The rise and fall of ancient Rome has been on American minds from the beginning of our republic.Today we focus less on the Roman Republic than on the empire that took its place. Depending on who’s doing the talking, the history of Rome serves as either a triumphal call to action or a dire warning of imminent collapse. In Are We Rome? the esteemed editor and author Cullen Murphy reveals a wide array of similarities between the two empires: the blinkered, insular culture of our capitals; the debilitating effect of bribery in public life; the paradoxical issue of borders; and the weakening of the body politic through various forms of privatization. Murphy persuasively argues that we most resemble Rome in the burgeoning corruption of our government and in our arrogant ignorance of the world outsidetwo things that must be changed if we are to avoid Rome’s fate.
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About the Author
Cullen Murphy is the editor at large at Vanity Fair and the former managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of Are We Rome?, The Word According to Eve, and the essay collection Just Curious.
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The Eagle in the Mirror
Urbs antiqua fuit. . . . Urbs antiqua ruit.
There once was an ancient city. . . . The ancient city fell.
— Virgil, The Aeneid
Imagine the scene: a summer day, late in the third century A.D., somewhere beyond Italy in the provinces of the Roman Empire, perhaps on the way to a city like Sirmium, south of the Danube, in what is now Serbia, where several roads converge — good Roman roads of iron slag and paving stone. The Roman road system is immense — more than 370 separate highways stretching some 53,000 miles all told, about the length of the U.S. interstate system. In these difficult final centuries of the imperium a Roman emperor travels constantly, and his progress makes for quite a spectacle. "The peasants raced to report what they had seen to the villages," a contemporary remembers. "Fires were lit on the altars, incense thrown on, libations poured, victims slain."
The emperor here is perhaps Diocletian, a man of the hinterland, from Dalmatia, and wherever the emperor resides, so resides the imperial government, although Rome itself will long retain its symbolic character — will long be referred to as "the city" even by people five hundred miles away. Who is this Diocletian? No friend of the Christians; he is a "traditional Roman values" man, and his persecutions are intense. But he has restored Rome's stability, at great cost, and in his travels he projects Rome's power. Before the emperor's arrival, advance men known as mensores would have been sent ahead to requisition supplies and arrange for security. If youhave business with the imperial court, perhaps bearing a petition from your beleaguered city or a plea from your patrician family, and make your way toward the emperor's encampment, you will encounter other supplicants like yourself. Some of them may have been following the emperor for weeks or months. You will also encounter a defensive ring a few miles outside your destination, and find the roads dense with military traffic; and as you draw closer, the character of the armed forces will change, from auxiliaries to legionaries to the imperial bodyguard, a force known as the protectores. The imperial eagle flutters on their standards.
At last, in the center, you find the comitatus itself, the sprawling apparatus, several thousand strong, that encompasses not only the emperor's household and its personnel — the eunuchs and secretaries, the slaves of every variety (the emperor may own 20,000 of them) — but also the ministries of government, the lawyers, the diplomats, the adjutants, the messengers, the interpreters, the intellectuals. And of course you also find the necessities of life and the luxuries, the rich food and drink. Gone is the simple camp fare of Trajan's day, the bacon, cheese, and vinegar. A letter survives describing the table laid for just one Roman dignitary (and four companions) visiting Egypt — "ten white-head fowl, five domestic geese, fifty fowl; of game-birds, fifty geese, two hundred birds, one hundred pigeons"; multiply accordingly for the emperor and his household. And the ruler himself: How does he spend his time? Receiving petitions? Perhaps he remembers the famous story of one of his predecessors, Hadrian, who put off a pleading woman with the words "I do not have the leisure," only to receive the reply "Then stop being emperor!" (Hadrian made time for the woman.) Consulting with his generals? Repairs to the Danube forts are an urgent necessity, given how many of the German tribes cross over every winter when the river freezes. Dictating letters and decrees? Maybe writing something in his own hand? An earlier emperor, Marcus Aurelius, composed part of his Meditations while on a military campaign along the northern frontier; Book One ends with the notation that it was written "among the Quadi," the people he was fighting. Whoever the emperor may be, gathered around the august presence is the imperial government in microcosm, with its endless trunks full of documents; the wagons carrying the treasury and perhaps the mint itself; the blacksmiths and parchment makers; the musicians, courtesans, diviners, and buffoons; the people known as praegustatores, who taste the emperor's food before he himself does; the people known as nomenclatores, whose job it is to call out the names of the emperor's visitors, and who have given us the word nomenklatura, for the core group of bureaucrats and toadies who function within any nimbus of great power. All in all the comitatus is, in its way, the cluster of people who in our own time would be encompassed by the Washington e-mail designation "eop.gov."
Or so it occurred to me one summer morning not long ago as my plane touched down in the rain at Shannon Airport, in the Republic of Ireland. The domain name "eop" stands for "Executive Office of the President" — that is, the White House and its extensions — and as it happened, the president of the United States had arrived in Ireland shortly before I did, for an eighteen- hour official visit. His two Air Force One jumbo jets were parked on the shiny tarmac, nose to nose. The presidential eagle, a descendant of Rome's, glared from within the presidential seal, painted prominently near the front door of each fuselage. A defensive perimeter of concertina wire surrounded the two aircraft. Surface-to-air missiles backed it up. The perimeter was manned by American forces in battle fatigues, flown in for the occasion — just one element of the president's U.S. security detail, a thousand strong. Other security personnel peered down from the rooftops of hangars and terminals, automatic weapons at the ready. Ringing the airport was a cordon of Scorpion tanks supplied by the Irish Republic. A traveling president, too, brings with him a government in microcosm. Air Force One can carry much of the presidential comitatus — cabinet members and courtiers and cooks, speech doctors and spin doctors. Provisioning has not been overlooked: the plane can serve meals for 2,000 people, the supplies bought anonymously at American supermarkets by undercover agents, the updated version of those praegustatores. And if there's a medical emergency? An onboard operating room is stocked with blood of the president's type; his personal physician is at hand. From the plane's command center a president can launch and wage a nuclear war, or any other kind, for that matter. The forward compartment is what passes for a throne room, containing the president's leather armchair and his wraparound oak desk and his telephone with its twenty-eight encrypted lines.
