Sunday, July 29, 2007

Book Review: 'Rubicon' by Tom Holland.

Tom Holland states, in the preface to Rubicon (London, Abacus, 2004), that it has become a cliche to compare Ancient Rome to the modern United States. Surprisingly this comparison is most often made to the Roman Empire and not the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic is clearly the ancient regime that is most similar to the United States. As Holland writes: "Rome was the first - and until recently - the only republic ever to rise to a position of world power, and it is hard to think of an episode of history that hold up a more intriguing mirror to our own."(1)

Rubicon is, however, not a comparison of the Roman and American Republics. Rather it is compelling piece of narrative history chronicling the downfall of the Roman Republic, from the civil wars of 80's BC to the ascension to supreme power of Octavian (Augustus) in 27 BC.

Holland's thesis, emerging from the narrative,(2) is that Rome's republican constitution was undermined by the expansion of Rome's borders beyond Italy, as the expansion fundamentally changed the Republic's economy and military. This change lead to increased divisions, rebellions, civil unrest and the emergence of increasingly powerful military generals.

The civil war, in the 80's BC, between the supporters of generals Gaius Marius and Sulla, became the the first in many civil wars over the next 60 years. Sulla, by being the first Roman general to march his legions on Rome, set a dangerous precedent and his use of prescription lists (death warrants) against his enemies undermined the constitutional balance that he was actually trying to preserve.

The precedent established by Sulla made it hard for individuals such as Cicero, Clodius, Pompey and ultimately Caesar, to resist the temptation of using force to sort out the chaos of Roman politics. Cato (clearly Holland's favourite) is portrayed as the only true defender of republicanism during this period, and he is ultimately not strong enough to defend the Republic. Caesar's raise to power and the civil wars after his death were more than the Republic could bear and in 27 BC the Senate had no choice than to grant sole power to Octavian.

Rubicon is a good argument for modern politicians to study republican Rome as this regime shared many of the values of modern republicanism:(3) representative government, elections, constitutional checks and balances, the rule of law, citizenship and individual liberty, but also many of the ills of modern republics such as populist politics and the influence of money on politics. While there are also many important differences between Rome and modern republics, its seems important to note the undermining effect of imperialism and military might on the republican constitution.

Holland, if nothing else, has written a fascinating book that should increase modern readers interest in ancient history.

(1) p. xxiv.
(2) It is a testament to Holland's scholarship that a clear thesis emerges from this piece of narrative history.
(3) Republicanism, properly understood, is not just government without a monarch, but a government based on citizenship and representation.


At 30 July, 2007 15:15, Blogger Charles & Kiersten said...

Sounds like a good read. Sometimes I think that we forget that every empire/government has fallen before us. We tend to think that life will go on forever as we know it, but history doesn't support this idea. As you know I respect President Bush and I think that he has good intentions, but.... some of his programs scare me. While he might be conscientious about how he uses them (I know there is some debate about this :-) but for arguments sake, lets just say he is) who is to say that the next president will be. Now the precedents are in place. Who is to say that the next president will not just push things a little further?

For instance if Guliani becomes president. He is very "conservative" when it comes to terrorism and protecting the U.S. but "liberal" when it comes to big government. The combination is a little frighting to me.

By the way I thought you would find this interesting.


At 02 August, 2007 10:09, Blogger Torsten Pedersen said...

I thinks thats a good point Kiersten. Politicians and government leaders don't realize how the precedents they establish can and will be (mis)used in the future.

For example, the true impact of Bush's Faith Based Initiative or Preemptive Strike Doctrine, cannot yet truly be seen. Both policies are, in my opinion, dangerous precedents, but nobody really knows how future governments will develop and use these policies.

p.s.. Thanks for the link. I find it disappointing me that Americans are just as eager for surveillance camera's as people here in the UK. Hopefully the use of surveilance cameras in the US will be subject to more legal restraints than is the case in the UK.

At 02 August, 2007 13:12, Anonymous Kiersten said...

Hey Torsten

I sent you the link more for info about cameras here in the U.S., than for the poll. I'm not sure how I feel about the whole situation. I can definitely see how the cameras could be an invasion of privacy. I can also see how they could be a deterrent to crime. I think people just want to be safe, and be able to walk down the street without being mugged, or murdered. On the other hand.... maybe if these big cities would just allow everyone to use their constitutional right of carrying a gun, it might be deterrent enough and we wouldn't need these cameras ;-).


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