The Storm Before The Storm Book Review
As Rome’s imperial power reached maturity, the Republic itself started to rot from within.
- Mike Duncan
This was an age when a lie was not a lie if a man had the audacity to keep asserting the lie was true.
- Mike Duncan
After spending nearly a year with Mike Duncan listening to his History of Rome podcast, I was wondering where to turn next. Enter The Storm Before the Storm, which is Mike Duncan’s book on the specific late Roman Republic period before well-knowns Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Pompey the Great. It focuses on how the Roman Republic turned into a one man Augustus show. The decisions in this era set the table for the fall of the Roman Republic. From 146 when Rome conquered Carthage and Corinth, it marked their greatest triumph and the beginning of the end. Mike Duncan alludes to 146 to 78 as being potentially where the United States is in it’s historical arc. Marking the two Great Wars as a parallel to 146 BC. This makes the examination of this period truly fascinating.
The story starts to pick up in 133 BC when Tiberius Gracchus became Tribune and worked tirelessly for land reform. At this point, wealth inequality had gotten out of hand. The wealthy acquired public land as well as land from soldiers who were out fighting in the Punic wars and using it as their own. Tiberius appealed to the people in a way that had never been done before and broke from the Senate. He was able to pass land reform at great political cost but the Senate stalled on the implementation so he ran for re-election to make sure his reform would see the light of day. This was a clear violation of mos maorium (collectively the time-honoured principles, behavioural models, and social practices that affected private, political, and military life in ancient Rome. These norms helped keep politics in check). During the election, he was clubbed to death. He and his dead backers were denied proper burials and thrown into the Tiber. Tiberius opened the gates to those seeking power. His attempt to run for election was the first chip in mos maorium which would fully erode over the next 50 years.
In 123 BC Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius Gracchus picked up the mantle becoming Tribune. He was a great orator and put forth a massive reform plan which he had been working on for years. He moved expenses for the legions to the state’s pockets, paving the way for the dominate Augustus legions. He redistributed land and made sure draftees in the military had adequate clothing. He re-ran for Tribune and unlike his brother, succeeded. Gaius tried to run for a third term but didn’t get the votes. He was accused of fraud -i stuffing the ballet. His enemies turned on him and he would suffer the same fate as his brother. Gaius had his slave kill him. His supporters were tracked down and many of them were executed. Many of the Graccius reforms would stay in place such as the grain dole, no senators on extortion courts, and subsidizes for the military. The Gracchus brothers started the Roman populist movement and showed the power of the mob.
Giaus Marius is the next central character in our story. Marius was born in 157 BC in relative poverty as a novus homo (new man) but rose the ranks of the Roman Army becoming one of the best generals in history. He ascended to Consult in 107 BC. At that time, Gaulic tribes started to gather strength in the north and delivered Rome a defeat in the battlefield in 107. Giaus reoganized the army and got rid of the mandible fighting system. He invented the line change, having the freshest fighters at front go for a little bit and then rotate. He had soldiers be self sustaining, carrying their own gear rather than rely on the slow baggage train that they used at the time. This earned the nickname Marius’ Mules. He helped reinvent the spear to not break after hitting an enemy. Marius gave the eagle as a symbol for legions. He would serve as Consul 6 times, believing he would get a 7th term. After his final 6th Consulship in 100 BC, Marius returned to a self imposed exile. Around 10 years of peace ensued until 91 BC when the Senate took a hard line stance against Italian allies triggering the “social war”. Italian allies broke away and formed a separate state. As an Italian, he found himself on the losing side of the social war and was killed.
Sulla was the opposite of Marius, while Marius had to fight in the legions and work his way up, Sulla was a patrician coming from a wealthy family. Sulla was made Dictator for Life and the doomsday clock of the Republic moved closer to midnight. After purging his enemies and reorganizing the consitution to what he believed would prevent men from taking the same path he did and re-empowering the Senate, he inexplicably stepped down in 80 BC. He would die in 78 BC. Most of Sullas reforms did not last over the next couple of decades and men seeking power would dominate politics, looking to replicate Sulla with the caveat of not stopping down. Julius Caesar would later mock Sulla for not knowing what he had, stepping down as a dictator - “nihil esse rem publicam, appellationem modo sine corpore ac specie. Sullam nescisse litteras, qui dictaturam deposuerit” which means “that there was no republic, only an appellation without body and form. that Sulla did not know the letter which laid down his dictatorship”.
What are the lessons from The Storm Before the Storm or how do we prevent America from devolving like Rome did post the 2nd Punic War? Every generation needs to reaffirm the principles that keep democracy living. The slow erosion of mos maorium was a subtle major reason for the fall of the Republic. The cornerstones of democracy need to remain strong. We must incorporate all people into the political fold such as the Romans finally did with the Italians during Sulla’s reign and every other people that they conquered. Wealth inequality and debasement of currency are both insidious diseases to democracy. When the gap between the haves and the have nots gets too wide, ambitious people will harness that energy to cause destruction in the name of greed and power. Essentially, we need to keep the American Dream alive. That everyone, regardless of where they are from, can live long and prosper in America.