Off in the mist would be the Air Force cargo planes, which had brought helicopters, a dozen Secret Service SUVs, and the official presidential limousine (plus the official decoy limousine), its windows three inches thick and its doors so heavy with armor that gas-powered pistons must be used to help open them. Four U.S. naval vessels plied the Shannon River estuary nearby. Outside the airport the roads were jammed with Irish soldiers and police officers — 6,000 in all, slightly more than an entire Roman legion — and on even the tiniest boreens security personnel with communications piglet tails trailing from their ears would emerge from hiding places in the bracken if a passing car, like mine, so much as slowed to avoid some sheep.
Had this president of the United States, George W. Bush, been of a mind to compose his own Meditations on this visit, he could legitimately say that he wrote them "among the Alemanni, the Franci, the Celtae," because he was here with the Germans, the French, the Irish, and a number of other tribes for a summit meeting with members of the European Union — a meeting, in other words, with the leaders of allied or subsidiary nations. Ireland, though not technically an American ally, often functions as a client state, and has allowed the United States to route hundreds of transport planes through Shannon Airport, bearing American troops bound for duty in Iraq and Muslim captives bound for interrogation in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. "You are aware of your role as a tributary," a senior British minister has written of his encounters with American officials on occasions like this one (where he was present). "You come as a subordinate bearing goodwill and hoping to depart with a blessing on your endeavors."
The Empire That Won't Go Away
President and emperor, America and Rome — the comparison is by now so familiar, so natural, that you just can't help yourself: it comes to mind unbidden, in the reflexive way that the behavior of chimps reminds you of the behavior of people. Is it really ourselves we see? Everyone gets it whenever a comparison of Rome and America is drawn — for instance, in offhand references to welfare and televised sports as "bread and circuses," or to illegal immigrants as "barbarian hordes." We all understand what's meant by the thumbs-down sign — pollice verso, as the Romans would have said — and know the gladiatorial context from which it came. It's almost compulsory to speak of political pollsters as latter-day versions of Rome's oracles, the augurs and haruspices, who sought clues to national destiny by studying the flight of birds and the entrails of slaughtered sheep. When a reference is made to an "imperial presidency," or to the president's aides as a "Praetorian Guard," or to the deployment abroad of "American legions," no one quizzically raises an eyebrow and wonders what you could possibly be talking about. To American eyes, Rome is the eagle in the mirror.
Popular culture, the national id, is saturated with references to the Roman Empire. Not long ago HBO and ABC each launched a fictionalized "swords-and-sandals" miniseries set in ancient Rome and centered on the first glimmerings of imperial destiny, as the venerable but creaky Roman Republic began to fall apart. Novels about Rome are reliable bestsellers. The Star Wars saga is in essence a Rome-and-America amalgam, about the last remnant of a dying republic holding out against the empire that would supplant it. Earlier films about Rome, such as The Robe and Quo Vadis?, Spartacus and Ben-Hur, were crowd-pleasing vehicles that carried implicit political messages against totalitarianism and McCarthyism. (In The Robe the emperor Tiberius shows his true colors as an anti-American when he describes the desire for human freedom as "the greatest madness of all.") Liam Neeson, the villain of Batman Begins, cites Roman precedent to justify his destruction of Gotham: "The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years," he tells Bruce Wayne. "We sacked Rome. Loaded trade ships with plague rats."
Rome as a point of reference is not exactly new. Americans have been casting eyes back to ancient Rome since before the Revolution. Today, though, the focus is not mainly on the Roman Republic (as it was two centuries ago, when America was itself emerging as a republic) but as much or more on the empire that took the republic's place. The focus is also as much on the decline and fall of Rome as on its rise and zenith. Depending on who is doing the talking, Rome serves as either a grim cautionary tale or an inspirational call to action. Albert Schweitzer once observed that people setting out to write a life of Jesus all end up looking at their own reflections, as if gazing into the water of a well. In a similar way, those who explore the example of Rome tend to discover that it somehow resonates with their own concerns. I won't pretend to be an exception.
Obviously, the emergence of America as the world's sole superpower, and the troubles it has encountered in that role, explain much of the revival of the Roman Empire in the American imagination. An assortment of "triumphalists" (not their term, of course) see America as at long last assuming its imperial responsibilities, bringing about a global Pax Americana like the Pax Romana of Rome at its most commanding, in the first two centuries a.d. Some form of this idea has been around for decades, and it is here to stay. America's difficulties in Iraq (and in Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, and elsewhere) are seen as a bump or a challenge — the inevitable price of global leadership — not as a dead end. Charles Krauthammer, the pontifex maximus of this outlook, has written: "America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will." William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, ascends to the purple with fewer words: "If people want to say we're an imperial power, fine." The neoconservative writer Max Boot, arguing that America must become the successor empire to Britain (which once saw itself as the successor empire to Rome), has called for "the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self- confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." The triumphalist-in-chief, trading jodhpurs for flight suit, is of course George W. Bush. He has stated that arms races by other nations are "pointless," because American power is now and will forever be kept "beyond challenge" and capable of striking "at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world."
