The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius

 

I first read George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” many years ago when I was in the process of learning English which turns out to be an everlasting endeavor. Some time last year, I picked this book up again, after listening to some BBC radio program that quoted George Orwell from this work. Recently while reading the English and their History by Robert Tombs, I noticed that Tombs frequently cited passages from George Orwell’s works, especially The Lion and the Unicorn at length. It naturally intrigued me to read this again. If previously I grasped mostly social, political and cultural knowledge about England and the English during the two world war era, this time I appreciate something new. George Orwell’s skills of writing sharp and exact, yet elegant and at times humorous prose, developing arguments that are both convincing and bold without any nonsense. This work serves as a great example of the practices that George Orwell advocated in Politics and the English Language.

If you are wondering what happened to the English and their History, why have I not written about that giant of 1040 pages? It is indeed being brewed. It seems impossible to tackle that book without going back to the Lion and the Unicorn first.

The Lion and the Unicorn was first published in 1941. It consists of three parts: England Your England, Shopkeepers at War, and the English Revolution. It is set in the World War II era, but traces history back to previous wars that England went through as well as its previous social and political struggles. All three essays deserve to be read closely. The kind of thorough and detailed reading taught by Francine Prose in her Reading Like a Writer serves very well here. Here are a selection of passages to share with you.

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.

Meanwhile England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say that the future is fixed, merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip.

Hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc. etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen.

One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

The reason why the English anti-militarism disgusts foreign observers is that it ignores the existence of the British Empire. It looks like sheer hypocrisy. After all, the English have absorbed a quarter of the earth and held on to it by means of a huge navy. How dare they then turn round and say that war is wicked?

Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in ‘the law’ as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like ‘They can’t run me in; I haven’t done anything wrong’, or ‘They can’t do that; it’s against the law’, are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else.

Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.

One is the lack of artistic ability. This is perhaps another way of saying that the English are outside the European culture. For there is one art in which they have shown plenty of talent, namely literature. But this is also the only art that cannot cross frontiers.  

More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.

What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed…What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together. The unjust distinctions remain, but the real differences diminish.

This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges…The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.

It is not true that public opinion has no power in England. It never makes itself heard without achieving something; it has been responsible for most of the changes for the better during the past six months. But we have moved with glacier-like slowness, and we have learned only from disasters. It took the fall of Paris to get rid of Chamberlain and the unnecessary suffering of scores of thousands of people in the East End to get rid or partially rid of Sir John Anderson. It is not worth losing a battle in order to bury a corpse. For we are fighting against swift evil intelligences, and time presses, and history to the defeated May say Alas! but cannot alter or pardon.

No political programme is ever carried out in its entirety. But what matters is that that or something like it should be our declared policy. It is always the direction that counts.

I only know that the right men will be there when the people really want them, for it is movements that make leaders and not leaders movements.

Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist.

“Come the four corners of the world in arms

And we shall shock them: naught shall make us rue

If England to herself do rest but true.”

It is right enough, if you interpret it rightly. But England has got to be true to herself. She is not being true to herself while the refugees who have sought our shores are penned up in concentration camps, and company directors work out subtle schemes to dodge their Excess Profits Tax. It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging ‘democracy’, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

     

Night

My book of this week is Night, written by Elie Wiesel and translated by his wife Marion Wiesel. Elie wrote about his experience of being deported from his home town Sighet in northern Transylvania  to concentration camps  towards the end of the WWII in 1944, at age fifteen. Elie’s mother and sisters were separated from Elie and his father after arriving at Birkenau, the first stop after deportation.

In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.

“Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and space where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand….My hand tightened my its grip on my father. All I could think of was not to lose him. Not to remain alone.

 

Elie and his father went through Auschwitz and Buchenwald together. Elie’s father was beaten by the Schutzstaffel officer and bullied by the other inmates.

