Rubicon: the triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic
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THE TOURIST who visits the Roman Forum will find a piazza of flagstones and broken columns. This was where, 2,000 years ago, the politicians of the Roman Republic argued and orated; where the affairs of a great empire were settled; and where anyone could be bought, from a Senator to a rent boy. It is an open space, circled by hills but easy to access. Even today there is no entrance fee.
By contrast, it is a steep climb up the Palatine Hill, overlooking the Forum, and a ticket does have to be purchased. There, hidden away among pines, can still be found the house of Augustus, Rome's first Emperor and the man who destroyed the Republic.
Why did politics abandon the free-for-all of the valley and retreat uphill to the privacy of the palace? Why did the Republic find it so hard to run its empire? Since the more or less complete expulsion of the classics from the school curriculum, these questions have seemed of only academic interest. All at once, they have become sharply relevant.
For the first time since the days of Rome, another republic has become a world power, facing very much the same problems as those which Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Cicero failed to solve. Of course, there are as many differences between the first century BC and 21st century AD as similarities. But some echoes are intriguing: then as now the Middle East was the focus of foreign policy; a Jewish state was causing more trouble than its size warranted; Pontus on the Black Sea was the ancient equivalent of Iraq, and its aggressive king Mithridates the Saddam of his day. The Senate had to send expeditionary forces against him twice before finally effecting regime change.
More substantially, the American and Roman constitutions have much in common. Both represent a balance between monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. In Rome, the annual Consuls had regal power, moderated by the Senate and subject to the people's vote. In Washington, the triple structure repeats itself in the President, the Senate (where the democratic principle is diluted by the cost of election) and the House of Representatives. Both constitutions were, and are, much loved by citizens; no alternative was, or is, conceivable.
Nevertheless, thoughtful observers wonder whether states so constrained by checks and balances can muster the political will and the continuity that imperial responsibilities require. In ancient Rome, the answer was a resounding no.
It was the ruthless and enduring achievement of Augustus to create an invisible autocracy while maintaining all the due constitutional forms - an arrangement that preserved the Roman empire for hundreds of years. While no one supposes that an identical fate awaits the US if it insists on enforcing its global monopoly, it is possible to envisage the emergence of a state within a state - not so much an imperial monarchy as an imperial oligarchy.
So for the student of contemporary politics as well as the classicist, Tom Holland's account of the last …