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Publisher's Summary

A new history of the Roman Republic and its collapse

In Mortal Republic, prize-winning historian Edward J. Watts offers a new history of the fall of the Roman Republic that explains why Rome exchanged freedom for autocracy. For centuries, even as Rome grew into the Mediterranean's premier military and political power, its governing institutions, parliamentary rules, and political customs successfully fostered negotiation and compromise. By the 130s BC, however, Rome's leaders increasingly used these same tools to cynically pursue individual gain and obstruct their opponents. As the center decayed and dysfunction grew, arguments between politicians gave way to political violence in the streets. The stage was set for destructive civil wars - and ultimately the imperial reign of Augustus.

The death of Rome's Republic was not inevitable. In Mortal Republic, Watts shows it died because it was allowed to, from thousands of small wounds inflicted by Romans who assumed that it would last forever. 

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio. 

©2018 Edward J. Watts (P)2018 Hachette Audio

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Rome’ Lessons

This an excellent summary of Rome’s transition from Republic to an autocratic empire in a period of three centuries. And the lessons that history holds for us. .

3 people found this helpful

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A Well Written Timely Work

Popular histories of the fall of the Roman Republic are not in short supply. There are excellent entries in this crowded field. One can look to Tom Holland’s Rubicon or the recent New York Times bestseller The Storm Before the Storm by popular podcaster Mike Duncan. Into this crowded field we have Mortal Republic by Edward J. Watts. Dr. Watts is Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. His previous works have focused on the period of late antiquity and the clashes between pagan and Christian culture. In his newest work Dr. Watts examines the forces that brought about the end of the Roman Republic.

This book does not start, as is common, with the rise of the Gracchi brothers. Those radical reformers whose lives and deaths plunged the Republic into short periods of chaos. Instead he begins in 280 BC, with the wars between Rome and the Greek King Pyrrhus. Why this period? He wants to show the nature of the Roman leaders in this period. Roman leadership was a duty that was held by men who held honor above wealth.

This is an important point that will be seen throughout this book. In the early days of the Republic the nobles of Rome “agreed that virtue lay in service to Rome and that dishonor fell upon those who put their private interests above those of the Republic.” This noble ideal would become stressed as the Roman Republic grow in size, power and wealth. The change can be seen as the Romans fight the Carthaginians for control of Sicily. The Punic Wars spread Roman power abroad and soon the Republic had foreign territories to manage. With those territories came officials needed to run them. Those officials tended to become wealthy in those jobs. That wealth became the new motive for public service. Now honor gave way to avarice. As the quest for wealth and glory became the prime motivator factions began to arrive. Those factions would eventually wear away at the fabric of the Republic until it frayed and crumbled. As Dr. Watts puts it “The new economy produced great wealth for a few winners, but the frustration of the newly poor and the fear that some of the old elite were losing their grip on power created conditions in which a fierce populist reaction could occur.

The great weakness in the Roman system was the reliance on personal honor to maintain itself. Tradition and honor were no defense against personal ambition and tremendous wealth. The populism ushered in by the Gracchi would be used as a weapon by one group of power Romans in order to gain control over the more traditionalists. The fight would rage back and forth for over a century. The ethics and values of the Romans devolved to the place where strong men like Marius, Sulla, Cataline, Clodius, Milo, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar could tear it apart.

The book is written for the general reader. One does not need a specialized background in Roman history to understand. The topic is indeed timely. In the Preface to the book Dr. Watts hopes “that this book allows its readers to better appreciate the serious problems that result both from politicians who breach a republic’s political norms and from citizens who choose not to punish them for doing so.” That is as far as he goes in trying to connect the past and the present. It is up to the readers to notice the signs and to take warning. These warnings are prescient. The United States was founded as a Republic with the Roman Republic very much in the conscious minds of the Founders.

The book ends as did the Republic: with the reign of Augustus. For over half a century the Republic had been torn by one faction after another competing for power. What are we supposed to gather from this book? Why read another book on the fall of a government that fell 2,000 years ago? Because the freedoms and laws of a republic must continually be upheld and protected. Ronald Reagan famously said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Perhaps the closing statement of the book sums it up best. “When citizens take the health and durability of their republic for granted, that republic is at risk. This was as true in 133 BC or 82 BC or 44 BC as it is in AD 2018. In ancient Rome and in the modern world, a republic is a thing to be cherished, protected, and respected. If it falls, an uncertain, dangerous, and destructive future lies on the other side.”

