Duncan's popularity and skill at crafting narrative history led him to write his first book, “The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic.” It's a remarkably engaging yarn about the period that preceded the events many of you may have read about in your school textbooks: the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the morphing of the Roman republic into an imperial colossus. Duncan spoke to Today's WorldView on the significance of that moment and the telling echoes it has for our political present.
TWV: Why did you decide to focus on this moment of Roman history? Many people are familiar with the stories of Caesar and the rise of Augustus, but what is so important about the period you examine?
We all know the story about Julius Caesar and the fall of the Republic, but jumping into the story at that point is like jumping into a movie in the third act. It's exciting, and clearly big, important things are happening, but you have no context for how everyone got to this point. So I wanted to pull back two generations and ask, “What was it that opened the cracks in the foundation of the Republic?” I also do think that if there is any period in the thousand-odd-year history of Rome that Americans in the 21st century can look to for an analogous historical setting, it's right here.
Once you zoom into this period there are a lot of familiar problems: growing economic inequality, intransigent elites more focused on petty political one-upmanship than addressing the needs of their citizens, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, the breakdown of unspoken political norms — very fertile ground if you want to study how it could all go horribly awry if we're not careful.
The book begins with the fall of Carthage — the end of the great not-so-Cold War of Mediterranean antiquity. How did that transform the Roman republic?
The triumph over Carthage and further victories in Greece in the 2nd century BC brought almost unimaginable loads of wealth into Rome. We are talking literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of gold, silver and other bounty. Rome also became a major hub of trade and commerce in the Mediterranean. But this wealth was concentrated in the hands of the Roman elite. So though there had always been rich and poor in Rome, the rich were now way richer than they were even a few generations before.
The wealthy elites naturally go looking for places to invest that wealth, of which there are two great outlets: land and slaves. Lower-class citizen-farmers were unable to compete with the growing commercial estates of their richer neighbors, so these poorer Romans began losing their farms and entered a labor market simultaneously flush with hundreds of thousands of new slaves from all over the world.
The tension that was created as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer — and those poor felt exploited and ignored by the political elite — led to an opening for a new “populare” path to political power for ambitious nobles looking to exploit all the resentful energy that was now circulating.
So the corrosive effects of income inequity spawn a kind of Roman populism. Would it look familiar to your readers in the current era?
Yes, the problem of growing and unaddressed economic inequality is not just that it's “not fair” or that everyone ought to be “equal.” It's that it opens fertile ground for demagogues to step in and exploit the rage, grief and insecurity felt by people and ride that resentful energy to power.
In this context of rage and demagoguery, what were the kinds of norms or values that got eroded? What was happening to the Roman system?
The core problem was that it created a far more confrontational style of politics, because it was not just that popular grievances were leading some leaders to try to channel it. It was also that the rest of the senatorial elite fought tooth and nail to prevent even limited and fairly reasonable reform. The popular desire for reform was met by intransigent resistance from the elite, so both sides started maneuvering beyond previously accepted norms to win the battle.
The elites were naturally skeptical of change, but their resistance to “populare” demands was driven by the balance of power inside the Senate, not principle. If your political rival is pursuing popular land redistribution or offering subsidized grain, you can't let the bill pass because your rival would gain popularity, power and influence. So they were intensely focused on denying each other political “wins,” and as a result they mutually shut down even reasonable reforms they possibly all agreed to in theory.
Can you talk about the significance of the military? We see a succession of strongmen and “dictators” in the twilight of the Republic.
With the population of the landless poor growing, the burden of military service started falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. The old citizen-soldier system was becoming untenable. So by the middle of the book, Rome is dealing with simultaneous wars in North Africa, Sicily, and North Africa and [Gaius Marius, the seven-times consul of Rome] requests an exemption from the requirement that a soldier had to own a certain amount of property before he could be drafted. This brought in thousands of new recruits and allowed Marius to then run around winning all those wars.
But these new poor soldiers saw military service not as a temporary obligation of citizenship but as a means of acquiring land and some cash. So their primary loyalty was not to the abstract concept of “the Senate and People of Rome” but rather the general whose wars and victories would bring them profit.
So by the time we get to the end of the book we have men like Sulla overtly turning his loyal troops not against the enemies of Rome, but against Sulla's personal enemies — and it was in his troops' best interests to follow him. This model of an ambitious noble acquiring military command, winning battles, earning the loyalty of his troops, and then using those troops as a power inside domestic politics was followed by Pompey, Crassus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Octavian. By the end of the republic it really was warlords battling it out, and any sense of communal patriotism to “the Senate and People of Rome” was just empty words.
When you look at President Trump now, what echoes from ancient Rome do you hear the most?
Trump is a classic demagogue. Demagogues identify where resentment at the entrenched establishment is most powerfully felt and then lean heavily on that resentment as a means to power. By promising the hopeless and the angry and the bitter that he has all the answers to their problems — and, more importantly, that he knows who is to blame for all those problems — he can harness their anger and ride it to the top.
That said, usually any self-respecting demagogue then follows through. They badger the soft elites, strip them of land, confiscate their wealth and quite visibly redirect it to their followers. Even if it is all a cynical gambit, they usually follow through. What's interesting about Trump is that all his demagoguery is smoke and mirrors.
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