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.