Mortal Republic

How Rome Fell into Tyranny


By Edward J. Watts

Read by Matt Kugler

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Learn why the Roman Republic collapsed — and how it could have continued to thrive — with this insightful history from an award-winning author.

In Mortal Republic, prize-winning historian Edward J. Watts offers a new history of the fall of the Roman Republic that explains why Rome exchanged freedom for autocracy. For centuries, even as Rome grew into the Mediterranean’s premier military and political power, its governing institutions, parliamentary rules, and political customs successfully fostered negotiation and compromise.

By the 130s BC, however, Rome’s leaders increasingly used these same tools to cynically pursue individual gain and obstruct their opponents. As the center decayed and dysfunction grew, arguments between politicians gave way to political violence in the streets. The stage was set for destructive civil wars — and ultimately the imperial reign of Augustus.

The death of Rome’s Republic was not inevitable. In Mortal Republic, Watts shows it died because it was allowed to, from thousands of small wounds inflicted by Romans who assumed that it would last forever.



THIS BOOK GREW OUT OF a series of conversations with my children and my students about the ways in which antiquity can help us understand the challenging and occasionally alarming political realities of our world. Each conversation began with a question about whether history repeats itself, a question that has been asked much more frequently over the past two years as journalists and historians turn to the recent past to try to explain an unpredictable present. The past is no oracle and historians are not prophets, but this does not mean that it is wrong to look to antiquity for help understanding the present. The republics that are now so strained did not, like Athena, spring fully formed from the head of Zeus in the eighteenth century. Their founders modeled them on older, extremely successful republics that preceded them. Rome offered the oldest and most successful republic on which many modern states were patterned. The ancient Roman Republic is, of course, very different from a modern state, but the Roman Republic’s distribution of power and its processes for political decision making deeply influenced its modern descendants. The successes and failures of Rome’s republic can show how republics built on Rome’s model might respond to particular stresses. They also reveal which political behaviors prove particularly corrosive to a republic’s long-term health. I hope that this book allows its readers to 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.

A book like this cannot be written without the help, support, and input of many students, friends, and colleagues. I want to first thank the students at Yale, Indiana University, and the University of California, San Diego, I have taught and learned from over the past two decades. Their questions and concerns about the growing political dysfunction descending upon the world around them prompted me to undertake this project. I have benefited greatly from conversations with members of the San Diego Greek community about the relevance of the classical world to contemporary situations. I am particularly thankful to Carol Vassiliadis, whose support for research at UCSD encouraged me to explore more deeply the history of the Roman state that would become Byzantium.

Seth Lerer, Kasey Pfaff, Ben Platt, Denise Demetriou, Karl Gerth, Eric Robinson, Michael Kulikowski, Lieve Van Hoof, Anthony Kaldellis, Gavin Kelly, Scott McGill, David Frankfurter, Peter Van Nuffelen, Johannes Hahn, and Giovanni Alberto Cecconi are among the many friends and colleagues who have shared ideas and suggestions. Josiah Osgood was an amazing resource in the early stages of the project, sharing ideas and a draft manuscript of his wonderful book Rome and the Making of a World State. Cristiana Sogno served as an insightful and erudite sounding board as well as a careful editor who offered comments on many chapters. Much of the book manuscript was completed while I was a fellow at the Israel Institute for Advanced Study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I could not have asked for a more intelligent and friendly group of colleagues. I thank Sarit Kattan Gribetz, Alfons Fürst, Maren Niehoff, Gretchen Reydams-Schils, Carlos Levy, Joshua Levinson, Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Al Baumgarten, David Lambert, Laura Nasrallah, Eve-Marie Becker, and Avigail Manekin for creating such a wonderful environment in which to work and think. I am especially grateful to Sarit and Alfons for reading drafts of chapters and offering suggestions for improving the introduction and conclusion. I am also very appreciative of the careful and insightful editing that Brian Distelberg and Christina Palaia have done on this manuscript and the work that Lara Heimert and the rest of the editorial team at Basic Books have done to move the book through production. The book is much better because of the time and energy that all of these people put into it.

