July 13, 2007
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Magazine
A review of Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 272 pp.)
In the last decade, and especially after September 11, it has become once again popular to compare the United States to ancient Rome. The pop analogies are almost always to appear in the pessimistic context of an American colossus betraying its origins and ideals and likewise facing the deserved end of its empire.
Those on the Left warn about America's imperial hard hand on the "other" abroad. Meanwhile, our contemporary conservative elder Catos lament the corruption of the old small agrarian republic into an empire. Both almost gleefully predict, in sometimes apocalyptic terms, American "exhaustion," "decline", or something similar to a Roman "fall."
Of course, there are a number of similarities between the two superpowers, ancient and modern. Both were practical, inclusive societies that rapidly incorporated foreigners. They alike unexpectedly achieved global stature and influence — at first through astounding feats of arms in filling the vacuum of eroding empires (the 2 nd-century B.C. end of the Hellenistic East was perhaps analogous to the postwar breakup of the British Empire).
Soon each upstart nation won further adherents by an insidiously efficient way of doing things, based on merit rather than mere class, that offered material prosperity to millions not to be found through local indigenous cultures. Likewise, brilliant Roman and American writers have left thoughtful observations about the ironies — and pathologies — of their seemingly unstoppable societies that changed the world abroad and in the process their once traditional citizenry within.
But for any valid comparison, some basic ground rules of this old game of America as Rome are to be followed. First, keep in mind that the idea of a monolithic "Rome" is a sort of construct — reflecting 700 years of Italian republican government, followed by another half-millennium of imperial Mediterranean rule. What "Rome" then do we of infant nations evoke? Is Rome to be the rather small agrarian republic trying to stop Carthage in the first Punic war? Or Edward Gibbon's second-century AD hundred years of bliss? Or the chaos of a perennially tottering empire yet another two hundred years later?
Second, recognize that Roman literature, usually written by disaffected elites, is as consistently reactionary as it is moralistic in nature. Juvenal, Livy, Petronius, Sallust, the younger Seneca, Suetonius, and Tacitus, all knee-deep in the luxury of their times, all nevertheless deplored the supposed decadence of their respective eras. They can be fine witnesses to Roman decline and the corrosive effects of luxus, but their pessimistic — and often hypocritical — genre of things 'going to hell in a hand basket' needs to be weighed carefully against concomitant evidence from mute numismatics, epigraphy and archaeology that reflect a booming culture often at odds with what the cynical said about it.
For the once great families, it might have been a seminal moment to see respected Roman matrons increasingly covered with blood and dust in the first row of amphitheater oohing and aahing the abs of the gladiators. But most in North Africa or Eastern Europe — who with Romanization at last had clean water and habeas corpus — could have cared less. Petronius (Nero's own Arbiter elegantiae) saw the crass nouveaux-riche upstarts as proof of imperial decadence. But some of the novelist's gauche characters, like the Jewish buffoon Trimalchio and the rag-collector Echion, are more likely welcome evidence that millions by the first century A.D. were succeeding in a global system increasingly based on merit, not class — an anathema to Petronius's old Italian upper-crust.
Third, there should be an upfront recognition that common Rome/America comparisons, from those of Oswald Spengler to Pat Buchanan — are rarely meant to be laudatory. Instead, they are always admonitory in nature, warning that the "bread and circuses" of the United States too will — and should — soon end. Key is the superficiality that both Romans and Americans were somehow malevolent, forgetting that in comparison to the alternatives of the times, most of the "other" voted with their feet to cross their imperial borders by any means at their disposal.
Cullen Murphy (editor at large at Vanity Fair and author of Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage) does not draw extensively from the evidence of the ancient world other than selected quotes in translation from the usual grim Roman moralists. That paucity of ancient evidence on the modern side is buttressed by a plethora of referents to contemporary popular culture. So evocation of everything from Abu Ghraib, the Green Zone, Halliburton (but, of course), and Blackwater, U.S. to Ahmed Chalabi, Ken Lay, and the Cheneys is used to hammer home a sometimes preordained point that our selfish right-wing elites have become like Suetonius's vulgar Julio-Claudians in devouring public resources, eroding our freedoms, and ruining our name and influence abroad. But even the non-classicist will finally bristle at such simplicity, replete with references to a Bruce Sterling novel, the movies Spartacus and Gladiator, or the video game Rome: Total War.
