When the Republic began to break down in the late second century it was not the letter of Roman law that eroded, but respect for the mutually accepted bonds of mos maiorum
- Mike Duncan
I’ve just finished reading The Storm before the Storm by Mike Duncan, and I can't recommend it highly enough. The book covers the period between about 146BC and 78 BC and the events in the Roman republic that precipitated the fall of that republic to be replaced by the dictatorial rule of the Caesars.
While the story of Julis Caesar, Mark Anthony, Celopatra and Octavian/Augustus are fairly widely known, the cast of characters in this book covers those who came one or two generations before them, and whose actions undid the bonds that held a rule based system in place. It covers the Gracchi brothers, Saturninus, the ambition of Marius, the civil wars of Cinna and Sulla. With Sulla in particular it shows how easily a terror can be unleashed, and how the long shadow cast by the breaking of norms lead directly to the undoing of the republic.
For me there are two stories that this book tells us about.
One is about the tension between groups vying for power, within the bounds of a political system that is encoded as a form of constitution. There will always be one group that does better than another (in todays society capital has the upper hand over labor), but so long as groups have sufficient equity and essential access to justice to address abuses within the system, that system, and the way that the system is constituted, can remain in a stable state. That stability provides freedom from violence, and perhaps even some opportunity for novo homo to advance themselves through their talents.
The second story is that the constitution that binds can only do so so long as it is believed in, and that belief is strong enough to compel action and reaction against breaks against that constitution. The constitution is nothing more than a collective fiction, and for that fiction to provide the succour and comfort from anarchy and violence, we must all be bought into it sufficiently for that belief to determine our actions and to create limits to our behaviour that we accept - implicitly or explicitly.
When individual ambition can be used to shift groups against each other, and those groups see sufficient potential gain, then very quickly constitutional protections and norms can evaporate.
The story of the fall of the Roman republic is all about the initial erosion of norms that were believed to be in place, but that just turned out to be fiction, and when individuals started to push against them, they were shown to be flimsy and in need of great protection and care.
"It is this spirit which as 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"
An example of two of the initial pebbles that moved, that later became an avalanche of slaughter, were as simple as the following. Scipio Amilianus skipped the usual route to high office, and in so doing showed that individual ambition could break the expected norms.
In the second example in 147 BC the reading of a bill to redistribute land - the Lex Agraria tabled by Tiberius Gracus - was vetoed by the tribune Marcus Octavius.
The bringing of the bill directly to the voting assembly - bypassing the senate - was against accepted norms, but was not explicitly barred by law. The vetoing of the law was equally against accepted norms, but not explicitly against the law. The resulting standoff eventually escalated to violence with the murder of Tiberius and many of his supporters, with their bodies unceremoniously dumped into the Tiber - a pattern to be followed depressingly often over the following century.
By the time we get to Sulla, he is calmly explaining to the Senate that they need to vote him dictatorial powers for life. He has just illegally invaded Italy, and completed a victory in a full civil war. He is speaking to the Senate and asking for their consideration in the matter. At the same time, within earshot, his troops are slaughtering six thousand soldiers from a faction that has been defeated in the civil war. The senate retired, and promptly vote him these dictatorial powers.
Don't quote laws to men with swords
- Pompey the Great
Far from seeming distant, the book seems terribly pertinent to today. The erosion in norms in the US and UK are picking up pace, and political discourse is moving towards factions desiring to triumph over each other, at the exclusion of the public good. That drives wedges into the contract that holds democratic systems together. Simple examples are the refusal of republicans in the US to confirm Merrick Garland to the supreme court, the prorogation of parliament in the UK by Boris Johnson. For a fuller account of the constitutional shenanigans that have been going on in the UK there is no better place to look than the Law and Policy blog at https://davidallengreen.com/
The Roman republic lasted nearly 500 years. The US constitution has been in effect for less than half that time. In the UK some form of voting has been in place for almost 600 years, but up to 1790 only 3% of the UK's population had the right to vote. Proper voting rights only started to come in in 1832, with full suffrage for women in 1928, so this thing that we think of as democracy in the western world is still startlingly new.
Mike Duncan's other major project - the History of Rome, and the Revolutions Podcast, show how quickly an equilibrium can spiral into something ugly, how quickly the forces of groups at scale can overwhelm any planning. We have been so fortunate in the past eighty years with the progress that we have made politically, economically. It is easy to think that where we are today is a natural state of affairs, but reading this book makes it clear how vital it is to not take what we have for granted, and to work for equality and democracy, and to defend those things, less we be faced by some future Sulla asking for our consideration.
the republic is nothing, a mere name without body or form
- Julius Caesar