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58 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ponder the Fate of the Roman Republic
Tom Holland takes the reader on a detailed, readable trip through the last decades of the Roman Republic in the last century B.C.E. 'Rubicon' provides a an excellent overview of that climactic era. Holland deftly paints the main players in colorful detail from the original dictator Sulla to the first emperor, Octavian (Augustus) and in between we meet the war hero Pompey...
Published on January 12, 2007 by Douglas S. Wood

versus
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings
On one level, I loved this book. This book provides the most concise summary of the major historical events and personalities involved in the fall of the Roman Republic that I have seen. I enjoyed the author's narrative style immensley.

However, I also had many criticisms of this book.

1. There is an entire not-so-well concealed attempt to draw...
Published on March 31, 2009 by Cato


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58 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ponder the Fate of the Roman Republic, January 12, 2007
Tom Holland takes the reader on a detailed, readable trip through the last decades of the Roman Republic in the last century B.C.E. 'Rubicon' provides a an excellent overview of that climactic era. Holland deftly paints the main players in colorful detail from the original dictator Sulla to the first emperor, Octavian (Augustus) and in between we meet the war hero Pompey the Great, the temporizing orator/politician Cicero, the slippery Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, and the exotic Cleopatra. And Cato, dear inflexible, unbending Cato, trying to hold these Romans to their best traditions, and of course ultimately failing.

Holland also gives the reader a strong understanding of the things that motivated the Romans - and they were highly motivated - glory, honor, tradition, military valour, and duty, but ambition, superstition, and avarice, as well. In the end, the unimagined wealth brought home by military conquests from the new imperial possessions allowed the concentration of too much wealth, power, and military might in too few hands. Once unstoppered, the pull of absolute power was too great to resist.

The end of the Roman Republic, more so than the much later fall of the Roman Empire, is a tale worth pondering. Tom Holland has made this experience exceedingly enjoyable, not to mention educational.

Highest recommendation.
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99 of 105 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Decline and Fall of the Roman Republic, June 16, 2004
By 
It is easier to pin point the ending of Tom Holland's book then its beginning - it ends with the death of Augustus in 14 AD, years after the Roman Republic has ceased to exist in anything but its name.

The beginning of Holland's book, like the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic, is harder to spot. Does it start with the fall of Carthage? With the murder of reformer tribunes Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus? Or with the first clashes between Marius and Sulla? Holland tells it all, in a spellbinding narrative that is hard to put down.

In just under four hundred pages, we get a short overview of the early republic, and then a focused narrative its final century. This is the story of some of history's greatest men and women, from Sulla to Cato, Pompey and Cicero and Cleopatra, and of course, Julius Caesar. It is a tale of murders and political maneuvering, honor and greed and lust. And, complicated as it all is, Holland serves as a fine guide through the intricate web of the dying republic.

I think it's the power of the prose, above anything, that makes Holland's book so fascinating. It reads like a novel, probably the best written account of the Roman World I've read since Robert Graves's I, Claudius. At times, he may use anachronistic terms for the narrative ('location, location, location', or 'Mutually Assured Destruction') - but that's a misdemeanor that is easily forgivable, and some may find it charming.

In the blow by blow account of the political struggles, it is sometimes hard to see a larger scheme or thesis. In as far as there is one, it is probably that the decline of the Roman Republic came through the rise of the Roman Empire. As the Romans expanded, out of Italy and into the entire Hellenistic world and beyond, its generals became increasingly rich and powerful. The armies they have raised stopped being faithful to the Republic, and shifted their loyalties to their leaders. The republic became an arena for a small number of powerful men, reducing the rest of the aristocracy to the role of near-spectators, when the best they could do was pick sides.

In the introduction, Holland says that most events in the History are amenable to different interpretation, but in the text itself, there are precious few references to such instances. Holland, I think, generalizes much too much about the way 'Romans' in abstract thought, felt, or acted. His footnotes, referring exclusively to ancient sources (although his bibliography does contain much modern work) is virtually useless for anyone unless they're willing to dig into the primary sources.