The victim this time was my father. “You old loafer!” he started yelling. “Is this what you call working?” And he began beating him with an iron bar. At first, my father simply doubled over under the blows, but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning. I had watched it all happening without moving. I kept silent. In fact, I thought of stealing away in order not to suffer the blows. What’s more, if I felt anger at that moment, it was not directed at the Kapo but at my father. Why couldn’t he have avoided Idek’s wrath? That was what life in a concentration camp has made of me…

The health and spirit of Elie’s father both declined considerably and Elie became his caregiver. After a lengthy period of suffering, Elie’s father gave up fighting and lost his hope of survival.

I could have screamed in anger. To have lived and endured so much; was I going to let my father die now?…He had become childlike: weak, frightened, vulnerable…This discussion continued for some time. I knew I was no longer arguing with him but with Death itself, with Death that he had already chosen.

 

Elie’s father became very ill soon afterwards. Sleeping on the bunk above his father, Elie woke up one morning and found his father was no longer there and his place was occupied by someone else. It came to Elie that he must have been moved to the crematorium overnight, burned maybe still breathing.

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.

I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!…

Reading this book, I experienced an overwhelming amount of mixed feelings: loving, frustrating, sorrowful, abhorrent, disgusting, longing, inconceivable and others. The original book that Elie wrote was over 800 pages. Elie’s writing went through rounds of editing and many difficulties of its publication. As a comparison, the version I have in hand, also the most commonly known and read one has just over 100 pages. Elie called this book his deposition. Is this an eyewitness account, a memoir, fictionalised-autobiography, non-fictional novel or fiction? I cannot help thinking what was cut and lost in revision and translation from its original Yiddish writing, what was washed away by the flow of the time river from the occurrence of the events to being written down in words, what could not be communicated via any language that we are not able to read and indeed the gap between our comprehension and the writing itself. I read it as a faithful depiction of Elie’s experience in the concentration camps during WWII. Throughout the book, we can see the loss of faith, innocence, love, decency, and other emotional and physical beings.

As a young boy, Elie was a devoted believer. However, in multiple sections, Elie wrote about the slow death of faith throughout his time in the concentration camps.

For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?

Why, but why would I bless Him (God)? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine Altar?

In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers.

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.

Reading this book brought back the memory of my visit with my dear friend Laurent Risser to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin years ago, not long after its completion. The memorial has over 2700 concrete slabs of varying size, organized in a grid pattern, located in a very large site. It was a beautifully sunny summer afternoon. We walked around it silently for some time. I felt the weight of history and humanity crushing on me like those thousands of concrete slabs. How could humans do this to other humans? The sun cast many shadows, shifting slowly, until the shadows prolonged and covered all. It was a place in which we are reminded that we should never forget how unjustly those killings and tortures were, not for the purpose of revenge but for our own survival as humans; never think that other people’s sufferings are not your own business; never let our consciousness escape us.

Below in italic are some more passages from the book that I found myself reading again and again, slowly being etched to me like those numbered tattoos on Elie’s arm.

As a rule, our townspeople, while they did help the needy, did not particularly like them. Moishe the Beadle was the exception. He stayed out of people’s way. His presence bothered no one. He had mastered the art of rendering himself insignificant, invisible.

Every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer.

Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks him. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don’t understand his replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.

And why do you pray, Moishe? I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.

There are a thousand and one gates allowing entry into the orchard of mythical truth. Every human being has his own gate. He must not err and wish to enter the orchard through a gate other than his own. That would present a danger not only for the one entering but also for those who are already inside.

“You don’t understand,” he (Moishe) said in despair. “You cannot understand. I was saved miraculously. I succeeded in coming back. Where did I get my strength? I wanted to return to Sighet to describe to you my death so that you might ready yourselves while there is still time. Life? I no longer care to live. I am alone. But I wanted to come back to warn you. Only no one is listening to me…”

People thought this was a good thing. We would no longer have to look at all those hostile faces, endure those hate-filled stares. No more fear. No more anguish. We would live among Jews, among brothers……Most people thought that they would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.

