The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic: Part 1 of 4: Structure and Background

Yves here. Historical lessons for the present are a favorite topic here, and particularly from the Roman Republic and the later empire. So enjoy! I’m sure some of you will qualify or add to these views.

By Newdealdemocrat. Originally published at Angry Bear

“Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny,” by Edward J. Watts
“The Storm Before the Storm,: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic” by Mike Duncan
“Ten Emperors: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine,” by Barry Strauss

I’ve recently mentioned that lately I’ve been unable to read most American history books, with their currently unwarranted chipper optimism. Instead my recent reading has focused on other periods of crisis.

One question I’ve been considering is, just how rare, and how stable have Republics historically been? There are few antecedents for the experience of the US, because it has aspires to both be a Republic under the rule of law and simultaneously a superpower.  In fact I believe there are only four, in reverse historical order:

  1. The British Empire (yes, I know, it’s technically a monarchy, but it has been a parliamentary democracy really ever since the Glorious Revolution 400 years ago).
  2. The Dutch Republic (I’m not sure if this really qualifies, since it was more a confederation of principalities, but it was styled a Republic, and it did have global interests.)
  3. The Republic of Venice (this is a dark horse contender, but this Republic lasted almost 1200 years, from roughly 600 A.D. until it was conquered by that other “republican,” Napoleon, in 1797).
  4. The Roman Republic.

In these four posts, I’m going to summarize what I’ve learned about the Roman Republic from the three books that lead this post.

While we’re all familiar with Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and probably all had to read Shakespeare’s Tragedy of that name (but really about Brutus and Cassius) in high school, I don’t think much attention has been paid in modern education to the Roman Republic, which lasted 450 years – almost as long as the subsequent western Roman  Empire – and was avowedly the model that inspired the Framers of the American Constitution. None of the books that have come out in the past few years, to my knowledge, have discussed either the Roman Republic or other historical antecedents to the US. I believe studying the rise and demise of the Roman Republic, which during its existence was extremely – probably too – successful, is well worth the effort.

Without intending so, I read the above  three books in reverse chronological order above. “Ten Emperors” was first, followed by “The Storm Before the Storm.” Unfortunately this latter book (in my opinion) wound up being a chronological blow-by-blow vomiting of not well organized facts. It desperately needed a list of “dramatic personae” with at least a couple of lines describing the most prominent 20 or 30 individual’s role, so that when they re-appeared after a 30 or 80 page hiatus, I could recollect who they were. It also needed an initial chapter setting forth the basic governing details of the Republic, and most importantly the roles of the Senate and the Assemblies. In the end it left me so unsatisfied I went back and found “Mortal Republic,” which was a much more orderly and understandable if less detailed treatment.

If you are interested in the material, I recommend you read “Mortal Republic” in segments, and then read so much of “The Storm Before the Storm” to fill in the details until you reach the same chronological point. Once you do that, when you start the final book, you will see that the process of Imperial succession in the Empire was very much like the power struggles in the last 60 years of the Republic, and in particular sets forth Augustus’s programme and genius in more detail.

To cut to the chase, the Roman Republic, which was previously quite stable (as Republics, once they last a generation or more, tend to be), was toppled by a series of hammer-blows that fell over roughly a 100 year period. The shortest version is that the type of factional political violence that brought down the Weimar Republic in 10 years took 100 years to infect and ultimately destroy the Roman one.

There were three levels of causes for this fall, in order of importance:

  1. The de facto requirement that all senior magistrates and in particular the consuls (analogous to Presidents) be military commanders, who frequently raised, and increasingly paid for, their own armies.
  2. The increasing breaches of “mas maiorem,” or the customs and norms by which the Republic had operated, on all sides.
  3. The split between the oligarchical “optimates” who dominated the Senate on the one side vs. the “populares” or ordinary Roman plebeians who dominated the Assemblies, and also the Italian allies who were not Roman citizens, on the other.

More basically put, #3 was the substantive source of disagreement over which all parties were willing to go to extremes; #2 was the procedural unraveling of the manner of government; and #1 over time ensured the rise of what we would now call “caudillos,” or political generals, who had the force to overthrow it.

Both histories I have read suggest that the “turning point” where the stresses started to undermine the Republic was after its greatest triumph: the defeat and obliteration of Carthage after the third Punic War.

The Structure of the Roman Republic 

From its founding as a trading point on the Tiber River until roughly 600 B.C., Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings, who were then overthrown and the Republic was founded. On a broader historical scale, it seems that Republics are actually pretty sturdy forms of government once their institutions take root after a generation or two. That’s good news at the present, where at very least, for example, Russians and Iranians are getting used to the concepts of having elections and courts.

The Roman Republic was a system by which “Assemblies” of the tribes of Romans directly elected the executive officers of the Republic for one year terms. Meanwhile the Senate, essentially a council of notables, gave direction to those executive officers in the carrying out of their duties. The lowest level official was a “quaestor,” basically an aide de camp and accountant for a legion; followed by aedile, in charge of religious observances and festivals. The next rung higher was “praetor,” similar to a colonel or brigadier general in an army, who also acted as a “president pro tempore” when the highest officials were absent. Finally, the highest office was “consul,” of which two were chosen every year, as co-chief executives, lead prosecutors, and commanders-in-chief of the legions. Upon completion of their terms, consuls joined the Senate.

