Sexy History

I’m reading Rubicon by Tom Holland, a pacy account of the corruption and collapse of the Roman republic in the first century BC. It’s a period I’m interested in because my own Roman studies started with Augustus, with the post-collapse settlement being put in place and bloodily enforced. My grasp of what happened before was sketchy.

Actually Rubicon is more than pacy: in the context of ancient history writing it’s delirious, its narrative mapped out with the snap and vigour of a true crime pulp(aptly, since the story is steeped in murder). Holland is shown on the back, a lean and good-looking young man with a fin haircut, the very un-model of an ancient historian. Rubicon reads like a major breakthrough in classical studies. The paradox of ancient history is that from Thucydides on so many of the sources are narratives but that the discipline in the last fifty years has been so afraid of them – in fact there pretty much hasn’t been a populist ancient history book since Gibbon. Classical studies have been much more about the tortuous and guess-laden work of reconstructing everyday ancient life, economics, psychology, social structure: groundwork Holland has absorbed and mastered and knows how to deploy to make his story richer and more complete.

(He’s also good on the characters involved – pen-portraits were something else classical writers knew to be a proper part of historical writing but which have been often neglected since.)

It’s a compliment to Holland’s book that reading it I’ve had to confront some of my prejudices about popular narrative history writing, something I think is great in theory but in practise often too sweeping or lacking in detail. With Rubicon I never feel that way – the one niggle I have is that Holland is clearly dying to make a parallel between Rome in the 1st century BC and America in the 21st AD. He’s never explicit but in some sections the whiff of ‘do you see!!’ is pretty pungent (OMG MITHRIDATES = SADDAM WTF). It’s not that he’s wrong, but while history does occasionally repeat it never does so exactly, and the specific differences tend to be as or more interesting than the similarities.