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A Talk With Cullen Murphy, Author of Are We Rome?

Posted By Paul Comstock On June 27, 2007 @ 11:20 am In History,Non-Fiction Reviews,Politics | 3 Comments

Cullen Murphy

Cullen Murphy was the managing editor of Atlantic Monthly for more than two decades and is currently the editor at large for Vanity Fair magazine. His most recent book, Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, compares ancient Rome’s culture and history with modern day America.

I’d like to throw out topics that are of concern to Americans and get your thoughts on how we are similar or dissimilar to ancient Rome. Let’s start with our status as scientific and financial innovators.
You might think that a state that was as economically sprawling as Rome (its currency unified the known world; Europe wouldn’t have a common currency again until the modern Euro), and as technologically proficient (that highway system, as big as America’s!), would almost necessarily possess the same innovative streak that the United States has. But it didn’t. In the economic realm Rome was a relatively primitive agrarian society. It was born in the Iron Age and died in the Iron Age. It didn’t have deficit spending: when it needed money, it acquired it the old-fashioned way, by actually minting coins. Of course, it was able to stretch its finances by debasing the currency—governments learned that trick very early—but Rome didn’t have a sense of “economic policy” the way we do or the British Empire did.
As for technology: the Romans loved it, and were masters at its application, but they were not creative geniuses. Rome didn’t foster anything analogous to a Silicon Valley culture. Most of the technologies they used (and improved on) were known to other peoples, and they failed to employ some technologies that were right in front of their eyes. Water power is the classic example—the Romans knew how to put flowing water to work, but did so mainly in trivial ways. The military realm is one technological area where the Romans excelled creatively, which makes for rather lopsided development. There’s a warning there for America.
You have to wonder: with all of its technological prowess, why weren’t the Romans better on the front end—on the creative side of things? One factor was almost certainly slavery. You don’t need to invent labor-saving devices if you don’t need to save labor. Of course, there would come a point when the Romans very much needed to save labor, but by then a mindset of dependence on the sweat of other people’s brows had existed for many centuries. Some of the barbarians, in contrast, were highly inventive. To the barbarians we owe such things as trousers, barrels, the heavy plough, and the stirrup.
Imperial arrogance.
You can’t spend a day in Washington without hearing or seeing a reference to the President as “the most important man in the most important city in the world.” The phrase is so ingrained that you see it cropping up in other Washington contexts—the maitre’d of The Palm was once called “the most important man in the most important restaurant in the most important city in the world.” It’s a small thing, this turn of phrase, but it really does capture a worldview: of Washington as the center of everything, and the world beyond as a pliant vastness awaiting America’s command.
This is a very Roman view of things. In the middle of the Forum, right behind the Rostra, was a rounded marble protrusion known as the Umbilicus—it symbolized the navel of the world, which the Romans believed to exist at that very spot. Right next to the Umbilicus was another monument, the Golden Milestone, where all the empire’s roads symbolically converged. In Roman eyes, those who had yet to accept Rome’s civilizing power were obviously inferior and not to be taken seriously—a view of things that often led to overconfidence and sometimes led to catastrophe. One famous example is the disaster at Teutoburg Forest, in 9 A.D. The Romans had set out to incorporate the lands of “free Germany” into the empire as a new province, and sent three legions into the bogs and forests beyond the Rhine “as if on a picnic,” as a contemporary named Velleius Paterculus wrote. Feigning cooperation, some of the Germans drew the Romans in deeper and deeper, then fell on them in an ambush. The three legions were wiped out. Teutoburg is not an isolated example. Periodically the Romans ventured into the deserts of the Middle East, bent on conquest, and on many occasions crawled back on hands and knees, if they made it back at all.
I deliberately tried to keep “Are We Rome?” from being a screed against the Bush administration—the characteristics of Rome and America that I focus on go much deeper than the policies of any one President or any one Emperor. And I recognize that America’s role in the world has been substantially to the good—it has shouldered responsibilities that someone had to take on, when often there was no one else. That said, the thinking that lay behind the invasion of Iraq—the notion that we could transform a society more or less overnight, and in the process “jumpstart democracy” in the entire Middle East—was a colossal act of hubris. And it was essentially a Roman act. It was undertaken with America-centric motives, and with little understanding of the people on the receiving end, or of their ability to oppose us. Those haunting words from Velleius—“as if on a picnic”—pretty much sum up our approach to this and to too many other things.
Military strength and also the risk of overstretching resources to pay for it.
