first march on Rome Briefly, Sulla was still campaigning against the Italians when he received the news that command of the army about to be sent to the East to fight Mithradates, and which he had lobbied hard to be given, had been rescinded and given to his arch rival, Marius. Not only that, but the staff officer who brought the message was to replace him in his command against the Italians. When Sulla announced this to his assembled troops and introduced the staff officer his men promptly stoned the messenger to death and clamoured for Sulla to lead them on a march on Rome. No Roman had done this before. Armies were meant to be in the trust of a consul, until he was replaced and handed over command.

The model of insurrection Sulla marked the advent of a completely new type of conflict, war, leadership and politics. The later civil war between Caesar and Pompey and then between Caesar’s assassins and the second triumvirate, followed the model of military insurrection, seizure of the capital and paying off of personal scores established by Sulla. There are two eras in the history of the Republic – Before Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 BC, and Afterwards (p.71).

Sulla’s coup Sulla busted laws and conventions by a) leading his legions on Rome b) crossing the holy boundary, the pomerium, within which no Roman was meant to bear arms (p.72) c) actually sacking the city, commanding his troops to retaliate with fire arrows against civilians chucking roof tiles down on them. And once he had established martial law and set his soldiers at all key points d) he set about executing his opponents. Lists were published and opponents hacked down in public buildings or the streets.

Sulla’s arch enemy Marius fled south and then across the sea to Africa, where he planned a comeback and revenge.

Lucius Cornelius Cinna was one of the two consuls elected in 88 BC after Sulla had taken Rome. Cinna publicly criticised Sulla but then was forced to make a pledge, along with his fellow consul Octavius, not to remove any of Sulla’s legislation (p.70).

Having massacred his opponents or driven them into exile, Sulla finally sailed with his army for the East to deal with Mithradates’ rebellion. Cinna, one of the two consuls he left behind, promptly reneged on his promise not to tamper with Sulla’s laws but was forced out of Rome by his fellow consul Octavius who stayed loyal to his absent master. Once Sulla was out of Italy, Marius returned, joined forces with Cinna, and they marched on Rome and seized power. Cinna’s fellow consul, Octavius, was hacked down in his consul’s chair and his head brought to Cinna who displayed it from the public Rostrum. These were not the ways of the old Republic.

Having returned to Rome, Marius arranged to hold an unprecedented seventh consulship but was an old man, exhausted after a life of fighting, took to debauchery and was dead in a few weeks. And so Cinna now emerged as the regime’s new ‘strongman’ (p.117). He arranged, contrary to all the rules, to hold the consulship for three years in a row, precisely the kind of sustained grip on power which the constitution was supposed to prevent.

In other words, all restraint had been lost and Roman politics had descended to warlordism and gang warfare. Political life had been ‘brutalised’ says Holland, in a phrase which reminds me of the immediate post-war years in the Weimar Republic. Once that element of street violence has entered the political domain it is very hard to remove it because you’ve shown people who are prepared to use it, that it works.

When, after three years of campaigning against Mithradates and rebellious Greek cities, Sulla wound up his affairs in Greece and gave notice of returning with his legions to Italy, Cinna tried to rouse Rome’s home legions to resist him, but the troops mutinied and, in confused circumstances, Cinna was killed. So both Marius and Cinna were dead.

On Sulla’s second march on Rome he was joined by the glamorous and fabulously successful young general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, who was to become known as Pompey the Great (p.90).

Also to his side came the scion of one of Rome’s most noble families, Marcus Licinius Crassus (p.89). Crassus’s father had opposed Marius and been murdered, as had his brother, and his entire family estates confiscated.

Marius had died but had been replaced by his confident and able son, who had rallied the anti-Sulla forces. In other words Rome’s ruling class was by the late 80s BC completely polarised between the group Holland calls ‘the Marians’ and Sulla and his supporters. The conflict between the two parties got mixed up with a final rebellion by the Samnites in the mountains east of Rome who took advantage of the confusion to launch an attack on Rome itself. Sulla hastened his march and, with crucial help from Crassus’s wing of the army, defeated the Samnites at the Battle of the Colline Gate, before marching into Rome for a second time, posing as its saviour and its undoubted ruler (p.92).

About 6,000 Samnite fighters had been taken prisoner or turned themselves in. Sulla ordered them penned up in the Field of Mars an then systematically slaughtered. Then he set about executing all his political opponents, first and foremost every member of the Marian party (p.99). An entire section of Rome’s political class was annihilated. Bounty hunters were paid to track down abscondees, who brought back their severed heads for Sulla to inspect before releasing the fee.

Huge estates were confiscated or passed into the hands of leading figures in Sulla’s party, most notoriously his vital left-hand man at the Colline Gate, Crassus. Sulla himself became the richest man in Roman history (p.101).