Another important office was that of the 10 Tribunes. These were explicitly open only to plebeians, and were designed to protect their interests. Each of the 10 Tribunes could propose legislation before the Assemblies, and veto legislation proposed by others. Further, none of the other Tribunes could override the veto of any single one. As we’l see, this chokepoint proved a weakness in the structure of the Republic. Additionally, there were also “military tribunes” in the legions, who represented the interests of the soldiers.

Finally, in case of emergency the Republic allowed for the office of “dictator.” Most importantly, for the first 400 years of its use, this office had a strict 6 month time limit, which was faithfully respected. At the conclusion of the 6 months, the dictator was required to hand back power to the normal offices, and the status quo ante structure of government was to resume. The most famous of these was Cincannatus, who  returned to his farm after his six month office expired.

So powerful was the civic pride in the Republic that, when the Macedonian Pyrrhus (of “Pyrrhic victory” fame) tried to bribe a relatively poor Roman general, Fabricius, Fabricius refused by rejoining that the Roman Republic provided those who went into public service with higher honors than mere wealth could supply. In any event, by 300 B.C. Rome had brought all of Italy except for the far north under its domination. The other Italian city-states were called “allies,” but really they were tributaries, their form of tribute being the provision of soldiers to fight in Rome’s legions. Upon reaching adulthood, Roman males owed 10 years service in the legions. Importantly, the pattern was the planting of crops in the early spring, then going off to fight in the legions’ campaigns during the summers, and returning to harvest the crops in late autumn.

In any event, the accounts agree that matters began to change after 146 BC, when Rome simultaneously was victorious over Carthage and also Corinth in Greece.  Both treatments of the Republic pick up at that  historical turning point. Little known fact: Carthage was also a democracy, in fact the Romans considered it “too” democratic. Someone go tell Tom Friedman that two countries having democratic institutions does not mean that they all go happily ever after to McDonald’s.

But it was with the conquest of Carthage, that by happenstance coincided with the sacking of Corinth in Greece, also by Rome, that the scrappy little Roman Republic, which was founded roughly in 500 B.C., and had grown to the dominant power in Italy such that the other city states on the peninsula were its inferior “allies,” simultaneously turned into an empire, dominating the Mediterranean from Spain to Greece on the European side and present day Algeria and Tunisia on the African side.

The inhabitants of those unfortunate cities who weren’t slaughtered were sold into slavery, and the treasuries of each were sacked, the riches transported to Rome. Rome also thereby came into possession of extensive silver mines located in Carthage’s lands of  present-day Spain. In short, overnight Rome became filthy rich as well as controlling an  empire in the central and western Mediterranean.

But this very wealth permanently upset the balance between the landowning oligarchs in the Senate vs. the ordinary urban plebeians and rural farmers. For it was the Senate that had the power of the purse, and thus the power to distribute the land, gold, silver, jewels, slaves, and other loot plundered from the vanquished states, as well as the new precious ores mined in Spain. And, unsurprisingly, they allocated it to themselves. Even worse, because the wars in North Africa, Greece, and Spain lasted years, the legionnaire farmers spent multiple years away from their fields. When they returned home, they were victors, but their farms had fallen into ruinous disrepair. For all intents and purposes, they had to sell — and the buyers who had money were frequently none other than the wealthy Senators.

A second form of gross inequality was between Roman citizens and their Italian allies. Because while the allies were vital to Rome’s military success, the allies could be treated as slaves if the Romans wished to do so.

A final form of inequality affected the affluent or wealthy merchant class, called variously Knights or Equestrians, because they could afford to own horses, and thus serve as cavalrymen during military campaigns, depending on the account. But because they were not “old money,” their path to the top rungs of power was blocked by the oligarchs who controlled the Senate.

The huge inequalities just described gave rise to seething resentment by both the urban and rural plebeians as well as the Italian allies and the Equestrian class as well. The essential story of the Roman Republic between 146 BC and its fall a century later was the refusal of the oligarchs who usually controlled the Senate to make any significant compromises to this state of affairs, and the increasing violence used both by the opposing classes to wrench change, and the oligarchs to resist it.

(Continued in part 2)

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  1. michael hudson

    Me: Oh, dear. This isn’t “wrong” factually, but it misses the essence of Rome, inborn class war of creditors vs debtors.
    The Republic was never remotely a democracy. It was always run by the autocratic Senate. The wealthiest 10% controlled the majority of votes which – like the DNC today – was weighted by wealth categories. 90% of the population’s votes counted for just 10%. Leaders proposing more democratic economic policies were murdered, century after century. Assassination was a normal tool of the oligarchy.
    Rome under the kings was stable. It was the America of its day, attracting immigrants with their wealth, followers and slaves. They were traditionally non-Roman – Sabine (Numa), Latin, or from Veii (probably Servius), and although chosen by the Senate, they kept the oligarchy from waging the class war that ensued under the Republic. In 504 Appius Claudius brought his wealth and 5,000 men from Sabine territory and was admitted to the Senate. His namesakes throughout Roman history were intransigent opponents of democracy, triggering Secession of the Plebs (494 and 450) and subsequent confrontations. They were sort of like the post-Batista Cubans fleeing to Florida and becoming ultra right-wingers.
    Fast forward to the Punic Wars. Toynbee wrote a book saying that the aftermath in 201 was Hannibal’s Revenge. The oligarchy gave the rich campagna lands to itself instead of settling war veterans. Greek and Macedonian slaves stocked the great plantations being assembled. This led Tiberius Gracchus and his brother to press for limits on public land grabbing. They and their followers were killed, as were those of Marius (by the prescriptions of Sulla) and of Catiline.
    I’m writing the 2nd volume of my history of debt to review the collapse of antiquity. The social struggles were all about debt and land redistribution.
    When Yves finishes posting this series, I may provide a sample chapter.

