Cullen Murphy Reads 'Are We Rome?' Is America the new Rome? Author Cullen Murphy explores the theory in his new book.
NPR logo Cullen Murphy Reads 'Are We Rome?'

Cullen Murphy Reads 'Are We Rome?'

Hear Murphy read and discuss his book

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Murphy Highlights

On American (and Roman) identity

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On privatization in Rome and in the U.S.

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On military structures in Rome and the U.S.

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Books Featured In This Story

Excerpt: 'Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America'

Book Cover: Rome

Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

by Cullen Murphy

Hardcover, 272 pages

List Price: $24.00

THE CAPITALS: Where Republic Meets Empire

The empire of the Romans in the West, its origins tracing back more than a thousand years, drew its last breath in 476 A.D., when a barbarian army led by a warrior named Odoacer, half Hun and half Scirian, defeated an imperial army that his barbarians had only a few months earlier been a part of. Odoacer captured and killed the imperial commander. He entered the city of Ravenna, then serving as an imperial capital, and deposed a youngster named Romulus Augustus, who had reigned as emperor for little more than a year. Odoacer was scarcely less worthy of authority than many previous usurpers. He was in fact well schooled in the ways of Rome, and he was a Christian, as most Romans by then were. There was no social implosion after he seized power, no rape and pillage. Rome didn't "fall" the way Carthage had, six centuries earlier, when the Romans slaughtered the inhabitants and razed the city, or the way Berlin would, fifteen centuries later, blasted into rubble. Rome itself wasn't touched on this occasion, and throughout the former empire life went on, little different for most people in 477 from what it had been in 475. Many regions had been autonomous for years, under barbarian rulers who gave lip service to the titular emperor. In Italy the Roman bureaucracy continued to sputter along.

What changed was this: Odoacer was not recognized as legitimate by the eastern emperor, in Constantinople. There would never be another emperor of the West. The historical symmetry is almost too good to be true — that the last emperor's name, Romulus, should also be that of Rome's founder. (Imagine if the demise of America were to occur under a president named George.) But more than symbolism was at play. Odoacer understood full well that something had come to an end: he declared himself king of Italy, and sent the imperial regalia of the Western empire to Constantinople. The pretense of Western unity was abandoned. Europe would now become a continent of barbarian kingdoms — in embryo, the Europe of nation-states that exists today.

Thirteen centuries later, on a gloomy evening in 1764, gazing out from a perch on the Capitoline Hill, above the overgrown debris of central Rome, Edward Gibbon was seized with a sense of loss as he contemplated the collapse of a civilization. Monks sang vespers in a church nearby. Gibbon resolved at that moment to undertake the great project he would call The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. "I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first trod, with lofty step, the ruins of the Forum," he later wrote. A decade after this twilight epiphany Gibbon's restless pen evoked the collapse of the empire: "Odoacer was the first barbarian who reigned in Italy, over a people who had once asserted their just superiority above the rest of mankind. . . . The least unfortunate were those who submitted without a murmur to the power which it was impossible to resist." Gibbon's life was in many ways a sad and lonely one, but The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was recognized at once as a masterwork, its sonorous cadences enlivened with a dry and biting wit. He observes gratuitously of a monk named Antiochus, for instance, that "one hundred and twenty-nine homilies are still extant, if what no one reads may be said to be extant." Although his picture of the fall may be more cataclysmic than the immediate reality seems to have been, Gibbon established for people ever after that a page of history had been decisively turned. In the West, "decline and fall" has been a catchphrase and a source of anxiety ever since.

The city of Washington, of course, also has a Capitoline Hill — Capitol Hill, named explicitly for its Roman forebear. The view to the west takes in a vast expanse of classical porticoes and marble monuments; gilded chariots and curtained litters would not seem out of place against this backdrop. Washington rose out of a malarial marsh on a river upstream from the coast, as Rome did. Its people, like the Romans, flee the sweltering city in August. The Romans cherished their myth of origin, the story of Romulus and Remus, and on the Palatine Hill you could be shown a thatched hut said to be the hut of Romulus — yes, the very one. Washington doesn't have anything quite like the hut of Romulus, but on Capitol Hill you can find sacred national touchstones of other kinds, such as the contents of Lincoln's pockets when he was assassinated. (They're in the Library of Congress.) Washington resembles Rome in many ways. The physical similarities are visible to anyone. The similarities of spirit are more salient. Materialistic cultures easily forget that "mental outlook" is not some limp and passive construct, of interest chiefly to anthropologists. Mental outlook can drive events and change the world, as the rise of militant Islam makes plain. Washington, too, has been animated by a special outlook. Long ago it was a notion of republican virtue that Romans of an early era would immediately have recognized. Today it's a strutting sense of self and mission that Romans of a later era would have recognized just as readily. Foreigners are well aware of this outlook, friends and enemies alike. It's a pungent quality — an internal characteristic that gives rise to outside counterforces.

The comparison with Rome has always been on the minds of leaders in America's capital. It was celebrated when Washington was no more than a street plan, and inspired what might be called the Bad Virgil school of patriotic verse. ("On broad Potowmac's bank then spring to birth, / Thou seat of empire and delight of earth!") In the settlement's early years there was a tributary of the Potomac called Goose Creek; its name was changed by an aspirational local planter to Tiber Creek. The Jefferson Memorial, off on the Potomac River's edge, is a diminutive version of the Pantheon. Union Station, just below the Capitol, was inspired by the Baths of Diocletian. The Washington Monument recalls the obelisks brought to Rome after the conquest of Egypt. Colonnaded government buildings stretch for miles.

I doubt I'm the only person who has trod, with lofty step, the sculpted gardens of the Capitol and been seized with a vision of how the city below might appear as a ruin. The Washington Monument — imagine it a millennium hence, a chipped and mottled spire, trussed with rusting braces. The stern pile of the Archives building, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, the gothic National Cathedral on its distant hilltop, the turreted Smithsonian Castle on the Mall — they somehow invite you to see them as derelicts, rendered into darkly impish engravings by the hand of some future Piranesi. What calamity could bring the capital to this condition? Earthquake? Pestilence? Pride? The end of air conditioning?

What Went Wrong

A page of history may have been turned in 476 A.D., at least for literary purposes, but it's not easy to pinpoint the moment of Rome's fall — just as, one day, it may not be easy to pinpoint the moment of America's. In many ways, "Rome" had already fallen — had evolved into something different from what it once was, and not always through violence — well before it ceased to exist as a formal political entity. It had once been pagan and by the end was largely Christian. A proud army made up of Romans had long since turned into a paid army made up of barbarians. A republic sustained by flinty yeomen had become a precarious autocracy administered by grasping bureaucrats. At the same time, in very concrete ways Rome didn't fall for centuries, if at all. The eastern half of the empire, the richest and most populous part, centered on Constantinople, survived for nearly another thousand years. In the realms of culture and law and infrastructure and language, the Roman Empire has endured much longer. We still use its alphabet, exploit its literary genres, inhabit its cities, preserve its architectural styles, and follow its schedule of holidays. In many respects the Catholic Church survives as a graft on the empire's stump. "Non omnis moriar" ("I shall not wholly die"), the Roman poet Horace proclaimed in one of his most famous odes. He was referring to his work, but he could just as well have been referring to the legacy of his civilization.

