“The Beginning of the End” — Ancient Rome’s Cautionary Tale in Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm

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Today’s guest interviewer is Tristan Charles, content manager at Ingram Content Group. An avid reader and writer, Tristan was formerly the inventory manager and buyer for Parnassus Books.

In a stormy era such as ours, reflecting on recent history has become a cottage industry for those looking to understand how we got here. That reflection is ubiquitous across all forms of media — TV, magazines, newspapers, and books (dear lord, so many books), all seeking to explain the weather we’re huddling under, wondering when and how it will pass. But there are few instances of sharp, substantive commentary on navigating our present conditions toward an acceptable outcome, and even fewer still directing us to look down at the foot of the precipice and see who fell before us, and how.

StormBeforeStorm_pbMike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm is one such commentary, the result being a thrilling tour through the crumbling ruins of the Roman Republic and a nuanced examination of the men who swung the hammers. The ultimate effect of this for American readers is to draw an unassailable connection between the way Romans lived in the second century BCE and the way we live now.

The paperback edition of Duncan’s New York Times bestseller officially comes out tomorrow, October 16, 2018 — and I hope you’ll join us for his event here in the store this Wednesday, October 17, at 6:30 p.m. Duncan’s podcasts, The History of Rome and Revolutions, attest to his masterful and cogent analysis of history, and the chance to hear the same in person is one you shouldn’t pass up. In the meantime, I was pleased to have the opportunity to ask Duncan a few questions by email. Here’s our conversation. – Tristan Charles

Tristan Charles: Am I right in assuming this book was born out of your research on this period for The History of Rome podcast, and if so, what about it hooked you?

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 8.12.36 AMMike Duncan: When I was going through this era for The History of Rome back around 2007/2008, I was struck by how important the period spanning the Gracchi brothers, Marius, and Sulla was to understanding the looming collapse of the Roman Republic. You really can’t understand the end until you understand the beginning of the end. As I continued to think about the period, I was struck by how many parallels there were to the state of contemporary American politics. Rising economic inequality was disrupting traditional ways of life. Endemic social and ethnic prejudice was leading to clashes over citizenship and voting rights. Once rock solid norms of political behavior were being tossed aside left and right in the ruthlessly partisan pursuit of raw power. And it doesn’t exactly end well. So hopefully, the book shines a light on a critical and fascinating period of Roman history while leaving the reader with some mild dread about the future of American history.

TC: In reading Roman history, especially The Storm Before the Storm, I’m tempted to draw comparisons to my own time. But that’s also what readers everywhere have been doing with the story of Rome for centuries — and the Fall always comes anyway. Do you think we’ll ever use the story to learn the lesson?

MD: I sure hope so. I am among those who believe that the lessons of history must inform how we act. Ideally, we would study the past to inform decisions in the present that will make a better future. It is the height of folly to cut ourselves off from an almost bottomless well of human experience, events, decisions, consequences, that we can study, reflect on, and hopefully do better. We’ll always make mistakes, but at the very least we ought to make new mistakes rather than endlessly repeating old mistakes.

TC: You have a knack for getting your readers and listeners to empathize with men and women who’ve been dead for thousands of years. What first made that happen for you?

MD: A lot of it comes from my own imagination being sparked while reading a book. What would it have been like to be someone at a certain time and place? What would it have felt like? How did they face a certain dilemma? What did they believe? What were they trying to accomplish? Why? This starts as just idle daydreaming, but that process of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is the essence of empathy. You don’t have to sympathize with them. A lot of people I write about are terrible people! But that process of imaginative empathy — trying to understand their point of view — helps them come alive.

TC: Rome’s most dangerous foreign threats often produced its best leaders just in time, but some of those leaders are in this book, confronted by the critical flaws in the structure of the Republic, triumphantly filling them with dynamite. What kept such clever men from thinking critically about the flaws in their own government and instead using those flaws to send Rome straight into civil war?

MD: One of the answers is that many of these clever men believed they were thinking critically about the flaws in their government and trying to correct them. The problem is that they ran into other clever men who had come to the opposite conclusion about what needed to be corrected. At the beginning of the book, the Gracchi are breaking all kinds of rules of normal behavior, but they believed it was for the greater good — the Republic needed popular reform so it could survive in the future. Then at the end of the book, Sulla wages a civil war and gets himself declared dictator for life — but no less than the Gracchi, he did all that because he believed he needed to save Rome from the populists. The Gracchan program and Sulla program were diametrically opposed, but both were pursued by men who believed they were saving the Republic. That’s what justified all their actions.

TC: The anger and breakdown of the norms of the Republic didn’t necessarily have to lead Rome to such an ignoble end: civil wars capped by a transformation into an empire whose rulers were — aside from the rare Trajan or Aurelius or Constantine — often either reckless, stupid, criminal, or merely insane. The people of the Late Republic were angry from real injustices they suffered every day of their lives — injustices of economic inequality and unequal representation — that have more equitable solutions than monarchy. Why couldn’t Rome find them?

MD: Partly it was a problem of political incentives. Roman politics involved accruing personal power and prestige by delivering The Goods. Whether it was an extravagant festival, a new road, an aqueduct, or a temple — you wanted your name to be associated with some great public project. The idea was to enhance yourself by enhancing Rome. But there was a countervailing incentive for your rivals to prevent you from accruing that power and prestige. To prevent you from delivering The Goods. And when it came to really big popular issues like land redistribution or citizenship for the non-Roman Italians, no one wanted anyone else to get credit. So as leaders tried to carry out necessary reforms, their rivals set out to block them. Whether the reform was good or bad was practically beside the point — it was about whose name was on the bill and who would get credit for delivering The Goods. These endless rounds of mutual opposition prevented necessary reform from happening, social pressure continued to build, and eventually it exploded.

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Duncan’s event is part of a series Parnassus is calling TBH — or Truth. Books. History. See more on that below.

TC: Who’s your favorite writer of antiquity?

MD: Livy and Polybius have long been personal favorites. Livy for his storytelling. Polybius because he operated under something resembling modern rules of historical methodology — he studied primary sources, interviewed eyewitnesses, traveled to the places he was writing about, read other historians, and thought critically about their work. A lot of ancient historians aren’t particularly interested in accuracy. Polybius is at least trying to get it right. I also really like Sallust, for the same reason I enjoy reading Tom Paine. It’s fun to read people who write for the jugular.

TC: Your next book is on the Marquis de Lafayette, and you’re living in Paris while you work on it. With the way things in the U.S. are right now, are you tempted to stay long-term?

MD: Heh heh. Peut-être. Peut-être.

TC: What have you been reading lately? Any recommendations?

MD: There’s a great book on Roman history that just came out in paperback called The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan. But seriously. If you’re into Roman history I can’t recommend reading the ancient sources enough: Plutarch, Appian, Livy, Polybius, Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, even Julius Caesar himself. There are Penguin Classic translations of all of them and they are marvelous.

TC: We always ask: Favorite thing about bookstores?

MD: The endless possibilities.

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A Conversation with Mike Duncan
Author of The Storm Before the Storm
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books
Open to the public and free to attend! Details here.

Note: At Parnassus, we believe history matters — so we’re excited to host events that illuminate our present and future using fascinating stories from the past. Duncan’s visit is part of a new, recurring event series we’ll be having called TBH — or, Truth. Books. History. Check out the others this fall, too: Nathaniel Philbrick on October 22 and Michael Beschloss on November 19. (Doris Kearns Goodwin has sold out.) More to come in future seasons!