Donald Trump is not Julius Caesar, and he probably won’t deal a death blow to the American republic. But that doesn’t mean our country’s system of government is stable, and it certainly doesn’t mean Rome can’t teach us about how societies collapse. To see the parallels between the contemporary United States and Ancient Rome clearly, says history podcaster Mike Duncan, you need to examine the generation before Caesar.
Duncan—creator of two of the most popular history podcasts ever created, The History of Rome and Revolutions—has done exactly that in his new book, The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, out October 24 from PublicAffairs. The Nation sat down with Duncan to discuss the fall of the Roman Republic and whether the United States can avoid a similar fate.
Ned Resnikoff: For your first book, why did you choose to cover this particular period?
Mike Duncan: A literary agent got ahold of me. She contacted me while I was doing the French Revolution series, and we were originally talking about doing some material out of the French Revolution. But nothing that I was proposing caught either of us as particularly exciting.
So, almost as a throwaway, I tossed out this idea that I had put together for a lecture. It was about this question of where America is on the Roman timeline, if America is Rome. So I had this pile of notes, and was like, “Well listen, there’s this one particular 50-year period in Roman history which I think has a lot of contemporary parallels.” And I just rattled all those off, and when I sent her that e-mail, she said, “That’s the book. We should do that.”
I don’t know why nobody ever goes back to figure out why the Republic started falling apart in the first place, because if you ask that question, you wind up with Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, and Marius, and Sulla, who are some of the most fascinating figures in Roman history. Everything they went through sets up the great fall of the Roman Republic a generation or two later.
It was a really underserved part of Roman history and also something that I think sheds a lot of light on what the United States, and also what the West generally, is going through right now.
NR: Which elements of Roman politics do you think contemporary readers will find most alien, and which will they find most familiar?
MD: I think the thing that would be most alien is there’s a real small-c conservatism to the Roman political mentality. Today, we think of progress as an inherently good thing. Having come out of the Enlightenment, we have this whole theory of progress being something that we should always be pursuing.