Thursday, August 27, 2009
Are We Rome?
Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America
© 2007 Cullen Murphy
Lead poisons our wine and makes us stupid / Gladiators keep us entertained / More votes cast for idols than for Caesar / The end of empire’s easily explained / It’s carved there in plain Latin, the inscription on the wall: / “Welcome one and all to the decline and fall” / And if your Latin's rusty, here's the writing on the wall: / “Welcome one and all to the decline and fall” - "The Decline and Fall", Fire Aim Ready
The author of Are We Rome begins his work by acknowledging the problems inherent in drawing comparisons between Rome and America: not only that it is overdone and typically done for ideological reasons, but that despite popular opinion, history isn't so easy to draw lessons from. A state's strengths and weaknesses are the result of its unique historical situation, and such specific situations don't typically repeat themselves. At the same time, he maintains, the relationship between America and the ghost of Rome is not a newly-purported one, and there are some lessons that may be learned.
The next five chapters examine five common traits of the American and Roman republics, among them hubris, military matters, privatization of government functions and accompanying corruption, citizens' relationships with "barbarians", and "borders". The last is not chiefly about political borders, but includes cultural influence as well. Murphy comments intelligently on both American and Roman history, and he writes well -- and prudently. I tried to be overly sensitive while reading the book to notice any far-fetched or questionable comparisons, and there weren't any that made themselves obvious. There is no apparent agenda behind Murphy's writing, and his suggestions in the Epilogue are similarly cautious. The author takes both his subject and his readers seriously, which leads me to recommend it to general readers interested in American politics -- whether they are Americans themselves or just mice trying to be wary of the elephant they share close quarters with, if I may use a humorous metaphor I read only recently in a forum.
The cover features George Washington dressed as Cinncinatus, giving his sword back to the People. Murphy comments that modern tourists who spot the statue are probably oblivious to the Washington/Cinncinatus comparison and think it's a depiction of George Washington in a sauna reaching for a tower.