Book Review: Are We Rome
Are we Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America
Are we Rome? Will America’s rise to world leadership last for a thousand years? Or will our nation come to ruin, like the great Empire of ancient Rome? What lessons does Rome teach us? These questions have haunted Americans since the founding of the new nation in 1776, and they are still with us today. While some may look to Rome as an inspiration, others believe it casts a dark shadow over America’s national trajectory.
The book Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy alludes to the ancient comparison through the picture of Horatio Greenough 's marble statue of George Washington on the book’s cover: Washington looks like a Roman Caesar in his toga. Today "triumphalists" celebrate the comparison and want to export America as a model to the world. "Declinists," on the other hand, lament the similarities and warn about over-extension, arrogance and fall. But are we Rome? According to Murphy (2007), "In a thousand specific ways, the answer is obviously no. In a handful of important ways, the answer is certainly yes" (p. 197).
Murphy devotes one chapter each to six parallels of relevance between ancient Rome and modern America. Both empires exhibit the symptoms an exaggerated self-identity, the isolating effects of exceptionalism, ignorance of others, the presumptions of privilege, and sheer arrogance. Murphy (2007) suggests that our military is both "too large to be affordable, and too small to do everything it is asked to do" (p.77). He then turns to how America has blurred the distinctions between the private and public sectors, "the deflection of public purpose by private interest” (p. 98). Outsourcing government responsibilities might be effective and even necessary, but selling the public good for private profit isn 't. The fourth parallel between Rome and America is the disdain with which both view outsiders as inferior. Fifth, Murphy explores the complex notion of borders, both literal and figurative. Finally, in his epilogue he examines the complexity of large empires like Rome and America.
The chapter titled The Capitals covers the similarities between Washington, D.C. and Rome. How the citizens and politicians in both cities live insular lives divorced from the rest of the country, and the rest of the world. Rome is where politics was invented, and it does not seem to have changed much in 2,800 years. The same scandals and overblown sense of importance still exist. Both in Rome and Washington, issues that seem drastically important to politicians, in order to get votes and stay in office, turn out to have almost no bearing on day-to-day life.
The chapter titled The Legions discusses military power, and how it is used to both secure typical military advantages as well as serve as a means of carrying the empire 's culture around the world. In the ancient world, to join the Roman Legion, one had to speak and write Latin. The military, with bases and forts around the world, spread its influence not so much during battles, but by spending money in the local restaurants, marrying the local women, and bringing back bits and pieces of the places they lived for so long to their home cities in their retirement. It 's not just the soldiers themselves. It 's the entire structure and environment of the whole military family that spreads the culture of the empire around the world.
The chapter titled The Fixers talks about the whole concept of privatization and its close uncle, corruption. Lobbyists, it turns out, are not nearly as recent an innovation as one would think, and the idea of a politician securing funds for a bridge or school in their district, turns out it has been done for thousands of years.
The chapter titled The Outsiders describes how both Rome and the United States deal and feel about immigration. On one hand, without immigration, we would quickly become a stagnant nation but those who have been here for generations feel that they are the "real" citizens, and that immigrants are despicable freeloaders who just want to steal our hard-earned jobs. As it turns out, that 's what the word "barbarians" actually means: immigrant outsiders. All the conversations we are having today about "illegal aliens," the Romans have been there and done that.
And finally, the chapter titled The Borders tells how both empires have somewhat fluid, expanding borders. Borders that are so large they cannot be effectively protected, unless the entire country wanted to spend a fortune doing nothing but that. Borders over which people come and go, spreading their influence, their skills, and their cheap labor. And borders over which neighboring countries become, over time, much more like their more powerful neighbor.
Murphy (2007) argues that the most alarming parallels are “the blinding, insular culture of our capitals; the debilitating effect of corruption; the paradoxical issue of borders; and the weakening of the body politic through various forms of ‘privatization.’”
The parallels between the US and Rome are striking. In their last days, Rome had an influx of non-Latin speaking foreigners, the Senate was simply an extension of the Emperor, and the biggest thing going was watching the gladiators fight and Christians being eaten by large animals. Only the Roman citizens could vote, but many did not care about the government, as they assumed it was beyond their control and understanding. So, this once great society was sacked. Is there a lesson here?