My deepest and most profound thanks go to my wife, Manasi Watts, my children, Nate and Zoe, my parents, Dan and Karen Watts, and my in-laws, Brij and Sunanda Bhargava. This book would not have taken form and certainly would not have been completed without their generosity, patience, and forbearance—especially during the time I spent in Jerusalem. The willingness of Brij and Sunanda to visit me in Israel made the time away much easier. These are gifts for which I can never repay any of them. Both Nate and Zoe have the remarkable ability to frame the sorts of insightful and challenging questions that this book cannot answer but that I hope it may equip them to begin to work through on their own. Manasi helped me immensely as I struggled to tell the story of Rome’s republic in a way that had relevance for a modern, politically astute audience. Her strength, courage, and personal resilience continually inspire and amaze me. With each sentence I write, I hear her voice telling me to make it more efficient and concrete. Even if my sentences remain too long, I hope, in the end, that this book shows how much I have taken her advice and her example to heart.


December 12, 2017



IN 22 BC A SERIES of political and economic crises buffeted the regime of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Augustus had won control of Rome’s Mediterranean empire in 30 BC after nearly two decades of civil conflicts, but his hold on power now seemed like it might be slipping. The emperor had only recently recovered from a severe illness that he himself feared would kill him when a series of other misfortunes beset the imperial capital. Plagues and floods hit Rome late in 23, and both returned in early 22. These natural disasters contributed to a food shortage and to such severe rioting that a mob imprisoned the Roman Senate in the senate house and threatened to burn them alive. Augustus could calm the unrest only when he used his own funds to pay for grain to be delivered to the city. It looked like Augustus’s empire might quickly come apart.1

Things did not improve as the year continued. Augustus felt compelled to appear at the trial of a Roman commander who had attacked a Thracian tribe without legal authority, and, at the hearing, the emperor found himself subjected to an aggressive cross-examination by the advocates of the accused. An assassination plot against him was detected and, although the plotters were executed, the jury embarrassed the emperor by not returning a unanimous verdict against them.2

Problems worsened after Augustus left the capital to attend to matters in the empire’s eastern provinces. The next year, 21 BC, brought rioting about the selection of Roman magistrates, violence that would recur nearly every year until the emperor returned at the end of 19. Rome, whose population of one million people made it the world’s largest city, perpetually sat on the edge of anarchy while its imperial frontiers demanded constant attention. An objective observer might wonder whether one man, even one as skilled as Augustus, could really run so complicated a state. With its seemingly endless problems, Rome’s empire under Augustus might by rights look like a failed political experiment in autocracy. Surely, a citizen of a modern republic might assume, Romans would quickly abandon autocracy and return to the representative republic under which Roman elites had shared power with one another for nearly five hundred years. This is how we, who have lived all of our lives under younger representative democracies, have been trained to think about freedom.3

But the traumas of those years did not, in fact, push Romans back toward the familiar political structures of the republic. Instead, most Romans seem to have craved the power and authority of Augustus even more. In 22 BC, the Roman mob that threatened to burn the senate house also sought to force Augustus to accept the title of dictator although he already possessed supreme power in the empire. The third-century Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that the electoral violence of 21 BC showed “clearly that it was impossible for a democratic government to be maintained” among Romans. And, when Augustus returned to the city in 19 BC, the same author wrote: “There was no similarity between the conduct of the people during his absence, when they quarreled, and when he was present.” Augustus’s presence alone calmed the chaos of Rome and its empire. But Dio added a caveat. Augustus placated Romans only “because they were afraid.” Order came to chaos only when freedom was exchanged for fear.

