Despite a title that suggests glib generalization, there is nothing simplistic about Cullen Murphy's thoughtful sociopolitical study, Are We Rome? A shrewd observer of our national culture and an enthusiastic amateur historian, the former Atlantic Monthly editor goes far beyond the obvious in this fascinating comparison of imperial Rome and 21st-century America. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of both world powers, he unearths some disturbing parallels -- including escalating privatization and a shocking ignorance of the outside world. But he also identifies important differences and suggests that America needs only to reassert its genius for self-correction to avoid Rome's fate. In the immortal words of Livy, "An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it."
Laudably, he ends on some optimistic notes, and some prescriptions, rather than wallowing in declinism. “An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it,” the Roman historian Livy wrote. To that end, Murphy suggests, America needs to instill in its citizenry a greater appreciation for the rest of the world. At home, it should resurrect the ideals of citizen engagement and promote a sense of community and mutual obligation, rather than treating most government as a necessary evil. With its capacity to innovate and reinvent itself, and with its faith in progress, America need never become as stagnant as Rome. “The genius of America,” Murphy concludes, “may be that it has built ‘the fall of Rome’ into its very makeup: it is very consciously a constant work in progress, designed to accommodate and build on revolutionary change.”
The New York Times
Lurid images of America as a new Roman Empire—either striding the globe or tottering toward collapse, or both—are fashionable among pundits of all stripes these days. Vanity Faireditor Murphy (The World According to Eve) gives the trope a more restrained and thoughtful reading. He allows that, with its robust democracy, dynamic economy and technological wizardry, America is a far cry from Rome's static slave society. But he sees a number of parallels: like Rome, America is a vast, multicultural state, burdened with an expensive and overstretched military, uneasy about its porous borders, with a messianic sense of global mission and a solipsistic tendency to misunderstand and belittle foreign cultures. Some of the links Murphy draws, like his comparison of barbarian invaders of the late Empire to foreign corporations buying up American assets, are purely metaphorical. But others, especially his likening of the corrupt Roman patronage system to America's mania for privatizing government services—a "deflection of public purpose by private interest"—are specific and compelling. Murphy wears his erudition lightly and delivers a lucid, pithy and perceptive study in comparative history, with some sharp points. (May 10)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Imperial Rome and imperial America have many points in common, writes former Atlantic Monthly editor Murphy (Just Curious, 1995, etc.), not least that both "have considered their way to be the world's way."Murphy ventures nothing new with the mere observation that Rome and America have similarities; even the Founding Fathers thought as much. But, writing with fluency and grace and possessing a solid grounding in the classics, he actually serves up specifics: a telling comparison of the Roman road system, for instance, with our interstates, and of our president's mode of international travel with that of the emperors and their flying squadrons. Murphy draws six major parallels that, he reckons, ought to serve as warnings and guidelines for better behavior. One concerns military power, with considerable points against the use of mercenaries and auxiliaries, for instance, whether Ostrogoths or the "Halliburtoni and the Wackenhuti." Murphy does acknowledge, however, that "the most capable, well-rounded, and experienced public executives in America today are its senior military officers, not its Washington politicians." Another parallel is what Murphy loosely terms privatization, "which can often also mean ‘corruption,'" which is to say, the trouble certain Romans had and certain Washingtonians have in drawing the line between their things and those in the public domain. A further point of resemblance is the executive's arrogating power unto itself without due concern for senatorial counsel, a habit that yields Caesars now as then. And so forth, all adding up to decline and fall, which, Murphy gently observes, doesn't have to happen so long as we Americans take a broader view of the world anda narrower view of the Constitution and, even if we "don't live in Mr. Jefferson's republic anymore," start comporting ourselves not as Romans but as Americans. An essay in the Walter Karp-Lewis Lapham mode that's sure to irk the neocons. Agent: Raphael Sagalyn/Sagalyn Literary Agency
"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?