EPS Review #113 - Rubicon

Rubicon, by Tom Holland, Little Brown 2003, 406pp.

When I voted for Rubicon at our book club meeting, I figured the history of the republic would be pretty familiar, what with my Classics BA and all. But the fact is, that I had forgotten most of what I had read of Roman history, except for odd details like the partition of Macedonia into four countries called Macedonia One through Four. Mr Holland brings a lot of the story alive, although he focuses less on the first several hundred years than on the last fifty.

at Baiae The best part was learning more about some big names. I could just about remember that the first triumvirate was Julius Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, but I recalled nothing about Crassus, and not much about Pompey besides his parts in Shakespeare! In Rubicon you can see the extent of Crassus' long career as a fixer, as well as watch in astonishment his incredible screw-up and death in Syria. Likewise you watch Pompey's charmed youth and his post-modern death, nearly alone on the sands of the Nile delta. There were even a few surprises about JC, like the extent of his provocation of war in Gaul. He used merchants as spies, and the merchants got around because the Gauls loved wine, and at this point it was made in Italy only, the export of vines being forbidden. In Gaul, one slave was worth ... just one urn of wine! What an exchange rate. The whole topic of slavery is fascinating, but I guess there is not a lot about it in the sources. Holland mentions that the Italian countryside was deserted except for chain-gangs of slaves in the employ of "agribusiness". Also Caesar's narrow defeat of Vercingetorix at Alesia made me want to visit the site next time we go to France. But its location is uncertain.

Another fascinating man was Lucullus. He was a very successful general, but Pompey outmanoeuvred him politically, so Lucullus retired to the Baiae area (which we visited in 2003) to live a life of gourmandise. Hence the cheese.

Despite anachronistic words like agribusiness and terrorism, Holland does manage to make the Romans seem foreign, with accubation (lying down to eat) so important to them, and interesting festivals like the one celebrating Juno's geese, who in the 4th century BC had alarmed the citizens to an attack of Gauls (which Holland says was well remembered even in Caesar's time). Yearly the geese were feasted on pillows of purple and gold, while guard dogs, which had failed to give the alarm, were crucified. I also loved the Italian vindictiveness of Fulvia grabbing Cicero's severed head and stabbing its tongue with her hairpin. And the Roman disapproval of marital, uh, felicity is interesting as well.

The stuff on Sulla was also good. I remembered him as wholly bad, but Holland says that Sulla tried to prevent another occurance of someone like himself, driven by ambition to be as successful as possible, and so a dictator. It did not work, though.

I should mention that Holland's writing is good but not great. I had to push to keep reading in parts. But I still recommend the book. An erudite historical novel would be even more fun (I always had a weakness for Mary Renault). Someone at the book club said there was a book about the republic that is as good as I, Claudius -- could he remind me of the title? (I found the SPQR mystery series by googling bad-boy Clodius, who profaned the women-only rites of the Good Goddess, but I have read a few Roman mysteries and found them too modern-feeling).

A friend tells me that HBO and the BBC have made a TV series about Rome (the republic), which is fascinating, in a full-frontal way. I look forward to seeing it.

Jon wrote: Did you read Caesar's Gallic Wars? I read it once in a holiday cottage (it was lying around to raise the tone), in Eng of course (gimme a break). and actually made a rattling good read. Vercingetorix got his chips good and proper. My only other source of Roman history is Asterix, natch...

Tim wrote: The book is Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.

John wrote: Sounds good. I had been reading Fatal Shore, but after hundreds of pages of rape and whippings, leavened by cannibalism, it is getting to be a bit of a drag.

Nick wrote: Petr Beckmann in A History of Pi despises the Roman empire.

Ed wrote: We have watched all five episodes broadcast so far of the HBO "Rome" series. It is very good! They all look exactly as they should, particularly Caesar. Cato is an annoying, carping old man. Brutus is far from brutish, and good looking. Cicero is rather soft and flabby, a little too passive for the great orator. Octavian is still a boy (the one who acted the young midshipman in "Master and Commander") and developing the keen political instincts which will make him Caesar Augustus in due course. Mark Antony is a complete cad, not a gentleman as in Shakespeare, a smooth opportunist and a degenerate. Outside of the historical figures, there are some good characters, particularly two soldiers, one of whom is a gloomy high-ranking officer who is doomed to a military life in spite of his desire to be a businessman or a farmer and have a normal family life, and the other of whom is an ordinary legionary - a cheery, boorish but likeable squaddie, and the officer's boon companion. Everybody speaks with an English accent, which is fine by me as I wouldn't be able to stand it if they spoke in American. HBO spices up the series with lots of nakedness and sexual intrigue. The twists and turns of the plot are thrilling; it couldn't be less dry. Now that I've seen it, I can't imagine why somebody didn't do it before; it's the perfect subject for a TV series. One of the best parts of the series are the title sequences, which bring to life well-known images from Roman times in the form of animated graffiti and other images.

Archie wrote: [The TV show is ] a real hoot. Interestingly, the first ep on the BBC was condensed from 2 hours (as HBO showed it) to 1 hour -- stripping out almost all the history to leave all viewers who haven't read Rubicon confused (but sufficiently sated by the gore and sex-fest, top broadcasting strategists must have calculated, not to care that they had no idea what was going on). A friend of mine was the historical consultant on the series - 12 months on the set at Cinecitta in Rome advising on what sandals legionnaires wear and whether women had sex on top in ancient Rome. He has taken so much flak for the inaccuracies that HBO have made him Producer of the next series.