| October 10, 2017

Podcast

Podcast #346: The Fall of the Roman Republic

There’s been a lot written and said about the fall of the Roman Empire. But what often gets overlooked is that before Rome became an empire with what was effectively a king, it was a kingless republic. What was that republic like and why did it fall into an empire, before the empire itself fell?

My guest today explores this question in his book, The Storm Before the Storm. His name is Mike Duncan and he’s the host of the Revolutions and the History of Rome podcasts. Today on the show, Mike walks us through the formation of the Roman Republic and why it was so unique amongst ancient governments. He then explains the unwritten code of behavior that governed Romans and how it enabled the Republic to last for nearly 500 years. Mike then walks us through how the breakdown of that code led to the breakdown of the Republic, and how reformers seeking to take Rome back to its good ol’ days only sped up its fall. We then discuss if we can see any similarities between Rome’s republic and America. 

This is a fascinating episode on an oft-overlooked part of Roman history.

Show Highlights

  • Why Mike decided to focus on this period of Roman history for his book
  • How the Roman republic got its start
  • Why Rome’s governing system was unique
  • How Roman society functioned without written law
  • The factors that led to the breakdown of the republic
  • The importance of extreme income inequality in the downfall of Rome
  • The corruption and self-centeredness of the Roman senate
  • How the US government is patterned after Rome
  • Similarities between the United States and Rome

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

storm before the storm book cover mike duncan

Reading The Storm Before the Storm was a lot like reading a Game of Thrones novel. But instead of following a fictional world, you’re learning about an important part of Roman history. Pick up a copy of this very readable history book.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, there’s been a lot written about the fall of the Roman Empire. What often gets overlooked is that before Rome became an empire with what was effectively a king it was a king-less Republic. What was that Republic like and why did it fall into an empire before the empire itself fell? Well, my guest today explores this question in his book, The Storm Before the Storm. His name is Mike Duncan and he’s the host of The Revolutions and the History of Rome Podcast. Today on the show Mike walks us through the formation of the Roman Republic and why it was so unique amongst ancient governments.

He then explains the unwritten code of behavior that governed Romans and how it enabled the Republic to last for nearly 500 years. He then walks us through how the breakdown of that code led to the breakdown of the Republic and how reformers seeking to take Rome back to the good old days of the Republic only sped up its fall. We then discuss if we can see any similarities between Rome’s Republic and the American republic. It’s a fascinating episode and oft overlooked part of Roman history. If you want to check out the show notes for more resources, go to AOM.is/duncan. Mike Duncan welcome to the show.

Mike Duncan: Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So, you’re the host of The History of Rome Podcast which ran from 2007. Man you were like one of the pioneers of podcasting, I mean if you started your podcast in 2007 to 2012. What was the impetus behind starting a podcast, particularly one about the history of Rome?

Mike Duncan: Yeah, I have now officially been around for a very long time. When I started in 2007 you know most people didn’t know what podcasting was at the time but there were a ton of podcasts that existed. So, when I started it certainly didn’t feel like oh I’m you know, I’m charting virgin territory here. I’m you know, I’m like a pioneer out in the woods. There was actually a fairly good ecosystem of podcasts that existed and I got hooked onto various history podcasts and at the same time I was reading a bunch of old Roman history.

This was just, this is a particular love of mine, ancient history in general and the Romans in particular and I was reading all of Livy and Polybius and Plutarch and really digging into the ancient sources and at the same time had discovered podcasting as a medium and went looking for a Roman history podcast to supplement what I was teaching myself and at that point in 2007 no such show existed. So, I’m you know, I’m sitting on this pile of material that is great, all these great stories that nobody ever hears of, I know about this new medium called podcasting. There is no Roman history podcast and I just you know, started fitting everything together in my head and sat down one day and was like I’m just going to do a narrative history podcast that will explain the entire Roman empire from beginning to end. I can do this. Why can’t I do this, and I just started doing it.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Well, good for you for doing that. I love hearing stories of people where they, looking, they had a problem, saw it wasn’t being filled so they started it themselves. That’s awesome. So, your book The Storm Before the Storm, is taken from this podcast that you did and you’ve focused particularly on the years before the fall of the Roman Republic. There’s lots of stuff out there about the fall of the Roman empire. I’m curious, out of all the history of Rome you’ve covered in the years of your podcast why did you pick this particular period in Roman history?

Mike Duncan: So I settled on this particular period, there’s two reasons why I wound up like with this particular period which is you know, about 146 BC to 78 BC is first of all like you say, everybody knows the story of Caesar and Mark Antony and Cleopatra like that, that stuff that would, that was covered in HBO’s Rome series. You know, those guys, those personalities, those stories are told over and over and over again and there’s tons of great Roman history that people don’t ever get to experience because we have a tendency to go back to like the old favorites. You know, we just want the greatest hits.

We don’t want new material I guess and so just pulling it back two generations and asking, okay well if Julius Caesar comes along in 40 BC and 50 BC and wrecks the Republic was the Republic healthy in the first place? Was he, was he able to take down a system that was strong and healthy and the answer is of course, no and if you want to know why it is that the system was, the Republican system was unhealthy to the point where a bunch of guys could come in and wage civil wars against each other and have the whole thing collapse into a dictatorship, like what caused that?

What caused the sickness to begin with and to understand that you need to go back two or three generations and so that’s how I land on the Marius and Sulla and that, their stories and their lives and that generation, I mean you’ve read the book, it is an incredibly you know, it’s action packed. It’s fascinating. It’s every bit as interesting as anything that Caesar ever got up to and we just, we don’t ever talk about it. So that was, I wanted to explore this topic of if you have a Republic that’s strong and healthy and then it collapses why does it start to collapse? What are the things that really opened up?

