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.

book cover

Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America Click the title
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by Cullen Murphy
Houghton Mifflin
272 pages

Imagine a small agrarian republic that gradually grows into the world’s greatest military and cultural superpower. Over time, as public power is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group of wealthy private citizens, that ruling elite falls increasingly out of touch with the world beyond its borders. Those borders, porous and steadily expanding, become ever more difficult to manage and defend. Faltering under the growing burden of policing them, the military is forced to recruit considerable mercenary support to handle conflicts that might arise, as well as those already under way. Eventually, losing its grip on power both internally and externally, the superpower enters a state of accelerating decline, ultimately fading into a shadow of its former glory.

Sound familiar?  This describes the predicament the Roman Empire faced toward the end of the third century C.E.—one with obvious and disturbing parallels to the situation that confronts the United States today. Such resonances have brought the analogy between Rome and America to the minds of more than one commentator, including, most recently, the author and editor Cullen Murphy. In his new book Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, Murphy takes a closer look at the oft-made comparison between the Roman Empire and the United States, leading the reader on an entertaining jaunt through precincts ancient and modern as he sets out to test the analogy’s validity and relevance.

Murphy points to six areas where he feels the parallels between the two superpowers are particularly robust and compelling. This list covers a host of issues, internal and external, that threaten both Rome and America: an exaggerated sense of self importance coupled with a myopic view of the world; a military overstretched and alienated from civilian society; an imprudent rush toward the privatization of public services; a mounting struggle to police borders; and, finally, the inherent impossiblity of managing an environment of such burgeoning complexity. Ultimately, he argues, whether we choose to emulate Rome’s example or learn from its mistakes will determine whether we, like our predecessor, chart a course for decline, or whether we forge ahead with renewed vigor. “Like Rome,” Murphy writes, “America is in some ways inextinguishable. What we can’t know is which characteristics will be extinguished and which won’t. But we do have a say in the outcome.”

Currently editor-at-large of Vanity Fair magazine, Murphy was for two decades the managing editor of The Atlantic. From 1979 until 2004 he wrote the nationally syndicated comic strip Prince Valiant, which was illustrated by his father, John Cullen Murphy. He is the author of three other books, Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, (1992, with William L. Rathje); Just Curious (1995), a collection of his essays from The Atlantic and elsewhere; and The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (1998). He is currently at work on a book about the Inquisition.

I spoke with him recently by phone.

—Gina Hahn

Cullen Murphy
Cullen Murphy

You note at the outset of Are We Rome? that the idea of Rome as a point of reference for Americans is not exactly new—we hear the comparison made everywhere. Why do you think we find it so compelling?

America has come to occupy the same role that Rome occupied in its own world two millennia ago. Since the fall of communism, Americans have been trying to come to terms with this new role and haven’t really figured out how to do it. I’m not sure that any of our foreign policy elite, or Americans more generally, really has a firm idea of what we should be doing in the world. This question naturally takes you back to looking at former big dogs in the world and how they behaved.

That’s one of the main reasons, I think, that Rome comes back to mind. It raises the question, “Should we be taking on a quasi-imperial role? What happens to you if you do?” It also brings back the original question that was on the mind of our Founding Fathers: How do you protect yourself as a Republic? Does taking on too much power in the world have a terrible backwash effect on your domestic institutions?

One of the effects you mention is the so-called omphalos syndrome” that afflicted both Rome and Washington, D.C., causing each city to regard itself as the center of the world and in charge of the world agenda. In the case of the United States, when did this slide towards solipsism begin, and how is it affecting the way America is conducting itself today?

In a way, it’s built into the very character of America—and it’s something we really need to watch out for. This notion of being an exceptional people—singled out by God, perhaps, the “shining city upon a hill”— exempt from the rules of history was also built into the very character of Rome. Rome, in some ways, thought of itself as a shining city on seven hills. It, too, was singled out by the gods for a great destiny. So we’ve had this idea of being at the center of things—of somehow being ordained for greatness—built into our DNA from the start.

Now add an enormous amount of military and economic power and wealth onto that existing tendency, and you have a real problem. This poetic nationalistic notion of being at the center of things, enhanced by an enormous amount of actual power, can lead you to believe that this is a literal truth—that the rest of the world doesn’t actually matter relative to you. I do think that’s the mindset of the capital, as it was very much the mindset of Rome in its heyday. You saw it in Rome, in things like the umbilicus, the monument that was supposed to represent the navel of the world, which was perceived as being in the Roman Forum.

