Mike Duncan examines the period from 146 to 78 B.C.E. in Roman history that illustrates the beginnings of the collapse of the Roman Republic. After achieving victory at the end of the Punic Wars, three wars between Rome and Carthage (located in North Africa), many citizens returned home to their farms and found them beyond repair and were forced to move to cities. Their lands were then bought up by both rich plebeians and wealthy patricians. The loss of farm land created shrinkage in the number of the middle class citizens and initiated a slow decay in traditional values of the republic. Economic inequality began the destruction of the republic.
Slowly Rome became racked by political polarization and mass corruption within the government, especially bribes. Uncodified and long held rules of social political content began to erode. Intense and corrosive battles sprung by over citizenship and voting rights. The Roman elites had the ability to save the system, but they chose to embrace their personal wealth and privilege over the needs of the republic and missed their opportunity and are responsible for the terrors that would follow.
The first event that underpins the Duncan’s narrative concerns the Gracchi brothers who attempted to redistribute Rome’s land by appealing to the plebs and plebs urbana, emphasizing a call to the past. The landed elite used their powers to stop both Gracchi, which led to their political assassinations and their bodies ending up being thrown in the Tiber.
In Africa, continual battles occurred with the Numidians, creating several military quagmires and gave rise several powerful consuls such as Gaius Marius and Sulla. This coupled with rampant bribery on behalf of one the Numidian royal family, Jugurtha, laid Rome’s political issues bare.
Soon after Jugurtha controversy, a threat that would haunt Rome throughout its existence appeared: Germanic hordes looking for new land. Rome obsessed with protecting Cisalpine Gaul sent armies to push the back the Cimbri, a tribe traveling south for modern day Denmark. Tasting defeat on three occasions, the Romans eventually achieved their objectives.
These events caused the powerful Roman elites to create their own personal armies and would lead to further destruction of the republic which then led to terrors, wars, executions, and conquests that would define the end of the republic.
Duncan’s narrative is the best element of the book; it is catchy and quick and explains complex fundaments of Roman society, economics, and politics in a fashion that even a layman can easily understand. The large cast of characters may seem intimidating at first to the uninitiated, however, as their motivations are illuminated their personalities are filled out. A great academic read for those getting their feet wet in Roman history. This book can be found in the general collection at Bellevue University Library and can be borrowed for 21 days.
Originally posted in the Freeman/Lozier Library’s quarterly newsletter, More Than Books, V. 21 No. 3, Summer 2018.