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The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

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The Roman Republic was one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of civilization. After its founding in 509 BCE, Rome grew from an unremarkable Italian city-state to the dominant superpower of the Mediterranean world. Through it all, the Romans never allowed a single man to seize control of the state. Every year for four hundred years the annually elected consuls voluntarily handed power to their successors. Not once did a consul give in to the temptation to grab absolute power and refuse to let it go. It was a run of political self-denial unmatched in the history of the world. The disciplined Roman republicans then proceeded to explode out of Italy and conquer a world filled with petty tyrants, barbarian chieftains, and despotic kings.

But the very success of the Republic proved to be its undoing. The republican system was unable to cope with the vast empire Rome ruled. Bankrolled by mountains of imperial wealth and without a foreign enemy to keep them united, ambitious Roman leaders began to stray from the republican austerity of their ancestors. Almost as soon as they had conquered the Mediterranean, Rome would become engulfed in violent political conflicts and civil wars that would destroy the Republic less than a century later.

The Storm Before the Storm tells the story of the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic--the story of the first generation that had to cope with the dangerous new political environment made possible by Rome's unrivaled domination over the known world. The tumultuous years from 133-80 BCE set the stage for the fall of the Republic.

The Republic faced issues like rising economic inequality, increasing political polarization, the privatization of the military, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, rampant corruption, ongoing military quagmires, and the ruthless ambition and unwillingness of elites to do anything to reform the system in time to save it--a situation that draws many parallels to present-day America. These issues are among the reasons why the Roman Republic would fall. And as we all know, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

327 pages, Hardcover

First published October 24, 2017

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About the author

Mike Duncan

14 books1,251 followers
Mike Duncan is one of the most popular history podcasters in the world. His award-winning series, The History of Rome, narrated the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and remains a beloved landmark in the history of podcasting. His ongoing series, Revolutions, explores the great political revolutions driving the course of modern history.

Duncan is author of Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, forthcoming Aug 24, 2021. He is also the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books249k followers
November 26, 2020
”By simultaneously destroying Carthage and Corinth in 146 the Roman Republic took a final decisive step toward its imperial destiny. No longer one power among many, Rome now asserted itself as the power in the Mediterranean world. But as Rome’s imperial power reached maturity, the Republic itself started to rot from within. The triumph of the Roman Republic was also the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.”

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The Burning of Carthage and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Mike Duncan first came to my attention while I was watching the Netflix series Roman Empire. He is one of the commentators during season 2 and 3. Usually when historians of any note appear on a show, I know who they are, so I was surprised to discover someone I’d never heard of before. Imagine my further surprise when I discovered that he is one of the most popular historical podcasters in the world.

I had the chance, on a recent trip, to listen to to some of his The History of Rome episodic series and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not much of a podcast listener because the time I would devote to that is devoted to reading, but if I was still traveling, like I used to, I could see how they would become a pleasant diversion from boredom.

After listening to his astute observations, I was not surprised to discover that he writes in clear, precise language and has a good nose for the sensational aspects of history. I’m currently suffering from an overexposure of the Romans from Julius Caesar to Nero, so this earlier history from 146-78 BC covers a period I am less familiar with. This period is no less sensational than the post-Julius Caesar era.

I was struck by the gritty determination of these early Romans. They took some heavy hits, starting with the legendary Carthagean Hannibal, who handed them several humiliating defeats until Scipio Africanus found a way to defeat him in 202 at the Battle of Zama. That wasn’t the end of Carthage being a problem, and in 146 the Romans burned Carthage to the ground. To them, annihilation was finally the only solution to permanently defeating their ancient enemy.

Greed is always twined with power, and the Romans soon learned that it took a lot of money to maintain the lifestyle and prestige they needed to exude to be successful in Rome. To a guy like King Jugurtha of Numidia, greed was something he was quite willing to exploit. ”As he departed, Jugurtha looked back at Rome and issued his famous judgement: ‘A city for sale and doomed to speedy destruction if it finds a purchaser.” To keep Rome from invading and to keep Rome supporting his claim to the throne, he bribed his way through a long list of senators, and for a while it worked. He proved to be a wily opponent and slippery ally. He was a thorn in the side of Roman politics for many years, and several Roman generals left Numidia with their reputations in tatters.

The Cimbri, a nomadic tribe of Danes who wandered down into Northern Italy, proved to be ferocious fighters. Shocking right? Viking stock long before the word Viking existed. The battles between the Romans and Cimbri were catastrophic in loss of life. Between 60,000 and 80,000 Romans and 40,000 camp followers were slaughtered at the Battle of Arausio. This was a devastating loss of life that could have led to the end of the Republic. The road to Rome was open to the Cimbri, but bafflingly, they had what they wanted in Northern Italy and had no desire to conquer the rest of the Roman Empire.

That was a decidedly unRoman way to think.

Finally, General Gaius Marius came along and proved to be one of the greatest generals in Roman history. He found a way to defeat the Cimbri in ways that his predecessors could not. Another great example of Rome taking its hits, licking its wounds, but continuing to evolve its tactics until it found a way to win. Romans didn’t like to lose battles, but they were patient enough to know that it didn’t matter how many battles they lost as long as they ended up winning the war.

Another fascinating aspect of this era was the number of progressive reformers who periodically attempted to reshape Roman politics. Tiberius Gracchus led a movement to give Republic held lands to returning soldiers. Needless to say, this was very popular with the Roman people, well the Roman people who weren’t part of the aristocracy. Passage of a bill, called Lex Agraria, enraged the wealthy segment of Romans who were benefiting from leasing those lands at very advantageous prices. Tiberius was brutally murdered, beaten to death with the legs of benches. His brother Gaius later took up his older brother’s cause, and he was decapitated.

Roman aristocracy saw progressive ideas as a threat to their stranglehold on the purse strings of Rome. I couldn’t help but think of the deaths of JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X in our country, where progressive ideas have also been seen as a threat to the wealthy accumulating more and more...well... wealth.

