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Revealing a Rome less known

Times Staff Writer

Rubicon

The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Tom Holland

Doubleday: 408 pp., $27.50

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The Rubicon is an ancient river associated not with romance, like the Seine, or boyhood adventure, like the Mississippi, but with decisive turning points. The river’s fame -- infamy, really -- can be credited to Julius Caesar, who marched his legions across it and installed himself as dictator of Rome, destroying an ideal of republican governance that had lasted for 500 years.

Caesar wasn’t the first, although he’s the best known. Does anyone remember Sulla, or Marius, Crassus and Clodius? Tom Holland’s “Rubicon” offers a thorough introduction to all those figures overshadowed by Caesar’s spectacular action. “Barely a generation after [the Republic’s fall] had occurred, men were already shaking their heads in wonderment,” Holland writes, “astonished that such a time, and such giants, could have been.”

At either end of the 500-year span of Roman history that Holland adroitly narrates stands a king -- Tarquin in 509 BC, Caesar Augustus in AD 14. Tarquin was a tyrant overthrown by the founders of the Roman Republic; Augustus wielded imperial authority and died in his bed. The difference? Augustus was a crafty student of Rome’s past, and he benefited by studying the mistakes of those who attempted to become its sole master.

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Holland also is an astute observer of this history, approaching it novelistically and with a rich ease akin to that of Thomas Cahill or William Manchester. He opens “Rubicon” in Gaul in 49 BC, where the soldiers of Caesar’s 13th Legion are waiting by the river in early morning darkness:

“Their general was a man celebrated for his qualities of dash, surprise, and speed. So why, now that they had finally arrived at the border, had they been brought to a sudden halt? Rather than gesture his men onward, Gaius Julius Caesar instead gazed into the turbid waters of the Rubicon, and said nothing.”

Then Holland switches to Rome’s origins -- the way most detective stories look back at the events that led to the crime. A broadcaster for the BBC, he has a good sense of what a general audience wants, and his narrative flows smoothly as various figures rise up, all hungering for power and influence. Few citizens, however, could imagine that their mighty republic would ever come to an end. There might be civil wars, as Holland shows, but the republican ideal always seemed to resurface no matter how far into chaos Rome was plunged.

Greater than wealth and power, it seems, was the Roman desire for honestas, a term describing moral excellence and reputation. “Only by seeing himself reflected in the gaze of his fellows,” writes Holland, “could a Roman truly know himself a man.”

For a time, this communal sense of importance reigned. But personal ambition gradually overwhelmed honestas, Holland suggests, as the small city-state grew into a world power. The consulships, tribunates and magistracies set up to divide and limit power were soon held mostly by the great military commanders.

When an army marched out to meet the enemy, there was relief and joy among the members of the Senate. But when it returned, would the army remain loyal to its general or to the people of the Republic? The Senate’s worst fear was confirmed in 81 BC by Sulla. Angered at being passed over for a military post, Sulla used his armies to become dictator. Yet after dealing with his enemies and enacting “reforms,” Sulla stepped down. Why? On behalf of the republican ideal, which Sulla felt he had served.

Holland offers a fascinating picture of Roman city life that is much less luxurious than any image served on the big screen. Though there were wonders like the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s central drain, and running water in many homes, there were also piles of trash, feces and bones outside the Esquiline Gate, “the haunt of witches, who were said to strip the flesh from the corpses....”

Such sharp differences in city life point to the contradictions that were an essential part of the Roman character. The same ideals that made all Romans feel a communal obligation, Holland points out, also pushed each to excel and nurture ambition: All those who rose up and caused civil wars were products of their society, not exceptions. This doesn’t necessarily excuse Caesar, nor does it condemn him. Instead, Holland’s book provides a fine sense of the lineage of warlords of whom Caesar proved to be the best. It also helps suggest why, when the senators assassinated Caesar in 44 BC to restore the Republic, all it did was cause more turmoil as other alpha males sought control.

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That turmoil, in which Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius, maneuvered to power (destroying Marc Antony and Cleopatra’s designs for a new monarchy), left the Roman people exhausted. Octavius’ own record of murdering opponents and rivals was later expunged by his new title as Caesar Augustus -- the young wolf became benefactor of ancient tradition. He promised a restoration, knowing that the people craved it, and inspired Virgil, Horace and other artists to leave a record of a golden age. It was a monumental display of spin, Holland says, in which he refused public honors even as he consolidated power: “Authority, not office, was what counted....” Holland writes. “The more his grip tightened on the state, the less he flaunted it.”

In every aspect of this story, Holland expertly makes the Romans, so alien and yet so familiar, relevant to us. And while he sometimes tries to make that parallel obvious in the words he uses (he calls Rome a “superpower,” and barbarians are “terrorists”), the similarity seems closest in the simple idea that citizens of thriving empires are like adolescents envisioning death: Neither seems capable of conceiving of an end, and it is this ignorance that is at once tragic and necessary for going forward.


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