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

From the publisher:
The rise and fall of ancient Rome has been on American minds from the beginning of our republic. Today we focus less on the Roman Republic than on the empire that took its place. Depending on who's doing the talking, the history of Rome serves as either a triumphal call to action or a dire warning of imminent collapse. In Are We Rome? the esteemed editor and author Cullen Murphy reveals a wide array of similarities between the two empires: the blinkered, insular culture of our capitals; the debilitating effect of bribery in public life; the paradoxical issue of borders; and the weakening of the body politic through various forms of privatization. Murphy persuasively argues that we most resemble Rome in the burgeoning corruption of our government and in our arrogant ignorance of the world outside—two things that must be changed if we are to avoid Rome’s fate.

Reviews

The New York Times, May 13, 2007

In his provocative and lively Are We Rome? Cullen Murphy provides these requisite caveats as he engages in a serious effort to draw lessons from a comparison of America’s situation today with that of imperial Rome.

The New Yorker, May 28, 2007

Murphy writes that “Americans have been casting eyes back to ancient Rome since before the Revolution,” and goes on to interrogate the comparisons drawn both by “triumphalists,” who see the world’s only superpower in terms of the Roman Empire at its height, and by “declinists,” who see America as “dangerously overcommitted abroad and rusted out at home,” like Rome before its fall. Murphy makes telling points about the solipsism of political élites and the impact of corruption and cronyism on civil society, but he stops short of predicting America’s fall. (Indeed, he argues that it is simplistic to say that Rome fell.) Instead, he points to a malaise exemplified by the debasement of the term “franchise,” once associated with freedom to vote, and now with commerce: “Here, in miniature, is the political history of America.” Murphy prescribes antidotes, and finds grounds for cautious optimism in the words of Livy: “An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it.”

Publishers Weekly, March 19, 2007

Lurid images of America as a new Roman Empire—either striding the globe or tottering toward collapse, or both—are fashionable among pundits of all stripes these days. Vanity Fair editor Murphy (The Word According to Eve) gives the trope a more restrained and thoughtful reading. He allows that, with its robust democracy, dynamic economy and technological wizardry, America is a far cry from Rome’s static slave society. But he sees a number of parallels: like Rome, America is a vast, multicultural state, burdened with an expensive and overstretched military, uneasy about its porous borders, with a messianic sense of global mission and a solipsistic tendency to misunderstand and belittle foreign cultures. Some of the links Murphy draws, like his comparison of barbarian invaders of the late Empire to foreign corporations buying up American assets, are purely metaphorical. But others, especially his likening of the corrupt Roman patronage system to America's mania for privatizing government services—a “deflection of public purpose by private interest”—are specific and compelling. Murphy wears his erudition lightly and delivers a lucid, pithy and perceptive study in comparative history, with some sharp points.

The New York Sun, May 16, 2007
The Washington Post, June 30, 2007