Duncan wrapped things up with the dictatorship of Sulla, where an enemy of his was seen as an enemy of the state. He posted proscription lists which declared who he considered an enemy of the state. Any Roman citizen was obligated to kill these people on sight. Their properties were then confiscated by the state. These lists came in waves, and no one knew when they would end. The terror this must have inspired is unimaginable. You feel relief from not finding your name on one list, only to have it appear on a new list several weeks later.

Me? Well, I’d have packed up my scrolls and left Rome as fast as my donkey cart could carry me.

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Mike Duncan

Even if you are well versed in this period, you will enjoy the way Mike Duncan presents the material. If you are someone just beginning to venture into the waters of the Tiber, you will emerge from these pages with a solid background in early Roman history, and you will be hungry for more.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Mike.
502 reviews378 followers
January 31, 2019
We truly live in an amazing age when someone can go from releasing a podcast about history before people really knew what podcasts were (2007) to getting a book publishing deal on the subject. If you have not been clued into Mike Duncan's amazing Roman History podcast series The History of Rome or his current one on various Revolutions you are truly missing out on some of the best audio experiences out there (and for the low, low price of free). Ever since he announced he was getting a Roman History book published I have been extremely excited to get my hands on the book, and it does not disappoint in the least.

The Storm before the Storm (TSbtS) tells the history of everything that went wrong with the Roman Republic before it came crashing down in Julius Caesar's generation (or as I call it the Hollywood generation since it is much more famous and has much wider public awareness). But the downfall of the Republic in that generation was preceded by a great corroding of the Republic the previous generations. This book examines that corrosion of the Republic in these lesser know but vitally important generations, the people behind it, the decisions they made in the moment that opened the door for more bad decisions, and how the course of history changed for these decisions.

I have never understood why so few people enjoy reading history books. The sort of personalities, epic span of events, and intricate social narratives are just as (if not more) compelling and interesting as the best fantasy and sci-fi out there. TSbtS delivers all of these in spades, conveying both historical insights to personalities of the time, how the circumstances of the times drove key decisions, and how the cumulative effect of these changes brought about several significant crisis to the Republic. Duncan does all this in a way that is both accessible but still conveys the complexity of the Republican period.

Duncan's main thrust of this book is that breakdown of mos maiorum (literally "way of the ancestors") resulted in the collapse of the Republican system. Mos maiorum was the unspoken rules of the Republic governing such things as when people could stand for certain public offices, how often they could hold a position, the protections granted to those office holders, and the general way political business was handled. These rules regulated how Republican politics behaved and generally provided for a stable political environment

After the defeat of the Carthiginians at the end of the Second Punic War Rome and the conquest of Greece shortly thereafter Rome was riding high. It was the preeminent power in the Western Mediterranean and the immense wealth of those conquests flowed like rivers of gold, silver and slaves back to Rome. Sounds pretty great to be Roman, right?

"As early as 195, Cato the Elder warned his colleagues, “We have crossed into Greece and Asia, places filled with all the allurements of vice, and we are handling the treasures of kings... I fear that these things will capture us rather than we them.”
The austere days of the early Republic were gone and prominent displays of riches became more accepted. On top of that the great wealth that accrued to Rome was concentrated at the top of society (sound familiar?) with the common Roman citizen probably worse off for all the glory that Rome gained.

You see up until this point most of Rome's wars were local affairs where citizen soldiers would be called up after the spring planting and return to their fields for the harvest. But the Second Punic War (and the subsequent efforts to pacify Spain) saw Roman soldiers away from home for years on end. The result was fallow and ruined fields. Many of the soldiers who brought wealth and glory to Rome returned to financial ruin, forced to sell of their land to the wealthy landowners and either move to cities to serve as free labor (labor which was in serious competition with slave labor, slaves that they had help seize for the Republic) or work as sharecroppers on their old lots for the new landowners. This was just one of the many economical challenges the Republic faced in this period.

Reforms to fix this problem were proposed but through a combination of political brinksmanship, narrow economic self-interest, and downright stubbornness they were defeated. Populist reforms and reactionary Senator began chipping away at mos maiorum, circumventing traditional legislative procedures, using the threat of violence to pass legislation, using actual violence to suppress the reformers. It was a big mess and a harbinger of things to come. Ambitious people saw the power of taping into underclass resentment and problems as a way to give themselves power (fixing the problems they railed against to gain that power often fell to the wayside). More and more unspoken norms were broken for the goal of political gain:
"It is this spirit which has commonly ruined great nations, when one party desires to triumph over another by any and every means and to avenge itself on the vanquished with excessive cruelty." -Sulla
There were also a ton of other problems the Romans handled spectacularly terribly: citizenship for Italian tribes (took a war to figure that one out), raising of armies when the citizen landowner pool shrank drastically (now armies were loyal to the generals who brought them spoils of war instead of to the Republic), bribery of public officials, and land redistribution to name but a few. Narrow political self interest and downright pettiness were significant barriers to fixing these problems, all contributing the weakening of the Republic. Some leaders would block legislation that previous years they supported simply because a political opponent proposed it and might gain more political influence if it was successful. The goal of governance was accruing and retaining power instead of providing for the common good.

This was not a sudden transformation of the Republic, but occurred over the span of decades with each decision to break mos maiorum seeming to make sense at the time to the people breaking the code (be it to end fighting on the peninsula, overcome enemies abroad, bring about social order, to effectively raise an army, etc). But the cumulative effect was the complete destruction of these norms and violence becoming the political currency of Rome. It eventually got to the point where the ruling power convened tribunals to punish and kill political opponents. When it was pointed out to these tribunals that they were operating outside the rule of law a very young Pompey retorted ”Cease quoting laws to us that have swords.” Yeah, it got that bad. Like Civil War bad. Even after the formal structures of the Republic were reinstated by the end of the book with further positive reforms enacted the degradation of respect for the Republic made these changes a doomed rearguard action that failed to persist.

