Since its fall, the Roman Empire (by which I mean the western Roman Empire) has been at the forefront of western political thought. Every great power is compared to, by others or itself, to Rome, and they all wish to reach its heights, and to avoid its fall. During times of economic or political downturn we see slew of books and articles comparing the current state of the United States to the fall of Rome, but perhaps there is another period of Roman history that the current United States should be compared to. Mike Duncan, the creator of the History of Rome and Revolutions podcasts, and author of The Storm Before the Storm, argues in his first book that rather than comparing the current United States to the 5th century Roman Empire, we should be comparing it to the Roman Republic of the First and Second Century BCE.
The Storm Before the Storm is a narrative history, so very little of the text is dedicated to pointing out the similarities between the current U.S. and the late Roman Republic. In fact, if you didn’t listen to the numerous interviews of Mike Duncan on other podcasts around the books release in fall of 2017, or read the author’s note at the beginning of the book, you probably wouldn’t be aware that his intent was to draw attention between those two periods. In the author’s note, Duncan makes his intentions clear, “I was asked the same set of questions over and over again: “Is America Rome? Is the United States following a similar historical trajectory? If so, where does the US stand on the Roman timeline.” Attempting to make a direct comparison between Rome and the United States is always fraught with danger, but that does not mean there is no value to entertaining the question.”(pg. xx) He accomplishes this task by crafting a narrative that anyone who is following current affairs is sure to notice the parallels.
He begins the narrative after Rome’s defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War. Although not yet a Roman lake, Rome has no true rival for control of the Mediterranean. The Republic sees a lot of wealth streaming in after the war. Reading this immediately brought to mind the post World War Two United States, or even possibly the Post Cold War world. I think the author may have intended the post Second Punic War Rome to represent the post Cold War U.S., “After the Second Punic War ended in 202 BC, the economy of Italy endured a massive upheaval. The legions… returned home with riches on an unprecedented scale… For the majority of Roman citizens, the conquest of the Mediterranean meant privation, not prosperity…. Wealthy noble families exacerbated the sharpening divide between rich and poor.” (pg. 19-20) In these passages Duncan is channeling the modern Marxist concern over income inequality of the 21st century. The economic comparisons are continued into the labor market.
Among the “riches” brought by the legions back to Rome were slaves, whom displaced many peasants in agricultural labor, “The plight of the dispossessed citizens might not have been so dire had they been allowed to transition into the labor force of the commercial estates. But the continuous run of successful foreign wars brought slaves flooding into Italy by the hundreds of thousands. The same wealthy nobles who bought up all the land also bought slaves to work their growing estates. The demand for free labor plummeted just as poor Roman families were being pushed off their land.” (pg. 20) My first assumption was that the slaves were intended to be compared to illegal-immigrants taking American jobs, but upon further inspection this was more likely intended to be a comparison to factory workers being replaced by machines, which is a narrative much of the media has implanted into the voter base of President Trump. However, the concern over illegal immigrants is present in the book, but it’s a conflict of Ancient Rome your average person isn’t aware of.
The core of the late Roman Empire had been the Italian Peninsula, and we today generally think of Italy as a whole when we think of the Roman Empire, but that wasn’t always the case. The Roman Empire started as the city state of Rome, but overtime the city of Rome expanded its area of control across the peninsula, but it wasn’t all annexed directly. What usually happened was the Rome would defeat a neighboring Italian City state and force its government into an alliance with Rome, in which the citizens of these other city states would provide manpower for the Roman legions. Yet despite serving in the Roman legions, these Italians were not citizens of Rome, and therefore did not have the same rights as Romans. This is where the comparison with illegal immigrants comes into play . You have a class of people, living under Roman hegemony, but not having equal rights or citizenship. This topic is brought up time and again throughout the book, and when I read those passages it became clear. In the current U.S. there is a debate over the fate of over a million illegal immigrants, with a particular emphasis on DACA children. Most elected officials of the Democratic Party, and a surprising number of elected Republicans, support either giving full citizenship or some kind of legal status to DACA recipients and their families. In Ancient Rome this became a big issue to several politicians such as the Gracchi brothers, and Gaius Marius, just as there are politicians who make this their sole issue today. The Italians aren’t just a stand in for illegal immigrants, but in different parts of the book they are stand ins for African Americans, or poor people in general.
There’s a lot more about modern America that you can read into in The Storm Before the Storm, but I recommend you read the book for yourself to get the full impact. Despite my personal political inclinations I whole heartedly recommend The Storm Before the Storm to anyone interested in Ancient Rome, or Modern Politics.
If you found this review helpful in your decision to purchase the book, I have an Amazon Affiliate link here where you can purchase it, and if you do it financially supports Casual Historian, allowing us to make more content.
And if you’re interested in another modern take on Ancient Rome, I suggest reading a previous article from this website, HBO’s Rome: The Grittier Side of the Late Republic.