2003, Books, Non-Fiction

Rubicon (2003) by Tom Holland

This is a real page-turner and if you’re looking for that kind of history of the end of the Roman Republic, I guess I can recommend it. But I had enough problems that I think there are probably much better books to read about this subject.

So Holland is a good storyteller in many ways – he’s really good at moving things along, he’s good at explaining (and imagining) the motivation of historical figures, he’s occasionally wry, he’s eloquent (though, occasionally a little verbose). Stylistically, he’s a good writer. Despite the issues I had with the book, which I will get into below, I was never bored, I never thought about stopping, and I felt compelled to read page after page.

My issues are entirely of content and detail. I have read an academic history of Rome and a biography of Caesar – importantly, it’s been years since I read either – but even still I had a hard time following the details of what was going on for a few reasons.

Firstly, there are just too many C names. That’s not Holland’s fault but I do wonder if he could have occasionally reminded us laypeople who these people were. There is a massive assumption that we know these people or we will be looking them up constantly. I guess that’s fair in 2021 but I don’t know how fair it was in 2003. (I guess it was still fair.) Some of the names are so similar (to me) I got them confused at times. And I’m not someone this happens to very much. Yes, it could very well be me. But I do wonder if it was the book.

But I’m kind of joking about that first point. The real problem is the lack of detail about events. I understand Holland wants to tell a story. It certainly feels as though this is a reaction to all the scholarly works he’s read which probably contain too much detail but there’s not enough. People suddenly become consul (or some other important political position) and there’s no mention of an election. Each battle – except for Alesia – gets extremely little detail, and the assumption is we already know what happened. Holland is concerned with telling this very long story and not with the details. And that’s fine. But I had so many questions and had to go on Wikipedia multiple times just to get some basic details about events or lesser figures. I didn’t realize there was a timeline in the back until I finished but I’m not sure it would have helped much.

And then there are the maps: maps with basically zero detail. One wonders what the point is of these maps. They don’t help me visualize much and they don’t solve my problem of not having enough detail. Why are they here?

But, for me, the biggest problem other than the detail is how Holland treats the Roman Republic versus the empire. Holland is really good at getting us into the minds of the Romans. But one thing he seems to take on face value is the idea that the Republic was Great and the Empire was Bad. But there doesn’t appear to be that much evidence for this beyond feeling (at least in this book). There’s this assumption it’s true. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live in the Roman Empire.) The Republic Holland describes sounds terrible for nearly everyone, even some of the rich people. It is wracked by civil war for half the time Holland covers it and the rest of the time there is mob violence and foreign wars. Holland doesn’t really answer what actual thing they were trying to save. His answer seems to be more about the idea of the Republic rather than the actual Republic. “Crossing the Rubicon” is basically a cliche at this point, but Holland fails to convince me that this moment truly was the watershed moment it’s always assumed to be. The version of the Roman Republic in this book doesn’t sound like a place I’d ever want to live. (There are a few times it does, but that’s almost entirely describing some rich dude’s fifth villa.) For a book about the end of the Roman Republic to be this ambiguous is not a necessarily a problem. But in Holland’s telling, it feels like the ambiguity might be accidental – like we’re supposed to mourn the death of the Republic with the Romans but it turns out we’re not sure if we should.

All that being said, I turned the page, I enjoyed many passages as writing, I chuckled to myself multiple times, and felt like I thoroughly knew the main people involved.


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