"Storm Before the Storm" Take-aways

The beginning of the end of the Roman Republic has many lessons for today's world. It's a pity this great narrative doesn't dive into them.

heads up: this is a pretty old post, it may be outdated.

I've been looking forward to reading The Storm Before the Storm since Mike Duncan hinted at its existence years ago on his Podcast. I've loved listening to him, and was really looking forward to his deep dive into one of the eras of history that most resembles today's political situation in the United States.

While I enjoyed Duncan's story-telling, I was disappointed that he didn't compare the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic with today. The parallels are frequently apparent, but the narrative moves on without examining the implications.

What follows is a list of my quick thoughts after reading the book on these comparisons:

  • When politics engender violence - especially when lead by a politician - the slippery slip is greased. Civilian leadership is responsible for running a society that limits violence. When politicians lead the population in internal violence, their moral authority is dissolved, and by extension, so is the state's. This leads to a downward spiral where the state doesn't have the moral authority to pull the population out of violence.
  • Tying political positions to the gaining or maintaining wealth is inherently corrupt. Political agents should have the best interest of the people, the state, and the government in mind while at their post – in that order. If the primary motivation of the post is to extract as much wealth as possible, that inherit corruption sublimates the purpose of their office.
  • A political system that distinguishes and divides many types of power to many posts works well. Beware when the power starts to consolidate.
  • Laws that can be ignored or overturned depending on who is in power aren't trustworthy. The lack of trust leads to unrest for all sections of society.
  • Political norms have the benefit of being flexible during a crisis, but equally easy to ignore when politicians are doing self-described 'great things'. Laws are less flexible, but are subject to easy change when their opposition is in power. The most difficult thing to ignore or change is popular unrest.
  • It's easy to corrupt a vote by casting doubt on its legitimacy and it's easy to make the vote illegitimate. As soon as the vote is doubted, republican norms are ignorable, and authoritarianism is the only way to fix the mess. This is a chaotic cycle of unrest and authoritarianism that the Romans were unable to recover from.