"Declinists" (also not their term) see this same incipient American empire as dangerously overcommitted abroad and rusted out at home, like Rome in its last two centuries. The historian and columnist Chalmers Johnson, who disparages President Bush as a "boy-emperor," writes in a recent book: "Roman imperial sorrows mounted up over hundreds of years. Ours are likely to arrive with the speed of FedEx." In this view, part of the problem is "imperial overstretch," to use the historian Paul Kennedy's well- known term — our military and globalist ambitions exceed our capacity to pay for them. Another part of the problem is moral and political: empires destroy liberty — always have, always will. Today, the declinists say, the executive branch's imperial need for secrecy, surveillance, and social control, all in the name of national security, is corroding our republican institutions.
Somewhere between the declinists and the triumphalists are those, like the historian Niall Ferguson, in Colossus, who argue that at any given moment some great power needs to step up and perform the world's various imperial chores — and that the United States is the only one currently available. "Unlike most European critics of the United States," Ferguson writes, "I believe the world needs an effective liberal empire and that the United States is the best candidate for the job." But America, he goes on, is an "empire in denial." It lacks the will and the staying power, the skill and the desire, to shoulder an imperial role. The dispossessed second sons of England's landed gentry and a raft of ambitious and opportunity-starved Scots and Irish lit out for the colonies and there spent their lives governing the British Empire, a sprawling red mass on the maps. America's best and brightest, in contrast, "aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but to manage MTV; not to rule the Hejaz but to run a hedge fund." The problem here, in other words, is "imperial understretch."
The Rome debate has its outright Jeremiahs, its prophets of doom. The social analyst and urban planner Jane Jacobs, in a spirited and hortatory book called Dark Age Ahead, published shortly before her death at the age of ninety, all but consigns Western civilization to a new "post-Roman" era of medieval chaos and woe, brought on by the collapse of strong families, the perversion of science, and the oppressive distortion of the government's taxing power. She sees a lethal dynamic at work: "The collapse of one sustaining cultural institution enfeebles others. . . . With each collapse, still further ruin becomes more likely."
The rot-from-within camp has a conservative flank, too. The classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson, sounding like an old Roman, bemoans the American elite's self-absorption, moral relativism, and lack of will. "The anti-Americans often invoke Rome as a warning and as a model, both of our imperialism and of our foreordained collapse," Hanson writes. But, he argues, Rome's situation was more parlous in 220 B.C. (when it faced the challenge of Carthage) than in 400 A.D. (when it faced the barbarians): "The difference over six centuries, the dissimilarity that led to the end, was a result not of imperial overstretch on the outside but something happening within that was not unlike what we ourselves are now witnessing. Earlier Romans knew what it was to be Roman, why it was at least better than the alternative, and why their culture had to be defended. Later in ignorance they forgot what they knew, in pride mocked who they were, and in consequence disappeared."
There are other camps. A group that might be called the "Augustinians," led by the Christian scholar Richard Horsley, wonders if the pursuit of a Pax Americana diverges from the message of Jesus, much as Augustine, in The City of God, written shortly after the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410 A.D., pointed to the incompatibility of earthly and heavenly ambitions. Horsley's views clash with those of "Ambrosians" like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who see the Pax Americana and the advance of evangelical Christianity as fundamentally inseparable — a throwback to the views on church and state of Ambrose, a Roman prefect and bishop of Milan in the fourth century A.D "God has raised up America for the cause of world evangelization," Falwell maintains. The idea that an American imperium is part of God's plan was the message of the Christmas card sent out in 2003 by Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne. It read: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?"
And then there are the expansionists, an ironical group who foresee more of the same for America, only bigger and better. In a document that hovers between modest proposal and eccentric manifesto the aging French radical Régis Debray urges the annexation of Europe by America, creating a United States of the West as the only hope against the coming Islamist and Confucianist onslaught. "Who but America can take responsibility, at a reasonable cost, for the peace and unity of the civilized world?" Debray asks. "Do you suppose we would breathe easier under the iron rule of Islam? Or under the domination of China, if by some misfortune she became the only hyperpower?" Referring to an imperial Roman decree of 212 a.d. that extended citizenship to all free men in Rome's provinces, Debray goes on, "I believe the time has come for a new Edict of Caracalla" — meaning American citizenship for Canadians and Mexicans, for Europeans, for Japanese, and for New Zealanders and Australians. (And if it's not too much to ask, can we make sure to include the Caribbean?)
The comparisons, often contradictory, go far beyond military power and global reach. The Roman analogy is cited with respect to the nation's borders and the extent to which America has lost control of them, as Rome lost control of hers. It is cited both by people who see America in the grip of spiritual torpor and sybaritic excess (as Rome at times was) and by those who see it as ruled by moralizing religiosity and outright superstition (as Rome at times also was). It is cited by those who worry about an overweening nationalism and also by those who see an erosion of public spirit.
