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Book Review: Rome’s Revolution

By (July 27, 2015) No Comment

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Rome’s Revolution:

Death of the Republic & Birth of the Empire

by Richard Alston

Oxford University Press, 2015

The “Ancient Warfare and Civilization” series from Oxford University Press has had its share of notable successes, including Mastering the West: Rome and Carthage at War by Dexter Hoyos, By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire by Ian Worthington, and Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece by Robin Waterfield. The latest installment in the series is Richard Alston’s Rome’s Revolution: Death of the Republic & Birth of Empire, the mere title of which will raise the expectations, since it deliberately echoes the title of Ronald Syme’s hugely influential 1939 masterwork, The Roman Revolution.

The brightest of historical lights would struggle to be seen in such a long shadow, and Alston’s accessible but somewhat thin book almost completely fades from view. Alston’s account covers extremely well-trod ground: the rise of Julius Caesar and the advancement of his use of his legions as instruments of personal advancement, his crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C with his troops and marching on Rome in order to install himself as military dictator. He’s assassinated by a large crowd of senators in 44 B.C, and in the general melee for power that followed, his grandnephew Octavian eventually emerged as the inheritor of the dictatorship in which he was in due time dubbed Augustus, the inaugurator of a formalized emperorship that would last a thousand years.

Alston might echo Syme’s title, but his book lacks any hint of the earlier work’s investigative rigor or rhetorical sparkle. But it’s the near-complete lack of skepticism that most sharply separates this book from its illustrious predecessor; Alston’s Julius Caesar is a plastic saint in all but name. According to Alston:

Caesar’s war was accidental. Caesar invaded to resolve a particular tactical problem: how he and his supporters could find their place in the Republic. Caesar and his supporters never threatened the Republic. They represented themselves, reasonably, as having been threatened and excluded by a faction within the senate. The war was personalized.

This is astonishing stuff, every line of which is intensely contestable (a personal favorite being that bit about Caesar never threatening the Republic), and it’s the kind of thing that fills Alston’s book. He’s working with the same primary sources as all previous historians of Julius Caesar have used, but in his own summaries, he tends to stake out some especially high-flying opening line for a paragraph (Caesar’s war being accidental, as above) and then watch haplessly as the following sentences lose the path and wander off into the mists of Gaul. Take this example:

Caesar was a gifted man. He was a fine writer, a skilled politician, a sublime orator, and a brilliant general. Like many of his contemporaries, he was impressively educated and hugely ambitious. Those ambitions were unusual in scope. Few men have seriously attempted to rival Alexander the Great, though, fortunately, few have been in a position to try. There may also have been an unusual streak of ruthlessness to him. Certainly, like so many great men, he left a massive trail of death and destruction in his wake. The events of 49 B. C. led to a great war that destabilized the political status quo and was a fundamental cause of the end of the Republic. These were, it turned out, events of great historical importance. But if Caesar crossed the Rubicon and launched the civil war in the service of some great idea or a great reforming agenda, there is little hint of what that idea might have been in all his writings or in everything that was written about him.

We start off with “Caesar was a gifted man” – a harmless enough claim. Then we go to “he was a fine writer, a skilled politician, a sublime orator, and a brilliant general” – but he was a boring writer (if that, since his surviving books were at least in part ghostwritten), a “sublime” orator – but only by Cicero’s cringing account, a “skilled politician” – but one who was plagued throughout his entire life by fraud and graft lawsuits, and a “brilliant general” – whose plans tended to fall apart when confronted with organized opposition everywhere from Egypt to Britain. But even if all those points are debatable, they have no bearing on the line that follows, that bit about Caesar being as well-educated as his aristocratic peers and also hugely ambitious – just that fast, we’ve wandered away from “gifted” and into “commonplace,” but with no acknowledgement of the shift. And from there we go to speculation about Caesar having a pronounced streak of ruthlessness – so, a gift for it? That’s clearly not what Alston meant in his opening line, but we’re a long way from there by now. And by the time we finish up, with that line about how if Caesar attacked Rome for any higher reason, it’s not really clear from the written record what that reason was, we’re in the murk of open-ended speculation, as far from the opening “gifted man” contention as we can get. Not only does Alston’s own paragraph in no way demonstrate that giftedness, but by the end of the same paragraph, that “gifted” business has been forgotten in favor of broad claims about the monumental nature of the time’s events.

That kind of rhetorical sloppiness crops up all throughout Rome’s Revolution, and it isn’t the only nagging element in the prose. Occasionally, Alston’s writing is weirdly impressionistic in ways that certainly don’t seem to be under his control but that are sometimes inadvertently funny:

Quintus Cicero, brother of the orator, and his son were captured together. The executioners killed them at the same moment. Another father and son were decapitated with a single blow, leaving their headless corpses still embracing. Balbus and his son managed to escape Rome. Balbus sent his son ahead, but his son drowned at sea and Balbus returned to Rome to meet his death. The son of Arruntius refused to flee without his father, but as the killers closed in, he was persuaded to head off to sea, where he also drowned. His mother, having performed the funeral rites for her executed husband, killed herself.

By the time I reached the end of that paragraph, I was certain the line would be “His mother, having taken it into her head to perform the funeral rites for her executed husband, went ahead and killed herself.”

There’s a distinct if partisan energy running through Rome’s Revolution, but its largely wayward energy. These very familiar events hardly warrant another rehash, much less one as unadventurous as this one.