The New York Times

How a Republic Dies

A HISTORIAN SEES PARALLELS BETWEEN ANCIENT ROME AND MODERN AMERICA.

“Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny”

By Edward J. Watts

336 pages. Basic Books. $32.

Near the beginning of the third century B.C., the Republic of Rome faced an acute threat to its domination of the Italian peninsula. In a series of brutal battles, Pyrrhus of Epirus and a fearsome parade of 20 war elephants had managed to vanquish Rome’s armies. When Pyrrhus offered Rome a comparatively lenient peace treaty, many of its senior statesmen were keen to take the deal.

It was, shows in “Mortal Republic,” thanks to the unrivaled strength of Rome’s political institutions that Pyrrhus’ victories ultimately issued in his proverbial defeat. When the Senate convened to debate the offer, “an old, blind senator named was carried into the Senate house by his sons.” As the chamber fell silent, he stood to chastise his colleagues. “I have,” he said, “long thought of the unfortunate state of my eyes as an affliction, but now that I hear you debate shameful resolutions which would diminish the glory of Rome, I wish that I were not only blind but also deaf.” By giving in to Pyrrhus, Claudius warned, the Roman Republic would only invite more outside powers to mess with it. Low as the odds of victory might be, Rome had no choice but to keep fighting.

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