Cock an ear: you'll hear Rome-and-America analogies everywhere. "It's the fall of Rome, my dear," the food historian Barbara Haber told a reporter when asked about the spread of televised contests featuring gluttony and regurgitation, with their echoes of Roman overindulgence. (Never mind that the fabled vomitorium is a myth; the Latin word refers to passageways in amphitheaters that quickly "disgorged" crowds into the streets.) Senator Trent Lott, pushing for the passage of a pork-laden highway bill in 2005, summoned the shades of Rome to his aid. "Part of the reason that Rome eventually collapsed was that it stopped building and maintaining its roads," he argued. "The day we stop investing in better and safer roads is the day we have just one more thing in common with Rome. And Rome fell." In a speech from decades ago that continues to be widely reprinted, Clare Boothe Luce railed against America's anything-goes "new morality" toward sex, conjuring the forlorn attempts of Augustus, Rome's first emperor, to bolster the Roman family in the face of similar licentiousness. ("It was already too late," Luce concluded darkly.) Most people are aware that the Roman Empire was eventually split into western and eastern halves, the one Latin-speaking and centered on Rome, the other Greek-speaking and centered on Constantinople. It's probably only a matter of time before someone sees in this a foreshadowing of the emergence of Red and Blue America.
The larger question still hangs in the air: Are we Rome? That question leads to others: Does the fate of Rome tell us anything useful about America's present or America's future? Must decline and fall lurk somewhere ahead? Can we learn from Rome's mistakes? Take heart from Rome's achievements? And by the way, what exactly was the fate of the Roman Empire? Why do historians lock horns over the question, Did Rome really fall?
If you're looking for reasons to brush comparisons aside, it's easy enough to find them. The two entities, Rome and America, are dissimilar in countless ways. It's hard even to know what specific moments to compare: the American experiment is in its third century, and the Roman state in the West spanned more than a millennium, from the eighth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. Over time, Rome and America molted more than once from their previous selves. But I'll argue that some comparisons do hold up, though maybe not the ones that have been most in the public eye. Think less about decadence, less about military might, and more about how our two societies view the outside world, more about the slow decay of homegrown institutions. Think less about threats from unwelcome barbarians, and more about the healthy functioning of a multi-ethnic society. Think less about the ability of a superpower to influence everything on earth, and more about how everything on earth affects a superpower.
I'll argue further that the debate over Rome's ultimate fate holds a key to thinking about our own. The status quo can't be flash-frozen. A millennium hence America will be hard to recognize. It may not exist as a nation-state in the form it does now — or even exist at all. Will the transitions ahead be gradual and peaceful or abrupt and catastrophic? Will our descendants be living productive lives in a society better than the one we inhabit now? Whatever happens, will valuable aspects of America's legacy weave through the fabric of civilizations to come? Will historians someday have reason to ask, Did America really fall?
First, let's ease one issue to the side. There are exceptions, but most historians who teach in colleges and universities are skeptical of trying to draw explicit "lessons" from history. No historical episode is precisely like any other, they point out, so no parallel can ever be exact. Too often, they say, people focus on a handful of similarities and ignore all the differences. Worst of all, history gets hijacked for ideological reasons, as when American officials cite the appeasement at Munich to get our armies marching, or the quagmire of Vietnam to keep our armies home. Even when people try to learn sensibly from the past, they may be deriving conclusions that have no relevant application: that's what the charge "fighting the last war" is all about. In their book Thinking in Time the historians Richard Neustadt and Ernest May offer a dozen case studies, drawn from foreign affairs, of how history was inadvertently or cynically misapplied by American leaders — if historical thinking was engaged in at all. (They also wonder how Lyndon Johnson, struggling with Vietnam, would have reacted if his national security advisor had ever invoked the example of the Peloponnesian War; and they point out that the monarchs and ministers who led Europe into the carnage of World War I knew the Greek lessons through and through.) Given all this, many historians conclude, scholars have their hands full just trying to figure out what actually happened way back when, a task that in itself may be beyond our meager powers. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor used to say, "The only lesson of history is that there are no lessons of history." You can almost visualize his regal verdict: Pollice verso — thumbs down!
Of course, many people can't believe their ears when they hear historians talk this way. Not long ago at the University of Chicago a panel of classicists held forth on why it's a mistake to palpate the past for guidance in the present. They ran into opposition from an uncomprehending audience of well-educated non-academics, whose reaction can be summed up as "But, but . . . but how can you say that?" The public has long been schooled to think that being aware of history — and taking historical analogies into account — is actually the smart thing to do. The famous Santayana maxim about what happens to those who forget history is drilled into you by the sixth grade, and everyone who learns it is condemned to repeat it. The Pentagon, taking this idea to heart in a literal-minded and almost endearing way, runs a Center for Army Lessons Learned, at Fort Leavenworth. It maintains a database called the Joint Universal Lessons Learned System. And then there's the example of our own lives, the retort of Everyman: What's the point of "experience," that much recommended quality, if you can't, or shouldn't, learn something from it?
The scholars are right to be wary; in many ways the history of History is a saga of its misuse. At the same time, as some warn, to rule out any hope of lessons risks making history, especially classical history, into little more than a theme park. The commonsense approach is the one suggested by Carl Becker in a famous lecture to his fellow historians many decades ago: "Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research." Becker went on to caution that the whole historical enterprise is treacherous territory indeed: the past plays tricks on the present, and vice versa. But he wasn't ready to throw in the towel.
