The Ruin of the Roman Republic: Recent Reading & Reviewing
In the last few months I’ve read no less than three books, one nonfiction and two fiction, about my favourite historical period, the late Roman Republic: Tom Holland’s Rubicon, Colleen McCullough’s Antony and Cleopatra, and Robert Harris’s Imperium. I can find endless fascination in reading versions and perspectives on Roman history between years (say) 100 and 30 B.C. And I am not the only one: it is one of the time periods most visited by historical fiction and film (and television; I am still to finish watching the excellent recent Rome series). I think there are two intertwined reasons that explain this fascination:
1) It is a world very ancient and different from our own, but also surprisingly modern in many respect –and surely the closest thing to the modern world that existed before, say, the seventeenth century at least. There were large-scale democratic politics, a complex government system involving checks and balances between different kinds of magistrates, heated electoral campaigns, political opposition between conservatives and progressives, vast and complex financial enterprises that enriched a few and impoverished many, and an intricate legal system of justice that combined sensible and fair principles with an often corrupt practice. These very recognizable features combine with others that seem alien to us, such as the huge importance of a military career as a way to fame, riches and political power, the almost quotidian occurrence of massive warfare (civil or not), the horrors of the slave economy system, the normality of gladiator fights as entertainment, and the enshrining of superstitions like reading the future by augurs as part of the political constitution. Moreover, it is a period in which the contradictions and tensions within the system become greater and greater and ultimately unsustainable, leading to the collapse of the Republic and the emergence of the Empire, which looks rather less “modern” and more akin to other ancient-world civilizations. One could say that the Roman Republic was an early and clumsy attempt by the secret gods that write human history of creating a modern world, that failed because many of the crucial ingredients were misplaced or omitted altogether.
2) It is an extremely well-documented period, with lots of surviving primary sources, some of them written by the main protagonists themselves (Cicero, Caesar). The leaders of this historical drama are known with enough detail that they come out as fully-fleshed human beings with complex personalities; we know about them not only the battles they fought and the laws they passed but also lots of little juicy titbits and anecdotes. It is an era that produces an unusually large number of “Great Men”: Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Cicero, Caesar, Clodius, Cato the Younger, Brutus, Mark Antony, Octavian/Augustus … Each of them has a recognizable personality and a particular kind of achievement in which he reigns supreme; e.g. for Cicero rhetoric, for Crassus moneymaking, for Clodius demagoguery, for Octavian political craftiness (his portrayal as an trusting fool in I, Claudius notwithstanding) and for Cato either integrity and incorruptibility or stubborn, dogmatic close-mindedness, according to the leanings of the writer. There are also several “Great Women” in the background: Servilia, Clodia, Livia, and of course that quintessential femme fatal Cleopatra.
Before moving on to the reviews I can’t resist sharing my favourite anecdote about this period, to give you a taste of the treats you can find reading about this period. It comes from Plutarch’s Life of Cato and Life of Brutus. The date is December 5th, 63 B.C. The consul Cicero has discovered incriminating evidence against several important senators and noblemen who have been plotting with Catiline to take over the government; Catiline himself has left the city some time ago, hounded out by Cicero’s powerful rhetoric, and is now an enemy of the state. There is a meeting of the Senate to decide what to do with the captured conspirators. Cicero, the consul elect for next year Silanus, and most other senators speak in favour of the immediate death penalty. Gaius Julius Caesar (at this time only an up-and-coming politician, who has a long way to go before conquering the Gauls, defeating Pompey in a civil war, and becoming master of Rome) is the only one against it: he reminds everyone that it is against the law to put to death Roman citizens without a trial, and of how terrible a precedent it would be to violate this sacred principle, even with patently guilty men. Many are persuaded by his speech, but the arch-conservative Marcus Porcius Cato is unmoved. These are not times for constitutional scruples, he argues; Catiline is still in arms against the Republic and if we let his followers live, perhaps to escape and join him, we are risking the very existence of the state. Executing them immediately is an act of sheer self-defence, and if Caesar is not afraid of letting them live… well, perhaps he knows all too well that he has nothing to fear from the conspirators if they succeed! (This was a clear accusation of Caesar being involved in the plot, something for which there was no evidence but that plenty of historians both ancient and modern have suspected.) Caesar defends himself from the personal attacks, and an impassioned debate between the two men begins. At the most heated moment, a messenger enters the Senate with a note for Caesar. Cato interrupts his speech to cry out: Look, Caesar is shamelessly receiving treasonous letters from his fellow conspirators as we discuss in the Senate! I demand that he reads aloud that message exposing his guilt!
Caesar gives the letter to Cato without saying a word, and upon reading it with the eyes of the whole Senate fixed on him, Cato sees that it is no letter from the Catiline conspirators… but a love letter. A scandalously passionate letter (Plutarch calls it “wanton” and “unchaste”, but unfortunately does not transcribe its contents) from one Servilia Caepionis, who belongs to the crème of the Roman aristocracy, is the wife of the elect consul Silanus… and the half-sister of Cato himself.
Can you imagine a more deliciously ironic situation? (Compounded, of course, by Cato being an old-fashioned moralist for whom his sister’s behaviour must have been a huge embarrassment.) Cato crumpled the note and hurled back to Caesar with an insult, and resumed the debate as is nothing had happened. He even managed to win the argument, and the conspirators were executed; Catiline was defeated in battle and killed a few months later. (A few years down the road, the illegality of the decision would come back to haunt Cicero, who was exiled from the city for a couple of years by manipulations of his political and personal enemy Clodius on the charges of having put to death Roman citizens without a trial.)
