The Long View: Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic By Tom Holland

John J. Reilly thought Rubicon [Amazon link] by Tom Holland, the cricket-playing English historian often confused for Spiderman, was an interesting counterpoint to The Last Generation of the Roman Republic By Erich S. Gruen.

There is a lot of fascinating history here, from Pompey’s clever embrace of the concept of divine kingship, to the link between bread and circuses and Rome’s foreign policy. Read the whole thing for yourself, this is a masterpiece of summary.

Posidonius had a considerable following among the good-government faction of the Roman political class; neither were his ideas wholly without effect. Because of him and his followers, the governors of the Republic's empire had to at least pretend to be administering their provinces with a view to the well-being of the governed.
The other great movement of the spirit, and a far more popular one, was millenarianism. The author makes the fascinating proposal that, in a world ruled by a republic (or at least overshadowed by one) monarchism was a revolutionary idea.

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

By Tom Holland
Doubleday, 2009
408 Pages, US$29.00
ISBN: 0-385-50313-X
(2003 British Edition Published by Little, Brown)

Rome was the Republic from the overthrow of the monarchy in 509 BC until 27 BC, the year in which the Senate awarded the title “Augustus” to Julius Caesar's great-nephew Octavian. During those centuries, Rome's constitution adopted bewildering combinations of oligarchy, gangsterism, democracy, dictatorship, and mob-rule. Still, Rome was the Republic so long that the idea it might be anything else became unimaginable to its citizens. This was not least true of Octavian, who imagined that he was restoring the Republic even as he became Rome's first emperor. The transformation from republican polis to imperial monarchy took about 80 years. The era is sometimes called The Roman Revolution [Amazon link], after Ronald Syme's famous book.

Those years have so much narrative drive, almost like a novel, that the suggestion has been made that maybe later historians had made the fate of the Republic seem more determined than it really was; that was the thesis of Erich Gruen's able exercise in late 20th-century revisionism, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. This view has not on the whole found great favor in the academy, however. In any case, it is not to be met with in Rubicon, this engaging narrative history by Tom Holland, perhaps Britain's premier popular historian of antiquity (with important excursions to the medieval world also to his credit). We are back to the consensus of the earlier 20th century: while of course the incidents and personalities of the Roman Revolution were as guided by chance as those of any other era, we may still say that, after the middle of the second century BC, the Republic was increasingly dysfunctional. Holland does not scruple to use the word “degenerate.” The system was more likely to collapse with each generation. The only question was: who would be the agents of that event?

At any rate, that was the question the ancients asked. Indeed, the one reservation one might have about this book is that it may echo the primary sources too closely. The ancient Greek and Latin authors generally wrote history with tabloid flair, and our 21st-century author takes care that his readers miss none of the more quotable naughty bits. This does not prevent him from making his story more coherent and less partisan than the ones the ancients told. (Yes, it is possible to be partisan about Roman politics, even during the Obama Administration.) Additionally, his insights about terrorism, millenarianism, and celebrity do not lack for resonance today.

The title Rubicon refers to the river that Caesar in 49 BC decided to cross with the army he had commanded as governor of Gaul. (Today's Rubicon, by the way, can only speculatively be identified as the river of Caesar's day; certainly it does not follow the same course.) By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar left his province and entered Italy. That was an illegal act that started a civil war, indeed a world war. With some pauses, it would continue after his assassination in 44 BC until 31 BC, when Octavian won the Battle of Actium against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, thereby becoming the last-man-standing at the pinnacle of Roman politics. This review is not the place to summarize the whole chronology of the period under consideration, but the mention of a few dates and personalities may help clarify why crossing that river was a matter of life or death for Caesar, and why his opponent on the other side was not really the Roman Republic, but a single man, Pompey the Great.

