by Edward J. Watts
New York: Basic Books / Perseus, 2018. Pp. xii, 352.
Maps, notes, index. $17.99 paper.. ISBN: 1541646487
The Greatness and Death of the Roman Republic
Mortal Republic traces the key events in the period leading to the downfall of the Roman Republic, which eventually culminated in a series of violent civil wars and the emergence of Octavian Augustus as the first emperor. Prof. Watt covers an enormous amount of history at a very brisk pace and as such offers a more thematic and cursory approach than a detailed and trenchant analysis of the period.
Mortal Republic opens in 280 B.C. with Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, facing off against Rome in Southern Italy. At that time, Rome was a regional power with an agriculture-based economy and a political system effectively run by a hereditary aristocracy, though not without some checks and balances. Two Consuls were elected for a period of one year and held veto power over each other’s votes, while plebeians were also able to hold office. During this stage of the Republic, men such as the wise Appius Claudius and the poor but noble Gaius Fabricius harkened back to the legend of Cincinnatus. With its victory in the Second Punic War over Carthage in 201 B.C., however, Rome emerged as the dominant power in the Mediterranean. The infrastructure Rome built to defeat Hannibal was staggering in its scale and commitment. (At one point in the Second Punic War 70-percent of the male citizens aged 17-60 were enrolled in the military.)
As the spoils of war and tribute flowed increasingly into the city’s coffers, the emphasis on honor and virtue as critical for political advancement gave way to amassing wealth in order to pursue higher office. Additionally, this influx of wealth led to a growing inequality and restlessness. As some politicians courted the populist base with promises of land reform, most struggled to maintain the status quo. Mortal Republic provides ample evidence that this social tension led to political violence and upheaval. Not only were the Grachii brothers, aristocratic members of the Populares, murdered but over 3,000 of their followers as well. While the Republic was dealing with these tensions at home, the rest of Italy, Greece, and most of Asia Minor revolted. Eventually these twin dynamics led to Sulla leading the Roman army within the city’s walls to slaughter his opponents, which set the stage for the first Triumvirate, of Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey the Great. After the death of Crassus, Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus and became de-facto emperor in all but name. Watts does a thorough job of connecting these social, economic and political events even if the linkage is more nuanced and complex than Mortal Republic suggests.
After Caesar’s assassination, Augustus, his posthumously adopted son, emerged as Rome’s savior and crowned himself emperor. Ruthless and talented, with his sole purpose being to survive, Augustus promised security and safety to the people and the return of the Republican political offices to the patricians. While the trappings of the Republic were maintained, its institutions, “which channeled the individual energies of Romans in ways that benefited the entire Roman commonwealth”, were confined to nostalgia. Although Professor Watts clearly views Augustus as a repugnant figure, he acknowledges his genius and the fact that he most likely saved Rome from further violence. (Warning: Cicero isn’t portrayed in a very favorable light either.)
The author alludes to the fate of the Roman Republic as a harbinger for the current state of American politics. (The book was published in 2018 so the allusion is clear.) However, one would not be wrong to conclude that it wasn’t so much Rome’s leaders which failed it but the inability of its institutions to support and adapt to Rome’s growing empire and the social instability it introduced. There are better introductions to the key events and personalities in this period, but Mortal Republic offers the layman a solid summary of the political and social forces at work.
Our Reviewer: Greg McNiff works in the finance industry. He has a BA in Classical Languages from Columbia University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. Executive Director of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, he and is addicted to books to the point of requiring professional help..
Note: Mortal Republic is also available in several e-editions.
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