Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

by Tom Holland

Hardcover, 2003



Call number




Little, Brown (2003), Hardcover


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.… (more)

Media reviews

As with most academics reviewing a "popular" book, I approached Rubicon with a certain amount of trepidation. The rather hammy sub-title seemed to suggest the worst. However what is inside the covers is a different matter altogether. This is a well-researched, well-written overview of the Roman
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republic. It should serve as a model of exactly how a popular history of the classical world should be written.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member santhony
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Rubicon is focused on the events leading to the end of the Republic, which in this age of authoritarian ascendancy is worth a second look. The full cast of famous characters and events are here and retold with verve and imagination. There is a lot to cover but Holland manages to find a good
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balance. Roman culture placed a premium on competition and reputation to such an extent public good was neglected by leaders who spent their times and energies literally back stabbing one another. That's the impression anyway. And so it was civilian rule broke apart replaced by a military dictatorship.

I was happy to see Holland did not shy from the slavery question, how widespread it was and how the civilization could not have existed without this cruel and pitiless institution - something to remember when admiring Roman innovation, like finding pleasure in the beauty of American South work camps (so-called plantations) whose beauty was a mask covering it's ugly purpose, the subjugation of peoples they barely considered human for the purpose of material gain. It was in this environment Christianity took root. But that's for another book.
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LibraryThing member wildbill
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
For the generation that had lived through the civil wars, this was the consolation history gave them. Out of calamity could come greatness. Out of dispossession could come the renewal of a civilised order.

(from July of 2005) I finished the above by Tom Holland today at lunch. A (near)Footean
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examination of the short-lived Roman Republic -- the text has flourishes of prose but it is the titanic visiage of the people themselves which carry the text.

It also appears that in the aftermath of the Republic it was Augustus who served as the origins of Conservatism, welding self-interest with tradtional ideals onto the unwashed. Sighs float up to the heavens as Order is found and Property is protected.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
In a book titled "Rubicon", I would expect actually more than two chapters about the Roman civil war. While I hugely enjoyed Holland's condense sketch of Greek and Persian history in Persian Fire, I found his attempt in presenting the story of the Roman Republic less stellar. His focus is on Sulla
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and Cato whom he presents as staunch conservative heroes in contrast to Cicero the weather vane and Pompey the vain. His Caesar is quite dull too.

What I lament most, however, is the absence of the stories of the early heroes of the Roman Republic such as Publius Decius Mus whose crazy willingness to sacrifice himself was part of why the other peoples could not resist the Roman impetus. Like the French levée en masse, the Roman Republic was willing to fling countless bodies at its enemies. The Romans were willing to absorb the casualties their enemies could or would not (see Pyrrhic victory). Endurance and frugality (the Roman soldiers ate mostly vegetarian food) in the name of the Republic made the difference (intrinsic instead of extrinsic motivation). The professionalization by Marius and then Sulla prepared the creation of the Roman empire where a commander and no longer the people decided the issue. Insofar, the Republic was already on life support when Caesar entered the stage.
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LibraryThing member John
I thoroughly enjoyed Rubicon, an overview of the history of the Roman republic from its inception, around 500BC through to the death of Augustus in AD14. This covers a large swath of history, but Holland writes with a keen eye for the themes that characterized eras and mutated through good and bad
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years. Holland begins by describing what he calls the Paradoxical Republic: one that was "savagely meritocratic", and while this provided the Romans with the basis of what they considered to be liberty, "real and relentless as it was, it nevertheless served to perpetuate a society in which only the rich could afford to devote themselves to a political career". Another paradox and a strand that runs through the history of the Republic was that the system, "encouraged a gnawing hunger for prestige in its citizens, that seethed with their vaunting rivalries, that generated dynamism so aggressive that it had overwhelmed all who came against it, also bred paralysis". The history of the Republic is replete with huge, almost mythical ambitions where practitioners always walked a very fine line between success that could confer the wealth and glory of gods verus abject failure, ruin, and often death. The world of high politics tempted with unimaginable rewards, but it was not for the fainthearted.

Holland argues that the expansion of Roman control over neighbouring states and provinces originated in the honour of Rome, but as the plunder and wealth to be had became more pronounced, and more important to individual ambitions the "vast sway of the Republic's power...stood nakedly revealed as a licence to make money". The Roman government increasingly began to mutate into, "what can perhaps be best described as a military-fiscal complex". The wealth and splendour needed to catapult any individual to the top of the political heap was almost exclusively found in military glory and plunder.

While prizing their own liberty beyond all else, Romans certainly did not extend the thought to any universal concept of human rights:

This exploitation [slavery] was what underpinned everything that was noblest about the Republic–its culture of citizenship, its passion for freedom, its dread of disgrace and shame. It was not merely that the leisure which enabled a citizen to devote himself to the Republic was dependent upon the forced labour of others. Slaves also satisfied a subtler, more baneful need. ‘Gain cannot be made without loss to someone else': so every Roman took for granted. All status was relative. What value would freedom have in a world where everyone was free? Even the poorest citizen could know himself to be immeasurably the superior of even the best-treated slave. Death was preferable to a life without liberty: so the entire history of the Republic had gloriously served to prove. If a man permitted himself to be enslaved, then he thoroughly deserved his fate. Such was the harsh logic that prevented anyone from even questioning the cruelties the slaves suffered, let alone the legitimacy of slavery itself.

