In a timely book of ancient history, an eminent classicist looks at Rome’s decline from representative government to corrupt empire.
What killed the Roman Republic? It wasn’t plague, external enemies, civil war, or corruption, although all of those things played a role. No, writes Watts (Chair, History/Univ. of California, San Diego; Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher, 2017, etc.), author of the superb The Final Pagan Generation (2015). What killed the Republic was its electorate. “A republic is not an organism,” he writes, meaningfully. “It has no natural life span. It lives or dies solely on the basis of choices made by those in charge of its custody.” That electorate chose to trade the freedoms and responsibilities of representative government for the security of the Pax Augusta, for “they came to believe that freedom from oppression could only exist in a polity controlled by one man.” Watts chronicles the death as one by which the ambitions of would-be rulers, bribes offered and accepted, and votes bought and sold all contributed to the arrival of imperial and totalitarian rule. The seeds of destruction had been scattered long before the fact. As the author writes, for instance, even Rome at its height was no stranger to scandals, in one case requiring the unheard-of executions of three Vestal Virgins whose behavior had not, in fact, been appropriately virginal. Still, better angels often spoke, as when Pompey and Crassus, political foes on the brink of civil war, agreed to follow the rules such that “the most powerful men in the Roman state clearly specified that they trusted the system to protect them from their rivals and to allow them to compete fairly within the rules it set." Given that mistrust of institutions is a key ingredient in the collapse of republican rule, as we are witnessing daily, the lesson is pointed.
An engaging, accessible history that, read between the lines, offers commentary on today’s events as well as those of two millennia past.