The shadows around me roused themselves as if from a deep sleep and left silently in every direction.

The women were boiling eggs, roasting meat, preparing cakes, sewing backpacks. The children were wandering about aimlessly, not knowing what to do with themselves to stay out of the way of the grown-ups. Our backyard looked like a marketplace. Valuable objects, precious rugs, silver candlesticks, Bibles and other ritual objects were strewn over the dusty grounds – pitiful relics that seemed never to have had a home. All this under a magnificent blue sky.

There was joy, yes, joy. People must have thought there could be no greater torment in God’s hell than that of being stranded here, on the sidewalk, among the bundles, in the middle of the street under a blazing sun. Anything seemed preferable to that. They began to walk without another glance of the abandoned streets, the dead, empty houses, the gardens, the tombstones … on everyone’s back, there was a sack. In everyone’s eyes, tears and distress. Slowly, heavily, the procession advanced toward the gate of the ghetto.

The street resembled fairgrounds deserted in haste. There was a little of everything: suitcases, briefcases, bags, knives, dishes, banknotes, papers, faded portraits. All the things one planned to take along and finally left behind. They had ceased to matter. Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb.

We were ready. I went out first. I did not want to look at my parents’ faces. I did not want to break into tears. We remained sitting in the middle of the street, like the others two days earlier. The same hellish sun. The same thirst. Only there was no one left to bring us water.

“Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good-for-nothings!” The Hungarian police were screaming. That was when I began to hate them, and my hatred remains our only link today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first faces of hell and death.

The few days we spent here (ghetto) went by pleasantly enough, in relative calm. People rather got along. There no longer was any distinction between rich and poor, notables and the others; we were all people condemned to the same fate – still unknown.

We mustn’t give up hope, even now as the sword hangs over our heads. So taught our sages.

Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes…children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?) So that was where we were going. A little farther on, there was another, larger pit for adults. I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps … Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books…

 

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

The absent no longer entered our thoughts. One spoke of them – who knows what happened to them? – but their fate was not on our minds. We were incapable of thinking. Our senses were numbed, everything was fading into a fog. We no longer clung to anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had all deserted us. In one terrifying moment of lucidity, I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time, seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.

“Remember,” he (an SS officer) went on. “Remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or crematorium – the choice is yours.”

Comrades, you are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t lose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever… And now, here is a prayer, or rather a piece of advice: let there be a camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive….These were the first human words.

The stomach alone was measuring time.

The bell. It was already time to part, to go to bed. The bell regulated everything. It gave me orders and I executed them blindly. I hated that bell. Whenever I happened to dream of a better world, I imagined a universe without a bell.

We were the masters of nature. The masters of the world. We had transcended everything – death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth.

Nobody asked anyone for help. One died because one had to. No point in making trouble.

He awoke with a start. He sat up, bewildered, stunned, like an orphan. He looked all around him, taking it all in as if he had suddenly decided to make an inventory of his universe, to determine where he was and how and why he was there. Then he smiled. I shall always remember that smile. What world did it come from?

The darkness enveloped us. All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.

Yet at the same time a thought crept into my mind: If only I didn’t find him! If only I were relieved of this responsibility, I could use all my strength to fight for my own survival, to take care only of myself … Instantly, I felt ashamed, ashamed of myself forever.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.

Let us not forget history. In Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation and entrepreneurship, while striving for success according to personal and societal measures, we should also read some history and not forget that technology alone could not create us a better world.

 

Rubicon – the Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

My book of this week is Rubicon – the Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland. Rubicon tells the stories of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, from the time when Lucius Tarquinius Superbus’ reign of Rome was demolished in a palace coup in 509 BC, the subsequent establishment of the Roman Republic, to the death of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, in 14 AD.    

