NRB Book Club: Crossing the Rubicon

Although I only discovered him a few months ago, British historian Tom Holland has already become one of my favorite all-time authors. Unlike most of his fellow historians, Holland is truly able to bring the ancient history back to life. When reading one of his books, the ancient past feels ancient no more. It feels as if the king of Persia, Xerxes, is alive and well, Caesar has only recently crossed the Rubicon, and Otto the Great and William the Conqueror forged the West as we know it only yesterday.

At this moment, Holland has written three books. All of them are well worth your time, especially if you’re interested in history. Persian Fire tells the story of the wars between ancient (civilized) Persia and (the not yet civilized) Greece. It’s a stunning story of how the Greeks, with little more than willpower, defeated a superpower and, by doing so, eventually became one themselves. In Millennium, meanwhile, the author takes us to Western Europe, around 1000 AD. It was an age in which kingdoms were forged, great men competed with each other for power, a sense of “nationhood” was created, and in which the Church competed for power with increasingly bold secular rulers. Both are stunning works. The great men at the foundation of ancient and modern civilizations become acquaintances, friends even. Not only does Holland introduce them to us, he does so with a great sense of humor and a fabulous ability to make ancient history feel as if it happened only yesterday.

Although both Millennium and Persian Fire are wonderful books, my favorite Holland is Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. As the title makes clear, this book is about the final days of the Roman Republic and the early days of the Roman Empire, eventually founded by Gaius Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian (also known as Augustus). It is the best history of ancient Rome I’ve ever read. As the reviewer of British newspaper the Daily Mail wrote in his review of the book, “I owe a debt of gratitude to Tom Holland for not just reminding me of the great figures who bestrode the Roman world – Pompey and Crassus, Cato, Cicero and Caesar – but for explaining what it was that made Rome the greatest superpower the world has known, why it lasted so long and what caused its eventual fall.”

Holland’s thesis is surprising, yet convincing: He argues that competition between citizens and their constant striving to outdo everyone else was the cause of the rise of the Roman Republic, as well of its downfall. “In practice as well as principle,” Holland writes, “the Republic was savagely meritocratic. Indeed, this, to the Romans, was what liberty meant. It appeared 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). Competition, and especially competitive elections, “were crucial to the self-image as well as the functioning of the Republic” (p.25).

Competition meant that there was a winner and a loser. You were considered successful only because somebody else lost. “All status was relative.” Or, as Romans put it themselves, “gain cannot be made without loss to someone else.” A successful man, then, had to crush his (potential) rivals. This was the case for whole nations (see how the Romans destroyed the already defeated Carthage) as well as individuals.

The last and deadliest rivalry of all was that between Pompey the Great – the greatest conqueror in Rome’s history up until then – and Julius Caesar, Pompey’s student (and father-in-law) who ended up outdoing his teacher. Also involved were Marc Anthony – Caesar’s number two – the stern and upright Cato, and the rich, powerful, yet sleazy Crassus. These men did what Romans had always done: they tried to build themselves up by tearing down the others. They lived by what the philosopher Posidonius told Pompey: “Always fight bravely and be superior to others.”

However, what made this final rivalry different was its sheer size and the greatness of the men involved. In the past, fierce competition meant winning or losing elections, or being appointed general for a military battle abroad. Not any longer. No, when Pompey, Crassus, Cato and Caesar and their peers came to the forefront of Rome’s political life, winning meant mastery over the world, while losing meant death. With the stakes that high, it is little wonder that they eventually destroyed the Republic in an attempt to outdo each other and to simply survive.

If you are interested in (ancient) history, I recommend Millennium, Persian Fire and, last by not least, Rubicon to you. All three are in the top 10 books I’ve read in the last year or so, which is no small feat considering that I read at least one book per week. If you do, start with Rubicon, it’s the best of the three. If you don’t like this one, you won’t enjoy the other two either.