But at the end, that's just not that kind of a book. Holland weaves a breathtaking tapestry of characters, events, and touches of mysticism. Any flaws in the historiography are overshadowed by the triumph of storytelling.
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137 of 156 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A riveting panorama of the last great democracy's decline, March 9, 2004
The Roman republic, the world of SPQR ("Senatus populusque Romanus), has always been for me a set of brightly colored slides, snapshots of highlighted moments in jumbled order: Spartacus' crucified army, Caesar stabbed in the Forum, Cleopatra dying on a barge in Atrium, Hannibal crossing the Alps, Cato and Cicero holding crowds spellbound orating about something or other, net and trident facing spear and shield in the gladiatorial circle. And of course, Caesar returning from long years in Gaul, on the bank of the Rubicon.
This compulsively readable book put it all together in one seamless narrative, and replaced my slides with a breathtaking movie that has it all: epic battles, dynastic soap opera, noble patriotism, eyecatching eccentricity, treacherously shifting alliances, scheming and backstabbing and dazzling hypocrisy, with the survival of a great democracy always at stake and always at risk. Holland pumps an incredible quantity of information into your head, with each personage and event so naturally connected to its neighbor that you don't feel surfeited. As a result, every component has the benefit of a richly detailed context.
What's best is the confidence with which Holland conveys the ethos of the Republic, which is surprisingly alien, yet has points of analogy with our own. Though plenty of plundering and graft goes on, only one major figure, Crassus, acts mainly out of pecuniary motives. Nevertheless, as our own capitalistic democracy's dynamism has been driven by the relentless competition for scarce monetary resources, the Roman republic derived its energy from a relentless competition for "glory", the scarce commodity of high reputation. The intensity, the near desperation, of that drive pushed the borders of Roman conquest outward, increasing the glory of the state and the welfare of its citizenry. But the competition was a centrifugal force, and as the state enlarged, that force ineluctably grew out of balance with the centripetal forces of community and tradition. Ultimately it would burst through the bounds set by the Roman constitution.
The first chapter sets out the history of the first centuries of the Republic, from the overthrow of the king Tarquinius by the first Brutus, through the Carthaginian wars and the murders of the populist Gracchae. The focus grows finer, and the rest of the book deals with the first century B.C. By the time Julius Caesar takes center stage about halfway through, you understand just what is traditional and what is new and nervy about his progress through a sequence of elective offices. He spent years as a brilliant politician, assuming and leaving the severely term-limited highest office of consulship, before he ever set foot in the field as a military commander.
Holland views almost all these characters with a dry, urbane humor, never accepting their own rosy conception of their motives. The only ones who come out looking admirable are the crotchety but forthright Cato, the conspirator Brutus, and (though only in his second persona, after he's completed his bloody destruction of the last remnants of democracy), Caesar Augustus.
I'll be keeping this one around to re-read from time to time. The story alone is that engaging, besides which there's endless fodder for thought. What a pity we no longer learn about this stuff as schoolchildren.
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42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Die is Cast - and other Roman cliches, March 2, 2004
By 
David Roy (Vancouver, BC) - See all my reviews
What parallels might be drawn between the present-day United States and the Roman Republic before Julius Caesar took over? It's a fascinating question, and one that seems to be an inspiration to Tom Holland, as he mentions it in the introduction to Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. Or, maybe it wasn't one, since this is the last time he mentions it. The reader is left to his/her own conclusions on this issue, but unfortunately the back cover draws attention to this aspect making you think that's what the book is going to be about.
Instead, he gives us a history of the fall of the Republic, from the late 2nd century BC to the death of Caesar in 44 BC. Holland covers all the wars, civil unrest and the decline of senatorial power as he shows us the events leading to dictatorship. The history is dotted with colourful characters (from Caesar to Spartacus to Cleopatra and beyond) and Holland brings them all to life, often in their own words. In doing so, Holland has produced a very readable account, meticulously researched, that will make anybody with even a mild interest in this time period clamour for more.
Holland begins (also in his introduction) by talking about the amount of information from this time period that we have access to, as it's one of the most recorded periods in ancient history. Yet even so, it's impossible to take everything written as fact, immune to different interpretations. Instead, it's a minefield where historians have to tread carefully.
"In short, the reader should take it as a rule of thumb that many statements of fact in this book could plausibly be contradicted by an opposite interpretation." Pg xx (introduction)
This is all well and good, and I'm glad that he warned us. While all history is subject to interpretation (or even outright lies, depending on what the sources are and how biased they are), the further back you go the worse it gets. However, one thing I wish Holland would have done is to acknowledge this within the text as well. It would have been interesting to see him discuss a couple of interpretations of conflicting events as he told us about them, something like:
{XX happened, according to Plutarch, but other accounts say YY happened. It seems logical to assume, given the equipment involved, that a combination of XX and YY is what truly happened.}
Instead, we get one narrative with a warning at the beginning that, we have to remember, this may not be the right one.
Holland uses a wealth of primary sources as well as sources written within the next 100-200 years after the fall of the Republic. This brings the issues sharply into focus as we get a closer look at what these people had to deal with. However, part of this goes back to the issue of bias and interpretation. Some the sources (Cicero is the primary example, but there are others) are heavily involved with these events, thus making their stories slightly suspect (or at least biased). Yes, we have to keep in mind Holland's warning in the introduction, but it's easy to lose track of this as you read the narrative.
That being said, the narrative Holland gives us is wonderful. He is very detailed, giving us somewhat of a history of each character as he introduces him/her. While this is not a history of Roman culture, but of government, he gives us enough information to get an idea of why these events were so monumental. We see the value Romans put in to their Republic and the fact that the people were able to vote on things (though of course it wasn't like our modern-day voting, where anybody can do it). With each step toward the abyss, we see the inevitability of what happened. The benefits of hindsight are wonderful, and perhaps that's where Holland's reference to current events should be placed. As we read about Marius and Sulla and other Romans who tried to enhance their own power at the expense of the Senate, are there any "characters" hanging around right now who are doing similar things?
Another place Holland excels is in keeping the various names of Roman characters straight (Gaius This and Gaius That). I've always found confusing who's who in the Roman Empire, but Holland helps this immensely. Even so, at times I had to stop and think who he was talking about, but the clearness of the narrative makes it a lot easier to keep organized in my brain. This also applies to the sometimes confusing events. Barbarians to the North, uppity kings to the East, slave revolts and other major events all combine to bring down the once mighty empire and allow one man to rise to the top to save it (dispensing with that pesky "the people decide" aspect, however). Holland is a radio personality in Britain, and I think this gives him the ability to break down the events in ways that are easier to understand. The author's description mentions he has a PhD, but it doesn't say in what, so I have no idea if it's in history or not. Even so, he seems to have done his research and presented it in an easily readable, and more importantly, fascinating narrative.
For an introduction into the Roman Republic (and especially for those of you who thought Roman history *began* with Julius Caesar), this is a great book. Do yourself a favour and pick it up.
David Roy
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings, March 31, 2009
On one level, I loved this book. This book provides the most concise summary of the major historical events and personalities involved in the fall of the Roman Republic that I have seen. I enjoyed the author's narrative style immensley.

