Six Parallels Between Ancient Rome and Modern America
The following is an adapted excerpt from Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, by Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin).
1) The way we look at ourselves
“One parallel involves the way Americans see America; and, more to the point, the way the tiny, elite subset of Americans who live in the nation’s capital see America — and see Washington itself. Rome prized its status as the city around which the world revolved. Official Washington shares that Ptolemaic outlook. Unfortunately, it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy — just a faulty premise. And it leads to an exaggerated sense of its importance in the eyes of others, and of its ability to act alone. Washington led the fight against some of the twentieth century’s most dangerous ‘-isms.’ Solipsism is one it missed.”
2) The way we run our military
“Another parallel concerns military power. This is the subject that comes most often to mind when Rome and America are compared. All that empire talk! Rome and America aren’t carbon copies or fraternal twins, in either approach to power or the tools at their disposal. Amid all the differences, though, two large common problems stand out. One is cultural and social: the widening divide between military society and civilian society. The other reason is demographic: the shortage of manpower. For a variety of reasons, Rome and America both start to run short of the people they need to sustain their militaries, and both have to find new recruits wherever they can. Rome turned to barbarians for help: not a good long-run solution, history would suggest. America is increasingly turning to its own outside sources — not the Visigothi and the Ostrogothe but the Halliburtoni and the Wackenhuti. Also not a good long-run solution.”
3) The way we privatize public services
“A third parallel is something that can be lumped under the term ‘privatization,’ which can often also mean ‘corruption.’ Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities — and between public and private resources. The line between these is never fixed, anywhere. But when it becomes too hazy, or fades altogether, central government becomes impossible to steer. It took a long time to happen, but the fraying connection between imperial will and concrete action is a big part of What Went Wrong in ancient Rome. America has in recent years embarked on a privatization binge like no other in its history, putting into private hands all manner of activities once thought to be public tasks: collecting the nation’s taxes, patrolling its streets, defending its borders. This may make sense in the short term — and sometimes, like Rome, we may have no choice in the matter. But how will the consequences play out over decades, or centuries? Badly, I believe.”
4) The way we look at others
“A fourth parallel has to do with the way Americans view the outside world — the flip side of their self-centeredness. Rome often disparaged the people beyond its frontiers, and generally underestimated their capabilities, even as it held and outsize opinion of its own superiority and power. America’s attitude is more complicated than Rome’s, and often more idealistic and well-meaning, but in many ways it’s strikingly similar, and it leads to the same preventable form of blindness: either we don’t see what’s coming at us, or we don’t see what we’re hurtling toward.”
5) The way we set our borders
“And then, fifth, is the question of borders. Historians in recent decades have invested much effort in the study of Rome’s frontiers, showing that the fringe of empire was less a fence and more a threshold — not so much a firm line fortified with ‘Keep Out’ signs as a permeable zone of continual interaction, sometimes troublesome but normally peaceful and mutually advantageous. The borderlands could hardly have been anything else: this is always the dynamic when a rich and powerful civilization bumps up against a poor and less developed one. The dynamic can’t be argued with or neutralized, and yet Rome coped successfully with this reality for many centuries, assimilating newcomers by the millions: that’s the happy lesson. When historians describe life along the Rhine or the Danube frontier in Roman times, an American reader can’t help conjuring an image of another boundary zone: the one that includes the Rio Grande.”
6) The way we can’t control consequences
“Finally, sixth, comes the complexity parallel. Sprawling powers like Rome and America face a built-in problem. They inevitably become impossible to manage, because the very act of managing has unpredictable ripple effects, of global scale, which in turn become park of the environment that needs to be managed. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was writing about a newly predominant America, but his observation (made fifty years ago) applies equally to Rome: ‘The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also…brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire.’ The bigger the entity and the more things it touches, the more susceptible it is to forces beyond its control. Maintaining stability requires far more work than formenting instability. Analysts of modern terrorism wring their hands over a version of the same dilemma: governments can win only by defending everywhere; terrorists can win by succeeding anywhere. The complexity problem may have no real solution other than Thoreau’s deceptively easy one: ‘simplify.’”
This post was originally published by the Progressive Book Club.