Brett McKay: Well before we get into why it collapsed, let’s talk about the Roman Republic and how it got its start because I think for people to understand why you know the, the gravity of it collapsing you have to understand like how amazing it was. Right? How innovative it was. So, when did the Roman Republic start and what were its component parts and why was it such an anomaly in the ancient world and when it comes to government?

Mike Duncan: The legendary founding date of the Republic is 509 BC. The book is covering, starts at about 146 BC and this is when it starts to collapse. The Republic then doesn’t actually fall until like the ’20’s BC. So, you’re talking about almost 500 years of the, of Rome existing as a Republic, a king-less Republic. Which at the time, when Rome was founded in 509 BC I mean everything was you know, the Mediterranean was mostly city-states and most of those, just like Rome was and just like Rome was at the founding of the Republic it, they were all kingdoms. They were ruled by kings. They, you know, tribes would be ruled by chieftains. It was a you know, it’s the very sort of simple autocratic way of doing business. Like not even, even the Greeks were only just getting started with democracy in Athens. So, for the Roman Republic to not just kick up the, usually what happens if you are angry at a king is you kick out one king and then you bring in a new king.

You’re like okay now you’re our king. We didn’t like the old king but now we like you and you’re the new king and the really innovative crazy thing that the Romans did is the senate got together, they threw out the last king of Rome and said look, we’re done with kings. We’re just going to have this cooperative government where we rule it. We know there’s a little ruling click of senatorial families and it’s an oligarchy but no one of us is going to be a king. Now, this is something that happens in other city-states in the Mediterranean world and in the ancient world but they would usually collapse after a couple of generations. They wouldn’t usually last for that long, never more than a century and the insane thing is that the Romans year in and year out for 500 years managed to maintain a king-less Republic which is a fairly remarkable achievement, especially given you know, the era in which they were living.

Brett McKay: So, how did they come to this arrangement of a king-less Republic? I mean was there like a you know, a lawgiver sort of like Lycurgus of Sparta or was it just sort of consensus? They decided we’re done with that and we’re going to go this new route?

Mike Duncan: It was very much consensus I would say. I mean there’s a couple names that are important. Publicola is a guy who’s you know their names will pop up. They were early leaders of the Republic but the Romans, the way that they handled their politics and the way that they really handled anything, like even running their own personal lives is that they did everything after talking it over with a bunch of people. Like even running your own household you would get together your friends and be like oh I’m thinking about buying a new plot of land. Like, what do you think I should do? They came to group decisions a lot whether they’re out running a province or whether they’re, you know whether now it’s how are we going to organize and run our own polity. So I think it really was just a bunch of guys getting together in a room and saying look we don’t want to have one person ruling over us. Let’s try to devise a bunch of offices and a bunch of electoral processes that will stop anyone of us from ever acquiring absolute power ever again.

Brett McKay: So, another unique aspect of the Roman Republic and their government was there weren’t any written laws. Instead, they lived by an unwritten code called and I’m thinking I’m pronouncing right, let’s see if my college Latin will you know not fail me, mores maiorum.

Mike Duncan: Yeah. Mos maiorum.

Brett McKay: Mos mairom? So what was that? I mean, what constituted mos mairom?

Mike Duncan: So what it is, you know, the Romans do have some written law, right? There’s the 12 tables of the law which was you know written shortly after the Republic is founded but yeah they didn’t do much in the way, they weren’t constantly legislating things and they certainly didn’t have any sort of like Napoleonic code level of detail for what was legal, what was illegal, what you could do, what you couldn’t do. It was just, it was traditions of behavior and modes of just norm of behavior that each generation would take from the generation that preceded it. They would imbibe it. They would internalize it and then they would continue to behave in the same way and that alone, just the way I don’t know if it was the, some, something in the DNA or something in the water but the Romans were very small c conservative people.

They didn’t need a ton of innovation. They were very happy to model their own behavior off the behavior of their fathers. There wasn’t, there didn’t seem to be the same need to like rebel and make new things and innovate and launch yourself forward into the future that is so common in the modern world. The Romans, that would’ve been, that was all alien to them. They liked the idea that things were the same now as they were for their fathers and then my sons and my daughters will live in the same basic world that I live in and because they were so instinctively drawn to that way of life, you don’t need a ton of rules and laws to say you can’t do this and you can’t do that because they would naturally behave in a certain way.

Brett McKay: This, the mos maiorum that I mean, as we will talk about here in a bit but what the breakdown of the Republic was basically it just followed the breakdown of mos maiorum?

Mike Duncan: Right, because if you hone in specifically on the political side of it you know it’s custom that you know when you’re a consul and your term of office is up you don’t say oh well I’m going to use whatever power I have at my disposal right now to stay in power. You’re just going to, you’re going to resign and the next guy’s going to take over and then even with dictatorships, the Romans did, even though they had this dual consulship where two men were elected each year and then they would only serve for a year before they returned to the citizen body. In times of emergency they had an office called dictator and that person was in fact given absolute power and the remarkable thing is that over the course of these 500 years that the Republic existed every time the Romans handed absolute power to somebody they sat down their office when the dictatorship expired.

Usually it was after six months and a lot of this is just you only did that because that’s the way that things had always been done and by the time that you get to the period of my book however is people are now questioning how bound they really aught to be by any of this and that if you want power, I mean power is very seductive. Power is always going to be seductive even to the Romans and people started, Roman leaders started asking themselves you know, like why should I follow these things that inhibit my own ability to be the best and the strongest and have the most influence when at the end of the day if I just push harder or if I pull out like a sword or threaten you with the leg of a bench maybe I can just get my way and then when I have power there won’t be anything you can do to challenge me. Which unfortunately at the end of the day is true. Political power rests on force. Not modes of behavior or norms or even written laws.

