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What America can learn from the fall of the Roman republic

What America can learn from the fall of the Roman republic thumbnail
Romans ruins of the city of Salamis, near Famagusta, Northern Cyprus.

If you were a Roman citizen around, say, 200 BC, you probably would have assumed Rome was going to last forever.

At the time, Rome was the greatest republic in human history, and its institutions had proven resilient through invasions and all kinds of disasters. But the foundations of Rome started to weaken less than a century later, and by 27 BC the republic had collapsed entirely.

The story of Rome’s fall is both complicated and relatively straightforward: The state became too big and chaotic; the influence of money and private interests corrupted public institutions; and social and economic inequalities became so large that citizens lost faith in the system altogether and gradually fell into the arms of tyrants and demagogues.

If all of that sounds familiar, well, that’s because the parallels to our current political moment are striking. Edward Watts, a historian at the University of California San Diego, has just published a new book titled Mortal Republic that carefully lays out what went wrong in ancient Rome — and how the lessons of its decline might help save fledgling republics like the United States today.

I spoke to Watts about those lessons and why he thinks the American republic, along with several others, are in danger of going the way of ancient Rome. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Why write a book about Rome’s decline now?

Edward Watts

When I started teaching Roman history, the main questions from students were always about comparing the end of the Roman empire with the state of the American empire, and this was usually tied to the Iraq War.

In the past 10 years, those sorts of questions have died down. Now students are interested in Rome as a republic, and whether the American republic is collapsing in the same way. They see lots of parallels there, especially in how the two systems are structured.

Sean Illing

Tell me about some of those parallels, the ones you think are most relevant.

Edward Watts

First, we have to remember that the US is a representative democracy. We tend to drop the representative part when we’re talking about what political system we live under, but that’s actually quite important. This is not a direct democracy, and Rome was not a direct democracy either.

What you have in both cases is a system where people are chosen by the voters to make decisions, and then there’s a period of time when they make those decisions, and then they’re held accountable for how those decisions turned out.

But the representatives are making the choices — and people have noticed that that works fine until those representatives either stop making principled decisions or become paralyzed by the vicissitudes of popular opinion.

Both of those things started to happen when Rome began to decline, and both of those things are happening in the US right now.

Sean Illing

Rome didn’t have to fail; it failed because Romans foolishly believed Rome would last forever. What could they have done differently, and when could they have done it?

Edward Watts

They could’ve recognized what their system was designed to do, which was produce compromise and consensus. Ultimately, it’s better to make no decision than to make a bad decision. What the Romans failed to appreciate was that their processes were slow and deliberative for very good reasons: that’s how representative systems avoid disaster, how you get people to the table to work out compromises.

For 300 years, this system worked quite well in Rome, but for the past century or so of its existence these tools of deliberation were used not to facilitate compromise but to obstruct and punish political enemies and basically prevent anything from happening. That destroyed the goodwill within the system and really poisoned it in the minds of the voters.

Sean Illing

Well that sounds familiar!

Edward Watts


Sean Illing

Shortly after Donald Trump’s election, I wrote about Plato’s warning about the decline of democracy. Basically, he believed that democracies fall into tyranny when too much freedom leads to disorder and citizens choose the stability of autocracy over the chaos of democracy.

This is what happened in Rome. Do you believe the same thing is happening right now?

Edward Watts

I think that we’re in the early stages of a process that could lead to that. The point at which Romans were willing to make that trade occurred after almost 150 years of political dysfunction, but it also occurred after a generation of really brutal civil war.

And the process that started that was one of economic inequality and the inability and unwillingness of the people vested in the upper, successful parts of the Roman state to address that economic inequality.

But as people’s needs were not being addressed for decades, the tensions heightened to the point where violence started breaking out. And once violence starts to break out, it’s very difficult for a republic to regain control of itself.

It’s easy to see how the US and other established republics could be in the beginning states of a similar process. I don’t think we’re there quite yet, but there are reasons for genuine concern.

