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Author: Mike Duncan

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

Publisher: Public Affairs 2017; 265 pp. of text

"The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic" is Mike Duncan’s first book following on his career as a podcaster of 189 weekly episodes on the "History of Rome." This book covers the years 146 BC to 78 BC.

Duncan describes the Roman Republic of 146 BC as having several levels of government with no one leader, but with two counsels elected by the senate every year and who could not serve for more than one year. Though not a democracy with universal suffrage, the Roman Republic was a well-functioning government. But in the early part of the years, Duncan describes things  as they began to fall apart.

Duncan writes of the succession of Roman leaders, who dealing with wars and enemies within and without, out maneuver and murder one another. Few of the people about whom he writes died peacefully, though Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the first dictator since before 146 BC, died in his home in 78 BC. Unlike the fate of most of his predecessors, Sulla did not die at the hands of his enemies or by suicide.

The first step to power for most Roman leaders was meritorious service in the military. The Roman Legions were strong, well-trained military formations, perhaps akin to divisions in today’s Army. Duncan writes of some of the wars and big battles with the losing forces being slaughtered and the survivors taken as slaves. Well led, but outnumbered, Legions regularly defeated enemies.

Marius Gaius was such a leader. Facing a two-pronged invasion into northern Italy, he led his outnumbered Legions numbering 50,000 men on two fronts. In 102 BC in Gaul, he destroyed 120,000 Teutones and Ambrones, and, in 101 BC, defeated and slaughtered in northeast Italy a force of 200,000 Gimbri leaving 120,00 dead on the battlefield with the rest taken as slaves. This was a reversal of the Gimbri slaughter in 105 BC of 60,000 to 80,000 legionnaires. Duncan writes: “As is so often the case in Roman history, repeated defeats in battle could be endured as long as the Romans won the war.”

Marius Gaius was hailed as The Third Founder of Rome, but he fell out with his internal enemies in Rome and was murdered.

Sulla, who became dictator at the end of this era, had been targeted for murder. But with five Legions under his command who were loyal to him, he took Rome, bringing a bloodbath to his enemies. Sulla, who was then in complete control, restored the senate and convinced it to appoint him as dictator. His goal was to restore the republic as he thought it should be organized and he actually retired when he thought he had achieved his goal, but it was simply a prelude to the emperors Julius Caesar and Augustus.

Duncan writes with wit and a sense of humor, and he delivers several good lines: “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 can easily think of quite a few politicians to whom this applies. Duncan writes in his author’s note “about how the Roman Republic came to the brink of disaster in the first place — a question that is perhaps more relevant today than ever.”

He does see parallels between Rome and America being founded by people moving to new territory. Having read this book, America, its people and its leaders, by comparison, are in great shape.

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Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.