Yale (2019) h/b 339pp £25.00 (ISBN 9780300241457)

When two big beasts tread the political stage at the same time, it is a safe call that it will end in tears. Rome, of course, was used to big beasts, though not always in pairs, and not always as big as Caesar and Pompey. F. begins by recalling earlier ‘beastly’ manifestations and the Roman determination to defend itself: Sulla’s and Marius’ marches on Rome, for instance, and defensive measures against Carthaginians and Gauls. The Roman equivalent of backs-to-the-wall was to camp out on the heights of the Capitoline Hill. But the gritty response is always accompanied by fear and panic as legal structures give way to ambition and violence, beginning with Remus’ contempt for Romulus’ pomerium and ending, here at least, with Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon under arms. 

The central narrative begins with the death of Clodius and the diminishing chances of our big beasts continuing to cohabit politically. It’s also at this point of the book that F. begins to turn up the heat. We’ve seen the broad-brush background, and we have been introduced to the dramatis personae. From now on it is a decision by decision progress, via the Rubicon and Pompey’s departure from Brindisi, to Caesar’s arrival in Rome and the biggest constitutional crisis the city had yet seen; one which would decisively change the future.

F. tells us everything about those decision points, ransacking the primary sources for all their worth. Sometimes the density of information, and the proliferation of names, make progress for the reader a bit sticky, but it is worth it to know that you are not being short changed. The excellent maps are a great asset. A timeline and guide to the main players would have helped to keep us oriented, but given the brilliance of the text, this is a minor gripe, compared, for instance, with the way we share, through the use of primary sources (one of the great strengths of the book), Ciceros’s day-by-day incomprehension and exasperation at Pompey’s decision to quit Italy.

There are also episodes of remarkable vividness to spice the narrative—Caesar’s almost comical difficulty in finding the Rubicon, or his remarkably forgiving treatment of Ahenobarbus at Corfinium. But the latter, of course, had more to do with the rhetoric of politics than kindness of heart. And such actions did ease Caesar’s entirely illegal entry into Rome, where, once ensconced, he was quite prepared to, as it were, make offers that people could not refuse. Developments immediately post-49 BC are dealt with pretty summarily, but they are not the subject of the book—and where would you stop, anyway?

The text is beautifully articulated, helping the reader keep a firm grip on the developing story-line. Throughout, four to five line italicised rubrics, most containing the words ‘the fateful year, 49 BC’, maintain the logical links between what has already happened and the future implications of those events. Very affecting, too, is F.’s obvious pleasure in quoting omens and prodigies. They toll like a bell throughout the text as we progress, inexorably, to a death and rebirth.

So when two big beasts tread the political stage at the same time, it will end in tears. Perhaps for both of them. Perhaps for a political system, too.

Adrian Spooner