Rubicon By Tom Holland

The extravagant story of the Roman Republic rings bells today, claims Christopher Hart, as we sink into apolitical consumerist sloth

This is a tale that has been told before (by Shakespeare, among other notables): the blood-stained drama of the last decades of the Roman Republic, as it fattened and sank into Empire. Here it is told afresh with tremendous wit, narrative verve and insight, for a new generation regrettably in danger of losing touch with the classical past that made us.

The Romans evidently remain fascinating to Holland, and his readers will soon understand why. Their iron realism, about themselves and others, is icily refreshing in our sentimental and self-deceiving age. "Gain cannot be made without loss to someone else," said Publilius Syrus bluntly: a truth that the modern, overweight, self-indulgent West fights very shy of indeed.

But Holland is a historian of great subtlety too. It has become a cliché, he acknowledges, to compare ancient Rome with a certain modern global empire that still likes to think itself a Republic, vociferously self-righteous, operating under the aegis of God Himself, run by a wealthy elite, and forever toppling foreign tyrants in, er, "self-defence". So instead, Holland trusts the reader to make his own comparisons. Similarly, the final picture of the Empire under Augustus, settling into an apolitical consumerist sloth, rings bells as well, but Holland admirably resists the temptation to shake those bells directly in the reader's lughole.

Essentially, this is the story of a fierce and flint-hearted little city-state that acquired an empire, like the British, almost "in a fit of absent-mindedness". Before long, Rome possessed vast overseas territories that straddled three continents and comprehended perhaps 100m people, while remaining stuck with a political system designed some 400 years earlier for governing only themselves. By the first century BC there were two opposing factions: the idealists (wrong but romantic) who believed passionately that the stern old republican values could survive; and the harsh, dictatorial realists (right but repulsive) who saw that, in short, an empire needed an emperor.

But what characters there were in this drama! Holland envisions them "half emerging from antique marble, their faces illumined by a background of gold and fire, the glare of an alien yet sometimes eerily familiar world". And before our very eyes, with all their pride and ambition, fitful cruelty and fitful clemency, he resurrects them with a novelistic luminosity which illuminates not only that lost world, but our own as well.

There was Sulla, most chilling of all the dictators: handsome playboy, great general, and the first to turn his own troops against Rome. There was the revolting, money-grubbing Crassus, who seduced a Vestal Virgin only, he said, in order to acquire her property. (He was believed.) There was stern Cato, most implacable of all the old Republicans, who once received an effete Egyptian princeling, whom he naturally scorned, while sitting on the lavatory; there was Mark Antony, nothing but a boor as far as I've always seen, pawing at actresses, vomiting drunkenly in the popular assembly, and no great military leader either. And drinking and womanising, as Holland intriguingly points out, were regarded as pathetically effeminate occupations in ancient Rome: real men should have their minds on higher things.

There was Cleopatra, the Greek-Ptolemaic temptress with the long nose and the bewitching bedroom skills. There was the cowardly, vacillating, lovable, brilliant Cicero, half-genius and half-Boswell; although unlike Boswell, Cicero's primary subject was always himself. In his early career Cicero departed to Athens for a few months, to brush up on his Greek philosophers. On returning he found that no one had even noticed his absence, and the terrible dismay he expresses in his letters at this hurtful indifference echoes Pooterishly across two millennia. As Holland beautifully phrases it, in Marcus Tullius Cicero, "genuine principle fused seamlessly with inordinate self-regard."

And bestriding them all, of course, that colossus, great Caesar himself. Not that we should ever confuse "great" with "good". Caesar's military genius, his demonic energy, his steely courage against seemingly hopeless odds, his prodigious sexual appetite, his ruthless pursuit of absolute power and limitless personal glory: these qualities did nothing to improve the lot of his fellow men. They never do. His triumph over the Gauls at the Siege of Alesia was an astounding feat, which perhaps no other general could have managed; and it also saw thousands of innocent Gaulish women and children, trapped between the lines of the opposing armies, slowly starving to death. Caesar was quite unmoved.

Perhaps a million died in his Gallic Wars, and a further million were enslaved (ancient estimates confirmed by modern historians). He then went on to invade that remote, fog-bound, cannibal-haunted island of Britain, an utterly pointless exercise designed to impress the plebs back home. As Cicero snorted derisively, you're hardly likely to acquire a British slave "with any decent knowledge of music or literature".

Finally, Caesar turned back for Rome, where he was declared dictator for life, and soon after assassinated. A year later, poor Cicero's severed head was delivered to Mark Anthony by his hired thugs. His wife Fulvia joyously spat on it, and then "yanked out his tongue and stabbed it with a hairpin".

By 30BC all the main players were dead except young Octavian, Caesar's great-nephew, now renamed Augustus. During a subsequent reign of more than 40 years, Augustus finally turned the Republic into an empire: a one-man band, with a poodle of a senate just for show. And the people of Rome gratefully accepted the loss of their old, arduous freedoms, subsiding into peace and prosperity, gossip and femininity. Oh, and shopping. In a brilliant final glimpse of flabby Imperial Rome, Holland tells us that the Ovile, formerly the voting hall where the populace would gather to elect their magistrates, was now given over to popular entertainment: gladiatorial contests, dancing girls, "and if there were no shows, then citizens could always flock there for the luxury shopping." Citizens, meum fundamentum! They had become mere passive consumers. As Cicero puzzlingly and profoundly said, "The fruit of too much liberty is slavery."

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