Are We Rome?

The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

by Cullen Murphy

Are We Rome?

Hardcover, 262 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $24 | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Are We Rome?
  • The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America
  • Cullen Murphy

Book Summary

Offers a compelling study that compares modern-day America to the rise and fall of ancient Rome, offering a series of warnings, nuanced lessons, and thought-provoking strategies designed to avoid the Roman Empire's fate.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about Are We Rome?

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Are We Rome?

Are We Rome?

Prologue
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 you have
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?

Comparative Anatomy

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.

Six Parallels

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.

Fly Through
I
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.

Reviews From The NPR Community

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: