The Eternal Story

This month, the Military History Book Club took a break from established tradition and allowed each member to pick their own different book to read. This was great summertime fun, and I’m very much looking forward to the discussions this evening, hosted by a member in his backyard rather than our usual spelunking location: the Cave lounge.

I jumped at this opportunity to read a book on my favourite topic: Ancient Rome. Specifically the Late Republic period. For a couple years now I have been a devout listener of Mike Duncan’s podcast: the History of Rome, and am continuously fascinated by this civilization and its people. I very highly recommend the podcast. So I chose Rubicon, by Tom Holland.

Rubicon is a highly-readable historical narrative, which tells the story of Rome through the Late Republic, focussing mostly on the period of about 90-30 B.C. I found many favourable reviews of the book, to which I link to below, pulling out a few reviewers’ quotes too.

via Flickr's creative commons & dalbera

I was pleased that Holland spent as much time as he did following Sulla and Crassus, who are two of my favourite characters from this period – and characters who are traditionally overshadowed by Caesar. My third favourite person, Marcus Aggripa – right hand of Octavian/Augustus – does not make an appearance, however, and I will be looking for further reading about him.

I was looking for a compelling narrative of the period and specifically not for a historical analysis, and Holland’s book fits the bill perfectly. Of course, I didn’t want pure speculation and fantasy, either. But since sources are limited, some hypothesis and inference is required. Holland does not make any particularly outrageous assertions. With a fair degree of familiarity with the historical record, a reader can easily add their own knowledge to what Holland brings. For myself, Rubicon complimented nicely with what I already knew.

I was interested in learning more about the setting for this fantastic drama: the mansions of Rome, the villas of Tuscany. Holland did a good job of colouring the cultural backdrop. For example, he tells us about the trends and fads that obsessed the senatorial class: from oysters and fish-breeding, to goatees and slang. While two thousand years of cultural detritus has accumulated upon the hills of the Eternal City, Holland uncovers enough to give us a Rome that is alive, odorous, and eccentric.

For me, the story of the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire is one of the greatest stories in human history. The people and the plots are perfect for an endless retelling, bound for countless re-imaginings across all generations of man. It is a type of creation story, really, as ancient Rome is the foundation of Western Civilization.

All in all, I’m very pleased with this book and recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the late Roman Republic.


This is a well-researched, well-written overview of the Roman republic. It should serve as a model of exactly how a popular history of the classical world should be written.Richard Miles

Two challenges face a historian writing about ancient Rome for a general readership. The first is transmitting hefty information of a dullness that has driven generations away from Classics, yet without which the dynamics of the Roman Republic cannot be understood. The second is to reflect the true fascination of ancient Rome, a civilisation deceptively like our own – with muscular paganism, hygiene, a legislature, literature and military virtues – but which was in fact utterly alien. Holland succeeds brilliantly in conveying the paradoxes of that society.Elizabeth Speller

This is a tale that has been told before (by Shakespeare, among other notables): the blood-stained drama of the last decades of the Roman Republic, as it fattened and sank into Empire. Here it is told afresh with tremendous wit, narrative verve and insight, for a new generation regrettably in danger of losing touch with the classical past that made us. –Christopher Hart 

Holland’s approach may be the only way to kindle the interest of a new generation in the Greek and Roman worlds. He serves up the story in the vernacular of a television or radio presenter. He seeks to relate the history of the Roman Republic between the second century bc and the death of the Emperor Augustus in ad 14 to the world in which we live today. – Max Hastings

Holland is too thoughtful a writer not to acknowledge the enormous differences, as well as striking similarities, between the first century BC and our own times. Fish farms, luxury beach resorts specialising in all-night dancing and debauchery, the burning and looting of libraries, all ring contemporary bells. – Harry Eyres

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