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.

But Murphy has chosen to write a book about Rome, and the effort is hobbled by what appears to be a weakness for connections between moments which are not fully, or even very nearly, analogous. Is Washington really "a vast importer and consumer of an empire's riches rather than a producer of anything except words and administration," like Rome? There is some small justice here, but the analogy is overwhelmed by the decidedly un-vast nature of our federal enclave, when compared with the grand cities of New York and Los Angeles: centers of finance and culture much bigger than Washington, and which have no analogues in the Roman Mediterranean. Rome was all of them wrapped into one.

And is our border with Mexico really comparable to Hadrian's Wall? There are still barbarians in our world, but they are not the Latinos who seek not to burn our cities but to find a livelihood here. Murphy concedes the complexity of the very notion of frontiers in the modern world, but having already made the easy Hadrian/Rio Grande comparison, then tries to have the argument both ways by exaggerating the complexity of Roman frontiers, from which we might try to draw lessons for our globalized world. Are We Rome? is at its weakest when Murphy is at his most partisan. He has a habit of identifying everything the Romans did wrong with everything he dislikes about the Republican party. He never fully declares this prejudice for what it is, from which I must conclude it is either unintentional, meant to be subtle, or considered so obvious as to need no elucidation. The worst instance of this is the chapter on corruption and privatization, which willfully conflates the former and the latter, granting extremely short credit to any notion that shifting some of government's tasks to the private sector might be preferable to a bloated federal bureaucracy.

Elsewhere, Murphy makes his politics perfectly clear: "Stop treating government as a necessary evil, and instead rely on it proudly for the big things it can do well." That's right: Avoid Rome's imperial fate by .  .  . increasing the size of government!

The privatization discussion also provides the single most tendentious moment in Are We Rome? Murphy attempts to demonstrate that corruption in the early American political class was less widespread than it is in the present day. To do so, he quotes a stern letter of recommendation written by General Washington about Baron von Steuben, of Valley Forge fame, noting the Baron's "true Zeal for our Cause," among other qualifications. The point, it seems, is that when honest old George Washington recommended a man, he did it on the merits. Not like our own age of bronze, summed up, for Murphy, by an email from Jack Abramoff to the Tigua tribe, which makes it clear that if "you guys could do $50k," their interests in Congress might be advanced. And that, as far as argument is concerned, is that: Obviously, corruption is an invention of recent years, probably of the Right, and something at which our Republic's earlier generations would have blushed.

This level of reasoning and rhetoric is, I think, beneath Cullen Murphy. But he is also an elegant writer, and there are worthwhile points of argument here and there--useful warnings about the alienation of our political elites from the military, for example. Yet what is useful about Are We Rome? isn't original, and many of the historical analogies aren't very useful. The problem is not that the comparisons are mainly fair while differing in important details; it is that they are fair in important details while differing on the main points.

Even if one accepts the premise that history can teach us something, it doesn't mean it can teach us anything we want.

Aaron MacLean, a Marshall scholar at Oxford during 2003-06, is a writer in Virginia.

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