Rome began as a farming settlement on hilly portions of the eastern bank of the Tiber River. Tradition puts its founding at 753 B.C., and the Romans calculated the passage of years ab urbe condita — "from the founding of the city." The legendary origins of the Roman people go back even further, to the Trojan hero Aeneas, who with family and friends made his way to Italy after the fall of Troy. It's not easy to infer, even when tramping the most ancient parts of today's Rome, what the early settlement was like. Some musty nineteenth-century guidebooks are actually good at reconstructing the landscape — how steep and rugged the seven hills were, and how willows grew here and oak trees there, and where the ferries crossed the marshes, and how high the Tiber floods could rise. Several centuries as a monarchy gave way, in the sixth century B.C., to a republic, with a senate, consuls, and popular voting for some offices. The territory of Rome gradually expanded to encompass the rest of the Italian peninsula and outposts along the Mediterranean coast. With the conclusion of the Third Punic War against its great rival, Carthage, in northern Africa, in 146 B.C., Rome effectively controlled the Mediterranean world. It continued to grow in all directions, impelled by its military prowess, its administrative genius, and its compulsive sense of destiny.

The republic came to a de facto end in 31 B.C., after a century of social turmoil, constitutional crisis, and civil war. Vast Roman armies had thrown themselves against one another across the Mediterranean world. Emerging supreme from the carnage was Octavian, Julius Caesar's grandnephew, who in proto-Orwellian fashion symbolically "restored" the republic while in fact inaugurating the principate, a regime of one-person rule. The outward forms of republican government would be preserved in various ways right to the very end, a progressively meaningless nod to the past, but whatever the disavowals, Rome was now an imperial state. By the second century A.D., the all-powerful emperor ruled a domain that stretched from Scotland to the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. Durable roads linked major and minor cities, defining routes still used today. Seaborne traffic flourished. In the absence of reliable records, one indirect way to gauge the growth in maritime commerce is through underwater archaeology, measuring the change over time in the number of Mediterranean shipwrecks — analogous to tracking the advance of industrialization by the level of pollutants in arctic ice cores. A survey of Roman-era wrecks off the coasts of Italy, France, and Spain yields only about fifty from the period 400–200 B.C., but three times that many from the first two centuries A.D. Ancient Rome held more than a million people; no European city would come close to it in size until the London of Shakespeare's time. The walls that eventually surrounded Rome extend nearly thirteen miles. I once spent the better part of two days walking the entire circuit, noting where the nineteen roads had entered the city, and the eleven aqueducts, and thinking how formidable those walls, forty feet high, must have looked to Alaric and his Visigoths. Little wonder that Alaric cut a deal to get inside.

The decline of Rome came in many forms — in military power, in civil order, in eloquence, in philosophy, in architecture, in trade. Going back to those shipwrecks: they fall off sharply after 200 A.D., and after 400 drop to the levels of half a millennium earlier. It would be a thousand years before seaborne trade returned to the Augustan level. Infrastructure started to degrade: there came a point when full-length columns of colored marble, which literally held up the empire, could no longer be transported to Rome from Greece and Turkey and Egypt. Agricultural methods deteriorated: archaeology indicates that cattle were smaller in the early Middle Ages than they were at the empire's prime. Although 476 has been accepted since Byzantine times as the moment of Rome's demise, there's an element of parlor game in the discussion. Maybe the end really came in 455, when the Vandals sacked Rome. Or maybe it came in 410, when the Visigoths sacked Rome. Or in 378, when a great Roman army was destroyed by barbarians at Adrianople. A racist theoretician in Nazi Germany discerned Rome's "first step toward chaos" in a law passed in the fifth century B.C. permitting patricians, the highest social class, to marry plebeians, the lowest.

"Let students of Rome's decline imagine themselves as medical examiners who have been confronted with a corpse," writes the classical historian Donald Kagan. "It is their duty first to establish the time of death and then the cause. It soon becomes apparent that the various historical practitioners who have examined the Roman remains have achieved remarkably little agreement on either question." In 1980, a German historian set out to catalogue all the explanations for the fall of Rome ever proposed, which include degeneracy and deforestation, too much bureaucracy and too much Christianity. (He cited 210 theories in all.) The Romans themselves continually lamented the unhappy state of their society — as Americans compulsively do — even under circumstances that in retrospect were not all that bad. "Now we suffer the evils of a long peace. Luxury hatches terrors worse than wars." That's Juvenal, writing in the second century A.D., when the collapse of the Western empire lay more than three centuries ahead. Other writers were bizarrely sanguine, although trouble was just around the corner. "There will never be an end to the power of Rome," wrote the court poet Claudian, shortly before the city's sack by the Visigoths. Part of the problem of explaining "decline" is that, like "rise," it doesn't happen everywhere at the same rate or in the same way. Ronald Reagan declared the 1980s to be "morning again in America," but dawn looked a lot different in Silicon Valley than it did in Youngstown.

Still, looking at the range of explanations provides a montage of Rome's condition. There is, to begin with, the growing number of incursions into the empire by non-Roman peoples — that is, by the barbarians. Rome had always been adept at assimilating newcomers; until the rise of America, it was history's most successful multi-ethnic state. But the influx eventually became too much to handle, as the Huns, sweeping out from central Asia, drove more and more people south and west in front of them, and finally across the Rhine and the Danube and into the empire.

Another explanation: perhaps the culprit was simply a hollowed- out military, whose capacities were no longer up to the challenge of keeping the barbarians at bay. Related to this: Did a creeping pacifism come into play? ("We Christians defend the empire by praying for it," wrote one early theologian.) Some historians blame economic stagnation for the fall of Rome, or corruption, or manpower shortages, or the exhaustion of the soil, or the depredations of plague, or the more generalized problem, in one view, that "too few producers supported too many idle mouths." An implicitly eugenic argument points to the depletion of the elites by centuries of war and civil strife. You could look at the debilitating effects of a decline of civic spirit. Or at the rise in taxes, which took a greater toll on ordinary people than it did on the rich and influential, worsening an already invidious class divide. There was the impact of slavery, whose harmful consequences were moral and psychological as well as economic. And there was the chaos caused by the lack of a standard procedure for imperial succession, which was resolved frequently by civil war, crippling the government and weakening the empire's defenses. "Decadence" has always been a popular explanation, though in Rome's case the greatest decadence coincided with the greatest power. (Still, here's Richard Nixon on the subject: "When the great civilizations of the past became prosperous, when they lost the will to go on living and make progress, they fell victims to decadence, which in the long run destroys a culture. The United States is now entering this phase.") Some of the more preposterous theories explaining the fall of Rome happen also to be unforgettable. Everybody knows the one that credits lead poisoning from the pipes used in plumbing. Another explanation in this class: the onset of widespread impotence caused by hot water in the public baths. All told, decline-of-Rome explanations fall into two broad categories: either the empire killed itself (internal weaknesses) or it was killed by something else (external factors). Historians tilt one way or the other, but they also tend to cite the interplay of inside and outside forces rather than attributing Rome's demise to a single simple cause. As in Murder on the Orient Express, all the prime suspects shared in the deed.