Sulla’s conservative revolution

Throughout his course of actions Sulla was convinced he was reforming the Republic and returning it to its purity. Holland describes how he set about trying to purify and rationalise the constitution. He did this by redefining the cursus honorum. He change the numbers of the main posts of office which aspiring politicians had to progress through (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul, censor), set age limits under which they could not be held, defined the number of years gap between holding them. Since one of the political attacks on him had come from a tribune he passed a law declaring that anyone could still be elected tribune, but that anyone who had held the tribunate was ineligible for any further office In this and numerous other adjustments to the rules, he tried to ensure that the kind of bitter conflict which had led to his own rise, could never take place again.

In 81, with no warning, Sulla resigned his posts and abdicated his authority. He served as a conventional consul for one more year and then abandoned public life altogether. So feared was he, and so thoroughly had he extirpated his enemies, that he felt safe to abandon power, a move which puzzled later generations and historians to this day. He returned to the hard living of his youth, holding huge parties, frequenting the demi-monde, before dying, possibly of liver failure, in 78 BC (p.111). At which point the baton was passed on to a new, younger generation, two leading luminaries of which were Pompey and an ambitious young man named Julius Caesar.

Competition and glory

‘The clash of wits, the fight for pre-eminence, the toiling day and night without break to reach the summit of wealth and power…’ (Lucretius)

One massive point which comes over again and again is that Roman society was based on unbridled and unrelenting competition, especially for the ‘glory’ associated with victory in war.

  • It seemed self evident to them that the entire course of their history had been an evolution away from slavery, towards a freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition. (p.24)
  • Competitive elections were crucial to the self image as well as the functioning of the Republic. (p.25)
  • A system that encouraged a gnawing hunger for prestige in its citizens, that seethed with their vaunting rivalries, that generated a dynamism so aggressive that it overwhelmed all who came near it. (p.30)
  • …a state where ruthless competition was regarded as the basis of all civic virtue. (p.34)
  • the Roman desire to be the best (p.34)
  • Traditional Roman morality…fostered competition as the essence of life. (p.62)
  • In Rome a man was reckoned nothing to be nothing without the fame that accrued from glorious deeds. (p.64)
  • …a society where prestige was the principle measure of a man’s worth. (p.76)
  • Competition for honours had always been the lifeblood of the Republic (p.
  • …the Roman appetite for competition and glory. (p.109)
  • Hardness was a Roman ideal. The steel required to hunt out glory or endure disaster was the defining characteristic of a citizen. (p.111)
  • Child rearing, like virtually every other aspect of life in the Republic, reflected the inveterate Roman love of competition. (p.115)
  • Because he had simultaneously neutralised the tribunate and doubled the size of the Senate, [Sulla’s] legacy was one of increased competition. (p.123)
  • As they had always done, established families dominated the competition. (p.123)

Competition for military glory and the prestige of holding high office was drummed into every upper class boy from the youngest age. This culture of unrelenting competition served Rome well for centuries, transmitted to its army which never gave up, accepting defeat after defeat but always coming back with more men and arms and, ultimately, conquering all enemies.

However, Holland repeatedly makes the obvious point which arises from the Sulla era which is that, in the bitter rivalry which developed between Marius and his successful general Sulla, somehow this all-consuming competitiveness which had once been such a positive motivating force, turned rotten, spilled over from politicking into military coup, seizure of the capital itself, bloodbaths of enemies, and so on.

And once all these taboos had been broken, once all restraint had been lost, the same pattern was to recur again and again during the Republic’s last half century.

The Roman constitution

Holland regularly stops his headlong narrative to give explanations of various aspects of Roman political and social culture and the Roman constitution. Obviously, Mary Beard refers to this from time to time in her chronicle of Rome but, as is her way, often only explaining an isolated aspect of it in order to illustrate a broader point, more often than not leaving the reader frustrated. Holland is much more straightforward. He stops the narrative and explains stuff. I found this surprisingly useful.

And the way he does this – intermittently – is probably wise because the whole point of the Roman constitution (we learn) was that it was a chaotic, rickety inheritance of roles and positions and posts and elections, which had accumulated over the centuries, which the Romans themselves didn’t fully understand and outsiders found baffling i.e. you couldn’t really sit down and write one definitive description, it’s best approached from different angles and perspectives. And it changed over time. And during the period Holland describes, new laws were continually adjusting and tinkering with it.

