Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

by Tom Holland


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A vivid historical account of the social world of Rome as it moved from republic to empire. In 49 B.C., the seven hundred fifth year since the founding of Rome, Julius Caesar crossed a small border river called the Rubicon and plunged Rome into cataclysmic civil war. Tom Holland’s enthralling account tells the story of Caesar’s generation, witness to the twilight of the Republic and its bloody transformation into an empire. From Cicero, Spartacus, and Brutus, to Cleopatra, Virgil, and Augustus, here are some of the most legendary figures in history brought thrillingly to life. Combining verve and freshness with scrupulous scholarship, Rubicon is not only an engrossing history of this pivotal era but a uniquely resonant portrait of a great civilization in all its extremes of self-sacrifice and rivalry, decadence and catastrophe, intrigue, war, and world-shaking ambition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400078974
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/08/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 79,998
Product dimensions: 5.15(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.92(d)
Lexile: 1140L (what's this?)

About the Author

Tom Holland is a historian of the ancient world and a translator. His books include Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman RepublicPersian FireIn the Shadow of the Sword and The Forge of Christendom. He has adapted Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil for the BBC. In 2007, he was the winner of the Classical Association prize, awarded to “the individual who has done most to promote the study of the language, literature and civilization of Ancient Greece and Rome.” He lives in London with his family.
Visit the author's website at

Read an Excerpt


The Paradoxical Republic

Ancestral Voices

In the beginning, before the Republic, Rome was ruled by kings. About one of these, a haughty tyrant by the name of Tarquin, an eerie tale was told. Once, in his palace, an old woman came calling on him. In her arms she carried nine books. When she offered these to Tarquin he laughed in her face, so fabulous was the price she was demanding. The old woman, making no attempt to bargain, turned and left without a word. She burned three of the books and then, reappearing before the king, offered him the remaining volumes, still at the same price as before. A second time, although with less self-assurance now, the king refused, and a second time the old woman turned and left. By now Tarquin had grown nervous of what he might be turning down, and so when the mysterious crone reappeared, this time holding only three books, he hurriedly bought them, even though he had to pay the price originally demanded for all nine. Taking her money, the old woman then vanished, never to be seen again.

Who had she been? Her books proved to contain prophecies of such potency that the Romans soon realized that only one woman could possibly have been their author—the Sibyl. Yet this was an identification that only begged further questions, for the legends told of the Sibyl were strange and puzzling. On the presumption that she had foretold the Trojan War, men debated whether she was a compound of ten prophetesses, or immortal, or destined to live a thousand years. Some—the more sophisticated—even wondered whether she existed at all. In fact, only two things could be asserted with any real confidence—that her books, inscribed with spidery and antique Greek, certainly existed, and that within them could be read the pattern of events that were to come. The Romans, thanks to Tarquin's belated eye for a bargain, found themselves with a window to the future of the world.

Not that this helped Tarquin much. In 509 bc he succumbed to a palace coup. Kings had been ruling in Rome for more than two hundred years, ever since the city's foundation, but Tarquin, the seventh in line, would also be the last.* With his expulsion, the monarchy itself was overthrown, and, in its place, a free republic proclaimed. From then on, the title of "king" would be regarded by the Roman people with an almost pathological hatred, to be shrunk from and shuddered at whenever mentioned. Liberty had been the watchword of the coup against Tarquin, and liberty, the liberty of a city that had no master, was now consecrated as the birthright and measure of every citizen. To preserve it from the ambitions of future would-be tyrants, the founders of the Republic settled upon a remarkable formula. Carefully, they divided the powers of the exiled Tarquin between two magistrates, both elected, neither permitted to serve for longer than a year. These were the consuls, and their presence at the head of their fellow citizens, the one guarding against the ambitions of the other, was a stirring expression of the Republic's guiding principle—that never again should one man be permitted to rule supreme in Rome. Yet, startling though the innovation of the consulship appeared, it was not so radical as to separate the Romans entirely from their past. The monarchy might have been abolished, but very little else. The roots of the new Republic reached far back in time—often very far back indeed. The consuls themselves, as a privilege of their office, bordered their togas with the purple of kings. When they consulted the auspices they did so according to rites that predated the very foundation of Rome. And then, of course, most fabulous of all, there were the books left behind by the exiled Tarquin, the three mysterious rolls of prophecy, the writings of the ancient and quite possibly timeless Sibyl.