The third century was a period of deep crisis, with one bad emperor after another (the standard obituary: "killed by his own soldiers") and continual barbarian pressures on the frontiers. The empire was rescued by Diocletian, a no-nonsense administrator who built up the legions and organized the state and its taxes around the need for security. He also created the system known as the tetrarchy, in which power was shared among two coemperors (East and West) and two subemperors-in-waiting, at a stroke mitigating the succession problem and providing enough leaders to command the various armies. From the late third century onward, emperors spent more and more time away with their legions, fending off trouble and settling in for years in subcapitals like Trier and Sirmium. But Rome was still the leading city of the empire and still the home of the senatorial aristocracy. It still enjoyed extraordinary privileges, and it still extracted great wealth from the rest of the empire.

The sack of the city by Alaric, in 410, was both a physical and a psychic blow. By arrangement the sack was an orderly and not especially bloody affair, its terms spelled out in advance. Alaric demanded all portable wealth, and when a member of the Roman legation asked what the Romans could keep, he replied, "Your lives." Rome's perimeter had not been breached by an enemy for eight hundred years. "The brightest light of the whole world is extinguished," wrote Saint Jerome, the translator of the Bible, in faraway Jerusalem. Over time, wars and sieges took a toll on Rome's water supply — the aqueducts were cut and repaired, then cut and repaired again. The most reliable aqueduct proved to be the Aqua Virgo, which ran mostly underground. You can see an excavated piece of it, and hear the rush of water, under an indie cinema in one of the narrow back streets near the Trevi Fountain. Rome's dwindling population, maybe 80,000 in 600 A.D., withdrew from the fringes and began to cluster near the bend in the Tiber where the Aqua Virgo had its terminus, creating the maze of streets that gives today's city center its medieval character. Rome is a good place to reflect, post-Katrina, on how the failure of infrastructure can shape a community for a thousand years.

Well before its collapse, as skills declined and building materials became harder to get, Rome began to plunder itself for spolia, or "spoils," in a way that would seem edgily postmodern if it had been driven by academic theory rather than bitter necessity. The fourth-century Arch of Constantine contains bits and pieces carved in the second century (as the painter Raphael pointed out). Builders of churches and palaces used ancient structures as quarries. The original St. Peter's was supported by columns scavenged from Roman-era buildings; the Renaissance basilica that took its place used marble from the Colosseum. To bolster his claim to an imperial pedigree, Charlemagne imported architectural remains from Rome and Ravenna for his palace at Aachen, and even had some of the stonework fashioned to look like spolia from Rome, because it had so much cachet. Meanwhile, in the old imperial capital, blocks of marble and statues by the thousands were burned for lime. A memory of the smoky place where this was done, below the Capitoline Hill, is preserved in the name Via delle Botteghe Oscure, the Street of the Dark Shops. Large tracts of the urban heartland were turned over to pasture, and livestock grazed where Caesars had walked. The process of reversion will not mystify anyone who has visited modern Detroit and noticed trees sprouting on the roofs and ledges of abandoned buildings, or seen how vacant downtown lots are being reclaimed by a hardscrabble urban agriculture.

Such was the spectacle that presented itself to Gibbon on that day in 1764, as he sat looking out over what had once been the Forum and was now the Campo Vaccino, the Field of Cows. In a sentence sagging with judgment and resignation, Gibbon settled on no one cause for the empire's collapse: "Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight."

A decade later, in 1775, as Gibbon prepared to "oppress the public" (as he put it) with the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the British Empire faced a crisis of its own when the thirteen American colonies united in rebellion. Gibbon had celebrated the vaunted freedoms of the Romans, and mourned their loss. He was a friend of Adam Smith, who would become the patron saint of America's economic ideology, his face peering out from the neckties of capitalists. But Gibbon had no sympathy for the "criminal enterprize" of the American Revolution, and as a Tory member of Parliament he supported the campaign of military suppression. When he eventually changed his mind, it was on pragmatic grounds: "I shall scarcely give my consent to exhaust still farther the finest country in the World in the prosecution of a War, from whence no reasonable man entertains any hope of success. It is better to be humbled than ruined." Gibbon never warmed to the rebellion. Visiting Paris during the war, he on one occasion was introduced to the ambassador from Britain's American colonies, Benjamin Franklin. Gibbon was reportedly officious and distant; in a letter he stresses that the meeting was "by accident." Sly, funny, self-confident in print, Gibbon in person was profoundly awkward. Franklin is said to have heightened his discomfort by offering to furnish Gibbon with some materials for his next book, about the decline and fall of the British Empire.

America's Turn

Gibbon may have had no place in his political cosmology for America, but America had a big place for Rome. An obsession with Roman antecedents could hardly have been helped, given the classical education all the Founding Fathers received. My window at the Boston Athenaeum, where I sit right now, looks out over a colonial graveyard, the Old Granary Burying Ground. Every literate person resting there would have known the fabled stories of Rome: the rape of the Sabine women; Horatio at the bridge; the sacred temple geese who gave the alarm and saved the Capitol; Caesar and Brutus on the Ides of March. These were as familiar to them as the D-Day landing or the march on Selma or the Watergate burglary or the convergence of Bill and Monica would be to Americans now.

The educated elite of the thirteen colonies were steeped in the Roman code of virtus. In this code there was little room for qualities that today hold pride of place in America. The Founders did not cherish therapeutic notions of self-actualization or self-esteem or "the real me." What mattered was adherence to duty as expressed in outward behavior. The very first Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, the so-called Athenaeum portrait, was for a time on display downstairs from where I work. The gaze Washington offers, painted from life, captures no interior spark; it's a serene mask of obligation. In Rome, virtus was inextricably bound up with the ideology of Rome's greatness. Here is the Roman legend as one historian sums it up: "A simple, hardy race of peasants, long uncontaminated by the seductive arts and manners of Greece, they held fast to their rustic virtues: sanctity of family life, sobriety of conduct and demeanour, a stern sense of discipline. . . . In consequence of these virtues the Romans achieved their mission, divinely inspired, to rule the world." These were seen to be the values of Rome especially in its republican days, and they were the values the Founding Fathers believed Americans at their best embodied. They're still the values we look back on wistfully.