However, I also had many criticisms of this book.

1. There is an entire not-so-well concealed attempt to draw parallels between America and the Roman Republic. Not that I mind this, but if this was the author's thesis, he could have just come out and said so. Instead we get surreptitious innuendos that imply America is on the same path. Whether you agree or disagree with this premise is not the point. The point is that the author should have had the intellectual honesty to just incorporate this explicitly into his narrative. As he fails to do so, the book reeks of anti-American bias at points.

2. The 1st 1/4 of the book, while highly informative is not organized in any logical fashion. He jumps around between oysters and sea Villas to murders of politicians to slave revolts to major wars without ever trying to connect the events.

3. The author never really settles on a thesis. The narrative is a mix between the Romands became to "Greek" and lost their identity and the Romans became too Roman by elevating personal glory, murder, and power over anything else.

4. I wish the author would have spent more time examining the life of the average citizen, the small farmer, the tax structure, etc. and explore how this affected the events.

What we wind up with is a great, easy-to-read popular narrative of "what" happened, but a relatively weak scholarly analysis of "why" it happened.

In short this book was good, but very dissappointing because it had the potential to be great.

I would recommend this book if you are new to this era of Roman history as a good starting point. However, the academic or amatuer scholar will find this book frustrating.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "What use are empty laws without tradition to animate them?", August 26, 2006
By 
Rubicon, by Tom Holland, is a detailed and highly readable history of ancient Rome, focused primarily on the years from 133 BC to 31 BC. I've chosen these years because they seem to represent the start and finish of the downfall of the Roman Republic. In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune, representative of the plebs, on a platform of land reform. He was murdered that same year by his political opponents. This event set the stage for ever more violent political conflict. Over the next century, Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, Cato, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and, finally, Octavian (Augustus) Caesar played major roles in the history of the Republic. The era effectively ended at the battle of Actium in 31, BC when Octavian, Julius Caesar' adopted heir, defeated Mark Antony and established himself as sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

As part of his portrait of the Roman Republic, Holland brings out several key points:

1. The Republic was founded in 509 BC when the monarch was overthrown. Its government was designed to prevent a future leader from amassing the power of the kings by rigorous separation of power and highly limited terms in office. The paramount leaders were the two Consuls, equal in power and limited to one year in office, each acting as a check on the power of the other. Additional checks on the power of the Consuls were provided by the Tribunes of the Plebs, who exercised a veto over proposed laws, and the Senate.

2. The character of the individual Roman during this era was highly competitive. Each Roman, at least those of the upper classes, strove to advance himself in the eyes of his fellow citizens by moving progressively through a sequence of elective public offices culminating in the Consulship. Since these offices were one-year terms, ambitious politicians often pursued military careers as well, which provided another opportunity to bring glory to Rome (and themselves).

