Interviews June 2007

As the Romans Did

Cullen Murphy, the author of Are We Rome?, talks about the American empire's parallels with the ancient republic and how we can learn from the caesars' mistakes.

As you thought through the comparisons between Rome’s trajectory and America’s, were you influenced at all by the thinking of authors you worked with at The Atlantic over the years?

After I’d been at The Atlantic for a few years, I remember telling Bill Whitworth [The Atlantic’s editor from 1980 to 1999] that working here felt like getting paid to go to graduate school, because I was learning so much from all those smart writers. I worked at The Atlantic for two decades; these themes have been on the minds of Atlantic writers for a long, long time. And I’m certain that that’s one reason they’ve been so much on my mind.

Although he’s not banging you over the head with his own sermons about this, William Langewiesche, in his writings about the world, offers one object lesson after another in the fact that, number one: other people don’t think the way we do; and number two: the world is such a complicated place that ambitions find a way of making themselves real no matter what the ostensible rules of the game are. It’s a very realistic attitude toward the world, and one that’s not much on American minds. Jim Fallows’s reports from Asia were also a real eye-opener to me. After all, the population of the United States represents a mere three hundred million out of the six billion people in the world—a fairly significant demographic fact that we almost never think about. Bernard Lewis was another. Although I disagree with him with respect to the war, that very early piece he wrote for The Atlantic on the roots of Muslim rage was an excellent survey. It was a kind of tour inside the heads of people who see the world in a radically different way than we do. If you had never stopped to think about it, then here was your first education in the fact that a billion and a half people have a worldview that is rather different.

In addition to your work at The Atlantic, for almost three decades you also wrote the text for the comic strip Prince Valiant. How did having that as a sideline to think about every week factor into your awareness of history and its parallels?

Prince Valiant was a fun thing to do. Because of its timeframe, it actually did feed into my thoughts about Rome and America. Prince Valiant takes place in the end of the fifth, beginning of the sixth century A.D., exactly the period when the Roman Empire in the West has basically disintegrated into a handful of barbarian kingdoms. At that point, the Roman Empire in the East still exists. Europe is evolving into something more like its present shape. The Middle Ages are coming upon us. But change is very gradual. The so-called “fall of Rome” was a slow process, not a sudden cataclysm. Rome wasn’t destroyed the way New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina. The fall of Rome didn’t even affect the city of Rome in some respects.

Because the comic strip was set in this period of real change, but change that was relatively gradual and sporadic and that occurred in some places at a much different pace than it did at others, for a period of about thirty years I was living with this paradigm about how revolutionary change occurs. To my mind, the real revolutions are slow ones, and that turns out to be the way historians now think about the revolutionary change that is embodied in the phrase “the fall of Rome”; it was very gradual. And that leads to thinking about our own situation. What kinds of revolutionary change are we undergoing right now that we don’t even see because we don’t have the perspective?

We each have the small sliver that we know as our own lives, and unless you have extraordinary insight and perspective it’s hard to leverage the perspective that you have from your own life into a real, historical sense of what’s really going on.  Yet you know from the experiences of the past that you probably are living in the midst of revolutionary change that someone five hundred years from now will be able to see very clearly.

And that, I think, is one of the most interesting things about the Rome-America comparison. You can clearly see certain parallels to Rome that are happening in America today, and it makes you wonder: What other comparable things are happening in America that you actually can’t see clearly? It’s a fascinating, but I think inconclusive, question. One thing that makes it even more pointed in our case is that we already know that in America we’ve experienced more change than Rome did between the hundred years before it fell and the two hundred years after it fell.  Society was more the same in that entire period in Rome than our society has been over the past three hundred years. And in fact, in the past two hundred years we’ve experienced more change than Rome experienced in its entire lifetime. These are fascinating things to consider.

Between the “triumphalists” on one end of the political spectrum, and the “declinists” on the other, who do you feel holds a more clear-eyed view of the Unites States’s trajectory right now?

I use the term “triumphalists” to refer to people who see that America has emerged temporarily as the world’s sole superpower and think we ought to try to use that, exerting our will on the world unapologetically to push our values and our procedures more broadly. The “declinists” are those who wring their hands at this prospect and think we are in a state of terrible overstretch, as we probably are, and also worry that the attempt to project our power in a quasi-imperial way is going to ripple back and have terrible consequences on our institutions at home—on the Congress, on the balance between the different branches of government, on the strengthening of the national security state.