    1. vlade

      republic != democracy

      The UK doesn’t claim to be a republic, but does claim to be a democracy (although technically since the UK’s executive is elected and not inherited, it’d be a republic. Sort of republican monarchy).

      The US claims to be a republic… ah well.

      1. Titus

        Vlade – there is how one is ‘organized’ and then how one seems to function as to how one actually functions. Definitions matter at least in knowing A from B. UK wise if in Commons MPs are going to say as they having being lately that they must ‘act’ in the best interest of blah, blah – note not represent, but ‘act in’, then I don’t know why people even bother to vote. With Parliament being Sovereign, they do as they like. As to the US well Lincoln did what he had to be win the war but that and changes to how Senators got elected, and the ever present electoral college, if we have a republic I don’t know who is being represented (I do but it’s depressing). Rome, all I have to say is, to me it’s amazing how many emperors got whacked or killed in battle. Not a place I would have wanted to live in. Yes, I use ‘titus’ as in Titus.Andronicus.

      2. Synoia

        The UK is a “Parliamentary Monarchy,” In no way does it describe itself as a republic.

        “Parliamentary Monarchy” is a typical British ambiguity.

    2. SufferinSuccotash

      Assassination only became a common weapon in Roman politics towards the end of the second century (the murder of Tiberius Gracchus is considered a major turning point). Up to that point the nobility favored co-optation instead. Starting in 367 the consulship was open to plebeian candidates and within a few decades plebeians were able to gain access to every high office in the Republic. Wealthy plebeians, that is. You needed money and aristocratic connections to get elected (nobles had extensive followings of clients whose votes they could deliver). Plebeians who served in high office were then eligible for membership in the Senate. Welcome to the club. The newly-ennobled senators could bring their wealth into play, marrying into old (and sometimes not too wealthy) patrician families. A familiar story. And of course our shake-and-bake aristocrats would “forget where they came from” and become lifelong supporters of the oligarchy.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you.

        “And of course our shake-and-bake aristocrats would “forget where they came from” and become lifelong supporters of the oligarchy.” Not just in the US, but the mother country, too.

        The deracinated elite known as the Chipping Norton Set, which also includes its Notting Hill and Primrose Hill outposts in London, is a mix of aristocracy, vide David Cameron, and new money (or “nouves” as old money calls them, as per what Alan Clark said about Michael Heseltine and other Tory MPs), vide Michael Gove and his wife Sarah Vine, currently gunning for Meghan Markle.

        Synoia and I went to schools with both types. At my alma mater, it was interesting to observe the “nouves” trying so hard to fit in. The (now) peers I knew, four earls, a viscount, a baron and two baronets, were easy going and had a sense of paternalism, quite different from Thatcher’s children.

    3. Joe Costello

      Rome wasn’t a democracy has been a constant meaningless statement, starting with many of the US founders, even to the point more recently in Symes book “The Roman Revolution” where many argue Rome wasn’t a “republic”! Both words, one Greek, one Latin simply define systems that may best be described as some sort of self-government, where the general populous – the citizenry – had some sort of direct role in politics and governance, leadership changed by elections as opposed to monarchies, “oligarchies” and “dictatorships,” once again mixing Greek and Roman terms.

      Democracy in Athens wasn’t even democracy as defined by notions in many academics’ heads. After all they had slaves, how could it be a democracy? The Greek assembly wasn’t the only institution of government in Greek democracies, the “demes” were numerous local structures connected horizontally as much as vertically and more fundamental, along with various hierarchical tribe elements, wealth factors etc., similarities the Romans shared.

      The Senate in Rome ran foreign affairs, the assemblies, whether organized by tribe or military unit were composed of every citizen and passed legislation and elected officials and yes the votes were weighted, but that doesn’t discount them. The Senate certainly didn’t have authoritarian control. And yes, the history of Rome was constant struggle between the plebs and patricians, for example the plebs sitting out of battle till the office of Tribune was instituted, the simplistic claim Rome wasn’t “democracy” is to miss the whole 450 year plot of the republic. In fact, Machiavelli in his “Discourses on Livy” states this struggle was at the heart of the dynamism of the Roman republic.

      It can also be noted for all our neo-socialists, it was this “class” struggle that formed the foundation of Marx’s thought and where he got the idea of the “proletariat” as a revolutionary class, though how one could look at the Roman proletariat in the republic’s last half-century as revolutionary is more than a mystery.

      In short, to simply throw away the Roman republic as not being democratic is both wrong and removes from Western history one of the few examples of self-government we have, as opposed I suppose to some sort of Platonic notion of “democracy” which never existed.