At the end of the day it may seem like the fall of the Republic was inevitable but that is simply not the case. It takes effort to sustain representative governments. Citizens and politicians must be willing and able to rein in the baser impulses of themselves. The unspoken rules of behavior are often more important than the formal structures of government even today. Without them we risk devolving to a system where political power secured by any means (up to and including violence) becomes the status quo. And that isn't good for anybody.

People have long compared Rome to America and Duncan addresses this idea in the Author's Note at the beginning of the book. While he doesn't come out and say that America right now is Rome during this post-Second Punic War period, there are numerous echoes of that period today. Every generation within a democracy must reaffirm and strengthen the unspoken norms that keep our democracy form devolving into a contest between armed gangs. We must work to incorporate all peoples into society, not leave them on the outside looking in and detached from the political decisions that impact them. We must work towards a most equitable economic system lest demagogues exploit this to give themselves power (shit, this already happened didn't it). Personally I think American should read this book and reflect upon what we can do to maintain our own Republic's mos maiorum and strengthen it.

So if you like history (or just a really engrossing, epic story chocked full of hubris, tragedy, and scheming) you will find this book extremely interesting and enjoyable. I know I did.

The first chapter of the audio book is available here.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books377 followers
March 9, 2022
The author has an excellent podcast about Rome.


You can also get it through Apple.


An hourglass class structure is not sustainable. It will eventually collapse.

How did such massive inequality come about in Rome? As Rome became more involved in foreign wars and defeated the likes of Carthage and other enemies, huge spoils were reaped and appropriated by the Roman oligarchy back home. Meanwhile, the farmers who were sent off to fight these wars were gone much longer than before. Their farms lay fallow. The oligarchy used its new found wealth to snatch up that land, leaving the returning soldiers homeless and penurious. The Lex Agraria movement was an attempt by the populist tribunes to restore land to the bankrupt farmers. But the oligarchy was too greedy and blind to see the justice of this, as well as its importance in saving the Republic. Instead the tribunes who led the movement were assassinated.

The next era would bring the rise of Caesar and the virtual elimination of the middle class, with the reduction of most of the Roman population to plebeian status.

Analogies to ancient Rome are popular. But we have experienced two eras like this in U.S. history, the late 19th century era, known as the Gilded Age, and our era, a new Gilded Age in which the income gap is as high as it was in the original one. Meanwhile, the labor participation rate continues to plummet, especially in states where manufacturing and retailing jobs have disappeared or are disappearing quickly. People in their prime working age have given up. They are becoming a modern plebeian class, even as the leadership of both parties revel in their own riches and power.


From the book....

But as he stood watching Carthage burn, Scipio reflected on the fate of this once great power. Overcome with emotion, he cried. His friend and mentor Polybius approached and asked why Scipio was crying. 

"A glorious moment, Polybiius; but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my own country." Scipio then quoted a line from Homer: "A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish, And Priam and his people shall be slain."

Scipio knew that no power endures indefinitely, that all empires must fall.


The labor participation rate is the most important economic metric.


"Because it accounts for people who have given up looking for work, this makes the labor force participation rate a more reliable figure than the unemployment rate, which is often criticized for under-counting true joblessness, as it fails to take into account those who have unwillingly dropped out of or been forced out of the workforce." (Stanford Investopedia)
Profile Image for Hilary Scroggie.
404 reviews10 followers
August 22, 2017
"These echoes could be mere coincidence, of course, but the great Greek biographer Plutarch certainly believed it possible that 'if, on the other hand, there is a limited number of elements from which events are interwoven, the same things must happen many times, being brought to pass by the same agencies."

"But this was an age when a lie was not a lie if a man had the audacity to keep asserting the lie was true."

I'm not nervous you're nervous.
Profile Image for Margaret Sankey.
Author 9 books208 followers
July 23, 2017
This is a solid popular history of the generation and a half before the First Triumvirate--the period from the Gracchi brothers to the death of Sulla, which is usually simplified in popular forms or skipped in order to get to Julius Caesar or Augustus. Instead, this is an easily digestible account of the Lex Agraria, the changes to the Roman military, the Roman involvement in the breaking down of the Hellenistic kingdoms in Asia Minor, ramifications of limiting or increasing voting, the triggers that spark slave revolts and the debates over rolling out full citizenship to Italian friends and allies. Duncan knows his sources, and will explain how something is a charitable reading of someone's motives, or likely propaganda (as when the only detailed account of an event comes from Sulla's memoirs).
Profile Image for Doug.
84 reviews54 followers
November 30, 2020
This is so far, without a doubt, the best secondary source I've read on the civil wars and political and social unrest that plagued the last century and a half of the Roman Republic. Duncan writes in an entertaining yet not too sensational style. Basically, the ideal way you'd want any good pop history book written. It's a supremely accessible work about one of the most dramatic (and influential, especially if you're one of those butterfly-effect types of history fans) moments in the history of European civilization and politics.

And boy oh boy, what a time it was. Figures like Tiberius Gracchus, Sulla, Saturninus, and Marius all jump out on the pages as truly larger than life figures.

Primary sources of this period, such as those written by Plutarch and Appian, should always be taken with a grain of salt. However, it's hard to argue that these historical figures, especially Sulla and Marius, were not truly larger than life.

Take Marius for instance. Born in relative poverty and obscurity, he somehow rises through the ranks in Rome and serves as Consul not once but six times (I'd argue it's easier to become President of the United States being born in poverty, than what Marius did). Then, lo and behold, he finds himself on the losing side of a war and literally becomes homeless in the woods, but he clings to hope that he will yet again serve as Consul for a seventh time, all because as a boy he found a Hawk's nest with seven eggs.

And, of course, he does end up making his way out of defeat and homelessness and becomes Consul again.

