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It is rare that you come across a history book which is suitable for both readers who know a fair amount about the subject and also for those who know virtually nothing, but this is one of those very unusual books. To be fair, most people know something about the Roman Empire, but this book fleshes out historical characters that may be just ‘names’ and puts them in context.

The book begins with Julius Caesar about to take the supreme gamble of ‘Crossing the Rubicon,’ and then backtracks to show the reader why that was such an immense step to take. There is much about the establishment of the Republic, as far back as 509 BC, before explaining the importance of the Republic to Romans. As Cicero once stated, “The fruit of too much liberty is slavery,” and so, as the book unfolds, we hear of how the almost religious sense of community felt by Roman citizens and of politics and power in the history of Rome.

This book is full of famous names and events. Civil wars, assassinations, ancient patrician families, prestige and politics abound. As the book progresses we read of Sulla, Marius, Pompey and Crassus. Much of the bulk of the book tells the story of Julius Caesar – the young man of nineteen who was forced to flee Rome and who then stood on the threshold of history on the Rubicon. Cleopatra, Antony and Octavian all exist here, in a readable and understandable form. In fact, the author cleverly uses modern titles and sub-titles to help us understand the context of events – so you read, “The Winner Takes it All,” “Luck Be a Lady,” or “Blitzkrieg,” and know exactly where the author is expertly leading us..

“Rubicon,” covers a vast time period and a huge cast of characters. We travel from the establishment of the Republic in 509 BC to the death of Augustus in 14 AD and, as such, sometimes there is a lack of depth. However, as an introductory read, it would be hard to beat this. When Octavian faced Antony and won, it was clear how the Citizens of Rome were grateful for peace and a restored Republic. Understanding the Roman people – and the importance of re-branding – Octavian became Augustus and held power for forty years. I look forward to “Dynasty,” Tom Holland’s sequel to “Rubicon,” and his history of Rome’s first imperial dynasty. If it is anything near as readable, and enjoyable, as this, then it will be a great read.
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on 2 July 2004
Holland's narrative style means that even those with little, or no, previous knowledge of Roman history can soon find themselves totally engrossed, and enriched, by the story of the Republic's rise and fall.
It is not just the people and personalities that come to life in this book, but the nature of Rome itself. The reader is not just taken on a journey through the personal aspirations of each player, but through the mindset and aspirations of Rome as a whole.
Holland is not afraid to include the small details, such as salacious gossip of the time, which helps to add to the colour and vibrancy and brings the ancient city back to life. While the violence can appear as a bloody reminder of how far civilisation may have moved on, the political machinations have a far more familiar ring to them.
The book is littered with reminders of how much today's society has taken from, and owes to, Roman times. However, this is not done in a preachy pointed manner, rather the evidence is there for the reader to pick up on, and judge for themselves.
The main historical figures of the time, Cicero, Caesar, Pompey, etc, are the main focus of each section. Rubicon allows us to see the interaction and the power play between each of them. As the story of the alliances, oppositions and betrayals unfolds, the urge to keep reading is immense.
The book refers back to previous events in chapters, which serves to reinforce the readers understanding of events. There are maps that help to explain where places are, and their relation to Rome at the time.
Obviously, covering such a vast amount of time, and such an array of people, means that the book can only really scratch the surface of the period it covers. However, you are left with a genuine feeling that you have a better understanding of the Republic, both of itself, and the people who played a part in its history.
The book ends tantalisingly partway through Rome's history, as the Republic falls, and the Emperor's dominance begins. A subject you hop Holland will follow up with.
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on 2 September 2008
I first read Rubicon at least a few years back, and some of its facts and anecdotes are still fresh and vivid in my mind today, which is what most history books attempt (and fail) to do. When I first brought it I was looking forward to getting into it, considering the high amounts of praise showered upon Holland's prose and my own love of Roman history.

At first I was slightly disappointed, as the book didn't live up to my expectations. I basically thought that the book was supposed to be a narrative history of Julius Caesar's age, and I was a bit put off with all the initial historical background to the Roman Republic.
But as I continued to read it, Holland's wonderful writing drew me in, and I realised I couldn't put it down.

Holland takes the reader on a journey through the history of the Republic, and does an excellent job of explaining the Republic's background in government and society.
With the Background set, Holland then takes us on a tour of the last few decades of the Republic, from the days of Marius and Sulla, to the age of Antony and Cleopatra.
Holland's great strength is his ability to makes these historical figures come to life. He describes their appearance and personality, and in so doing he creates a vivid portrait of the person. His description of Julius Caesar, grand military strategist and shrewd politician, as a bald-headed dandy, who loved to wear loose belts and was very self concscious about his appearance, will no doubt surprise those who have come to base their opinions of him from old films and television shows.
He's also very adept at describing the enviroment, and he can therefore explain the reasons for the Republic's fall, as well as narrating the events and characters of the age.