Brett McKay: So, before we get into, you know sort of the collapse here let’s talk about the component parts of the Republic because that, I think that’s important to understand. So, you mentioned there’s the consulship which was basically like the executive branch. Right?

Mike Duncan: Correct. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Then there was the senate and I’m guessing that was, yeah like we have and then there was the assembly. I’m curious, with the senate and the assembly where there, who, depending on your social class did that determine what you ended up in if you were a senator or just an assemblymen?

Mike Duncan: Yeah. So, the, you know we have our, today we have like our three branches of government and there’s the executive branch and the legislative branch and the judicial branch. So, the Romans had you know three branches of their constitution but they didn’t, it wasn’t exactly that same categorization. So, you had the consuls and they were the executive, the sort of monarchical branch. The senate then represented an aristocratic element which is the wealthiest families and most prominent noble families would be in the senate and then the assemblies were ostensibly at least a body where all Roman citizens were constituent parts of the assembly, like you could vote in the assembly. The senate was not, nobody was elected to the senate. You were appointed by a guy called, there was a particular office called the censor and every five years he would go through the list of who was in the senate and who wasn’t in the senate and there was, I mean there was a straight up wealth requirement to be a member of the senate.

You had to own so much land. You had to have so much property to your name to qualify for admission into the senate and then you also needed to be elected to an office. So, you needed, so it was really the elite of the elite both in terms of wealth and political power are in the senate whereas over in the assembly anybody can vote in the assembly and there were, I don’t think we need to get too deep into the weeds on the different types of assemblies. There’s different versions of it. There’s a plebeian assembly though that is specifically reserved for the common plebeians of Rome that specifically excluded the nobility. So there was this one place, the plebeian assembly where at least allegedly this is where the people were able to insert themselves and have some measure of power and control over the course of Roman politics and how the state was run.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So, let’s get into where your book picks up. As you said, the Republic started 500 BC. By 146 BC Rome had defeated Carthage in The Third Punic War and this is kind of where your book picks up and it seems like this victorious moment for the Romans was in many ways the beginning of the end for the Republic. What was it about these military victories that the Romans experienced with The Punic Wars that kind of sowed the seeds for destruction of the Republic?

Mike Duncan: There’s a lot at work in it, where yeah Rome started as a little kingdom founded by Romulus way back in the 700’s BC and it’s just this minor city-state in Italy and then over the centuries they grow and they grow. They take over Italy and then they start expanding out of Italy and they run into Carthage and they have this huge war that goes on for 200 years but by the end of that Rome and Rome’s legions, I mean they’re the most powerful thing in the Mediterranean world. There’s nothing that even kind of comes close to matching their power at this point, even if they only technically control territory in the western Mediterranean, still anytime they decided to go east they were just going to run roughshod over the like decaying Hellenic kingdoms. So, reaching that pinnacle of success and power had a lot of negative impacts on the health of the Republic. So, for example you start having a massive influx of new wealth into Italy because I mean they’re the most powerful thing.

They have all the gold. They control all the trade routes. So, Italy becomes widely rich, much much richer than it had been even a century earlier and most of that new wealth wound up in the pockets naturally of the leaders of Rome, the senate of Rome because the consuls and the various senators are the ones who were out there leading the armies. They’re the ones who are you know winning the spoils of war so it’s very natural that they would be the ones to control the new wealth that’s coming in and controlling all the slaves that are coming in because this is also Rome’s transformation from being a society that had slaves as all Mediterranean society’s did to a society that was really run by slaves where all the economic activity just about was you know from just the brute labor of digging ditches to fine craft work being produced in the cities is all being done by slaves or their freedmen descendants.

So you have this massive influx of new wealth that is going into the hands of very few people. The regular folks of Rome on the other hand are kind of being shut out of all of that new wealth and they start seeing their own fortunes decline. So, Rome itself is benefiting massively financially from their victories over Carthaginian in Greece and in Spain but the success was really only being held by a very, very few people at the very top and that started dislocating traditional ways of life in Italy and it started creating a lot of tension between the rich and the poor which is you know, if we get into Tiberius Gracchus and what he was trying to accomplish but then there’s another element to this where, then this goes back to arguments that Roman historians themselves made when they looked back on why the Republic started to collapse is that after the defeat of Carthage Rome doesn’t really have a major foreign threat that holds them together.

That holds the elite together where they don’t feel like they need to work in lock step with each other because even though they were all, you know you’re all senators, you’re all of a particular class, I mean we know this today, just because you’re rich and powerful that doesn’t mean you get along with other rich and powerful people. They’re often your most intense rivals and I think prior to the end of The Punic Wars there was an understanding that Rome had threats that it was facing that they couldn’t, that the internal political elites couldn’t let their own rivalries get too far out of hand or it would destroy Rome. Once you don’t have that enemy binding them together anymore they start to turn on each other and they’re starting to use this new wealth not to fight the enemies of Rome but to fight each other and once you, once those political rivalries among the elite started to break out into kind of open warfare I mean then it was how long until the Republic falls.

Brett McKay: Right. So, extreme income and equality is one of the things that happened because of The Punic Wars and so as you said, there was this incoming equality, so there’s people putting out reform ideas. Economic reform ideas. Large scale economic reform ideas. You mentioned Tiberius Gracchus. What’s his background and what was his reform idea you know to basically make things good with Rome again?

Mike Duncan: Well so the ironic thing about Tiberius Gracchus is that he came from the I mean the inner, inner circle of the Roman nobility. I don’t think that there, him and his brother Gaius, it would be hard to describe sort of better connected people. I mean if they were in medieval times you’d be saying that they were like the inner circle royal family, where their fathers and their grandfathers were some of the most famous heroes in Roman history and you know their mother was one of the most famous women in Roman history, Cornelia Africana.