Truly wild and epic times, these were.
Profile Image for Dan Lutts.
Author 4 books96 followers
November 17, 2019
Many people are familiar with how the Roman Republic ended when Gaius Julius Caesar formed the First Triumvirate in 60 B.C. with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus. That informal alliance led to a civil war that destroyed the republic and resulted in Caesar’s nephew, Gaius Octavius, gaining control of the state and becoming Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome. But the civil war and Augustus’ rise to power didn’t happen overnight. They were a long time in coming, fueled by changes in Roman politics and society that began decades before in 146 B.C. Mike Dunan’s well written and highly readable The Storm Before the Storm recounts the events that led up to the First Triumvirate and Augustus’s takeover of Rome.

By 146 B.C., Rome was at the height of its power yet it also was falling apart because its political structure couldn’t handle its vast empire, huge gaps had developed between rich and poor citizens, violent disagreements had developed over who should be granted citizenship and be allowed to vote, corruption ran rampant among the powerful, and two ruthless men—Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla—rose to power and fought bloody wars against each other to gain control of the state. They also created a ruthless, bloody precedent that inspired the next generation of ambitious men like Caesar, Pompey, and Augustus to destroy the Roman Republic for their own personal gain.
Profile Image for Zaphirenia.
283 reviews197 followers
May 27, 2021
This is why when people ask "If you could choose to live in another era, when would you choose to live?" I immediately answer "I am very comfortable with this era, thank you very much". Because today you can listen to a podcast (in this case the podcast "Revolutions" by Mike Duncan) that I could have never had access to otherwise from this small corner in the world, and then discover a great book like this. So now I got to enjoy a fine historical read and support one of the best podcasters I know of. And I even got to enjoy it in audio, just as I would listen to one of his podcasts. Well, there's also the possibility that as a woman I would not exactly thrive if I lived even 100 years ago, but that's another story.

Mike Duncan knows his Roman history for sure. The book is a very well narrated story of the failings of the Roman Republic which led to the rise of the Roman Empire. It starts with the efforts of the Gracchi brothers up to the death of dictaror Sulla and the rise of the first Roman emperor Augustus. It is very fun and educational, very far from dry historic books full of details which are very hard to digest and process.

Profile Image for Andrew.
573 reviews166 followers
August 14, 2017
*4.5 stars*

At the time, everyone thought that just one more push for their personal agenda would win the day. Collectively, they ended up pushing the republic over the edge.

Oh, I'm sorry. This is Ancient Rome, not modern America. But here is the story of the fall of a republic as it gallops towards oblivion. The threads of the constitution fray and fray and fray and snap as simple reform bills turn into battles for personal glory which turn into riots in the forum which turn into civil war.

This book is best paired with On Tyranny . And followed up by its academic elder brother, The Roman Revolution .
Profile Image for David .
1,266 reviews161 followers
July 30, 2018
Mike Duncan's History of Rome podcast remains one of my favorites, and his new podcast, Revolutions, is quite good also. I was happy to see he wrote a book and the subject is fascinating. Everyone knows a bit about ancient Rome, with names such as Julius and August Caesar still in our consciousness. We Americans even wonder if we've crossed the border from Republic to Empire yet. Duncan argues if there is any time in Roman history parallel to our own, it is the century before the end of the Republic. From the defeat of Carthage, when Rome reigned supreme, a series of events changed Rome which set up the shattering of the Republic.

This book tells that story, beginning with the Gracchi brothers and moving through Marius and Sulla. So much happened here - all Italians gain citizenship, the office "dictator for life" is given (though Sulla lays down the office after one year, which Caesar later called a mistake), more and more people ignore the ancient traditions. If you like history, especially the history of Rome, definitely read this book.

A few questions popped into my head which I assume lay outside the purpose of this book, but I am curious.

1. How did people know each others' language - at one point we meet the Cimbri who began in the North, near Denmark, and migrated to Roman land. Duncan simply says they spoke to the Romans. How? Who translated?

2. I am also curious on populations. It is staggering to read of war after war and the numbers of dead. Italy is a small place. What was the population? Who filled these armies? Who was left? If 100 people were killed during a purge, or 10,000 on a battlefield, would this be noticed? He talks about the economy suffering, but I am curious for more.

Neither of these questions are unique to this book. They just popped up as I read. This book is great!
Profile Image for Omar Ali.
222 reviews207 followers
March 17, 2018
A relatively short (265 pages), fast paced and lively account of the Roman Republic from 146 BC (the fall of Carthage and Corinth) to 78 BC (the death of Sulla), covering the period in which the Republic saw major social upheaval, conflict and civil war and in which many of the constitutional checks and balances of the Republic fell by the wayside, setting the stage for the final overthrow of the Republic by Julius Ceasar and his grand nephew, Augustus Ceasar. Duncan makes the case that the decline of the mos maiorum (the "mores") of the Roman Republic in this period of crisis was the crucial factor that led to the final fall a few decades later. WHY the mos maiorum fell apart is a big question, and it is not really answered in this book (a book that really tries to answer that question would probably be much denser and longer than this book) , but is beautifully described, and that is enough to earn 4 stars.
This period of Roman history and its main characters are not as prominent in popular memory as the final crisis of the Republic. Almost every educated person has heard of Julius Ceasar, the ides of March, Antony and Cleopatra, and Augustus, but relatively few people are familiar with characters such as the Gracchus brothers, Gaius Marius and Sulla, which is a tragedy, because their stories are as fascinating (if not more fascinating) than anything that happened in the final crisis of the Republic. if you are not a Roman history nerd and are not already familiar with these compelling characters, then this is a great introduction to the era and its most famous personalities. Colleen McCollough's historical fiction (the "Masters of Rome" series) is far more detailed and richer in texture because in historical fiction she can fill in details where the historical record is silent (she is very careful to stay faithful to the historical record as far as it is known), but if you just want the story that is in the history books, this is a great place to start. Its all in here, the increasing immiseration of the peasant proprietors who were the base of the ancient Republic; the corruption that came with increasing wealth; the fight to extend citizenship to all Italians; the rise (and violent fall) of the Gracchi, aristocrats who championed the cause of the downtrodden; the incredible (and incredibly long) career of Gaius Marius, the "new man" (novus homo) who rose from outsider to outstanding general, savior of Rome and 7 time consul but just could not bear to retire; and last but not the least, the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, impoverished aristocrat, brilliant general, harsh conqueror and even harsher dictator, who tried to reform and re-animate the ancient Republic and actually managed to retire at the height of his power, but whose reforms failed to prevent (and whose personal example probably aggravated) the final crisis of the Republic. As you read, you cannot help wondering why 20 famous movies and TV serials have not been made about these people. Marius's escape from Rome alone is worth at least one great movie, with more hair-raising chases, captures, escapes, betrayals and last minute twists of fortune than any fictitious adventure movie could possibly squeeze into one character's life.
Overall, a great read, well worth a look.
Profile Image for Jesse Morrow.
101 reviews1 follower
February 19, 2023
Starting with the end of the Third Punic War and covering until the death of Sulla, Duncan covers the political and military battle between the populares and optimates of Rome. Duncan creates a narrative that follows not only the political history of the time but also a political science review of not only the political maneuvering within Polybian constitution (see Book 6 of Polybius' history) but also the formation of political alliances through coalition building and creating cleavages.