For all these troubling parallels, there are crucial differences between the United States and Rome, and these could make the saving difference. Most important, Murphy (2007) asserts that we are a middle-class democracy, not an aristocracy with sharp, cruel gaps between the classes. Americans have far more power to control their fate. Murphy (2007) contends that if Americans recommit ourselves to good government, if we focus more intensely on assimilating new immigrants, if we quit asking our armed forces to do more than is reasonable and we start paying more effective attention to other cultures, we just might succeed where Rome failed.
On the other hand, Murphy (2007) sees the eventual decline of the American Empire as inevitable, describing three possible scenarios for the future: there is the “Fortress America” scenario, where everything revolves around national security and the power of the president expands to near dictatorial strength; the “city-state scenario,” where the central authority weakens and city-states emerge; and finally the “boardroom scenario,” where corporations privatize all crucial functions of the government and essentially rule—what is commonly called fascism.
If Murphy 's optimistic prescriptions fail to take, we 're left with an alternative posited by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In his 1982 book, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory he noted the parallels between late Rome and our own time and wrote that "a crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium” (p. 56).
Murphy (2007) does not pay enough attention to the health of our culture, though. For example, Classical historian Jerome Carcopino (1941), in his book, Daily Life In Ancient Rome - The People And The City At The Height Of The Empire pointed to the loss of social cohesion and collective purpose, which resulted from the traditional family 's decline as a reason for Rome 's collapse. The habits of civic virtue that Murphy (2007) identifies as critical come first from an ordered home and a commonly shared commitment to remissive moral norms, which contemporary American individualism undermines.
Under late Rome 's decadent bread-and-circuses regime, the common man satisfied himself with material pleasures, ignoring the betterment of himself and society. Murphy (2007) sees this in contemporary America, but it 's hard to discern why, absent a robust belief in God or some other authoritative ideal, people can be convinced to sacrifice the pursuit of luxury for a higher good−even their civilization 's survival.
The question facing men and women of good will today: Do we believe that America can and should be renewed, and therefore seek restoration through the exercise of heroic republican virtue, like the venerated early Roman Cincinnatus? Or do we believe that America is bound to succumb to the process the great 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon (2000) identified in his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as "the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness” (p. 256)
Rome 's empire lasted for a thousand years, and in many obvious ways its "decline and fall" did not mean it simply disappeared (Murphy, 2007, p. 26).When I have traveled to places like Egypt or East Asia that have had continuous civilizations for thousands of years, and consider that America is just 200 years old, I resonate with historically minded intellectuals like Murphy (2007) and their "brutal reminder of impermanence" (p. 195). I find it hard to imagine what America might look like a mere thousand years from now. For his part, Murphy (2007) is not overly pessimistic; he urges the country to be more rather than less like the America our founders imagined.
So, are we Rome? Well, of course not. But it would certainly behoove us to learn well what happened before − if for no other reason than to take us down a peg. Historically, we 're not so unique. The entire concept of our immigrant-settled, democratically ruled empire has been done before. And it 's worth noting that despite what we may think, Rome never truly "fell" - it just sort of morphed and changed into something else, and its people spread out and divided up into other countries.
As Murphy (2007) puts it, "America has lived through more social transformations in a few centuries than Rome did in a millennium” (p. 205). Murphy’s book reminds us both to look backward, and to look ahead.
Carcopino, J. (1941). Daily life in ancient Rome: the people and the city at the height of the empire. New York: Carcopino Press.
Gibbon, E. (2000). The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged ed.). New York: Penguin.
Intyre, A. (1982). After virtue: a study in moral theory (2nd ed.). New York: Duckworth.
Murphy, C. (2007). Are we Rome?: the fall of an empire and the fate of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co
References: Carcopino, J. (1941). Daily life in ancient Rome: the people and the city at the height of the empire. New York: Carcopino Press. Gibbon, E. (2000). The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged ed.). New York: Penguin. Intyre, A. (1982). After virtue: a study in moral theory (2nd ed.). New York: Duckworth. Murphy, C. (2007). Are we Rome?: the fall of an empire and the fate of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co