So again: Are we Rome? One way to answer the question is by assembling a crude ledger of comparisons. My own would start as follows: Leaving aside the knotty and partly semantic issue of what an empire is, and whether the United States truly is one, Rome and America are the most powerful actors in their worlds, by many orders of magnitude. Their power includes both military might and the "soft power" of language, culture, commerce, technology, and ideas. (Tacitus said of the seductive amenities brought to Britain by Rome, "The simple natives gave the name of 'culture' to this factor of their slavery.") Rome and America are comparable in physical size — the Roman Empire and its Mediterranean lake would fit inside the three million square miles of the Lower Forty-eight states, though without a lot to spare. Both Rome and America created global structures — administrative, economic, military, cultural — that the rest of the world and their own citizens came to take for granted, as gravity and photosynthesis are taken for granted. Both are societies made up of many peoples — open to newcomers, willing to absorb the genes and lifestyles and gods of everyone else, and to grant citizenship to incoming tribes from all corners of the earth. And because of this, the identities of both change organically over time. Romans and Americans revel in engineering prowess and grandiosity. Whenever I see the space shuttle, standing upright and inching slowly on its crawler toward the launching pad, I think back to the Rome of Hadrian's day, and the gargantuan statue of the Sun-God, as tall as the shuttle, being dragged into place by twenty-four elephants.
Romans and Americans can't get enough of laws and lawyers and lawsuits. They believe deeply in private property. They relish the ritual humiliation of public figures: Americans through comedy and satire, talk radio and Court TV; the Romans through vicious satire, to be sure, but also, during the republic, by means of the censoria nota, the public airing, name by name, of everything the great men of the time should be ashamed of. Romans and Americans accept enormous disparities of wealth, and allow the gap to widen. Ramsay MacMullen, one of the most prominent modern historians of Rome, has said that five centuries of imperial social evolution can be reduced to three words: "Fewer have more." Both Romans and Americans treat the nouveaux riches with lacerating scorn, perhaps concealing hints of admiration. (Think of the character Trimalchio in the Satyricon of Petronius; and remember that Fitzgerald's original title for The Great Gatsby was Trimalchio in West Egg.) Both see themselves as a chosen people, and both see their national character as exceptional. Both recover from colossal setbacks, and both endure periods of catastrophic leadership (though when it comes to murderous insanity, some of Rome's emperors set the bar very high). Both Rome and America look back to an imagined nobler, simpler past, and both see the future in terms of Manifest Destiny. The Romans spoke of having been granted imperium sine fine — an empire without end. The American dollar bill uses Rome's own language, and words derived from Virgil, to proclaim a novus ordo saeclorum — a new order of the ages. When the first President Bush, after communism's fall, proclaimed the advent of a "new world order," his new rhetoric was actually very old.
But Rome in all its long history never left the Iron Age, whereas America in its short history has already leapt through the Industrial Age to the Information Age and the Biotech Age. Wealthy as it was, Rome lived close to the edge; many regions were one dry spell away from famine. America enjoys an economy of abundance, even surfeit; it must beware the diseases of overindulgence. Rome was always a slaveholding polity, with the profound moral and social retardation that this implies; America started out as a slaveholding polity and decisively cast slavery aside. Rome emerged out of a city-state and took centuries to fully let go of a city-state's methods of governance; America from very early on began to administer itself as a continental power. Rome had no middle class as we understand the term, whereas for America the middle class is the core social fact — our ballast, our gyroscope, our compass. Rome had a powerful but tiny aristocracy and entrenched ideas about the social pecking order; even at its most democratic, Rome was not remotely as democratic as America at its least democratic, under a British monarch. In Roman eyes the best way to acquire wealth was the old-fashioned way, by inheriting it; the Romans looked down on entrepreneurship, which Americans hold in the highest esteem, and despised manual labor. Rome desired foreign colonies and protectorates and moved aggressively to acquire them; America with few exceptions prefers to extend its reach by other means. Rome was economically static; America is economically transformative. For all its engineering skills, Rome generated few original ideas in science or technology; America is a hothouse of innovation and creativity. Despite its deficiencies, as we may perceive them, Rome flourished as a durable culture for more than a thousand years, and acted as a great power for six centuries; whether America has that kind of staying power remains to be seen.
As individuals, Romans were proud, arrogant, principled, cruel, and vulgar; Americans are idealistic, friendly, heedless, aggressive, and sentimental (but, yes, often vulgar, too). I'm not sure that Americans, cast suddenly back in time, would ever warm to second-century Rome, the way they might to Samuel Johnson's London. In their mental maps, their intellectual orientations, their default values, Romans and Americans are further apart than most people suspect. Romans were as bawdy as Americans are repressed. Roman notions of personal honor and disgrace, and the behavior appropriate to each, have no real counterpart in America; Roman officials would unhesitatingly commit suicide in situations that wouldn't make Americans even sit down with Barbara Walters (much less consider resigning).
On basic matters such as gender roles and the equality of all people, Romans and Americans would behold one another with disbelief and distaste. The fully furnished frame of mind of a modern American differs hugely from that of a colonial American at the time of Bunker Hill, and even more from that of a settler in Jamestown; the distance between the modern American mind and the ancient Roman one is hard to bridge. If the past is another country, then Rome is another planet. And yet, that planet colonized the one we inhabit now.
Rome will always speak across the centuries, and it is too large a thing not to be heard. Like the Bible or the works of Shakespeare, the history of Rome encompasses the whole of the human condition: every motivation, every behavior, every virtue, every vice, every outcome, every moral. And like the Bible and Shakespeare, what Rome has to say is shaped by the listeners in any age.
