Mortal Republic

“Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny,” by Edward J. Watts. Basic Books, 2018. 352 pages, $32.

From its beginning, the founders of the United States intentionally modeled its system of government on the Roman Republic more than anything else. The House of Representatives bears resemblance to the tribunes elected by the Concilium Plebis, the President is very similar to a consul (hence his duel role as political leader and commander and chief of the armed forces), and the U.S. Senate was based on, surprise, the Roman Senate. The founders had good reason for basing our system of government on the Romans. Their Republic survived for roughly 500 years, and the Empire for about another 400 after that. If you’re looking for political longevity, that’s hard to beat.

But for much of our recent history, the story of the American Republic has been increasingly unstable. Many people want to look to the past to see what lessons can be learned about our closest, though ancient, relative. Edward Watts is a professor of history at UC San Diego, and he has been getting more and more questions about the fall of the Roman Republic. Out of those questions he has produced “Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny.”

“Mortal Republic” begins around the year 280, which, as the author puts it, is when “history becomes more factual than fanciful.” The Republic was vibrant, compromise was the modus operandi, and wealth was genuinely less valuable than honors in service to Rome.

As with all things in this world, it was not to last. Arguably the first small rumblings of discontent coincided with the rise of Tiberius Gracchus, a populist with a touch of demagoguery, who upset the traditional rules of government by directly pitting the Concilium Plebis against the Senate and added legal force to get his way.

While doubtless there were many arguments and periods of instability, this was maybe the first to do permanent damage to the Republic by setting a precedent of might makes right.

Things progressively got worse. Political processes were more and more dominated by force, wealth became increasingly important and loyalty to powerful individuals eventually outstripped loyalty to Rome.

The story ends around 22 BC. The last conciliatory vestiges of the Republic have fallen to the rule of Caesar Augustus, there is plague, famine and ill omens from the Gods, and Rome is changed forever.

Watts’ admirably brief takeaway from the whole story is summarized in the following sentence, “Over the course of a century, thousands of average men, talented men, and middling men all willingly undercut the power of the Republic to restrict and channel the ambitions of the individual, doing so in the interest of their own shortsighted gains.”

I would like to congratulate Mr. Watts for resisting what I imagine was a strong temptation, that being to draw parallels between characters and events in the Roman world and our own in the modern day. Nothing dates and drives a book to quick irrelevance quite like trying to argue that the current president (whoever is president at the time of writing) is a Cato or Octavion or what have you. Any acknowledgment of the modern world ends after page 9, and all we are left with is the story of Rome.

This leaves readers in the increasingly uncommon position of having to read the events of history, assess the motives of the actors and apply their own conclusions as they pertain to the modern day. It feels nice. It feels empowering even to know that Watts trusts me to read his book and form my ideas without any browbeating to make sure I get it right.

As far as writing quality is concerned, the book is well paced and follows a stream that focuses less on the flow of time and more on the major characters of the story. For example, a politically destabilizing event that only lasted a day could get more space than a war that lasted for years but which had no real implications on the health of the Republic.

While not often humorous, the story is interesting none the less and the characters pop off the page into your head. Watts strikes the right balance between telling us and letting us see what a person is like.

In conclusion, I have absolutely nothing to complain about with “Mortal Republic.” I think it is well conceived, well paced, and well written. Good job, Edward Watts.

Aaron Pauls is a service technician for McKinzie Pest Control.

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