Sean Illing

The inequality problem is maybe the most striking for me. What you saw in Rome, and what you see quite clearly today, is the wealthy undermining the very system that made them wealthy, and a total failure to see how ruinous that is in the long term.

Edward Watts

Yeah, it’s a real problem today, and it was a real problem in Rome. There’s a pivotal period in Rome, around the middle part of the 2nd century BC, in which there’s an economic revolution that displaces a lot of people who had belonged to a hereditary aristocracy and moves them off the top economic rungs of the state.

At the same time, it’s creating economic conditions that prompt people in the middle to basically become very frustrated that their economic prospects are not increasing either. And what ends up happening is the people who win from this economic revolution try to preserve their gains through just about any means they can, and that includes gross political obstructionism, the rigging of elections, and a total unwillingness to compromise.

This kickstarts a death spiral that ultimately undoes the Roman system from within — and we’d do well to learn from it. Because the story of Rome shows that once you reach that breaking point, that point of no return, you cannot unwind the clock.

Sean Illing

Why couldn’t the Roman system respond to these disastrous trends quickly enough? What short-circuited in their process?

Edward Watts

There are signs that the system was trying to respond to this new economic reality between 140 and 130 BC. There are efforts to reform the electoral process so that it’s harder to buy votes and rig elections. But the reforms only go halfway because they’re undermined by entrenched interests, and so the decline just continues apace.

Sean Illing

You spend a lot of time mapping the decline of norms and political customs in Rome. Was this the result of Roman politicians elevating their own self-interest over the good of the republic, or was it something deeper happening in the culture?

Edward Watts

I think the erosion of norms really starts when Roman politicians convince themselves that their personal ambitions and the good of the republic are one and the same. In other words, they started acting in their own self-interest but deluded themselves into thinking that it was really for the betterment of Rome.

The other thing you see is that Roman politicians, much like American politicians today, started to believe that all they needed was 51 percent of the people to support them, and that the other 49 percent didn’t matter. But that’s not how the Roman system was supposed to work, and it’s not how the US system is supposed to work.

Representative democracies are designed to cool down the passions of a pure democracy and find representatives who can think more long-term and craft policies that solve problems in ways that also have broad support.

Sean Illing

The thing that worries me the most is the loss of faith in public institutions, something that occurred in Rome and in many ways signaled the beginning of the end. It’s hard to look at the American political landscape and not see something similar afoot.

Edward Watts

I think that’s definitely a way to read the political moment in the United States right now, where people who need things from the system and from the government are not getting them, whether it’s healthcare or job training or economic opportunities or infrastructure. You see this in the late Roman republic too — it simply got too big and lacked the infrastructure to support its population.

What the Roman story shows is that in a republic that’s old, where people have a lot of faith in that republican system, people like Donald Trump pop up every generation or so when things reach a tipping point. You have these cycles where the system reboots, and people are shocked by what happened, and they step back and allow things to fall back into some sort of normal rhythm before they get frustrated again.

And I think this is the cycle that is perhaps most scary. If the decline of a republic is something that doesn’t take five years, but instead takes 50 years, or 70 years, or 120 years, Trump is likely not the last of these kinds of figures.

Sean Illing

The title of your book is a reminder that all political systems are finite and will, eventually, die. Rome lasted centuries before it ultimately imploded. How worried are you about the trajectory of the American republic?

Edward Watts

I’m extremely worried. But I still believe our decline is reversible. I trust that enough people recognize that it’s better to have a dysfunctional republic than to have nothing at all. And in Rome, you do have these moments of retrenchment, where people step back and say this is quite bad, this is too much, we have to pull back.

But it’s up to Americans, just like it was up to voters in Rome, to defend our institutions and to punish people who are misusing the tools that are supposed to make it strong to instead undermine it. No one else will do it on their behalf.

