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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Podcast review: Revolutions

Revolutions is one of those podcasts that you hear about years after it started and then find yourself devouring episode after episode. Kind of like binge watching shows on Netflix.

I first heard of Revolutions on the NPR Politics podcast. One of the regular presenters shared a podcast that she had found very enjoyable: a historical podcast on revolutions around the world. Ooooh! That sounds interesting, I thought.

I have devoured the first year of backlogged Revolutions podcasts with no sign of letting up. Yes, they are interesting. Very.

The podcaster, Mike Duncan, makes history wonderfully engaging, full of anecdotes, facts, and commentary. I find myself laughing at descriptions he paints or emitting an exclamation of surprise about a tidbit of information that he shares.

In one case, he described a German officer who was attempting to train Americans to be soldiers. He spoke no English and the Americans spoke no German. Communication occurred through French. (He spoke French. Someone translated from French into English.) Often he would get frustrated or enraged at the American soldiers, turning red in the face and swearing in German—which the American soldiers found absolutely hilarious.

In another case, he related an observation by this same German officer: that European soldiers immediately obey when they are told to do something. In contrast, Americans want to be told why they need to do something before they will do it. I spit out whatever I was drinking. Some things, I thought, do not change with time. Imagine Americans not doing something until they knew why?! (I’d add that Americans need to agree with the reason.)

Revolutions are divided into, well, different revolutions. The podcast starts with the English Civil Wars and continues with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and others.(I’m currently in the throes of the French Revolution.) The various episodes describe the political/social/historical situation that led up to the revolution under discussion, the revolution itself, and the immediate aftermath.

The podcast has definitely increased my knowledge and understanding of history and events. For example, while some names of the English Civil Wars are familiar to me (such as Oliver Cromwell), I was pretty much in the dark about England’s civil wars. (There were two civil wars back to back?!)

When I hear names in other contexts, I can now place them in time and understand the historical context around them. (Oh, King Charles II? The king that was invited back from exile after the English attempt at a republic failed? Oh, the Howes? Those brothers who led British troops in the American Revolution?)

The episodes on the American Revolution solidified, expanded, and corrected what knowledge I did have about my country. Who knew that Washington was the master of the graceful retreat? What was the deal with Benedict Arnold?

The episodes also piqued my interest. I found myself picking up books about the American Revolution and noticed nice confluences between the book I was reading and the podcast. I am now feeling yearnings to re-read political theory from undergraduate classes. Anyone up for Burke, Paine, or Locke?

Lafayette, who popped up in the American Revolution episodes, reappears in the French Revolution episodes that I am currently listening to. (I am waiting for Thomas Paine to make an appearance in the later French Revolution.)

Only two and a half more years of backlogged episodes to go! (Or only two and a half revolutions, depending on how you look at it.) And then I can turn to his initial podcast, The History of Rome, which ran from 2007 to 2012 and has only 191 episodes.

Check out either podcast—Revolutions or The History of Rome. (I can’t vouch for The History of Rome yet, but in 2010 it won Best Educational Podcast.) You won’t be disappointed.