A splendid account of the death of the Roman Republic, particularly notable for the author’s ability to decode the underlying beliefs that drove events.
It’s no surprise that British novelist Holland (Slave of My Thirst, 1997, etc.), who has adapted such classical texts as the Aeneid for radio, brings formidable storytelling talents to a drama that begins with the temporary collapse of Roman rule over Asia in 89 b.c., climaxes with Julius Caesar’s fatal crossing of the Rubicon (a direct violation of the sacrosanct prohibition against bringing soldiers bearing arms into Italy) in 49 b.c., and reaches its sorry conclusion in 27 b.c., when his great-nephew Octavian was renamed “Augustus,” in effect becoming emperor. More unexpected is Holland’s brilliant portrait of Republican Rome’s worldview. In this “savagely meritocratic” society, “there was no distinguishing between political goals and personal ambition.” Campaigning for important posts like consul, magistrate, and tribune, candidates shamelessly spread money, influence, and the threat of mob violence. The system worked because everyone accepted the verdict of the voters, however achieved, and officials stepped down after their allotted year to compete all over again. Roman patricians often won their first fame as generals, but true glory came only from being acknowledged by their fellow citizens; force bowed to law, and “the age-old balance between ambition and duty” curbed the privileged class’s excesses. This delicate balance began to tip in 88 b.c., when Sulla marched on Rome rather than accept a political defeat; he renounced his role as dictator after one year, but later malcontents would not be so scrupulous. Power and honor had always been inseparable in Republican Rome, but the tide slowly turned toward power pure and simple. Without glossing over the brutality, hypocrisy, and corruption of the late Republic, Holland conveys appreciation for traditions that had endured for half a millennium and regret at their destruction.
With its mordant depiction of a republic pursuing imperial ends while its citizens pay lip service to political values they no longer practice, Holland’s gripping narrative has particularly uncomfortable resonance for contemporary American readers.