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Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny Hardcover – Illustrated, November 6, 2018
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"If the central analogy that animates Mortal Republic is correct, the current challenge to America's political system is likely to persist long after its present occupant has left the White House."―New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)
"Mortal Republic provides excellent insights into how the Republic became the Empire, and more broadly it speaks to the ever-present threat of centralized power. The more a civilization centralizes, the more powerful a central government becomes."―New York Journal of Books
"Watts chronicles the ways the republic, with a population once devoted to national service and personal honor, was torn to shreds by growing wealth inequality, partisan gridlock, political violence and pandering politicians, and argues that the people of Rome chose to let their democracy die by not protecting their political institutions, eventually turning to the perceived stability of an emperor instead of facing the continued violence of an unstable and degraded republic."―Smithsonian
"Readers will find many parallels to today's fraught political environment: the powerful influence of money in politics, a 'delegitimized establishment,' and 'the emergence of a personality-driven, populist politicking.' Watts ably and accessibly...covers a lot of ground in a manner accessible to all readers, including those with little knowledge of Roman history. This well-crafted analysis makes clear the subject matter's relevance to contemporary political conversations."―Publishers Weekly
"In a timely book of ancient history, an eminent classicist looks at Rome's decline from representative government to corrupt empire.... Given that mistrust of institutions is a key ingredient in the collapse of republican rule, as we are witnessing daily, the lesson is pointed. An engaging, accessible history that, read between the lines, offers commentary on today's events as well as those of two millennia past."―Kirkus
"Lucid, fast-paced, and well informed. Edward Watts's history of the failure of the Roman Republic is the tale of how greed and self-interest undermined the ancient world's most successful democratic superpower and caused Rome's people to vote in a dictatorship. Beginning with Rome's confrontations with Pyrrhus and Carthage, and a relatively simple state based on reasonable equity, Watts takes us into a world of the super-rich who undermined the very system that gave them their wealth, driving it downwards into civil war and mass murder. The elective tyranny of Augustus proved to be the only answer. This is both a splendid introduction to one of the most dramatic periods of history and a book for our times."―David Potter, author of Constantine the Emperor
"Mortal Republic retells the familiar story of how one of history's most famous and long-lived republics became a monarchy. Edward Watts is an expert and eloquent guide through the political drama of the late republic, and his book offers a timely reminder that constitutions are fragile and that the politics of consensus can be replaced by the politics of violence one small selfish act at a time."―Kyle Harper, author of The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire
About the Author
- Publisher : Basic Books; Illustrated edition (November 6, 2018)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0465093817
- ISBN-13 : 978-0465093816
- Item Weight : 1.23 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.25 x 9.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #409,595 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
"A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself." -Delia Owens Learn more
Top reviews from the United States
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This book does not start, as is common, with the rise of the Gracchi brothers. Those radical reformers whose lives and deaths plunged the Republic into short periods of chaos. Instead he begins in 280 BC, with the wars between Rome and the Greek King Pyrrhus. Why this period? He wants to show the nature of the Roman leaders in this period. Roman leadership was a duty that was held by men who held honor above wealth.
This is an important point that will be seen throughout this book. In the early days of the Republic the nobles of Rome “agreed that virtue lay in service to Rome and that dishonor fell upon those who put their private interests above those of the Republic.” This noble ideal would become stressed as the Roman Republic grow in size, power and wealth. The change can be seen as the Romans fight the Carthaginians for control of Sicily. The Punic Wars spread Roman power abroad and soon the Republic had foreign territories to manage. With those territories came officials needed to run them. Those officials tended to become wealthy in those jobs. That wealth became the new motive for public service. Now honor gave way to avarice. As the quest for wealth and glory became the prime motivator factions began to arrive. Those factions would eventually wear away at the fabric of the Republic until it frayed and crumbled. As Dr. Watts puts it “The new economy produced great wealth for a few winners, but the frustration of the newly poor and the fear that some of the old elite were losing their grip on power created conditions in which a fierce populist reaction could occur.
The great weakness in the Roman system was the reliance on personal honor to maintain itself. Tradition and honor were no defense against personal ambition and tremendous wealth. The populism ushered in by the Gracchi would be used as a weapon by one group of power Romans in order to gain control over the more traditionalists. The fight would rage back and forth for over a century. The ethics and values of the Romans devolved to the place where strong men like Marius, Sulla, Cataline, Clodius, Milo, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar could tear it apart.
