“The great truth of history, so often unspoken, is that for most of our ancestors the key issues were not those of political philosophy, the nature of freedom and the nation, but how to feed oneself and one’s children. History is about food.”
In March of 44 BC, Julius Caesar was murdered by 60-odd members of the Roman aristocracy. They believed that with him gone, everything would return to normal, as it had in the past. Instead, a revolution in Roman society culminated in the formation of the Roman Empire, ending the Republic. Why didn’t a restoration happen? And why was the old version of Roman society destroyed, an outcome totally unexpected by the participants in the events of 44 BC?
These striking questions are what Rome’s Revolution sets out to address, in a novel and fascinating perspective on the history of Rome. As Alston points out, the Rome is often presented with the veneer of inevitability: unlike more recent history, which has not lost its power to shock, the events of Rome are so far removed from us it can be hard to empathize with how people must have felt. Yet in many ways, the events of 44 BC are more comparable to the American or particularly the French revolution in terms of associated chaos and trauma for participants, and indeed the ideals of the Republic helped motivate those and other more recent events, such as the English Civil War.
Alston has a narrative he wants to tell – the Roman revolution as a struggle between groups, and that many participants had no idea what was going on. This isn’t wrong, but for me he overemphasizes it: it’s easy to think of the past in slow motion, with all participants just a little bit less clever than us, but I suspect the contemporary Romans were well aware of many of the trends we discuss in retrospect, such as the rise of private armies within Rome. It’s just not clear what they could have done about it, an explanation Alston doesn’t sufficient much time to. Still, a great perspective on old events.
You can also see more reviews of Rome’s Revolution.