Mortal Republic, Moral Disaster

A review of Edward Watts’ Mortal Republic:

Edward Watts’ new book Mortal Republic is situated in a well-trodden path of Roman political decline narratives which gained some popularity in the Anglophone world in the 18th century with Gibbon, but reflect an appealing narrative mode documented far earlier in the speeches of Nestor. In order to keep the volume comparatively slim and accessible (while also conveniently covering a period of Roman political and social history beginning at a point where the ancient sources are more plentiful and reliable), Watts pulls us in medias res to the early 3rd century Republic on the eve of war with Pyrrhus. Over the course of 282 pages, he traces the rise of Rome’s Mediterranean empire along with its corresponding political fragmentation culminating in a series of civil wars and ultimately a form of mild but unpalatable autocracy under Augustus at the end of the 1st century. Watts’ narrative moves along at a fast pace, but by providing only the essential details, he artfully manages the books pace in such a way that it feels lively and engaging throughout (i.e. without being bogged down by minute scholarly discussions of Roman legal practice) while also avoiding that most dangerous pitfall for any Roman history book designed for the general reader, the introduction of too many apparently identical names. As such, it is an excellent entry point for anyone who knows little about the history of the period but would like a crash course presented as a cracking thriller.

Yet, for all of that, Watts appears to have relied so heavily on the ancient sources that he imbibed their prejudice wholesale. In the book’s second chapter, Watts recounts a speech delivered by Appius Claudius Caecus [the Blind], in which he shamed the Roman senate out of accepting a peace settlement with their antagonist Pyrrhus by telling them that he wished he had lost his hearing in addition to his sight. One may be tempted to suggest that Appius Claudius represented a type of hard-headed intransigence which could prove destructive to the state when espoused by a war hawk, but we are instead encouraged to read his speech as a demonstration of his patriotic zeal and heroic virtue. Paired with this noble exemplum is that of Gaius Fabricius Luscinus, who refused bribes from Pyrrhus on the basis that, though his exalted reputation in Rome did not make him rich, it granted him access to the power, prestige, and civic glory which were the real objects of any Roman’s ambition.

There would be nothing wrong per se in using the decline of Roman civic and personal virtue as an organizational principle by which the Romans’ own views of their history were shaped, but when presented in an apparently objective account for the non-specialist, it reflects either naivete or recklessness. The idea that there was something singularly distinct about the Roman character of the 3rd century has an ancient pedigree, and in this way, Watts’ history reads no different than would some of the moralizing historians of antiquity. Enough is made of these exempla throughout the book to make the patriotic Roman heart swell with nostalgia. Of course, we are not immune to this in the mythologizing of our own history. One need look no farther than TV pundits who lament the decline of discourse and civility from the standards of early America to see this in action. The newspaper wars of the early republic were just as tawdry as modern social media battles between politicians, but the sanctifying effect of time and the august impression which we associate with now archaic diction are enough to convince us that civic virtue was much greater then.

The entire political program of the book can be gleaned on page 86, where Watts writes that “Tiberius now pushed the Roman political system in a new and troubling direction. He was advocating for a sort of mediated direct democracy in which the old institutional balances between the Senate and the concilium plebis would be stripped away.” How much does that one adjective troubling reveal! Presumably, readers will draw the connection between the troubling direction of Roman politics under Tiberius Gracchus with the troubling direction of politics under Donald Trump. Indeed, I suspect that this is what led Yascha Mounk in a recent New York Times review of the book to make the comparison. But there is no meaningful parallel to be drawn here between the popular and democratizing attempts at reform under Tiberius Gracchus and the wildly-corrupt personal enrichment scheme undertaken by Trump. Gracchus had a political program, worked hard to implement it, and lost his life as a result. Trump enjoys watching TV, posing for photo ops, and reveling in the adulation of his rabid cult.

While it is true that Gracchus’ heavy-handed tactics helped to destabilize the political situation in Rome, it would be naïve to suppose that he himself set the state on a perilous path: the entire episode reflects an already unstable and untenable social situation which was simply brought to historical consciousness by the political fight which it occasioned. If Gracchus were subverting “the old institutional balances”, it is because these balances had become stagnant and wholly unresponsive to the popular will. Tiberius Gracchus occupied the office of tribune, which was (importantly) not among the original political positions at the founding of the Republic, but was rather created in response to earlier revolts by the plebeians against their lack of political power and representation. Those who decry actions in any republic on the sole basis that they are unprecedented seem to miss a central point in republican history: at some point, the republic’s very existence was unprecedented, and many of the apparent norms within it were at some point innovations which were meant to respond meaningfully to the popular will or some political crisis. Rome’s republic was born from the violent expulsion of its kings, while America’s was born in a bloody war to escape a monarch. In both cases, much of the legal framework was designed around a paranoid fear of the return of monarchy. The Roman aristocratic political elite used the fear that Tiberius could make himself king as a pretext for subverting the popular will; that is, they advertised the restriction on popular sovereignty as the only way to protect popular liberty.

