The parallels are striking: Rising income inequality. Partisan gridlock. The erosion of political norms and the loss of faith in public institutions. Angry populist uprisings.
Is America going the way of Rome?
“Mortal Republic,” by UC San Diego history professor Edward Watts, raises the question. The book has been garnering national media attention — The New Yorker, Smithsonian, Time, Vox, the New York Times — since its release in November.
“The lesson we can take away from the Roman example is that a republic doesn’t last unless you protect it,” Watts said in an interview. “It can and will die unless you ensure that it lives and thrives.”
Rome’s representative democracy lasted almost 500 years, still among the longest in history, and its checks and balances and other consensus-building elements were used by America’s founders as they drafted their own system of government.
But what the Romans put in place slowly crumbled and led to an autocrat taking power, and the early Americans understood that, too. The United States would be a republic, Benjamin Franklin once said, “if we can keep it.”
Watts, 43, has been teaching Roman history for about 20 years and he’s noticed a shift in his students’ interests away from the later empire to what its republic might teach us about the challenges facing democracies in the United States and elsewhere.
He found himself increasingly having similar conversations with family and friends. And he began thinking about the structural similarities between the Roman government when it started coming under strain and some of the things happening today.
So he wrote this book, his fifth.
The main purpose was to help readers “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,” he writes.
Watts cites complacency as a key danger.
“You take for granted the fact that you are going to live in a free society and you take for granted the fact that the republic that’s been there for hundreds of years is going to remain there for hundreds more,” he said.
“What that does is give you the false sense of assurance that you can take steps and make decisions that have short-term benefits for you as a politician or as a voter, but have long-term consequences that are quite negative for the system.”
Watts grew up in New Jersey and got his Ph.D in history at Yale. He taught for 10 years at Indiana University in Bloomington before coming in 2012 to UC San Diego, where he specializes in Roman and Byzantine history.
“I got interested in history because as a high school student I was first exposed to Roman culture and Roman history and really was shocked by how much we could learn from a society that is so distant from us,” he said.
That got him asking questions, trying to bridge the present and the past, and he found the process both challenging and rewarding.
“Mortal Republic” shows how Rome’s elected leaders who initially believed in national service and personal honor moved away from collaboration, compromise and consensus as the population expanded.
Wealth became concentrated in a small number of families who figured out how to manipulate an increasingly sophisticated economy, and they used their money to influence the political process. The fortunes of the middle class stagnated.
Attempts to address income inequality and ease public resentment moved slowly. Rome’s army was privatized, which eventually caused soldiers to put the interests of plundering commanders (and their own desires to share in the loot) ahead of their country.
Over the course of a century, starting in about 130 B.C., outbreaks of economic populism grew increasingly violent. Government rules were broken, traditions ignored, the notion of a common good trampled. Immigrants were disparaged. Politicians used their own militias to intimidate opponents, and when that didn’t work they sometimes turned to assassinations.
Eventually came civil war, and the republic was done. Romans traded liberty for the stability promised by the autocracy of Augustus.
“Above all else, the Roman republic teaches the citizens of its modern descendants the incredible dangers that come along with condoning political obstruction and courting political violence,” Watts writes. “Roman history could not more clearly show that, when citizens look away as their leaders engage in these corrosive behaviors, their republic is in mortal danger.”
Because of when his book came out, some online-forum commentators have dismissed it as a thinly veiled jab at President Trump, whose two years in the White House have been marked by a steady upending of the status quo.
Watts was writing the book during the 2016 campaign, so Trump was certainly on his mind. But he said the president wasn’t the main target.
Political, not partisan
Like most college historians, Watts is cautious about going too far in comparing and contrasting what happened 2,000 years ago to what’s going on today.
“You can’t take a political figure like Trump or Pelosi or whoever and say there’s a Roman example and this is how we understand this person,” he said.
Instead he hopes readers will see that his book “gives us a set of tools to think about the American republic as something that has particular qualities, and it allows us to imagine courses of action that allow us to advocate for the system,” he said. “So in that sense, I think the book is both highly political and not partisan. I hope that it gives us a way to speak for the larger concern about our political system.”
His own view is that “we are in a dangerous political process right now. I think that we’re in the middle of something, the end of the beginning maybe.”
But he also thinks “we have time to right the ship” if Americans can “again embrace what makes our republic work, and defend it.”
That means being willing to support a politician’s policies while also objecting to his or her methods, Watts said. It means refusing to allow governance be a zero-sum game where one side wins and the other side loses.
“I think that’s one of the profound departures we have in the United States from what a republic is supposed to do,” Watts said. “In a functional republic, you don’t have politicians playing exclusively to their base and disregarding everybody else.”
He’s been heartened by the responses to the book from critics and other readers who think it “offers a way we can think positively about steps we can take to maybe correct the trajectory of our political life.”
Will we take them?
“I won’t say that I can guarantee that will happen,” he said. “But I think there is a path forward that has a positive outcome. The challenge we have is to understand what that path is, and decide if that’s what we as a society want.”