The Roman who epitomized republican ideals was Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Younger (95–46 B.C.), the great-grandson of the Cato who had urged his countrymen toward the Third Punic War with the declaration "Carthago delenda est!" — "Carthage must be destroyed!" Cato the Younger was a senator known for eccentric habits, grim austerity, and humorless rectitude — combine Mahatma Gandhi, John the Baptist, and Ralph Nader. He often went about in nothing more than a toga, without shoes or an undergarment. His relations with women were erratic and unhappy. He drank heavily when alone, though his public demeanor was abstemious and his lifestyle bereft of luxury. Cato was not a contented fellow, and was more admired than liked. But his stubborn adherence to Roman virtues and republican principles had no equal. Cato and Julius Caesar were bitter enemies, and Cato tirelessly warned his fellow Romans of Caesar's designs on power. When Caesar eventually triumphed, Cato sought to commit suicide by stabbing himself. He was discovered, and the wounds were bound up, but Cato ripped off the bandages and bled to death; he did not want to give Caesar the satisfaction of sparing his life.

Cato's stand against tyranny echoed down the ages. One of the most popular plays in eighteenth-century America was Joseph Addison's Cato: A Tragedy in Five Acts. Today it is nearly unreadable, unrelenting in its uplift and cloying in its nobility, but its tidy verses once spoke as powerfully to Americans as Arthur Miller's The Crucible does now. Its influence is stamped indelibly on the rhetoric of the Revolution. Nathan Hale's "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country" is, in essence, a line from Addison's Cato. So is Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death."

Rome set not just a moral example but a practical one. The Founding Fathers had overthrown a great empire, and now they looked to preimperial Rome for republican political models — in particular for ideas about "checks and balances" that could help preserve that form of government. Cicero had written, "I consider the most effective constitution to be that which is a reasonably blended combination of three forms — kingship, aristocracy, and democracy." Rome's republican government vested these functions in its two consuls, who shared executive power and could serve for only a year; in a senate, made up of the highborn, who served for life; and in the populus,the people, who could vote on certain matters. This regime promised a government, Cicero thought, with "an equilibrium like a well-trimmed boat." The checks and balances were taken to such an extreme that if both consuls were leading troops in battle, each took charge on alternate days (a pushmi-pullyu procedure that proved fatal at the Battle of Cannae). Roman precedents were invoked time and again as the drafters framed America's new Constitution. Some of them, of course, were sobering: everyone was aware that Cicero's well-trimmed boat had eventually foundered. Benjamin Franklin's famous remark, when asked as he emerged from Independence Hall what kind of government America now had — "A republic, if you can keep it" — represented a cautionary reference to the unhappy fate of Rome. That, at any rate, is how his listeners at the time would have heard it.

George Washington was the epitome of America's Roman ideal. He was unyielding in his embrace of public virtue, supplementing Roman standards of behavior with the famous "Rules of Civility" written out in his own hand in a schoolboy copybook. ("Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present." "When a man does all he can, though it succeed not well, blame not him that did it.") The Romans were obsessed with surveying, an understandable preoccupation for a people expanding into three continents; Washington's first career was as a surveyor — his country was expanding too. Washington knew his Roman history: an invoice survives for an order from an English dealer of "A Groupe of Aeneas carrying his father out of Troy, neatly finished and bronzed with copper, three pounds, three shillings" — a sculpture of Rome's founding legend for the mantelpiece of America's own founder. At Valley Forge, Washington ordered up a production of Addison's Cato for his frostbitten army, and attended the performance himself.

After the Revolution, sidestepping suggestions of kingship and returning to his beloved Mount Vernon, Washington was hailed as America's Cincinnatus. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a Roman of the mid fifth century b.c. who farmed a small plot of land across the Tiber from Rome. As the story goes, Rome was under assault by some neighboring tribes, its army surrounded and on the verge of annihilation. The Romans voted to empower a dictator to lead them out of crisis, and sent word to Cincinnatus, who put aside his plough and came to the city's aid.

In two days he brought the Romans in sight of the combined armies; he formed his line of battle, and after reminding them what they were to fight for he led them onto the charge with such resistless impetuosity that he obtained a complete victory and gave, as it were, a new life to his country's liberties. Soon as this great work was done, he took an affectionate leave of his gallant army and returned to cultivate his four acres.

That's the conclusion of the Cincinnatus tale as recounted not by some Roman chronicler but by Parson Weems, whose best-selling Life of Washington was published soon after Washington's death. In a work commissioned for the Capitol rotunda a few decades later, the sculptor Horatio Greenough produced a massive marble Washington in a classic Roman pose, seated, the toga draped to reveal a bare chest. With his left hand Washington offers his sword back to the people, as Cincinnatus might have done. This sculpture now dominates an entryway at the Smithsonian — it was so heavy that it had to be moved from the Capitol before it fell through the floor. The Cincinnatus reference is probably lost on most visitors: Washington looks like a man in a sauna, asking for a towel.

The Roman ideal ran deep in America for decades. People were so steeped in Cicero that up to the Civil War, the stock form of public presentation was the formal oration. As America began to spread across the continent, and to emerge as an economic power, worries only grew that the country was destined to repeat the Roman story of imperial temptation and humbling decline — worries captured in the painter Thomas Cole's allegorical series The Course of Empire, produced in the 1830s. It's not subtle. The series begins with an idyllic depiction of the state of nature, then portrays a moment of imperial sunshine in all its vainglorious fullness, and ends with a painting titled Desolation.

Not subtle — but not fantasy, either. It's hardly a stretch to find modern relevance in the example of the Roman Republic, overwhelmed by the consequences of its own growing size and might, and by its perceived national-security needs. In 68 B.C. a pirate attack on Rome's port of Ostia prompted the terrified Romans to cede far-reaching powers to one man, Pompey. There would be no turning back. The need to act boldly and react quickly; to ferret out enemy plans while keeping your own hidden; to show a public face of resolve, concealing doubt and dissent — in Rome, over time, all these mandates produced a change in character. They have done so in America, too. You could point to the expanding power of the presidency relative to the other two branches of government; or to restrictions on personal freedom in exchange for personal safety; or to a culture of secrecy; or to the pervasive influence of the military and the security apparatus. People concerned that America may drift away from a republic and toward a principate, as Rome did, took little comfort from the news, reported and confirmed in the summer of 2004, that the government was "reviewing a proposal" to postpone national elections in the event of some sort of terrorist attack; or from the recent Supreme Court ruling that the police may enter homes without knocking; or from the attorney general's threat to use espionage laws to prosecute reporters for publishing leaks of classified information. Nor have their spirits been lifted by the inroads of a relatively new legal argument known as "unitary executive theory." Among other things, it holds that each branch of the government — not just the Supreme Court — has the right to interpret the Constitution, and it asserts an unprecedented view of the extent of presidential power, including the power to make war without the consent of Congress.

