Are We Rome?

During that strange period of 18 months between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war, the chattering classes of the United States were seized by the thought that the country must finally face its destiny. We must put away childish distractions and forge a mighty global order to defend civilization from evildoers. It was time. We had the right, the might and the obligation to impose our will on what Rudyard Kipling had once called "lesser breeds without the law."

True, the day of Kipling's frank racism was past. You did not hear that line about "lesser breeds" quoted much. But it was quite clear that the new empire would be more or less British in inspiration. America would ripen into maturity through the responsible delivery of benefits to its happy subjects. There was also a tendency, just after 9/11 anyway, to find points of similarity between George Bush and Winston Churchill -- which is probably as good a reminder as any of the need to police the use of historical analogy.

Five years later, the brash tone of hubris has faded a bit, and the dream of imperial glory seems to demand a different set of parallels. The obvious one gets a diagnostic workout in Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy, just published by Houghton Mifflin. Apart from being an editor-at-large at Vanity Fair (no doubt an excellent vantage point for studying decadence), the author is an amateur classicist with a nimble recall of the ancient sources that might serve as prophetic glimpses of the shape of things to come.

Then again, they might not. It is to Murphy's credit that he tries, at least, to keep the question in his title from being merely rhetorical. The notion of the United States as, in effect, a reincarnation of Rome has a rather complex genealogy. It comes in a variety of forms -- some smarter than others, but all of them at least somewhat dubious. The desire for convenient, comprehensive historical analogies is understandable. But serious historians tend to find that hankering rather misguided. Murphy knows enough to temper any parallels between past and present with a clear sense that general similarity does not equal profound identity.

To be sure, the comparison isn't arbitrary. The Founding Fathers were raised on a steady diet of Latin literature, with classical allusions serving as a convenient shorthand for complex political realities. Murphy's treatment of this factor in our early history is surprisingly perfunctory, amounting to little beyond a reference to how George Washington's peers thought of him as resembling Cincinnatus, the noble farmer who took to war and politics out of duty, not ambition. Other examples abound, however, and the book would have benefited from a richer sketch of how deeply the Roman model is imprinted on the American genome.

Instead, Murphy focuses on the points of similarity that come into view when we compare them as the superpowers of their eras. Each possessed an awe-inspiring military and a powerful economy, marked by extremes of wealth and poverty. Their languages were used far beyond the respective borders of either. Both were apt to borrow bits and pieces of the culture from other societies, combining them in peculiar ways. Murphy mentions that a local restaurant in his small New England town offers "Thai fajitas" -- the culinary equivalent of Roman theology, perhaps, with its open-door pantheon.

"Both Rome and America, at their most adroit," Murphy writes, "have understood the influence of 'soft' power -- the power projected on the wings of language, culture, know-how, luxury goods. Both Rome and America, again at their most adroit, benefit from the psychological impact of military strength: how the mere perception of power begets additional power, and makes unnecessary the actual use of force."

Not that either was reluctant to kick some gluteus, of course, when its interests might be so served. That tough-mindedness had its domestic applications as well. Consider the remarks of a Roman senator about enforcing the law that all slaves in a household must be executed if one of them killed a master: "It is true that, because of this, innocent people will be sacrificed; but every exemplary punishment always contains an element of injustice, which is carried out on individuals in the name of the utility of the entire people." Now there's a legal mind sure of steady employment under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

But the broad similarities that one perceives at a distance prove less significant when one looks more closely. That is, incidentally, one of the quite admirable features of the HBO series Rome. Despite the occasional flecks of anachronism, it does a fine job of conveying that daily life in antiquity was utterly unlike modern America.

The most important contrast is, as Murphy notes, not simply the level of technological development (that's obvious enough) but the differences in degrees of innovation. The Romans did have some skilled engineers, capable of constructing the finest highways and sewers in the world. But to be an inventor, let alone a businessman, was vaguely disreputable. The Romans tended to absorb ideas, rather than brainstorm them -- while we, by contrast, have given Bill Gates more wealth and power than Caligula could imagine in his wildest frenzy.

The book is, as a whole, quite uneven. The mixture of historical references and contemporary cultural criticism seems well-blended in some chapters, but separates out, like oil and water, in others. The real stake of any analogy between Rome and the United States is, of course, the question of whether the American empire is destined to decline and fall. Murphy's answer to this conundrum seems both ingenious and reasonably plausible. I won't give it away, in case Are We Rome? is a puzzle you want to see worked out.

A slightly different version of this review appeared in Newsday.