    4. Susan the Other

      I’ll be looking for your book on the collapse of antiquity. The collapse of subsistence, no doubt. Timely.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Me too, and I am also curious to find out if and how this ties in with ancient Rome’s patron-client relationship.

    5. hemeantwell

      In trying to make up for my ignorance on Rome’s history I came across P. A. Brunt’s “Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic.” His account of the innovation of the office of the tribune gave me a good sense of the intensity of those conflicts:

      “In 494 a great body of the plebs sat down en masse outside Rome and refused to serve in the army. Such a ‘secession’ or strike undoubtedly occurred in 287, and similar revolutionary action must have been taken now, to account for the concession the patricians were forced to make: the creation of the tribunate of the plebs. The ten tribunes were plebeians annually elected by an assembly organized in voting units calle tribes; these were local divisions of the state, originally four within the city and seventeen in the adjoining countryside. This assembly was truly democratic at the start, when the tribes were probably more or less equal in numbers; the rich had no superior voting power.

      The original function of the tribunes was to protect humble Romans against oppression by the magistrates; they did so by literally stepping between them and their intended victims (intercessio). The magistrates did not dare touch their persons, which were ‘sacrosanct’; that meant that the whole plebs were sworn to avenge them by lynching whoever laid hands on them. But their power was confined to the city; outside the walls, Roman territory was still too insecure for any restriction to be allowable on the discretion of the magistrates to act as they thought best for the public safety. This limitation on tribunician power subsisted throughout the Republic, long after its rationale had disappeared.” p.52

      In this light, it seems that the obstructionist quality of tribunician power that Yves’ refers to stemmed from the original need to allow plebs to put the kabosh on patrician power to avoid revolution. Another instance of when peace brought about by a veto power eventually makes the veto power appear unnecessary.

      The limitation on the power of the tribunes in rural areas was relevant to a factor in Rome’s development Brunt places a lot of weight on: the breakdown of plebian farmholding, in part through loss of land through absence brought about by conscription, but also by patrician gang violence. In his telling this alienation by dispossession was ongoing to varying degrees during the Republic.

        1. likbez

          Yes, I think so.

          During the New Deal, the union leaders were effectively tribunes without veto power, but still considerable influence as they controlled a large number of voters belonging to respective unions.

          Similar short story was with Russian “Soviets” — worker and peasant consuls until Stalin centralization of governance. They were kind of power check on Bolshevik party Politburo (a kind of Senate, the Bolsheviks party nobility )

      1. boz

        The great sit down – reminds me of a line from Asterix (maybe Asterix in Belgium)?

        (Julius Caesar) “For Jupiter’s sake, give that pleb a seat!”

        (Others) “ A plebiscite? A very good idea!”

        It took me about 20 years before I got the joke.

      1. RBHoughton

        Same here but for the meantime …..

        Carthaginian silver from Spain poisoned Rome as assuredly as South American silver poisoned Spain. There is a rule operating there which our men of commerce probably don’t like much.

        1. Dave Chapman

          Yes. Just think hard about what Modern Monetary Theory would mean, in practice.
          For a country like the USA, it would be the same thing as conquering the Aztecs and the Incas, with a lot less effort.

    6. Jon

      Thank you Mr Hudson. The fact is freedom and democracy have been extremely oversold. With the bourgeois revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries the masses got liberalized, and not liberated.

    1. Lee

      Also of interest is the Social War, 91-88 BC, in which tributary Italian tribes fought, not for independence but for Roman citizenship. Somewhat analogous to modern civil rights movements. Interestingly, the Romans won the war but in order to avoid further costly conflict, acceded to the tribes’ demands.

      And then of course there’s this: What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

  2. Joe Well

    I’ve been unable to read most American history books, with their currently unwarranted chipper optimism.

    Only true for mass market history, particularly by non professional historians, who have to be chipper to sell books and/or get MSM attention.

    Academic historians (I am tempted to say “real” historians) such as Eric Foner, to pick one example among 10000s, are quite damning in their analyses.

    Seriously, people. You need to step away from the mass media to get a clear view of anything, even the past.

    1. Titus

      Who are you talking about? Having read, “A. Lincoln: A Biography”, by White Jr., Ronald C, I can tell you it is not a ‘chipper’ book, assuming I know what that is. It is one of the most intense books I’ve ever read – you get to be Lincoln the whole time he was President, it is white hot painful.

      1. Joe Well

        Maybe instead of “chipper” they meant “hagiographic.” I am not familiar with that work by Ronald C. White, but the blurb includes the phrase, “offers a fresh and compelling definition of Lincoln as a man of integrity.”

        Many people would say that Lincoln’s greatest contribution was getting assassinated, paving the way for Radical Reconstruction, which he was against. I do not expect a book making that case to appear in any airport magazine rack.

        1. JBird4049

          Maybe a book could be found titled the greatest tragedy, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His death just added anger to the North’s desire for payback. There was simultaneously too harsh and too lenient treatment of the Southern Slaveocracy. Followed by the abandonment of the Southern governments then under the control of the black leadership in 1877 with the withdrawal of the army. The country then ignored the very violent takeover of the South by the waiting white elites causing the undoing much of the conflict and death of the previous thirty years. A worse of all outcomes except the continuation of slavery you could say. Although with the new forms of slavery created in the South after Reconstruction were not technically slavery, they were damn close at times.

