Rubicon by Tom Holland has been handsomely republished by the Folio Society. It is a work of popular history that leaves you frequently wondering how long it has been since you read a statement of verifiable fact. The style is racy. We are told for example that Cleopatra was ‘not given to sleeping around; far from it. Her favours were the most exclusive in the world.’ How would we know how many men or women Cleopatra slept with?
We are also told:
Roman morality did not look kindly on female forwardness. Fragility was the ultimate marital ideal. It was taken for granted, for instance, that ‘a matron has no need of lascivious squirmings’ – anything more than a rigid, dignified immobility was regarded as the mark of a prostitute.
But fifteen pages later we are told:
Early every December, women from the noblest families in the Republic would gather to celebrate the mysterious rights of the Good Goddess. The festival was strictly off-limits to men. Even their statues had to be veiled for the occasion. Such secrecy fuelled any number of prurient male fantasies. Every citizen knew that women were depraved and promiscuous by nature.
Those statements about the sex lives of women in ancient Rome have three things in common. They are general. They are not supported by evidence. And they are not consistent. How would we know? It is a long time since I studied Catullus, but his erotic poetry doesn’t suggest that the heavy breathing was all male, and why did Ovid bother with The Art of Love if the boys were puckering up to cardboard cut-outs? And what about human nature? As the man said in that funny play, the world must be peopled.
The myth that ancient Athens and Rome were civilised dies hard. Western civilisation is premised on the dignity of the individual. If you want chapter and verse it is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, 1-17), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 70), and the Enlightenment (Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, par.4.435).
Neither Athens nor Rome accepted that premise. The wealth of each was based on slavery and empire. Gibbon began his first published work, the Essai, with the following words of eternal verity: L’histoire des empires est celle de la misère des hommes. ‘The history of empires is the history of the misery of mankind.’ Mr Holland appears to find nobility in the exploitation of slaves by the Romans.
This exploitation was what underpinned everything that was noblest about the Republic – its culture and citizenship, its passion for freedom, its dread of disgrace and shame. It was not merely that the leisure which enabled a citizen to devote himself to the Republic was dependent upon the forced labour of others. Slaves also satisfied a subtler, more baneful need. ‘Gain cannot be made without loss to someone else’: so every Roman took for granted. All status was relative. What value would freedom have in a world where everyone was free? Even the poorest citizen could know himself to be immeasurably the superior of even the best-treated slave. Death was preferable to a life without liberty: so the entire history of the Republic had gloriously served to prove. If a man permitted himself to be enslaved, that he thoroughly deserved his fate. Such was the harsh logic that prevented anyone from even questioning the cruelties the slaves suffered, let alone the legitimacy of slavery itself.
What part of that would not apply to the Third Reich? On the next page we are reminded of the practice of decimation: if a Roman general did not like the way his soldiers were performing, he would take out by lot every tenth man and have him publicly beaten to death as an example to the rest.
Here is another windy statement about the Republic. ‘A Republic ruled by violence would hardly be a Republic at all.’ Violence was everywhere throughout the history of the Republic. Only one of the big hitters in the last century of the Republic died in his bed. It was the same with the Empire. Gibbon said:
Such was the unhappy fate of the Roman emperors, that whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same. A life of pleasure or virtue, of severity or mildness, of indolence or glory, alike led to an untimely grave; and almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of slavery and murder.
For about 700 years, ancient Rome made a modern banana republic look stable.
Julius Caesar was a mass murderer. He was at his worst in France (then known as Gaul) during election times. He would massacre hundreds of thousands in wars he engineered for that purpose in order to improve his electoral standing in Rome. Mr Holland tells us:
In Caesar’s energy there was something demonic and sublime. Touched by boldness, perseverance and a yearning to be the best, it was the spirit of the Republic at its most inspiring and lethal. No wonder that his men worshipped him, for they too were Roman, and felt privileged to be sharing in their general’s great adventure. Battle-hardened by years of campaigning, they were in no mood to panic now at the peril of the situation. Their faith in Caesar and their own invincibility held good.
Doubtless Hitler felt this way when he entered Paris. Mr Holland then tells us that the ancient authors – it is Plutarch – estimated that the conquest of Gaul had cost one million dead, one million more enslaved, and 800 cities taken by storm. If Plutarch was right, Hitler let the French off lightly. ‘Demonic’ would be an understatement: but how on earth could this be sublime?
To the Romans, no truer measure of a man could be found than his capacity to withstand grim ordeals of exhaustion and blood. By such a reckoning, Caesar had proved himself the foremost man in the Republic.
But a little further on we are told in the context of a discussion of the libido of Caesar:
Even to men who had followed their general through unbelievable hardships, his sexual prowess spelled effeminacy. Great though Caesar had proved himself, steel-hard in body and mind, the moral codes of the Republic were unforgiving. A citizen could never afford to slip. Dirt on a toga would always show.
So, we again have large statements about attitudes to sex that just ignore human nature. Are we to believe that Caesar’s soldiers thought less of him as a man because he enjoyed giving it to women as much as he enjoyed killing men?
Cicero may be the most overrated windbag in all history. His death was pathetic. It came with the proscription of Augustus.
After all, as Cato had taught him, there were nightmares worse than death. Trapped by his executioners at last, Cicero leaned out from his litter and bared his throat to the sword. This was the gesture of a gladiator, and one he had always admired. Defeated in the greatest and deadliest of all games, he unflinchingly accepted his fate. He died as he would surely have wished: bravely, a martyr to freedom and to freedom of speech.
That is pure bullshit. I wonder if perhaps Mr Holland is a libertarian?
Poet of the Month: Verlaine
This is no moonstruck dreamer of tales
Mocking ancestral portraits overhead;
His gaiety, alas, is, like his candle, dead –
And his spectre haunts us now, thin as a rail.
There, in the terror of endless lightning,
His pale blouse, a cold wind blows, takes shape
Like a winding sheet, and his mouth agape
Seems to howl at the blind worms’ gnawing.
With the sound of a night-bird’s passing grace,
His white sleeves mark out vaguely in space
Wild foolish signs to which no one replies.
His eyes are vast holes where phosphorus burns,
And his make-up renders more frightful in turn
The bloodless face, the sharp nose, of one who dies.