I was first introduced to Rubicon by Robert Harris, the author of a trilogy on the life of the great Roman orator Cicero. Over a month ago, while staying in London, I commented to one of my best friends that how marvellous it would be to meet and hear Robert Harris talk about the Roman history and its people. Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity of meeting him in person and firing up my numerous questions and fascinations to him about Cicero and the Roman Republic. However, BBC Radio 4 featured a book club event with Robert Harris shortly afterwards. Obviously I tuned in and listened to that episode a number of times. Robert Harris talked about why he chose to write about Cicero in this program. He credited that to the fact of reading an early manuscript of Tom Holland’s Rubicon. Before long, I found myself equipped with Rubicon’s ebook as primary reading format as it’s convenient to carry around, hardcopy for flipping through and cross referencing, and finally audiobook for listening while running or driving. There are a noticeable amount of words and sentences that are different in the audiobook than those in the ebook, although not affecting the readability much nor leading to gross misunderstanding.

Rubicon is the most challenging book for me so far this year. Although, as a child, I read Chinese history and literature extensively, and later various genres of books in English (mostly literature, biographies, science, engineering and history books), fundamentally I am a computer scientist. Rubicon is the first time that I read a full volume of the history of the Roman Republic. Unsurprisingly, the writing of this book is very different from the trilogy on Cicero I read and wrote about earlier this year, as it not only has a captivating storytelling part, but also probably half of it contains discussions and analysis of the political and social struggles of the people in Rome, its provinces and far beyond. That said, a number of the metaphors that we use nowadays can be traced back to the Roman time over two thousand years ago, for example, the term “Cross the Rubicon” with the meaning that once we pass a certain point there would be no return, similarly the phrase “the die is cast”, might have both originated from the event that Julius Caesar led his army crossing the Rubicon River in 49 BC as an act of insurrection and treason. Discoveries like these add extra pleasure to my experience of reading history books like Rubicon.

In this book, to me, the paradoxical features of the Roman Republic are most distinctive. This is reflected in multiple facets of Roman society, for example, the wide division of two classes and their mutually shared devotion to the community. In the Roman Republic there is nothing resembling a middle class. Everybody is either plebeian or patrician. “The central paradox of Roman society – that savage divisions of class could coexist with an almost religious sense of community – had evolved through the course of its history. A revolution against the extractions of authority had, of course, inspired the Republic’s very foundation. Even so, following the expulsion of Tarquin and the monarchy, the plebeians had found themselves just as tyrannized by the ancient aristocracy of Rome, the patricians, as they had ever been by the kings……Indeed, in the early years of the Republic’s history, Roman society had come perilously close to ossifying altogether. The plebeians, however, refusing to accept that they belong to an inferior caste, had fought back in the only way they could – by going on strike……Here they would periodically threaten to fulfil Remus’s original ambitions by founding an entirely new city. The patricians, left to stew in their own hauteur across the valley, would gracelessly grant a few concessions. Gradually, over the years, the class system had become ever more permeable. The old rigid polarization between patrician and plebeian had begun to crack.” This should sound very familiar to most people who read world history and follow a little social and political movements of the modern world.

More on the paradox of Roman society: “The privileges of birth, then guaranteed nothing in Rome. The fact that the descendents of a goddess might find themselves living in a red-light district ensured that it was not only the very poor who dreaded the consequences of failure. At every social level the life of a citizen was a grueling struggle to emulate – and, if possible, surpass – the achievements of his ancestors. In practice as well as principle 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, toward a freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition. The proof of the superiority of this model of society lay in its trouncing of every conceivable alternative. The Romans knew that had they remained the slaves of a monarch, or of a self-perpetuating clique of aristocrats, they would never have succeeded in conquering the world. “It is almost beyond belief how great the Republic’s achievements were once the people had gained their liberty, such was the longing for glory which it lit in every man’s heart.”……For all the ruthlessness of competition in the Republic, it was structured by rules as complex and fluid as they were inviolable. To master them was a lifetime’s work. As well as talent and application, this required contacts, money and free time. The consequence was yet further paradox: meritocracy, real and relentless as it was, nevertheless served to perpetuate a society in which only the rich could afford to devote themselves to a political career. Individuals might rise to greatness, ancient families might decline, yet through it all the faith in hierarchy endured unchanging.”