  • The Republic was as full of discrepancies and contradictions as the fabric of the city, a muddle of accretions patched together over many centuries…the Republic was structured by rules as complex and fluid as they were inviolable. To master them was a lifetime’s work…The constitution was a hall of mirrors… (pages 24 to 25)
  • It was the nature of the Republic to thrive on complexity (p.94)
  • Then constitution, subtle and finely modulated as it was, had evolved to restrain any violent change. (p.99)
  • The Republic had many different traditions, confused and confusing and defying codification. (p.137)

Central to the system was the hierarchy of posts the politically ambitious could seek, the cursus honorum (course of offices), mentioned above, the one which Sulla comprehensively reformed.

The cursus honorum

Military service Anyone seeking political office was expected to have seen military service. The aspiring politician would serve in the Roman cavalry (the equites) or in the staff of a general who was a relative or a friend of the family. Military promotions or honours would improve his political prospects. A successful military career might culminate in the office of military tribune to which 24 men were elected by the Tribal Assembly each year.

Consuls Having ejected kings, the Romans took steps to ensure power was never again vested in one individual who ruled for a lifetime by vesting the most senior power in the state as residing in two consuls who were elected to serve for just one year (p.2). The minimum age was 42. Years in Rome’s history were identified not by a number but by the names of the two consuls elected for a particular year. Consuls were responsible for the city’s political agenda, commanded large-scale armies and controlled important provinces. They were accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard of twelve lictors who bore on their shoulders the bundle of strapped rods called fasces, symbol of their power (p.64). Candidates for the consulship had to put their names forward by the start of July (p.224). Every consul, once he had finished his year in post, was given a governorship aboard (p.225).

Aedile Aediles were responsible for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals.

Quaestor A quaestor served for a year as assistant to a more senior magistrate (p.101). Twenty quaestors served in the financial administration at Rome or as second-in-command to a governor in the provinces. They could also serve as the paymaster for a legion. Some of the quaestors were tasked with supervision of public games (p.198).

Praetor Junior in rank only to the consuls, a praetor was charged with administering the city’s laws, convening and presiding over sessions of the Senate (p.104). During the republic, six or eight praetors were elected each year to serve judicial functions throughout Rome and other governmental responsibilities. In the absence of the consuls, a praetor would be given command of the garrison in Rome or in Italy. Also, a praetor could exercise the functions of the consuls throughout Rome, but their main function was that of a judge. They would preside over trials involving criminal acts, grant court orders and validate ‘illegal’ acts as acts of administering justice.

A praetor was escorted by six lictors. After a term as praetor, the magistrate would serve as a provincial governor with the title of propraetor, commanding the province’s legions, and possessing ultimate authority within his province(s).

Two of the praetors were more prestigious than the others. The Praetor Peregrinus was the chief judge in trials involving one or more foreigners. The Praetor Urbanus was the chief judicial office in Rome with the power to overturn any verdict by any other courts, and serve as judge in cases involving criminal charges against provincial governors.

Tribune The tribunes has right of veto over bills they disliked and power to convene public assemblies to pass bills of their own. The post was considered sacrosanct and so tribunes were not allowed to leave Rome during their tenure (p.27).

The Senate A body of about 300 older men, elected to the Senate because they had held one of the other ‘magistracies’. The Senate didn’t actually make any laws but debated legal and political matters and issued decrees which had no binding force but the magistrates did well to take into account (p.37). During Sulla’s reign of terror he executed or drove into exile so many senators that the number fell to 100 but during the period of his reforming rule, he packed it with new blood, expanding its number to 600, and demolished the old Curia building and had a grand new Senate House built.

Censor The censorship was the single most powerful and influential position or magistracy, responsible for overseeing the census, held every five years to produce a detailed assessment of every household, its wealth and income and number of slaves and dependents, on which the elaborate hierarchies of Rome were based (p.96).

N.B. This series of posts is only one part in the jigsaw of the constitution. I haven’t mentioned the priesthoods, for example the priest of Jupiter, the father god of Rome, a post Julius Caesar held while still a boy. Or the pontifex maximus, the most prestigious post in the entire state, which a man held for life and came with a mansion on the Via Sacra, in the Forum, in the heart of Rome (p.199).

Nor any of the assemblies with their various rules for elections, the importance of ‘tribes’, tribunes or tribunals, or the densely structured economic and social hierarchies which applied to every citizen and determined their rights and votes and place in the grand scheme.

As Holland’s narrative proceeds, the scale of the bribery involved in each subsequent set of elections grows and grows in scale (e.g. p.225).

Other learnings

Rome was a squalid maze

Surprisingly, ancient Rome was a shambles of narrow dirty alleys and wiggly roads packed with people, horses and carts. Since the consuls only ruled for a year there was no long-term town planning which meant the city became a byword for narrow roads and alleys, temples, houses and tenement blocks called insulae looming over alleys full of mud and excrement (pages 15 to 18).