I'd recommend this book for anyone who's interested in Roman history. It might not be a great piece of historical scholarship, and it doesn't really present any groundbreaking new assessments of Roman History in the vein of Ronald Syme's 'The Roman Revolution'. That aside, what the book does do well is create a lively and fascinating trip through the last years of the Republic. Ancient History buffs will enjoy this, while newcomers and those who have no knowledge of the period will no doubt find it a good read. Highly Recommended!
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on 19 November 2005
This is the same text as "Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic", so previous comments apply. Don't be silly and buy both titles :)
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on 20 October 2003
The above is a quote from Cicero. High praise indeed, for he mostly thought that any place which wasn't Rome was "squalid obscurity." But, as Tom Holland points out, most Romans thought of Alexandria as the one city that could compete with Rome as the centre of the world. Alexandria was the first city ever to have numbered addresses. It also had slot machines and automatic doors. Perhaps most importantly for the Romans it contained two other things: the tomb of Alexander The Great and the greatest library in the world. The library "boasted seven hundred thousand scrolls and had been built in pursuit of a sublime fantasy: that every book ever written might be gathered in one place." Mr. Holland's book is very good for several reasons. Firstly, it is well-written - both in terms of style (he has a background as a novelist) and also because it is written in the language of today rather than the language of 2,000 years ago. That statement may offend purists. If it does, I'm sorry, but I'm just being honest. For someone who is not a classical scholar, like myself, it makes the material much easier to read. The book is also good because Mr. Holland doesn't just describe historical events - he also gets into the Roman psyche and culture. Thus, we learn of the inherent conservatism of the Romans, which was always in conflict with ambition and ego. Men such as Sulla and Pompey, when implementing changes, always made an attempt to justify their actions by saying they were really trying to turn back the clock - that other people had disregarded precedent and they were only trying to restore tradition. We learn how important public service was to the Romans. You were frowned upon if you retired to the country and tried to live a life of idle pleasure. To do that was to shirk your responsibility to the community. Community was extremely important to the Romans. (Mr. Holland mentions that the Romans constructed "high-rise" buildings and, unlike today, the top floor was considered the worst place to live. That's where the poor people were put. The reason? The higher up you lived, the more "cut off" you were from the streets - and the community - below.) Another example of Roman conservatism was that there was a general suspicion of young people. Young people were too frivolous - too interested in clothes and food and sex. (This was why the Senate was made up of middle-aged men. Indeed, the word senate comes from "senex" - meaning "old man.") Proper Roman women were not supposed to show much interest in sex. Hence the saying, "a matron has no need of lascivious squirmings." (Leave that to the courtesans.) Regarding politics and "dishing the dirt," Mr. Holland shows us that things haven't changed so much in 2,000 years - we learn that Julius Caesar's enemies sniggered that he was "a man for every woman, and a woman for every man." Aspects of appearance and personality are brought to the forefront on almost every page: Marc Antony, despite his bravery in battle, was looked down upon by many people because of his reputation as a "party animal."; when Julius Caesar crossed the Rhine he thought it would be undignified to do so by boat. So he had a bridge built. After teaching the Germanic tribes to have some respect for Rome, he crossed back into Gaul and had the bridge torn down; if her image on ancient coins was anything to go by, far from looking like Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra was actually "scrawny and hook-nosed." (That didn't stop her from having a son by Julius Caesar and twins by Marc Antony.) This book is a very good study of many aspects of Roman society - political, cultural, military, psychological (the fascination with omens and deities)- with everything held together by interesting and charismatic personalities. I did get a little confused by trying to follow some of the political maneuvering engaged in by the various factions, but I attribute that to my lack of previous reading in this area rather than to any fault on Mr. Holland's part. I found "Rubicon" to be a very rewarding read.
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on 3 February 2004
So much information should have been dry and difficult, but instead really comes to life. Reading this book allows you to get a real feel for the (many, many) characters involved in this period of change for Rome.
I especially liked the way that you get to understand the motivations of those involved and how the nature of Roman society and its own history affected peoples behaviour, aspirations and actions.
The parallels with more recent history are plain for all to see, but this aspect is not itself part of the text - leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions.
A must have for anyone interested in history at all, not just that of Rome.
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on 30 May 2008
I read this hoping for a bit more political analysis, despite the sales pitch that it is an unashamed return to narrative history. I really wanted to know, a bit simplistically, why did Rome rise and then fall? What you get is better: the sheer awe-inspiring drama of the heroic characters of the republic. Pompey, Caesar and Octavian the high achievers; Cicero the trimmer and the orator, and finally brave in death; the uncompromising Cato, unkillable soul of the republican ideal. In the end the bitter personal rivalries became so caught up in the enticing rewards of empire that they could not be contained. Ambition found its outlet in violence and legitimacy perished. Forget the management and leadership gurus, or even the diaries of Alastair Campbell. Better lessons about leadership and political rivalry are in these pages. You will also learn much about how the Romans thought and how all this amazing stuff looked and felt to them. Surely volume two and the empire will follow?
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on 25 March 2007
If you are unfamiliar with this period of history, this is perhaps the most accessible one-volume account published to date.
Having honed his narrative skills on dark `gothic horror' thrillers Holland has brought the trails and travails of the late Roman Republic to a new generation of readers. From the Gracchi to Marius, from Sulla through Caesar to Augustus, with incisive insight into characters from Pompey to Cicero.
All these names will become familiar to the new reader, whilst the pacey narrative will draw anyone with prior knowledge of this period along.
Superb!
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on 20 January 2008
Buy this book if you want to learn how all those great Romans you have have seen in films and TV series and heard about at school lived, died and influenced their world. Buy it if you want to be royally entertained. But buy it also if you want to understand the world of ancient Rome and the mind set of the people that made it supreme and enabled them to dominate the known world for centuries. This is a great book , but then it does tell a great story that will sometimes, literally, make your jaw drop. 2000 years is a long time, but reading this, somehow, it seems like yesterday.