So I think it’s by no means a foregone conclusion. History doesn’t work that way. And there have been moments where the US looked to be in grave trouble and managed to bounce back. But we have to be really vigilant and defend the integrity of the republic, and defend the integrity of our system, and punish those who abuse our institutions and violate our norms.


22 Comments on "What America can learn from the fall of the Roman republic"

  1. GetAVasectomyDuduLifeIsOnlyPain on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 10:00 am 

    You know that blood and violence is coming when women go out and start protesting. Women are much more blood thirst then most man think.

    I don’t like to cite wikipedia as a source of information but I am too lazy to do more research.

    De Corday d’Armont is a prime example of such a woman: sympathetic to the revolutionary political faction of the Girondists, she assassinated the Jacobin leader, Jean-Paul Marat. Throughout the Revolution, other women such as Pauline Léon and her Society of Revolutionary Republican Women supported the radical Jacobins, staged demonstrations in the National Assembly and participated in the riots, often using armed force.[9]

    Women are starting to protest in France.

    We are now witnessing something unique in human history

  2. Cloggie on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 12:55 pm 

    Fascinating dynamic display of GDP development for competing countries:

    The meteoric rise of China. In 1996 it overtook Canada. Only 10 years ago, China superseded Germany and 8 years ago Japan. Next target: USA.

  3. Book that Pimp on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 1:12 pm 

    Just pimping a book (yawn)

  4. makati1 on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 6:03 pm 

    Americans have no history education. Most skipped that class or slept thru it. What they were taught was not real history anyway but the Western/American version. Mostly bullshit.

    In the minds of most Americans:
    The pilgrims were saints that treated the natives with kindness.
    The American West was settled by Roy Rogers.
    The Civil War freed the slaves and made them equal.
    Both World Wars were won by Americans.
    American scientists, not German, sent a man to the moon. (Did it happen? Stay tuned.)
    All of America’s wars of plunder were/are to promote “democracy”.
    Voting actually matters.
    And on and on…

    Americans are the most brainwashed people on the planet. Watching the US’ disintegration is very interesting and entertaining. Buckle Up! The US is definitely NOT Rome.

  5. Davy on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 6:14 pm 

    “Americans have no history education. Most skipped that class or slept thru it.”

    Is that what happened to you billy?

  6. makati1 on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 6:47 pm 

    “Down with Dictators! Fake Democracy in America”

    “So, bottom line is that we do have a dictatorship right here in good ole Amerika. It is a much more sophisticated one whereupon the suckers (we who actually vote) get to choose from as Ralph Nader labeled it: Twiddle Dum and Twiddle Dee! The Two Party/One Party con job will differ on certain issues like abortion, gay rights, Medicaid funding… gee I’m having difficulty finding more key issues… but never on what really matters to our survival as a republic: obscene military spending, overseas wars and occupations, Big Banks controlling everything, Amerikan corporations running roughshod on workers at home and abroad… and the piece de resistance: The notion that this corporate capitalist ‘free enterprise’ system really works for all. Mr. Trump may think of himself as a semi- dictator, but he is not! The powerful forces who even allowed someone with his ‘closet filled with skeletons’ to achieve our highest office, they call the shots. The last time someone stood up to them, or thought he surely had the ‘will of the masses’ behind him, wound up in a deadly ‘triangular crossfire’ in Dallas Texas.”

    Nuff said.

  7. Darrell Cloud on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 7:36 pm 

    Read Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That is a good start. Then consider the supply chains of ancient Rome, aqueducts brought in fresh water, ox carts and sailing ships brought in the food.

    Today the entire supply chain depends on electricity. Turn out the lights and cities become uninhabitable in a matter of days.

    Our collapse will be much swifter causing the loss of millions of lives.

  8. Duncan Idaho on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 8:01 pm 

    “Read Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That is a good start.”
    It was Christianity that led to the downfall, according to Gibbons.
    One of the big factors today.
    But we are stupid on so many levels, it is a bit bewildering.