So sensitive was the information provided by these that access to them was strictly regulated as a secret of the state. Citizens found copying them would be sewn into a sack and dropped into the sea. Only in the most perilous of circumstances, when fearsome prodigies warned the Republic of looming catastrophe, was it permitted to consult the books at all. Then, once every alternative had been exhausted, specially appointed magistrates would be mandated to climb to the temple of Jupiter, where the books were kept in conditions of the tightest security. The scrolls would be spread out. Fingers would trace the faded lines of Greek. Prophecies would be deciphered, and advice taken on how best to appease the angered heavens.

And advice was always found. The Romans, being a people as practical as they were devout, had no patience with fatalism. They were interested in knowing the future only because they believed that it could then better be kept at bay. Showers of blood, chasms spitting fire, mice eating gold: terrifying prodigies such as these were regarded as the equivalent of bailiffs' duns, warnings to the Roman people that they stood in arrears with the gods. To get back in credit might require the introduction of a foreign cult to the city, the worship of a divinity who had hitherto been unknown. More typically, it would inspire retrenchment, as the magistrates desperately sought to identify the traditions that might have been neglected. Restore the past, the way that things had always been, and the safety of the Republic would be assured.

This was a presumption buried deep in the soul of every Roman. In the century that followed its establishment, the Republic was repeatedly racked by further social convulsions, by demands from the mass of citizens for expanded civic rights, and by continued constitutional reforms—and yet throughout this turbulent period of upheaval, the Roman people never ceased to affect a stern distaste for change. Novelty, to the citizens of the Republic, had sinister connotations. Pragmatic as they were, they might accept innovation if it were dressed up as the will of the gods or an ancient custom, but never for its own sake. Conservative and flexible in equal measure, the Romans kept what worked, adapted what had failed, and preserved as sacred lumber what had become redundant. The Republic was both a building site and a junkyard. Rome's future was constructed amid the jumble of her past.

The Romans themselves, far from seeing this as a paradox, took it for granted. How else were they to invest in their city save by holding true to the customs of their ancestors? Foreign analysts, who tended to regard the Romans' piety as "superstition,"1 and interpreted it as a subterfuge played on the masses by a cynical ruling class, misread its essence. The Republic was not like other states. While the cities of the Greeks were regularly shattered by civil wars and revolutions, Rome proved herself impervious to such disasters. Not once, despite all the social upheavals of the Republic's first century of existence, had the blood of her own citizens been spilled on her streets. How typical of the Greeks to reduce the ideal of shared citizenship to sophistry! To a Roman, nothing was more sacred or cherished. After all, it was what defined him. Public business—res publica—was what "republic" meant. Only by seeing himself reflected in the gaze of his fellows could a Roman truly know himself a man.

And by hearing his name on every tongue. The good citizen, in the Republic, was the citizen acknowledged to be good. The Romans recognized no difference between moral excellence and reputation, having the same word, honestas, for both. The approval of the entire city was the ultimate, the only, test of worth. This was why, whenever resentful citizens took to the streets, it would be to demand access to yet more honors and glory. Civil unrest would invariably inspire the establishment of a new magistracy: the aedileship and tribunate in 494, the quaestorship in 447, the praetorship in 367. The more posts there were, the greater the range of responsibilities; the greater the range of responsibilities, the broader the opportunities for achievement and approbation. Praise was what every citizen most desired—just as public shame was his ultimate dread. Not laws but the consciousness of always being watched was what prevented a Roman's sense of competition from degenerating into selfish ambition. Gruelling and implacable though the contest to excel invariably was, there could be no place in it for ill-disciplined vainglory. To place personal honor above the interests of the entire community was the behavior of a barbarian—or worse yet, a king.

In their relations with their fellows, then, the citizens of the Republic were schooled to temper their competitive instincts for the common good. In their relations with other states, however, no such inhibitions cramped them. "More than any other nation, the Romans have sought out glory and been greedy for praise."2 The consequences for their neighbors of this hunger for honor were invariably devastating. The legions' combination of efficiency and ruthlessness was something for which few opponents found themselves prepared. When the Romans were compelled by defiance to take a city by storm, it was their practice to slaughter every living creature they found. Rubble left behind by the legionaries could always be distinguished by the way in which severed dogs' heads or the dismembered limbs of cattle would lie strewn among the human corpses.3 The Romans killed to inspire terror, not in a savage frenzy but as the disciplined components of a fighting machine. The courage they brought to service in the legions, steeled by pride in their city and faith in her destiny, was an emotion that every citizen was brought up to share. Something uniquely lethal—and, to the Romans, glorious—marked their way of war.

