The Mortal Republic (book review)

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Aspects of our modern politics reminded University of California San Diego historian Edward Watts of the last century of the Roman Republic, roughly 130 B.C. to 27 B.C. That’s why he took a fresh look at the period in his new book, Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. Watts chronicles the ways the republic, with a population once devoted to national service and personal honor, was torn to shreds by growing wealth inequality, partisan gridlock, political violence and pandering politicians, and argues that the people of Rome chose to let their democracy die by not protecting their political institutions, eventually turning to the perceived stability of an emperor instead of facing the continued violence of an unstable and degraded republic. Political messaging during the 2018 midterm elections hinged on many of these exact topics.

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. (Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Constitution owes a huge debt to ancient Rome. The Founding Fathers were well-versed in Greek and Roman History. Leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison read the historian Polybius, who laid out one of the clearest descriptions of the Roman Republic’s constitution, where representatives of various factions and social classes checked the power of the elites and the power of the mob. It’s not surprising that in the United States’ nascent years, comparisons to ancient Rome were common. When President George Washington lay down his mantle and returned to his farm, it was reminiscent (to him and to us) of the noble Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus. To this day, Rome, whose 482-year-long Republic, bookended by several hundred years of monarchy and 1,500 years of imperial rule, is still the longest the world has seen.
Though he does not directly compare and contrast Rome with the United States, Watts says that what took place in Rome is a lesson for all modern republics. “Above all else, the Roman Republic teaches the citizens of its modern descendants the incredible dangers that come along with condoning political obstruction and courting political violence,” he writes. “Roman history could not more clearly show that, when citizens look away as their leaders engage in these corrosive behaviors, their republic is in mortal danger.”
Historians are cautious when trying to apply lessons from one unique culture to another, and the differences between the modern United States and Rome are immense. Rome was an Iron-Age city-state with a government-sponsored religion that at times made decisions by looking at the entrails of sheep. Romans had a rigid class system, relied on slave labor and had a tolerance for everyday violence that is genuinely horrifying. Then again, other aspects of the Roman Republic feel rather familiar.
Is the book worth reading? It depends on what you’re looking for. It’s not a comic book. 

13 thoughts on “The Mortal Republic (book review)

  1. Good thing we have Low IQ Maxine Waters calling the shots as chair of the House Finance Committee: calling for intemperate behavior towards people with whom she disagrees.

    That oughtta set the tone for centuries to come. Welcome to Barbarian Nation.

  2. Even electing Maxine to dog catcher would Peter Principle beyond her capacities. Putting her in charge of House Finance is perverse and lets you know how far things have sunk.

  3. One lesson from what made the west roman empire decline was the massive influx of people with an agenda in a short period of time.

  4. I wondered for years as to why the Roman senate gave up their power to the emperor.
    Then I wondered why the U.S. Senate did the same to Obama.

  5. interested in your thoughts on the kashoggi situation, specifically why the media/deep state are trying to characterize him as american or "american based". are they that in the pocket of the iranians, antisemitic, or is it still all about the pipeline? or i suppose the deposed royals could be pulling the strings, trying to set up bin salman for the fall. this thing proves trump can't trust cia still. they must have an interest in getting rid of salman all their own and the country be damned.

  6. Rome, at its peak, held over a million people and that shrunk to what, 20,000 people by the 7th C?

    A bit like Detroit. I think there's a moral in that.

  7. Wheels within wheels within wheels. "Powers seen and unseen" are trying to force the American hand against the Magic Kingdom.

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