Rome rose to greatness without a professional army, relying instead on its ordinary citizens to take up arms when necessary. How did these part-time soldiers defeat all the great powers of ancient Mediterranean?

Our guest today Steele Brand offers an original answer to this question in his new book Killing for the Republic: Citizen Soldiers and the Roman Way of War. Brand is professor of history at The King's College in New York City. His understanding of military matters is informed by his service in the US army as a tactical intelligence officer, including a combat tour in Afghanistan.

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Scholarly works mentioned during the conversation:

Arthur Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome, University of California Press, 2007. (discussed at the 33:55 mark)

The intro to this episode was provided by Genn McMenemy and Jenny Williamson of the Ancient History Fangirl podcast, a show that offers wildly entertaining and well-researched journeys through the ancient world. Check it out at

Transcript of the episode's prologue:

What made Rome great? What enabled a small city-state in Italy to grow until it conquered everything from Spain to Syria? Historians have been trying to answer this question ever since the time of the Roman empire itself.

This question has also been of particular interest to American thinkers, since our constitution was deliberately designed with Rome as a model, and since America then went on to experience a meteoric rise in power much like Rome had. Not surprisingly, over the past couple of hundred years American writers and foreign observers have repeatedly compared America to Rome and have used such analogies to draw lessons or warnings from history.

Such comparisons of course continue today. But there is a big confusion that permeates a lot of contemporary America-Rome discussions that I think we need to clear up once and for all, viz. the difference between the Roman Empire and the Roman Republic. The Rome that we know through most of our books and movies is the Roman Empire. But the Rome that Jefferson, Adams, and Madison used as a model, was not that Rome, but the earlier Roman Republic.

The Founders didn't want America to ever become like the Roman Empire. They wanted America to keep calm and carry on like the Roman Republic as long as possible. And when they contemplated the end of America, they didn't imagine it being invaded by barbarian hordes like the Roman empire was. They imagined factional strife and mob violence bringing it down like what happened to the Roman Republic in the first century BC (which is what then gave birth to the empire).

Obviously, no historical analogy is perfect. But if your going to start drawing parallels, don't ignore the Republic. This whole debate that has been raging in the blogosphere about whether America is the Roman Empire, about which emperor our president most resembles, and whether the current migrant crisis is like the migrations of the 5th century AD, is kind of silly. Meanwhile, the republic is sitting off in a corner somewhere going, “Hello! I'm right here!” But nobody talks about it.

So why is that? Well, partly it's because most of the written sources we have from Rome come from the Empire. So it's really easy to dive into that period. By contrast, the Early to Middle Republic is only accessible to us through fragmentary and late sources. So, you need to be almost an expert to be able to sift through that material.

But the people who have that expertise—the professional historians (at least the majority of them—don't make historical comparisons any more because that's considered old-fashioned in academia. The current dominant view among academic historians is that history is too variable to exhibit any laws or even patterns.

But, as it seems, the temptation to look to the past for guidance and for lessons is too great to ever die. Even if the majority of historians today are right that there are no meaningful patterns or practical lessons to be gleaned from the study of the past, I don't think we will every stop looking. There will always be historians who try to mine the past for knowledge that is useful for us today. You've heard many such historians on this program.

Our guest today is no exception. Steele Brand is professor of history at The King's College in New York City, and author of the book Killing for the Republic: Citizen Soldiers and the Roman Way of War. The book offers an original answer to the question we opened with: What made Rome great?

Brand's understanding of military matters is informed by his service in the US army as a tactical intelligence officer including a combat tour in Afghanistan. Throughout the book, he doesn't shy away from drawing parallels with modern America, and tells his readers: “If Americans wish to take their country's history seriously, they must also take seriously the ancient republics that educated their framers.”

And now, without further ado, here is my recent conversation with Steele Brand on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and the role that citizen soldiers played.