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.
The Romans were not really interested in any of that. They wanted today to be like yesterday, and they wanted tomorrow to be like today. They were really resistant to change in all facets of life. It’s even more hardcore than Burkean conservatism.
As to what we would find familiar: People are people. People can be motivated by greed. There’s bribery, corruption, and screwing somebody over because they happen to be your personal enemy. All those ways that humans interact with each other, especially in politics.
NR: Why was it so important when Roman politicians began to violate some of the unenforced norms that hadn’t been codified into law?
MD: Rome really didn’t need to have a big body of written law, because the way that things have always been done is the way they ought to continue to be done. That psychological power kept everyone in check. There were intense rivalries between various families and individuals, but those bonds would keep everyone from going too far.
When there’s no force keeping everyone in check beyond a social arrangement, the whole thing could collapse so quickly. It went from “I’m going to run for reelection” [in violation of custom] to, 50 years later, Pompey saying, “Who are you to quote laws to those with swords?” Which is what happens at the end of the book. Because at the end of the day, even respecting written law is merely a social custom.
NR: Tell me about the role economic inequality played in destabilizing Rome during the period you cover.
MD: At the beginning of the second century BCE, they were defeating Greece, they were defeating Carthage, and they rolled up into Spain and took over all these silver mines. You have this massive influx of wealth into Italy, and this very small group of people is getting all of it.
The vast majority of the people who are living in the Italian peninsula during these great wars of conquest are not really seeing a dime out of any of this. In the first chapter, there’s a great speech from [populist reformer] Tiberius Gracchus, where he says, “Though they are styled masters of the world—which the Romans were—they have not a single clod of earth to call their own.”
That’s the lot of the poor Romans. They’ve been away on a campaign for a long time. They come back, their farm has been ruined, and they basically have to sell it to their rich neighbor. We see this happen constantly in cycles throughout history, where the larger noble estates will start to acquire the smaller pieces that surround the estate, until the next thing you know there’s just one owner and everybody else is dispossessed.
So that transformation—bringing all that wealth in, concentrating it in the hands of a few, and the rich being able to leverage that wealth to acquire the possessions of all the poor people in Italy—completely dislocated the way of life that Italians had known going back to the to the misty ages before they were keeping records.
NR: Was the collapse of the Republic inevitable?
MD: When it comes to the Roman stuff, but also with Revolutions, this is a question I’ve been wrestling with a lot. I am somebody who thinks that the elites can make reforms to a system that is reaching terminal gridlock or is simply no longer servicing the needs of the polity. You can make sufficient reforms to head off a revolution.
I think there are things the Senate could have done to ameliorate the worst parts of the oligarchy that had set in. And if you look at what [populist leader, and ill-fated brother of Tiberius,] Gaius Gracchus was up to, I think his [land-redistribution] program could have gone a long way toward restoring the balance in time to keep the Republic going. But the Senate was wedded to this idea that these are our privileges, and we’re not going to give up our privileges.
NR: How worried are you about the present day?
MD: I’m personally very worried. The disclaimer is that I’m that guy who just wrote a book about the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. And I have been working for four years on a series where all I do is look at a situation to figure out all the things that are about to fall apart. So it feels like my brain and my imagination is now very primed to look around and be like, “Oh my God, this is the thing that’s happening.”
Take the Gorsuch thing, denying the Supreme Court seat for a whole year. You can’t undo something like that. From now on, it feels like if you don’t have the presidency and the Senate controlled by one party, we’re just going to have empty Supreme Court seats. Because neither party now has any incentive to give in. So what’s that going to start doing to the judiciary?
So yeah, I’m very worried. And if it does all fall apart, I can tell you that it will be very, very easy to write the first couple of episode of the Revolutions podcast on 21st-century America, because there’s so much tinder out there. The arrival of the Internet, which creates completely separate bubbles for people to live in, can feed into a real psychological polarization. So there’s a laundry list of 10 or 15 things that would be pretty easy to tick off and say, this is why it all fell apart right around the first third of the 21st century.
NR: So what do we do to avoid the same fate as the Roman republic?
MD: I’m not an expert in public policy, I’m just an historian coming at this from one side. But take the runaway economic inequality, where we just avoid dealing with the fact that a small minority of people are acquiring more and more wealth and the vast majority of people in the country are being shut out.
There is a reason, besides racism, why Trump was able to do what he did. And there was a reason why Bernie Sanders was able to do what he did. There are so many people in this country who are just absolutely convinced that the system is not working for them. So what do you say to the people in Washington, DC, or the people in the various state houses? They have to at least recognize that if they don’t make some reforms, they’re going to be dealing with the pitchforks.