Even so, it took time for the other states of Italy to wake up to the nature of the predator in their midst. For the first century of the Republic's existence the Romans found it a struggle to establish their supremacy over cities barely ten miles from their own gates. Yet even the deadliest carnivore must have its infancy, and the Romans, as they raided cattle and skirmished with petty hill tribes, were developing the instincts required to dominate and kill. By the 360s bc they had established their city as the mistress of central Italy. In the following decades they marched north and south, crushing opposition wherever they met it. By the 260s, with startling speed, they had mastered the entire peninsula. Honor, of course, had demanded nothing less. To states that humbly acknowledged their superiority, the Romans would grant such favors as a patron condescends to grant his clients, but to those who defied them, only ceaseless combat. No Roman could tolerate the prospect of his city losing face. Rather than endure it, he would put up with any amount of suffering, go to any lengths.

The time soon came when the Republic had to demonstrate this in a literal struggle to the death. The wars with Carthage were the most terrible it ever fought. A city of Semitic settlers on the North African coast, dominating the trade routes of the western Mediterranean, Carthage possessed resources at least as great as Rome's. Although predominantly a maritime power, she had indulged herself for centuries with bouts of warfare against the Greek cities of Sicily. Now, poised beyond the Straits of Messina, the Romans represented an ominous but intriguing new factor in Sicily's military equation. Predictably, the Greeks on the island could not resist embroiling the Republic in their perennial squabbles with Carthage. Equally predictably, once invited in, the Republic refused to play by the rules. In 264 Rome transformed what had been a minor dispute over treaty rights into a total war. Despite a lack of any naval tradition, and the loss of fleet after fleet to enemy action or storms, the Romans endured over two decades of appalling casualties to bring Carthage, at last, to defeat. By the terms of the peace treaty forced on them, the Carthaginians undertook a complete withdrawal from Sicily. Without ever having intended it, Rome found herself with the nucleus of an overseas empire. In 227 Sicily was constituted as the first Roman province.

The theater of the Republic's campaigning was soon to grow even wider. Carthage had been defeated, but not smashed. With Sicily lost, she next turned her imperial attentions to Spain. Braving the murderous tribes who swarmed everywhere in the mountains, the Carthaginians began to prospect for precious metals. The flood of wealth from their mines soon enabled them to contemplate resuming hostilities. Carthage's best generals were no longer under any illusions as to the nature of the enemy they faced in the Republic. Total war would have to be met in kind, and victory would be impossible unless Roman power were utterly destroyed.

It was to achieve this that Hannibal, in 218, led a Carthaginian army from Spain, through southern Gaul and over the Alps. Displaying a mastery of strategy and tactics far beyond that of his opponents, he brought three Roman armies to sensational defeat. In the third of his victories, at Cannae, Hannibal wiped out eight legions, the worst military disaster in the Republic's history. By every convention and expectation of contemporary warfare, Rome should have followed it by acknowledging Hannibal's triumph, and attempting to sue for peace. But in the face of catastrophe, she showed only continued defiance. Naturally, at such a moment, the Romans turned for guidance to the prophecies of the Sibyl. These prescribed that two Gauls and two Greeks be buried alive in the city's marketplace. The magistrates duly followed the Sibyl's advice. With this shocking act of barbarism, the Roman people demonstrated that there was nothing they would not countenance to preserve their city's freedom. The only alternative to liberty—as it had always been—was death.

And grimly, year by year, the Republic hauled itself back from the brink. More armies were raised; Sicily was held; the legions conquered Carthage's empire in Spain. A decade and a half after Cannae Hannibal faced another Roman army, but this time on African soil. He was defeated. Carthage no longer had the manpower to continue the struggle, and when her conqueror's terms were delivered, Hannibal advised his compatriots to accept them. Unlike the Republic after Cannae, he preferred not to risk his city's obliteration. Despite this, the Romans never forgot that in Hannibal, in the scale of his exertions, in the scope of his ambition, they had met the enemy who was most like themselves. Centuries later statues of him were still to be found standing in Rome. And even after they had reduced Carthage to an impotent rump, confiscating her provinces, her fleet, her celebrated war-elephants, the Romans continued to dread a Carthaginian recovery. Such hatred was the greatest compliment they could pay a foreign state. Carthage could not be trusted in her submission. The Romans looked into their own souls and attributed the implacability they found there to their greatest foe.