You see it in Washington, D.C., in the attitude of the newscasters there, the trumpets blaring before talk shows. You see it in the way the president is talked about as “the most important man in the most important city in the world.”

How do you think the United States as a nation could go about changing its outlook toward the world? Does it require a move away from its current position of power? Or is that something that’s even possible in its present situation?

Ideally, you would want to take action before you landed yourself in real trouble. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine that the consequence of the Iraq War might be to instill a sense among thoughtful Americans that we need to do a better job of thinking through our actions before we take them, and that this means really understanding other parts of the world before we decide to meddle in them, if we decide we’re going to meddle in them at all.

The Romans were a supremely successful assimilationist state in that they were able to absorb many different kinds of people into their polity and make them into Romans. But they weren’t particularly good at figuring out the mentality of people who were truly beyond the pale. The fact that they referred to them as “barbarians” is an indication. As a result, they did land themselves in trouble time and again by not understanding and then underestimating the capacity of people outside their borders.

Some historians argue that the Romans never really understood the extent to which the very existence of Rome as a power actually had a unifying effect on the barbarians. That turned into a real problem down the road. And it’s not hard to see that the United States is doing something similar. It’s having a unifying effect on what had once been a scattered, dispersed group of enemies.

Americans on the whole remain similarly insular, despite the fact that modern media and telecommunications offer unprecedented access to the rest of the world. What would help to broaden our viewpoint?

We have a superficial access to the outside world, but it gives us the illusion of having fairly intimate access. And that’s a dangerous thing. We see bombings in marketplaces. We see terrorist acts within minutes of their occurrence. We see National Geographic documentaries. In a sense, we can press a button and see the rest of the world. But in some ways, this is either an idealized view of the world, or it’s uncontextualized snapshots, or it’s acts of violence that become so familiar that they lose their meaning. It comes to a point where it may not be all that different from the notations on ancient maps that say, “Here be dragons.”

The people in this country who have the greatest appreciation for the seam between America and the rest of the world may very well be those in the bottom twenty percent of society—the immigrants and even illegal aliens—rather than the people at the very top. In ancient Rome, at least, the people at the top of society all spoke at least two languages. In America, it’s the people at the bottom of society who almost routinely speak two languages.

So, first off, we should try to get more Americans to be fluent in another language. There are all sorts of reasons to do this. But economically, in a globalizing world, you’re simply going to need this.

Nevertheless there are Americans who manage to cultivate a greater awareness of the world and concern for getting the picture right. In your case, what do you think motivated your efforts at understanding?

For me, the primary motivation has been watching our country make poor choices when we find ourselves needing to act abroad. Time and again, when given the choice at a fork in the road, we’re taking the wrong path, whether it be something like deciding to pursue the Iraq War the way we did, or deciding to absent ourselves from a multilateral strategy on issues ranging from the environment to an international criminal court.

On all these kinds of issues, it just became clear that our actions were derived from an assumption that we could simply act with impunity in the world in any way that we wished, and that the views of others could be brushed aside. Watching us push ourselves into the world with this particular mindset brought home to me most powerfully the idea that we didn’t have a clue how other people in the world thought. It’s an objective reality that we have to take into account. And we haven’t been doing it.

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.

Do you think there are any public issues that could rally people in that direction?

There are two issues where I think you might be able to generate enough national will and vision to turn the clock back in the other direction.

One is healthcare. More Americans think that you need the government to step in here and do something than their politicians realize. This is one of the big-ticket items where if you have the right vision and the right political skills you can sell Americans on the fact that we need government to step in and play a big role. Only government can do it, and only taxes can pay for it. Let’s get on board here.

The second idea would be some kind of national service. It would require a significant amount of money and management, but it would be a big step in the other direction—a non-privatizing force. I think that there’s more of a constituency for something like that now than there has been in a long time.

So those are two things that could represent a real digging in of the heels and saying, “No, wait! We need to act as a people to accomplish certain things for the whole nation. And here are two ways we can do this.”

When you say national service, do you envision something entirely different from military service?

I’m sympathetic to the argument that only a draft will actually reconnect Americans with the consequences of our foreign policy. I see the draft as a liberal reform, much as Charles Rangel would see it. Campus radicals, if they took their views seriously, should be demonstrating to bring back the draft; that would be a marvelous thing to see.

