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 second 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 colorful 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 clamor for more.
Holland begins 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 farther 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 one to two hundred 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 Ph.D., 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 favor and pick it up.