Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Book Review: Rubicon

Rubicon by Tom Holland *****

Rubicon is a history of the fall of the Roman Republic that reads like a novel, but seems to be based on pretty sound scholarship. Professional historians may quibble with the style, but this is an excellent overview for the average reader, dealing with a subject that is neglected in the school curriculum but seems very relevant to 21st century America.

Starting with a brief runthrough of the early history of Rome, the establishment of the Republic, and the gradual growth of an empire, Hammond gradually focuses in on the last century leading up to Julius Caesar’s fateful crossing of the Rubicon and shows the gradual crumbling of values and institutions that allow one brilliant, popular demagogue after another to hijack the government and turn it to his own ends. Pre-emptive wars of "defense" are only one of the tactics that will sound very familiar.

I believe that some reviewers have objected to Hammond’s use of “anachronisms,” but I found this to be an effective, if not always precise, way to convey what was happening. After all, the fact that a name has only recently been given to “spin” doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been done for millennia.

This book’s real strength, however, is in its portrayal of a huge cast of living, breathing human beings who grow and change over time. Pompey starts off looking like an obnoxious showoff, but his real love for his wives (which got him laughed in a society even more macho than 20th century America) and his devotion to the Republic give him an air of tragic pathos. Cato is curmudgeonly but honorable to the end, and Hammond’s portrait of Caesar projects a charm and ruthlessness that are both utterly calculated and extremely dangerous.

For anyone who wants to learn more about this fascinating era, whose parallels to our own can send chills down the spine, I highly recommend Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series.

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