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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

Book Review: “The Storm Before the Storm” and the seduction of history’s lessons

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.

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