Blogs > Cliopatria > Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Jun 7, 2007 4:01 pm

Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

The Roman Empire is falling. That, in a phrase, is what the Baker report says. The legions cannot impose their rule on Mesopotamia. Just as Crassus lost his legions’ banners in the deserts of Syria-Iraq, so has George W Bush… The policy “is not working”. “Collapse” and “catastrophe” - words heard in the Roman senate many a time - were embedded in the text of the Baker report.-- Robert Fisk

Thrust aside James Bryce’s aphorism that “The chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies,” in favor of Kenneth Stampp’s acknowledgement that “With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.” Notwithstanding the lessons of Munich and Vietnam, let us travel back in time––some two millennia––to Roman times for our review here. Post-9/11 discourse surfs an imperialist wave leading commentators––not exclusively leftists and right-wing isolationists––to draw lurid images of America as an embryonic Roman-like empire. Amid the (ostensible) corruption engulfing the Bush White House, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire becomes all the more prescient (where a blossoming and blameless republic metamorphoses into a dangerous and dissipated empire) (p.192). Saying that, Cullen Murphy’s “Are We Rome?” gives the trope a more nuanced and convincing reading. Indeed, what Murphy presents is a succinct comparative historical study––an unrivalled one at that.

Intoxicated on analogy-drinking commentators stumble inside the analogy-alehouse when ordering an imperial equivalent to twenty-first century America––bellowing that nineteenth-century Britain best fits the bill. However, analogy-regulars should count themselves fortunate for they are not being served their usual (for we are already under the influence of Bernard Porter’s Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World) but rather being offered to indulge in a new historical cocktail––and it is a powerful concoction.

For those Rome (TV) aficionados who now yearn for an introductory read––Murphy’s prologue lucidly familiarizes the reader with a coterie of “empire” enthusiasts and enemies alike: from “triumphalists” and “Ambrosians” to the “declinists” and “Augustinians” (pp.7-9). Previous to this Murphy opens with an absorbing comparison of an emperor-cum-presidential visit: from the mensores (p.2) and frumentarii (p.41) (CIA-like security personnel) preparations ahead of arrival to the Chief’s glaring “eagle” when eventually entering the city (p.3). George Bush’s “government in microcosm” (comitatus) (p.4) was in full view when traveling myself through Sharm el-Sheikh in 2003. What is most transfixing though is not just what us mere spectators see but “Looking south from the windows of his residence, an emperor would have seen what the American president, looking south, also see: an obelisk, Rome’s in the Circus Maximus, Washington’s beyond the Ellipse” (p.197) (Niall Ferguson previously made the analogy in Colossus: p.14).  

Rome duly speaks across the centuries. As a corollary we have to ask ourselves a pertinent question: “What is Rome saying to us today?” (p.17). In answering this Murphy draws six major parallels (assigning a keyword to each we can label them “the 6 C’s”):


1. “One parallel involves the way Americans see America; and more to the point, the way the tiny, elite subset of Americans who live in the nation’s capital see America –and see Washington itself. [Likewise] Rome prized its status as the city around which the world revolved” (p.18). Murphy terms this “The Omphalos syndrome” (the focal point) (p.43).


2. “Another parallel concerns military power… Amid all the differences, though, two large common problems stand out. One is cultural and social: the widening divide between military society and civilian society. The other is demographic: the shortage of manpower. For a variety of reasons, Rome and America both start to run short of the people they need to sustain their militaries, and both have to find new recruits wherever they can. Rome turned to the barbarians for help… America is increasingly turning to its own outside sources – not the Visigothi and the Ostrogothae but the Halliburtoni and the Wackenhuti” (pp.18-19).


3. “A third parallel is something that can be lumped under the term “privatization,” which can often also mean “corruption.” Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities – and between public and private resources… America has in recent years embarked on a privatization binge like no other in its history, putting into private hands all manner of activities once thought to be public tasks…” (p.19).

Murphy cerebrally pens that, “Yesterday’s Conan the Barbarian is today’s Conan the Contractor” (p.87). For more of the same turn to the third chapter (“The Fixers: When Public Good Meets Private Opportunity”) which proves a hard-hitting exposé.


4. “A fourth parallel has to do with the way Americans view the outside world – the flip side of their self-centeredness… [leading] to the same preventable form of blindness…” (pp.19, 145).

