Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Rubicon, the Best Book on Rome I've Ever Read

I'm sad to admit it, but until recently most of what I knew about the Roman Republic came from Gladiator, the HBO mini-series Rome, and my textbook. I knew they had a Senate and used the word veto. And I know that Julius Caesar put an end to it all and was stabbed a bunch for it.

A murder we recreate daily with a fork.
The Empire, by comparison, always seemed a little easier to grasp. Its Caesars alternate between fascinatingly horrible (Nero, Caligula) and fascinatingly grand (Augustus, Trajan).  Roads, aqueducts, battles against barbarians I understand. The intricacies of classical republican government? Less so.

The more I've dug into it the inner workings of the Roman republics government, the more confusing it became. The branches of government of the Roman Republic seem to compare to our own, but upon closer examination they devolve into a murky mess of praetors, quaestors and tribunes. Worse, half the time that don't even follow their own rules, exceptions abound. And why are there two Catos?!

Luckily, a trip to the ever amazing Powell's Bookstore in Portland led me to randomly select Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland. This book fascinated me endlessly, and finally gave me a better understanding of what the Roman Republic really was. Highlights:

  • The Roman people expelled their cruel kings, and in their place created the position of consul.  The consul would have many of the powers of a king, but had to be elected by the people. He could only serve for one year.  And there were two of them!!

  • The word Republic comes from the Latin Res Publica or "Public Business"

  • Social class in Rome was determined by a censor, a guy who inventoried your wealth, and decided where you ranked.  The greatest achievement you could accomplish was to move your family up the class list. The greatest disgrace was to move down.

  • Roman citizens were expected to strive for personal and political greatness.  The two were the same thing.  Ambition in the political and civic arena was encouraged, and rewarded.  But that greatness must only be for ultimate glory of the Republic. Strive to become to great, and be shunned for life.

  • This system of government explains the aggressive nature of the Roman Republic conquered so much. Consuls, having climbed the highest highs of Rome's political ladder, were now expected to win honor and glory for Rome on the battlefield.  And they had only one year to do so.

  • As Rome conquered more and more land, small farmers got displaced by unimaginably large estates that used slave labor.  Whereas early in the Republic, farmer citizen-soldiers fighting for Rome's honor comprised the backbone of its army, towards the end its legions were made of landless men, loyal to their general and not the Republic.

  • As Rome grew richer and more powerful, so did its most eminent citizens. Battles for political office and power changed from debates between wealthy patricians into epic clashes between warlords with the treasure and strength of conquered empires behind them. 

After reading Rubicon, I'm convinced that the system of government that made Rome great was the same that doomed it to empire. Civil wars and Julius Caesars were an inevitable consequence of a system that rewarded ambition and daring. After so much infighting, the death of the Republic and reign of Augustus seemed blessedly peaceful. That's a weird thought for an American to have. 

Social studies teacher or not, I highly recommend Rubicon.

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