Rome was not built in a day, the saying goes, but it did not fall in a day either, instead decaying slowly as norms got eroded until there was a sudden, final collapse, like a building whose structures were slowly weakened by termites before it imploded. A 2018 review of the book MORTAL REPUBLIC: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny by Edward J. Watts summarizes that the fall was preceded by a steady erosion of norms that had held it together and what insights that process might provide for our current times.
Since the founding fathers explicitly modeled the United States on the Roman Republic, a study that investigates the circumstances of its demise promises to hold considerable relevance for our own times. As Watts puts the point, the principal purpose of his book is to allow “readers to better appreciate the serious problems that result both from politicians who breach a republic’s political norms and from citizens who choose not to punish them for doing so.” Does he accomplish that ambitious goal?
In Watts’s telling of the Roman Republic’s agonizing death, slow-moving structural transformations gradually sowed the seeds of demise. As the population exploded and the economy became ever more sophisticated, the growing share of poor citizens started to demand redress. But since the institutions of the republic were dominated by patricians who had much to lose from measures like land reform, they never fully addressed the grievances of ordinary Romans. With popular rage against increasingly dysfunctional institutions swelling, ambitious patricians, determined to outflank their competitors, began to build a fervent base of support by making outsize promises. It was these populares — populists like Tiberius Gracchus and his younger brother Gaius — who, in their bid for power, first broke some of the republic’s most longstanding norms.
It took a long time for these tensions to build. But once they reached a critical point, Rome’s descent into chaos and dysfunction was astonishingly swift.
Over the next years, it quickly became normal for populist politicians to set aside longstanding norms to accomplish their goals; for military commanders to bend the Senate to their will by threatening to occupy Rome; and for rival generals to wage war on one another. “Within a generation of the first political assassination in Rome, politicians had begun to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to influence the votes of assemblies and the election of magistrates. Within two generations, Rome fell into civil war.”
If we were to make explicit the implicit analogy that runs all the way through “Mortal Republic,” we would most likely cast Donald Trump as a farcical reincarnation of Tiberius Gracchus. Like the original populist, Trump was propelled to power by the all-too-real failures of a political system that is unable to curb growing inequality or to mobilize its most eminent citizens around a shared conception of the common good. And like Gracchus, Trump believes that, because he is acting in the name of the dispossessed, he is perfectly justified in shredding the Republic’s traditions.
If that analogy is right, the good news is that Trump will, once the history of our own mortal Republic is written, turn out to be a relatively minor character. Far from single-handedly destroying our political system, he is the transitional figure whose election demonstrates the extent to which the failings of our democracy are finally starting to take their toll.
The bad news is that the coming decades are unlikely to afford us many moments of calm and tranquillity. For though four generations stand between Tiberius Gracchus’ violent death and Augustus’ rapid ascent to plenipotentiary power, the intervening century was one of virtually incessant fear and chaos. If the central analogy that animates “Mortal Republic” is correct, the current challenge to America’s political system is likely to persist long after its present occupant has left the White House.
History is not a prefect predictor of the future but can serve to give us danger signs that we ignore at our peril.
consciousness razor says
For those who don’t know the history very well, Gracchus was killed a long time before the empire even began. All of that is important background for understanding the civil war less than a century later. (Julius Caesar was kind of a similar figure.) But that has to do with how they ended up with an empire in the first place, under Octavian, not with how the western half of it fell several centuries later.
Well, that’s a stretch, and it could hardly be more farcical. Trump never did give a shit a ordinary people. Merely being popular enough to actually be elected president (once), unlike many other Republicans in recent history, doesn’t quite cut it for me. If that’s all they mean by “right-wing populist,” it’s really just a pathetic joke.
If Trump had been trying to take property (claimed in war) from the wealthy who had illegally gobbled up more than they were allowed to have and made slaves work the land for them, reimburse those wealthy people for it, then redistribute it to the poor (particularly homeless veterans), that would make it a pretty good comparison. Or if, when Trump said that he’d make Mexico pay for his stupid wall, it were the case that “Mexico” was actually the upper classes which controlled the Senate in our notional “republic,” then that would be something too.
Ketil Tveiten says
Comparing Trump to Gracchus is ridiculous.
Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before The Storm is another really good telling of the hows and whys of the Republic’s collapse.
Everyone has been talked about the shift of the Republican party from anti-slavery to pro-bigotry with its “Southern strategy,” but it seems to me that its more recent shift has been that, when I was growing up, Republicans were the ones emphasizing civic responsibility and the Democrats were emphasizing personal freedom (mostly the freedom to not get sent to Vietnam). With the insidious influence of Reagan’s anti-government pitch and the subsequent libertarian infiltration of the Republican party, this has been another reversal. Go to a Republican rally and start talking about people living up to their civic responsibilities (other than the responsibility of brown people not to complain about getting shot by the police), and see how far it gets you.
Marcus Ranum says
Rome had an economy built on “smash and grab” that was unsustainable. Also, the division of the spoils was lopsided, and the question of who was a citizen became a dividing-point for political opportunists as well as the ruling elite. It’s fashionable to say “X is why Rome fell!” for many versions of X but my take is that it was a political system built to enable sociopaths to empower themselves. That means an inevitable succession of sociopaths until the system’s inefficiencies lead to collapse. Sociopaths pretty much never govern efficiently or well.
You gave me a bit of a mental disconnect there. The fall of the (Western) Roman Empire (which you put into your headline) was in the late 400s AD. Then you discussed the fall of the Roman Republic, circa 100 BC.
As wisecrackers say, Rome wasn’t burnt in a day.
Pierce R. Butler says
This post conflates the fall of the Republic and the fall of the Empire -- which occurred more than three centuries apart, with radically different causation. (E.g., outside enemies had vanishingly little to do with the Republic’s collapse.)