This same sort of predetermined conclusions also governs the presentation of evidence. Murphy perhaps tips his hand at the very beginning by reminding us of a trip by George Bush to Europe to consult with allies. For Murphy it was reminiscent of a Roman emperor visiting the northwest provinces — "a meeting, in other words, with the leaders of allied or subsidiary nations." Yes, Europeans may voice such unhappiness with their postwar subordinate roles. But the idea they are clients like Caesar's conquered tribes doesn't work too well in the classical sense because the autonomous E.U. has a larger population, economy, territory than the United States, and often acts collectively to thwart American ambitions and visions.
Murphy selects several nexus for comparison — the capitals, the legions, the fixers, the outsiders, and the borders — mines his ancient and modern popular cultural referents, and then offers the cookie-cutter results. That Murphy is witty, writes well, is well versed in irony, and understands the excesses of American popular culture still does not mean that his conclusions are not mostly as superficial as they are predictable:
"Rome displayed the attribute of any great capital with more hubris than humility: the overweening self-regard, the presumption that it knew better than others, the surprising ignorance about foreign cultures, the languid arrogance, the competitive displays of wealth..."
In truth, Rome knew far more about foreign nations than any one of them did about Rome. There was simply nothing comparable in Numidia, Parthia, or Germany to the anthropology evident in Caesar's Gallic War , Sallust' Jugurtha, Pliny's Natural History, or the Germania and Agricola of Tacitus, who all reveal Rome's near obsession with the political and natural history of its neighbors.
When we get to the American side of that equation we unfortunately reach the same reductionism: "Dick Cheney's travel requirements became public in 2006, revealing that when he entered a new hotel room he wanted all the television sets already turned on and tuned in to the ideological congenial Fox news." But that tidbit about the cause and effect between insular news and blinkered politics has about as much relevance to the notion of America as Rome as the fact that media spinners like Chris Matthews, Bill Moyers, George Stephanopoulos, or Tim Russert all came to their glamorous media craft from prior partisan political careers.
Murphy's second military comparison should be more fertile since like Rome we too have an army that is relatively small, professional, and voluntary. Yet here too we get the same simplification, whether the trite observation that the nicknames of Roman legions "Thunderbolt" (Legion XII Fulminata) conjure up our own "Iron Horse" (the 4th armored division), or the supposedly profound, "Yesterday's Conan the barbarian is Conan the contractor".
Yet all large militaries contract out services. The Ottoman fleet was run by renegade Italian admirals. The British 19 th-century military ruled the world with a tiny force supplemented by indigenous hires. The French Foreign Legion is not much French. In fact, purely mass conscription civic militaries — whether the Roman army that beat Hannibal or ours that defeated Hitler and Tojo are rare in civilized history. More importantly, the current education level of the U.S. military now exceeds that of the general population. Its private contractors are subject to a level of official and media scrutiny unknown in Roman courts. The Pentagon is subject to a degree of oversight unimaginable among Roman proconsuls.
For the similarities to Roman "fixers" we get most prominently "Jack Abramoff" and "the Republican contribution hierarchy" — again with not enough recognition that there is a tradition of criminal prosecution of such shysters in the United States unknown in Rome. Nor does Murphy stress enough in balanced examples that the contemporary problem of influence peddling inside the beltway is mostly bipartisan in nature — as we saw with the serial renting of the Lincoln bedroom during the 1990s, the Department of Commerce sponsored overseas junkets, or the shady high-rollers pardoned by the Clinton administration.
Oddly, in a far more introspective conclusion, Murphy settles down somewhat, and offers some thoughtful reasons why we need not become an imperial Rome. Here sounding more like a reverential Livy than Petronius and Juvenal, he is absolutely right that the amazing American trait of self-reflection and criticism can correct the current malfeasance at home and lapses abroad in a way the imperial bureaucracy of Rome in its last centuries could not — if we remember how and why Americans are not and should not be Romans..
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