  9. makati1 on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 9:10 pm 

    We will definitely not have the long decline that Rome enjoyed. The JIT delivery system most Western countries use will guarantee a swift end when it shuts down or is crippled by almost anything from a trade war to a world war. Swift as in months or years, not decades or centuries.

    Your grocery shelves will be empty in three days, or less, and maybe never be restocked. The electric could go off and never return. The car in the driveway could never leave the property again. Your local pharmacy might never have aspirins again or even be open. Think about it. Are YOU prepared?

  10. GetAVasectomyDudeLifeIsOnlyPain on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 9:20 pm 

    In colder nations like Canada, Russian, Finland the collapse will go fast. It will something like 90% dead inside a year.

    These Northern nations are really cold and without heating house are inhabitable. Canada we have six month of winter.

    If the electricity or the supply chain collapse at the beginning of winter in Northern nations, we could easily see 90% of the population to die within a month or two.

    Warmer nations definitely have a edge over northern nations.

  11. GetAVasectomyDudeWhitesWomesAreBithches on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 9:25 pm 

    If electricity or the supply chain collapse globally, we could see mass migration out of northern nation into warmer nations.

    This mass migration will cause war between between from the North with people living in the South.

    In my case I will just stay here in Canada and die here

  12. makati1 on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 10:33 pm 

    GetA, you can cut trees and keep warm for a long time. Electric will eventually become erratic and then nonexistent. Downsize to a smaller home or even to just one room. Survival is possible. Ask the Eskimos or the people of Siberia.

    The people of Russia already deal with those conditions. I don’t expect a huge die off there. Maybe 10-20% max. BTW: It is currently more than minus 30C (-25F) in most of Russia.,64.65,700/loc=124.652,64.967

    As I keep mentioning, the ‘collapse’ will not affect everyone equally. Billions will hardly notice the change. Those at the top will suffer most as they have no idea how to adapt.

  13. al hope on Sun, 6th Jan 2019 11:17 pm 

    Not one mention of the role that Mass Immivasion from everywhere on earth plays in ripping up even a representative republic?

    When every group on earth must be represented,no decisions are possible…just divisive collections of greater and greater chaos.

  14. Cloggie on Mon, 7th Jan 2019 12:30 am 

    “or the people of Siberia.”

    Siberians hibernate for 6 months and do nothing but lie in bed, read, snore. Are being kept warm with abundant firewood. Canada could do the same. Besides, Canada has abundant hydro-electricity. Second largest country in the world, only 35 million people or so. Canada had become a lot greener thanks to global CO2 increase.

  15. forbin on Mon, 7th Jan 2019 8:02 am 

    oh here we go again

    ” when people like Donald Trump pop up every generation or so… ”

    This is not so , Orange Man Bad again. pffft!

    Frankly DT go the “Oscar” of being pressy but he’s not got the where-with-all to be good honest dictator

    a distraction , yes , keeps everyone busy in a bread n circus way……

    like George said , keeps ’em forgetting to look for who’s making off with the loot ….


  16. Cloggie on Mon, 7th Jan 2019 11:42 am 

    Right-wing populist Italian government supports Yellow Vests. More signs that the movement is the European counterpart of America’s “deplorables”: lower class whites and losers of multicult.

    ZOGisDying latest:

    The Hollywood star said dictators such as Hitler had ‘looked funny’ at the start
    He said Trump’s critics could not be ‘gentlemanly’ and had to ‘fight fire with fire’. (((Robert De Niro))) has previously clashed with Trump who called him a ‘low IQ individual’


    “Nicola Sturgeon insists she has ‘every right’ to call an IndyRef2 as Brexit has strengthened the case for Scottish independence”


    Who’s boss latest:

    “China issues ‘stern’ warning to the US after destroyer sails close to islands which it claims in disputed South China Sea as trade talks get underway”

    Beer & popcorn.