Rome and America share a basic problem: we have military resources that are too modest for all the jobs we ask the military to do, but at the same time are too large to be able to sustain over a long period of time. For both states the problem is in part a manpower problem—though it’s not just a manpower problem. In its later centuries Rome simply did not have enough people to perform a variety of tasks, and in order to lock in manpower you see imperial decrees being promulgated saying that in certain parts of the economy every man had to hold the same job as his father. This applied to some agricultural work, to baking, to jobs in the arms factories, and to the military. Historians aren’t sure how effectively these laws were applied. The point is that manpower was a huge problem. And eventually Rome had to start bringing outsiders into the military on a contract basis. Of course, back then the Romans didn’t have the option of hiring security personnel from, say Blackwater. But they could and did hire Goths and Huns and other barbarians, not just as individuals but in large groups under their own commanders, and by the end the “Roman army” consisted almost entirely of hired soldiers of this kind. It was not a good long-run solution, to put it mildly.
America’s military today is stretched almost to the breaking point. We’ve hired private contractors by the hundreds of thousands to supplement the men and women actually in uniform, and at the same time we’ve had to lower recruiting standards across the board. Weight guidelines, intelligence guidelines, disciplinary guidelines—these things have all been relaxed. Now there’s talk—backed-up by legislation—of awarding citizenship to non-citizens who serve honorably for a certain duration in the U.S. military. This citizenship-for-service deal was exactly what the Romans offered.
We’re not yet in the same straits the Romans found themselves in. Rome came to be overextended just keeping its core domain stable. America is overextended because it is trying to reach into what President Bush once called “every dark corner of the world.” We have more than 700 military bases overseas. We have no far-seeing energy policy, and therefore have locked ourselves into the role of guarantor of stability in the Middle East. We do not trust regional powers to police their own neighborhoods, and therefore must step in to maintain order everywhere. And we have an all-volunteer military and no program of national service, ensuring that only a fraction of the populace is available to meet broad national needs.
But America has plenty of options in every one of these areas. You might say that we’re overextended by choice.
The fairness of society. The concern for all citizens.
When I think fundamental differences between Rome and America the social character of the two states comes powerfully to mind. Rome was a slave-holding polity for its entire existence; America threw off slavery in a bloody civil war. America in its mind—and to a considerable extent in its reality—is a middle-class nation; Rome’s social stratification was extreme, with all of the power and wealth in the hands of a few thousand families. The story of America is one in which civil rights and basic respect have been extended to more and more people over time; Rome was a society in which divisions based on gender and background were sharp and appalling. During the past century America’s government has moved to put into place many protections for the ordinary citizen—to raise incomes, to provide health care, to clean up the environment; Rome did not care much for the welfare of the ordinary citizen, except, famously, to provide the “bread and circuses” necessary to keep the urban proletariat of Rome from rioting in the streets (which cost more than one emperor his throne). Finally, America remains a democracy, even if it is a battered and tarnished one. Rome was never a democracy.
So: as societies, Rome and America fall mostly into different categories. I do worry that we’re going down Rome’s path in one important way—in our disregard for the growing inequality of wealth and income. The latest studies show that the income gap between the average American CEO and the average production worker is more than 400 to 1, up from about 200 to 1 a decade ago. In terms of both income and wealth, the gulf between the upper and lower strata of society is becoming more pronounced, not less. We still have a ways to go to catch up with Rome, of course. There, the individuals in the top few thousandths of one percent of the population enjoyed wealth that was 5,000 or 10,000 times that of a typical free Roman. But we’re gaining. And the worrisome thing is that too many people at the top seem not to care.
Immigration.
You hear the words “barbarian hordes” being tossed around these days in the context of the immigration debate—not usually by politicians, because it isn’t polite, but certainly in the letters columns of newspapers. There’s a widespread view, abetted by decades of movies and centuries of literature, that Rome “fell” because it was overrun by barbarian tribes from the outside. It’s certainly true that Rome had its hands full with external threats—though the empire’s internal weaknesses were the real key to many of the problems it faced. You also have to ask: what is even meant by the words “fall of Rome”? The disintegration was slow, taking place over centuries, and in many places occurred fairly naturally, without great trauma, one group taking over the top spots and some land while life for ordinary people went on largely undisturbed.