I tend to side with the concerns of the declinists, and I tend to have very little sympathy for the project of the triumphalists. I don’t think that the declinists are necessarily right in all their concerns, and “decline” is not the word I would use to describe the processes that we’re involved in. We’re in the midst of unstoppable evolution. That is the fundamental fact. The question we should be asking ourselves is: How do you make the lives of people—primarily American people—better in the process, regardless of what the particularities of our political system are over the long haul?

Taking the long view, the fall of Rome was a good thing. We wouldn’t want to still be living in that state. Half the people were slaves. The position of women was terrible. Income inequality was beyond belief. It was not a regime that you would want for the long haul. The American system is a much finer regime and accommodates great amounts of change, and a great amount of positive change. My hope is that evolution can occur in the context of the best aspects of an American-style system.

America’s culture does seem unlike Rome’s in the amount of change it accommodates, especially in the realm of morals. You note that Roman notions of personal honor and disgrace and the behavior appropriate to each were very different from those of present-day America. Do you think we’d do well to move a little closer to Rome in that regard, and away from our culture of individual rehabilitation and reinvention?

On the one hand, I do wish America’s sense of public virtue were stronger. It used to be quite powerful. In the 18th century the idea of honor was pronounced, and it led to terrible things like dueling. But at the same time, there really were public standards that saturated the consciousness of public people. Go look at George Washington’s rules of civility—they were very Roman. We may have lost this permanently. Certainly we would never want a Roman sense of honor that was so extreme that people would simply commit suicide—someone like Alberto Gonzales or Karl Rove or Scooter Libby—public figures caught in public mayhem of one sort or another. Back in ancient Rome, these wouldn’t be one-year, two-year stories. The people involved simply wouldn’t be around that long. We don’t want that, obviously.

At the same time there is something that’s beneficial about America’s tolerance for second acts. The idea that you can come back, that you can wipe the slate clean, that you can constantly improve yourself; there is an undeniable positive aspect to this. But you do, from time to time, see situations where people get into ridiculous tawdry kinds of trouble, and you know it’s only a matter of time before they have their own TV show and you’re tearing your hair out. But that may be a small price to pay for something that is a larger benefit.

How might this tolerance for second acts play into the privatization of public services that you talk so much about in the book? You argue persuasively that we’re setting the stage for a real crisis of power and accountability in government down the line. In the case of Rome, at least, that dispersal of public power and the rise of people operating primarily in their own interest eventually led to feudalism. Do you think the United States is headed toward a similar sort of corporate feudalism?

I do worry that America is heading toward some kind of feudal state again. The great thing that kept Rome together for so long was the fact that the people who held public power had a deeply ingrained sense of public virtue that was a great restraint. It goes back to the same sense of honor that led people to take their lives at a moment of what they perceived as public disgrace. They didn’t feel they could simply retreat to private life again.

In the United States, we created a state with a very pronounced set of public objectives and public responsibilities that were well laid out. My worry now is that we’re moving away from this great sense of government as a public calling—if you’re thinking benignly, in the interest of efficiency, or if you’re thinking malignly, in the interest of greed—and toward something very different, something market driven. In the end it amounts to getting the government that you pay for. Not just that you’ve paid for as a people, but that you’ve paid for as individuals. It’s happening all around us, usually in the guise of some deal that’s just too good to walk away from, and it’s happening in virtually every sector of public endeavor. Even if one can make the case that privatization makes sense in this instance or that instance—or even in every instance—the effect over time is going to be that there’s no government left, that all power of one sort or another is in private hands. Ultimately the result is to bring back feudalism. And we’re well on the way to it.

I don’t know how you can stop it, because the privatizing forces amount to basically everybody. Everybody has an interest in privatizing something or accepting the privatization of something. But in order to make something public, you have to get everybody on board, and you have to get everybody to agree to raise taxes and give the government more responsibility. Hardly anyone wants to make that argument any longer. It’s a ratchet that only turns one direction, and once it’s clicked toward the private sector I don’t know how you turn it back.

Presented by

Gina Hahn, a former Atlantic staff editor, is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area.

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