The Fall of the Roman Republic: Implications for Modern Democracies

Course Leader(s)
Day of Week: Wednesday
Course Length: 8 weeks
Starting: 09/11/2024
Ending: 11/13/2024
Period of Day: Period 2 Zoom
Time: 11:30 - 1:00
Course Fee: $80

Course Description:

Western democracies, including the United States, are facing serious economic, social, and political problems. Many are experiencing a decline in democratic values or “backsliding” as political scientists call it. This includes loss of faith in institutions, violation of political norms, and demagogues exploiting populist grievances. Political polarization has become extreme and violence more common. Is this situation unprecedented?  History never repeats itself but it sometimes rhymes, and this situation parallels the troubles of the late Roman Republic, which collapsed into a dictatorship.

Important to Roman foundational legends was the revolt against the last king in 509 BCE and the formation of the Republic. The Roman Republic had an elaborate system of laws and norms to ensure that no one person could achieve dominance and persistent power. For almost 400 years it worked. Starting in the second century BCE, however, Roman conquests led to increasing disparities in wealth together with social and economic disruptions. These challenges could no longer be managed by their system of government. Certain wealthy individuals exacerbated the situation by ignoring the norms of the Republic and fanning populist resentment to overturn “the system.”  Mob violence became an accepted form of political discourse.  This culminated in Julius Caesar, a cunning politician with a ruthless lust for power.  Although Caesar was assassinated “to save the Republic,” it was too late and power fell into the hands of emperors — the Roman euphemism for kings.

Are there relevant insights we can gain from the decline and fall of the Roman Republic?  We will examine the forces and mechanism responsible for the destruction of the Republic and compare them to what modern democracies are facing.  For example, globalization may not be the same as foreign conquests, but it may rhyme well enough to produce similar consequences such as extreme wealth inequality and social displacement.

This course will use a combination of videos, slides, and discussion.  Weekly preparation time will be less than one hour.

Please note that the last class will take place on November 13.

Books and Other Resources:

There will be no required reading, but some short articles may be sent out.  A list of books will be provided for those interested in pursuing certain topics in greater depth.

Course Leader Bio(s)

Bill Miniscalco

I have a PhD in physics and spent decades doing basic and applied research.  However, I have always had a strong interest in history and literature, to which I now devote more time than to science.  I find ancient history particularly fascinating and enjoy visiting archaeological sites, the older the better.  One thing I find intriguing is how, despite vast changes in technology and knowledge, similar the social, economic, and political behavior of people has been over millennia.  This is part of my motivation for developing this course.  Among my non-academic interests are travelling to interesting places and high-performance driving on race tracks.