The book is well written and enthralling. It is clearly meant to explain the history of Rome from its moment of Empire until the part "everyone knows about" - Caesar, Augustus, etc. However, the clarity and understanding gained from this book - along with its short page count - makes me sad that Duncan did not continue to cover the next 50 years. A 500 page book covering The fall of Carthage to the rise of Augustus would have been a great addition to the lay historian's collection.

As is, this is still a must have - right next to Beard's SPQR) for those interested in Roman history.
Profile Image for Dorin Lazăr.
449 reviews90 followers
July 25, 2018
Mike Duncan's dive into the civil wars before Caesar's (the period between the Gracchus brothers and the end of Sulla's reign) is quite insightful. It's not an exhaustive treatise, but it catches the key events of the era in a beginner-friendly, easy to digest manner.

Generally, Mike Duncan's interpretation of events seems reasonable - he generally tries to look also at the way the historical sources might relate towards the events and he's not so quick to draw parallels between current day events and the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. He also doesn't seem to have an agenda like criticizing today's faults and explaining the glory of socialism, like most writers about the Gracchus brothers generally have. He even tries to tone down the interpretation of the primary sources he uses, trying to keep a cool head instead of jumping to conclusions.

It's definitely the best introduction to the Late Roman Republic, and I heartily recommend it.
Profile Image for Brian.
321 reviews57 followers
September 8, 2021
Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm is a very readable, fairly concise history of the Roman Republic from 146 BC (the destruction of Carthage and Corinth) to 78 B.C. (the death of Sulla). Duncan describes the significance of these decades in Roman history as follows: “By simultaneously destroying Carthage and Corinth in 146, the Roman Republic took a final decisive step toward its imperial destiny. No longer one power among many, Rome now asserted itself as the power in the Mediterranean world. But as Rome’s imperial power reached maturity, the Republic itself started to rot from within. The triumph of the Roman Republic was also the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.”

According to Duncan, this period of Roman history has not been studied or written about nearly to the extent that the subsequent fall of the Republic has been (I’m not knowledgeable enough to know, so I take his word for it). Part of his reason for writing the book was to fill in the gap in our knowledge of Roman history. But he also explicitly wanted to explore this era of the Roman Republic in order to illuminate potential analogues to our current social and political conditions.

And in fact, for anyone paying attention, there are indeed numerous echoes of the problems that plagued Rome: “rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct, the privatization of the military, rampant corruption, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, battles over access to citizenship and voting rights, ongoing military quagmires, the introduction of violence as a political tool, and a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” It sounds like every day’s newspaper or my Twitter feed.

For me, seeing how these factors that led to the demise of the Roman Republic bear such a strong resemblance to conditions in 21st century America was the primary benefit I derived from reading the book. That’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot about the Roman Republic itself. I did. But I’m not very conversant at all with ancient history, and I sometimes found it difficult to remember who was who in the continuing dog-eat-dog struggle for dominance in Rome. Certain personages, such as the Gracchi, Marius, and Sulla, do stand out for me, and I expect that I’ll remember at least some details of the parts they played in this drama. I’ll also remember Scipio Aemilianus, not so much because he was the first to raise a personal army and use it against his political opponents, but because, on a more mundane level, he was also the man who introduced the habit of shaving one’s face daily, which, according to Duncan, became the standard custom of aristocratic Roman men for the next 300 years.

Despite the mass of facts, most of them previously unfamiliar to me as a non-expert reader, the narrative moved along at a comfortable pace. Duncan’s writing is clear and lively, with some humorous touches. One of my favorites was the description of an incident in the Social War when the Italians “caught the Romans with their togas down.” I don’t know how well the book holds up for professional historians, but I can certainly recommend it to history buffs and those readers who want to deepen their historical perspective on current events.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,147 reviews1,044 followers
September 9, 2018
There are two good reasons to read this book.

First, if you want to know the history of this particular period of the Roman state, there’s apparently a dearth of books on that. Plenty on the changeover to an Imperial state, and on the later collapse, but not so much on the collapse of the republic. And this is a very easy and enjoyable book to read, although at times it’s just a tiny bit clumsy. If you want an authoritative book written by an actual historian, this isn’t the one for you, however. [Note: definitely not my field of expertise; if someone wants to say “there are plenty of books on that topic!” I’d welcome the correction. I’d welcome even more a pointer to the most accessible of those.]

The second reason is was the key for me, and probably has already occurred to many of those reading this. Many countries that were considered fairly “safe” democracies seem to be sliding towards authoritarianism — including, shockingly, the United States.

I already knew about the theory of anacyclosis (although I’d forgotten that name) from long-ago reading of some Greek classic or other. So while I’m dismayed that the U.S. is trending this way, I’m not among the excessively shocked. We’ve always liked our populists, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that we’re increasingly swayed by demagogues. I’m personally quite interested in why this happens to be happening at this moment in the U.S.A., but this book is more about seeking and examining the parallels that we might be facing.