3. Rome accumulated the greater part of its empire while it was a republic, starting with the conquest of Italy. Its victories in its wars with Carthage (264 - 146 BC) left Rome as the undisputed master of the western Mediterranean and set the stage for its gradual conquest of the eastern Mediterranean.

Toward the end of the book, Holland quotes the poet Horace: "for what use are empty laws without tradition to animate them?" These words offer the best explanation of the death of the republic that I've found. Rome's "constitution" wasn't written; it was based on accepted customs and shared values, the "mos maiorum", the way of the ancestors. In the century leading to the death of the republic, these accepted customs and shared values lost their power to constrain ambition.

The early deviations from custom and shared values were frequently motivated by desires to achieve social and economic reforms. However, under a constitution based on tradition, there wasn't an established path for achieving these goals. Furthermore, the reforms were viewed by a significant part of the ruling class unconstitutional. The murders of the Gracchi led to ever increasing civil conflict and violence. Repeatedly, Roman commanders led their armies to Rome to take power, violating the ancient prohibition against armed forces entering the city. Eventually, the conflicts ceased to be based on differing political and social goals and evolved into pure power struggles between opponents whose only significant difference of opinion was about who should be in power. This cycle of civil conflicts continued until Octavian, an extraordinarily capable leader, was able to defeat his last opponent. At this point, Rome was so exhausted by civil war that the Senate effectively begged Octavian to become ruler for life.
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52 of 63 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A passable pamphlet of Roman history., September 25, 2005
Having read [most of] the Masters of Rome Series by Colleen McCullough, it's hard to read this book and not feel, at least a little, that there's a lot that is missing. This presents its self most noticeably in the connections between the moguls of ancient Rome before the collapse of the republic. Now I know that's completely unfair considering that Rubicon is a scant 378 pages compared to the thousands of pages written by McCullough.

Many times while reading Rubicon, I was struck not by the revelations presented by Holland, but by the lack of depth in his writing because the history he is covering is enormous. But this book is only meant to be history in fast forward. It's like a Disney ride through ancient history where the car you're in is going too fast.

History is little more than story telling. Sure there are dates, sure there are accounts, sure there are events. But what are almost always missing are the motives, the back-stories, and the minutiae, and that is where the historian comes in. They breathe life into the dead, and make them dance for our amusement, and most importantly for our edification. History is enlightening if only because it helps us to realize that though the fashions change, and our technologies improve, we are after all no different than people living thousands of years ago. Our struggles are as monumental, our passions as unbridled, and our ignorance just as profound now as then. We read history, and while we may often feel awed, how often do we feel connected? How often do we see so vividly, in our minds eye, a moment of the past we can almost reach out and touch? That is the difference between Holland's book, and McCullough's universe.

Rubicon is good for one thing absolutely. If anything is going to wet your appetite for Roman history, Holland's book will do it. If, however, you finish this book and find yourself wanting to know more, stepping up to McCullough's Masters of Rome Series, starting with The First Man in Rome, is a very rewarding investment of your time and money.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, January 18, 2004
By 
alistair clethero (new plymouth, new zealand) - See all my reviews
This would be very high in my list of top ten books I have read in the last 20 years. Why? Because Tom Holland has brought the entire play of the fall of the Roman Republic to life. He portrays each of the main characters (and there are a lot of them) as real people, giving sound reasons as to who is friend and foe and why. Rather than telling the tale of each person as a separate story, all events are interwoven together. Typical of all politicians nobody is honest and nobody is entirely good either - though mostly they are all rich. Parallels abound between then and now, particularly with regards to big business and what drives government, though Mr Holland wisely never eludes to this and allows us to draw the conclusion. I was left wondering who was the real villian, the rest look just as bad as Caesar - and they all have their own agendas. All in all an excellent, eminently readable, un-put-downable book. Just a pity it isn't longer. I look forward to a sequel.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Book For Non-History Readers Only, October 18, 2012
After finishing Tom Holland's 'Rubicon', one thing is certain; he's a fine writer. His prose is flowing and even entertaining. The book is a quick read and very accessible to any reader. In fact, I would recommend it to anyone who has never picked up a history book and is easily bored by the past. Tom Holland is for them.

