Starting with the end of the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC and ending with the death of Sulla in 78 BC, Mike Duncan explains how the groundwork for the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire in 27 BC had already been laid in this earlier period.
There are a few easily identifiable and only too familiar ailments that plagued Rome in the middle of the 2nd century BC, namely a rising economic inequality, boundless corruption, and horrendous abuse of power. This situation ultimately led to an insurmountable political division: On one side stood the optimates, a conservative political faction that opposed reforms such as the agrarian law proposed by the Gracchi brothers which would have helped the urban poor and diminished the influence of the upper class, and on the other side were the populares who supported such laws, even if it was not necessarily out of altruism, but rather because they wanted to increase their own standing and influence. When Tiberius Gracchus, an elected official, was murdered in the streets, and his body dumped into the Tiber because of this conflict, a dam was broken: Violence was introduced to the political stage, and the mos maiorum, an unwritten code from which social norms were derived, was beginning to crumble. This was more or less the beginning of the end, and the atmosphere it created was described like this by the historian Sallust:
It is this spirit which has commonly ruined great nations, when one party desires to triumph over another by any and every means and to avenge itself on the vanquished with excessive cruelty.
In the wake of the murders of first Tiberius Gracchus and then his brother Gaius 12 years later, demagogues who used mob tactics and unscrupulous populism to push their careers were on the rise, and the following years were dominated by those often colourful characters whose ambition, greed, and hubris led to terrible failures or grand victories for themselves, but who mostly contributed to the ruin of the republic. All this is described in a captivating and easy to follow way by Duncan as he paints a very clear picture of this tumultuous time. I greatly appreciated him pointing out the irony that those who wanted to reform and reinforce the republic, like Sulla, for instance, ultimately became its gravediggers. Especially the beginning and middle of the book from the Gracchi to the rise of Marius and the Jugurthine War are truly excellent, towards the end, however, the story becomes increasingly fragmented and rushed at the same time, which led to the book losing some steam. I also felt that Duncan dealt too much in certainties when it came to the motivations of specific individuals or the interpretation of some happenings. Maybe I am spoiled by the last book on Roman history that I read, which was Mary Beard’s SPQR in which she made it clear that due to the lack of definitive knowledge about Rome and the bias of the few ancient sources, it is essential to think critically about events and their protagonists. I had this in the back of my mind when reading this book which may have diminished my enjoyment a little. Still, I recommend it to everyone interested in Roman history, especially because it covers an era that is not frequently discussed, and it is well-written and gripping overall.
Additionally, there is an angle to it that Duncan broaches in the preface which certainly influenced my reading experience by putting it into the forefront of my mind. I am undecided whether I approve of this or not, because it probably would have fit better into an afterword. In any case, it concerns the question of where America would be on the timeline if one were to compare it to the Roman Republic. Duncan states that it is somewhere between the great conquests of the 3rd and 2nd century BC and the rise of the Caesars, but before the dictatorship of Sulla. This feels like a rather diplomatic answer, so in a slightly less noncommittal way I think it is safe to say that at the moment, it seems that America, if it were to follow the trajectory of the Roman Republic, is surely much further along than it must have seemed even three years ago when the book was first published.
CBR12 Bingo: Cannonballer Says
Many thanks to andtheIToldYouSos for this recommendation!