When did the Roman Republic fall?

The die is cast - the fall of the Roman Republic

Representations of the last decades of the Roman Republic, which were not written for the specialized science, come in this country mostly as biographies. “Rubicon”, the original title of the book by BBC author Tom Holland, is different. Clarity, concentration on the essentials and a high level of reflection are the main advantages of the well-translated book, which describes the time from the Gracchen to the establishment of the Principate. Aperçu-like sentences open up surprising perspectives again and again and summarize recent research results in a pointed way.

“The republic”, as the past-obsessed and at the same time constantly revised political culture is characterized, “was a construction site and junk room in one. Their future was built in the midst of the junk of the past. ”Holland aptly grasps the importance of the people, one of the most discussed research problems of recent years: the Romans would have known that they were never capable of being either as slaves to a king or as entourage of aristocratic cliques would be to conquer the world. In addition to sniffing at the specific plebs, the high-ranking gentlemen always had the abstract idea of ​​an ideal people.

The fundamental contradiction of the political system, which aroused a “painful hunger for reputation” among its elites, without being able to give talented individuals any real freedom of action, first manifested itself very drastically in the Gracchi; their work and end has "finally prevented those reforms for which they died".

Academic pallor or postmodern lust for playful refractions are not Holland's thing; Rather, in the style of an emphatically sober, at times heroic-seeming realism, it shows the power and kinetic energy of this republic, the brutality of political life, the extravagances of the front men and the fine line on which each of them stormed forward. "Every ambitious politician must at the same time have the characteristics of a conspirator", it is said in connection with the brilliantly described activities of Catiline, about which Holland, by the way, quite rightly says that they are "hidden behind a fog of disinformation". The exploitation of slaves, the choking indebtedness and the willingness to break out of violence are dialectically intertwined in his analysis with the guiding virtues that characterize every living republicanism to this day: the culture of civil rights, the passion for freedom, the deep fear of abuse and disgrace.

Expressions from the political language of our time update the events described without degenerating into flat equations. Theodor Mommsen and Ronald Syme understood this masterfully in their time to bring the outgoing Roman Republic into their own world and thereby illuminate them anew. A comparison with them would be unfair, because Holland's book does not want to be a genuine research achievement in the sense of real innovation, although further reflections can be found on figures like Lucullus and Pompey. But the knowledgeable reader also benefits from the reflection and sharpening presented here. “Rome”, it is said to justify the question, “was the first and until recently the only republic to attain the status of a world power, and it is indeed difficult to find another episode in history, that of our own time holding up a mirror in a captivating way ”.

By the way, Caesar declared the game for power at the Rubicon to be open, not over: “The dice fly high!” If you want to relive this struggle for the highest stakes with bated breath, this book is the best choice for you.

Review: Walter, Uwe

The die is cast - the fall of the Roman Republic
Econ Verlag, Berlin 2004, 445 pages, book price € 22.00
June 23, 2005

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