What America can learn from the fall of the Roman republic

Jul 26, 2018
Interview with the author of Mortal Empires at Vox.

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.

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
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.

There are many parallels between the systems. After Romes civil war, which was insanely brutal, a lot of knowledge, expertise and extraordinary families had been massacred. Rome had committed suicide on itself, as the popularii and conservatives had slaughtered each other. The military, the politicians and many other influential people and families that were left, were not the AAA tier elite of important people that gave Rome such an edge in social, economic and military affairs.
Likes: hariseldon
Apr 9, 2009
Good interview.

We can also learn that you can simultaneously have two languages (Latin and Greek) and still be a world superpower. For Americans who complain about pressing 1 for English and 2 for Spanish.
Jun 2, 2013
But the Roman Republic didnt fall, it turned into the Roman Empire and lasted some hundrets of years longer.
The Empire didnt start its inner decline before 200AD.

Edit: maybe you mean the Republic part specifically though,
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Aug 10, 2012
Reading, Berkshire
Nice. I think one of the problems is that people think the modern world is too progressive and civilized for large scale corruption like that to occur again.
Sadly, which is why do many countries dice head first into injecting private finances into politics, there's no way it'd corrupt the system, it'll make it better!…as the system slowly becomes corrupted
Likes: hariseldon
Jan 31, 2018
Well Roman republic went to Roman Empire which later collapsed and its part later lasted another thousand years. Of course there were periods of instability and so on...But general framework of empire's prosperity is the same - I like Glubb's approach.

But in general I do not find it surprising that there are exist parallels between past societies and the current. I mean - people haven't changed. I would say more - since the bronze age people haven't changed that much at all. It's been too short of timeframe to quality evolution of humanity. Everything we have now in societies - everything we had in the past.
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Feb 25, 2018
The western world has been in decline since 1914 overall and its decline spiked in the mid-late 1960s and has continued ever since.
Feb 25, 2018
Decline in absolute power. Prior to July 28th 1914, there were a number of nations and empires that could individually take over the whole world. Obviously they kept each other in check and maybe were ultimately more benign compared to previous past empires like the mongols, Rome or Islamic conquests and did not have such aspirations. They eventually fought a world war, which the after effects made several of them decline from their imperial pursuits. I don't know if a civilization ever has had so many separate but equally powerful components at one time. There were increases in individual power such as the USA after WW2 (I don't consider Bolshevik Russia/USSR as apart of western civilization), but the French, British, German, Russian, Austrian/Hungarian empires were shadows of their former selves.