The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan
The first book from Mike Duncan, the creator of the terrific The History of Rome podcast. Describes the relatively unexplored period of the late Roman Republic between two far more famous events: the conquest of Cartage and the rise of the Caesars and the Roman imperium. Duncan explores how Rome fell from a republican power controlling the known world to one oscillating between extremes of popular demagoguery and aristocratic oligarchy, leading to civil war and ultimately paving the way for the previously unthinkable ascent of a tyrant.
If you enjoyed the podcast as I did you’ll enjoy this book; the tone is conversational and narrative with liberal sprinklings of dry humor and modern analogies. In terms of events this time period has everything: the rise of an oligarchy in the Senate, the popular reaction in the Assembly, the introduction of mob violence, the creation of cults of personalities and armies with personal loyalties, civil war, and finally tyranny being welcomed as a preferred alternative to anarchic chaos
Roman history is long and the Roman empire was large, so by necessity this book moves very quickly and often haltingly, with some eras or careers covered in a page where others take chapters. There’s also an unfortunate paucity of sources about some key events and Duncan does a great job of weaving a coherent enjoyable narrative out of the available sources. Even so, the number of names and events covered can be overwhelming and I have massive set of Kindle highlights to go through.
My main criticism is I wish the themes were fleshed out more. The first half of the book sets up and returns to important themes: the abandonment of political norms, the introduction of mob violence, fights over suffrage and the expanding definition of “Roman”, increasing disregard for laws by those in power. Duncan gives plenty of examples of these but never builds them into a coherent framework or thesis. The second half of the book is largely narrative describing Marius’ and then Sulla’s paths to power, mostly eschewing analysis altogether. Entirely absent is an analysis of why this happened or how it could have been avoided.
That said, this was a hugely pleasurable read giving the joy of a fictional narrative but with non-fictional learning. I knew little about this fascinating time period that has so much to tell us about our own empire and polity.