Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire

This weekend, I read and enjoyed Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (2018). As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I retain a soft spot for Roman History as it was my first love in graduate school long before my more serious commitment to archaeology and Late Antiquity. More than that, I’ve maintained a mildly antiquated belief that the Late Roman Republic has something to teach us about our contemporary political situation (even if this isn’t a simple proposition and comparing contemporary politics to those in antiquity is always fraught).

More than that, I am an admirer of Ed Watts work in Late Antiquity and deeply impressed by anyone who makes a serious effort to write for a broad non-professional audience. Above everything else, this book is a good story, well told (as the kids say) and has the potential to introduce gripping and important story about the end of the Roman Republic to a new audiences (and to re-introduce to a prodigal scholar like myself). In fact, I assigned this book to a small undergraduate Roman History readings class that I am running this summer. I’m eager to hear what my students thought of the book! 

I say all this because I want to be clear that any and all critiques that I offer below are not so much critiques of this specific book, but musings on writing for a general audience and using the Roman Republic to think about our present situation.

So, before I go further, if you have time this summer, do go and read this book!

And, here are some thoughts:

1. Writing Roman Republic. One of the great challenges facing anyone writing about the end of the Roman Republic is the work of Ronald Syme. His The Roman Revolution is not only a minor masterpiece of historical prose writing, but it also connected the rise of Augustus to the political situation in Europe in the 1930s and made a profound statement on how reading the Roman Republic could speak to contemporary events (for my failed effort to re-read The Roman Revolution last year, see here). It is no overstatement, then, that Mortal Republic is a kind of prequel to Syme’s Roman Revolution and a reader could do much worse than reading these two books for insights into both Ancient Rome and the political culture of the long 20th century.

It is worth noting that Syme’s early-20th century imitation of Tacitus remains far more stylish that Watts’s early 21st century prose. This isn’t necessary a criticism of Watts, but rather an observation that contemporary writing draws more heavily from the plain-spoken diction of journalism than “public school” class(ic)ism. One side effect of Watts’s matter-of-fact writing is that his prose struggles to carry the pace of events and to communicate tension and characters as vividly as Syme. It is more descriptive than immersive and maybe this is for the best.

2. Narrating a Republic. Both Syme and Watts understand the Roman Republic as a cabal of aristocrats operating within a system designed to keep in balance the acquisition of personal prestige, wealth, and status. Unlike, say, contemporary republics which seek (broadly) to represent the will of the governed, the Roman Republic served at least partly to preserve the public good (shared security, collective prosperity, et c.) by maintaining an equilibrium among powerful aristocratic interests who if left unchecked might jeopardize the stability of the state. 

This view of the Roman Republic, which is almost certainly an accurate one, means that most narratives of its fall emphasize the political movements of a tiny aristocratic elite set against a backdrop of roiling, but largely undifferentiated, urban and rural unrest in both Roman and Italy. The unrest only comes into focus at moments when one or another opportunistic politicians seeks to marshal the “power of the mob” to advance his political career, the risk of restive population at Rome during times of famine or danger, and the vaguely defined threats by soldiers whose interest in fighting is never articulated in ideological or political terms, but directly tied to the ability of the commander to pay them and provide them with land at the time of their discharge. 

In other words, narrating the Roman Republic and thinking about it in terms of contemporary political life, forces us to ponder the ability of ordinary people to change our situation. In this context, the result of the two decades of almost continuous civil war was not the loss of liberty for most Romans who had precious little freedom (by contemporary standards) in the Roman state prior to the rise of Augustus. Instead, it was the loss of liberty for the Roman ruling class. 

In light of this, works like Watts suggests that many of the problems in our Republic are not problems with the citizens who generally just want peace and stability (which are as good as freedom in many cases), but in the political culture of the elite whose wrangling for power rely periodically (at elections, during protests, and during ham-fisted coup attempts) on the opportunistic politicizing of ordinary citizens. This might be a rather uncharitable reading of contemporary political life in our own republic (and I might not necessarily agree with it), but, to my mind, this perspective appears to be one way of recognizing how the Roman world speaks to our own. As someone who lives in what pundits often describe as a deep red state, I often feel like the fractures between the right and left in our community are far less severe than between our political leaders.  

3. Making Ancient Rome. Watts’s book draws upon a good bit of recent scholarship (although even my outdated familiarity with trends in Roman history did not notice many fresh observations). The notes, nestled out of sight in the back of the book, offer a curious reader a nice introduction to the massive and contentious world of scholarship on the Middle and Late Roman Republic.  

I do sometimes wonder whether our desire to make the past relevant to the present obscures the way that scholars working in the present shape how we understand our past. This is particularly significant to me because some of Watts’s chapter on the Second Punic War relies heavily on the work by my old graduate school buddy Mike Fronda. This is not a criticism. Watts cites Fronda appreciatively in the notes. 

At the same time, it struck me that as much as view of the Second Punic War came from the sources, it also emerged from lengthy debates and discussions in Nate Rosenstein’s Roman History seminars at Ohio State. Fronda’s argument that Italian cities support of Hannibal against the Romans often mapped onto long-standing pre-Roman rivalries sought to expand the view of the Roman Republic from the narrow confines of aristocratic competition and locate it in a wider and more dynamic ancient world. 

In this regard, Fronda was not revolutionary, but followed a larger trends in the discipline of history toward decentering our narratives and demonstrating that affairs in Rome, the Roman-Italian dipole, and even the outcome and consequences of the Punic War only reveal part of the story of Rome’s emergence as a Mediterranean-wide power.  

When writing for a general audience, I sometimes wonder whether relegating these debates to the endnotes does our discipline a disservice because it obscures the hard work and shifting conversations that shape how we understand antiquity. In its place, we have a good story, well told, that seems to emerge from the mists of eternity full formed to speak to our contemporary situation. A more overt engagement with the contemporary conversations about the end of the Roman Republic might have gone even further to anchor the significance of fall of the Roman Republic for our contemporary world.

As I said, Watts’s book is well worth reading, but I can’t help but thinking about how the story he tells helps us understand our own world and its changing view of the past.    

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