    2. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Joe.

      “Only true for mass market history, particularly by non professional historians, who have to be chipper to sell books and/or get MSM attention.” As above, we have the same problem in the mother country. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jeremy Paxman write for a certain audience and are often serialised in the Daily Mail and given air time on state broadcasters like the BBC and Channel 4. The trio have been joined by once serious historians Simon Schama and David Cannadine. It would be difficult for an EP Thompson or Eric Hobsbawm, whose daughter is a staunch Blairite, just like the children and grandchildren of Wedgie Benn, to get published or air time now.

      1. Joe Well

        The gap between academic British history and the propaganda peddled by the likes of British state media organ (let alone Boris Johnson) is astounding. Just one example: I once forced myself to read a article that explained how Britain’s primary role in the history of slavery was to end it, and have encountered that unique version of history in a few other British mass-media productions.

        And did you know that in London there is an actual place called the Imperial War Museum, and it is not some kind of collection of Marxist diatribes and Global South protests, it is a state-funded temple of reverence for Britain’s wars (and admittedly some solid academic history)?

        It is as if an entire country were naked and they were the only ones who didn’t know it or else thought they were hiding it.

        1. Harry

          You cant really expect a country to deal with its past honestly without being occupied by foreign powers.

          The Russians are generally surprised when I tell them the 2nd world war started in ’39. And besides, would you really be comfortable being related to what the British got up to in India, China, or the West Indies and American colonies.

          Being told about the raping and the murder isnt going to be a winner for most taxpayers.

    3. RBHoughton

      We have had that problem in UK all my life. State historians have conspired to create a clean and uplifting version of British history, over the last 200-300 years, and it is only now that we Poms are beginning to get our real history, courtesy of Andrew Roberts (on Napoleon) and David Starkey (on most everything else).

      One hopes that academics are respectable people. Can they look in the mirror and recognise the problem?

    1. Science Officer Smirnoff

      A 2011 book, Machiavellian Democracy, has quite interesting things to say about Machiavelli on the Discourses and his design for the Florentine Republic:

      ‘The plebian tribunate, the centerpiece of Machiavelli’s prescriptions for popular government, was an intensely controversial institution in assessments of the Roman Republic throughout the history of Western political thought. Yet, inexplicably, scholarship devoted to elaborating Machiavelli’s “republicanism” virtually ignores it. Aristocratic republicans such as Guicciardini, and many more before and after him, from Cicero to Montesquieu, criticized the tribunate for opening the doors of government to upstarts, who subsequently stir up strife, sedition, and insurrection among the common people. Machiavelli, on the contrary, argues that the establishment of the tribunes made the Roman constitution “nearly perfect” by facilitating the plebians’ assertion of their proper role as the “guardians” of Roman liberty.

      . . . when Machiavelli proposes constitutional reforms to restore the Florentine Republic, he creates a tribunician office, the proposti or provosts, a magistracy that wields veto and appellate powers and excludes the republic’s most prominent citizens.* Even commentators who understand Machiavelli to be an advocate of the people, an antagonist of the grandi, or— albeit more rarely—a democrat pure and simple largely neglect the crucial role that the Roman tribunes play in his political thought and consistently overlook his proposal to establish Florentine tribunes, the provosts, within his native city.’

      (from the Introduction)

      *N. Machiavelli, “Discursus on Florentine Affairs” (1520-21)

  3. The Rev Kev

    I am afraid that Newdealdemocrat’s views on Republican Rome do have to be heavily qualified. And I won’t mention that the British Empire and the Republic of Venice were actually oligarchies. Wait – I just did!
    Anyway, when he gets to the part about the Punic Wars he tends to mash the events of the different wars together. The Romans were not the same people that they were at the beginning of these wars. The social conditions and mores had changed too much. A serious use of a timeline is needed so a bit of context here. The three Punic wars were epic on scale and amounted to world wars at the time. In the second war, Rome went right to the brink and was nearly snuffed out but managed to hold the line. When the British were fighting the French during the Napoleonic wars, a lot of British were equating their struggles to the 2nd Punic War. Here is how it went.
    During the first Rome and Carthage went at it for over twenty years until it finally ended. After a break of twenty years, the went at it again for another seventeen years. After that war was over, you had peace for about fifty years until the last war which only lasted three years and after hard fighting, Carthage was no more. And no, it was not really a Republic at all. So all in all these three wars were spread over nearly 120 years. So lets equate that with a history of the United States.
    Suppose that the US were fighting a country going from the Spanish-American war until the end of WW1. Then they fought this enemy again from WW2 to near the beginning of the Vietnam war. The final war would have broken out a few years ago and just finished. So using this idea, would Newdealdemocrat argue that the Americans of the 1890s were like the Americans of the 1940s & 1950s who would be like modern Americans? Too much water has passed under the bridge and so it was with the Romans. And certainly you cannot mix up events from these different American eras without a serious misrepresentation of history.

    1. vlade

      Re Venice – a republic can be an oligarchy – the point is that the executive is elected (from some body), not inherited.

