Are We Rome?

Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007) by Cullen Murphy. Houghton Mifflin, 262 pages.

A short, engaging book covering the ways in which we really are like ancient Rome – and the many other ways in which we are nothing like them at all.

Ancient Rome is an area of history that I don’t know much about. I’ve (so far) never read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, never learned anything about it in school beyond the most trivial overview, and never took a course in Roman History in college. My knowledge of Rome is limited solely to what I’ve picked up in reading other books, watching movies, and the few sections in the Bible that touch upon to politics in Rome. Oh, and I did spend one entire semester in high school studying Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, it’s a subject I’ve always meant to learn about, I just haven’t gotten around to it. So I was delighted when I heard about this book, which was described to me as both an excellent (albeit brief) overview of Roman history, as well as a timely analysis of the oft-repeated pop culture meme that we “are doomed to fall like Rome”.

The book succeeds on both counts. Perhaps the best thing about this book is that now I am fascinated, and would like to learn a great deal more about this civilization. A democracy (well, sort of one) that lasted for over 800 years and spread its influence across most of the (then) known world? Who could not be interested?

But it’s the more timely approach of this book that makes it such a fun read. Haven’t we all heard that old saw about “bread and circuses” in Rome? About how the empire fell because the populace became jaded and bored, and just cheered on gladiators as they fed Christians to the lions? About how the Romans gorged themselves on food, then vomited it up so they could eat more? About how, if we’re not careful, we’ll end up “just like them”, victims of a fallen empire overrun by barbarians?

Well, as it turns out, almost all of the things in the previous paragraph turn out to be gross exaggerations or outright myths. There were never any rooms where diners vomited up dinners so they could eat some more, for example – “vomatorium” turns out to simply mean “the entrance to the arena”.

Murphy does identify six parallels between our country and the Roman Empire, however, which he breaks down and talks about in five chapters: The Capitals, The Legions, The Fixers, The Outsiders, and The Borders (the sixth parallel being simply “complexity”, which he interweaves with the others).

Capitals covers the similarities between Washinton, D.C. and Rome – mainly how the citizens and politicians in both cities live insular lives that are divorced from the rest of the country, and indeed the rest of the world. Rome is where politics was invented – and it doesn’t seemed to have changed much in 2800 years, honestly. The same scandals. The same overblown sense of importance. Both in Rome and Washington, issues that seem drastically important to politicians, in order to get votes and stay in office, turn out to have almost no bearing on day to day life. Thin about it: what impact does, say, flag-burning have on anyone? And yet politicians have collectively spent literally years arguing this issue.

Legions discusses military power, and how it is used to both secure typical military advantages (land, resources) as well as server as a means of carrying the empire’s culture around the world. In the ancient world, if you were anyone, you spoke Latin. If you joined the Roman Legion, you spoke and wrote Latin. And the military, in bases and forts around the world, spread its influence not so much during battles, but by spending money in the local restaurants, marrying the local women, and bringing back bits and pieces of the places they lived for so long to their home cities in their retirement. I think of how my parents have two large ceramic elephants on their back porch – from Viet Nam. And furniture from Korea. And how we all learned to eat and love Chinese food. It’s not just the soldiers themselves – it’s the entire structure and environment of the whole military family that spreads the culture of the empire around the world.

Fixers talks about the whole concept of privatization and its close uncle, corruption. About how if you want to get something done, you’ll have to grease a few palms. Lobbyists, it turns out, are not nearly as new an invention as I had always thought. And the idea of a politician securing funds for a bridge or school in his district? Yup, turns out they’ve been doing that for thousands of years as well.

Outsiders describes how both Rome and the United States deal and feel about immigration. On the one hand, it is necessary to keep the country going – without immigration, we’d quickly become a stagnant “old world” kind of country. But those who have been here over a generation feel that we are the “real” citizens, and that “they” are despicable freeloaders who just want to steal our hard-earned jobs, etc. As it turns out, that’s what the word “barbarians” actually means: immigrant outsiders. All the conversations we’re having these days about “illegal aliens”? Yep. The Romans been there, done that. Some of the articles written around 200 A.D. in Rome sound exactly like Lou Dobbs today – just change the nationality of the players and read the same script.

And finally, Borders tells how both empires have somewhat fluid, expanding borders. Borders that are so large that they cannot be effectively protected, unless the entire country wanted to spend a fortune doing nothing but that. Borders over which people come and go, spreading their influence, their skills, and their cheap labor. And borders over which neighboring countries become, over time, much more like their more powerful neighbor.

Sound interesting? Well, it is. In every chapter, Murphy brings up tons of fascinating examples from Roman history and current American events. The book has a spry and entertaining tone that makes it great bedtime reading, and the structure of the chapters makes it both fun and easy to follow. I love history books like this, that not only tell you stuff you didn’t know, but help you to better understand all the things that you think you already know as well.

So… are we Rome? Well, of course not. But it would certainly behoove us to learn well what happened before… if for no other reason than to take us down a peg. We’re not so unique. The entire concept of our immigrant-settled, democratically ruled empire has been done before. And it’s worth noted that despite what we may think, Rome never truly “fell” – it just sort of morphed and changed into something else, and its people spread out and divided up into other countries.

Buy yourself a copy ofAre We Rome? and you’ll not only have an enjoyable, fascinating read – but you’ll learn something at the same time.

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