The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, by Mike Duncan (Hardcover, 352 pages)

We have a ten­den­cy to look at the past as a mir­ror, to see our­selves reflect­ed in it rather than rec­og­nize the past as a for­eign coun­try — even when, indeed, it’s both.

This leads to meth­ods of his­tor­i­cal div­ina­tion that try to read the past close­ly and thor­ough­ly enough that the present is entire­ly rec­og­niz­able and there­fore the future will be foreseeable.

Some­times this is pre­sent­ed mere­ly in apho­rism (“his­to­ry repeats”, “it rhymes”, “peo­ple repeat his­to­ry”); some­times pseu­do-sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly (“these are the six eco­nom­ic indi­ca­tors that will pre­dict the next president”).

Pre­vi­ous soci­eties would sac­ri­fice ani­mals on an altar and from their entrails suss out mes­sages they already want­ed to find. We’re much more advanced nowa­days, so we sub­sti­tute cher­ry-picked data in place of viscera.

Roman his­to­ry, though, is espe­cial­ly at risk for this sort of con­fir­ma­tion bias because there is so very much of it and it influ­enced so many suc­ces­sor states, all of whom could rea­son­ably claim to have inher­it­ed part of its legacy.

As much as any­one, the Unit­ed States has inten­tion­al­ly drawn those same par­al­lels since our very founding.

Reject­ing abso­lutism, we were a repub­lic with the high­est ideals of per­son­al lib­er­ty, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and equal­i­ty under the law. Yet, like the Romans, we only cared to extend this to some, and free­dom did­n’t pre­clude seiz­ing ter­ri­to­ry by con­quest or wip­ing out whole peo­ples. In Rome’s Ital­ian ter­ri­to­ry, per­haps a quar­ter of the total pop­u­la­tion was enslaved at its height. In the Deep South, it was more like half.

When hob­by­ist pod­cast­er Mike Dun­can (now grad­u­at­ed to a pro­fes­sion­al pop­u­lar his­to­ri­an) set out to write his 2017 book The Storm Before the Storm, he admits he went into it with an eye toward res­o­nant par­al­lels between Rome and the U.S.:

I also do think that if there is any peri­od in the thou­sand-odd-year his­to­ry of Rome that Amer­i­cans in the 21st cen­tu­ry can look to for an anal­o­gous his­tor­i­cal set­ting, it’s right here.

Once you zoom into this peri­od there are a lot of famil­iar prob­lems: grow­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, intran­si­gent elites more focused on pet­ty polit­i­cal one-upman­ship than address­ing the needs of their cit­i­zens, endem­ic social and eth­nic prej­u­dice, the break­down of unspo­ken polit­i­cal norms  — very fer­tile ground if you want to study how it could all go hor­ri­bly awry if we’re not careful.

Dun­can went back with Storm to re-exam­ine not the fall of the Roman Empire or the end of the Repub­lic in the civ­il wars of Julius Cae­sar and Augus­tus but the rough­ly sev­en­ty years pri­or to that. In the process, he tracks how norms and taboos became irrel­e­vant, insti­tu­tions failed, and ulti­mate­ly how legit­i­mate polit­i­cal pow­er ceased to exist as some­thing sep­a­rate or dis­tinct from the capac­i­ty for naked violence.

With­out over­ly mak­ing the anal­o­gy with­in the book, Dun­can com­pares Amer­i­ca’s posi­tion fol­low­ing the col­lapse of its great­est rival in the Sovi­et Union was some­what sim­i­lar to Rome’s after the final destruc­tion of it’s great­est rival Carthage in 146 BCE.

Unable to find a com­mon cause out­side itself worth set­ting aside dif­fer­ences, the social fault lines with­in Roman soci­ety became predominant.

Fur­ther rich­es this pre­em­i­nence gained went only to those already most wealthy, most pow­er­ful mem­bers of soci­ety. Those enslaved attempt­ed to gain their lib­er­ty unsuc­cess­ful­ly through three Servile Wars. The unwill­ing­ness of Romans to extend cit­i­zen­ship and a say in gov­ern­ment to Ital­ian allies result­ed in the Social War where the allies earned by arms what per­sua­sion could not.

How­ev­er, it was the issues of free Romans — those mid­dle-class Eques­tri­ans and for­mer sol­diers who now were urban poor left out­side the social elite ver­sus wealthy sen­a­to­r­i­al fam­i­lies — that formed the pri­ma­ry dishar­mo­ny of the fac­tions that are known to his­to­ry as the Opti­mates and Populares.

As mod­ern pro­gres­sives, it’s easy to look back in time and see the Grac­chi Broth­ers and their goals of land reform and max­i­mum wealth lim­its, extend­ing cit­i­zen­ship and adjust­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion to be pro­por­tion­al, and curb­ing cor­rup­tion as being obvi­ous­ly in the right.

Indeed, many of the issues pushed by Tiberius and Gaius Grac­chus were even­tu­al­ly enact­ed only after tens of thou­sands died in civ­il war and the intran­si­gent gov­ern­ment with an elect­ed repub­lic trans­formed into the more respon­sive gov­ern­ment of an unelect­ed principate.

But what is more uni­ver­sal, and rec­og­nized as such by near-con­tem­po­raries, is the way that soci­eties come apart by play­ing the game increas­ing­ly ruth­less­ly until the hypocrisy of the sword in the scab­bard is gone and the naked blade is all that’s left.

The Storm Before the Storm may be writ­ten reach­ing a bit too far in its his­tor­i­cal anal­o­gy; I cer­tain­ly hope my inter­pre­ta­tion of it is.

But regard­less, the book is an impor­tant reminder that noth­ing gold can stay, and it nev­er has — at least not with­out hard and ter­ri­ble work to pre­serve it.

Adjacent posts