Trust me, you won't be able to turn the pages quickly enough, and you'll find yourself thinking about Sulla, Cicero, Pompey, Crassus, Ceaser, the gladiators, the slaves and the unbelieveably savage bloody battles that the legions fought across thousands of miles of Europe and Asia. Holland brings it all alive and you'll love it.
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on 2 March 2004
What parallels might be drawn between the present-day United States and the Roman Republic before Julius Caesar took over? It's a fascinating question, and one that seems to be an inspiration to Tom Holland, as he mentions it in the introduction to Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. Or, maybe it wasn't one, since this is the last time he mentions it. The reader is left to his/her own conclusions on this issue, but unfortunately the back cover draws attention to this aspect making you think that's what the book is going to be about.
Instead, he gives us a history of the fall of the Republic, from the late 2nd century BC to the death of Caesar in 44 BC. Holland covers all the wars, civil unrest and the decline of senatorial power as he shows us the events leading to dictatorship. The history is dotted with colourful characters (from Caesar to Spartacus to Cleopatra and beyond) and Holland brings them all to life, often in their own words. In doing so, Holland has produced a very readable account, meticulously researched, that will make anybody with even a mild interest in this time period clamour for more.
Holland begins (also in his introduction) by talking about the amount of information from this time period that we have access to, as it's one of the most recorded periods in ancient history. Yet even so, it's impossible to take everything written as fact, immune to different interpretations. Instead, it's a minefield where historians have to tread carefully.
"In short, the reader should take it as a rule of thumb that many statements of fact in this book could plausibly be contradicted by an opposite interpretation." Pg xx (introduction)
This is all well and good, and I'm glad that he warned us. While all history is subject to interpretation (or even outright lies, depending on what the sources are and how biased they are), the further back you go the worse it gets. However, one thing I wish Holland would have done is to acknowledge this within the text as well. It would have been interesting to see him discuss a couple of interpretations of conflicting events as he told us about them, something like:
{XX happened, according to Plutarch, but other accounts say YY happened. It seems logical to assume, given the equipment involved, that a combination of XX and YY is what truly happened.}
Instead, we get one narrative with a warning at the beginning that, we have to remember, this may not be the right one.
Holland uses a wealth of primary sources as well as sources written within the next 100-200 years after the fall of the Republic. This brings the issues sharply into focus as we get a closer look at what these people had to deal with. However, part of this goes back to the issue of bias and interpretation. Some the sources (Cicero is the primary example, but there are others) are heavily involved with these events, thus making their stories slightly suspect (or at least biased). Yes, we have to keep in mind Holland's warning in the introduction, but it's easy to lose track of this as you read the narrative.
That being said, the narrative Holland gives us is wonderful. He is very detailed, giving us somewhat of a history of each character as he introduces him/her. While this is not a history of Roman culture, but of government, he gives us enough information to get an idea of why these events were so monumental. We see the value Romans put in to their Republic and the fact that the people were able to vote on things (though of course it wasn't like our modern-day voting, where anybody can do it). With each step toward the abyss, we see the inevitability of what happened. The benefits of hindsight are wonderful, and perhaps that's where Holland's reference to current events should be placed. As we read about Marius and Sulla and other Romans who tried to enhance their own power at the expense of the Senate, are there any "characters" hanging around right now who are doing similar things?
Another place Holland excels is in keeping the various names of Roman characters straight (Gaius This and Gaius That). I've always found confusing who's who in the Roman Empire, but Holland helps this immensely. Even so, at times I had to stop and think who he was talking about, but the clearness of the narrative makes it a lot easier to keep organized in my brain. This also applies to the sometimes confusing events. Barbarians to the North, uppity kings to the East, slave revolts and other major events all combine to bring down the once mighty empire and allow one man to rise to the top to save it (dispensing with that pesky "the people decide" aspect, however). Holland is a radio personality in Britain, and I think this gives him the ability to break down the events in ways that are easier to understand. The author's description mentions he has a PhD, but it doesn't say in what, so I have no idea if it's in history or not. Even so, he seems to have done his research and presented it in an easily readable, and more importantly, fascinating narrative.
For an introduction into the Roman Republic (and especially for those of you who thought Roman history *began* with Julius Caesar), this is a great book. Do yourself a favour and pick it up.
David Roy
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