The Storm Before the Storm

The Storm Before the Storm: Reviewed

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan reviewed from something of a corporate governance perspective.

The final victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars led to rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct, the privatization of the military, rampant corruption, endemic social and ethnic prejudice, battles over citizenship and voting rights, ongoing military quagmires, the introduction of violence as a political tool, and a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.

Duncan makes no references to our current administration but the parallels are obvious… at least to me. Seven years ago the wealth of 388 billionaires equaled the wealth of the poorest half of humanity. Now it only takes five billionaires. Large companies like Snap, Facebook and Alphabet are virtual dictatorships and they can have a huge influence over our elections and governments.

Duncan’s Storm Before the Storm studies that critical generation before the rise of Caesar. It has much to teach us. I was immediately reminded of Ben Franklin’s admonition regarding what form of government the Constitutional Convention created: “A republic, if you can keep it,” he reportedly said. Both Franklin and Duncan remind us that democracies are fragile. If we continue to move corporate governance to a democratic-free zone the consequences are predictable. Dictatorship, or something close, will follow.

Through actions such as refusing to muster for military service, electing tribunes who guarded against patrician abuse, and by setting up sanctuaries, plebeians gained a real voice in governing Rome and checked the power of the Senate, largely organized around client-patron networks. Unfortunately, by the end of the Punic Wars, consuls, tribunes and even Assemblies no longer checked the authority of the powerful aristocratic Senate but, instead, extended its powers.

Duncan weaves a complex but interesting tale of republican soil breeding tyrants. Our current President boasted he could “shoot somebody and not lose voters.” Sulla read his report on the Mithridatic War to the Roman Senate while soldiers slaughtered 6,000 prisoners within earshot. Thankfully, we haven’t reached that stage but the underlying message seems similar; enemies will be treated harshly.

As he rose to power, Sulla flaunted traditional rules of loyalty and etiquette to win fame. His followers paid more attention to what could be done, rather than what should be done. He thought he was restoring the Senate to its former glory but senatorial domination had been a recent development. Making Rome great again should not have meant restoring an oligarchy. Sulla failed to learn from history.

Economic inequality, polarization and ruthless ambition led to the end of peaceful power transitions in Rome and to the end of the Republic. As Franklin implied, we need to do more than hope it doesn’t happen here. We need to work to keep our republic.

Since corporations wield such influence, especially after what could be termed the storm before the storm for America in the form of Citizens United, maintaining some semblance of  democracy within corporate governance is equally important.

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