This is not in fact just theory. One concrete result has been the president's practice of appending a "signing statement" to legislation when it comes to him for signature, indicating his intention to enforce the legislation according to his own specific interpretation — if the legislation is enforced at all. Up through the year 2000 American presidents had collectively employed signing statements on about 600 occasions. In the six years since then, the president has added signing statements more than 750 times, on laws pertaining to such matters as the use of torture, whistle-blowing by government employees, the oversight provisions of the Patriot Act, and the obligation of the executive branch to provide Congress with certain kinds of information.

The Roman Empire's penchant for official secrecy was remarked on by the historian Cassius Dio, who complained that because so much had been done behind closed doors, he couldn't get access to materials he needed to write his narrative. He would not have been surprised by the dogged White House effort, which continues in the courts, to conceal the details of the administration's early planning on energy policy and the names of those who participated in it. The Romans had nothing like the technological means that modern America has to create a true surveillance state, but the empire's undercover operatives — the frumentarii (who turn up in the video game The Regia) and, later, the agentes in rebus — were diligent. In common parlance these operatives were known as the curiosi. The philosopher Epictetus, who was born in Rome and knew firsthand the dangers of thinking freely (he was sent into exile), presents a vignette of entrapment in one of his writings: "A soldier, dressed like a civilian, sits down by your side and begins to speak ill of Caesar, and then you, too, just as though you had received from him some guarantee of good faith in the fact that he began the abuse, tell likewise everything you think, and the next thing is — you are led off to prison in chains." Our own curiosi have big ears. The National Security Agency, in a program known as Echelon, sifts tens of millions of telephone and data communications every day, searching for any of hundreds of words or phrases that may hint at terrorist activity. Some of them ("White House," "mail bomb" "kill the president") are self-explanatory; others ("Roswell," "blowfish," "Bill Gates") may be counterintuitive. Another program, which bore the name Carnivore until someone started to worry, much too late, about the potential public-relations fallout, essentially conducts wiretaps on e-mail. More recently the national-security apparatus has begun wiretapping the international phone calls of thousands of Americans without legal oversight — on presidential orders, and despite the expressed will of Congress. It has also been collecting the telephone records of tens of millions more.

Then as now, legislatures seem to be the first to go. The Roman Senate remained a millionaire's club and a source of public servants, but it atrophied as a true deliberative body. Foreign policy and war-making power became the sole province of the emperor and his amici, his closest advisers. Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states: "The Congress shall have the power to declare war," a power entrusted to the legislature because, as James Madison observed, the temptation to use force would otherwise "be too great for any one man." A modern historian writes, "The debates in the convention, the later writings of delegates to that meeting, and speeches in the state conventions that voted on ratification of the Constitution leave no doubt that the president's title and role as commander in chief gave him no powers that Congress could not define or limit." The last time Congress authorized the use of force through a declaration of war was more than six decades ago, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Since then the United States has committed large numbers of troops to major combat operations on fourteen occasions, from Korea and Vietnam through Grenada, the Balkans, and two wars in Iraq, but no president has ever sought a true declaration of war. Power has shifted decisively toward the executive, as the executive understands. George W. Bush made the point this way: "I'm the commander — see, I don't need to explain. . . . I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

The Omphalos Syndrome

Something happens to imperial capitals, something psychological and, over time, corrosive and incapacitating. It happens when the conviction takes hold that the capital is the source and focal point of reality — that nothing is more important than what happens there, and that no ideas or perceptions are more important than those of its elites. This conviction saturated imperial Rome, as it saturates official Washington — it's the most important trait the capitals share. The conviction is understandable, up to a point. When powerful states are in an expansive phase, the wishes and ideas of the rest of the world seem secondary, inconsequential. In the capital itself, this frame of mind may far outlast the circumstances that produced it, taking on a life of its own that everyone has an interest in perpetuating. It can prove impossible to eradicate fully. In Italy, manhole covers are still stamped with the letters that once appeared on imperial standards and marble monuments: SPQR, for Senatus Populusque Romanus — the Senate and the Roman People. Modern Russia can't suppress the reflexes of the old Soviet empire, just as the Soviets couldn't suppress the reflexes of imperial Russia. Britain no longer has much of an empire, but many institutions in London retain a noticeably imperial cast of mind. The spirit of the Raj is not absent from the tone of The Economist.

Rome labored under what has been called an "omphalos syndrome." The omphalos, from the Greek word for "navel," was a stone monument found in a number of ancient cities that supposedly marked the navel, or center, of the world. Rome's own version, the marble Umbilicus Romae, stood prominently in the Forum, right next to the Rostra. The marble facing is now gone, but a circular brick pile remains, to which tourists pay no attention at all, unaware that the entrance to the underworld, to Hades, was once believed to be right there, under those very bricks. The term "omphalos syndrome" originated in the study of old maps, and describes the tendency of people who "believe themselves to be divinely appointed to the centre of the universe," as one geographer explains, to place themselves in the middle of the maps they draw. The Romans weren't shy about asserting this belief: they drove it home astutely by means of what today would be considered "branding." In the Forum, in the very center of Rome, they erected not only the official Umbilicus but also, a few yards away, a gilded column called the Golden Milestone, where all the empire's roads symbolically converged. Augustus built a sundial the size of a football field in the Campus Martius, using an Egyptian obelisk to cast the shadow. It was dedicated, technically, to a divinity — to the sun — but on the birthday of Augustus, September 23, the obelisk's shadow pointed directly at the Altar of Peace, which celebrated the fruits of his rule. The message was unmistakable, one scholar concludes: "The whole universe now formed part of the new Augustan system."

In the second century A.D., a young rhetorician named Aelius Aristides delivered an oration in the Athenaeum, in Rome, possibly in front of the emperor himself. Aristides was a panegyrist, a court littérateur whose job it was to extol people in power. It is an occupational category that still exists in Washington. (Think of Peggy Noonan on Reagan, Sidney Blumenthal on Clinton, Ron Kessler on Bush, Midge Decter on Rumsfeld.) The description of Rome offered by Aristides embodies the city's self-satisfied outlook: "Here is brought from every land and sea all the crops of the seasons and each land, river, lake, as well as of the arts of the Greeks and the barbarians. . . . Whatever one does not see here is not a thing which has existed or exists." The architect Vitruvius took up the same theme: "Surely then it was a divine intelligence which placed the city of Rome in so perfect and temperate a country, with the intention that she should win the right to rule the world."

