Ever since Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the prospect of a Rome-inflected apocalypse has cast its chilling spell. Britain’s former American colonies, which declared their independence the year Gibbon’s first volume was published, have been especially troubled by the parallels they discerned. The Founders feared the stealthy creep of tyranny. Half a century later, the narrative progression of The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole’s allegorical series of paintings, depicted the consequences of overweening ambition and national hubris. Today, as ever, observers are on the alert for portents of the Last Days, and have been quick, like Cato, to hurl warnings. And of course there are some Americans—including the January 6 attackers—who would find national collapse momentarily satisfying. “Sack Rome?” a barbarian wife says to her husband in an old New Yorker cartoon. “That’s your answer to everything.”
The comparisons, of course, can be facile. A Roman state of some sort lasted so long—well over a millennium—and changed so continuously that its history touches on any imaginable type of human occurrence, serves up parallels for any modern event, and provides contradictory answers to any question posed. Still, I am not immune to preoccupation with the Roman past. A decade and a half ago, I published a book called Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, which looked closely at the age-old Rome-and-America comparison. The focus was mainly on themes that transcend partisan politics, but it was also written at a particular moment, and reflected certain brute realities: The country was mired in Iraq and Afghanistan; fear and suspicion of foreigners were on the rise; and public functions of all kinds (maintaining highways, operating prisons, providing security) were being privatized. All of this had echoes in Rome’s long story.
It’s not as if the themes I wrote about then are obsolete. But they have a new context. The comparisons that come to mind now are not only about realities on the ground but about unrealities in our heads. The debasement of truth, the cruelty and moral squalor of many leaders, the corruption of basic institutions—signs of rot were proliferating well before January 6, and they remain, though the horde has been repelled.
If I were writing Are We Rome? today, one new theme I’d emphasize emerges from a phrase we heard over and over during the Trump administration: “adults in the room.” The basic idea—a delusion with a long history—was that an unfit and childish chief executive could be kept in check by the seasoned advisers around him, and if not by them, then by the competent career professionals throughout the government. The administration official who anonymously published a famous op-ed in The New York Times in 2018 offered explicit reassurance: “Americans should know that there are adults in the room.” Various individuals were given adult-in-the-room designation, including the White House counsel Don McGahn and Chief of Staff John Kelly. I sometimes imagined these adults, who included distinguished military veterans, wearing special ribbons. The obvious flaw in the arrangement was that the child could summarily dismiss the adults with an intemperate tweet.