What is Rome saying to us today? In the pages ahead I'll focus on a half dozen issues for which the example of Rome provides parallels of direct relevance for America. This isn't meant to be a capsule history of the Roman Empire; any number of important subjects, such as religious belief, economic policy, and palace politics, come up only in passing. And it's not meant to highlight every point of contrast between Rome and America; the emphasis is on comparisons that compel attention because there's something to them. Some of the parallels have to do with how Rome and America function on the inside; others have to do with outside pressures and constraints. The parallels aren't fixed in place, and they don't point to an inescapable future. Taken as they are, though, they trace a path that leads to foreseeable consequences — a path, after all, that Rome has already been down.
One parallel involves the way Americans see America; and, more to the point, the way the tiny, elite subset of Americans who live in the nation's capital see America — and see Washington itself. Rome prized its status as the city around which the world revolved. Official Washington shares that Ptolemaic outlook. Unfortunately, it's not a self-fulfilling prophecy — just a faulty premise. And it leads to an exaggerated sense of Washington's weight in the world: an exaggerated sense of its importance in the eyes of others, and of its ability to act alone. Washington led the fight against some of the twentieth century's most dangerous "-isms." Solipsism is one it missed.
Another parallel concerns military power. This is the subject that comes most often to mind when Rome and America are compared. All that empire talk! Rome and America aren't carbon copies or fraternal twins, in either their approach to power or the tools at their disposal. Amid all the differences, though, two large common problems stand out. One is cultural and social: the widening divide between military society and civilian society.
The other is demographic: the shortage of manpower. For a variety of reasons, Rome and America both start to run short of the people they need to sustain their militaries, and both have to find new recruits wherever they can. Rome turned to the barbarians for help: not a good long-run solution, history would suggest. America is increasingly turning to its own outside sources — not the Visigothi and the Ostrogothae but the Halliburtoni and the Wackenhuti. Also not a good long-run solution.
A third parallel is something that can be lumped under the term "privatization," which can often also mean "corruption." Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities — and between public and private resources. The line between these is never fixed, anywhere. But when it becomes too hazy, or fades altogether, central government becomes impossible to steer. It took a long time to happen, but the fraying connection between imperial will and concrete action is a big part of What Went Wrong in ancient Rome. America has in recent years embarked on a privatization binge like no other in its history, putting into private hands all manner of activities once thought to be public tasks: collecting the nation's taxes, patrolling its streets, defending its borders. This may make sense in the short term — and sometimes, like Rome, we may have no choice in the matter. But how will the consequences play out over decades, or centuries? Badly, I believe.
A fourth parallel has to do with the way Americans view the outside world — the flip side of their self-centeredness. Rome often disparaged the people beyond its frontiers, and generally underestimated their capabilities, even as it held an outsize opinion of its own superiority and power. America's attitude is more complicated than Rome's, and often more idealistic and well-meaning, but in many ways it's strikingly similar, and it leads to the same preventable form of blindness: either we don't see what's coming at us, or we don't see what we're hurtling toward.
And then, fifth, there is the question of borders. Historians in recent decades have invested much effort in the study of Rome's frontiers, showing that the fringe of empire was less a fence and more a threshold — not so much a firm line fortified with "Keep Out" signs as a permeable zone of continual interaction, some times troublesome but normally peaceful and mutually advantageous. The borderlands could hardly have been anything else: this is always the dynamic when a rich and powerful civilization bumps up against a poor and less developed one. The dynamic can't be argued with or neutralized, and yet Rome coped successfully with this reality for many centuries, assimilating newcomers by the millions: that's the happy lesson. When historians describe life along the Rhine or the Danube frontier in Roman times, an American reader can't help conjuring an image of another boundary zone: the one that includes the Rio Grande.
Finally, sixth, comes the complexity parallel. Sprawling powers like Rome and America face a built-in problem. They inevitably become impossible to manage, because the very act of managing has unpredictable ripple effects, of global scale, which in turn become part of the environment that needs to be managed. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was writing about a newly predominant America, but his observation (made fifty years ago) applies equally to Rome: "The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also . . . brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire." The bigger the entity and the more things it touches, the more susceptible it is to forces beyond its control. Maintaining stability requires far more work than fomenting instability. Analysts of modern terrorism wring their hands over a version of the same dilemma: governments can win only by defending everywhere; terrorists can win by succeeding anywhere. The complexity problem may have no real solution other than Thoreau's deceptively easy one: "simplify."
The example of Rome instills one more thing — not so much a lesson as a state of mind. It encourages an appreciation for the workings of time itself: patient, implacable, and very, very long. This state of mind can induce a form of resignation. (Isabel Archer, in The Portrait of a Lady, is drawn to Rome for just that reason: "In a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe.") Or it can put you on high alert. Time achieves revolutions by invisible increments. Changes that seem inconsequential over a single lifetime can upend the social order over three or four. We don't naturally think in these terms; we're all hemmed in by our one- lifetime horizon. But Rome has a way of raising the vantage point, altering your perspective.
