The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic
“a highly enjoyable historical narrative that reads almost like a modern political thriller . . .”
Power, patronage, propaganda, and politics. These are topics that often consume people these days as seemingly endless political dramas play out on social media and cable news. However, as much as Americans consider our politics to be often unseemly and driven by greed and corruption, we are still rank amateurs compared to our Roman ancestors.
In this fascinating new book, Mike Duncan, creator of one of the most downloaded Internet podcasts on Roman history, has written a timely and very readable book on the final decades of the Roman Republic, describing the political, social, and economic turmoil that ultimately led to the rise of the dictatorship of the Roman Empire.
The book clearly shows the author’s podcasting background and is written in an eminently readable style, particularly welcome for readers who are not steeped in Roman history. For anyone who has tried to understand Polybius, Tacitus, or Plutarch, this book lays out Roman history in a refreshingly simple style that allows the narrative to take over and presents a fascinating glimpse into the issues Rome faced as it became the hegemonic power of the Mediterranean world.
As the story unfolds with its almost soap opera quality, the reader cannot avoid the parallels to current events as Roman politicians, both virtuous and corrupt, deal with income inequality and a rising rural and urban underclass, questions of citizenship and voting rights, and how to sustain a military able to defend and ultimately expand Roman territory and riches. Clearly these are not issues unique to our time or circumstances, and it’s fascinating to read how similar many Roman Senators, tribunes, consuls, and praetors were in their social and political views to current day politicians and bureaucrats.
Roman politics was not for the faint of heart, and although American politics can involve a lot of blame, ad hominem attacks, and vitriol, Roman politics involved actual street fights and political assassinations, where a fall from power not only ended your political career, but probably your life and the lives of hundreds of your supporters as the Romans began to practice the dark art of the political purge during this period.
More importantly for the eventual downfall of the Senate and the Republic, ongoing wars with the Numidians and the Cimbri during this period lead to the introduction of standing professional armies, often privately raised, that were loyal primarily to their leader and patron instead of the Senate. The retention of these professional legions, often comprised of the poorest and most disenfranchised men of Roman society, set a dangerous precedent that would eventually pave the way for Julius Caesar to cross the Rubicon with his own personal legion and eventually become the first Emperor.
In hindsight, all of these issues and political maneuverings paved the way for the eventual downfall of the Republic, and Duncan does a marvelous job of weaving all of these disparate elements together into a highly enjoyable historical narrative that reads almost like a modern political thriller. By the time the final chapter concludes with the well-known tale of the murder of Julius Caesar by the men who sought to prevent the very dictatorship that so many unscrupulous Roman nobles had birthed, it seems almost anti-climactic.
For new or even well-read students of Roman history, this book does indeed fill a critical gap in understanding how the greatest Republic of the ancient world became first a hegemon, then a dictatorship, and finally an empire that ruled the Western world for nearly 500 years.