74 of 82 people found the following review helpful
"I Dream, And Have Long Dreamed, Of Seeing Alexandria",
This review is from: Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic (Hardcover)
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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Initial post: 20 Oct 2012 09:24:20 BDT
Duncan Bowers says:
Whats the point of the first 4 sentances of this review?
In reply to an earlier post on 16 Feb 2013 14:34:57 GMT
Last edited by the author on 16 Feb 2013 14:36:46 GMT
I think you mean seven sentences! I guess they're designed, like the slot machines, to lure us in..
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