Book review: The Storm Before The Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

As a total newbie about Rome, I thoroughly enjoyed The Storm Before The Storm, a look at a slice of the Roman Republic, specifically from 146 to 76 BC.

Why this era? It is the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic, before the more famous generation of Caesar, Cicero, and Antony. It is when the elements that led to the rot of the republic began. This is the age of the Gracchus brothers (Tiberius and Gaius), Marius, and Sulla. Mike Duncan introduces them as well as a cast of supporting characters as he lays out the historical, military, and political events of the time.

I learned much about the various bits of the republic and how it worked (in theory and in actuality). The Roman Republic informed the US republic. The differences and similarities to the US republic were fascinating to realize. The Senate, which was composed of the aristocracy, was juxtaposed against the Assembly, which was composed of plebians. The Assembly could pass laws and carry out capital sentences. The Senate could not. The republic was ruled by a pair of consuls, who were elected for single year tenures. In times of crisis, either consul could appoint a dictator, whose power expired after six months.

Duncan walks the reader through a turbulent time in the republic and shows what crises and events led to its unravelling. In essence, the republic devolved into more and more frequent spasms of violence. The republic was fast fading away under violence and the breaking of written and unwritten laws and norms.

Benjamin Franklin’s words echoed in my mind. At the close of the Constitutional Convention, someone asked Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—A Republic or a Monarchy?” He replied, “A Republic. If you can keep it.”

Clearly, the ancient Romans couldn’t—which begs the question that maybe the US cannot either. Duncan acknowledges the parallels between what happened to the Roman Republic and what is happening today in the American Republic.

“Further investigation into this period reveals to the modern reader an era full of historical echoes that will sound eerily familiar to the modern reader. The final victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars led to rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct, the privatization of the military, rampant corruption, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, battles over access to citizenship and voting rights, ongoing military quagmires, the introduction of violence as a political tool, and a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” (pages xx-xxii)

Slowly bit by bit, those in political and/or military power in the Roman Republic dismantled the foundation of the republic without realizing that the structure would collapse. Mos maiorum, or the unwritten rules, were broken again and again—consulships were extended, those in power killed in sacred spots, the requirements for joining the legions changed. A vicious cycle started. As norms were broken, even more norms were broken until the republic became lawless, politics violent, and society controlled by mobs. And into this chaos came the rise of a monarchical system with the Caesars.

The issues facing the republic sound eerily familiar today: economic inequality, redistribution of land (wealth), grain dole (welfare), court (justice) reform, citizenship. The major power players all used policies of convenience to align groups in society, such as policies to seize public land to distribute to the rural poor or granting citizenship or voting rights to the Italian, i.e., non-Roman masses. The struggle for power devolved into two opposing worldviews and a struggle to win at all costs. It was not so much that you were right or that your position would help the republic or a portion of the populace; the goal was do whatever to destroy your rival. (Sound familiar?) Destruction for destruction’s sake leads to nothing good.

The Storm Before The Storm covers the geographical areas where Rome ventured: northern Africa, Gaul, tribes north of the Italian Alps, Asia (modern-day Greece and Turkey). The almost constant warfare, which brought slaves (who displaced workers, which led to economic inequality) and booty to Rome, drained the Roman Republic of men to fight. Rome had to exempt new recruits from being landowners, which ended up exacerbating problems in the republic. New recruits were loyal to their generals, not to the Senate or the republic. A career in the legions became a possibility as did a path for political power for the non-aristocracy.

Mike Duncan is best known for his history podcasts, first The History of Rome and currently Revolutions. As a scholar of history, he has a knack for explaining historical events. He has found his niche outside of academia through his podcasts, travel packages to historical sites, and now his book. Parts of his personality come through in his writing, but even more so in his podcasts. Due to the success of The Storm Before The Storm, Duncan will thankfully be writing more, bringing more history to the masses.

History reveals trends, events, and unintended side effects. We are exhorted to learn history or we are doomed to repeat it. The Storm Before the Storm opens a window into the downfall of one republic. In its reflection, we can see our own and possibly learn from it.

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