Rome, like Washington, was an economically pointless metropolis, a vast importer and consumer of an empire's riches rather than a producer of anything except words and administration (and the pungent cartloads of garbage that left the city every night). The downstream consequences of Rome's gargantuan appetites can be visualized, literally, even today. Take the basic need for building materials. Augustus would claim that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble, and the boast was not an idle one. But underneath that marble, and alongside it, mountains of brick remained. Rome's tenement houses, the insulae, were faced with brick, and so were the city walls and sewers and aqueducts. The brick was distinctive — square and thin, red-ochre in color. You recognize it everywhere in the ruins of the city, and if you come across it anywhere in the world, whether in York or Paris or Jerusalem, it always means one thing: Rome was here. The brick and lime for the city of Rome had to be baked and kilned, which required massive quantities of charcoal, which in turn required trees. A single burn of a limestone kiln could consume a thousand donkey loads of wood. The forests around Rome were felled, and then the forests beyond those forests. Ground cover gone, the soil washed from the hillsides and into the rivers. At the mouth of the Tiber, the shoreline pushed outward as accretions of soil built up over the centuries. The docks at Ostia had to constantly be extended to remain adjacent to the water, a process clearly visible now in aerial photographs. As the empire came to an end, so did the effort to keep ahead of nature. The original docks are now a mile from the sea, trapped in dry land, separated from shore by striations of silt.

The biggest component of the city's prodigious intake was something called the annona, an in-kind tax levied by Rome on everyplace else, and collected in the form of grain, which was used to provide free bread for most of Rome's inhabitants. At its peak the annona amounted to 10 million sacks of grain a year. The shipment of the annona from Spain, Egypt, and northern Africa to the docks at the Tiber's mouth, and then by barge up the river to Rome, was never-ending, like tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf. Any serious interruption could mean urban unrest to the point of violence. When conspirators wanted to bring down Cleander, the hated chief minister of the equally hated emperor Commodus, they manipulated grain supplies, causing shortages that led to riots. (Commodus "commanded that the head of Cleander should be thrown out to the people," Gibbon writes. "The desired spectacle instantly appeased the tumult.") Eventually the annona was expanded beyond grain to include olive oil and wine. The smashed amphorae these liquids came in were tossed in a dump near the Tiber wharves, creating a hill known today as Monte Testaccio, a hundred feet high. Warehouses the size of basilicas existed at every stage of the distribution system, and so, too, did opportunities for pilfering and corruption. If you think of the annona as tax revenue, which it was, then the revenue not only accomplished its stated purpose of feeding the city; it also supported large swaths of private-sector activity, from shipping to baking to crime. Some of this activity was encouraged with tax breaks and even grants of citizenship. There was great wealth to be had off government contracts. You can still see today, near the Porta Maggiore, in Rome, the huge marble tomb, in the shape of an old-fashioned bread oven, of a freedman named Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, who is described by an inscription as "baker, contractor, public servant." So large was the work force required for the baking of bread that people convicted of certain minor crimes were sentenced to hard labor in Rome's bakeries. As the empire began to contract, the annona remained the essential lifeline, preserved at all costs. By the fifth century a.d., only the link with North Africa remained unbroken. When Alaric laid siege to Rome, one of his first acts was to send his warriors to seize the docks at Ostia.

To see yourself at the center of everything requires a sense of what "everything" is — a geographic sense, in other words.Americans take such a thing for granted, aware as we are of the location of every place on earth. You can tap into the Global Positioning System with a cell phone. In Roman times geographic knowledge was primitive, though its political uses were not. The Romans called themselves "masters of the oikumene" — "masters of the known world" — long before they were able to depict the known world in any reliable way. But once they could, they erected large public maps showing Rome in the literal center, where it obviously had to be. The Roman Empire's vascular system was its network of roads. At regular points along every roadway in Italy marble markers announced to travelers the distance to the center of the world: to Rome. A monument in the capital schematically depicted the deployments of the imperial legions, arrayed in a circle centered on the capital — a precursor, in stone, of the blinking electronic displays of "readiness" in the Pentagon's situation room. Rome's sense of status and privilege would survive long after Roman emperors stopped living there — and, indeed, long after the empire was gone. It survives to this day in the idea of Rome as the Eternal City, and very literally in an ancient pronouncement that occurs every Easter, when the pope from his balcony in the Vatican delivers a homily that begins with the words of address "Urbi et orbi — "To the city and to the world."

Rome displayed the attributes of any great capital with more hubris than humility: the overweening self-regard, the presumption that it knew better than others, the surprising ignorance about foreign cultures, the languid arrogance, the competitive displays of wealth — all captured in the writings of Suetonius and Plutarch and Juvenal and others. The city's appetite for the wealth of the conquered knew few limits: as its rule spread to one place after another, a steady traffic in artwork made its way to the center. On occasion Roman grandees would obtain classical sculptures from Greece but replace the heads with their own; think of Rodin's leonine Balzac with the head of a Newt Gingrich or a Joseph Biden. All of this coexisted with a rhetoric of high-mindedness about the duties and burdens of leadership — Rome's "special gift." And the fact is, the rhetoric reflected an undeniable reality: Rome held up its end.

Inside the Bubble

Washington, too, sees leadership as its special gift, though it did not always. For more than a century it was very much a provincial southern town. The Washington of Henry Adams's Democracy (1880) is a city of pinched horizons, not the center of anything. There's plenty of religion and corruption and politicking and small-mindedness in the novel, but no sense at all of America on a world stage. Like Rome, Washington changed character suddenly: its Augustan phase began only in the twentieth century and accelerated after the Depression and World War II, spurred by new social ambitions at home and new security obligations abroad. In the eyes of nostalgic proponents of small government, the Rubicon was crossed with the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, in 1913, giving Washington the unimpeded power to levy an income tax and therefore to spend ever larger amounts of money. In the eyes of those nostalgic for a time when America could hide behind two oceans, the symbolic point of no return is the construction of the Pentagon, rushed to completion in 1943 and still the world's largest office building.

All life in Washington today derives ultimately from the capital's own version of Rome's annona — the continuous infusion not of grain and olive oil but of tax revenue and borrowed money. Instead of ships and barges there are banks, 10,000 of them designated for this purpose, which funnel the nation's tax payments to the city. The keystroking civil servants at the federal Financial Management Service, who gather it all in electronically, are Washington's equivalent of the longshoremen at Ostia. The never-ending flow of revenue creates a broad level of affluence that has no real counterpart anywhere else in America. Federal employment may no longer be growing — the federal payroll in the Washington region is about 360,000 — but this is in essence a convenient deceit, to make the size of government seem contained. An even larger number of people in the Washington area — about 400,000 — work for private companies that are doing actual government work; like the baker Eurysaces, they're living directly off the annona. H. Ross Perot, the anti-government maverick, made his fortune this way, supplying data systems to an expanding federal government. (He deserves a marble tomb in the shape of an old-fashioned computer punch card.) An additional quarter of a million people in the region feed off government directly or indirectly: the lawyers and lobbyists, the wonks and accountants, the reporters and caterers and limousine drivers and panegyrists, and all the aides and associates whose job it is to function as someone else's brain. Every week a dozen or so pages of the Washington magazine National Journal detail the comings and goings of executives in categories like "image makers," "think tanks," "lobby shops," "interest groups" — denizens of the smoked-glass office blocks on K Street, Washington's own Street of the Dark Shops. Washington simply doesn't look like the rest of America. It's richer, better educated, more professional — number 1 in the country in median income, and in the percentage of college graduates, of women in the work force, and of two-earner families. Its professional classes are largely insulated from economic conditions in the rest of the country. As the analyst Joel Garreau has observed, "Only the residents of Washington, reaping the benefits of being at the center of the Imperium, fail to view this as bizarre."

