Are We Rome Essays

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 warming of imminent collapse.

The esteemed editor and author Cullen Murphy ventures past the pundits' rhetoric to draw nuanced lessons about how America might avoid Rome's demise. Working on a canvas that extends far beyond the issue of an overstretched military, Murphy reveals a wide array of similarities between the two empires: the blinkered, insular culture of our capitals; the debilitating effect of venality in public life; the paradoxical issue of borders; and the weakening of the body politic though various forms of privatization. He persuasively argues that we most resemble Rome in the burgeoning corruption of our government and in our arrogant ignorance of the world outside -- two things that are in our power to change.

In lively, richly detailed historical stories based on the latest scholarship, the ancient world leaps to life and casts our own contemporary world in a provocative new light.

The only sure thing that can be said about the past is that anyone who can remember Santayana’s maxim is condemned to repeat it. As a result, the danger of not understanding the lessons of history is matched by the danger of using simplistic historical analogies. Those who have learned the lessons of Munich square off against those who have learned the lessons of Vietnam, and then they both invoke the bread-and-circus days of the overstretched Roman empire in an attempt to sound even more subtle and profound.

In his provocative and lively “Are We Rome?” Cullen Murphy provides these requisite caveats as he engages in a serious effort to draw lessons from a comparison of America’s situation today with that of imperial Rome. Founded, according to tradition, as a farming village in 753 B.C., Rome enjoyed 12 centuries of rise and fall before the barbarians began overwhelming the gates in the fifth century. During that time it became a prosperous and sometimes virtuous republic and then a dissolute and corrupt empire that was destined to be mined for contemporary lessons by historians beginning with Edward Gibbon, whose first volume of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was fittingly published in the British empire in 1776.

There are almost as many causes cited for Rome’s collapse as there are historians. But the general sense is that the empire became too fat, flabby and unwieldy. As Gibbon put it, “prosperity ripened the principle of decay.” Rome’s decline came to be viewed with an air of tragic inevitability fraught with resonance. As Byron wrote in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: “There is the moral of all human tales; / ’Tis but the same rehearsal of the past, / First Freedom, and then Glory — when that fails, / Wealth, vice, corruption — barbarism at last.”

The most salient comparison between modern America and classical Rome, as Murphy notes, is that both have been blessed, and afflicted, with a sense of exceptionalism. In America this begins with John Winthrop exhorting his Puritan flock, who were about to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill.” Since then various presidents have described the United States in words that echo Cicero’s description of the Romans and their shining city upon seven hills: “Spaniards had the advantage over them in point of numbers, Gauls in physical strength, Carthaginians in sharpness, Greeks in culture, native Latins and Italians in shrewd common sense; yet Rome had conquered them all and acquired her vast empire because in piety, religion and appreciation of the omnipotence of the gods she was without equal.”

In Rome, the virtues of a republic were originally sustained by selfless leaders and warriors like Cincinnatus, who took up a sword to save the city but, when the battles were won, put it aside to take up a plow again. In both the reality and the lore of America’s founding, George Washington played that role. But Rome eventually became dominated by fixers, flatterers and bureaucrats who clung to power. Murphy, the editor at large at Vanity Fair, offers up comparisons with the city of Washington today that are provocative, if at times a bit stretched. He pokes at putative panegyrists like Midge Decter on Donald Rumsfeld, and he compares the Roman undercover operatives, the curiosi, to the eavesdropping programs of the National Security Agency. He even likens the marvels of Rome’s sewer system to the effluence to be found on the Internet: “Washington now drains into the blogosphere, another engineering marvel.”

The military strategist Edward Luttwak, in his 1976 book “The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire,” examined how Rome’s legions protected its frontiers. His thesis was that during the late stages of their empire the Romans resigned themselves to the fact that barbarian invaders would penetrate the borders. So cities began to wall themselves in, and “the provision of security became an increasingly heavy charge on society.” At the same time, the idea of citizen-soldiers drawn from all ranks of Roman society — including the educated and upper classes — gave way to legions that were hired and dragooned from the poor and from immigrants.

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