    Dutch proverb: Twee honden vechten om een been de derde gaat er mee heen
    (Where two dogs fight over a bone, the third dog will walk away with it)

  17. Anonymouse on Mon, 7th Jan 2019 2:34 pm 

    So, is this your ‘IT’ job, cloggenturd? Do you get paid by the clicks your stupid links (do not) generate? Is that the idea, flood this place with your endless OT nonsense and spam, to generate links for some 3rd party click-bait contractor?

    I mean, we know your BFF, the exceptionalturd tries to generate traffic for ZH, except he does it for free. So, yea, in addition to being a straight up lying yid turd yourself, you’re vaunted ‘IT’ jobs, seems to consist of little more than attempting to generate web-clicks. If the exceptionalturd can pretend to operate a 500 acre sorry, .9 acre ‘farm'(weed-infested lot), you can pretend to be some sort of IT superstar, in your native….Slobvoia


  18. Cloggie on Mon, 7th Jan 2019 3:35 pm 

    So, is this your ‘IT’ job, cloggenturd? Do you get paid by the clicks your stupid links (do not) generate? Is that the idea, flood this place with your endless OT nonsense and spam, to generate links for some 3rd party click-bait contractor?

    You’re a smart mister, UncleTomTurd and not easy to deceive. Not only did you unmask me as the Israeli that I am, now you even see through my modest click-bait businessmodel, that enables me to pay for my trailer and Budweiser. And yes, when I do not insert my links in posts at sites worldwide, I look in garbage cans for glass bottles, which brings me additional deposit pocket change.

    Seriously, why don’t you get lost TomTurd and hang out with the bros. What do you do here anyway, you’re not one of us, never were, never will be. Your time and status as North America’s Holy Cow is nearly over. The world is full of retards like you, who in all these years here only managed to post sneers. Nothing else will ever come from that black hole of yours that passes as a brain. Why don’t you play a nice game of basket ball with your buddies, like in Westside Story. Drible, drible, dropshot, goal! Wow! That’s our boy!

    Take some friendly advice, stay with physical things, basketball, driving, f*cking… reading, writing, thinking and inventing are “cracker” things to do. Not your league.

    Perhaps you start some prepping for your self too, namely how to survive without whitey standing to wipe your ass. Because in a very near future that will just be your new reality.

    Beirut and Aleppo are everywhere.

    Now beat it.

  19. Cloggie on Mon, 7th Jan 2019 5:40 pm 

    Most senior French New Right figure Alain de Benoist explaining the Yellow Vests:

  20. Anonymouse on Mon, 7th Jan 2019 7:52 pm 

    So, when are you leaving for Paris, Nederyid?

    The anti-globalist revolution is taking place, right now, right door. Dont want to be sitting on your Yid ass posting the same old tired OT bullshit you have here for….years do you? The revolution is on, and it’s not as if we haven’t heard it all 100s, if not 1000s of times from you already, so, what are you waiting for, coward.

    If you need a map, or anything like that, just let us know. Well post a web-link showing you where Paris is. And if you need a yellow vest, just ask the exceptionalturd to mail you one of his mustard-stained vests. He likes to feel like he is contributing, and if you’re the one asking, he’d be all over that.

    Now get lost.

  21. Free Speech Forum on Wed, 9th Jan 2019 6:57 am 

    The US is a police state now. Americans should be out in the streets with pitchforks and torches, but instead they would rather shut up, cover their ears, and put their heads in the sand.


  22. Dredd on Wed, 9th Jan 2019 10:10 am 

    Twenty Six more or less civilizations went down for the same “lack of reason“:

    In other words, a society does not ever die ‘from natural causes’, but always dies from suicide or murder — and nearly always from the former, as this chapter has shown.

    In the Study Toynbee examined the rise and fall of 26 civilizations in the course of human history, and he concluded that they rose by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to the sins of nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority.

    (How To Identify The Despotic Minority).

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