[As an editorial comment, I might note that the attitude based on slaves "deserving" their fate, is not so dissimilar from the wealthy in today's world who would reduce/eliminate support or medical care for the poor/disadvantaged because they are somehow responsible for their miserable positions and if they cannot make it to comfort in the competitive world freely open to all, well then, they deserve their fate. But I digress.]

Holland traces the careers and the intrigues of the great names of the Republic: Sulla, Crassus, Cicero, Pompey, Caesar, Cleopatra, Antony, Octavian who becomes Augustus, though civil and international intrigues and wars. He tells the story very well with clear, crisp writing.

As the empire grew in size and influence, it changed in its nature:

It was Posidonius, every Roman's favourite guru, who had argued that subject peoples should welcome their conquest by the Republic, since it would contribute towards the building of a commonwealth of man. Now the Romans themselves were latching on to the same argument. Assumptions that would have been unthinkable even a few decades previously were becoming commonplace. Enthusiasts for empire argued that Rome had a civilising mission: that because her values and institutions were self-evidently superior to those of barbarians, she had a duty to propagate them; that only once the whole globe had been subjected to her rule could there be a universal peace. Morality had not merely cought up with the brute fact of imperial expansion, but wanted more.

[Again, nothing is new in history....these sentiments ring very familiar in some circles, in today's world.]

Finally, Caesar's revolution showed just how far the Republic had been changed by the paradoxes that Holland noted at the beginning:

Here in the mingling of the souls of Caesar and his army, was the glimpse of a new order. Ties of mutual loyalty had always provided Roman society with its fabric. So they continued to do in time of civil war, but increasingly purged of old complexities and subtleties. Simpler to follow the blast of the trumpet than the swirl of contradictory obligations that had always characterised civilian life. Yet these same obligations, comprised as they were of centuries of taboos and traditions, were not lightly set aside. Without them the Republic, at least as it had been constituted for centuries would die. The checks and balances that had always served to temper the Romans' native love of glory, and divert it into courses beneficial to their city, might soon fall away. An ancient inheritance of customs and laws might be forever lost. Already, in the first months of the civil war, the ruinous consequences of such a catastrophe could be glimpsed. Political life still subsisted, but as a grisly parody of itself. The arts of persuasion were increasingly being abandoned as resorts to violence and intimidation took their place. The ambitions of magistrates, no longer dependent upon votes, could now be paid for with their fellow citizens' blood.
No wonder that many of Caesar's partisans, freed of the restraints and inhibitions
of tiresome convention, should have grown intoxicated by a world in which it appeared that there were no limits to what they might achieve.

I recommend this as a very readable, thoughtful, educational, and enjoyable book.
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LibraryThing member br77rino
Tied up for me all the loose hearings of people like Tarquin, Hannibal, Sulla, Cicero, Crassus, Pompey and Octavian. A good story. Of real life. 2500 to 2000 years ago.
LibraryThing member breic
A history of the end of the Roman republic, from Caesar to Octavian/Caesar Augustus. It feels like the author's writing process was to take one sentence from a Wikipedia article, dress it up with a few adverbs, and then add around it three sentences of flowery but unsupported BS. Then repeat. It
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makes neither for good history, nor for good drama. For both, I'd recommend instead Harris's fictional "Imperium" series, written from Cicero's perspective.
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LibraryThing member nakmeister
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member surreality
Wonderful introduction to the Roman Republic, and excellent as a starting piece. It's very focused on the last century - everything from the founding in 753BC to the end of the Gracchi in 133BC gets dealt with in 30 pages, including all three Punic Wars. The three emphasis points are Sulla, Caesar
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and Augustus, with the author's interest clearly on the former two.

There's plenty of juicy historical gossip in the telling to make it an entertaining read. Social factors are discussed, as are basic concepts of politics and the military situation. The historical facts are accurate, although alternate interpretations tend not to be discussed. The portrayals of Sulla, Caesar and Augustus follow conservative Anglo-American research lines and don't go as much into controversial issues as current research does.

Overall a very good and entertaining overview of the Roman Republic that can be relied on in terms of factual accuracy.
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LibraryThing member citizencane
Having just completed "Why Liberalism Failed " by Patrick Deneen, I thought it might be profitable to recur back to the the ancients for an example of pre-liberal politics as a source of wisdom that might suggest alternative manners and mores that might serve as a guide to a post-liberal politics.
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So I turned to Tom Holland's "Rubicon - The Last Years of the Roman Republic" and can confidently report that not only is there "no going back", there's no reason to want to.

