Rome and Us
One modern historian not long ago tallied 210 explanations for the fall of Rome. Some would say that a good number of those theories would apply to the United States today. U. S. News talked with Cullen Murphy about his new book Are We Rome: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Pointing out a few of the parallels between America and the ancient Mediterranean state, Murphy, the editor at large of Vanity Fair, and the longtime managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, says there are lessons that we can learn in order to avoid Rome's seemingly ineluctable decline.
Americans have been comparing themselves to Rome for some time now. Why?
The first moment comes before the Revolution, when the colonial elite, all of whom have a classical education and are steeped in Roman history, begin to see themselves as the embodiment of a Roman republican ideal. They contrast that ideal with the tyranny of the Roman monarchy before the republicand of course they equated that tyranny with Britain's. With the image of a virtuous Roman republic in front of them, they pursued the dream of an American republic. They had Roman governance on their minds: the idea of checks and balances, certain notions of Roman virtue, what it meant to be a citizen and an upright person. This was an ideal that was very much in the thinking of people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The great defender of the Roman republic was Cato, and Washington even had a play about Cato performed at Valley Forge.
How did that change?
In the 19th century a different notion ofRome develops in Americaa vague fear of what happens to the country if it becomes too powerful. Should we worry about the drawbacks of an imperial destiny? You can see this in Thomas Cole's series of paintings from the 1830s called "Course of Empire," which shows an idyllic state of nature, then a glorious imperial present, and finally a civilization in ruins.In the meantime, of course, we were mostly too busy to care: too busy spreading across the continent, and then reaching out into the world. But the same fears crop up again as America emerged into what came to be known as the "American Century," and the nation shouldered what look very much like imperial responsibilities. And sometimes harbored what look like imperial ambitions.
Are current comparisons completely negative?
No. Not all of the contemporary comparisons of Rome and America tend toward the decline model. Actually, until a few years ago, when the troubles in Iraq helped turn down the volume, there were a lot of people who were making the comparison with Rome in optimistic, aggressive, and assertive ways.In other words, the Pax Romana lives anew as the Pax Americana, providing worldwide cultural benefits and worldwide security. There's an entire school that embraces an imperial model with echoes of Rome: this is our destiny, and we should pursue it, not run from it. President Bush clearly shares this view, though I've never heard him invoke the Roman comparison. He would have been a good subject for Suetonius, though.