      From that point, Venice wasn’t a republic until about 1000AD, when the Concia started to form (of all free men). Before that it was appointment from Byzantium. The democratic attempt changed to oligarchic in about 1300. As a republic it was still pretty stable due to the extremely convoluted (on purpose) sortition election mechanism, which was making it pretty hard to impossible to rig future Doges w/o very large consensus in the electorate.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Granted that a republic can be an oligarchy and a good example was East Germany which was called the German Democratic Republic. I am here to say though that I spent a few hours in that place and it definitely did not feel like a democratic republic. A few months ago I read a history of the Republic of Venice and from what I read, it had the same feel as East Germany once did with its strict controls and ruthlessness.

        1. vlade

          Indeed (and most of the Soviet-block countries were republics and ‘people’s republic’ and ‘democratic’, when they were none of these. DPRK is a prime example none. Not democratic, not peoples’ not republic, and partially Korea).

          I just want to be reasonably precise, as lots of people assume that democracy and republic are equal. I don’t know whether the author was making that assumption too, or was looking at republic in the wider sense.

          The US can be a republic and not being democratic at all….

      2. DJG

        vlade and Rev Kev: The Serenissima is fascinating, and it is hard to draw lessons because it was a highly contradictory place. Venetian justice was supposed to have been relentless and severe–yet histories tend to clump the repression. Over the long span of time, Venice wasn’t such a bad place to live, and the Republic had a reputation for being more just than any of the surrounding states. (Although I just peeked at the list of doges, and it was hard to be a doge in the 900s or so.)

        The Republic was highly skeptical of the Inquisition and kept it under control. Compared other Catholic–and Protestant–states, the Venetians didn’t allow the mass panic and miscarriages of justice that the Inquisition was famous for.

        What the Venetians were good at was a kind of civic esprit de corps–all Venetians seem to have been committeed to the city. There was considerable openness–Venice was a center for book publishing for centuries. Of course, those in charge of the Republic kept the university in Padua. On the other hand, Galileo taught at Padua, without incident. Marin Falier and his attempted coup were a notable exception, which is why history books dwell on those events.

        Venetians loved minutiae, which may be their odd distinguishing characteristic. They saved everything, in their enormous archives–every record, every blunder, every victory. They made officials obtain a countersignature–that skepticism, slight lack of trust, was everywhere.

        And what may make them the most exceptional was their island empire: They rule the Ionian islands in Greece pretty much to the end of the Serenissima. Yet they weren’t insular. There was a reluctant tolerance–the Ghetto in the city itself, the Armenian monasteries in the lagoon, the large populations of Greek Orthodox on Crete and Cyprus whom they did not bother much.

        Much to contemplate here: But most USonians consider Venice these days to be a shopping mall. It is hard to find decent books in English on the complicated history of Venice.

          1. Synoia

            Gibbon Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, although I find Gibbon biased

            John Julius Norwich, Byzantium, as one cannot focus on Rome and not Byzantium, and their adoption of Christianity

            And reflect and the stunning success of the Roman Catholic Church which converted Western Europe to its Spiritual Leadership.

    2. Titus

      Rev, excellent. I would only add the Romans really hated Carthage and today was the first time I ever heard they were a republic.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        I’m not sure it’s exactly clear how their government compares to modern types. The best place to look is Polybius, who was alive during the final Punic war. Here’s what he has to say –

        51 1 The constitution of Carthage seems to me to have been originally well contrived as regards its most distinctive points. 2 For there were kings, and the house of Elders was an aristocratical force, and the people were supreme in matters proper to them, the entire frame of the state much resembling that of Rome and Sparta. 3 But at the time when they entered on the Hannibalic War, the Carthaginian constitution had degenerated, and that of Rome was better. 4 For as every body or state or action has its natural periods first of growth, then of prime, and finally of decay, and as everything in them is at its best when they are in their prime, it was for this reason that the difference between the two states manifested itself at this time. 5 For by as much as the power and prosperity of Carthage had been earlier than that of Rome, by so much had Carthage already begun to decline; while Rome was exactly at her prime, as far as at least as her system of government was concerned. 6 Consequently the multitude at Carthage had already acquired the chief voice in deliberations; while at Rome the senate still retained this; 7 and hence, as in one case the masses deliberated and in the other the most eminent men, the Roman decisions on public affairs were superior, 8 so that although they met with complete disaster, they were finally by the wisdom of their counsels victorious over the Carthaginians in the war.*.html

        Worth reading the beginning of book 6 too where he compares the different types of governments and how they evolve, or more likely, devolve. Here he seems to be making that case that whatever form of republic or democracy the Carthiginians once had, it had devolved to mob rule by the time of the Punic wars.

  4. Another Scott

    I’d like to wait for the entire series before commenting too much, but based upon my readings on the subject, the connection between oversees military operations and the disposition of the farmers is incredibly important. It seems to underlie many of the subsequent problems that contributed to the Fall of the Republic. Without the farmers being forced off their lands after fighting wars in Africa, Greece, and Spain, they would not have become reliant upon generals for patronage nor joined the poor masses in Rome itself.