More than just a history of the last years of the Roman republic, Rubicon is a more extensive narrative that covers the battles with other cities on the Italian peninsula, the Punic wars, the Roman wars in Spain, Gaul, North Africa, Greece, western Asia and its first forays into Britain. The murders of the Gracchi brothers, the dictatorship of Sulla, the rise and fall of Pompey, the slave revolt led by Spartacus, the first triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus, Caesar's conquest of Gaul and their leader Vercingetorix, the assassination of Caesar and the the subsequent civil war that saw the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, the emergence of the new triumvirate of Octavian, Antony and Lepidus, Octavian's victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and the eventual granting of a dictatorship for life to Octavian, henceforth to be known as Caesar Augustus are all chronicled ably and entertainingly by Holland. Holland relies principally on the ancient authors particularly Plutarch, Cicero, who is a major player in the drama, Appian and Valerius Maximus.

It could be said that Rubicon serves as an illustration of the history behind the argument of Federalist 10 concerning the objects of government and the problems posed to civil peace by the activities of factions. The biographies of the best of the Romans concerns their ongoing efforts to climb the greasy pole to the top of the city and the political alliances that are formed around family connections, outright bribery, the use of the courts to proscribe political enemies, switching sides for temporary advantage, marriages and divorces of convenience, the employment of mobs, paying off armies not only with the wealth looted from foreign conquests but land looted from domestic enemies. In all it is not a very edifying spectacle.

There is also abundant evidence that shows that the sins of liberalism described by Deneen in his book are better understood of as endemic to human beings, By way of example, consider this paragraph on Roman mining operations in Spain.

"The mines that Rome had annexed from Carthage more than a century previously had been handed over to the publicani, who hd proceeded to exploit them with their customary gusto, A single network of tunnels might spread for more than a hundred square miles, and might provide more than forty thousand slaves with a living death. Over the pockmarked landscape there would invariably hang a pall of smog, belched out through the smelting furnaces through giant chimneys, and so heavy with chemicals that it burned the naked skin and turned it white. Birds would die if they flew through fumes. As Roman power spread the gas clouds were never far behind."

The above relies on a book published in 1994 by a J. Hughes titled "Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans". No liberal democracy, no capitalism, no Industrial Revolution required.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
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
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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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LibraryThing member Cynara
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.
LibraryThing member FergusS
Having last year read Tom Holland's, "Persian Fire", dealing with the Greek and Persian encounters, I was keen to read "Rubicon" given me by the same friend who had lent me the other title. In style the book is a novel; in content, it is a history, supported by brief references in endnotes (how I
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hate endnotes - eternal page flipping which the use of footnotes would have obviated).

It is immensely readable, and the particulars of the individual incidents build to give the flavour of the period and a sense of the different currents of thought that flowed into the actions that moved Rome from republic to empire. Holland contends that the Republic had within its ideals and culture the seeds of its own destruction - as the best of the men it produced tested their innate sense of Roman superiority in the world and against each other, their possessions irrevocably trended to empire, and with it, emperors, and the republic was lost. I'd recommend it to anyone.

No historian of the period, I was happy to have this as an introduction - 'though, like other reviewers, found the huge number of names at times confusing (at least 1/2 beginning with 'C'!). The fairly regular evaluations of motives and the surely somewhat speculative reconstructions of scenes are not so much a weakness as a limitation of this sort of prose. The weakness is mine - I know too little about the period to properly evaluate this book. But I think Holland will have done his work if this volume gets me to do what I am now well motivated to do when I get the chance - to read more about the period. As a Christian minister I know the Roman empire organises the census that gets Jesus born in Bethlehem, and it is on their cross that Jesus dies and into their world that the gospel first flows when it breaks its Jewish borders - a world I now see more clearly because of Holland's work, for which I'm grateful.
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LibraryThing member cgodsil
Describes how the Roman republic became a dictatorship as a result of acquiring an empire.
LibraryThing member ehines
Very readable and informative, but the persistent and strong anti-plebian bias wears thin. Particularly in the breezy self-contradictions of the Gracchi chapter.
LibraryThing member thierry
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member gmicksmith
This delightful romp through one of history's most fascinating periods is well-written and engrossing. Holland expresses himself clearly and surveys the important personages and momentous occasion of the Republic's downfall.
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member billiecat
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member miketheriley
A fast moving account of the politics of the roman empire. What I liked was that the character of ancient Rome came through.
LibraryThing member starkravingmad
Outstanding narrative of the Roman Republic leading to the emergence and rise of Ceaser
LibraryThing member richardhobbs
AMC made a great TV series from this book ("Rubicon") - just kidding
LibraryThing member Renzomalo
A well written, informative narrative with more names and characters than you can keep track of, so kudos to Mr. Holland for compiling and detailing this massive history into one volume. It means, of course, that it will likely have to be re-read numerous times to fully grasp the entire scope of
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the material, which for a dullard like me probably means never. Still, four stars for Mr. Holland and a the longest, historically incestuous soap opera ever written. And kudos to the ancient Romans for having documented the Republic's rise and fall in such intimate detail.
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PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize (Shortlist — 2004)


Original publication date


Physical description

406 p.; 9.29 inches


0316861308 / 9780316861304
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