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Sunday, February 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By William Dietrich
While the period from Rome's founding to the fall of its western empire lasted more than 1,200 years, most histories, novels, movies and plays about ancient Rome fall within just 10 percent of that time span.
And no wonder. The years from 80 B.C. to 40 A.D. are not just the best-documented, they are crammed with larger-than-life figures such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Spartacus, Cicero, Jesus and Caligula all of whom came to violent ends.
This is also the period when the Roman Republic gave way to unelected emperors, ending a Mediterranean experiment in democracy that would not be revived until modern times.
How this happened is a story so rich that it sometimes seems indigestible in a single book, prompting some authors to tackle it in series. Yet in his brisk "Rubicon," British historian, novelist and radio personality Tom Holland has produced in one volume the crispest and most compelling account of this momentous shift I have ever read.
He also draws sobering parallels between ancient Rome and a modern empire, that of our very own U.S.A. When an author suggests Americans can best understand how Roman society worked by watching the mafia drama "The Sopranos," you know that you are in for a historical thrill ride.
The central figure in this tale is Julius Caesar, who by crossing the Rubicon River into Italy with his army to vie for power marked the essential end of the Republic. But a "new man," or ambitious interloper like Caesar, was gambling not just that he could out-fight his military rival Pompey, but that he could out-politic conservative opponents such as Cicero and Cato who played to Rome's pride in its Republic. He did.
Caesar, however, was just the end result of a period in which a cascading opportunity for foreign conquest led to ever-bigger armies, ever-more-powerful generals, ever-greater extremes of wealth and poverty, and ever-more-cynical politics in which the stakes had become enormous. What had begun decades before as rival gangs to control the streets of Rome became rival Roman armies to control the world.
By the time Caesar was assassinated by alarmed senators in 44 B.C., it was too late to go backward. Instead of restoring the Republic, the killing simply precipitated more civil war that culminated in the victory of Octavian over Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C. and his reign as emperor, or "Caesar Augustus," for the next 44 years.
This is not simple history. Romans liked names that began with "C" and even Holland had me a little lost at times trying to keep straight Caelius, Catiline, Catulus, Clodius, Clodia and Curio, to name just some.
What keeps "Rubicon" on track is its clear eye on economics, society, religion, scandal and ambition, making sense of ancient motive.
Given the current American debate about Iraq and empire, our fascination with celebrity, the stupidity of our entertainments and our skepticism of politicians, this is not just a readable book but a timely one. It makes clear how power corrupts not just individuals but entire societies.
William Dietrich's latest novel, "Hadrian's Wall," is set in the late Roman Empire.
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