Augustus himself explained the transition from republic to empire very differently. Although Romans had long held that political domination by one individual represented the opposite of liberty, Augustus framed his autocratic control of the Roman state as a sort of democratic act. In Augustus’s conception, he had restored liberty (libertas) to Rome by first delivering the Roman world from the senators who had seized power by murdering Julius Caesar and by later eliminating the threat of foreign control posed by Cleopatra and her lover Marc Antony.4 Liberty, as Augustus and his supporters saw it, meant the freedom from domestic unrest and foreign interference that came only with the security and political stability that Augustus provided.5 Augustus’s liberty meant that Roman property rights remained valid. It opened economic opportunities to new segments of the Roman population. And it took control of the city and its empire away from an increasingly corrupt senatorial elite whose mismanagement had led to civil war. In the 20s BC, many Romans agreed with Augustus that liberty could not exist if insecurity persisted. They came to believe that freedom from oppression could only exist in a polity controlled by one man.

This book explains why Rome, still one of the longest-lived republics in world history, traded the liberty of political autonomy for the security of autocracy. It is written at a moment when modern readers need to be particularly aware of both the nature of republics and the consequences of their failure. We live in a time of political crisis, when the structures of republics as diverse as the United States, Venezuela, France, and Turkey are threatened. Many of these republics are the constitutional descendants of Rome and, as such, they have inherited both the tremendous structural strengths that allowed the Roman Republic to thrive for so long and some of the same structural weaknesses that led eventually to its demise. This is particularly true of the United States, a nation whose basic constitutional structure was deliberately patterned on the idealized view of the Roman Republic presented by the second-century BC author Polybius. This conscious borrowing from Rome’s model makes it vital for all of us to understand how Rome’s republic worked, what it achieved, and why, after nearly five centuries, its citizens ultimately turned away from it and toward the autocracy of Augustus.6

No republic is eternal. It lives only as long as its citizens want it. And, in both the twenty-first century AD and the first century BC, when a republic fails to work as intended, its citizens are capable of choosing the stability of autocratic rule over the chaos of a broken republic. When freedom leads to disorder and autocracy promises a functional and responsive government, even citizens of an established republic can become willing to set aside long-standing, principled objections to the rule of one man and embrace its practical benefits. Rome offers a lesson about how citizens and leaders of a republic might avoid forcing their fellow citizens to make such a tortured choice.

Rome shows that the basic, most important function of a republic is to create a political space that is governed by laws, fosters compromise, shares governing responsibility among a group of representatives, and rewards good stewardship. Politics in such a republic should not be a zero-sum game. The politician who wins a political struggle may be honored, but one who loses should not be punished. The Roman Republic did not encourage its leaders to seek complete and total political victory. It was not designed to force one side to accept everything the other wanted. Instead, it offered tools that, like the American filibuster, served to keep the process of political negotiation going until a mutually agreeable compromise was found. This process worked very well in Rome for centuries, but it worked only because most Roman politicians accepted the laws and norms of the Republic. They committed to working out their disputes in the political arena that the republic established rather than through violence in the streets. Republican Rome succeeded in this more than perhaps any other state before or since.

If the early and middle centuries of Rome’s republic show how effective this system could be, the last century of the Roman Republic reveals the tremendous dangers that result when political leaders cynically misuse these consensus-building mechanisms to obstruct a republic’s functions. Like politicians in modern republics, Romans could use vetoes to block votes on laws, they could claim the presence of unfavorable religious conditions to annul votes they disliked, and they could deploy other parliamentary tools to slow down or shut down the political process if it seemed to be moving too quickly toward an outcome they disliked. When used as intended, these tools helped promote negotiations and political compromises by preventing majorities from imposing solutions on minorities. But, in Rome as in our world, politicians could also employ such devices to prevent the Republic from doing what its citizens needed. The widespread misuse of these tools offered the first signs of sickness in Rome’s republic.7

Much more serious threats to republics appear when arguments between politicians spill out from the controlled environments of representative assemblies and degenerate into violent confrontations between ordinary people in the streets. Romans had avoided political violence for three centuries before a series of political murders rocked the Republic in the 130s and 120s BC. Once mob violence infected Roman politics, however, the institutions of the Republic quickly lost their ability to control the contexts and content of political disputes. Within a generation of the first political assassination in Rome, politicians had begun to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to influence the votes of assemblies and the election of magistrates. Within two generations, Rome fell into civil war. And, two generations later, Augustus ruled as Roman emperor. When the Republic lost the ability to regulate the rewards given to political victors and the punishments inflicted on the losers of political conflicts, Roman politics became a zero-sum game in which the winner reaped massive rewards and the losers often paid with their lives.