The women written about in this book are fascinating characters to me: the Sibyl and her prophecies, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, the notoriously unfaithful and manipulative Clodia whose social standing was destroyed mercilessly by Cicero during the trial of Caelius and who subsequently vanished from the public eye, Fulvia whose political involvement was not to be underestimated although largely hidden behind the men she supported, and a few others. Cleopatra was written about in great depth in this book for her close association with Mark Antony and Julius Caesar. I am not a historian on any of these female characters. Nevertheless, I wonder whether what we now know of them are twisted facts mixed with some fanciful and maybe even false projections from what could be found in the broken historic records. Those records were written in an era during which societal judgement on a woman was archaic and misogynistic. Here is a passage from the book on Clodia: “For any woman, even one of Clodia’s rank, dabbling in politics was a high-wire act. Roman morality did not look kindly on female forwardness. Frigidity was the ultimate marital ideal. It was taken for granted, for instance, that a matron has no need of lascivious squirmings – anything more than a rigid, dignified immobility was regarded as the mark of a prostitute. Likewise, a woman whose conversation was witty and free laid herself open to an identical charge. If she then compounded her offences by engaging in political intrigue, she could hardly be regarded as anything other than a monster of depravity.” There is also a short piece about Aurelia Cotta, Julius Caesar’s mother, widely praised and respected by Roman people for breastfeeding her children. One wonders why it is even anybody else’s business to have an opinion on whether a mother decides to breastfeed or not.

From reading the trilogy of Cicero, I learned that Cicero admired Cato greatly for his unyielding character. In Rubicon, Tom Holland went into more depth of portraying Cato. An example passage is included here. Throughout this book, Cato stood out as the character with more integrity and principle than any others. “Marcus Porcius Cato had a voice that boomed out across the Senate House floor. Rough and unadorned, it appeared to sound directly from the rugged, virtuous days of the earlier Republic. As an officier, Cate had ‘shared in everything he ordered his man to do. He wore what they wore, ate what they ate, marched as they marched.’ As a civilian, he made a fashion out of despising fashion, wearing black because the party set all sported purple, walking everywhere, whether in blazing sunshine or icy rain, despising every form of luxury, sometimes not even bothering to put on his shoes. If there was more than a hint of affectation about this, then it was also the expression of a profoundly held moral purpose, an incorruptibility and inner strength that the Romans still longed to identify with themselves, but had rather assumed were confined to the history books. To Cato, however, the inheritance of the past was something infinitely sacred. Duty and service to his fellow citizens were all. Only after he had fully studied the responsibilities of the quaestorship had he been prepared to put himself up for election. Once in office, such as his probity and diligence that it was said he ‘made the quaestorship as worthy of honor as a consulship’. Plagued by a sense of its own corruption as it was, the Senate was not yet so degenerate that it could fail to be impressed by such a man.”

Many other significant characters are covered in the book along the historic river flowing through the formation of the Roman Republic, its expansion and conquering of many territories, many tortuous turns of its fortune, and finally its fall. A few more examples of very luminous characters are Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, Pompey the Great, Marcus Licinius Crassus, Marcus Antonius, Julius Caesar and Augustus. I hope to come back to write an addition on these characters, especially Augustus, in the near future.

Reading Rubicon and writing a summary about it is the toughest test since I started my one-book-a-week project this year. Outside work, I lost my opinions on nearly all basic daily activities, for example, what to eat or drink. Who would care about these trivialities, if you are immersed in this glorious, heart-wrenching, treacherous Roman history? If not for the fact of hosting an alumni event later this Sunday, I should be living in the Roman Republic, walking around the Palatine and Aventine hills for a little bit longer before the end of this weekend.