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

Author: Cullen Murphy
Houghton Mifflen Company

Cullen Murphy

Cullen Murphy is editor
at large at Vanity Fair.

Cullen Murphy did well to pose his title as a question. He sketches tentative parallels for a fun read, and on page 14 he describes his comparisons between Rome and the United States as crude. My answer to his question is no, we are not Rome. We emerged from our civil war different from the civil wars that brought Sulla and then Octavian to power. Despite what some people think about President Bush, there is not likely to rise in the U.S. an Octavian to be declared Augustus, or emperor, who can get away with bypassing elections by packing Congress with his supporters. Some speak of the presidency assuming ever more power until other branches of government become irrelevant, at which point there is no check on the arrogance, stupidity, cruelty or greed of a U.S. president, with law being replaced by executive fiat. Whatever step might be taken in this direction, history has changed the context that allowed Octavian and his family, the Julio-Claudians, to go as far in this direction as they did. Maybe in a future age produced by an environmental catastrophe it could happen, but not in our age.

In our age there will be no massive abandonment of cities to the countryside and establishment there of great estates as protectors and overlords to local people, defiant of central political authority. This helped weaken Rome. The difference in demography between Roman times and today has to have an impact on developments today.

The Roman Empire fell in part because people within the empire tolerated foreign armies within the empire's borders. There will be no disciplined armies with guns from Canada or Mexico cutting through the U.S. with the peoples of various states happy to be rid of their politicians in Washington.

One of the parallels Murphy mentions has to do with near-sighted, small-minded or a self-centered vision in the United States. Ignorance abounds. Ignorance is commonplace, but we are living in an information age that makes us different from the Romans. We have a good amount of experts poking around in the world and communicating with us electronically, creating conflict between the well informed and the unknowing.

The parallel between privatization and Roman corruption is not close to being valid. I'll save you the argument why.

Comparing Rome's inability to manage its sprawling empire and a U.S. inability to police the world is worthless in my opinion. Rather than fail to manage its empire, Rome was swallowed by its empire. The U.S. is not burdened by an empire and rather than collapse trying to maintain it, it could be better to defend itself by becoming a more modest participant with other nations in policing the world, while looking out for its economic interests at home and fair trade.

The book quotes Edward Gibbon's description of Roman officialdom:

They contend with each other in the empty vanity of titles and surnames, and curiously select the most loft and sonorous appellation... which may impress the ears of the vulgar with astonishment and respect.

What we see in the United States is people in politics trying to be folksy. James becomes Jimmy; Joseph, Joe; Peter, Pete; Charles, Chuck.

Murphy writes about a general in Vietnam who when asked if had he had read anything about the French experience in Indochina said there was no point because the French had lost and therefore had nothing to teach him. Stupidity appeared also among generals in ancient Rome, and there is good reason not to treat generals today as sources of unquestionable truth. The general whom Murphy quotes believed in winning regardless of circumstances – the will to win, the power of the will, a fantasy and triumphism that parallels times more recent than that of the Roman Empire. But today, learning from Vietnam, the U.S. military has more respect for circumstances. Which does not mean they will avoid escaping a discomforting circumstance or two if it suits the view they have chosen.

At any rate, we in the United States, like people down through the ages and across the world, are capable of learning from our mistakes. Much of what we learned from the experience of the English and came down to us through our constitution was a correction of mistakes. There may be some slipping back at times but no return to what was in the heads of people in the fifth century. The question is whether we are adjusting quickly enough to environmental degradation, which imperiled the ancient Greeks at least as much as it did the Romans but is now a much greater threat because of the rise in technology and population.

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.