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. 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. Unpunished political dysfunction prevents consensus and encourages violence. In Rome, it eventually led Romans to trade their Republic for the security of an autocracy. This is how a republic dies.

This book begins in the 280s BC, not long after the written record of Roman history becomes more factual than fanciful. The early chapters show how, in moments of crisis throughout the third century BC, Rome’s republic proved remarkably resilient. The consensus-building tools of the Republic ensured that it survived after the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy in 218 and that it remained robust throughout the incredible territorial and economic expansion that followed Hannibal’s defeat in 202. The Republic continued to function well as Rome grew into the premier military and political power in the Mediterranean world during the first half of the second century BC. Unlike most other ancient societies, Rome was able to absorb tremendous amounts of territory and generate great economic growth during these years while remaining politically stable.

By the 130s, however, popular anxiety about growing economic inequality began to threaten the Republic’s stability. When politicians working within the framework of the Republic failed to reach a consensus about how to respond to their citizens’ concerns, some of their rivals opportunistically exploited their inaction by pushing for radical policies in ways that breached the boundaries of acceptable political behavior. The quest for consensus that had made Rome’s republic so stable in previous centuries was quickly replaced by a winner-takes-all attitude toward political disputes. Between 137 and 133, senators disavowed a Roman treaty in order to punish particular political opponents, a group of politicians obstructed land reforms aimed to address social and economic inequality, and their opponents resorted to constitutional trickery to get around their obstruction. Then, as 133 drew to a close, Rome saw its first acts of lethal political violence in more than three centuries.

Subsequent chapters show that the political violence that was so shocking in the 130s became increasingly routine as the second century BC drew to a close. The mob violence of those years, however, only set the stage for the violent and destructive civil wars that tore through Roman and Italian societies in the late 90s and most of the 80s BC. The Social War and the Roman civil wars that followed it resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, executions, and confiscations of property. The Republican structures that had once been so robust and resilient failed amid such widespread violence and dysfunction. Although the Republic would be restored before the 70s began, it would never fully recover.8

The concluding chapters treat the final decades of the Roman Republic. The Republic remained a source of great pride and enjoyed significant public trust through the 60s, 50s, and even into the 40s BC, but the damage done to it in the first decades of the first century could never be completely repaired. Civil war, widespread political violence, and their enduring economic and political repercussions were now a part of the Roman historical experience. And, as the Republic entered its final civil wars in the 40s, all of these traumas rapidly came back to haunt political life.

This violent political world was the one that Augustus came to control, but this is not how Rome’s republic began. In fact, the Republic was expressly designed to prevent the emergence of a figure like Augustus and to limit the political violence that made someone like him possible. It is with this vibrant, capable, and effective Roman Republic that we begin.



IN THE SUMMER OF 280 BC, the Mediterranean world’s past collided with its future as the armies of the Roman Republic met those led by the Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus on a battlefield in Southern Italy. An ambitious and adventurous commander, Pyrrhus had grown up in a Mediterranean created by the implosion of Alexander the Great’s empire following his death in 323. This was a world of mercenary armies, patchwork kingdoms, and fluid political boundaries in which Alexander’s generals and their descendants fought among themselves to try to capture as many fragments of the great Macedonian empire as they could. These kingdoms were large, but their control of territory was often precarious and the allegiances of their armies frequently seemed even weaker. This led ambitious kings and skilled commanders with the right combination of natural talent and good fortune to imagine that they might build an empire like that of Alexander. And no commander was more seduced by the idea of conquest than Pyrrhus.