  5. SufferinSuccotash

    Describing Britain as a “parliamentary democracy” for the past 400 years seems a little far-fetched. “Constitutional monarchy” would be more accurate, with the monarch sharing power with Parliament. Parliament itself was a highly elitist affair, dominated by the “landed classes” (aristocracy & gentry) and chosen by a tiny and well-managed electorate. In addition, monarchs retained a great deal of power over the choice of ministers. This state of affairs lasted well into the 19th century. The young Queen Victoria was the very last monarch to attempt (unsuccessfully) to keep a Prime Minister in office without parliamentary approval. And democracy (defined as universal suffrage or something close to it) had to wait until the Reform Bills of 1867 and 1884. By the time a parliamentary democracy exists the Empire has become a well-established fact.

    1. RBHoughton

      I believe it was the Irishman Castlereagh who almost single-handedly brought down the monarchy because of the unparliamentary George III, specifically the attempted seizure of South America. Once that powerful and knowledgeable King was pushed aside, the next couple of clowns were dog’s meat to politicians determined to center power on the Commons. The MO was to give a bit and take a lot and thus whittle down the Civil List to a point no future British monarch had independent power.

  6. DJG

    I think that the writer misunderstands Roman offices. An aedile was more of an inspector of public works. The word edile / edilizia is still used in Italian for building / construction.

    The college of pontifexes were the ones in charge of festivals and religious events. And there were complicated qualifications for membership (involving social class) as well as complicated rules of behavior expected of these priesthoods.

  7. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    The de facto requirement that all senior magistrates and in particular the consuls (analogous to Presidents) be military commanders, who frequently raised, and increasingly paid for, their own armies.


    We can look to Marius for that.

    From Wikipedia*:

    Marius and his contemporaries’ need for soldiers cemented a paradigmatic shift away from the levy-based armies of the middle Republic towards open recruitment. Thereafter, Rome’s legions would largely consist of poor citizens (the “capite censi” or “head count”) whose future after service could only be assured if their general could bring about land distribution and pay on their behalf. In the broad sweep of history, this reliance on poor men would make soldiers strongly loyal not to the Senate and people of Rome, but to their generals whom would be perceived as friends, comrades, benefactors, and patrons of soldiers.[57]

    *We can find this subject, Marius military reform, covered in many places, some not as readily quotable as Wikipedia, which is cited here as an introduction to those who are not already familiar with. People who want more details can do further research, and those who object to part or parts of the above can raise them here for readers to discuss/debate or to correct/update.

  8. Susan the Other

    Well… even the billionaires are panicked now. Whereas traditional oligarchs have sewn their diamonds in their petticoats and still been massacred. That’s very symbolic. Talk about blood diamonds. It’s possible that we are facing the end of an era. To go forward now we can no longer take from the environment frivolously, beyond our needs. And we will be required by Nature to leave the world better than we found it. In my mind that leaves all dysfunctional governments looking pretty stupid.

  9. Kingfish

    I recommend Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome and the subsequent books. It’s historical fiction but is heavily based upon the original sources and provides an entertaining way to study the fall of the Roman Republic.

    The post briefly touches upon it but the rise of the commercial class played directly into Plato’s cycle of governments. The landed aristocracy (Senate) became threatened by the commercial class (Assembly). This will explode when Marius and Sulla go to war with each other as the Assembly took away Sulla’s rightful command and gave it to Marius.

    Of course, back then, losing in politics increasingly became a case of losing your head, citizenship, or all property. A strong motivation to stay in power regardless of the cost.

  10. The Historian

    This ought to be an interesting series! I am hoping Newdealdemocrat doesn’t just regurgitate the books he/she mentions but gives us some critical insight of his/her own.

    Obviously the Roman Republic is important to Americans since the Founding Fathers were enamored of Polybius’s writings, but it sad they weren’t equally interested in understanding the reasons the Roman Republic collapsed; they might have put more protections into our Constitution. But in fairness to them, perhaps there just wasn’t that much literature on the subject of the Roman Republic’s collapse at that time since it seem that writers previous to 1776 were more interested in the collapse of the Roman Empire than in the Roman Republic.

    The collapse of the Roman Republic was very complex and cannot be simplified down into just one thing or one set of things so I tend to discount those writers who do that. And every historian that has written about the Roman Republic/Empire’s collapses is ethnocentric and weights history based on what is important to him/her and I don’t expect this writer to be any different. Since I don’t know how a writer can avoid understanding history in terms of his/her own culture instead of the culture that existed at the time, I usually try to find out who the writer is and what is important to him/her and then I read his/her history within that context. Since I don’t know anything about this writer, I am inclined to withhold judgement on the validity for now. But even those writers on the Roman Republic who were obviously biased have provided valuable insights. I am hoping for at least that and maybe more from this writer.

  11. Jeremy Grimm

    As the 2nd millennium passes into the 3rd I believe it grows plain our Empire is crumbling and I fear its last days will come in my lifetime. Empires have ended before – but this time is different. This end will be far more complete, further reaching, and perhaps more final than any collapse which occurred in the past. This collapse will signal the end of Empire but also the end of the Age of Fossil Fuels. And the scale of our collapse will dwarf the scale of all the collapses of the past. It is strange and eerie to live through last days – strange days watching the emergence of signs of collapse.