Washingtonians see themselves as the masters of the oikumene. When Washington appears in novels these days, it's the Washington that plays the Great Game of foreign affairs and espionage, not the Washington that deals with grubby domestic issues. It's the Washington of Jack Ryan, not Mr. Smith. One analysis of Washington phone books found that listings beginning with the word "international" had increased two and a half times as fast in the second half of the twentieth century as those beginning with "national." Although Washington does not have a marble omphalos, the president has his finger on something else that gets everyone's attention: "the button," the one that controls our nuclear arsenal. The president of the United States goes by the acronym POTUS, subliminally evoking potency (from potens, the Latin word for "powerful"). For years he was also "the leader of the free world." Now that there is no longer an unfree world, at least officially, the president is simply "the most important man in the most important city in the world." That turn of phrase attaches itself like a limpet to anything in sight. Ads for one Washington bank have described it as "the most important bank in the most important city in the world." The general manager of Washington's power-lunch restaurant The Palm has been called "the most powerful man at the most powerful restaurant in the most powerful city in the world." And hold on: maybe it's not just "the world." As President Bill Clinton prepared for his inauguration in 1993, the Washington Post published a four-part series called "A Newcomer's Guide to the Most Important City in the Universe."

The sacred boundary of the city of Rome was known as the pomerium. Washington's pomerium is of course the Beltway, and "inside the Beltway" has long been conventional argot for the city's special sense of self; "outside the Beltway" means, in effect, "the provinces," "the hinterland." Even time is held captive within Washington's pomerium: the atomic master clock at the Naval Observatory, in the heart of the city, defines the meaning of "now" for cell phones and satellites, computers and cruise missiles. When Washington's atomic clock makes an adjustment, even a billionth of a second, time obeys. "Once within the confines of the Capitol complex," the late Meg Greenfield explained, "most people come to accept its standards, live by its rules, honor its imperatives." They also "start referring to the rest of the country (without quite realizing what the term conveys) as 'out there.' " Washington itself, though, is the outlier — an anomaly among American cities. It is not a great cultural capital, just as Rome wasn't; it must import its artists and actors, its rhetoricians, its scholars, its thinkers. Architecturally it is without great distinction, using its past as a kind of spolia — erecting new buildings behind old façades (the practice is known as "façodomy"). It's hard to avoid the atmosphere of conspicuous striving — in the slightly overdone formal invitations for every social event, in the leather-and-globe furnishings of offices and studies, in the advertisements for cosmetic surgery in high-end local magazines — and of muted cultural defensiveness. There always seems to be a moment at Washington gatherings when some mildly fortified Oxbridge expatriate begins muttering about how it falls to Britain "to play Athens to your Rome." Washington's wounded riposte would echo that of Julius Caesar in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra: "What! Rome produces no art! Is peace not an art? Is war not an art? Is government not an art? Is civilization not an art?"

Washington's life-support system is maintained not by one annona but by two. The second comes in the form of information — information about everything, public or proprietary, opensource or top-secret, a vast ingathering from all over America and the world to this one place, where it is stored, minced, parceled out, analyzed, palpated, twisted, packaged, shared, and deployed. (Or, in some cases, withheld or destroyed.) William Petty's seventeenth-century Political Arithmetick, which used statistics to compare the economic and military resources of England with those of Holland and France, marked a revolution in government. Information has become the brick of the modern state, and the demand for it in Washington is impossible to satisfy. In 2002 the government launched a program known as Total Information Awareness, whose name sums up its aims, to be pursued through electronic and other means. Justified on national-security grounds, and run out of the Defense Department, the program encountered opposition because of privacy concerns, and was said to have been shut down. But many of its components continue under other names. As all roads once led to Rome, all computer trunk lines lead to Washington. In locations throughout the city — on Capitol Hill, in the White House, in the offices of defense contractors and political lawyers, there are secure redoubts known as "SCIF rooms"; the acronym, pronounced "skiff," stands for "sensitive compartmentalized information facility." These are special sites, protected against eavesdropping, where information of utmost gravity can be imparted to those select few with clearance to receive it. One participant in SCIF discussions says, "Those of us who've been in those rooms long to be in them again."

In the Ellipse just south of the White House stands a granite Zero Milestone, intended to be Washington's version of Rome's Golden Milestone, the symbolic central reference point from which all things are measured. Well, it isn't our central reference point at all — no one has ever heard of it, though you could argue that modern America began on this very spot. This was the place from which Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1919, set out to lead the army's "transcontinental motor convoy" across America. By the time Eisenhower reached San Francisco, sixty-two days later, he understood that America needed what Rome had possessed, a network of good public roads. When he became president, he created the interstate highway system. Tourists pay no attention to the Zero Milestone at all, and yet our own descent into hell started right there.

Washington's real focal point is provided by the Washington press corps, which provides the magnifying lens through which the capital is seen. Increasingly, the national and international news cycles are set by journalists and media executives inside the Beltway. If you count by the minute, as much as 30 percent of the nightly network news is datelined Washington, and most of that coverage is built around official sources. Of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on the three major networks from September of 2002 through February of 2003 (that is, during the run-up to the war), 380 were reported from the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department — as opposed to, for instance, any European capitals, or Middle Eastern capitals, or the United Nations, or Iraq itself. The weekly Friday-evening and Sunday-morning political talk shows begin with a musical flourish that evokes imperial trumpets, and the words "From Washington . . ." The analysts offer what James Wolcott has called a "luxury-skybox view" of national affairs:

Assurance fluffs up their every pronouncement, because they have permanent thrones . . . Not having to answer to angry constituents, they make everything sound easy. They dispatch imaginary troops overseas as if snapping their fingers for a taxi. Welfare cuts? No problem. Slash government payrolls?

Make it so.

"The week" — meaning the political week in Washington, and in essence meaning the president's week — has long been the basic formal unit of journalistic time (has POTUS had a good week? a bad week?), although with the Internet and round-the-clock cable news, the half-life of particular stories keeps getting shorter and shorter. The ephemeral nature of "importance" in the capital is symbolized by the "Zeitgeist Checklist," in the Washington Post, which rates the urgency of various issues — immigration, same-sex marriage, Iraq — as if they were items on a bestseller list (current rank, last week's rank, weeks on list). It's done skillfully, with practiced irony. But it works only because in this instance the ironic and the real overlap completely.

In Rome at its height all social and political life was derived ultimately from the imperial court; and only through access to the court could those men of influence known as suffragatores control jobs and resources. In their day the names of suffragatores like Libanius and Themistus and Fronto were as expeditious as those of Vernon Jordan and Robert Barnett in our own. Money fuels the system, of course — no surprise there. In the days of the republic, when Rome still had functioning electoral elements, the inexorable creep of lobbying and vote-buying induced pathetic fits of "campaign-finance reform," such as placing limits on the numbers of people a candidate could invite to banquets, on how much a candidate could spend on food and drink, and on where the banquets could be held. As Washington would discover to its own great relief, the only effect of such measures was to prompt the discovery of new loopholes.

