History remembers wars in terms of the tipping point, the moment when, with dramatically pleasing clarity, the world changes for ever: the plucking of the red and white roses of Lancaster and York; Gavrilo Princeps's lucky shot in Sarajevo; the words 'I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received'. The decisive moment is a staple of our understanding. It is also, of course, a myth.
The crossing of the Rubicon was the exemplary act of decision. As Tom Holland explains, the Romans had a word, discrimen, for a choice hanging in the balance that might bring either triumph or catastrophe. Rubicon is a study of discrimen; of the fall of great men ostensibly dedicated to an uplifting ideal, and the rise of other, more floridly self-interested great men - the Roman emperors. Of risk and greed, feuds and folly; of, as Holland would see it, the degeneration of civic honour to the hegemony of personal ambition. Long into the Principate which replaced the shattered Republic, political idealists and the historically nostalgic recalled the glory days.
Holland takes up their cause with passion. Ancient history often descends to us either through impregnable academic works or the sword-and-sandal epics of the cinema. What Holland achieves is to draw from both genres to write a modern, well-paced and finely observed history which entertains as it informs.
Rubicon unravels the myths and exposes the compelling reality behind what we might now call regime change in ancient Rome. Like all studies of cause and effect, the circle tends to move outwards once discrete explanations are dismissed. The chronology Holland finds himself encompassing is, of necessity, so large that it risks overwhelming the drive of the narrative. That he pulls this off is a tribute to his established skills as a novelist. That he makes a complicated historical period comprehensible is a tribute to broad research. That a large cast of mostly repellent men comes to life and individuality is mostly down to wit and, I suspect, reluctant affection.
If Holland has a hero, it is the verbose Cicero, whose loyalty to the Republic and its values endured to the end; he hesitated too long in leaving his Rome and died like the bravest of gladiators, stretching out his neck for the assassin's blade. By contrast, when the dictator Sulla, one of the cruellest of Romans, goes into retirement and expires at home in bed, the reader feels cheated of the just desert of fiction.
Two challenges face a historian writing about ancient Rome for a general readership. The first is transmitting hefty information of a dullness that has driven generations away from Classics, yet without which the dynamics of the Roman Republic cannot be understood. The second is to reflect the true fascination of ancient Rome, a civilisation deceptively like our own - with muscular paganism, hygiene, a legislature, literature and military virtues - but which was in fact utterly alien. Holland succeeds brilliantly in conveying the paradoxes of that society.
Part of this success is created in changes of register, from the rhetorical to the poetic to modern vernacular - stylistic devices loved by Roman writers. 'As the traveller approached Rome's gates he might occasionally find the stench from the city ameliorated by myrrh or cassia, the perfumes of death, borne to him on the breeze from a cypress-shaded tomb' has echoes of the poet Propertius. Yet there are also pornographers, hacks, drag-queens and sleaze here; and words whose impact echo the shock of the vulgar, of the new men and their new ways which appalled conservative Rome in the first century BC.
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