    Our civilization is built on the power we obtain from burning fossil fuels. But fossil fuels are finite. We extracted and burned them at such a rate as now seems unimaginable. They were a legacy of energy and chemicals such as might have nurtured Humankind for many millennia. We wastefully burned-up this legacy in less than a century. And now our bright candle’s wick burns close to the pan as we burn what remains of our fossil fuel legacy. If Humankind’s capacity to replace fossil fuels relies upon the use of fossil fuels to discover and build that replacement – our bridge to the future – I fear we have so completely burned that bridge and all the bridges behind us. Our collapse will come before we see full scope of the wonders Climate Chaos holds in promise. Not only have we burned our bridges, we have so changed our world that our survivors will face constantly changing and difficult adaptations for many millennia to come.

    If only the collapse of our Empire were more like the collapse of Rome or the other Empires mentioned.

  12. Janie

    Many thanks to Yves for this post and to the commentariat for their excellent contributions. Another trip to the library is in order; as often happens, I am made aware of huge gaps in my knowledge.

  13. Summer

    At what point can one come to the conclusion that modelling after fallen Republics is a design for an eventual fall?
    Conveniently or not….

  14. RubyDog

    I think he is a little harsh on Mike Duncan’s “The Storm Before the Storm.”

    “Unfortunately this latter book (in my opinion) wound up being a chronological blow-by-blow vomiting of not well organized facts.”

    There are many ways to tell the story of history, and there is not such thing as an unbiased, factual account, given the intellectual and ideological biases of any given author, and the necessary basis in available sources that are in themselves biased to begin with. That being said, Mike Duncan’s book (which I just finished) tries to give a chronological account of “what happened”, and (in my opinion) does so in a clear and coherent fashion, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions and interpretation. I wouldn’t want people to avoid the book due to one person’s opinion. I agree though that it’s helpful to read as many different takes on a given historical topic as one has the time and inclination for, as there is no one “correct” or “best” interpretation.

    If you like podcasts, “Death Throes of the Republic”, by Dan Carlin, covers the same territory in Carlin’s highly engaging and addictive style.

    1. Jack Parsons

      Duncan’s book is derived from his podcast of the same name. I haven’t listened (I’m an “I, Claudius” guy) but his “Revolutions” podcast is very very good.

      It might be that his Rome podcast works better than his book.

  15. Michael Meo

    As my mite to the discussion I’d like to recommend as a valuable contribution to the history of the fall of the Republic Gareth Sampson’s The Collapse of Rome. Marius, Sulla, and the First Civil War (91-70 BC), Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Pen & Sword Military, 2013, 284 pp. Sampson’s thesis is, as has been already pointed out, that the Republic was inalterably changed by the Social War and Sulla’s assault on Rome when he returned from the East.

  16. Abi

    Ok, you have my full attention. Fave topic is discussing how changes in balance of power are actually what significantly changes the trajectory of a nations development. Excited for the next 3 parts.

  17. Lydia Maria Child

    I’m looking forward to more of this series, and the underlying issues/themes involved (as stated by author); i.e. the parallels between Rome and today. It’s fertile ground, but has been very much been the terrain of elitist gate-keeping for centuries…from Gibbon to the Mary Beards of today. I hated the Roman history class I took as an undergrad, too. It was always superficial and incomplete, and frankly dishonest in how class issues and the evils of empire are papered over. Michael Hudson’s recent works have been a real refresher. I wish they were made into audio versions!

    This is coming from a former Ph.D. history student on empire, particularly the US in Latin America , but also of the other great Atlantic empires since ~1400 (Portugal, Spain, Dutch, British, French). ALL of them were deeply rooted in the Roman version, quite literally. Especially in law. And the US emerged out of that, as an arguably “more perfect” imperial model.

    If you want a good introduction into these parallels between the Roman and more modern eras (legal, ideological, etc.), there are a few good books on this, and relatively new. Here’s a brief list:

    Armitage, “The Ideological Origins of the British Empire”
    Pagden, “Lords of all the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c.1500-c.1800”
    Elliott, “Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830”

    For Yves and her interests in this topic, I suggest going to the Armitage and Pagden books and following the footnotes. There is a lot there that may prove fruitful. The key, in my humble blue-collar opinion, is the historical evolution from feudal empires to the modern “neoliberal,” and how doctrines of “private property” remained sacrosanct. (debt is property, too) Entire empires were built upon this, starting in Rome. The names of specific rulers or emperors aren’t important, but the underlying class interests certainly are.

    The systematic ignoring and downplaying of “class” as a “category of analysis”, as opposed to “race, gender, sexuality,” was a major reason why I escaped the Vampire Castle. Good luck finding anyone studying US foreign relations today that approach global empire or “international relations” via class analysis. It has been almost completely removed from the scene and relegated to right-wing hacks who talk of “globalist” conspiracies. Sad!

  18. Stratos

    Please link the four parts of this series, so that a reader can easily navigate from one part to another.


    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, that isn’t how it is done even by the original publisher. Later posts link back but original posts don’t link forward due to the lack of a time machine. The post is supposed to be as of the date it was published, not altered afterward. We don’t do this sort of thing for our own series either, it screams we edited it later and Lord only knows what else we might have edited to make our work look better as later events roll out.

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