Oh, and by the way: this Servilia, lover of Caesar, had a son from an earlier marriage, at this time about twenty years old, whose name was Marcus Junius Brutus and who was in the future to wield a knife against Caesar on a certain day by the middle of March. It seems unlikely for the affair between Servilia and Caesar to have lasted for two decades and more, and started when Caesar himself was a teenager, so most historians dismiss the rumours you are thinking of… but now you know what the apocryphal words “you too, my son” are supposed to mean.
I must repress the urge to go own telling you more stories about these people, in particular my second favourite one: how Clodius cross-dressed to sneak in unnoticed into a secret ritual to which only women were allowed. The consequences of this fascinating and twisted tale include both the Cicero-Clodius feud I mentioned above, and our use of the phrase “Caesar’s wife” for a woman who is or should be above suspicion. But I must go on to the reviews. You can read the full story of Clodius’s sacrilege, among with essentially everything else that you should know about this period, in Tom Holland’s book Rubicon. (The only exception is the story of Servilia’s letter, which Holland unaccountably leaves out. Servilia’s love affair with Caesar and the Cato-Caesar debate over the conspiracy are both mentioned, but separately and without bringing in the letter incident.)
Rubicon is one of the best books of popular history I have ever read. It tells the complete story I outlined at the beginning of the post –how the Republic became “out of control” and drifted inexorably into the Empire- with careful factual accuracy but the rhythm and pace of a thriller. The language and style are more journalistic than academic, making the book extremely accessible and easy to read at a quick pace, but at the same time Holland has a thorough knowledge and control of all the historical sources and never falls into anachronism. If you ever thought Roman history was boring, this is the book that will change your mind (unless my post has already done it). I have two only quibbles with the book: one is a slight bias present towards the “Republicanism” of Cicero and Cato, which I regard as more short-sighted and dogmatic than Holland presents it; although it must be said that it is difficult for writers on this period to avoid both the Republican bias and the opposite Caesar hero-worship bias, which pervades for example McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. The second one is that it focuses much more on the political and military story (the dealings of the cast of characters I listed at the beginning) than on the social and economic background, and is exclusively told from the perspective of the high class (the common people of Rome are ”the mob”, rarely positive actors with legitimate interests of their own). This makes the story more exciting to read and I don’t regret that the book is written like that, but it would be nice to contrast it with a more, let’s say, “Marxist” perspective.
Antony and Cleopatra is the Shakespearean title of the last book in Colleen McCullough Masters of Rome series. The very existence of this series is a godsend to those who like me are fascinated by this period: seven huge door-stopping novels telling the complete story of Rome between the years 110-27 B.C. McCullough’s scholarship rivals that of Holland or any other historian, and she brings to life the political and personal struggles of the era as no other writer has done. This last book covers the events between the battle of Philippi and the death of Brutus in 42 B.C and the final death of the Republic with Octavian, rechristened Augustus, becoming the first emperor in 27 B.C. The central characters are well-known: the weak-willed and pleasure-loving Mark Antony, the seductive and capricious Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and the master of politics and propagandistic spin Octavian, who uses the romance of the other two as launching board for justifying to the Senate and People his war against them -as Antony has ceased to be a “true Roman”- and hence his emergence as the sole leader of the world. The story does not fail to be thrilling and page-turning even if the ending, like in all tragedies, is known from the beginning. However, this book is lacking in comparison to previous entries in the series. There is a feeling of tiredness, of efficient “writing by the numbers” lacking inventiveness, that gives the suspicion that McCullough wanted to be finished with the series once and for all. None of the characters, except perhaps Octavian at some of his best moments, are as compelling and interesting to read about as Marius and Sulla in the first two books of the series (The First Man in Rome and The Grass Crown), or Pompey in the third.(Fortune’s Favourites). One big disappointment was the portrayal of young Livia Drusilla, Octavian’s wife, who in older age is the unforgettable villainess of I, Claudius. I knew that Robert Graves had taken some liberties with history, and that the scrupulous McCullough was unlikely to make Livia a cold-blooded poisoner; but I was hoping that she would try to rise up to the antecedents and give us a compelling version of her. Sadly, she comes out as bland and mostly uninteresting. Overall, I recommend the novel only to those who have followed the series up to it (who are unlikely to need my advice to rush to buy it.) Others would do better starting from the beginning.
Robert Harris’s Imperium is a very different book from McCullough’s detailed and realistic chronicles. It tells the story of Cicero’s early years in politics, up to his election as consul. The novel is structured around three key episodes: the prosecution by Cicero of the corrupt governor Verres, the unexpected success of which makes him the leading advocate and orator in the city; the political manipulations to ensure Pompey receives a special commission to fight the pirate menace, with Caesar and Cicero main actors behind the stage; and the election itself in which Cicero faces Catiline for the first time. (An announced sequel will surely deal with the conspiracy and its aftermath.) The style is that of a political thriller, with conventional tropes used, and rather successfully, for generating suspense. Characters are painted with broad strokes and only Cicero himself attains some complexity. The political complexities are much simplified in comparison with McCullough or even Steven Saylor, who also writes thrillers situated in this period but with a much more careful display of research. There are a couple of rather jarring anachronisms, such as calling a consular candidate a “religious fundamentalist” (something utterly meaningless in the context of Roman religion) or Pompey’s reaction to the threat of the pirates as a caricature of George W. Bush’s war on terror, complete with the words “those who are not with us are against us” put in his mouth. Imperium is a quick and easy read which may appeal to readers generally put off by history or historical novels; I enjoyed it well enough despite its faults, and am likely to read the sequel when it comes… if only to see how the story of Servilia’s letter is played!
In summary: I recommend Rubicon to anyone who has a pre-existing interest in the period, or knows nothing about it and wishes to learn in an enjoyable but reliable way; Imperium to those who enjoy thrillers with historical touches, and the whole of McCullough’s series (not Antony and Cleopatra standing on its own) for those who want to really immerse themselves in Roman history.