How Ancient Rome Killed Democracy

It didn’t take all that much to tip a great civilization into the shackles of empire.

12.09.15 6:00 AM ET

Rome holds a special place in the popular imagination. Cast as a culture steeped in myth, with values reminiscent of our own, it is often treated as the forebearer of our own political system, an ancestral democracy that provides a republican link between the present and the ancient past. From architecture to literature to political system, Rome is where it all began.

But in his latest book, Richard Alston wants us all to think a little more critically about our beloved Rome.

Alston is a Professor of Roman History at the University of London’s Royal Holloway, and the inspiration for Rome’s Revolution: Death of the Republic and Birth of the Empire came from his own dissatisfaction with the existing body of work on Roman politics. He saw how the idealized vision of Roman culture that these works present influenced the way his students thought about Rome. “Somehow,” Alston writes in the preface, “it was all too nice … but the Roman accounts of their revolution are anything but nice. They were shocked and shocking.”


The revolution in question is the upheaval following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and the eventual shift from republic to empire that Rome experienced in the 70 years that followed. The murder of Caesar by members of the Roman senate is as much part of popular culture as history, a historical turning point that’s been passed down through the centuries. But while both rhetoric at the time and common knowledge today suggests that the assassination was a win for republicanism, Alston quickly sets about skewering that narrative.

As Alston points out, Rome quickly devolved into civil war, with three men eventually bringing peace and beginning the consolidation of power. Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian put into place a government predicated on a state of emergency, reserving for themselves unprecedented levels of power while using the rhetoric of the republic to pander to Roman values. After all, if Caesar had to be killed in order to set to rights the republic he co-opted, the legitimacy of those who came after him depended on playing to republican institutions and the illusion of senatorial leadership.

It was a slow and complex march toward empire from there, as Antony and Lepidus were eliminated by Octavian through civil war, political maneuvering, and careful manipulation of the public. By making sizable payments to Roman soldier and citizens, while using violence and fear to maintain order, Octavian gradually secured power for himself and positioned his family as a dynasty. When he died in 14 AD, Rome was an empire and the republic was no more.

While fascinating, those who don’t have a very solid background in Roman history may find the barrage of names, changing titles, and places in the ancient world overwhelming at times. The close attention to detail and examination of places where fact and political narrative possibly diverge back up the claims that Alston makes regarding the violence and competition in Roman society. But they also make the book an involved read that’s easy to get turned around in. The same goes for the complicated network of marriages, divorces, political targeting, and infighting that define the leading families, illustrating the messy web of loyalties that’s difficult to follow for a casual reader.

Where Rome’s Revolution shines, though, is in the bigger picture. Alston carefully deconstructs the myths Romans held about their own origins and political values, breaking down the narratives about civilization and democracy to show the messy inner workings of an ancient system built on hierarchy and violence. When the senators stabbed Caesar, it was a bloody and symbolic attempt to return to the “good old days” of Roman strength, ending dictatorship in order to get back to a more pure manifestation of their values as a state. As the shift from republic to empire begins, leaders claiming a desire to save Rome from moral failings, by imposing restrictions on the private lives of citizens, look to the past to justify their decrees, albeit a past that was selectively chosen from a far more complex context.

Comparisons between Rome and the United States are common and often alarmist speculation about the possible decline of the United States. But in Rome’s Revolution, the possible lessons learned feel decidedly more applicable given the current political climate. A glorified myth of past greatness, espoused values that clash with the reality of leadership, and attempts to govern the supposed morality of citizens all feel very contemporary. The fact that a movement to restore the state to the mythic stature it once supposedly had failed is perhaps a far more realistic lesson to draw from Rome than the possible signs of the end of a former world power.

Although at times daunting for a reader unfamiliar with the intricacies of Roman politics, Rome’s Revolution is still a strikingly poignant examination of the dangers in self-aggrandizing myths of national glory, and the ways in which efforts to return to a non-existent past can push a state further from their supposed values. The inconsistency of ideology, action, and rhetoric in Rome feels entirely too relatable at times, while our own readiness to take Roman historical narratives at face value rather than critically looking at those inconsistencies calls into question the way Rome fits into our own flawed sense of exceptionalism. For Rome, the greatest threat to republicanism wasn’t outside forces, but internal power grabs cloaked in the rhetoric of popular government. Perhaps that is the cautionary tale the U.S. should be looking towards.