The degree to which the world inside the pomerium has become a hermetically sealed system is taken for granted. Jimmy Carter thought of Washington as an island (and was thrown off it). Eisenhower complained that everyone in Washington "has been too long away from home." The occasional acknowledgment of how isolating Washington is changes nothing. Newsweek ran a cover story in 2005 called "Bush in the Bubble," because the president and his advisers seemed to be living inside a membrane that kept certain viewpoints in and certain realities out. The description fits any recent administration, though this one more than most. Documents pertaining to Vice President Dick Cheney's travel requirements became public in 2006, revealing that when he entered a new hotel room he wanted all the television sets already turned on and tuned in to the ideologically congenial Fox News. (With the hiring last year of the Fox News anchor Tony Snow as the White House spokesman, the circuit has been closed.) To keep the membrane in good repair, the vice president has required crowds behind rope lines, waiting to shake his hand, to cleanse themselves with antibacterial gel.

Pliny the Elder describes the marvels of Rome's drainage system, the sewers leading down from the seven hills into the central Cloaca Maxima, which another Roman observer once called "the receptacle of all the off-scourings of the city." Washington now drains into the blogosphere, another engineering marvel. In the larger scheme of things, how important were the personnel changes at the White House last year, which removed Scott McClellan as press secretary and took away one of Karl Rove's jobs? They came at a moment when the price of oil had reached $75 a barrel, Iran was pursuing plans to build a nuclear bomb, and the war in Iraq offered a prospect of perpetual carnage, but for a week the swirl of opinion in Washington blogs — scores of sites, hundreds of links, tens of thousands of words every day — centered mainly on those White House personnel changes, and who won and who lost, and how prescient (or asleep) the bloggers themselves had been. Archaeologists excavating the drains of the Colosseum have found the bones of exotic animals and the remains of stadium food. Archaeologists dredging the Washington blogosphere will discover dense strata of self-reference: "as I said this morning . . . ," "as I predicted last week . . . ," "I'll say it again . . . ," "to repeat . . ."

Within any closed, insular system, the competitive pressure for status becomes intense. Edward Gibbon, in a typically tart moment, took note of Roman officialdom's taste for fancy forms of address: "They contend with each other in the empty vanity of titles and surnames, and curiously select the most lofty and sonorous appellations . . . which may impress the ears of the vulgar with astonishment and respect." Washington titles do not approach the grandeur sought by North Korea's Kim Jong Il ("Saint of All Saints," "Lodestar of the Twenty-first Century"). But consider this: during the Kennedy administration only twenty-nine people held the coveted title of "assistant," "deputy assistant," or "special assistant" to the president; by the time Bill Clinton left office, there were 141 such people. Unabashedly ambitious (Cicero maintained that the quest for gloria explained everything), the Romans spelled out their achievements with painstaking care in autobiographical commentarii when alive, and in detailed elogia by allies when dead; the self-serving, score-settling "Washington memoir" has a long pedigree. In his letters you can watch Cicero hire buyers and decorators to make his villa outside Rome into a statement of good taste and great influence. He would have been an avid consumer of the American capital's glossy shelter and real-estate magazines. ("Its spectacular glass and columned façade speaks of power and professionalism," says one ad for Washington office space.) The Washington world of public relations "handlers" and of "strategic communications" had a counterpart in Rome, where applause in the law courts could be bought and sold at standard rates. When a Roman was awarded an official triumph through the streets of the capital — the pinnacle of public achievement — painted renderings of his deeds were carried along in procession: a mobile version of that Washington fixture, the "I love me" wall, with its photographs of the triumphator gripping hands with the mighty. The quintessential Washington text may in fact be a Roman one, Cato the Elder's self-promotional speech titled "On His Own Virtues."

The omphalos syndrome is not just a curiosity — it leads to isolation and a view of yourself and the world that can be sharply at odds with the true state of affairs. Rome actually had more insulation against the consequences than Washington does. Roman emperors traveled continually, whether to wage wars or just to see the empire for themselves; they could be absent from Rome for years at a time. Moreover, for all his power, a Roman emperor could be an oddly passive figure. In his magisterial study of how Roman emperors did their jobs, the historian Fergus Millar describes what might be called an "in-box imperium." The majority of an emperor's time was spent simply considering petitions and then rendering decisions — often in person, with supplicants from all over the empire standing before him to state their business. His time was not spent dreaming up social programs, defending civil rights, or reinventing government; any talk of pressing toward a New Frontier would have been meant literally — adding territory. Finally, the empire's far-flung parts were run by capable proconsuls of high stature, their autonomy enhanced by great distance and poor communications. The Roman mindset — center of the world! — might be a palpable reality, but in practice the nature of government put limits on its scope.

In Washington it's exactly the opposite: the nature of American government amplifies the mindset of the capital. A president is deemed a failure if he is not pushing an activist agenda. He is therefore wary of being seen as "detached," wants to be seen as "hands-on." The president spends most of his time in the capital, and even on his many short trips he remains largely isolated from ordinary people. The machinery of government centered on Washington — hundreds of agencies, millions of workers — had no counterpart in Rome. The machinery is there to be used, and a president has access to all of it. Modern communications ensure that no job is beyond potential presidential supervision, even when decentralization and autonomy might be all to the good. Lyndon Johnson personally selected bombing targets in Vietnam. The commanders of the failed military rescue mission in Iran, in 1980, had to check with Jimmy Carter's White House by radio every step of the way. With its vast political databases a modern White House can tailor specific messages to individual households everywhere, as easily as VISA or Comcast can, reflecting a Washington presumption that "out there" is subject to manipulation from the center.

In America, then, as a practical matter, the workings of Washington encourage the idea that the world is small, that society is malleable, and that the capital's stance is paramount. All things begin in the capital, the prime mover of all change. You see traces of this idea in everything from the War on Poverty, in the 1960s, to the Clinton health-insurance plan, in the 1990s. In foreign policy the idea makes itself felt as resistance to multilateral arrangements (such as the treaties to reduce atmospheric pollution and to ban land mines and antiballistic missiles) and as faith in unilateral action (such as pre-emptive war). Across the board it fosters the conviction that assertions of will can trump assessments of reality: the world is the way we say it is. Thus, in the most recent federal budget, $20 million has been set aside for an eventual "day of celebration" marking American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Roman moment captures the spirit: in 476 A.D., not long after the last emperor was deposed and the empire in the West had come to an end, the Roman Senate ordered new coins to be struck. The coins bore the legend "Roma Invicta" — "Rome Unconquered."

Excerpt from Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy. Copyright © 2007 by Cullen Murphy. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.