I’d recommend the book for either or both reasons.

Original “preview”:

The Lawfare podcast interviewed the author, and asked him to compare and contrast the subject of his book with the current United States situation, as well as a sampling of other “storms before” that did or did not lead to critical “storms”.

The podcast blurb:
Political polarization, inequality, and corruption during the period 146 to 78 BC gravely weakened the Roman Republic in the years before its collapse. In his new book The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Late Republic, podcaster Mike Duncan explores this period and how Rome’s politics, which emerged from Rome’s success, subsequently led to the republic’s downfall. Benjamin Wittes interviewed Duncan on his new book to discuss ancient and modern populisms, the parallels between the late Roman Republic and current American politics, and the impact of demagoguery on government.

Profile Image for Christopher.
734 reviews40 followers
January 7, 2019
In 146 BC, the Roman Republic stood atop of the Mediterranean world with no peers to match it. But, within 100 years, this great republic would fall into the hands of iron fisted autocrats that the Romans themselves had always feared? How they got from one point to another is a tale that often revolves around Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Mark Antony and Augustus Caesar. However, that is only half the story and the second half at that. The story that is rarely told is the first half starting in 146 and moving forward about 70 years or so. This book beautifully fills in that gap in the popular knowledge and makes the tale of the Graccchi brothers, Marius, Sulla, and others just as interesting as anything about the Caesars and with eerie lessons for the present age.

Having honed his storytelling craft over his years of historical podcasting, Mr. Duncan tells a good tale without ever losing the plot and with enough with and action to fill most political thrillers today. It is a testament to his storytelling skill that Mr. Duncan's narrative never gets boring and only occasionally gets confusing. Indeed, this is the best book of Roman history I have read since Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland first came out when I was in college. I will say that things moved a little too fast towards the Sullan Civil War and those not familiar with Roman history may find it difficult to follow such a wide range of characters, but I feel that most readers should have no trouble finding this book to be as readable and enjoyable as anything else out there.

Whether your a fan of history or not, of Mr. Duncan's previous or current history or podcasts or not, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I highly recommend it to both hardcore history buffs as well as casual history readers alike.
Profile Image for April Cote.
262 reviews64 followers
April 20, 2020
I found this book to be all narrative. This seemed like one long podcast, which the author is famous for, and is fine, in a podcast, not a book. I think this is just too much history to cover, and why it was more narrative, with the facts only touched upon.

I do think I see his point in this book. People who want power will take it, no matter the cost. And no matter how big and mighty a government thinks they are, someone, someday, will come along and destroy it.
Profile Image for Haley Annabelle.
257 reviews52 followers
July 3, 2023

If you're looking for a book about Rome's history leading up to the Roman Empire, this is a good overview. I'm not big on overviews as I like to zoom in on a specific person. But you don't always have time to do that.
I now understand much more about the political issues leading up to Julius Caesar, and why the Pax Romana was so needed.
Profile Image for Sud666.
1,980 reviews160 followers
December 27, 2022
"The Storm Before the Storm" was an enjoyable read. Oft times the discussion surrounding the events that led to the Fall of the Roman Republic begins and ends with Julius Caesar and Octavian. But, it is fair to say those two individuals comprise the latter "the Storm" in the title. This book looks at the precursor to their coming. This is a look at the first generation of Romans to have to deal with the fact that their Republic had grown into an Empire.

Appropriately enough the book starts with Proconsul Publius Scipio Aemilianus standing before the devastated and burning city of Carthage, while at the same time, seven hundred miles to the east, another Roman Consul, Lucious Mummius, stood before a similarly burning city of Corinth. The date is 146 BCE. This was Rome's first step towards seizing its Imperial destiny.

The fallout of these conflicts caused a huge upheaval in the politics of Rome. Populists like the Gracchi brothers were motivated by the dislocations of the war to seek Italian enfranchisement and this eventually will lead to the First Social War. As these wars begin to pile up, the changes in the traditional power structure cause huge shifts in power.

Duncan is able to lead us from the events of 146 BCE to 78 BCE. During this momentous period, wars and social conflicts will lead to the rise of many famous Romans- from Gaius Marius and Lucius Sulla, to men like Saturninus and Pompey Strabo. This is the generation that will sow the seeds of Empire that will be germinated by Julius Caesar and harvested by Octavian.

Well written and easy to read, this is a book that can be appreciated for telling a wonderful story and describing complex legal and social concepts without ever becoming dry or boring. The cast of characters is complex and shows that the system was broken long before Julius Caesar stuck a fork in it.

If you are interested in the events leading to the rise of men like Caesar, then start with this wonderful book. A pleasure to read and very informative.
Profile Image for Shawn.
Author 2 books53 followers
January 22, 2018
This was an exceptionally well written and concise outline of the history of the Roman Republic from the period of the Gracchi brothers to the death of Lucius Sulla. The author did a masterful job of describing to the reader in an organized fashion the myriad of events, personalities and issues. The Roman Republic was an extremely bloody, dynamic and complicated place where political questions were often settled through assassination and war. It would be very easy for a reader to get lost especially with many similar names reappearing over multiple generations. The author brings us along with sufficient detail so I never felt that I did not have a grasp what was going on.
I did not quite follow how one of his opening themes fit into his theories. In the beginning, Duncan stated that rising income inequality contributed to the political upheavals. I was interested in this assertion but I failed to see much support throughout the book. It seemed to me the question of Italian citizenship was far more consistent and divisive within the warring factions. I also did not understand the alternative type set in certain words such as "technically" and "ethnic". I was not sure why that was done but it appeared often enough that I know it was intentional.
In sum, I would recommend this book.
499 reviews35 followers
January 22, 2021

This book covers the 70-year period from the rise of Tiberius Gracchus (around 146 BC) until the death of Sulla (78 BC).