But when I think of national service, I do think of something civilian. In the book I don’t get into policy details about this subject, but I think if you pressed me I would say some overarching form of service would be required from everybody, and it would take either the form of military service or some other kind of national service.

How has your book been received in political circles, given the current polarized political climate? Has there been much reaction or resistance?

The reviews on the right have not been sympathetic, which isn’t surprising. I’m not pursuing some ideological agenda with a meat cleaver, but at the same time, my sympathies certainly don’t lie with the current administration or with the way America is going. But it’s not written as an anti-Bush tract. And a lot of the concerns I have are about trends that pre-date Bush, even if they deepened during his administration.

One of your other long-term journalistic interests has been the intersection of religion and culture. There’s a constituency who would say the primary parallel between Rome and America is that of once-great civilizations brought into decline by godlessness and decadence. What do you say to that argument?

I don’t understand the parallel, frankly. Rome certainly had its moments of great decadence, but in its last couple of centuries in the West, Rome was an increasingly Christian place. By the end, Christianity was the state religion in the West. And so the moments of Rome’s greatest decadence were also at the moments of its greatest power. Someone like Gibbon would argue that it was really Christianity that brought Rome down rather than decadence.

I find the religious situation in the two entities just much too complicated for me to make any kind of easy comparison. As a result, I explicitly left it out of my book.

At the close of Are We Rome? you offer some prescriptions for change, one of which is that for its own well being, the U.S. government should start thinking in terms of centuries. Given factors like the short-term exigencies of reelection, what do you think offers our best chance of bringing that about?

People understand in their own lives that if you lay the groundwork in certain fundamental ways—with education, for instance—there will be a big payoff down the road. They know it in their own lives, and therefore they understand it socially. So I don’t think this is something that Americans don’t understand. Yes, in Washington, everybody has their eyes on the short-term windfalls, and that’s one of the terrible things about Washington.

But I’m not one of those cynics who thinks that Americans won’t understand if you appeal to them on a handful of issues saying, “Well, if we make a steady investment starting right now, we’re not going to make a big difference in your specific life in the next thirty years, but it’s going to make a big difference down the road.” We used to know how to talk in those terms. If you go back to the early part of the American Republic, people were always talking about planting the seeds now, because we could harvest them in a century. Lincoln signed the Land Grant College Act—this revolutionary notion of putting some land aside, the proceeds of which would pay for universities—and now look at what we’ve got! That’s imperial thinking in a good sense. We need that. The place where I think this kind of thinking would pay off the most has to do with energy.

There are thousands of wonderful ideas having to do with energy technology. The reaction of some people to these ideas is, “That’s not going to make any difference. That can’t solve our problem.” And of course, no one of these is going to solve our problem, and none of them will even come close to making a contribution in the short term. But if you push enough of these things ahead with enough enthusiasm for a long enough period of time you’re going to emerge into the light of day a century from now with a radically different way of running the country. But if you don’t start on it, you never will. Energy policy in particular is a great candidate for thinking in the long term.

Toward the end of the book you say, “I’m not sure America possesses one quality that Rome had in abundance: the stubborn urge, the absolute need, to persevere—to prevail at all costs in any undertaking, whatever the moral and human price might be.” What do you mean by that, and why do you draw that conclusion?

First of all, I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing. To be able to give up and stop some endeavor rather that seeing it through to the bitter end may be a virtue at times. The Romans were ruthless. Look at the way they “pacified” Palestine after the Jewish revolt. Look at the way they dealt with the Spartacus revolt, or the way they dealt with Carthage. They would not tolerate people being in their way, and if they wanted something, they went after it. There were very few examples in Roman history when they said, “Whoa! We’ve had enough. We’d better change our ways!”

Americans aren’t like that. It sometimes means we don’t embark on certain activities, or we give up too quickly because we think, “That’s not working.” That’s the downside of it. The upside of it is that it also means we don’t necessarily persist in activities just in order to see them through.

It’s the reason we got out of Vietnam. It’s the reason we’ll probably get out of Iraq. It’s the reason we don’t pursue policies in Iraq the way the Romans would, which is to be utterly ruthless and conduct reprisals. We don’t behave the way the insurgency behaves, whereas, the Romans would. That's a pretty big difference in sensibility and behavior, and it's the sort of difference that gives me heart.