Are We Rome?


Cullen Murphy




Date Reviewed:

April 7, 2008

hat a succint title for a book! Are We Rome asks the question that I have some times wondered about myself: is the United States just like Rome - an unrivaled superpower that collapsed due to forces from within and without, resulting in a dark age of misery for the world? In this book, Cullen Murphy addresses this question, while commenting on the ways that the United States is much like Rome, he also points out significant differences between the United States and the Roman Republic/Empire. I read a quotation once: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes" (by Mark Twain.) I think in this book Murphy descripes how the US rhymes with Rome.

Whenever new perils confront the United States, it seems that the long term fate of the United States is questioned - have we over-extended our military, just like Rome did? Has our powerful state decayed into cesspool of debauchery and corruption just like Rome did? Has the staggering debt of the United States left us vulnerable to outside powers just like Rome? Is the tidal wave of unassimilated immigrants washing into our country just like the barbarian hordes that poured into the Roman Empire, until the notion of a Roman citizen was diluted beyond all meaning? I thought this book was terrific because Murphy discusses these issues as well as similarities between Rome and the United States that I had not thought about.

One interesting remark by Murphy is that Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, and it's last emperor was also a young lad named Romulus - so Rome was founded by one Romulus and then fell under the rule of another Romulus. He then points out that the US first president was named George, and it's last president may also be named George (this book was written during George W Bush presidency.) One point Murphy emphasizes is that Rome didn't not fall in a day. Even after the official fall of Rome (as historians now point to the date of the sack of Rome by the barbarians), there were still citizens and Romans who continued living on for decades much as they had before the the official fall of Rome. After all, Rome had fallen to the barbarians before, and recovered. Even in the time of Charlemagne, they were still using Roman coins. So maybe the US has actually ALREADY fallen, but we just haven't realized it yet. Maybe the current economic crisis will, in hindsight, be called by the historians as the end of Pax Americana.

Murphy points out a lot of the parallels between Rome and the US, such as how the architecture of the buildings in our capitol city resemble those of ancient Rome (white marble, domes, columns). He points out how the US symbol is an eagle, like Rome. In the beginning of the book, he describes how George W Bush traveling through Europe on an official visit is much like the circus that surrounded the emperor when he toured through Europe - surrounded by security, with special food, with all access to the president/emperor controlled by insiders. Roman politics were corrupted by vote stealing, bribing, and horse trading, until the Republic finally fell and was replaced by the first Caesar. There certainly has been a lot of talk about election fraud in the United States in recent elections.

Just as interesting as the parallels between Rome and the US, are the differences. Rome was a empire built on slaves and subjugation. Their military went out and conquered territory to add to the expanding Roman rule. But the US is the champion of "all men are created equal", and while this noble concept is not perfectly implemented, the US is still perhaps the most equal nation on earth. Rome aristocracy was built along bloodlines - who your ancestors were mattered greatly in your status. The US ideal is the "self made man" - we celebrate the little guy who creates his own fortune through business or technical achievement.

This isn't a long book, Murphy covers the territory in less than 300 pages. But it is a fascinating read. There are a lot of historical details that were new to me, which I found quite interesting. This book is highly recommended reading, especially if you have ever, like me, wondered if the US is destined to the same fate that befell the Romans.