Sympathetic Stupid

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Rubicon: Tom Holland

The Triumph And Tragedy Of The Roman Republic

Now for some pop-history. 'Pop' only because of the great readability, but don't underestimate his academic achievement in synthesizing so much information.

As Holland acknowledges in the Preface, 'the comparison of Rome to the modern-day United States has become something of a cliché'. By the end of the Republic in AD 14, which was its zenith, Rome directly ruled Spain, France, half of Germany, most of the Balkans, most of Greece, Turkey, a good portion of the Middle East, Egypt and half of the Mediterranean Coast. The US - the premier modern-day republic - has less territory but arguably more influence; the Pax Romana seems an obvious parallel for the Pax Americana.

But 'parallels can be deceptive'. The sociopolitical circumstances may be broadly similar but the culture and assumptions are completely different. I'm sure a comparison can be found for the Roman arena - maybe reality TV? - but that's stretching it. And even the seemingly similar Senate differs, I mean, in those days only rich people could be involved in politics, which these days is... Well, sure, politics was a lot about horse-trading, and populism was preferred but... Oh, OK, they had a tradition of great oratory. You don't see that these days.

So, anyway, they may be similar but I preferred to read the book without too much reference to modern-day sociopolitical parallels. In fact, what mainly ran through my head, especially during the second half of the book, was Asterix.

Yep, all the big names are there. Julius Caesar. Vercingetorix. Scipio. Brutus. Mark Antony. Ptolemy. These guys all made an appearance or three in the classic comics of Hergé. I never realised how close he got to the actual events of history. The description of Vercingetorix laying down his arms in front of JC seemed identical to the comic book. And the world itself was right: belligerent and multifarious Gallic tribes, scary encroaching Goths, well-drilled Roman legionaries, exotic Egyptians and marauding pirates. The two pictures are painted in a completely different way but similarly competently. I'm inspired to go back to the comics (preferably to help me with my French) and this time I'm going to call them graphic novels.

Anyway, the book. The first two chapters are quite bitsy, the worst part of the book. He's trying to briefly set the scene by covering a couple of hundred sparsely documented years in not many words. We don't get a great sense of the characters involved or much background; Romulus killed Remus, Hannibal had elephants, Gaius Gracchus was greedy, but it's not really their story. The rest of the book covers the next century, and this is the interesting part.

It's readable because the characters are well-drawn. We know enough of their backstory to have an understanding of their motivation, foibles and strengths. Caesar, especially, seems to have been extensively documented. In his early years, he was a dandy, a snappy dresser and a very charismatic man. He had a weakness for women: 'lock up your wives, our commander is bad news/He may be bald, but he fucks anything that moves', and possibly for men too. Marriage was for convenience and not for love.

It's interesting to contrast how these traits were seen. Dressing well, in the days of the metrosexual, is an advantage, but then it turned the old conservatives off him. These days, fucking anything that moves is a trait of the alpha male, but the Roman troops perceived it as weak and feminine to be too interested in sex. This was, however, counteracted by his habit of always being at the front of the battle, of eating his rations in his saddle, of sleeping on the ground with everyone else. It seems fairly likely that they loved him all the same. And marriage for convenience? This was the way the Roman world worked.

There are many other strong characters in this era. Pompey The Great was the only plausible rival for Caesar's dictatorship, being his equal as general but not as politician. Cato was the upstanding pillar of conservative politics. Cicero was a commoner who became a great orator, politician and lawyer (these were inseparable). Octavion, Caesar's son, was the megalomaniac who became Augustus. Mithridates was an irrepressible King of the East. Cleopatra, while probably not the most beautiful woman in the world, had a certain je ne sais quoi which ensured she'd get her way. Mark Antony was Caesar's 2IC and protegé and a similarly capable sex god. Crassus (Croesus?) was very, very rich. Sulla was the initial dictator prototype.

It seems a scary time to live in, and so the account is compelling. The world is enormous, human life is worth little, politics is a ruthless game and relationships are worth no more than what they produce. The Romans are the pinnacle of pragmatism, happily trading off human rights and social good for status and power. The continuation of the Republic is paramount.

If you like history, you'll like this.