A cousin of Alexander the Great who had briefly held the Macedonian throne, Pyrrhus had been summoned to Italy by the former Spartan colony of Tarentum after that city had fallen into a conflict with Rome. Greeks saw Rome as a rising and dangerous “barbarian” power that had recently come to control most of Italy, but they also felt that Rome’s recent military successes said little about its ability to fight against the leading states of the Greek world. The alliance between Pyrrhus and the Tarentines bound two parties who neither knew nor particularly trusted one another. But it served a purpose for both of them. Tarentum was a relatively wealthy city that had a history of calling upon restless commanders from the Greek mainland when it was gravely threatened. The Tarentines hoped that Pyrrhus’s arrival could prevent the Romans from threatening the independence of their city and that, after Pyrrhus had fought for them, both he and Rome would leave Tarentum alone.1

Pyrrhus answered Tarentum’s call, however, because he saw in it an opportunity to build an empire for himself in the Western Mediterranean that he could then use to recover the Macedonian throne. Pyrrhus controlled a world-class army of professional infantry, skilled cavalrymen, and elephant-mounted shock troops that seemed likely to easily overwhelm the citizen levies of the barbarian Romans. This would, he expected, eliminate the Roman threat to Tarentum, cause the defection of Rome’s allies in Italy, and enable Pyrrhus to build a large army of allied forces to help him in further campaigns. Once he overwhelmed the Romans, a later author reported, Pyrrhus expected that Italy would become a base from which to mount additional campaigns against Sicily, Carthage, Libya, and, ultimately, Macedonia and Greece.2

The Tarentines, Pyrrhus, and the Greek cities of Southern Italy that were closely watching his campaign probably imagined that the war would end with a Roman defeat and withdrawal. The Romans had only recently established a military presence in Southern Italy and, if they behaved like any other Italian power, they would simply pull back from Tarentum and other Southern Italian cities when faced with the disciplined, well-equipped, first-world army fielded by Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus himself seems to have expected that he could induce a Roman retreat without even fighting a battle. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus preserves a letter that Pyrrhus supposedly sent to Rome offering to arbitrate the dispute among Rome, Tarentum, and Tarentum’s Italian allies so that no side would need to fight. But the Roman consul Lavinius answered curtly that if Pyrrhus had determined to make war on them, he would do well to “investigate those against whom he would be fighting.” Lavinius even sent a captured spy back to Pyrrhus with the instruction that the king himself should come “openly so as to see and learn the might of the Romans.”3

Lavinius had given Pyrrhus fair warning. When Pyrrhus got his first glimpse of the Roman forces, he was said to have remarked with some astonishment that “the discipline of these barbarians is not barbarous.” The Romans made an even greater impression when the forces clashed. Although Pyrrhus was able to attack an exposed Roman army as it crossed a river, the Romans nevertheless held their ground against a cavalry assault led by Pyrrhus himself. Pyrrhus’s horse was killed beneath him yet he emerged victorious when a charge by his elephants broke the lines of Roman soldiers who had never before fought the animals. Pyrrhus won the battle, but at an alarming cost. He had lost somewhere between one-sixth and one-half of his best troops and, because these were highly trained professional soldiers, the dead and wounded were not easily replaced. Although the Tarentines had fought well and some neighboring Italian communities provided Pyrrhus with additional troops following the battle, these reinforcements were inferior to the men that Pyrrhus had lost. In the meantime, the Romans “lost no time in filling up their depleted legions and raising others,” a fact that Pyrrhus supposedly noted with “consternation.” His dream of Italian domination now seemingly out of reach, Pyrrhus sent an embassy offering peace and a military alliance to the Romans if they would in exchange agree to free the Greek cities in Southern Italy they had recently come to control.4

Pyrrhus sent Cineas of Thessaly to Rome to lead the negotiation. A gifted orator and student of the famous Athenian statesman Demosthenes, Cineas could be so persuasive that Pyrrhus once remarked that his words had conquered more cities than the king’s armies. Negotiations between states in the ancient world consisted largely of emissaries making public demands that the other party either accepted or declined. This meant that, even if a victor offered lenient terms, acceptance required the vanquished to publicly admit their defeat and take a hit to their international prestige. Substantial power could be preserved but humiliation could not be avoided.5

