Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

by Cullen Murphy, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2007, $24.

 The quick answer to the question in the title of Murphy’s sparkling and erudite book is a resounding maybe. As he explains: “In a thousand specific ways, the answer is obviously no. In a handful of important ways, the answer is certainly yes.”

Murphy astutely and often amusingly juxtaposes Rome and America’s military and political fortunes. He finds several broad similarities, including incomparable yet overstretched militaries, and most strikingly, both powers’ self-centeredness. Ancient Romans, like modern Americans, held an almost messianic belief that their nation was uniquely superior to all others. Both arrogant and assimilationist, this attitude blinded Rome to its many faults, yet also fueled its mission to become, in the words of Pliny the Elder, “the whole world’s homeland.”

Murphy, a former longtime editor at the Atlantic Monthly and a serious Roman history buff, also seeks to debunk some of the myths surrounding the fall of Rome. “Think less about decadence, more about military might,” he writes. For instance, Alaric, the Visigoth who sacked Rome in the early 5th century, was not a marauding barbarian but a disgruntled Roman soldier—his era’s version of a military contractor.

Like most comparisons of America and empires past, Are We Rome? is animated by concern over whether—or more realistically, when—our lone superpower will decline and fall. Understandably, Murphy doesn’t have any satisfying answers to this. But as he reminds us, somewhat reassuringly, Rome did not collapse in a day.

 

Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.