So they come from the inner circle of the nobility but rather than using their connections and using what power they have and using the education that they were given to just simply keep going how it, to keep things going the way they had always been run they identify reforms that need to be made to the way the Republic is run. Especially in the wake of their victories because it was getting quite clear that there were economic and social problems that needed to be addressed that the senate was not addressing and so yeah, so Tiberius Gracchus and then ten years later his brother Gaius will come along and they will try to institute some very necessary reforms.

Brett McKay: Like, one of them was the Lex Agraria and that thing seemed to like just go on and on and on for like ten or 20 years before it actually got put into place.

Mike Duncan: Right. So, yeah and Tiberius’s plan and he’s working with a couple of other rich senators and the basic program is all of the poor Roman farmers, the citizen farmers of Rome over the previous generation had sort of been pushed off their land as rich senatorial magnates have all of this new wealth that they’ve acquired and they’re looking for places to invest it and they start buying everybody out or maybe you know your husband has gone off to war and he never came back and now you just have this dilapidated little plot and you lose it. So, families, the poorer families started to lose their land.

The richer families started to acquire these massive extensive estates and Tiberius Gracchus came in with the Lex Agraria and it was really quite simple. There was technically a limit to how much of a certain kind of land you were allowed to own. Those limits had been disregarded for generations and he said, look we’re going to impose, we’re going to start following this law that we actually do have and I’m going to break up some of these big estates. I’m going to chop those into manageable chunks and I’m going to redistribute them to poor Roman citizens so that people can have land again, so that we don’t lose what made Rome great which is the strong independent citizen farmer.

Brett McKay: A lot of people didn’t like that idea obviously.

Mike Duncan: Right. The rich land owners did not like that idea one bit and they took it as, but they took it as a threat not just to, not just, like there’s going to be some commission that comes around and you know, takes some of your land. They also believed that what Tiberius Gracchus was doing was not just reforming, not just making social and economic reforms but that he was going to use this to acquire massive amounts of political power, because if he’s the guy who comes in as the champion of the people and distributes all of this land I mean he is, you know we get to the end of chapter one and he’s managed to acquire quite a bit of power and popularity.

You go all the way back to the beginning of the founding of the Republic and the principle idea here is that no one person is ever supposed to acquire this much power and if somebody starts to accumulate a lot of power and a lot of popularity the other noble families would sort of circle the wagons and gang up on that guy and beat him, beat him and his family back into place. That’s what happened with Tiberius where there is this big question, you know, was he doing this land redistribution for noble purposes, right, to help the poor citizens of Rome or was he doing it just cynically to accumulate political power for himself which is certainly what his enemies always said and you know, why he gets his head bashed in with a bench at the end of the chapter one.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean that was crazy. I mean, you start seeing the breakdown of mos maiorum here and their political process. I mean what political and social precedence did the politicking of the Lex Agraria establish in Rome after that point with Tiberius Gracchus?

Mike Duncan: Oh yeah. It, I mean it was so unprecedented in so many ways and as I said at the end of chapter one really the thing that became a major problem is like this tit for tat escalation of breaking norms where there’s a very small kernel that starts where traditionally according to mos maiorum if you were a tribune which is what Tiberius Gracchus was. He had been elected tribune of the plebes and this is how he’s going to introduce the Lex Agraria is if you were a tribune and you had some new law that you wanted to introduce you showed it to the senate first and, because they were the fathers of the, they were the fathers of Rome and they you know, they would give you their reasoned opinion on the law and either say like yes you should do this or no you shouldn’t, but there were so many people inside the senate who were vehemently opposed to land redistribution because they were the rich magnates who were going to lose their land.

In all likelihood if Tiberius had brought it to them they would have not, they would have said don’t do this and so he just skipped that part of the process. Even though traditionally that’s what you were supposed to do and instead he just introduced it directly to the people. So this sets off warning bells inside the senate, so what do they do? They go hire another tribune who has this, one of the powers that a tribune has is just the ability to veto really any legislation or any matter before, that comes before the assembly. So they in essence hire this guy named Octavius, this tribune named Octavius to veto the reading of Tiberius’s Lex Agraria so it can’t even be brought before the people. This is another break. This is a so, now we’re ratcheted things up because in the past if a tribune levied a veto against a bill that was very popular and the Lex Agraria was very popular and it was going to pass, they would back down.

They would say okay I’ve sort of registered my symbolic opposition to this bill but it’s very popular. So, now I’m going to withdraw my veto and let it go forward. Well, Octavius doesn’t do that. Octavius just keeps his veto in place, no matter how popular it is, no matter how many people are screaming at him to drop the veto. He just won’t do it. So, the only way out of this for Tiberius is either to back down and withdraw the Lex Agraria or ratchet things up still, still another step further. So he, Tiberius Gracchus vetoes all legislation. He says we’re not doing anything. The whole state is shut down until we have a showdown over this Lex Agraria. Until you back down I’m going, you, nobody’s going to sign a contract. There’s going to be no, no judicial proceedings. Nobody, you know, can take out a loan. Everything is shut down. So, now Rome is shut down over this which leads the senate to attack Tiberius still further which leads Tiberius to make the next step in the ratcheting up where he deposes Octavius from office.

He gets the assembly to get together and vote which had never been done before. You were never supposed to have the people vote out a tribune that they had just voted in in the first place. So, it’s just this like this very simple little bill about land redistribution suddenly becomes about something way, way more than just the reform that Tiberius is trying to make and you start seeing people doing things way out of bounds just really to block your opponents. To stop your opponent from getting their way and that’s, that’s really when things, that entire precedent from that year of 133 BC then sort of lived in everybody’s memory and you remembered how that it ultimately ended which is you know the senate, a couple of conservative senators leading an armed mob against Tiberius Gracchus and literally beating him and his opponents to death to stop it.