first visited Rome at the age of twelve, some forty years ago, and have been back a dozen times. It is strange to think that the emperor Diocletian himself didn't see Rome until he was in his mid-sixties, older than I am now — he was born elsewhere, always away on business, and didn't visit the greatest city in the empire until celebrating the twentieth year of his reign. (And he didn't like it, found it extravagant, crude, out of control: Las Vegas meets Blade Runner.) Nowadays it is possible to visit ancient Rome remotely, on computerized "fly-through" tours that allow you to zoom in to a three- dimensional reconstruction of the ancient Forum. The aim, eventually, is to render the city in full, layer by layer, archaeologically correct to the greatest imaginable degree. Here you are in, say, the third century a.d., on the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars, near the Mausoleum of Augustus, not far from the marble Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace, the great monument to Augustan tranquillity. And now, a little to the east, here you are in the Forum of Trajan, above it the largest marketplace in the world — the Mall of Romanita, we'd call it today. And after that, outside the monumental city center, you wander among the six-story tenement buildings known as insulae, or "islands," teeming and squalid and prone to fire, the ground floors everywhere crowded with shops. Press a key and the years peel away: you can see the city at the time of Marcus Aurelius, in the second century a.d., or, earlier, of Hadrian, or Augustus, or Julius Caesar, or Cato the Elder, or at the time of the kings, before the sixth century b.c. Watch the walls contract, the temples disappear, the imperial McMansions on the Palatine shrink into republican villas, and the villas into huts, until all that is left on the wooded hill is the legendary cave where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were suckled by a she-wolf.
I remember the last day of my first trip to Rome, a trip undertaken in real time and space; I walked alone in the early morning with a sketchbook. The ancient paving stones of the Via Sacra were polished with wear, the sun already promising heat, the postcard sellers setting up their stalls like the guides and hawkers who catered to tourists in the very same spots two thousand years before. This was in the mid-1960s, before the thousands of cats that inhabited Rome's ancient precincts had been removed, and the landscape was subtly animated by slurry pixels of feline movement.
I made a drawing that morning, which I still have, of the three standing columns of the Temple of Castor, above the reflecting pool. I remember thinking as I worked, looking up occasionally at the ruined hillside of the Palatine in the near beyond, about the layer cake of happenstance connecting Then and Now. Years later, I came across the fantasy version of that schoolboy reverie: the comparison attempted by Sigmund Freud between the human psyche and the archaeology of Rome. "Historians tell us," he begins, "that the oldest Rome was the Roma Quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine. Then followed the phase of the Septimontium, a federation of the settlements on the different hills; after that came the city bounded by the Servian Wall; and later still, after all the transformations during the periods of the republic and the early Caesars, the city which the emperor Aurelian surrounded with his walls." Now imagine, he goes on, that rather than each stage being obliterated by the next, they all somehow survive. Thus it would be possible to see not only the Colosseum in all its grandeur but also the lake in front of Nero's palace, which it replaced. We could gaze simultaneously at today's Castel Sant'Angelo, an imposing umber fortress, and at the bright marble tomb of Hadrian, crowned with a grove of trees, from which the fortress grew. Could our minds be something like that — a psychic device "in which nothing that has come into existence will have passed away, and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one"?
Well, no, that magic doesn't really work for the mechanics of the mind, Freud decided. But it does work for the way we accrue perceptions of history: as an exercise, we can set anything alongside anything else. If Rome and America can exist simultaneously, why not try to look at them that way?
Copyright © 2007 by Cullen Murphy. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The Eagle in the Mirror / 1
1 : The Capitals / 24 Where Republic Meets Empire
2: The Legions / 59 When Power Meets Reality
3 : The Fixers / 91 When Public Good Meets Private Opportunity
4: The Outsiders / 121 When People Like Us Meet People Like Them
5: The Borders / 152 Where the Present Meets the Future
Epilogue: There Once Was a Great City / 185 Acknowledgments 207 Notes 209 Bibliography 251
What People are Saying About This
"Are We Rome? is just about a perfect book . . . I wish every politician would spend an evening with this book."James Fallows, international correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly
"Elegant, learned, and graceful . . . this is a disturbing book brimming with hope."E.J. Dionne Jr., syndicated columnist, and author of Why Americans Hate Politics
"Cullen Murphy has written a book of remarkable richness . . . brisk, learned, and highly entertaining."Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem From Hell
"This is a lovely book . . . It may be the most important thing written about the U.S. government in many years."Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, and military correspondent for The Washington Post
"Cullen Murphy gives a thoughtful, entertaining look around."Richard Brookhiser, author of What Would the Founders Do?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Inspire of the aythor's references to G. W. Bush, his comparisons of certain commonalities between Rome and America are, to me quite accurate. Carry his thinking over to 2014, erase partisan politics from the reader's thinking, and you have the basis for solid areas of debate. But, critical and evidence based discussion will always be trumped by emotion and bias, so don't get too optimistic about bringing his various points up at your next social gathering. But do read it.
There are parallels drawn between the hegemony of Rome and its preponderant influence in the civilized world and the American nation in the contemporary setting. We can see parallels between the counterbalancing power of the Parthians and later the Sassanid Persians to the Roman Empire and in the modern example of America and the Middle Eastern nations and especially the Iranian state. The strains on the empire, the burden of maintaining frontier defenses along the massive empire or the military expenditure and overextension of Roman manpower in protecting Rome from inimical powers all resulted in economic exhaustion. In addition, the avarice of the ruling class [The patriciate or the aristocracy], the increasing indolence of the Roman forces with the relaxing of military discipline and the loss of the ancient martial virtue of the Romans coupled with the rivalries of numerous claimants, the constant usurpations during the late phase of the Roman Empire and the apathy and complacency of Rome's citizens all led to its gradual though inexorable fall. However, I would rather compare the American nation to the Roman Republic as the representative institutions of American have not yet slipped off the precipice and made the plunge down into an authoritarian state. In political theory, democracies pass into despotisms through a brief period of anarchy; the disorders of a free society naturally result in the accession of a despot. Will America make the descent into despotism or will the American nation protect its cherished laws and republican institutions? The spectacle of Rome and its transition from a republic to despotism looms greatly in the American imagination.