As the title suggests, the aim is describe the period prior to the fall of the Republic with a special focus on the origins of the ingredients that ultimately led to that fall such as the rise of populists, the increasing disrespect for social norms or ‘mos maiorum’, the increasing dissatisfaction with inequality between nobles and plebs and between citizens and non-Romans.

Analogies with the United States are easily drawn and coincidentally I read the first chapters on the day the US Capitol was stormed by an angry mob and blood flowed in the Senate: there could not have been a more appropriate time.

The book is full of great characters (Scipio Aemilianus and Marius), and is a great way to refresh one's memory of a period that is much less known than the generation that experienced the actual fall.

I listened to the audiobook and I fear that was not the best way: there are many names and I found myself constantly winding back trying in vain to find out where a certain name had come up before. I also found Edward J. Watts’ ‘Mortal Republic’, that covers largely the same theme and period, slightly more readable.

Nevertheless, highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the Roman republic and politics in general.
Profile Image for Liviu.
2,284 reviews638 followers
January 5, 2019
While the story (146 - 78 BC, so from the fall of Carthage and Corinth to the death of Sulla with a little afterword summarizing what happened next) is familiar, the exposition is fairly concise, based on the classical sources and very entertaining. Of course one still should read Colleen McCullough fictionalized versions of the same events (the first 2 1/2 novels in her 7 book series) for an awesome reimagination
Profile Image for Jerome Otte.
1,764 reviews
January 30, 2022
A vivid, engaging and balanced work.

Duncan roughly covers the period 145-75 BC, from the destruction of Carthage to the death of Sulla. He covers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the slave revolts, the Social War, and the careers of Marius and Sulla and their war. He ably shows how the actions of pretty much every major player violated Roman laws and traditions. Some readers may worry that Duncan will draw clumsy parallels between then and now, but he simply lets his narrative do the talking. The narrative is clear, insightful and occasionally witty if a bit dry, and you can tell Duncan is an enthusiast. The cast of characters is pretty large, and if you’re new to the subject it might feel a bit daunting.

The book is lively, though some better maps would have helped. Some readers may find the book superficial, or wish the themes were expanded on more. Duncan also sometimes writes about certain people’s thoughts and feelings (always tricky for this era of history) At one point Duncan writes that Caesar destroyed the Republic “through sheer force of ambition,” which might be true, but he certainly lived in an ambitious society. Once could also argue that the ambition of Caesar’s enemies was equally responsible. The narrative includes quotations, but it’s not always clear from the endnotes where these came from. At one point Duncan mentions a “king of Egypt.” The writing is also breezy at times (the tribunes are called “these guys,” so-and-so was “the perfect guy for the job,” etc.) There’s also a few typos.

Still, a concise, fast-paced and informative work.
Profile Image for Jess.
2,989 reviews5 followers
December 31, 2022
I am very "WE DID IT, JOE" about this book. I have saved this book for years, because I didn't want to read it until I finished The History of Rome and then I did that last year and I didn't immediately start this after and that was a mistake. The writing itself was clear and concise and this just didn't hold my attention at all. I didn't remember who everyone was and that's my own fault, maybe if I had read it within a couple of weeks instead of stretching it out over seven months, I'd have felt differently. But I finished and I can put on my Mike Duncan completion hat at long last, and that's something good to take into 2023.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,507 reviews230 followers
October 30, 2017
Everybody know the story of the Fall of the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cicero, Cato, Octavian, Brutus, civil war, assassination, the last grasp of liberty, and the foundation of both tyranny and centuries of peace and prosperity. Roman politics are a common metaphor for our own times. In The Storm Before the Storm, veteran history podcaster Mike Duncan (Revolutions, The History of Rome), writes about one of his favorite periods, the Roman Republic between the Second Punic War and Caesar's Civil War.

As expected, Duncan ably brings weaves together the lives of his protagonists and their events, to describe a gradual degradation of Roman political norms to mob violence and military force, as the sclerotic Senate proved unable to decisively deal with concerns like corruption in the provinces, the lack of civil rights for Italian allies, transformation of the countryside from yeoman farmers to slave estates, and the ambitions of 'new men' without noble pedigrees. The abortive Gracchian agricultural reforms, Gauis Marius's remaking of the army, and Sulla's dictatorship are the centerpieces of this book.

Duncan ably uses primary sources (the Romans wrote a lot of history) to provide detail and spice to his world. He'll admit he's biased in favor of the Populares and against the Optimates. This is a well-sourced popular history, which is both its strength and weakness. Duncan doesn't have much theory about the collapse of political norms, and the lives of the figures eclipses some questions I had about how Roman politics normally operated, and the balance between formal bureaucracy, networks of patronage, and the ability of oratory to shift the mob at the right moment.
Profile Image for Dominic.
Author 2 books20 followers
October 15, 2017
The late Roman Republic is one of the most studied and most familiar periods of history. Even the average American - famously ignorant of history - could probably tell you what happened to Julius Caesar or the name of Cleopatra's lover (thanks in no small part to Shakespeare's plays). But there's surprisingly little attention paid to the period before Caesar, the events that set the stage for the fall of the Republic. Mike Duncan, host of the excellent History of Rome Podcast, takes a stab, writing the first book focused exclusively on the period 130-80 BC I have seen. It's a smart move, not just for a first-time author trying to make a name for himself, but also because it will introduce readers to an important part of Rome's history.

As Duncan argues in the introduction, the 50 years between 130-80 BC helped set the stage for the collapse of the Republic. Domestically, the polarization between conservatives (optimates) and populists (populares) prevented the Republic from undertaking necessary reforms. The Gracchi brothers, two senators who attempted to push redistributive land reform, were ultimately murdered for their efforts. Duncan then chronicles the rising tensions on the Italian peninsula as Italians became increasingly forceful in their demands for citizenship. The Senate eventually caved and granted Italians citizenship (but tried to dilute their voting rights through gerrymandering). Meanwhile, Rome faced a variety of threats on its periphery from tribes and former client states, including in Numidia and Gaul. Roman diplomacy and military force finally quelled these threats after years of fighting. However, Rome was then wracked by civil war as two of its top generals, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, fought for the right to lead Rome's armies east against King Mithridates of Pontus. The Senate had appointed Sulla, but the popularly elected Tribune maneuvered to get Marius - darling of the populares - appointed instead. Sulla marched his army on Rome, declared himself dictator, and, after years of civil war, attempted to reform Roman law to enshrine the position of the optimates.