Both stories do have something to tell us about the decline of the US republic and the fall of the American empire, occurring roughly contemporaneously and involving many of the same factors (and persons), but we really would do well to keep them distinct.
To prevent these kinds of misunderstandings, we historians of the ancient world tend to use “Principate” for the system of having an emperor that Augustus introduced at the end of the 1st Century BC, saving “Empire” to mean the territorial possessions of the Roman state, which accrued primarily during the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC as a result of Rome’s expanding sphere of influence and unusual ways of waging war. So the collapse of the Republican system led to the establishment of the Principate, but the Empire was still very much a going thing throughout the entire process.
Indeed, in a very significant way it was the Empire that led to the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the Principate. As Marcus points out, above, the governmental system of the Roman Republic was designed to mediate the interests of the wealthy aristocrats of a backwater Italian town in the 5th-4th Century BC. It was absolutely not a governmental system fit for the purpose of running a continent-wide territorial empire with millions of inhabitants. What works to provide opportunities for ambitious young aristocrats to raid and pillage local Italian towns, and enrich a tiny state’s coffers with modest spoils, is a monstrosity when it regulates the ambitions of generals in command of tens of thousands of troops, and wealth at a level that can insulate you entirely from your own society’s best interests. A state of that scale run like that simply cannot hold together.
When one points at the “norms” of the Roman Republic breaking down (which they absolutely did), one must acknowledge that those norms were antiquated and unfit for purpose. Those norms helped to hold back much needed progress and create inequality and suffering among those outside the charmed circles of the elite. The Republic itself was oligarchic, unequal and undemocratic in any sense we would recognise -- by design. It would be a mistake to think that it mattered much to the lives of the vast majority of Romans whether they were ruled by a dozen or so powerful families jockeying for influence in the Republican system or one family under the Principate, with anyone else who was anyone trying to depose or assassinate them (and frequently succeeding).
Things that can go wrong when a physicist tries to do history:
1. not recognizing the difference between a republic and an empire (the Roman one began with Emperor -- the word says it all -- Augustus). resulting in a silly header;
2. using undefined terms like “it did not fall in a day either”; Rome did not fall in the1st Century BCE; btw the Roman Empire did not fall in the 5th Century CE either but only in the 15th one;
3. not recognizing silly analogies: “a study that investigates the circumstances of its demise promises to hold considerable relevance for our own times” only makes sense on the false assumptions that the differences are irrelevant;
4. not recognizing the probably most important difference in the case of the Roman Republic: “As the population exploded and the economy became ever more sophisticated” was caused by the RR having become to large by continuously adding territories by conquest and being unable to effectively control them.
I’m quite sure that MS would think it totally unacceptable if a historian wrote crap like this about modern physics.
In addition to @8 I’d like to point out that all inhabitants of the Roman Empire received civil rights at the beginning of the Third Century CE, when it already had begun the transition to a military dictature.
As a thumbrule historical analogies work better the smaller the time interval. When looking for danger signs the Weimar Republic provides a much better example, though even here there are big, relevant differences. Militant trumpists do play a role comparable to the SA, but the Weimar Republic was not a two (or one) party system.
A comparison of the US and ancient Rome I’ve made before:
Hannibal’s Second Punic War against Rome was in the late 2nd century BCE, attacking the capital with elephants. After the war from around 200 BCE until early 1st century CE, Rome invaded, occupied and stole wealth from across Europe. Compare that with Osama bin Laden’s attacks with airplanes and then the US spending 20 years on wars of aggression for oil, and destroying its own economic base in the process.
Hannibal didn’t directly or immediately cause the downfall of the Roman empire, but you could certainly point to his attempted invasion and Rome’s response as the beginning of the empire’s decline. Rome’s economic peak came in the 1st century CE, then the slow decline began, after the point where there was no more wealth to take from Europe (MR #4, above).
Another thing to consider when comparing history and now is time. 2000 years ago, armies travelled on foot and sailing fleets were the fastest transport, and day to day life was much slower. The pace of events that took 10-50 years then happen in the space of 1-5 years today or even faster because of the speed of information and travel, and changing technology. But the warmongering and imperialist hypocrisy are very much the same.
“Compare that with Osama bin Laden’s attacks with airplanes”
You mean ObL defeating Roman armies three times in a row, being incapable to finish off the Republic and continuing a looting war on Roman soil for 10 years -- oops, 1 year? After which the Roman Republic did not ruin its economic base but became richer and richer until the civil wars of the First Century began?
“But the warmongering and imperialist hypocrisy are very much the same.”
Which applies to every single superpower in human history. My compliment for expertedly demonstrating that your analogy doesn’t provide any new insight either.
Marja Erwin says
There’s a long tradition, more than 1600 years, of blaming the problems of the later Roman Empire on immigrants, and claiming that refugee caravans were conspiracies, because when the Roman officials tried to enslave refugees, some banded together and very effectively fought back.
It’s vile, and to mind mind it seems to distract from the real problems such as inequality, civil wars, and soil erosion.
It’s reinforced by a lot of common rhetoric about “barbarian invaders,” “[V]andalism,” etc.
Rob Grigjanis says
So you didn’t read cartomancer (a historian) @8?
All free, adult, male inhabitants. Slaves were not freed under Caracalla’s grant of citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire, and women and children in many ways remained under the power of the paterfamilias, although admittedly this had been somewhat diluted over time.
True, but it did have a left faction -- the KPD -- which thought the most important thing was to attack those it regarded as “pseudoprogressives” (the SPD, which it called “social fascists”), rather than build a coalition to keep the Nazis out of power.