Breezy and brisk, Tom Holland tells the story of the early Roman Republic and the counterintuitive yet inevitable transition to a monarchy in a style that is very
easy to read. The Roman Republic was founded upon an abhorrence of kings, making the presumption that Rome was destined to be ruled by emperors somewhat hard to swallow. Holland, however, makes the case for Roman personal ambition and competetiveness as major motivators for kingship, and also highlights a variety of additional interesting oxymorons built into Roman dogma.
The speed with which the reader is whooshed through the narrative makes one worry how thorough a history can be without being stodgy and meticulous. Carthage
, the Punic Wars
, and Hannibal
receive perhaps two pages. One gets the impression as they read this book that they are zipping through an art museum on a roller coaster.
Gladly, the details Holland chooses are chosen very well, which makes his accelerated style very functional. They are concise and illuminating and well crafted, and they make it possible to describe the Carthaginian wars effectively.
The Roman attitude is the primary theme, with all its perks and pitfalls. For example, Romans regarded their city with pride and arrogance, yet Holland (and others) compare it unfavorably to other cities of its day in terms of layout, consistency, and architectural beauty. The anathema of long-term despotic rule does have its advantages, as Holland indicates, allowing long-term architectural projects and metropolitan organization, compared to 1-year consular rule that prevented extensive plans of action, resulting in a Rome that was, in short, a haphazard dump in which it was easy to get lost. Romans likewise cherished the illusion of public opinion swaying the direction of their city and nation, when in truth the ruling class held sway more and more as years passed, as the Republic gradually metamorphosed into a plutocracy.
Because this period of Roman history has been covered to great extent, it's difficult to question the veracity of historical fact Holland presents--he offers up seven pages of source material in defense of his writings. Holland has degrees in English and Latin, not history, and may take a bit of creative license with the figures in his book, but he doesn't spend much time on anyone without a significant amount of contemporary writing done about them, and it's easy to infer what sort of men Julius and Augustus Caesar, Pompey, Sulla, Cicero, and others were through their actions, and because they constantly wrote about themselves or had someone else do it for them (though they may have elaborated somewhat upon their histories--it's plausible that Julius Caesar was not, in fact, a god). While the opinions and feelings he projects upon the characters may or may not be true, the circumstances certainly were, and Holland uses his Roman Thesis to calculate them appropriately.
In the end, Holland covers ground similar to that which Plutarch
covers with the latter, Roman portion of his Lives
, but with more energy and a great deal of circumspection about the nature of Roman society, with the aforementioned disdain for an inevitable monarchy at the forefront, and how successive personalities laid the path for Emperors.
I liked this book a great deal.