Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rubicon by Tom Holland

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic,
Tom Holland, Abacus, 2003, 430pp

Reading John Owen's A Vindication of the Animadversions on Fiat Lux, the second part of his dialogue with Fransician Friar, John Vincent Cane, I came across a reference to an episode in the history of the Roman Republic. Owen is critiquing the worship of images in the Roman Catholic Church and he tells of the time when Clodius banished Cicero, vengefully demolished his mansion and set up an image of the goddess Liberty in its place. When Cicero returned from exile he removed the temple dedicated to the goddess and set about rebuilding his home. He justified this sacrilegious act by saying that the image of Liberty was based on an infamous Tangerian whore. According to Owen, the Roman orator also made mention of a painter whose picture of Venus and her companions was based on "some strumpet or other that he kept company withal". For Owen, the lesson for image worshipping papists was plain,
And whether you have not been so imposed upon sometimes or no I very much question; in which case nothing but your imagination can free you from the worship of a prostitute when you aim your devotion another way. (Works of John Owen, Volume 14, p. 454.)
The thing is, that due to Tom Holland's Rubicon, Owen's allusion was not lost on me. I had just been reading about the banishment of Cicero and of what Cloduis did to his house. I'm not saying that the main reason for genning up on ancient Roman history is in order to get the learned John Owen's classical references, but it can't be a bad side effect. Owen was, as Carl Trueman points out a "Renaissance Man". His Oxford eduction aimed at "the cultivation of the idea of the general scholar, the man who had a good grounding in the whole field of human learning, and the cultivation of a deep love for the Classics... it is not surprising that Owen's works are replete with quotations from, and allusions to, classical authors." (John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, Carl R. Trueman, Ashgate, 2007, p. 15).

For this summer's holiday reading I chose Marilynne Robertson's novel Gilead, which I hungrily devoured in the first week. Looking for something else to read, I popped into the Carmarthen branch of Waterstones. A couple of titles caught my eye, including Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare, but in the end I opted for Rubicon and I'm glad I did. It is a brilliantly written book that tells the gripping story of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.

The Republic was a mass of contradictions. Romans believed themselves to be morally superior to other peoples, yet they were capable of brutal savagery and pitiless revenge, all for the glory of Rome. Many years after Carthage had ceased to be a threat the Republic and its empire, the city which launched Hannibal's elephants into battle was reduced to rubble. That'll teach 'em. Romans were proud of their republican constitution with its balance of powers, and yet the big beasts of the political world thought nothing of using scheming machinations, violence and intimidation to fulfil their quest for personal greatness.

The Republic's empire held sway over huge swathes of Europe, Asia and north Africa. To further extend the empire and subdue its sometimes restless subjects, Roman generals won bloody battles against improbable odds. Military conquest was often the road to political power. Holland vividly brings the mighty warriors of Rome to life. Sulla, Pompey and Julius Caesar arise once again to smite the Barbarian hordes and reap the political fruits of conquest. Here we  also are introduced to the menacingly manipulative Crassus, the bullying and unprincipled Cloduis, Cicero, the Republic's chief orator-politician and the incorruptible Cato, not to mention the doomed romance of Anthony and Cleopatra.

For all its ideals of constitutional propriety, the Republic was destined to fall victim to the competing egos of its power-crazed big players. The moment Julius Caesar led his legions across the Rubicon, and had them march on Rome, the days of the Republic were numbered. He emerged triumphant from the ensuing civil war and won the battle for Rome, but his glory was to be short lived. Famously, on the Ides of March he was assassinated by his rivals in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius. It fell to Caesar's son, Octavian, or Caesar Augustus to put an end to hundreds of years if republican rule, assuming the powers, if not the title of a king.

It was during the time of Caesar Augustus that another King was born in the Judean backwater of Bethlehem. The event would not have registered in the seat of Roman power. But his Kingdom would smash the mighty empires of this world to nothing. He would conquer the nations not by political cunning or brute force, but by redeeming a people by his blood out of every tribe, tongue and nation. And his name is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Isaiah 9:6-7, Daniel 2:44-45.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil he buildeth,
Tower and temple, fall to dust,
But God’s power,
Hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.
(Robert Bridges, 1844-1930)


Gary Benfold said...

Seems like a good read; I'll try and get hold of a copy (shame it's not available on ebook format). Have you read any of his other stuff?

Guy Davies said...

This is the first book I've read by the author. He has published two other works of narrative history, Persian Fire and Millennium. Christmas is coming!

David Williamson said...

So glad you enjoyed Gilead! A cracking read!