“The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan (2017)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #2.) 

I have been a fan of Mike Duncan’s work for a very long time. I became hooked on his History of Rome podcast somewhere around 2009-2010, during a period where I became sick of news radio after the excesses of the 2008 election. It was a simpler time! I followed him onto his new Revolutions podcast. He is one of the best serial history storytellers on the planet; many other podcasters have tried to match his scope and style (I regularly listen to a dozen of them), but no one quite manages to be as engaging on a week-over-week basis. I could write forever on the strengths and weaknesses of my favorite podcasters, but perhaps another day.

I preordered this book as soon as it was announced. I hoped to meet him at a signing in Cambridge, but scheduling didn’t work out. Cracking open the book for the first time, I had high expectations and they were mostly met. This book tells the story of the “beginning of the end” of the Roman Republic, up to the Dictatorship of Sulla and his subsequent constitutional reforms around 80 BCE. That story is less famous than the rise of Julius Ceasar or the Empire under Augustus Ceasar, or even the later fall of the Western Empire, but it is a good one and he tells it well. He focuses the book on two threads: the decline of the “mos maiorum”, the unwritten constitution of the Republic, and of the struggles for social and political equality, first with the Equestrians and later with the question of citizenship for non-Roman Italians. To that end, his practice with social history on Revolutions has served him very well. Battles and Roman military history is covered but glossed over, except where it specifically served one of those two threads. As the political classes struggled, he retells how one generation’s minor excess becomes the next’s established practice up until the point that political questions are solved through murder and mob violence, purges of the senatorial class, and all out civil war. The book ends with Italian citizenship granted, but over a demolished Italy and with a populace that had become used to the idea that stability can be best granted when an individual asserts control of the government at all levels. The Ceasars will use that to their advantage in just a few years.

Where I am unhappy is Mr. Duncan’s frequent off-handed references to the current political climate. Yes, there are parallels to Roman history and our own, and I also fear that we are losing the American “mos maiorum”, but he was too on the nose about it. There’s a line in there about how a lie in ancient Rome could become the truth if it is just repeated enough. Another section mentions (unnecessarily) that a particularly corrupt politician was a real estate baron. There are more examples, but you get the idea. I hope these references do not make his book seem dated in a few years because it’s a great volume.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. It’s not perfect, but as it made the bestseller list I expect there to be the inevitable sequel, perhaps covering the next stages toward the Empire. I’d buy it.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. “Captain  Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012)

I’m still planning to read at least part of “A Horseman Riding By”, but before then I have a few others that will end up getting finished first.

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