What the conventional image of the fall of Rome leaves out is the reality of Rome as a success story: for century upon century it was the most robust assimilationist society the world had ever seen. Indeed, there would be nothing like it until modern America. Rome expanded to include tens of millions of people who were not Romans, and at the height of the empire it took in millions more from the outside. It wasn’t always without incident. But the non-Romans understood that the peace and stability Rome offered was a very good deal. So were the cultural amenities—the living standards, the way of life. The historian Tacitus understood the captivating power of Rome’s allure. Speaking of one subject people, he observed cynically that what the Britons called “culture” was in fact what kept them enslaved.
Rome accomplished all this without public schools, without national news and entertainment media, without a Department of Romanization. If anything America’s economic and socializing power is even more irresistible than Rome’s was. Americans see the great swirling vortex of our culture and society as a fragile thing—which is a very quaint perspective, I’d argue. In any event, the bottom line: when it comes to immigration, the example of Rome should lift our hearts, not burden them.
Moral and spiritual decadence.
This subject is probably the one brought up most often when people casually compare Rome and America. It’s also a comparison that mystifies me, in the main. Rome certainly had its decadent aspects—and so does America. But when the empire in the west finally fell, Christianity was the state religion, and had been for quite a while. America today, for all the obvious moral excesses you encounter everywhere, is the most religious country on the planet, with an easy majority of the population in the class of regular goers to religious services. If the argument is that decadence is sapping America just as it sapped Rome, I don’t quite see it. In any event, it’s hard to subscribe to any one “silver bullet” theory of Rome’s decline. One German historian a decade ago totted up all the theories that had ever been advanced to explain the fall of Rome, and counted 210 in all. Needless to say, not all of them are taken equally seriously. The “mental-illness-caused-by-water-from-lead-pipes” theory, for instance, doesn’t cut much mustard these days.
Finally, from what you’ve learned in your studies of history, what would you say is the single biggest mistake that America is in danger of repeating?
There are actually two. One of them is the privatization of power. And the other is the psychological need of empires to hold on at all costs.
The privatization of power has to do with the slow seepage of public authority into private hands. I’ve already alluded to the way America’s military capacity has increasingly been franchised out to private contractors like Blackwater and Halliburton, just as Rome had to look for outside contractors. Something similar is occurring with our intelligence operations, And with the management of many domestic operations of government. Highways, prisons, police forces, water systems—you name it, in every sector of government there’s a movement afoot to sell off jobs the government is doing and put them in the hands of contractors. Often this is done in the name of efficiency. Or of economy. In any specific instance, viewed in isolation, it may make sense. But the consequence overall is to reduce the ability of government to actually govern: to push buttons and make things happen. Meanwhile, the ability of private contractors to act in their own interests only grows. The shift in power relations will come to a head in a moment of crisis, when those who ostensibly hold public authority find that they lack the power to wield it. And those private interests who hold the power may lack the will and the legitimacy.
Rome’s government was not nearly as big or complex or all-encompassing as ours is, but the privatization parallel is real. There came a point, as Ramsay MacMullen has shown in his classic book “Corruption and the Decline of Rome,” when every government job came at a price, and every government service came at a price, and the whole notion of public authority existing for the public good was a thing of the past. The result was a spreading corrosion that could not be contained.
Privatization is insidious—the ill effects are hard to see in the short term, but over decades or a century they may prove revolutionary in their negative consequences. One of the great features of the Roman example is that it allows us to see the impact of behavior sustained over long periods of time: something permitted to none of us in our lifetimes.
The second big mistake exemplified by Rome is the urge to preserve the status quo exactly as it is. There has been a lot of writing about the instability of large systems in general—not just governments but corporations and administrative systems. Large systems are stable as long as there’s some expanding momentum behind them; but they’re hard to consolidate, or freeze. And there’s an inherent and inevitable weakness: a big system comes into contact with, and influences, many, many things, often without being aware of it; those many, many things, aroused and provoked, can touch the system back. No amount of resources is equal to this problem, because definitionally it’s beyond addressing—every new step invites counter-steps.
America is at a moment, I hope, where it is beginning to grasp this sobering truth. We’ve understood it before—it’s the very thing that Reinhold Neibuhr, a half century ago, called “the paradox of American power.”

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