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Before the Fall of the Roman Republic, Income Inequality and Xenophobia Threatened Its Foundations

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Long before Julius Caesar declared himself dictator for life in 44 B.C., essentially spelling the beginning of the end to the Roman Republic, trouble was brewing in the halls of power.

The warning signs were there. Politicians such as Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus (together known as the Gracchi brothers) were thwarted from instituting a series of populist reforms in the 100s B.C., then murdered by their fellow senators. Old and unwritten codes of conduct, known as the mos maiorum, gave way as senators struggled for power. A general known as Sulla marched his army on Rome in 87 B.C., starting a civil war to prevent his political opponent from remaining in power. Yet none of these events have become as indelibly seared into Western memory as Caesar’s rise to power or sudden downfall, his murder in 44 B.C.

“For whatever reason, nobody ever stops and says, if it was this bad by the 40s BC, what was it that started to go wrong for the Republic?” says Mike Duncan, writer and podcast host of The History of Rome and Revolutions. “Most people have been jumping into the story of the Late Republic in the third act, without any real comprehension of what started to go wrong for the Romans in the 130s and 120s BC.”

This was the question Duncan wanted to examine in his new book, The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic. To learn more about the events that preceded the fall of the Republic, and what lessons the modern world can learn from it, Smithsonian.com spoke with Duncan.