Are We Rome is a wonderful book. Thought provoking and culturally enlightening, Murphy does a great job balancing Roman history with the the founding of the American political system and all its' modern political and cultural manifestations. His literal illustrations of the similarities and differences of Roman and American historical, political, and cultural values results in a book that is fresh in its approach and fascinating in analysis. Are We Rome makes a great addition and adds a unique twist to the recent burgeoning 'founding father' histories.
A brief but engaging look at a number of comparisons between ancient Rome (more specifically, the Roman Empire) and the modern U.S. Cullen examines not only the obvious and common relationships (military power), but a number of less commonly observed connections (such as privatization of government functions, border and immigration issues, the seats of power themselves). It provokes some interesting thought, and provides insight on some aspects of both civilizations with which some people will be surprised. Cullen also has a gift for clever turns of phrase. The book is excellent for the casual reader.
Thoughtful comparison between the modern United States and imperial Rome in terms of military and economic dominance, cultural influence, prosperity, economic inequality, and border issues. While the author is very careful not to draw conclusions that are too broad, some of the parallels are equally fascinating and frightening.
The first 90% contains trivial academic comparisons and the last 10% is mostly liberal rant on the beauty of legal and illegal immigration, of which Mr. Murphy fails to acknowledge any negative impacts. The last chapter, The Borders, is a rigorously perverted definition of a border. While evangelizing unlimited immigration, Mr. Murphy makes the case for acculturation while calling it assimilation. He promotes college tuition subsidy for illegal aliens, and of course, soccer and AMNESTY for illegal aliens. The flawed, useless ending seems to be the real purpose of Are We Rome? David Caulkett
While there are many ways in which the United States and the Roman Empire are similar, none of the author's conclusions have merit. The author is ignorant of the reasons why the Roman empire fell. Foreign mis-adventures, failure to control its own borders, and the Roman populace accepting full bellies and entertainment in exchange for their rights and civil liberties are a few of the major reasons for the fall of the Empire, yet the author believes that these reasons prolonged the Empire, rather than bringing about it's demise. The Roman populace surrendered their freedoms for their bread and circuses just as Americans are falling for the current version of bread and circuses by depending on the government for their needs while they are obsessed with Jersy Shore and American Idol, while sacrificing the Bill of Rights for perceived feeling of safety.
I don't know quite what I was expecting, given the timeframe that this book had been published. What, with the endless philandering over illegal immigration sprinkled with some recent challenges we face on a global level. Maybe I was looking to come away with something that would make me think, ask hard questions or inspire me to take action. After having read the cover of this book, which cited relevance, importance and humor, more cedence was given to the old addage of not judging a book by it's cover. For the most part the book covers some interesting historical tidbits, should you have the money and time to make a quick trip to Rome or run about Europe and North Africa. Aside from that, this book felt like being on the outside of an inside joke the $24 price of admission did not cover. Mr. Murphy spends an in ornate amount of time waxing philisophical about what a border really is. And has the Roman Empire really fallen since there are remnants of it such as the word 'senator' still in use today. Towards the end of the book Mr. Murphy mentions that his father in-law came to this country from Mexico, which explains his wishy-washy stance over the preceeding 80 pages written in regards to national borders. Not being against immigration, there are some hard questions that will need a hard response for adequate resolution. Moreover, I will not cede that this country has an overwhelming mechanisim for assimilation when the cited Spanish speaking students of California who 'prefer' to speak English, desecrate the American flag in a school yard. Having served several years in the military I would have to say I find no solace in that there could be pieces of this country around centuries in the form of a word or some type of architectual achievement after it had disappeared. The end result? More dribble from the generation that brought you civil liberties.
Mr. Murphy says that we are like Rome because many cultures and races lived as ciitzens in peace in Rome. They did not...just like today. There was an elite who had all the power and the slaves who did their work and went to war. When the 'psudo citizens of Rome' figured this out they combined with the barbarians (huge numbers of homeless and straved people) and sacked Rome. They destroyed it. It took over 400 years for the world to recover from the wars and devistation of the Roman Empire. The far reaches of the Empire were very aware of the Roman heel when the elite taxed them to death, stole their harvests, ruined their infastructures, denied them their culture and religion (replacing it with Christianity). Forcing their culture and religion was more disasterous for the Empire than most anything. According to Chahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization) history and culture would have been destroyed by the Romans if it weren't for the fact that the Irish monks hid the books and recorded history. Ireland was very far from Rome but the distruction and tryanny was felt in every corner of their Empire. We too are becoming like Rome in these matters of an elite rule.
...unless you want a shotgun approach to Roman history. The author strains to make his metaphor work and stretches to the point of breaking. An example of this is his ludicrous comparison to the United States after the Bush/Gore election to Rome after Nero committed suicide and the bloody civil war which followed. It is a shame, as Mr. Murphy seems to be a very smart man and one can pick up a wealth of information on the Roman Empire in this book, albeit in a disorganized and dysfunctional manner.
'Are We Rome' took off fast, and didn't slow down until almost the middle of the book. Then it died in the water. I couldn't read the second half of the book because it totally lost my attention. Such a shame after such an interesting and powerful start. I must admit it did connect some dots to history that I did not know.