The book is written for the general reader. One does not need a specialized background in Roman history to understand. The topic is indeed timely. In the Preface to the book Dr. Watts hopes “that this book allows its readers to better appreciate the serious problems that result both from politicians who breach a republic’s political norms and from citizens who choose not to punish them for doing so.” That is as far as he goes in trying to connect the past and the present. It is up to the readers to notice the signs and to take warning. These warnings are prescient. The United States was founded as a Republic with the Roman Republic very much in the conscious minds of the Founders.
The book ends as did the Republic: with the reign of Augustus. For over half a century the Republic had been torn by one faction after another competing for power. What are we supposed to gather from this book? Why read another book on the fall of a government that fell 2,000 years ago? Because the freedoms and laws of a republic must continually be upheld and protected. Ronald Reagan famously said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Perhaps the closing statement of the book sums it up best. “When citizens take the health and durability of their republic for granted, that republic is at risk. This was as true in 133 BC or 82 BC or 44 BC as it is in AD 2018. In ancient Rome and in the modern world, a republic is a thing to be cherished, protected, and respected. If it falls, an uncertain, dangerous, and destructive future lies on the other side.”
Watts describes the early Republic, with its interlocking system of mutual responsibility, where the most sought after goods; that is, honors and public acclaim, were the prerogative of the state. Individual wealth did not bring prestige, although it undoubtedly made people’s lives comfortable. He also makes clear that Rome was a regional power until the time of the Second Punic War. In order to defend itself from Carthage, and its greatest general, Hannibal, Rome had to recast itself, and in doing so the seeds of its destruction were planted.
As time goes along, Watts shows us the cracks in the Republic. Because the Roman polity was based on tradition and especially consensus, eventually there were men who decided to advance themselves by breaking the consensus and promoting violence in order to get their way. This led to crisis upon crisis, and eventually to civil war. The outward forms of the Republic remained, but inwardly the system of government was hollow and led, almost inevitably, to Augustus and autocracy.
I found this book to be thought provoking and a bit frightening. The parallels between our own time and the destruction of the Republic are far too close for comfort. We have as our leader a man who also refuses to accept the norms of our society and government, who lies incessantly, who proclaims that he alone can fix our problems, although he is the source of many of them, who provokes violence to get his own way, and who appeals to the mob in order to force his decisions on the rest of us. The Roman Republic was not sturdy enough to withstand the selfishness of greedy men, will the American Republic be strong enough to withstand Donald Trump?
My one real criticism of this book is the use of the now somewhat dated “BC” instead of the more inclusive “BCE,” which stands for Before the Common Era. It has always seemed sort of silly to me to describe ancient societies as Before Christ, when those societies existed in their own time. For those who are interested, the use of “AD,” Anno Domini, or In the Year of Our Lord, is likewise anachronistic and should be replaced with “CE,” meaning Common Era.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in Roman history, or indeed, to anyone who is worried about the fate of Western Civilization.
A thought provoking, if dry, read.
Top reviews from other countries
A republic is defined as a polity where the majority and minority co-exist and decisions are taken often by compromise. Dissent is allowed, as long as it is loyal to the institutions of the republic. A republic (like the USA) where a large minority out-of-power refuse to concede fair election results is in trouble, because a core institution of the state is being called into question and undermined. While it may seem a small step, it may lead to a downward spiral of routinely dismissing losing election results, and attempting to retain power by rigging votes, through the courts, or by force. By the way, Jim Crow used a mechanism like this, so "it could not happen in the USA" is a vacuous argument. It already did, and could happen again.
With the Roman Republic, the norm moved quickly to mob violence. For fear of assassination, which began in about 120 BC, politicians first needed mobs, then needed armies. The story goes from the Gracchi brothers to Marius and Sulla, then to Pompey and Caesar, then to Antony and Augustus. The book makes a good case for Pompey as the first "Emperor", or the first to rule in a recognisable Empire-style e.g. governing Spain by proxy, maintaining a nework of client-kings and allies in the East, embarking on an ambitious building program in Rome itself. That puts Caesar almost as the first Provincial Governor to rebel against the ruler in Rome, a pattern that runs though the history of the Empire until the very end.
IMHO, what the book lacks (and this is why it does not get 5 stars) is the poor character-sketches of the main actors like Sulla, Caesar, Antony or even Cicero. It is like reading a narrative of a Shakespearean tragedy, without getting into the heads of the characters. In that way, it is a bit flat, and lacks a few telling anecdotes that might have illustrated the story. A reader would be recommended to go to the biographies of Adrian Goldsworthy, or even the fiction of Robert Harris, for a person-centric view.
But a magnificent story this is, and exceedingly well told.