But I cannot recommend this work to anyone who reads history regularly. Tom Holland is not a historian or a scholar. That by itself is not a problem. Several of the great works of history in recent decades have been written by non-historians. Rick Atkinson (An Army at Dawn) and David Halberstam (The Best and the Brightest) are both news reporters. The first won a Pulitzer, the second wrote one of the most important books on Vietnam. John Julius Norwich (Byzantium: The Early Centuries; Byzantium: The Apogee; Byzantium: The Decline and Fall), an English lord with no historical training, managed to produce the definitive history on the Byzantine Empire. So Tom Holland's background of a degree in English and an author of fantasy/horror novels does not necessarily preclude him from writing a great work of history. But 'Rubicon' isn't one.

Holland's book is a series of sweeping generalizations and unfounded conclusions. He makes declarative statements that seem to have no basis in historic record of even common sense. In chapter six he writes, "No Roman ever bothered striking at an enemy he did not fear." Huh? What? Not one Roman at any level at any point in his life did that? How about the Roman government, which as a matter of course frequently expanded its borders as a preventative measure against future invaders, and not in the face of a extant enemy they feared? And I'm sure at some point some Roman gangster or criminal ring leader struck out at a rival opponent who they didn't actively "fear". Holland's book is filled with nonsensical statements like this, telling us how all Romans felt and acted, without any citation whatsoever. It's like he's making up some of it.

I read history. I've read many wonderful books written by historians and non-historians. I've read works that are scholarly, and works that are general histories drawing on the scholarship of others. In my opinion 'Rubicon' treats history like a pulp movie, and its light nature mixed with seemingly unfounded conclusions led me to struggle with finishing it.

If you don't usually read history books, give 'Rubicon' a read. But if you enjoy the works of Doris Kearns Goodwin or John Keegan, you'll find Tom Holland's work to be lacking.
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46 of 58 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Woe to the dirty unshaven., June 17, 2005
Tom Holland is fine writer, and a decent enough biographer but I'm a bit appalled by two things in "Rubicon"; the weakness of his historical analysis and the buying of this "brandy snifter" version by many readers but more importantly many newspaper and magazine book reviewers. This criticism should be taken seriously because the fall of the republic has been pointed to as having analogies to our present day situation in the U.S. Reading these reviews in some widely read publications (as well as seeing the author interviewed on TV) it seems that no one noticed Holland has done a terrible disservice and should be taken to task over it.

Holland has written an engaging account of the fall of the Roman Republic, but it is an account rooted in an 18th century gentleman's version of Rome. In Holland's Rubicon historical analysis has moved forward barely an inch since Gibbon. Of course facts have been modernized based on updated discoveries, but not the analysis. Biographical information has been fleshed out to make it a bit more tabloid. The mob is still the mob; no matter that it encompassed over 90% of the population of Rome, that it had both its political and economic rights limited by the Roman Senate which was made up of perhaps 100 or so families. The guilds set up to provide protection to the families and artisans are described as nothing but "gangs" by the ancient historians, repeated by the 18th century ones and further propagated by Holland who should know better. Like those historians, in Holland's republic only the named and the aristocracy have any honor, well, to his credit not many of them have that either. No matter that the Senate was made up largely of the rich and powerful who used the Roman constitution was for keeping power from the plebian majority, steering economic benefits to the optimates and disenfranchising members of "the mob" both economically and politically.

I can just see the intellectual equivalents of the mullet-wearing-camaro-driver extolling the "virtues" of Cato. Perhaps the most ignorant man in the Republic, Cato's stubborn refusal for political compromise was as responsible as anything else for the descent into Civil War and the end of the Republic. To call him conservative is an insult to conservatives. He was a reactionary backward thinker who rejected the land due veteran's of Rome's wars, who fought against any enfranchisement of non-senatorial families, he was the Mr. Nyet [Andre Gromyko] with-an-attitude of his era. But, he was honest of course, and somehow that makes this Church-Lady of the Republic worthy of idolization.

Julius Caesar, that ambitious larger than life figure, is cut down by Holland. Not for Holland Caesar's magnanimity, he seems to cynically imply it was all a PR stunt. Not for Holland that Caesar, the populist, was by most accounts of moderate political temperament in spite of his ego. Caesar is the leader of the majority of citizens (or "the mob"), in Holland's Rome there's no greater indicator of unworthiness. Caesar didn't destroy the Republic for that blame Sulla, Cato and countless other "worthy" supporters of the Republic whose intransigence and refusal to commit to reforms and organize a more rational power-sharing system built a well of animosity that would someday result in the Empire. With all his faults, Caesar was a reformer who aimed a making the system workable and more importantly somewhat more equitable.

Should you read Rubicon? Of course, Holland is a good writer and the work is entertaining, but readers should be aware of his brandy snifter/smoking jacket view of Rome and adjust their sights accordingly.
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Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic
Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (Paperback - June 10, 2004)
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