5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
At the end of his interesting book, Cullen Murphy states, "ancient Rome is a vast, complicated and slippery subject, as is modern America." So to line them up and derive conclusions about "the fall of an Empire and the fate of America" (the sub title of his book) is by his own characterization no mean task.
Read ten good books about Rome, and you will be well informed, read 25 and you approach expertise, when your bookshelf spills over then endure a wall of despair. There is never a definitive conclusion about anything Roman, there is always more. This leads to the second problem, to compare or analyse you take a point in time, a place or event but Rome, as is America, was never static with complex linkages. To superimpose a template of America over an Empire that lasted twelve centuries and ended some 1500 years ago, and come up with parallels is easily done but only if you ignore the startling and copious dissimilarities. This template technique badly applied is a cheap trick, more diligently used it is an elegant illusion. The recently elected Mayor of London Boris Johnson wrote "The Dream of Rome", Philip Matyszak produced "Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day." These are good entertainment and not without scholarship.
Rome is an extensively used metaphor applied to our age, in fact every age, as a portent of doom, a plea for both daring and caution, in admiration for ideals embedded in our political evolution. Not long ago a basic education involved a deep knowledge of classics. The American founding fathers borrowed from Rome but this was as much iconography as ideology. Iconography can be seen merely plagiarising art, the Roman eagle and the American eagle, the connection is unconvincing but cannot be ignored. Napoleon used Roman iconography extensively as did Mussolini; they too may have been seen as the new Rome. If you want apply the template, but differentiate between style and substance.
Mr Murphy defines numerous similarities and parallels between Rome and the United States. Making - and breaking - such lists is not difficult. The recurring theme of the book is about dilution, that America at some time, perhaps actually now, is being propelled as was Rome with the negative stressed above the positive. The book is both descriptive and prescriptive. The military dilemma is considered, burdens of too few doing too much. The role of patronage measured, how influence is used and can be abused. Of particular concern is the privatisation of power, how the civic well-being was abrogated as rich power brokers elevated personal good over public. Murphy deals with the perception of the outside world, how hard it was/is to understand the Barbarians. Why those not us are not like us? Perhaps Romans wanted to be respected while Americans need to be loved. Arguably, America is the best-informed society in history but often the least knowledgeable. The final chapter is the most interesting, how to define what is more than the physical territory of the national-state, where is the real frontier? He concludes with a set of recommendations to ameliorate American power and make the country more comfortable with itself. One cannot fault his reasoning although the counter arguments are equally compelling.
For example, if one factor separates Rome from America is Roman civilisation tore itself apart repeatedly as it never managed to select able Emperors and transfer power peacefully. Convulsions and bloody civil war were the norm. America, and Western liberal democracies, by in large have effective power transmission between leaders and parties. America has had only one civil war (although eventually participated in two European ones). That was largely fought to abolish slavery, a concept beyond the Roman imagination. We are better than Rome, and we will be better. Their empire fell away (one of the many reasons) when they were unable to induce their citizens to bear the tax burden. They opted for alternative governments that were less exploitative. Should we fear tax revolts more than terrorism? Some Emperors used proscription, culling the super rich and confiscating their wealth to finance the state. There are threats, and there are opportunities common to all Empires.
Mr Murphy has written a lucid and interesting book. It is a personal point of view, not an academic discourse. His case is not aggressively stated and respectful of other points of view. This is refreshing, certainly compared to the more numerous hard line in your face commentaries that seek to shed light on contemporary America.