Clutter was the essence of the Republic. It spread everywhere that Sulla cared to look. It could be seen in the very appearance of Rome itself. (p.106)

Cicero has a famous quote on the state of Rome, when criticising the senator and moralist Cato the Younger (born 95 BC) which Holland translates as:

‘He addresses the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s shit-hole.’ (quoted on page 196)

[The more restrained H. H. Scullard translates this as Cicero complaining that ‘Cato talked as if he were in the republic of Cato, not in the sink of Romulus’, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 138 BC to AD 68 by H. H. Scullard, page 117. L.P. Wilkinson in his translation of Cicero’s letters gives it as: ‘He talks as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s dunghill‘, page 39.]

As well as pausing his narrative to describe various aspects of the culture or constitution of Rome, Holland also stop periodically to give a page or two on the history and social and political function of various famous locations around the city. These are always interesting and the vivid thriller style which sometimes seems out of place in his political history works very well to bring these Roman places and the milling noisy crowds who filled them to life.

The Circus Maximus (pages 20, 122)

Right at the start of his account Holland explains how the legendary Romulus was said to have built his camp on what was to be named the Palatine Hill while Remus built his on the Aventine Hill a few hundred yards south. The triumph of Romulus marked the Palatine as the seat of Rome’s richest, later the hill of the emperors, while the Aventine became associated with the poor. It was to the Aventine that the disgruntled plebs went during the series of secessios – in effect, general strikes – when they were campaigning for equal civil rights.

The shallow valley between the two hills had been the site of games and then chariot races from time immemorial. It was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome, measuring 2,037 feet in length and 387 feet in width and could accommodate over 150,000 spectators. As such it was one of the two big spaces in the city where citizens could meet and mingle and enjoy a sense of civic community. It was where politicians in power, magistrates or victorious generals could receive the cheers or boos of huge crowds (p.20). Games were organised by the class of magistrate called the aediles.

On page 122 Holland gives a brief but vivid description of the chariot races held in the circus. Although the building was huge the track itself was quite narrow with only width for four chariots and the turn at the end of each lap required the charioteer to steer close to the huge metal poles which defined the turn, the metae, without actually touching them with his chariot’s wheels, which would almost send chariot and him ricocheting to certain death.

The Forum (p.85)

Along with the Circus Maximus, the Forum was one of the two open spaces in the city where citizens could mingle freely. Originally a marsh, it was drained to provide a meeting place for squabbling tribes from the hills and so could be said to be the place where Romans learned to sort out their differences through political means. Like the rest of the city it was a jumble of discordant monuments. (p.85)

The Field of Mars (p.93)

Holland gives an excellent description of the Campus Martius and its central role in the republic’s political processes. It was originally, in this plain outside the city walls that citizens were taken and administered the oath which turned them into soldiers. Here they were ranked by wealth and status. At the top were those who could afford their own horse and so were named the equites. Below the equestrian class were five further classes ranked by wealth until you reached the lowest class, people who couldn’t even afford a slingshot and were named the proletarii.

Worth stopping a moment to consider this word: in the census the poorest citizens were defined as those who had little or no property except for their children. The Latin term for these was proles or ‘offspring’. So while the richest citizens could offer horses and arms, the poorest could only offer their proles as future Roman citizens available to colonise conquered territories – and so this class was called the proletarius (producer of offspring), singular, or proletarii in the plural.

Anyway, Holland explains how the Field of Mars evolved into the location of elections for the many magistrate positions or assemblies. The key building was the Ovile or ‘sheepfold’, an enclosure with gates and barriers, where citizens lined up to vote, richest at the front, poorest at the back. Exemplifying the Roman love of complexity, the precise order or procedure for voting was different in the case of each election or magistracy, with strict rules and protocols to be observed.

Holland gives a vivid description of the scene at a typical election, the hoisting of a flag, the blowing of trumpets, the enormous queues of shuffling citizens, the dust raised in the hot air, the tension for election days creating ‘one of the greatest excitements of Roman civic life’ (p.95). Then appearance of the candidates in their specially whitened togas (as Mary Beard tells us the word ‘candidate’ derives from the Roman for white, candidus, referring to these specially whitened togas). The milling crowd, the jeers and chatter and then, when the winning candidates were announced, cheers from their supporters and they were escorted off from the Ovile to the Capitol Hill to take up office.

In passages like these, Holland’s strategy of eschewing scholarly detail in favour of vivid description and atmosphere works very well indeed.

The Rubicon

The River Rubicon which Julius Caesar so grandly crossed with the Army of Gaul, thus decisively plunging the Republic into civil war, thus giving us a phrase we have used for centuries to indicate taking an irrevocable decision…this river was in fact so small and insignificant that nobody in later centuries, and even today, knows where it actually is.


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.

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