“At the most expansive strategic level of all, that of historic purpose, both Rome and America have considered their way to be the world’s way. As early as the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville described America as “proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived.” America believes that the Western creed of political democracy and free-market economics is applicable to everyone… Virgil, a poet in a political scientist’s role, gave the Romans an explicitly imperial destiny. So did Pliny the Elder, in an evocation of Rome that combines equal measures of Ronald Reagan and Emma Lazarus: 'A land chosen by divine providence to unify empires so disparate and races so manifold; to bring to common concord so many rough, discordant voices; to give culture to mankind; to become, in short, the whole world’s homeland' ” (p.72).


5. “And then, fifth, there is the question of borders. Historians in recent decades have invested much effort in the study of Rome’s frontiers, showing that the fringe of empire was less a fence and more a threshold… When historians describe life along the Rhine or the Danube frontier in Roman times, an American reader can’t help conjuring up an image of another boundary zone: the one that includes the Rio Grande” (pp.20, 161).


6. “Finally, sixth, comes the complexity parallel. Sprawling powers like Rome and America face a built-in problem. They inevitably become impossible to manage, because the very act of managing has unpredictable ripple effects, of global scale, which in turn become part of the environment that needs to be managed” (p.20).

Murphy is to be commended––not castigated––(for the Founding Fathers started the tradition which still grips the American imagination) for cataloging newfangled parallels. So what if it is not entirely symmetrical? History never is (we need only reference Mark Twain). As French historian Marc Bloch noted: “History is, in its essentials, the science of change. It knows and it teaches that it is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical.”

So “Are We Rome?” Murphy mirrors Bloch’s philosophy for he confesses that to “press it too far, or invoke it too literally, and the Rome-and-American analogy breaks down in strategic places” (p.192). 

An additional ‘C’ (just as important, if not more, than the preceding six) is communication; though here, there is no parallel to be found… or is there in fact? Murphy scholarly illustrates how the Roman Empire’s “far-flung parts were run by capable proconsuls of high stature, their autonomy enhanced by great distance and poor communications” (p.57). Today’s Washington could not be more dissimilar. “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.” Murphy reiterates “that “out there” is subject to manipulation from the center” (p.57). All is not so problem-free though: “Ironically, in an age of instantaneous communications, American intelligence often suffers from a time lag just as significant.” Murphy succinctly updates this quandary: “Bureaucracy is the new geography” (p.135). The author would do well to cite Ferguson’s Colossus and principally General Anthony Zinni’s remarks in becoming a “modern-day proconsul, descendant of the warrior-statesman who ruled the Roman Empire’s outlying territory, bringing order and ideals from a legalistic Rome” (pp.6, 17) (saying that, Murphy does employ a similar line––though in relation to Paul Bremer: p.148).

Again, contrary to Rome, Ferguson reminds us that “[the US] republican constitution has withstood the ambitions of any would-be-Caesars––so far. (It is of course early days. The United States is [231] years old. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., the Roman Republic was 460 years old” (pp.34, 89)). So, 2236 is the year to look out for––only then would it be possible to judge how right George Santayana is.

Notwithstanding all talk of “overstretch” (imperially speaking) an author would be forgiven for producing a work deemed understretched (authorially speaking) when tackling a topic of such gravity. Provocative, but never hyperbolic, this is a little gem of a hardback. Incontestably erudite, unendingly thought-provoking supported by juxtapositions galore all make “Are We Rome?” a book to muse over. Murphy is to be further applauded for rejecting polemic declinism in favor of a more scholarly prescription. The highest plaudit one could possibly offer is that the editor at large for Vanity Fair has penned a majestic tome in Fergusonian prose.

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George R Gaston - 6/25/2007

Rome lasted over a thousand years. We should do so well.

I once heard something attributed to a Roman historian. That may not be true but, it fits, and goes something like this. “In the early days of the republic Roman mothers would gather at the gates of the city to send their sons off to war with the charge, ‘come back with your shield, or on it,. Meaning, that they were to either triumph, or die. Later, the custom declined; so did Rome.”

Carmelo Lisciotto - 6/15/2007

The empire never really seems to fall.
It just keeps morphing into something else..

Carmelo Lisciotto