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A Dry Laundry List of Events

Despite my interest in the subject and the timeliness of the book's release, I could not get through the whole thing.

The author, rather than crafting an engaging story that draws the reader in, instead puts forth a chronilogical account of events, void of human /!emotional connection or artful atorytelling.

I hope to find a more engaging book on this subject.

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History of the Roman Republic - relevant today

This is the equivalent of a survey plus course - concerning the Roman Republic.

It was written with at least one eye on recent (geo)political events/attitudes/gestault - because words such as populism/autocracy/"reduction of political norms" abound.

Bottom Line: The history seems to indicate that over time - there was a "loosening" of the Political Norms and process models within the Roman Republic - from the time and behavior of Marius - down to Caesar, Octavian, and the others. Then, as now - it is not only "what was done" - but the "politics and political messaging/positioning" that certain representatives of certain Roman families did as they competed for power.

In the end after a series of Civil Wars - Octavian wound up "the winner" - but he constructed a governance model for a large empire - gives roles to the Senate - but he (Emperor) was the indispensable individual.

Relevant for today - not just in the United States but in other budding autocracies (Russia, China, Hungary the Philippines) - will the other branches of political power - "stand up" to autocratic instincts - if not them - the people need to act - else the institutions may give way to a budding autocracy.

Great history - with great relevance for today - should be of interest to those who study Roman history.

Carl Gallozzi
cgallozzi@comcast.net

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What a waste of my time

I read an article on Forbes where business leaders listed the books they were currently reading. One of them recommended this book. I’ll never respect that business leader again. I got about 5 minutes into this book before I realized that the entire premise of this book is that Trump is destroying America. We get it! There’s no need to spend an entire book trying to prove that. I thought this book would teach me about Rome, not about how Trump is bad for America. Yawn.

1 person found this helpful

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Terrific condensed history of the late Republic

Dense and dramatic, this is an excellent introduction to the Republic's last century. All the main personalities are here, and the story weaves individual and structural causes fairly well. Very well-read.

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Learned history but not the broader context

I agree with some of the prior reviews that lament the lack of deeper explanations and conclusions in this book. The author clearly explains the events and describes the protagonists. However, he only sparingly raises his, and thus the reader’s, gaze to a higher plane on which one might gain insight as to how the specific events combined to lead to the deterioration of the institutions of the Republic. In Chapter 3 he tantalizingly begins by highlighting the rising population and accumulation of wealth by the elite, suggesting a breakdown of the social contract. But that is limited to the 2nd century BC and we hear little more auch analysis later. The book could have at least used a concluding chapter that steps back from the historical timeline and, again, provides some broader themes that explain the fall. That said, I did learn a lot about those two centuries and for that I am grateful.

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Book about political scheming and drama

I would have wished more of a bigger picture view of Rome’s fall. The book was too much about political plotting and drama between the players.

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Superb hiatory of the Roman Republic

The author grasps the detail but presents a view of the whole of Roman history

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Excellent history with lessons for today

An excellent account of the long and painful death of the Roman Republic, with (mostly unobtrusive, except at the beginning and end) lessons for today - and I think those lessons can be taken to heart by people of any political persuasion. (It's also instructive to remember that the Founders consciously used Rome as a model for the fledgling American republic.)

"Sulla, Marius, Caesar, and Augustus all inflicted mighty blows on the republic, but its death was caused as much by the thousands of small injuries inflicted by Romans who did not think it could really die. When citizens take the health and durability of their republic for granted, that republic is at risk. This was as true in 133 BC or 82 BC or 44 BC as it is in AD 2018. In ancient Rome and in the modern world, a republic is a thing to be cherished, protected, and respected. If it falls, an uncertain, dangerous, and destructive future lies on the other side."

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  • Mark H
  • 01-21-19

Not just a chronology but reasons

I am no novice on the Roman Republic and its demise but despite some repitition, I found this book engaging and the author has provided an insight into and a rationale for events that was plausible and illuminating. As always a secondary source may miss the mark but this is certainly worthy of an assessment.

1 person found this helpful