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Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Excellent and well written account of the history of the Roman Republic. The author introduces the reader to the great personalities found beneath the marble busts and polished statues. I felt as if I learned who was Julius Ceasar, Pompey the Great, Cicero, Cato the Elder, and Augustus. I learned of their hopes and fears rather than just their conquests and ideas. The book reads like a novel and is far more entertaining than were the texts of my college Western Civ. class!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tom Holland provides a fascinating account of Roman political life in the closing days of the Republic. His eloquent prose writing style is more reminiscent of a historical novel than history itself. Fast paced and insightful it reveals the machination of Roman mind. What is more even more noteworthy its similarity to the contemporary American political scene. His book not only brings into focus events which transpired two thousand years ago but also our myopic view of the present. Absolutely superb!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Covers the end of the Roman Republic perfectly. Sorry to see its merits wasted on a baffoon in some middle school someplace.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great account of the fall of the Roman Republic. The best book I've ever read.
wildbill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book very much. I read Persian Fire and enjoyed it which gave me a big reason to read this book. I stay with authors I like.I don't read a lot of Roman history, particularly this era. I had a lot to learn and I had a good time doing it. The end of the Republic as Rome grows into an empire is a fascinating story. It is full of larger than life personalities of the generals who conquered the empire.This author adds vivid descriptions of the underside of the Republic where all the powerful positions are obtained by votes. The men who control the votes and how they wheel and deal the elections for consul and tribune add to the gritty reality of the author's style.The author tells the down and dirty on everybody such as Caesar's homosexual sex life. The story of Cicero is that of a great man stripped of his power and dignity whose last gesture is to hold out is neck for his executioner.Caesar is the man who stays ahead of the crowd. A great soldier loved by his men. He crosses the Rubicon and goes on to greater glory until the Ides of March 44 b. c. when he pulls his toga over his face to hide his defeat.The end of the story is wonderfully ironic. 18 year old Octavian comes from out of nowhere and Antony adds to the legend of Cleopatra by destroying himself for love of her.Good story. Well written, informative and entertaining history. That is what I like. I think it is good enough as a book to recommend to those who are not usually readers of history.
starkravingmad on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Outstanding narrative of the Roman Republic leading to the emergence and rise of Ceaser
thierry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The end of the Roman Republic and the cast of characters responsible for it. While I can see how readers might view this account as History Lite, the application of tabloid journalism and gossip to the study of history, I would disagree. This is a fun, brisk, alive account of the period. Well written and to the point, one is kept engaged by crispy bits of gossip, constant renversements de situation, and a great cast. Cinna, Sulla, Caesar, Pompey, Cato, Cicero, Cleopatra, and I could go on. Looking for an engaging overview of one of the golden age of Rome, look no further. A good introduction, and a basis for further investigation of a subject matter that will never exhaust itself.
nakmeister on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent popular history read. This is the first book I'd read by Tom Holland, and I also knew very little about Ancient Rome. The book is about the Roman Republic, mostly the last 50 years of the Roman Republic, 100BC to 50BC (roughly). It reads somewhat like a novel - it's certainly a page turner. The author, as he indicates at the beginning, makes hardly any mention of sources etc in the main text - these are mainly endnotes and the occasional footnotes - which aids the narrative flow. It can be quite difficult keeping track of all the different characters populating the book - but it's hardly the fault of the author that that period of history has so many interesting characters.Overall a great, enjoyable, informative read.
santhony on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I¿ve read dozens of history books and novels pertaining to the Roman Republic and succeeding Roman Empire. As a result, I feel like I¿ve been exposed to virtually every nuance and every character of the period. Nevertheless, I can¿t say that I felt like I was wasting my time in reading this treatment of the era. Sure, I was familiar with the players and the events, however the author was successful in presenting the history in such a way as to make it entertaining and even enlightening. While certainly the rise and fall of Julius Caesar was necessarily covered, much of the background focused on both his predecessors (Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus) and his contemporaries (Cicero, Cato) to a degree not found in other works of the period. Also, the style in which the book is written (narrative) makes the history more readable and enjoyable.The primary focus of the book is the fall of the Roman Republic. Beginning with the primacy of Marius, the role of the ¿first man¿ took on added importance as each succeeding holder of the title assumed greater responsibility and power. By the time Augustus achieved prominence, the road had been well mapped by Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar. Whereas Sulla could have likely eliminated the Republic by force of arms (instead retiring after a reign of terror), Augustus was virtually elevated to the status of an Emperor by acclimation of a people weary of civil war and strife.All in all, a worthwhile refresher on the final years of the Republic and the actors therein, from a somewhat novel viewpoint.
