Book Review: Rubicon. A Must Read on Rome Essay

If you’re like me, most of what you know about the Roman Republic comes from Gladiator, the HBO mini-series Rome, and your textbook. You know, the basics. They had a Senate and used the word “veto.” Julius Caesar put an end to it, and was stabbed a bunch in return.

A murder we recreate daily with a fork.

Yet, the Roman Republic is a deeply relevant subject area for our students. Our Founding Fathers modeled our own government after its three branches and division of power. Its fall from a representative, elected government. to rule by god-Caesars, provides a real world case study for us now.The Empire, by comparison, always seemed a little easier to grasp. Its Caesars alternate between fascinatingly horrible (Nero, Caligula) and fascinatingly grand (Augustus, Trajan).  Roads, aqueducts, and vomitorium I understand. The intricacies of classical republican government? Less so.

The more you dig into it the inner workings of the Roman Republic’s government, the more confusing it becomes. Their branches of government seem to compare to our own, but upon close examination devolve into a murky mess of praetors, quaestors and tribunes. Worse, half the time that don’t even follow their own rules, exceptions abound. And why are there two Catos?!

RubiconThe Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland did a great job of straightening that out. Through a fascinating narrative, it clarified and contextualized the role of major players like Pompey, Marius and Sulla, people who I never fully understood. Little quirks and idiosyncrasies of Ancient Rome came into focus in a way that just makes sense.  It left me much better equipped to teach my students about Rome, and a little embarrassed about what I had taught before.

A few of the highlights and tidbits include.:

  • The Roman people expelled their cruel kings. Seeing the need to have leadership, but rejecting monarchy , they created the position of consul.  The consul would have many of the powers of a king, but had to be elected by the people. He could only serve for one year.  And there were two of them!!  Division of power.
  • The word Republic comes from the Latin Res Publicaor “Public Business”
  • Social class in Rome was determined by a censor, a guy who every five years inventoried your wealth, and decided where you ranked.  The greatest achievement you could accomplish was to move your family up the class list. The greatest disgrace was to move down.
  • Public citizens in Rome  were expected to strive for personal and political greatness.  The two were the same thing.  Ambition in the political and civic arena was encouraged, and rewarded.  But that greatness must only be for ultimate glory of the Republic. Strive to become to great, and be shunned for life.
  • This striving for glory explains the aggressive nature of the Roman Republic, and why it conquered so much. Consuls, having climbed the highest highs of Rome’s political ladder, were now expected to win honor and glory for Rome on the battlefield.  And they had only one year to do so.
  • As Rome conquered more and more land, small farmers got bought out or ran off by unimaginably large estates that used slave labor. Many of them became Rome’s urban poor.
  • Early in the Republic, farmer citizen-soldiers fighting for their land comprised the backbone of the Roman legions.  In the late Republic, those legions were made of landless men, loyal to their general and not the Rome.
  • As Rome grew richer and more powerful, so did its most eminent citizens. Battles for political office and power changed from debates between wealthy patricians into epic clashes between warlords with the treasure and strength of conquered empires behind them.

Reading Rubicon, I’m convinced that the system of government that made Rome great was the same that doomed it to empire. Civil wars and Julius Caesars were an inevitable consequence of a system that rewarded ambition and daring. After so much infighting, the death of the Republic and reign of Augustus seemed blessedly peaceful. That’s a weird thought for an American to have.

High School
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