My friend walked into my dorm room, asking me how I was.
“I’m fine, but,” I held up my copy of The Storm before the Storm, “I’m kind of devastated about the end of the Roman Republic.”
My friend looked at the cover, “Looks like a pretty sad book.”
“It is,” I commiserated,”To think, all of that strife, all that war, and the Republic fell apart.”
As you can probably tell, The Storm Before the Storm is an unforgettable book. Mike Duncan masterfully tells the story of just 50 short years of the Roman Republic. But those 50 years changed Rome, and the Western world forever.
I could give a short recap of the history unfolding in this 300 page book, but who wants to read that? Instead, I’ll share some basic lessons I learned.
Everyone Dies. Probably before you’re ready to say goodbye.
Looking at you, Tiberius Gracchus.
I admit, I made the mistake of cheering for this Gracchi brother. The senate was pretty snobbish, and Tiberius understood that the Republic was going to fall apart if they didn’t do something.
All the rich people owned the land! Soldiers were forced to sell their family farms since they spent years away fighting for Rome.
The rich people bought up all the land, leaving the veterans nothing. Pretty bad system.
Tiberius decided to fix that. As You can guess, the wealthy land owning senate wasn’t too happy.
But the people loved Mr. Gracchi! Lots of popularity. He made the Senate pretty nervous.
And he decided to run for office, a second term. (Was this illegal? No one had ever done it before, so perhaps yes?)
Tiberius knew that if his reforms didn’t pass, the Republic would perish. To emphasize his feelings, he even wore mourning clothes. Publicly mourning the death of the Republic.
Anyway, election day, 300 of his friends showed up to support him. Scared the Senate.
So some Senators gathered their men, marched to the crowd, and KILLED everyone! Including my hero Tiberius! No, No, No!!!
I was not expecting this. I was very upset. I’m still rather upset
Right after I read about Tiberius, I walked into class. A friend asked, How are you?
Me – They killed Tiberius Gracchus! I’m super upset!
Friend – Um, I think he’s been dead for over 1,000 years.
Yeah, but I’m still upset!
Anyway, I learned lesson #1 – Don’t fall in love with any Roman politician. While I liked Gaius Gracchus, Cinna, and several other politicians, I had a premonition they’d all be killed, too. Saved me some grief later.
Just give the Italians citizenship, already.
If you take over a country, and the people fight for you, they probably deserve citizenship. Right?
Nope. The Roman Senate just wouldn’t give Italy citizenship. They had some alright reasons, but mainly it boiled down to Roman pride. Italians just weren’t as good as Romans, according to Rome.
So Rome and Italy had a civil war. Which led to alot of other bad problems.
Generals fighting, food shortages, and problems in the Greek colonies.
While Rome was distracted fighting Italians, this upstart king decided he could take back Roman colonies in Greece and Turkey.
This guy was really bad. Really, Really bad. He killed at least 80,000 Romans living in Greece and Turkey. Just cause he could.
So, in the future, don’t be rude about Roman citizenship. Give it to people who fight in your army. Otherwise, they might rebel. And that’s a big headache.
Let’s all have the same name. Are you confused? #sorrynotsorry
I’m grateful there’s only one set of George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons, and John Adams. Because Roman history is confusing enough.
Politics was run by alot of the same families. So naturally, cousins, uncles, brothers, all decided to share the same first, middle or last name.
So, kind historian that he is, Mike Duncan clues us in to who is who. He name drops Caesars, such as, Consul Lucius Julius Caesar *cousin of THE Julius Caesar.
And when THE famous one finally arrives, Duncan is sure to let you know. Gaius Julius Caesar, yes, THE Gaius Julius Caesar.
Write your own constitution. Or have a good excuse for being pretty rotten.
Or if that doesn’t work, kill anyone who *might* criticize you.
If you go around killing all your enemies, abolishing the laws of the Republic, and making yourself dictator, you can’t really claim to be saving the Republic.
But Sulla claimed that. And in order to back up his claims, he completely rewrote the Republic’s constitution.
And while you’re at it, write exactly why you did it, and hope your self written biography clears your name.
As Mike Duncan points out, this might not be completely foolproof, “The facts of Sulla’s career spoke louder than his own constitutional musings…the biography of Sulla drowned out the constitution of Sulla.”
And finally, be super quotable
If there’s one thing Romans were good at, besides taking over the world, building Roads, and making a lot of money, it was being super quotable.
A personal favorite, “Cease quoting laws to us that have swords.”
Or Caesar’s thoughts on the Republic, “The republic is nothing, a mere name without body or form.”
Or Sulla’s clever use of words when asked, “Why are you marching on Rome?” Sulla’s answer, with an army of 50k behind him – “To deliver her from tyrants.”
Mike Duncan cleverly ties all these Roman quips together, with a touch of sarcasm and humor. And his bibliography is impressive, so many quotes from original sources – the endnotes are 36 pages long!
While Duncan uses some modern sources, the majority are pulled from ancient Roman historians. Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, to name a few.
And Mike Duncan even provides a readers guide to deciphering his endnotes. Wow!
The Storm Before the Storm is a must-read. While Roman history doesn’t necessarily parallel American history, we’re both republics, with shared values. Headlines from the Roman era seem to fit right into our modern political squabbles.
“But this was an age when a lie was not a lie if a man had the audacity to keep asserting the lie was true.”
And the last pages made me want to cry. I didn’t, but I felt an incredible sense of loss. For 250 pages, I had followed the rise and fall of Roman politics. I silently cheered my favorite politicians, felt the people’s frustration, the Senate’s incompetence.
All this fighting, endless wars. To save a Republic.
Of course, we know today, the Republic wasn’t saved. Decade of personal conflicts and politics dissolved the political glue – and the Caesars were able to create a new Roman Empire. The Roman Republic disappeared over the horizon.
“But as he stood watching Carthage burn, Scipio reflected on the fate of this once great power. Overcome with emotion, he cried. His friend and mentor Polybius approached and asked why Scipio was crying.
“A glorious moment, Polybiius; but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my own country.” Scipio then quoted a line from Homer: “A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish, And Priam and his people shall be slain.”
Have you listened to Mike Duncan’s podcasts on Rome or Revolutions? Do you listen to podcasts?
Do you have a favorite history book? Any favorite Roman politicians? Have you ever cried over a historical event?
Have you added The Storm Before the Storm to your reading list? Hint: you should