Brett McKay: Yeah that’s crazy. I mean, I was trying to imagine you know what that must’ve been like and then the other part of the breakdown of mos maiorum like sometimes they were, they were like, they were beating them down in a place where you weren’t supposed to beat them down. Right? It was supposed to be sort of sacred but they were like yeah, I don’t care?

Mike Duncan: Yeah. Yeah. This was inside the pomerium.

Brett McKay: Right.

Mike Duncan: The reason they have to use you know table legs and various other like just bludgeons is because you weren’t allowed to carry weapons inside, inside that sacred boundary of Rome and so in chapter one you have guys going up there with you know fists and you know various things, you know like a rock, just to like beat somebody up because you can’t take a sword inside there. Well you know by the end of the book you have entire armies marching into that area, like Sulla marches on Rome with an army and crosses that boundary. So it’s all these things. Like these little, these little things that happened in the 130’s and the 120’s they just sort of slowly snowball and once these precedents get set that you can actually win by just literally physically beating up your opponents it’s, that’s a tough lesson to unlearn.

Brett McKay: Yeah and I thought it was interesting, all these reformers, I think one thing they all had in common was that they had this idea of you know, going back to the way things were. Right? So they were kind of conservative but at the same time to do that they had to break with tradition in order to accomplish those goals and that kind of lead to them not being able to achieve the goal that they had in mind, which was let’s go back to the way things were when the Republic was first founded.

Mike Duncan: It is. You have correctly identified a hot mess of contradiction that was going on with these guys. Whether the Gracchi who yeah, there’s a, you can frame everything that they were doing as we’re trying to restore things to the way that they once were, like things have gotten out of whack and we’re trying to bring it back and then you go all the way to, you fast forward all the way to the end of the book and Sulla you know, he is absolutely at least in his own mind believes that he is going to restore the Republic to what it was originally but yeah to get there, I mean he breaks, he breaks every rule in the book. You know, he’s got heads mounted in the Forum in pursuit of his traditional political morality. So, yeah it’s, it’s good sometimes if you’re a leader to not think too hard about what you’re doing because otherwise it would break you head because you would realize that you were, you were like I say a hot mess of contradictions.

Brett McKay: Right. So besides this income inequality that they were trying to battle they also had a migrant problem. Particularly people from the north. These were, is it the Cimbri or the Cimbri?

Mike Duncan: Yeah. I mean you know, everybody has their preferred pronunciation. I’ve always gone with Cimbri.

Brett McKay: Okay, Cimbri. So, who are the Cimbri and why did they start appearing in Italy about this time?

Mike Duncan: The Cimbri are a very large you know, it’s tough to say ethnically what they were but you know, Germanic, Germanic people who originated I think the best guess is in modern day Denmark is where they were coming from and they set off in about the 120’s, you know in about 120 on a very large civilizational migration. Right? This wasn’t just like, you know like a wagon train or two. This wasn’t just like a group that went off. I mean we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people and they picked up and they left modern Denmark for nobody quite knows why.

I mean, there’s actually some very interesting little stray references and I think it’s Strabo where they talk about how maybe the sea level had risen and wrecked where it was that they had been living. There was some kind of weird climate change that had gone on. So, they start moving south and they’re looking for a new home but well most places are inhabited already. So they just kind of keep moving and keep moving and keep moving and then you know, by the, like five or six years later they are, they’re showing up really knocking on Italy’s door which is their, at the Alps and you know, the Romans like everybody else don’t like the idea of these hundreds of thousands of people wandering through their territory. So they start getting into a series of clashes with Cimbri that are called the Cimbric Wars.

Brett McKay: How’d that turn out for the Romans? How’d that work out for the Romans?

Mike Duncan: It worked out very badly for the Romans for a very long time. Every time they fought the Cimbri they got I don’t know what the level of swearing is on this podcast but they got their asses kicked over and over again. The interesting thing about the Cimbri is that even though they’re often portrayed as wanting to come down and invade Italy and the Romans are fighting them off to prevent them from invading Italy, every time the Cimbri win a battle they just kind of walk away. They show up in like one, now I’m going to forget the date but I think it was 113 they defeat the Romans in battle and instead of going into Italy they just keep going up into Gaul which is modern France and they circle back around after migrating some more, like four years later they bet the Romans again in battle in Gaul and again don’t invade Italy and then even the third time that they beat the Romans in battle, four or five years after that again they don’t invade Italy and it’s not until the fourth time they come back around.

This is after the Romans have been fighting with them you know for 15 years that they finally decide okay well now we’re going to push into Italy and try to make our home there as opposed to anywhere else and what the Cimbri were up to during this whole period is just, it’s a complete historical mystery because the Romans never took much time to try to understand what the Cimbri’s motivation were or what they were trying to do or why is it that they never did find a home and they just kept wandering around Europe for like 15 or 20 years. The whole thing is just kind of a mystery that ends with them yeah, finally pushing their way into Italy but getting destroyed by Gaius Marius and that’s the end of the Cimbri.

Brett McKay: Yeah and so I’m guessing this, the encounters of the Cimbri they were just expending, the Romans were expending a lot of resources that they probably shouldn’t have been expending?

Mike Duncan: Yeah, I mean the, and the Cimbri were swallowing legions whole where you know, there was, famously the battle of … is one of the biggest and disastrous in the whole history of the Empire not just like this part of the book but you know there’s some battles that Hannibal won and then there’s some later stuff against like Attila where or some of those later wars that are you know the Romans were losing 50, 60, 70 thousand people in battle and this is one of them where the Cimbri just swallow the like 50 thousand, 50 thousand legionaries in a single day.

