Imperial Parallels

February 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

The military and economic power of the United States has invited comparisons between America and the ancient Roman Empire. How apt are those comparisons, and what, if anything, can the United States learn from Rome’s decline? For answers we turned to Cullen Murphy, Vanity Fair editor at large and author of the recent New York Times best seller Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America.

THE FUTURIST: What motivated you to write Are We Rome?

Cullen Murphy: Wi thout be ing determini s t ic- which emphatically I am not- I ‘ve wonde re d about the Rome and America comparison for years (as many people have), and the events of recent decades have only heightened the perceived parallels. These involve not only America’s unsurpassed military strength but also developments on the home front, like corruption and the privatization of power.

Cock an ear and you’ll hear Rome and America comparisons cropping up in the byways of pop culture and elite culture alike. So I began to wonder, just how well does the comparison hold up historically? Which parallels-if any-are worth taking seriously and which ones aren’t? Obviously Rome and America are profoundly different societies in ways beyond counting. But if some parallels really do hold up, then you can ask another question: Knowing this, can Rome’s history help America avoid some trouble?

FUTURIST: Why does the idea of empire decline hold so much allure, particularly right now?

Murphy: The war in Iraq, however it may turn out, brings the question of America’s imperial role to a white-heat intensity. It’s only natural in these circumstances to think back to how Rome handled, or mishandled, its ambitions and responsibilities, and it’s only natural to wonder whether we are following a trajectory that is in any way similar.

The matters at stake are not just about “empire.” Along with our power has come a change in our homegrown institutions. The American executive has gained power at the expense of the legislature-as happened in Rome. More and more of the public’s business is done in secrecy and for a price-as also happened in Rome. The migration across our borders of newcomers is seen both as essential to our economic well-being and as a threat to our national character-again, as happened in Rome.

In sum, there is much in the Zeitgeist to pull our gaze to the Palatine and the Capitoline.

FUTURIST: Why is it that instead of going on forever forward and upward societies often stagnate, decline, and collapse?

Murphy: It’s probably wise to avoid overly schematized explanations of why history turns out the way it does. The speculations of an Oswald Spengler, say, are ludicrous, and the attempt by some to mine the past for its predictive power is one reason why so many academic historians are rightly skeptical about trying to derive lessons of any sort from history. Which is a shame, because history does have useful things to say.

A few decades ago, a German historian collected all the explanations ever offered for the decline and fall of Rome and came up with more than 200 of them, ranging from the barbarian invasions to the debilitating effects of slavery to the hot water in the public baths (which was said to cause infertility in men). I think that Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire caught the larger truth when he ascribed the end of Roman state to “immoderate greatness.” Be they corporations or polities, systems can simply become too large to manage. By their very greatness they touch everything, helping to set events and behavior into motion that they can neither see nor control.

America is facing an example of this right now, in the attacks by violent forms of fundamentalist Islam. Large systems are inherently unstable. Anyone reading the story of the last two centuries of the Roman Empire in the West will be struck by how the very best of emperors must struggle desperately just to make the status remain quo for a few weeks or years.

“Immoderate greatness” isn’t a very scientific concept. Invoking it probably sounds as primitive as blaming illness on “humours.” But I think it points to a big problem-for Rome, and also for ourselves.

FUTURIST: What can Americans- both collectively and as individuals- do to anneal our society from collapse?

Murphy: The last chapter of Are We Rome? does try to look ahead at steps America can take. But I’d hasten to note that these aren’t steps that will fend off the larger forces of history. There may be some who would wish we could flash-freeze the present moment, with the United States as the world’s greatest economic engine and more powerful militarily than all the other countries on the planet combined. That’s a preposterous ambition. No reading of history suggests that this can actually happen, or that it is even desirable.

The point I make is that the best things we can do are the ones that lie entirely in our own hands. And these, by and large, are things that have to do with the well-being of individuals in our society, not with the relative position of America vis-à-vis the world as a whole. In other words, we should pay attention to some of the things we’ve been neglecting, such as public education and public health. Rather than ranting against government, we should attempt to repair some of the basic institutions of our democracy, starting with the political process itself. We should make sure that our citizens feel at home in the wider world, rather than facilitating their withdrawal from it in fear and ignorance. Finally, our leaders should dial down the tri-umphalism and arrogance-it only damages the relationships we’ll one day need.

People forget that the fall of Rome was a centuries-long process rather than a cataclysmic catastrophe. And although a great political unity disappeared, ordinary life for the most part held together because the most basic things continued: strong local leadership, age-old ways of making a living and conducting trade, and the cohesive ties forged by family and religion. America has its problems, some of them grave, but I don’t think we’re heading for the Dark Ages, not in the least. The world, in any case, is a very different place.

There’s a lesson from Rome nonetheless, which is not to forget the basics. Remember the words of Livy: “An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it.” If we give our own citizens some things to rejoice about, a lot of other things will take care of themselves.

About the Interviewee

Cullen Murphy is the editor at large of Vanity Fair and was for many years the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His new book, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America was published by Houghton Mifflin in May 2007.

This interview was conducted by Patrick Tucker.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2007.

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