dougwood57 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tom Holland takes the reader on a detailed, readable trip through the last decades of the Roman Republic in the last century B.C.E. 'Rubicon' provides a an excellent overview of that climactic era. Holland deftly paints the main players in colorful detail from the original dictator Sulla to the first emperor, Octavian (Augustus) and in between we meet the war hero Pompey the Great, the temporizing orator/politician Cicero, the slippery Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, and the exotic Cleopatra. And Cato, dear inflexible, unbending Cato, trying to hold these Romans to their best traditions, and of course ultimately failing. Holland also gives the reader a strong understanding of the things that motivated the Romans - and they were highly motivated - glory, honor, tradition, military valour, and duty, but ambition, superstition, and avarice, as well. In the end, the unimagined wealth brought home by military conquests from the new imperial possessions allowed the concentration of too much wealth, power, and military might in too few hands. Once unstoppered, the pull of absolute power was too great to resist. The end of the Roman Republic, more so than the much later fall of the Roman Empire, is a tale worth pondering. Tom Holland has made this experience exceedingly enjoyable, not to mention educational. Highest recommendation.
Hanno on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rubicon is an interesting book, but it is somewhat messy and disorganized. For example, only when talking about Caesar's invasion of Gaul did Holland fleetingly mention the huge invasion of 102-101BCE that was defeated by Marius. The Jugurthine war doesnt get even a mention.The book contains too many musings and too little facts. Most events are described in a few sentences and seem to be merely the background to the author's thoughts on what is Rome, what it means to Roman and how the answers to these questions change over time. Too many words are spent on making the reader "feel" the time period.The references to sources are very limited. More than once there appeared claims which seemed dubious (not necessarily false) without a mention of the sources of these claims.Many events and men are either not mentioned or receive less attention than they deserve. The page about Sulla's rise to power talks mainly about his early years and gives a quick mention of him being "Marius' Officer". With the exception of M. Livius Drusus' assasination, the political moves before the Social War are also not described.I cant even say that the book is good as an appetizer that encourages an interest in Roman history, because a reader who is not familiar with at least the basic narrative of it will find himself confused more than once.
NielsenGW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Holland¿s work covers the history of the Roman Empire from 509 BC to 14 AD and single-handedly makes one want to read much more about the Republic. His characters appear as archetypes for historians¿Cicero battling Hortensius, Pompey railing (and failing) against Julius Caesar, each new personage inspiring the next. This history is thoroughly researched and enhanced by contemporary writing. Holland is even gracious enough to declare the shortcomings of some of the texts. A good start to 2009.
Cynara on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Holland's pacing in Rubicon is better than most of the novels I've read lately. I never felt like he was wandering off into guesswork, but it's an extraordinarily vivid historical account. He avoids both academic dryness and semi-fictionalised "Caesar flushed pale" prose.
billiecat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A popular history of the Late Roman Republic, Holland's book is a good summary of the century leading to the empire. Holland does not, however, apply much rigor to his analysis. He is guilty in more than a few places of applying modern sensibilities to ancient practices and applying anachronistic comparisons. He cannot help but draw attention to perceived parallels, sometimes casually, sometimes more deliberate, with modern times. His motivation may have been to try to help a casual reader understand the Roman world by comparing the unfamiliar to more familiar concepts, but to do so, he sacrifices accuracy. In the introduction, he makes explicit his comparison of the last century of the Roman Republic with current events in the United States - something others have done as well, using it as a shorthand for whatever point they wish to make. This may engage the reader, but I think it does a disservice to the historical record. While Santayana may have been correct that those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it, those who can't see the differences between past and present also make big mistakes. Still, a good book, especially if you are unfamiliar with this period.
miketheriley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fast moving account of the politics of the roman empire. What I liked was that the character of ancient Rome came through.
Shrike58 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While I'm not sure I have much to add to what the other reviewers have said, this is a good source for those who are looking for a quick read on the topic. That Holland always keeps the actions of the players located in the context of Roman culture is probably the biggest plus of the narrative. What this book isn't is a biography per se of Julius Caeser, as the title (not Holland's choice) might suggest.
Bookmarque on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this in preparation for reading the latest installment of the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. I figured it was condensed enough to remind me of events and people so I wouldn¿t struggle to catch up with Antony and Cleopatra. This book covers the exact same period and events as McCullough¿s first 6 books, but does it in one which makes if more of a catalog than a history which fit my needs perfectly. Many important things are glossed over, however I understand why given the brevity of the book and the point of it; to show the transformation of an empire from a republic. Even though this is not a novel, neither is it a scholarly work, so I can forgive the author his opinions and style.Nice maps, a handy timeline reference in the back helped frame the story which was told in a conversational tone. A glossary and a who¿s who might have been a good idea for those who have no classical background or who haven¿t read much Roman history. The philosophical ideals that made the Romans a unique people were spelled out quite nicely and so the slow (and occasionally staggeringly fast) deterioration of these ideals is easy to follow. How the maneuverings at the top affected the head count could have been drawn more clearly, but it probably sufficed. Difficult to tell since I know so much about this period that I probably filled in a lot of detail and nuance myself without realizing it.
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