Watts focuses heavily on this episode, and laments the “institutional damage” which Tiberious wrought. In so doing, he seems to blame Tiberius Gracchus for the eventual decline of the Republic into autocracy. Much of what Watts appears to favor instead is a kind of bland conservatism focused on consensus politics and the political mainstream. For example:

“The deliberative and consensus-based political culture of the Roman Republic was designed to prevent revolutions, not manage them.” [p.69]

“Marius decided to put his own personal ambition ahead of his fidelity to the Republic’s norms.” [p. 106]

“A deligitimized establishment helped Marius in the short run, but it seriously damaged the Republic. [p. 117]

“This showed that the politics of consensus was dying.” [p. 118]

All of this may sound perfectly innocuous and palatable to readers in a country which is beset by political chaos and would sincerely appreciate a return to bland business-as-usual. Yet, this belies the fact that in America, people have been unhappy with institutional consensus politics for years, and voter apathy is supported chief of all by the impression that we live in a one-party state managed by a political class which defines itself against the common people while pandering to them. “Consensus politics” in Rome was no different. This was not the consensus of various political ideologies striving to represent the popular will and public interest. Rather, it was the consensus of a small group of wealthy and powerful aristocrats who conceived of a political system which would allow each of them to attain what he thought was a due share of honor, glory, and (notwithstanding the claims of Gaius Fabricius) increased wealth. The only consensus from common people was largely extorted by alternately fostering political apathy or bribing them into comfortable temporary submission. Then as now, “consensus politics” is really just code for the consolidation of a one-party political elite which aims to manage and con the rest of the population. Watts draws dishonestly on what he portrays as the Trumpian traits in figures like Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Marius to suggest that their appeals to the common people were just as cynical and hollow as Trump’s. In so doing, he portrays their populist reforms as dangerous political innovations which upset a well-governed system.

To make the point clearer throughout the book, Watts frequently recurs to the theme of subverted norms: “Like Tiberius Gracchus a generation before, Marius decided to put his own personal ambition ahead of his fidelity to the Republic’s norms.” [p. 106] No other popular work of Roman Republican history employs this word so frequently or so pointedly – it is a clear importation from our contemporary political discourse. Donald Trump is not mentioned in this book, but it is clear enough that this recursion to the theme of norms is meant frame this book as a reflection upon our current political disaster in America. But here it serves to note that Donald Trump is not problematic simply because he has subverted norms. A cursory review of the campaign sloganeering of the past two decades will remind readers that practically every politician now campaigns upon the promise of fundamentally changing a political system which is broken and largely unresponsive to popular will. Indeed, much of the disappointment directed toward Barack Obama stemmed from what felt to many like an overly fastidious adherence to political norms and a concomitant retraction of the promise of “change”. No, people are disturbed by Trump’s subversion of norms because he is an imbecile who has in a singular way combined fatuity with malevolence. By way of contrast, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has challenged norms (if that word still has any meaning anymore) as an incoming member of congress by tweeting about the lobbyist-directed early corruption campaigns to which congressional neophytes are exposed. In this latter case, skirting a “norm” has fostered public understanding of a corrupt but traditionally impenetrable system and in so doing helped to re-democratize some small element of politics.

Once he has passed the period of the civil war between Marius and Sulla, much of the apparent parallel-drawing is dropped, and Watts presents a fairly straightforward narrative of the first century civil wars which culminate in Augustus’ control of the empire. This makes it all the more apparent that Watts has singled out Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Marius as the real authors of the decline of the Republic’s institutions: we get the sense that Sulla, Catiline, and both sets of triumvirs were natural products of this broken system. Yet Watts returns to moralizing form on the last page, where he writes:

“Each of these men’s sefish, individualized pursuits of glory ensured that Romans quickly returned to a form of elite political competition in which no limits were placed on the tools one would use to vanquish his opponents. […] Rome’s republic, then, died because it was allowed to. Its death was not inevitable. It could have been avoided.”

This sounds unconvincing, given that the models of antique republican virtue cited at the beginning of the book were examples of spectacularly irrational hard-headedness and the unflagging pursuit of personal glory among a closed system of political elites. Only the pure determinist holds that such crises are strictly inevitable, but any thorough study of Rome’s political and cultural history would suggest that the decline of republican institutions was inevitable in the sense that it was the logical conclusion to the Romans’ unslakable thirst for public glory. Any of those who cried foul about the death of the republic at the time were not concerned with a real loss of freedom for Romans more generally. A figure like Cato was concerned primarily with the way in which the autocracy of a Caesar would limit his own access to power and prestige. Any of the actors with sufficient power to stop or alter this decline only found himself in such a position because he was actively seeking to be number one himself. The decline was not strictly inevitable, but it was at any rate highly probable.

Beyond the frustratingly centrist/elitist political tone of the book, there are some rather prominent typographical whoppers, including Mare Anthony on page 220 and the use of the singular equite (instead of eques) on page 98, which is a wholly unpardonable lapse. If one can ignore the rather facile political lessons drawn by the book, it is a fun and easy read, and at least well worth recommending to those who would like a fast-paced and simple introduction to the Late Republic.

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2 thoughts on “Mortal Republic, Moral Disaster

  1. Among many other things, thank you for this:

    “But there is no meaningful parallel to be drawn here between the popular and democratizing attempts at reform under Tiberius Gracchus and the wildly-corrupt personal enrichment scheme undertaken by Trump. Gracchus had a political program, worked hard to implement it, and lost his life as a result. Trump enjoys watching TV, posing for photo ops, and reveling in the adulation of his rabid cult.”

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