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.
But this is not the dominant take on the Rome-America comparison right now, is it?
Right. The other camp is probably dominantthe one that worries about American decline, not just in terms of power but in terms of basic social health. And there's good reason to worry. You can think about it on two levels. One is macrohistoric: Does anything last? We all know the answer. We don't live in Jefferson's America any longer, or Roosevelt's, or Kennedy's. On the microhistoric level,America possesses certain characteristics, and is looking at some trends, that ought to give us pause if you project the consequences down the road fifty years or a century. The hollowing out of government. The mismatch of ambitions and resources. The growing inequality. One of the reasons the example of Rome is so useful is that it allows you to see how forces play out over long periods of time. Rome was in business for a millennium.
One feature of this pessimistic comparison has to do with a dangerous reliance on the military. Can you explain?
A key issue for Rome then and America now is manpower. Rome in the end did not have enough peopleor enough money, or enough willto do all the jobs that needed doing, and at the same time to keep the army as strong as it needed to be. The United States finds itself in a similar situation. Rome in the end had to start buying soldiers from outside to help fight its wars and protect its borders. The United States is doing the same thing by hiring contractors.We're not using the Huns or Visigoths, but we are using Aegis and Blackwater. One big story of the Iraq war is the degree to which we're relying on private security contractorsmore than 50,000 of themto perform very basic functions that would otherwise have to be done by soldiers.But even this isn't enough.We are very close to stretching our military to the breaking point.
Another reality we face that Rome faced long ago is that you can't just exert military power in a vacuum. It's not as though America is the only actor whose behavior matters. Every action creates a reaction, and the more actions you take around the world, the more reactions you elicit. Those reactions are outside of your control, and in the end can become overwhelming.
You say the capitals of the Roman Empire and the United States both succumbed to a delusional self-importance. How so?
Rome and Washington are both artificial places, and both saw themselves as the centers of the world. The Romans even had a monument in the forum called the umbilicus Romaeit means "belly-button of Rome"which symbolized the city's status as the navel of the world. The artificiality of Rome and Washington is striking in comparison with capitals like London and Paris, which are real places with real economies and real cultural weight.Rome was sustained by a massive tax called the annona, where grain would come from all over the empire to keep the city alivea constant movement of merchant ships and barges with an entire government ministry to watch over the process. The Washington analogues are the tax revenues arriving electronically every second of every day, supporting not only government but the entire regional economy.
When everything seems to be flowing toward yougrain, taxes, diplomats, journalistsit's hard not to think of yourself, even if subliminally, as the center of the world. You forget, almost inevitably, that the rest of the world has an enormous impact on everything you do. Washington has had this mindset for a long time, but it seems to be accelerating. Washington doesn't really have an official umbilicus, the way Rome did, but it has plenty of navel-gazers. And how many times do you hear the president referred to as "The most important man in the most important city in the world"? The tendency inside Washington is for policy makers and the news media to think that decisions being made in these few square miles are the instrumental forces in the world.But they're not, which we will find out eventually, probably to our regret.
Privatizationthe deflection of public purpose by private interestis, you say, another common affliction.
This insight, as it applies to antiquity, comes from the great scholar Ramsay McMullen in his classic book, Corruption and the Decline of Rome. The American governmentis of course much larger than Rome's was, and has many more dimensions, so any kind of one-to-one comparison quickly becomes unworkable. But over time what happened in Rometo simplify radicallyis that government functions and government jobs in essence fell into private hands, and were performed because money changed hands. And in time there was a great disconnect between the wishes of the people at the center and performance at the extremities: the levers of government didn't work any longer. Something like this is happening in America. More and more of our government is being farmed out, outsourced, privatizedprisons, roads, water systems, parks, border security, national intelligence, military operations. There's a story in the papers virtually every day about some government service or function that has been transferred or sold off to the private sector. And maybe case by case it makes sense. But the Roman example tells us to watch out: there will come a point when those trying to move the levers of government find that they're no longer connected to anything.
Is privatization something that can be easily reversed?
Just the opposite. It's easy to privatizeto spin off some task that's being paid for by tax dollars into the "more efficient" hands of some private entity. It's very hard to go the other directionto persuade people to start ponying up again for what now looks like a "new" government program. The history of the West since the fall of Rome offers a kind of natural experiment in this. The medieval world was one where almost everything was essentially in private handspower, justice, administration. Taxes were a form of private revenue. It took more than a millennium before the West gradually worked its way into the system we have now, where power is in public hands and is accountable to public wishes. It was a long, hard slog. But going the other direction takes only a snap of the fingers.
You say there was an almost fatal parochialism among the Romans. Are we in danger of duplicating it?
I was looking the other day at one of the new Pew Center polls about "what Americans know." Have you noticed how these polls never seem to bring good news? Americans in general aren't that interested in, or aware of, the outside world, and increasingly even our elites don't seem to put much stock in that kind of knowledge either.Four years into the Iraq war we still don't have anything close to the number of Arabic-speakers we should have had when we started. The number of American newspaper correspondents in foreign capitals continues to shrink.The Boston Globe just shut down its last foreign bureaus. This summer the Washington Post is withdrawing its correspondent from our largest trading partner, Canada. This indifference toward the wider world has a Roman antecedent. Compared to the Greeks, the Romans were not passionately interested in the outside world in any sort of anthropological way. And they were often taken by surprise. The great disaster suffered by Varus in Germany in 9 A.D., when three entire Roman legions were annihilated, stemmed partly from ignorance about the tribes they were up against, and also from a general tendency to underestimate outsiders. One contemporary, Velleius Paterculus, wrote that the Romans had thought they could just "breeze right in," bringing the benefits of civilization. I wonder what he would have made of the Green Zone.
How do we reverse our own tendencies toward decline?
Let me say, first, that I'm not interested in improving the prospects for a powerful American empire. I'm interested in the prospects for a healthy American societya place where people's lives get gradually better and where we can continue to experiment with the best parts of what has been called "the American idea" I'm always skeptical when people come forward with grand radical schemes, and I don't have one. I do have a few thoughts about steps we should take. One is to instill in younger Americans an appreciation of the outside world. That includes encouraging people to learn at least one foreign language. Every educated Roman was bilingual. In a globalizing world, educated Americans need to be. Second, stop treating governmentas a necessary evil and start taking pride in what government can do welland give government the means to keep doing it. Third, let's try to see immigration as a source of strength, and play to it. America, like Rome, is an assimilation machine. The culture, the opportunity, the vitalityin America as in Rome, these things are so powerful that they reliably turn outsiders into insiders. The key is to keep ourselveshealthy at home: to be sure that our homegrown institutionseducation, healthcare, social servicesare in good working order and available to newcomers. And then, fourth, we have to take some weight off the American military, which means we need to stop giving it so many missions.
There's one final thing, and that's remembering who we are. The Roman elites were an incredibly tiny part of the population, and very complacent. They were not looking to improve life for the vast majority of the Romans, and for themselves their own motto could have been, "It doesn't get any better than this." Americans, particularly the middle class, which is a class Rome didn't really have at all, are not like that. Americans believe in self-betterment, in the possibility of improvement for everybody. They have an abiding faith in this, though it may be eroding. That ethic is our saving grace: it's the empire of possibility.