Alan Rafferty

The Beginning of the End



Little, Brown 406pp £20 order from our bookshop

THE ROMANS HAD a word for moments in which the course of history was changed, when the gain of riches and renown or the loss of lives and liberty rested on a single decision – ‘discrimen’. Tulius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon might be held up as an exemplary instance of this: forbidden by his former ally, now his arch-opponent, Pompey, to re-enter Italy without first disbanding his battle-hardened legions, and facing prosecution in Rome for crimes perpetrated whilst he was consul in that city, Caesar chose to lead his army across the river, so topographically insignificant that its location would eventually be forgotten, and begin a civil war that would ultimately bring down the Republic. However, Tom Holland doesn’t believe in discrimen, and neither, it seems, did Caesar. As he ordered his men into Italy he surrendered responsibility for his actions, famously declaring, ‘Alea iacta est.’ The invasion was the result of trespasses committed, intrigues incited and ambitions indulged long before. When Caesar used the phrase he was not being fatalistic, but rather recalling the gambling expertise of his youth, when as a fast-living urban fashionista he had time and again risked everything he had against his future glory, both financially and politically (the two were inseparable in the Republic). Caesar, as he proved by venturing into the Senate on the Ides of March, defied augury. What he paid attention to were the power-struggles and underlying inclinations of Rome and the Roman people, and it is to these that Holland’s entertaining and ambitious narrative history – ranging over almost five hundred years, from the dethroning of King Tarquin to the unchallenged dictatorship of Augustus Caesar – looks for the reasons behind the Republic’s undoing.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'Ideas that I’d thought were set down in full continue to smoulder ... this book is only a snapshot of some larger… ,
    • 'Full of invention which, at its most pedestrian, is eminently Victorian, and at its most unrestrained wildly imagi… ,
    • 'What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holla… ,
    • RT : One of my favourite literary magazines is celebrating 40 years this year. Here is the September edition of… ,
    • 'Now that the Thames is too fast-flowing to freeze, its spirit’s devotees ... have found other climes for their pri… ,
    • 'Bythell glowers past his till at a world in slow free fall.' on the travails of a second-hand book… ,
    • 'It is a scent of animal wrath, of instinctive need, of brutal life which affects the cultured nostrils of our civi… ,