Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.
“The triumph of the Roman Republic was also the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.”
In 146 B.C., Rome razed its last major Mediterranean competitor, Carthage, to the ground, exterminating or enslaving everyone within it. A hundred years later, the Roman Republic would undergo a series of bloody civil wars that would be put to an end only with the rise of a dictator, Augustus, who would centralize power in the office of a single man. How did a set of governing institutions that were so resilient as to raise and establish Rome as the unchallenged Mediterranean hegemon fail so profoundly that they had to be effectively dissolved and replaced by an emperor?
This is the question that Mike Duncan, the person responsible for the acclaimed History of Rome podcast, answers in his first book. Rather than focusing on the iconic yet familiar figures of the two final civil wars that sealed the republic’s fate – Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Crassus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Octavian and Agrippa – Duncan turns to the period immediately preceding it. Julius Caesar did not arise from a vacuum. He arose from the political competition between the Gracchi brothers and the nobility – which began in earnest around 133 B.C., giving way to the internal competition, culminating in the civil war between Marius and Sulla, in turn leading to the struggle between the optimates and populares of Julius Caesar’s day.
In the story of the fall of the republic, we see concepts that support modern geopolitical analysis, which is unsurprising since ultimately geopolitics addresses the interaction of human societies and human nature’s influence on those societies. For example, the question of identity is central. Though Rome’s Italian allies had fought and died and lost their land throughout Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean, they still lacked Roman citizenship. In their eyes, they were Romans. To the nobility, however, they were not, and incorporating them into the growing voting pool risked diluting their own power. Though Rome had conquered the Italian Peninsula before embarking on 100 years of war, it was in this essential way still divided, and the division was fundamental in the formation of the political factions that followed the end of the Third Punic War.
So, too, do we see the recently victorious state struggling with an ever-expanding sphere of interests. Carthage had been destroyed, but that just sucked Rome into a civil war with its erstwhile ally, Numidia, that lay to the east of Rome’s new Carthaginian holdings in North Africa. With Rome’s annexation of Spain, which had previously belonged to Carthage, it faced an insurrection that demanded precious time and resources. The conquest of Greece brought threats from the Thracians to the north, which distracted and divided Roman forces when the Cimbri, a mass of 300,000 migrating Gauls, arrived on Italy’s northern border. Farther to the east in Anatolia and on the shores of the Black Sea, a young king named Mithridates VI of Pontus conquered enough territory to begin threatening Rome’s rule in its recently acquired eastern provinces. These threats forced Rome to continue to conscript Italian allies, who were only further aggravated by the ongoing burden of war without the attendant benefits of Roman citizenship.
“The Storm Before the Storm” is a detailed study of one of the most important periods in human history, with crisp, easy-to-read prose to boot. Many, including Duncan, make comparisons between America and Rome. There are similarities, but there are also plenty of differences, and this book provides such rich detail of the history of Rome’s fall that it will make readers feel more comfortable making informed comparisons. For anyone who has ever wondered how a man like Julius Caesar could rise within the structures of a republic – and with his rise destroy them – this book is a must-read.
Xander Snyder, analyst
In “The Power Triangle,” Hazem Kandil analyzes how three countries – Egypt, Iran and Turkey – could experience similar coups but end up in very different places. His prism for this study is what he calls the power triangle, made up of the civilian government, the security services and the military. Each competes for resources, including control over the state apparatus. The balance of power between them helps to determine a country’s form of government.
Kandil’s book is essentially an analysis of geopolitics at a domestic level. Each corner of the power triangle has its own core imperative: attracting resources at the expense of the other groups. Each has constraints: the strength of the other two institutions and the domestic economic situation, but also geopolitics. Take the democratization of Turkey, for example. The civilian side of the power triangle, the caliphate, had been destroyed by World War I. The police in the 1920s were so weak that Kemal Ataturk delegated domestic security to the army. But after World War II, as the Soviet Union was vying for control of the Bosporus, Turkey sought protection via closer defense ties with the West. It was forced to democratize in exchange. Turkey, in the words of Kandil, viewed “democracy as a security imperative.” The military, however, continued to play an important role in shaping the form of government, as demonstrated by the numerous coups that came later.
In Iran, there was no strong military or security establishment. Even though Reza Shah Pahlavi, the shah from 1925 to 1941, came from the armed forces, the state that he built was organized in a monarchical tradition dominated by a civilian government. In Egypt, the army was diminished, having been subordinated to the British Empire, having failed in its war for national liberation and having suffered a stinging defeat in the 1948 Palestine War. The strongest branch in Egypt was the secret police, an inheritance from the period of British rule.
“The Power Triangle” demonstrates how geopolitics plays out on a domestic level, influencing both the internal political trajectory of states and their intentional alignments.
Nora T. Kalinskij, analyst