It’s interesting because this time period in the book too you talk a lot about their war with Jugurtha and everything that was going on where there’s just been this whole new, this new problem that’s opened up in Rome with the corruption of the senate and Jugurtha bribing senators to not go to war with them. It seems very clear that one of the reasons why the senate didn’t want to go to war with Jugurtha in North Africa is because they have this reoccurring problem on their northern border of these great hordes crossing over and just overwhelming all Roman defenses.

Brett McKay: Okay so you mentioned Gaius Marius. He’s the guy that kind of put the end to the Cimbri. Who was this guy and why was he considered the third founder of Rome?

Mike Duncan: Gaius Marius was, he was a new man. All right, this a concept that gets introduced in the book, the novus homo where the consulship’s, the high offices, admission into the senate is all tightly controlled by the noble families of Rome and a noble family by this point is defined by somebody who has a consular ancestor. Right? Where if you’ve, if your father or your grandfather or your great grandfather had achieved the consulship then your family was then ennobled. You became one of the elite of the elite and those families tried to keep the consulship in their own hands. They didn’t want to share with anybody else. They didn’t like it when “new men” showed up and Gaius Marius was a new man. He was, he’s not some like hard scrabble commoner. He comes from a very affluent family, from a city not too far away from Rome but he had no consular ancestors.

He was a novus homo but he was incredibly ambitious and so he wanted to push his way into power and he was ultimately was able to push his way into power thanks to again the constant now complains about the corruption and the self centeredness of the senate. He was able to kind of harness a lot of those, a lot of the same energy that drove the Gracchi, Gaius Marius was able to harness a lot of that for his own aims and he manages to push his way into the consulship and by that point it’s also very clear that Gaius Marius is one of the best generals that Rome has ever seen and this has been constantly one of his own complaints, is that by keeping the consulships in the hands of the nobility it didn’t matter if you were a good general or a bad general or a good leader or a bad leader.

It just mattered whether or not you were noble. So, Gaius Marius is sitting there as easily the most talented general that Rome had and they were trying to keep him out of Rome’s wars. Like this is a crazy thing to do, just from a straight like meritocracy standpoint, you want your best generals and your best people to be in charge of the armies and Marius was being blocked from that but by the time the Cimbri come along he has finally, he’s successfully achieved the consulship and he’s proven that he’s the best man for the job and they finally do send him and he succeeds where everybody else failed. I mean the Romans had done nothing but fail and fail and fail against the Cimbri until Marius comes along.

Brett McKay: Was that why he got the third founder of Rome title, because he defeated the Cimbri or what happened? What else did he do?

Mike Duncan: Right. Okay so this third founder of Rome business is, it’s crazy because obviously the first founder of Rome us Romulus, right? He’s the founder of Rome. The second founder of Rome is a now somewhat obscure figure named Marcus Furius Camillus who, there’s this episode way back in like the 390’s, 380’s BC where a horde of Gauls came into Italy, sacked Rome and they were, the defeated Romans are looking kind of at the ruins of their city and they’re wondering whether or not they should even rebuild and Camillus is the one who says no we should stay here. We should rebuild. So it’s very natural to call him the second found of Rome. Right? That makes a lot of sense.

Well you fast forward and what Marius has done is simply delivered, delivered Rome from the threat of the Cimbri which is a great accomplishment but I’m not quite, I was never, I’ve never entirely been sure how he of all the heroes that Rome had had, I mean Scipio Africanus had saved Rome from Hannibal. Right? It’s never been entirely clear why Scipio Africanus for example was not considered the third founder of Rome for finally delivering Rome from Hannibal but Gaius Marius gets to be called the third founder of Rome for beating the Cimbri. So it’s a good question that is, it’s you know it’s a nice thing, it’s a nice title that he got but I’ve never entirely been sure where it came from.

Brett McKay: So one of the reforms that he made as general was he exempted the land ownership requirement for soldiers. Why did he have to do that and why was that such a big deal?

Mike Duncan: So the thing to understand about the way that war worked in the ancient world and certainly in Rome is that you actually had to be rich enough to serve in the armies. You had to own land to serve in the armies. Which is kind of the opposite of what we think of armies today where it’s typically the ranks of the military are filled with the poorest members of a society as opposed to the richest members, but or in the early days you had to outfit yourself. You had to provide your own you know equipment and spears and horses and all that. So you actually had to own enough to serve in the military. Well by the time that we’re, that Gaius Marius comes along in the time of the Gracchi right, what’s one of these big problems that we’ve seen is, is all the poor, all the poorer citizens, the people who did have land, who did qualify to serve in the legions now losing their land and now you have fewer and fewer people who are able to enter the ranks of the legions and you have a real conscription crises.

Where it’s becoming more difficult to fill the legions year in and year out and then you know you send off, you send all these people off against the Cimbri and they get annihilated, like okay well you’ve just lost the ability to conscript any of those people every again because they’re dead. Well, what are you ultimately going to do? Are you going to hold onto this idea that you need to have a certain amount of wealth to serve in the legions? Or are you just going to say let’s just drop this requirement all together and you can, you can conscript from anybody and you know, given the emergency situation that Marius was up against and that Rome was up against they decided to drop the property requirement for service in the legion, which was even at that point still very nominal. Like it wasn’t even that much but they finally got rid of it and yeah, all the poor plebes, you know the, who had really no other place to go signed up to go serve with Gaius Marius and hopefully get rich in the army.

Brett McKay: How did that affect the military? Did it, was it a detriment or did it actually help? That was the thing that helped Marius defeat the Cimbri finally?

