America is compared to the Roman Empire in many ways — imperialism, taxation, debasement of the currency — but spying on the citizenry? Indeed. This is one of the many nuggets contained in Murphy’s book Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. As the author describes, Caesar sent soldiers dressed for the part to mingle with civilians, entrapping ordinary folks into speaking ill of their leader. Next thing these Roman citizens knew, they were being led off to prison.
Murphy’s book was published in 2007, but he was way ahead of the current NSA story. “Our own curiosi have big ears,” writes Murphy. “The National Security Agency, in a program known as Echelon, sifts tens of millions of telephone and data communications every day, searching for any of hundreds of words or phrases that may hint at terrorist activity.”
The author writes with a richness one would expect from an editor for The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. He transports the reader to the comitatus of ancient Rome, where leaders controlled a vast apparatus. This includes thousands of functionaries, tens of thousands of slaves, and the required provisions.
The modern comitatus is just as vast. Murphy described it as “the cluster of people who in our own time would be encompassed by the Washington email designation eop.gov.”
Neocon journalists like Charles Krauthammer, Max Boot, and William Kristol envision America as the new Rome and cheer on the battle. On the other side of the argument are Chalmers Johnson and Paul Kennedy, who contend that empires destroy liberty and executive-branch power corrodes democracy. Jane Jacobs, just before her death, saw America going the way of a Roman collapse into chaos.
Murphy writes in Are We Rome that the comparisons are much more nuanced. Roman emperors spent much of their time considering petitions and making decisions in person. The far-flung territories had to be managed by capable leaders because communication was poor and distances were great. Rome may have thought it was the center of the world, but logistics put a limit on the empire’s and emperor’s scope.
American presidents, on the other hand, stay in Washington dreaming up activist agendas. With modern communication, the president can manage everything and everybody. “The machinery [in Washington] is there to be used,” writes Murphy, “and a president has access to all of it.”
All things in America begin in Washington, D.C., from foreign policy to big social programs.
When Rome ran out of Romans to fight their wars, barbarians from the low countries were transferred to bases in the north. But no matter where the bases were located, they were all the same. “The fortified playing-card shape is the same, and the interior street pattern, and the orderly rows of barracks, and the types of amenities, and the variety of imported goods.”
Today’s American bases are uniform as well, built by contractor Kellogg Brown & Root. The U.S. military is the government’s most expensive discretionary program, as was Rome’s. Three-quarters of the federal government’s research money goes to the Pentagon. Half of America’s engineers and scientists are employed in defense. But to attract recruits to do its fighting, the modern military has relaxed its educational, drug-testing, obesity, and other guidelines — the modern version of recruiting barbarians to do its soldiering.
Like today’s America, the Roman Empire was too big to fail. However, the author qualifies “fail” to mean “suddenly discontinue and disappear.” Much of what Rome put in place lived on. “There is, in fact, no proof that any important skills of the Greco-Roman world were lost during the Dark Ages, even in the unenlightened West,” Murphy quotes historian Lynn White.
Murphy writes the Catholic Church has transported much of Rome throughout the world. For instance, Rome can clearly be seen in the church’s organizational charts, says the author. Then, as an aside, he imagines today’s fastest-growing religion, the Mormon Church, playing a similar role, with Salt Lake City becoming “the Vatican of the third millennium.”
Anyone who is lucky enough to visit Rome and tour the Colosseum remembers the Romans-for-picture-taking hire available outside. Murphy wonders what the Washington equivalent will be in the distant future. Will tourists pose and say “cheese” standing next to “Green Berets, maybe, or TV reporters, or special prosecutors”?
To avoid being trapped by an insular mindset, Murphy calls for Americans to appreciate the wider world. While all educated Romans spoke two languages, Americans work to pass “English only” legislation. But Americans have something the self-satisfied Romans never had: “a deep faith in the promise of invention and reinvention.”
The Roman economy never changed. It was agrarian, Iron Age and pre-industrial from beginning to end. In a mere 200 years or so, the United States economy has gone from agrarian to industrial to high tech to digital on its way to who knows what next.
Other than the usual Luddites carping from the sidelines, these transformations have made life better and more meaningful for increasing millions. And while today’s emperors superficially grow more powerful with the use of technology, many of those same advances are now in everyone’s hands, creating a dynamism that Rome never enjoyed.
So are we Rome? It’s a question especially intriguing to libertarians. It was the theme of this year’s FreedomFest in Las Vegas. John Stossel’s show from the event asked the same question and was very successful, as it was replayed numerous times on both Fox Business and Fox networks.
In the end, Murphy makes the reader think about, and grapple with, the question in Are We Rome? If history doesn’t repeat, does it still rhyme? The parallels are obvious. But we are not condemned to the past. Murphy tells the reader what the antidote to Rome’s failure is, and his answer is heartening and challenging at the same time.