The Magazine

We Aren't Rome

And historical analogies only go so far.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By AARON MACLEAN
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Are We Rome?

The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

by Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin, 272 pp., $24

Of all the various suggestions advanced to identify that perilous moment when America--or some ruthless element within it--crossed the Rubicon and entered its imperial age, surely the award for the most creative must remain Gore Vidal's: the introduction of air conditioning to the District of Columbia in the 1930s. The "old republic," as Vidal termed it, could afford to take time off for the summer, but imperial responsibility does not seasonally dwindle simply because the Potomac Valley is roasting humidly like the unpleasant swamp it originally was. Imperial responsibility does not summer on the Eastern Shore.

This suggestion may even take the prize, such that there can be one, for hitting the nail of historical analogy on its head, as other theories arguably do no better to identify a single, definitive hegemonic tipping point. Some hold that the passage, in 1913, of the Sixteenth Amendment (the income tax) was what did it; others that it was the construction of the Pentagon during World War II. Perhaps it is my upbringing as a Virginian, but as far as this parlor game is concerned, I tend to favor Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus at the outset of the Civil War, not to say his hardened resolve that states could not leave the Union of their own free choice: acts which were morally justifiable but legally unconstitutional, and for which Lincoln met a Caesar-like end.

But the problem with the parlor game, generally speaking, is that no reasonable person can grant that America has, in fact, crossed its Rubicon. Which is not to say that our international role is not in some sense hegemonic, or that our federal government is not massive and unwieldy on a scale appropriate to an empire's. No, rather, the important fact is that when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and seized power in Rome, he set in place a dictatorship of one man which, with no lack of turmoil and test, ruled Rome until its fall.

Say what you will about signing statements and unwarranted eavesdropping--current examples of executive overreach--but George W. Bush is no more a dictator (in fact, somewhat less of one) than Andrew Jackson ever was. Congress still has power, even if it does not always exercise it, and both branches still do honor to the role of an impoverished and unarmed judiciary.

So if we are a hegemon, we are somehow a democratic hegemon, which makes efforts to draw lessons from the Roman experience tricky even in the deftest of literary hands. Which brings us to Cullen Murphy's latest book, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Murphy is as deft as they come, as demonstrated by his decades of contributions to the Atlantic, where he was managing editor, and the smattering of books developed out of his magazine work.

The present effort begins well, opening with a lyrical passage comparing historical accounts of traveling emperors and their retinues of bureaucrats, sycophants, and barbarian strongmen, with the spectacle (witnessed personally by Murphy) of Air Force One on the ground at Shannon Airport, guarded by thousands of Irish troops and accompanied by a vast aerial caravan of cargo and passenger jets bearing the president's cars, advisors, guards, and beyond. Fine reportage combined with vivid historical description pose the question of the book's title: So much here seems similar that we must ask whether Rome's end and our own will be alike.

What follows is less useful. Murphy takes up the question of whether history can teach us anything at all, in general: something of a straw-man argument, which Murphy dutifully dismantles, and with what will be the wholehearted agreement of most of his readers. Yet the more pressing matter is not whether history, in general, can teach us anything; it is whether Roman history can teach us something significant. If one intended to write a book which would use historical precedent to shed light on our own moment in historical time, it might be more obvious to look at the experience of classical Athens (a direct democracy--as far as it went in those days--which ruled the eastern Mediterranean for a time) or, most apropos of all, the British Empire, our direct ancestor in a variety of respects.