Power games

Rubicon: the triumph and tragedy of the Roman republic

Tom Holland <em>Little, Brown, 406pp, £20</

Republican Rome lasted nearly 500 years, from 510-44BC, in which time the city advanced from being an obscure settlement on the banks of the Tiber to world power. As the expansionist imperative gradually made Rome an empire in all but name, so did the virtues of the old republic - thrift, contempt for luxury, the hatred of mercenaries and the morality of strenuousness - come to seem outdated and irrelevant. The ancient class conflict between plebeians and patricians became even more vicious, with the old oligarchy and the ancient sena-torial class ranged against a new sector of "knights" and rich merchants. The con- tradictions between the ancient virtues and the new profiteering opportunities, and between the modalities of city-state and empire turned, by the first century BC, into a general crisis of legitimacy.

In the ensuing chaos, figures rose up and made themselves dictators in all but name, sidelining the Senate. Many are familiar to us all: Marius, Sulla, Lucullus, Crassus, Pompey, Cato, Julius Caesar. After oceans of blood had been spilt, Julius Caesar realised that he could rule Rome only with a trans-class coalition but, on the brink of absolute power, he was struck down by conspirators in the Senate on the ides of March, 44BC. Such is the story retold by Tom Holland in a fresh and vivid way.

Holland is under no illusions about his cast of monsters and is particularly good on that disgusting psychopath, Sulla. The problem is that, until Caesar, none believed in anything except power for the sake of power - a kind of Blairite approach to politics but with added bloodshed. The Gracchi brothers in the second century BC realised that class conflict in Rome would sharpen unless land reform was undertaken and the dispossessed of the cities settled on small farms. But the selfish landowners, with their vast latifundia worked by slaves, would not cede one inch of their privileges and got their hired thugs to assassinate both the Gracchi.

The Roman republic of the early first century BC was thus a seething pit of selfish corruption, a mindless kleptocracy beset by domestic uprisings and slave revolts, the most famous of which was led by Spartacus in 73-71BC. Meanwhile, there was constant trouble on the frontier, especially in the north of the empire where German tribes threatened and in the east, where Parthians, Armenians and others presented formidable local military challenges. Holland conveys both the seedy quality of the Roman republic and the sense of permanent crisis very well; he is particularly good at everyday life and the sights, sounds and smells of a feculent Rome which may already have numbered a million souls.

Holland's strength is as a narrative historian and there is no better and clearer guide to the tangled political events of 100-44BC. Unfortunately, his account is at times one-dimensional, given that economic and social history are barely touched on. It is true that the factions in ancient Rome often resembled rival Mafia families more than modern political parties, but they did represent clear-cut economic and social interests, about which Holland is silent. He does not sufficiently underline how the later Roman republic was a gigantic racket, with entire provinces and nations farmed out to senatorial cronies and favourites to be milked for taxation.

There are times when, like Cicero, who seems to be something of a hero to Holland, he seems to take seriously all the cant and claptrap from the Senate about "liberty" and the "fatherland". The truth is that Cicero was a windbag with a ludicrous sense of his own importance, who used his undoubted rhetorical talent to promote a vision of himself as an important player in Roman politics. But he was at least preferable to the dreadful charlatan and hypocrite Cato the Younger, whose only distinction seems to have been that he anticipated LBJ by conducting political interviews while seated on the lavatory.

Above all, Holland does not seem to have seen that the logic of the Republic forced Caesar to dictatorship as surely as the shambles of the Directory directed Napoleon along a similar path. If Caesar had not crossed the Rubicon, undoubtedly an even more unpleasant dictator would have filled the political vacuum. In his military history Holland short-changes us on Caesar's military campaigns (nothing on the battles of Thapsus, Pharsalus, Zela and Munda) and does not stress enough the originality of his campaigns: he was operating in unknown lands, not the tried and tested east, where Pompey and Crassus fought their battles.

This is a good book but hardly a great one, despite the fulsome plaudits from A N Wilson and Andrew Roberts on the jacket. Holland writes in a clear and fluent way, but he sometimes tries too hard to be witty and wise and at times one senses the strain as he cranks up yet another round of laddish demotic. But if a new readership is to be won for ancient history, it is books like this that will pave the way.

Frank McLynn is the author of Wagons West: the epic story of America's overland trails (Pimlico)