Mike Duncan: It’s definitely, it’s one of those things that it’s a mixed bag. Right? Where if they didn’t drop the property requirement eventually Rome would have been overwhelmed by their enemies. You know, even if they had defeated Carthage once upon a time somebody would come along, the Cimbri would come along or some other power would eventually rise and they simply, Rome would simply not be able to meet the challenge. Once they dropped their property requirement they are able to tap into an even deeper well of conscripts in the population. So they were able, the Romans from this point on once you drop that property requirement I mean they can conscript like crazy and by the time you get to the wars of Julius Caesar, the civil wars and then the imperial armies that wind up running the frontiers of the Empire then for the next couple of centuries, I mean you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people under arms.

Which would not have been possible without this, without dropping this property requirement. The negative side of it is and you know many commentators again going back to the Romans themselves noticed that when you were a citizen farmer who was conscripted for a short campaign and then you went back to your farm, you had this, there was this identification of the citizen with you know Rome with the army. It was all kind of the same thing. Once you bring all of these poor conscripts in their loyalty to the state itself is very suspect. Their loyalty is mostly to the general who is the one who is going to lead them in battle and enrich them because they’re going to now, they’re going to get slaves, they’re going to get money, they’re going to get booty and at the end of the day, like if a general says, if a general for the last couple of years has kept you you know, whatever poor private in the Roman legions, if you’re getting rich off of this guy and he says well look you know, I’ve got some political enemies in Rome.

I think we need to go, I think we need to go march on Rome and kick the crap out of them you’re going to listen to your general as opposed to feel any sort of tug of like, well wait a minute you know the senate and people of Rome is a sacred thing. It’s not really a sacred thing to you if you are just, if you’ve been poor and you’ve been left behind and you’ve been kind of spat on by the nobility your whole life well, yeah, why not follow this general, hope he wins and when he does you get rich along with him? Or at least richer than you had been?

Brett McKay: All right. So speaking of a general who did this, leads us nicely to Sulla.

Mike Duncan: Well I do try to keep the segues very natural.

Brett McKay: Now very, very, very good, very impressive. So who was this Sulla guy and what were his political aims?

Mike Duncan: Sulla is, he’s on the other, so Gaius Marius was a nobody a novus homo who had to fight and plot his way up the you know up the ranks. Sulla comes from one of these old patrician noble families. Now, his own family in the last couple of generations hadn’t been much to speak of but he, he had all the blood. He had all the aristocratic air, all the, basically all the advantages that Marius did not have Sulla did have and he is just like any other Roman in that he, or at least any other Roman noble. In incredibly ambitious. He wants to be the most powerful man. He wants to be the most influential man. He wants to be rich. He wants to be powerful and he again, he just rises on up through the ranks without really ever trying too hard. He’s supremely talented and supremely charismatic but he wants to be the most important most powerful man in Rome.

Brett McKay: So what did he, what did he do to achieve that, that end?

Mike Duncan: Well in the beginning he’s just doing his normal thing or the normal thing that anybody would do, he runs for office and he starts rising up the ranks but he winds up becoming, especially a model for Julius Caesar right? There’s a lot of similarities between the career of Caesar and the career of Sulla where Sulla is coming along in the one teens you know for lack of a better way of putting it. So, after the Gracchi is when Sulla shows up and Sulla is definitely somebody who recognizes that his ambition doesn’t necessarily have to be bound by these old rules of mos mairom. That if he is in a tight spot that he can just circumvent whatever the rules of fair play are supposed to be.

You know, he, even though he was a noble you know he too can look at Gaius Gracchus and Tiberius Gracchus and some of the things that Marius did and say well if you know if my enemies are backing me into a corner why don’t I just do an end run around them and you know all this, it starts with him even just subtly you know him and Marius had this rivalry throughout their entire lives where Sulla is about 15, like ten or 15 years younger than Marius where Sulla starts to subtly undermine Marius in a way that by all rules of tradition, by all rules of mos mairom you know Sulla should be exalting Marius and saying that Marius did this and Marius did this great thing but Sulla starts taking credit for things that Marius doesn’t think that Sulla should be taking credit for. Read the book. This will all be explained probably better than I’m doing it right now but it was very, it’s very clear from very early that Sulla is not going to feel bound by any kind of traditional rules of behavior if those rules are standing in between him and power.

Brett McKay: The interesting thing was that Sulla like some of the other reformers like he, he said that his goal was to take Rome back to its root. He was restoring, restoring Rome the Republic but he was kind of the guy, like you just said he kind of set the precedent for Julius Caesar and the rise of the Empire.

Mike Duncan: Yeah, Sulla, Sulla as we said earlier he’s the classic hot mess of contradictions where he does consider himself to be a divinely appointed figure. Like literally, like the god are using me as a vessel to restore the balance of the old republican constitution to sort of turn back the clock on some of the things that the Gracchi had introduced, some of the more populist leanings, the populist direction that Rome had taken over the past couple of decades and he was going to restore the aristocracy in the senate to its proper place as the center and leading power and leading light of Rome. So this all very traditional Roman Republican immorality but to achieve this end yeah I mean he does nothing. There’s nothing conservative about what Sulla does. He gets, there’s a part in the book where he is, you know, he is outmaneuvered by his enemies and they wind up expelling him from the office that he had and rather than just take it, like he, you know you would expect somebody to you know, I got beat far and square, you know he just turned his armies on Rome and said no.

That’s not going to be the end of me. So yeah even though his object was extraordinarily conservative his actions were very radical and then by the end of the book he has established this new constitution which is supposedly going to restore the Republic to its former glory but the people who came after him, the generations after him, Julius Caesar, Pompey, you know Crassus, those guys they don’t care about the written constitution that Sulla has laid down. They just looked at his biography. They looked at his life and they said look if you’re powerful enough and you’re daring enough and bold enough you can do anything you want. That’s the lesson of Sulla’s life. Not we should just follow the senate.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so the complete breakdown of mos maiorum?