When Cineas arrived in Rome, he brought with him expensive presents for the families of individual Roman senators and extremely lenient terms for the Republic. Rome could have peace, the return of its captured prisoners, and even Pyrrhus’s help in future campaigns if only Rome allied with Pyrrhus and pardoned Tarentum. The Senate, later sources say, was inclined to accept these terms until an old, blind senator named Appius Claudius was carried into the senate house by his sons. The speech this respected senator gave would become legendary. The chamber became quiet as he entered and, when he finally stood to speak, he chastised his younger colleagues. “I have previously borne the unfortunate state of my eyes,” he began, “[but now I wish that my ears had been afflicted so that I could avoid] hearing about your shameful deliberations.” He recalled how, in his younger days, Romans spoke about Alexander the Great and the defeat they would have inflicted on him had he turned west instead of east. Pyrrhus, however, is a mere shadow of Alexander. The thought of bowing to him, Appius continued, “diminishes the glory of Rome.” Although Pyrrhus promises an alliance, the Senate should not suppose that any agreement with him can end the trouble that he brought. Instead, his success will attract others and “they will despise you as men whom anyone can easily subdue if Pyrrhus leaves without his hubris being punished.” Indeed, the cost Rome will bear is its willingness to allow other Italians “to mock the Romans.”6


  • "[An] incisive history...Watts describes how the rise of an economic élite and increasing inequality brought about populist sentiment that was easily exploited by nefarious politicians. The parallels to the present day are striking."—New Yorker
  • "If the central analogy that animates Mortal Republic is correct, the current challenge to America's political system is likely to persist long after its present occupant has left the White House."—New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)
  • "Mortal Republic provides excellent insights into how the Republic became the Empire, and more broadly it speaks to the ever-present threat of centralized power. The more a civilization centralizes, the more powerful a central government becomes."—New York Journal of Books
  • "Watts chronicles the ways the republic, with a population once devoted to national service and personal honor, was torn to shreds by growing wealth inequality, partisan gridlock, political violence and pandering politicians, and argues that the people of Rome chose to let their democracy die by not protecting their political institutions, eventually turning to the perceived stability of an emperor instead of facing the continued violence of an unstable and degraded republic."—Smithsonian
  • "Readers will find many parallels to today's fraught political environment: the powerful influence of money in politics, a 'delegitimized establishment,' and 'the emergence of a personality-driven, populist politicking.' Watts ably and accessibly...covers a lot of ground in a manner accessible to all readers, including those with little knowledge of Roman history. This well-crafted analysis makes clear the subject matter's relevance to contemporary political conversations."—Publishers Weekly
  • "In a timely book of ancient history, an eminent classicist looks at Rome's decline from representative government to corrupt empire.... Given that mistrust of institutions is a key ingredient in the collapse of republican rule, as we are witnessing daily, the lesson is pointed. An engaging, accessible history that, read between the lines, offers commentary on today's events as well as those of two millennia past."—Kirkus
  • "Lucid, fast-paced, and well informed. Edward Watts's history of the failure of the Roman Republic is the tale of how greed and self-interest undermined the ancient world's most successful democratic superpower and caused Rome's people to vote in a dictatorship. Beginning with Rome's confrontations with Pyrrhus and Carthage, and a relatively simple state based on reasonable equity, Watts takes us into a world of the super-rich who undermined the very system that gave them their wealth, driving it downwards into civil war and mass murder. The elective tyranny of Augustus proved to be the only answer. This is both a splendid introduction to one of the most dramatic periods of history and a book for our times."—David Potter, author of Constantine the Emperor
  • "Mortal Republic retells the familiar story of how one of history's most famous and long-lived republics became a monarchy. Edward Watts is an expert and eloquent guide through the political drama of the late republic, and his book offers a timely reminder that constitutions are fragile and that the politics of consensus can be replaced by the politics of violence one small selfish act at a time."—Kyle Harper, author of The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

On Sale
Nov 6, 2018
Hachette Audio

Edward J. Watts

About the Author

Edward J. Watts holds the Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Endowed Chair and is professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. The author and editor of several prize-winning books, including The Final Pagan Generation, he lives in Carlsbad, California.

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