Book review – Rubicon by Tom Holland

A short review of a great book by Tom Holland. I love Ancient Rome; I would love to try to write something involving it, but the research required is a little scary. Anyway, this is from yet another class I took, and it’s nice to practice other forms of writing from time to time.


At its height, The Roman Empire stretched from Spain to Iraq, encompassing most of modern Europe. It persisted in various forms for 800 years, and much of its legacy can still be felt in Western civilization today, ranging from our legal system, to the names of planets. Throughout its vast and storied history, there are few periods less tread by academics and writers than the transition from Republic to Empire. This is not by accident – it contains some of the most famous people and events of classical antiquity. This is the time of Caesar and Pompey, of Cicero and Mark Antony, a period of tremendous upheaval where politics and the quest for power reached levels of brutality previously unseen. It is upon this period that Tom Holland and his work Rubicon are squarely focused, charting the decline of the republic with an accessible and entertaining work that avoids the impregnability and dryness of most academic writing.

Holland clearly has the credentials to undertake this kind of task. Educated in Latin at Oxford, he has adapted the works of Herodotus, Homer, Virgil and Thucydides for BBC Radio, and his considerable passion for antiquity shines through in Rubicon. Helped in no small way by a readily available cast of epic characters, he creates an informative and modern retelling of the events and major players of this period in history. Superbly paced, the book never feels heavy or dull, each character springing to life from the page unburdened by the two-thousand years of distance from which the reader is peering across. The characters feel alive, their motives and thoughts understandable, and Holland uses this to paint an engrossing and at times melancholy tale of the rise and fall of one of the greatest republics the world has seen. The author relates each character with care, but special mention must be given to the brilliant Cicero, whose story is perhaps most analogous to the republic itself, and for whom the author clearly feels a great deal of admiration. Holland does not gloss over the negative aspects of each figure however, stating succinctly of Cicero that he was “genuine principle fused seamlessly with inordinate self-regard” – a towering figure of the late republic who was nonetheless prone to bouts of unendearing self-pity and pomposity.

The book balances the necessity for information, without which the tale becomes incomprehensible and lacking in context, with the risk of becoming inaccessible and dull, and succeeds at this challenge. Tackling a narrative of such intimidating size is a daunting task, but Holland’s skills as a writer prevent Rubicon from ever becoming bloated or confusing, with the seeds of the continuing story sown into previous events, evolving and moving forward much like history itself. However, although the book relates the fall of the republic somewhat regretfully, the author refrains from placing its demise in the context of its effects upon following history, or from detailing its impact upon Roman citizenry, an omission that could hamper the full understanding of the influence these events would eventually have. This also raises the question of just why the fall of the republic should be mourned. This is a question which the book does not answer, and perhaps should.

Rubicon dispels the myths and dustiness of Ancient Rome, and exposes the enthralling reality of world that despite being totally alien, feels somewhat familiar to those looking upon it two-thousand years later. The fact that Holland succeeds in presenting a relatable vision of this world, that is both informative and entertaining, is a testament to his passion for this era of history, and Rubicon is a fine embodiment of the energy and focus this passion can bring to a work.