In effect, Caesar was in grave danger of being sued. The action would have been brought by some rival politician, but it would have been a criminal prosecution. (Roman law favored this procedure.) Such litigation had become the stuff of Roman politics since the dictatorship of Sulla around 80 BC; almost anyone leaving a governorship or major civil office was likely to be charged with tyranny and embezzlement, not always without a measure of justification. Sulla had broken immemorial tradition by deciding a factional fight against the “populist” party by bringing troops into Rome. He also slaughtered his enemies and expropriated their assets, but his populist predecessor Marius had done much the same during a brief reign of terror (Marius was Caesar's uncle). The civil war that Sulla won had envenomed Roman politics to an unprecedented degree. Until Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the political game was not played out with armies, but it did put the life-and-limb of its participants into danger either from the law or from organized electoral violence. As governor of Gaul, Caesar had enjoyed immunity from prosecution because of his position as proconsul, the legal basis of his governorship. He had been assured that, before his term ended, he would either be elected consul (one of the two chief executives) or receive another proconsular appointment. When neither happened, he realized that his enemies intended at least to humiliate him in a show trial, and perhaps to execute him.

The slow collapse of the Roman political system went back at least to the middle of the preceding century. After its victory over Carthage in the first two Punic Wars (264-241 BC; 219-202 BC), Rome had become the hegemon of the Mediterranean world, but hegemon by default: Roman political culture recoiled against the prospect of formal empire. Roman intervention in the affairs of the city states of Greece and the kingdoms of Asia and Africa had been a mixture of arbitration, alliance, and punitive expedition. Something changed around 146 BC, however. In that year, Rome did not just make war on Carthage and Corinth for insubordination but destroyed them. Thereafter, the gradual transformation of influence to imperial administration advanced and retreated. The interaction was energized all the time by Rome's increasing economic involvement in the East, and not least by the political necessity at Rome of securing a reliable supply of foodstuffs, which by and by became a subsidized entitlement.

Empire and welfare went hand in hand. Not long after the harsher turn in Roman foreign policy, the populist leaders Tiberius Gracchus (tribune in 133 BC) and Gaius Gracchus (tribune in 123 and 122 BC) were assassinated to forestall their land-reform policies; in Gaius's case, the murder was part of a coup by reactionaries in the Senate. Roman politics increasingly resonated with events abroad, as ambitious states on the periphery saw their chance to collect loot and allies when factional politics turned Roman attention inward. Both Marius and Sulla took their turns trying to capture Mithridates of Pontus, who for a while commanded the allegiance of most of Greece and Asia Minor. On the whole, though, the tendency was toward deeper and more lasting penetration by Roman power. The process of imperial expansion in the East was completed in substance, if not in detail, by Pompey in the 60s BC. He was the greatest conqueror in the Greco-Roman world since Alexander the Great. It was to Pompey that the Senate turned in 52 BC to serve as sole consul when political street-fighting made ordinary elections temporarily impossible.

Caesar had once been Pompey's protégé, as Pompey had been Sulla's. Caesar and Pompey were allies in the famous First Triumvirate (with Crassus, the financier who made the mistake of trying to draw equal with his colleague's military eminence by invading Parthia). It was not fated that they should become enemies, much less that their conflict should bring down the Republic. Nonetheless, as the author points out, Rome's public life was driven by a paradox. The same word, “honestas,” meant both fame and honesty. A society that does not strongly differentiate celebrity from virtue is bound to be very competitive; the odd thing about the Republic was that ambition was simultaneously regarded with suspicion, as potentially subversive of the political order. To become a great man in the life of Rome was to raise up competitors to put the great man in his place, competitors who could congratulate themselves that they were doing a public service.

As the increasing wealth of the empire provided individual Romans with ever greater resources, the competition for public acclaim became more extreme and extravagant. Caesar had conquered much of western Europe and relieved its inhabitants of an amazing amount of money; Pompey made the kings of the East his dues-paying clients. Money could be used to win elections, but also to raise armies. Both men wanted to be first at Rome; both needed to be first for their personal safety. Something had to give.

