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Benjamin A. Plotinsky
Do We Do As the Romans Did?
Yes and no, of course.
24 July 2007

Are We Rome?, by Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin, 272 pp., $24)

The single best piece of advice that you can give students in a composition course is never to write a “compare-and-contrast” essay. Such essays usually conclude with the foreordained revelation that X and Y are different in some respects and similar in others. So Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? answers its titular question predictably: “In a thousand specific ways, the answer is obviously no. In a handful of important ways, the answer is certainly yes.”

About the only way to evade tiresome predictability, as Murphy realizes, is to provide so much detail about the similarities and differences that they become interesting in themselves. His book abounds with fascinating information about Rome, which will appeal to amateur and neophyte alike—though his picture of the average neophyte seems too rosy. “Most people are aware that the Roman Empire was eventually split into western and eastern halves, the one Latin-speaking and centered on Rome, the other Greek-speaking and centered on Constantinople,” he writes. “Most people,” it seems likelier, are aware of just three things about the Roman Empire: first, that it had gladiators; second, that parts of it were very decadent; and third, that it fell.

The last two facts are doubtless the main reasons why people persist in likening America to Rome: together, they constitute a quick, careless way to suggest that America’s wealth will somehow lead to America’s demise. To his credit, Murphy avoids the subject of decadence altogether. He also warns against slapdash historical comparisons: “The famous Santayana maxim about what happens to those who forget history is drilled into you by the sixth grade, and everyone who learns it is condemned to repeat it.”

Still, without some apparent similarities between America and Rome, Murphy would have no book. Many of the likenesses that he finds are worth considering; that overcommitted and understaffed Roman armies resorted to recruiting barbarians, for example, may bear a useful warning about the practical hazards of “imperial overstretch.” Whether the private companies playing such a big part in the Iraq War are truly a modern-day equivalent of those barbarians, however, is another matter. A related Roman problem, Murphy writes, was a growing division between soldiers and civilians, much like the division between American warriors and elites that Samuel Huntington discusses in The Soldier and the State. But quoting an ancient who found soldiers “most savage to look at, frightening to listen to, and boorish to talk with,” and adding that “America’s Delta Force would fare no better in Saddle River, Brentwood, or Winnetka,” dramatically overstates the case, and not only because highly trained Delta Force members wouldn’t be likely to come across as boorish, even to the snootiest residents of those affluent neighborhoods.

These cases point to a problem that pervades Are We Rome?: many of Murphy’s proposed analogies falter because their true inspiration is his liberal politics. He notes that patronage and favor governed Roman society, and aptly quotes Jerome Carcopino: “From the parasite do-nothing up to the great aristocrat there was no man in Rome who did not feel himself bound to someone more powerful above him.” But then Murphy, following classicist Ramsay MacMullen, calls this all-encompassing patronage a variety of “privatization”—“the deflection of public purpose by private interest.”

This odd definition allows Murphy to take a shot at modern-day American privatization, which, in his view, means not just government’s contracting services to private companies, but also “influence peddling and bribery and the buying and selling of public office.” Moreover, it seems that the contracting-services kind of privatization is even worse than the other kinds. “The ostensible motives may be pure,” Murphy continues, “but the effect in every case is to insert an independent agent, with its own interests to consider and protect, into the space between public will and public outcome—a dynamic that represents a potential ‘diverting of government force’ far more systemic and insidious than outright venality” (my emphasis). The idea depends on a belief in government-provided services as accountable and responsible—a romantic, wholly inaccurate picture that City Journal’s Steven Malanga demolishes in The New New Left—and it’s hardly novel. What is novel, and never satisfactorily explained, is the notion that evil American privatization is somehow similar to the pervasive patronage of ancient Rome.

Murphy’s politics also compel him to make some unconvincing arguments about immigration. He points out that many of the peoples who attacked Rome during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries had already been living within the empire—at Roman invitation, for example, to serve as mercenaries—and that some historians have taken to calling these attackers not “barbarians” but “immigrants.” He adds, “In this Roman context the word jumps out. . . . The Sack of Rome by the Immigrants?” In another context—America’s current debate over immigration—Murphy would seemingly be led to take a kick-out-the-encroachers stance. But no: “There is positive news for America in the Roman experience. . . . Rome’s ability to assimilate newcomers is so large a fact that it’s easy to lose sight of. Attention is drawn away, understandably, by specific episodes of invasion and mayhem in the final episodes of the Western empire’s coherent life. . . . But the peaceful influx and evolution over great swaths of time was a bigger phenomenon still.”

The message to law-and-order, police-the-border Americans is nothing short of comical. Don’t worry, Murphy says; Rome fell to immigrants, it’s true, but at least it assimilated a lot of them first! Even conservatives who welcome immigrants, provided that they try to adapt to American ways, should find Murphy’s policy recommendations disturbing. He reasonably suggests that we “fortify the institutions that promote assimilation” for immigrants—a good idea. But the institutions he means are not the ones that actually succeeded in promoting assimilation in the past—public schools that taught such old-fashioned values as patriotism, for example—but increased benefits for illegal aliens.

Still, it’s hard to condemn outright a book that combines erudition with a liberalism that is genuinely thoughtful, if mistaken. Among left-leaning writers these days, President Bush has become something like Voldemort—He Who Must Not Be Named Without Hyperventilating—so it’s refreshing to read someone who can write about him relatively calmly. Likewise, you have to admire a liberal writer who, in denouncing the Beltway belief “that the world is small, that society is malleable, and that the capital’s stance is paramount,” cites as examples the War on Poverty and President Clinton’s attempt to create a national health-care system.

Though Murphy acknowledges the danger of too hastily drawing lessons from history, let me offer one more warning in the same spirit. One of Horace’s Odes, written in 23 BC, condemns modern luxury by recalling longingly that in the good old days people didn’t build magnificent houses for themselves. Juvenal wrote his Satires well over 100 years later, but in one he likewise complains, “Which of our grandfathers built such numbers of villas, or dined by himself off seven courses?” Now, it’s true that income inequality rose as Rome aged, but when Horace was writing disgustedly that virtuous frugality was a thing of the past, Juvenal’s supposedly virtuous grandfathers hadn’t yet been born. These two poems don’t happen to be among the many classical sources that Murphy cites. But they remind gloomy prognosticators of America’s decline and fall—of whom there are many on both the left and the right—to keep a sense of perspective.

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More by Benjamin A. Plotinsky:
Readiness Is All
Shakespeare Misplaced
Nonstop Propaganda
More . . .
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