Mike Duncan: Yeah. I think Sulla pretty much represents that in spades.

Brett McKay: Yeah and then this is basically, this is this storm before the storm, Republic falls. I mean at what point would you say like yeah the Republic no longer exists? It is not officially Roman Empire? Was it just when the Caesar was made?

Mike Duncan: Yeah. It’s, that’s another one of these great you know running debates in history because you know where do you mark the end of the republic? You know, you say okay well Julius Caesar comes along in the you know, in the ’40’s BC. You could say it was when he, you know when he crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC that was the end of it or you could say oh when he was himself appointed dictator for life five years later which is right before they assassinated him and then but then his heirs, Mark Antony and Octavian wind fighting a battle with the last remnants of the senatorial aristocracy a couple years later and you could maybe mark that as the end of the Republic and then as we know if we watch movies like Cleopatra, Octavian and Mark Antony have a whole series of civil wars.

So maybe the fall of the Republic is when Octavian triumphs and becomes Augustus which is you know in the ’20’s BC but the thing about all this is that then Augustus is an incredibly savvy political operator and he maintains the entire functioning façade of the Republic for his regime. You know, there was never a point in Augustus’s life and he’s Rome’s first Emperor where he says I am the Emperor now. I am the all powerful Emperor. There’s is, that is, doesn’t happen. So, for the next couple of hundred years the façade of the Republic continues to exist, where there’s still elections, there’s still consuls, there’s still assemblies but it’s all just been, it’s all manipulated and real power is held by this, by the imperial family. So traditionally you say the rise of Augustus who is Julius Caesar’s great nephew, his arrival is the end of the Republic finally in like 27 BC but he, he’s a savvy guy. Nobody exactly knew when the Republic fell because he didn’t want people to think that it had fallen.

Brett McKay: Right. So we’re going to get to the fun part because everyone loves to do this with Rome, the United States is heavily patterned after Rome. Right. Our balanced government came from Rome. I know historians don’t like using, like making the comparison but it’s fun. Do you see any similarities between our republic and the Roman Republic as you wrote this book?

Mike Duncan: Yeah, there’s plenty of similarities. You know that’s why the analogy continues to come up and why it continues to persist. Obviously we’ve patterned ourselves quite explicitly. I mean we have a Senate for a reason right? The Senate is not just some name we pulled out of a hat. You know, we were trying to model it explicitly on what the Romans had and certainly the early United States was a closely held blended oligarchy. I think just in terms of political science definitions of these terms that’s pretty much what the early United States was and what Rome was. The really fascinating thing is of course that you know we start, both the United States and Rome started from very humble beginnings. I mean, the origin story of Rome is not particularly, it’s quite unsavory. Right? Like even the Romans themselves the way they describe their early, the early kingdom.

Some unsavory characters and they were, they were not particularly strong or powerful in the early days just like the United States was and then rose slowly but steadily over time to become the most powerful government or the most powerful state in the world. Then, you know, we say the known world even though like they didn’t, you know, the Romans don’t touch India, they don’t touch China or anything like that. So, they’re not necessarily the most powerful in the world but in the Mediterranean world Rome certainly was that and the United States more or less achieved that over the course of World War One. You know, that’s when we kind of burst onto the world scene and World War Two and the Cold War, you know by the ’90’s and the early 2000’s you’re quite openly talking about the United States as a hyper power.

So, their are plenty of similarities about the rise and the course of Rome and the United States of American. With one of the most interesting being that we have managed to maintain just like they did this sort of king-less republic. We have continued to have even as we’ve risen as a empire, we’ve managed to maintain this sort of sense of cooperative government without any one person ever permanently achieving power, despite what you know like I don’t know, Franklin Roosevelt tried to get up to.

Brett McKay: Right. Well Mike this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to lean more about the book and the rest of the work you do?

Mike Duncan: Oh, you can go to Thestormbeforethestorm.com which is just the, and that’s going to be the book page and that will tell you where you can pre-order the book which is out October the 24th, 2017. So you need to either pre-order the book or go down to one of your fine independent book shops and pick it up when it comes out. I also continue to do a podcast. Right? That’s where I come from here. I come from the revolutions podcast and you can go to Revolutionspodcast.com and that I will walk you through all of the great political revolutions in history. So that’s continued and I’m about to go back to work right now on an episode of the liberal revolutions of 1848 and then I will also, I’ll be on tour for the book in October and November off and on. So I will have dates in New York, and Philadelphia and Boston and Washington D.C. and then do a west coast swing in December and all the details for that are again in Revolutionspodcast.com or Thestormbeforethestorm.com.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well Mike Duncan thanks so much for you time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mike Duncan: Oh thank you very much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Mike Duncan. He’s the author of the book Storm Before the Storm. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.com right now. Go check it out. If you love Roman history you’re going to love this book. It does such a great job. It’s not dry history. It’s like engaging, full of intrigue. It’s like you’re reading some sort of like Game of Thrones novel. So go check it out. Also you can check out more about his work at Revolutionspodcast.com and check out his podcast The History of Rome. It’s 2007 to 2012. It’s available on iTunes and check out his latest podcast Revolutions. It’s a really great show. Also check out our show notes, Aom.is/duncan where you can find links to resources and where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manliness tips and advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at Theartofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the podcast or have gotten something out of it I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps us out a lot. If you’ve done that already please tell your friends about the podcast. One thing I’ve learned is that most people learned about the podcast from their friends. Not through social media or Google, whatever. It’s just a friend said hey check out this podcast. I’d appreciate it if you’d tell a friend too about it. As always thank you for your continued support and until next time this Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: December 7, 2017

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