Just as in his podcast, Duncan's writing is clear, accessible, and even sometimes funny. This is a complicated period of Roman history, but Duncan provides enough background for readers to follow along. It might have been helpful to have included a dramatis personae listing all of the major players, but Duncan does enough to distinguish the various Latin names from each other.

The issues Rome dealt with during this period - class conflict, populism, gerrymandering, inequality, polarization, breaking political norms - should be familiar to Americans in the 2010s. Duncan himself notes the commonalities in the introduction to this book, but I actually thought that comparison would have been more effective in an epilogue, after the reader had gained a better understanding of the Roman history. This type of historical comparison could have been really interesting, but as is it just seems more like a way to catch the reader's attention than a sustained analysis. Likewise, Duncan does provide an effective summary of how the problems of 130-80 BC ultimately led to the collapse of the Republic, but he never quite provides a definitive analysis of why Rome took such a turn for the worse during this period. He mentions a few possible reasons, such as the failure of land reform, but I would have liked a more succinct explanation.

Definitely recommended for readers interested in Roman history.

[Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review]
Profile Image for Nathan Albright.
4,488 reviews111 followers
December 19, 2020
If you are an American, this book is the kind that will give you sleepless nights as you ponder how far along the United States is in the timeline of this book's grim account of the terminal decline of the Roman Republic. While the very end of the Roman Republic is generally well known, this period is much less well known and is sadly quite relevant to our own contemporary times. The author avoids speculating exactly where America is on the timeline of terminal Republican decline, but some point during the rising tensions and civil wars of the period seems particularly likely. When looking at the election fraud of the populares or the stubbornness of the optimates, and the turmoil of the mob and the omnipresent threat of violence of the period, it is hard not to think of the contemporary crisis and of its likely tragic results in our own place and time. It is unclear how many purposes that the author indeed had, and if the author did not wish to rob the good readers of this book of hours of sleep, it seems likely that there was at least a point of using the history of the Roman Republic after its peak but before its final end in the empire as a warning call. Consider that warning heard.

This book is a bit more than 250 pages and it is divided into 13 chapters. The author begins with a timeline, a map of Roman Italy, a map of the Republican, and an author's note. After that comes a prologue that looks at the period of triumph for the Roman Republic that also signaled its terminal decline. This is followed by a look at the sad fate of Italian farmers in the aftermath of war (1), the life of Italian provincials as stepchildren of Rome (2), and the way that the reform efforts of the Gracci led to urban violence and the death of would-be reformers (3). This is followed by a look at the corruption of Jugartha (4), the corruption of the spoils of victory (5), and the struggle against the Cimbri in the north (6). A few chapters look at Marius' military reforms (7), the peak of his political power (8), and the struggle to deal with Italian demands for citizenship (9). After that comes a look at the quest for colonies (10), the horrors of Marius' return (11) to Rome, Civil War (12), and Sulla's dictatorship (13), after which the book ends with acknowledgements, notes, ancient and modern sources, and an index.

One of the things this book does very well is to allow the reader to get a sense to feel who these unfamiliar people are and why it is that most of them met very unpleasant ends during the period between 140 and 73BC. At some point the author says that if one survived things may have gone well, but the problem is that precisely not enough people survived the many problems during this period, which included the Third Punic War and its aftermath, the struggle to deal with Jugartha and also the conquest of Mauritania and the sacking of Corinth and the first few of the wars against Pontus as well as the Marian-Sulla Civil War and the Social War and two slave revolts on Sicily, besides still other wars. A lot of people died in one of more of the many internal and external conflicts that raged throughout this tumultuous period and the end result was a Roman Republic that had a sizable empire and that had granted citizenship to surviving Italians, but also a Republic that was moribund and unable to handle the threats of the coming generation. After Sulla and Marius, a Caesar of some kind was probably inevitable.
October 20, 2018
I very much enjoy Mike Duncan's work as a podcaster. He is a notably good historian who provides excellent overviews while also calling the listener's attention to broader trends. It makes for digestible material.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by this book. Not because it isn't interesting at points or touches on important topics. But rather because it only touches on them. Duncan uses the prologue of the book to lay out what he thinks are the biggest points to take away, but then rarely reinforces them or brings them up again in the course of the narrative. As a result, I lost track of the finer points of his thesis (with the exception of the rise of personal armies under generals) because the narrative seemingly never stopped. Adding to my difficulty, the book uses tons of names. I don't fault Duncan for using names, but it was difficult for the reader to understand which Crassus, Antonius, Metellus, or Scipio we're talking about. I also felt that with the exception of Marius and Sulla, none of the characters mentioned really comes to life in this book. He offers a very easy portrait of Cinna, but otherwise most of the main "characters" are merely there and not really subject to much examination.

I understand the book can only be so long. But, without some of that human interest story, the book is just one long narrative. Thematically too I felt it could have been better by not only recounting events but also mentioning how each event tied into the larger trends he identifies at the outset. Without that, this reads like a podcast script.

Again, Mike Duncan is wonderful and I appreciate his contributions. I just thought this effort could have been better. Still worthwhile as a read on the late Republic.
April 22, 2023
I listened to all of Duncan’s History of Rome podcast and although that was very thorough and enjoyable, I found myself wanting more from him on the subject matter. This is that book. This is one of the most complex and interesting periods of the Roman Republican period, which I have read or heard covered in books and podcasts (shout out Dan Carlin) but Duncan absolutely has given me a new perspective on the period. One that is both enlightening and sobering in it comparison to our own times. There is a concise narrative throughout and it is as much a page turner as any Michael Crichton novel.
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