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.