Edward Watts on the End of the Roman Republic and Lessons for Democracy

When we think of ancient Rome, we usually think of the Empire and the Caesars, but the Roman Republic flourished for nearly five centuries before becoming an autocracy. How did the Republic fail, and what can we learn from it today?

Historian Edward Watts discusses the question with Sean Carroll on the Mindscape podcast.

The short answer: For a century or so, Roman politicians pushed the envelope and violated norms until finally nobody was alive anymore who could remember a functioning Republic, and autocracy became inevitable. Watts points out that the adult lifespan in the Roman Republic was about 50 years. There was a tragically high infant mortality rate, but if you could make it to adulthood you had a good chance of making it to 50. But after that, you aged and died fast.

The podcast glosses over the extent to which the Republic was really an oligarchy. Only a few people were citizens, most were non-citizens or outright slaves. Indeed, one proposal during the Republic to require slaves to wear uniforms was quashed by an aristocrat who noted that if the slaves could look around and see how they outnumbered free Romans, a rebellion would surely follow.

Still, a good podcast and thought-provoking in these norm-violating times. Adding Watts’s book, “Mortal Republic,” to my to-be-read list. Watts is local to UC San Diego; gotta patronize local business!


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