There were, perhaps, two great spiritual currents in the final consolidation of the Roman universal state (to import a term from Toynbee's model of history). One was represented by the Greek polymath, Posidonius (135 BC – 51 BC). He was the finest flower of the late Hellenistic age, a man famed for achieving a consilience of knowledge that united theology, physics, and political theory. He was influential everywhere but, oddly enough, almost nothing of his own works have survived. We know that he was a Stoic. He might be compared in some ways to Epictetus in the second century AD, the Stoic philosopher whose interpretation of the Roman Empire as cosmopolis so strongly influenced the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Posidonius's ideas were apparently not dissimilar. Despite the Republic's notorious lapses into imperial extortion and mere incompetence, Posidonius saw through the accident of Romanness to the empire's essential nature as the city of man, the only practical structure for civilization.

Posidonius had a considerable following among the good-government faction of the Roman political class; neither were his ideas wholly without effect. Because of him and his followers, the governors of the Republic's empire had to at least pretend to be administering their provinces with a view to the well-being of the governed. The author remarks that it may have been Posidonius who finally broke Roman “conservatism” (a slippery term in any context: in this case it meant complacence in the transformation of Latium into a land of slave-worked latifundia) of its isolationist tradition. Cato, who was Caesar's chief ideological enemy and Senator Filibuster himself when reform measures were proposed, was also Posidonius's friend and admirer.

The other great movement of the spirit, and a far more popular one, was millenarianism. The author makes the fascinating proposal that, in a world ruled by a republic (or at least overshadowed by one) monarchism was a revolutionary idea. It blended with the legends and folk traditions about Alexander the Great and the possibility of divine kingship. The author has a great deal to say about the prophecies that circulated through the East of a coming royal liberator. Some of these prophecies were quite ancient and some manufactured by Mithridates as part of his propaganda against Rome.

The stroke of genius that secured the Roman power in the East was Pompey's embrace of this tradition. Even in Rome, his military reputation had made him something more than the first among equals; in the East, in an informal way, he was a savior god. Julius Caesar understood this, too. He could be a paramount chieftain in Gaul, and a tribune in Rome, and a hegemon in Greece, and a god in Egypt. The power of a man in his position might rest on Rome and Italy, but his legitimacy need not.

And what shall we say of Caesar, that typical product of the late-Republican hot-house of dandies and ironists? No one thinks of him as one of history's great villains. He blew up a 500-year-old political system and depopulated Gaul by an eighth to raise political-campaign money, but he is remembered chiefly for his clemency. His very willingness to pardon his political opponents may itself have been a sign that the Republic was already fading from the mind of his generation. Marius and Sulla took great satisfaction in the defeat and destruction of their enemies; that was the reward for those who played the game. Caesar, one suspects, was part of a growing class of people who found the game merely tedious. They would play for renown and to save their lives, but it could no longer hold their complete attention.

When the dust settled after Caesar's assassination and Octavian came to power, his legal position was a model of traditional propriety, like Pompey's had been; this was in sharp contrast to the frivolous riot of constitutional improvisations that Uncle Julius had spun off at odd moments. Octavian was neither frivolous nor clement. He killed all his enemies, not for the satisfaction but because he had to; and when they were all dead, he stopped. That is why he is not remembered as a villain, either.

The great circulation of strong personalities eager for fame stopped, too, in Rome if not in local government. The advent of Augustus affected Roman politics in a way that was like what some climatologists say would happen if the ice at the North Pole melted. Fresh water would cause the Gulf Stream to stop circulating, thereby causing an ice age. Similarly, Augustus's eminence stopped the great game of Roman politics. Only the emperor could have the sort of fame for which the great of Rome had so long competed, and at least under the Principate, the imperial office was not available as a prize. Consequently, a political ice age then began. We call it the Roman Empire.

Copyright © 2010 by John J. Reilly

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