Books: Will Americans fall like the Romans?

Cullen Murphy argues that his compatriots share dangerous traits with their ancient exemplars. Mark Lasswell is sceptical.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The New Rome: The fall of an empire and the fate of America
Cullen Murphy
Icon Books £14.99

Roughly coinciding with the start of the insurgency in Iraq five years ago, academics, journalists and Hollywood actors began dwelling on the decline and impending fall of Empire USA. The Hurricane Katrina debacle in New Orleans, an economy soon to be wrecked by military spending, a president who somehow manages to perpetrate diabolical evil despite his general imbecility - all have been given a lashing in books like Nemesis: The last days of the American republic and Imperial Overstretch: George W Bush and the hubris of empire, which present cartoon-like portraits of a country - sorry, empire - in terrible straits.

The arrival of The New Rome promised a book to top them all. Cullen Murphy is the editor-at-large of Vanity Fair magazine, where his boss is the patron saint of 'Bush Lied' zealots. But in addition to having had a substantial career in journalism, he spent 25 years writing the comic strip Prince Valiant. Who better, then, to provide the definitive cartoon version of recent American history?

Yet despite showing a weakness for crowd-pleasing conventional wisdom, Murphy is refreshingly evenhanded. And, unlike many books from the Washington-on-the-Tiber school, his is steeped in a knowledge of Roman history. He first visited Rome as a child in the 1960s and has returned many times. He quotes easily from Tacitus, Marcus Aurelius, Virgil and Plutarch, and knows his Gibbon.

Murphy proposes six parallels with the Roman empire that are of relevance to America today. These include the way that Rome considered itself 'the city around which the world revolved'; the shortage of manpower for military ventures, which led Rome to hire barbarians and Washington to sign up 'not the Visigothi and the Ostrogothae but the Halliburtoni and the Wackenhuti'; and the ceding of public responsibilities to private enterprise.

His arguments are thoughtful and often entertaining. A riff on how America's founders looked to the pre-imperial Roman republic for inspiration includes a description of a statue of George Washington depicted as Cincinnatus, the modest farmer who led an army to save Rome and then returned to his ploughing. Washington wears a toga and is reaching out. 'The Cincinnatus reference is probably lost on most visitors to the nation's capitol,' Murphy writes. 'Washington looks like a man in a sauna, asking for a towel.'

Asides such as that will win readers over. And those who can't wait for American hegemonists to clear off the world stage so that the EU or China can run the 21st century will love Murphy's depictions of a helpless giant undone by self-satisfaction and gross appetites.

But sceptics will balk at his vision of contemporary America. 'Americans are well aware of the nation's worsening income inequality,' he says. Of course they are, because journalists like Murphy constantly parrot that line. But the inequality becomes a lot less outrageous in the light of a few clarifying facts.

According to the US Treasury, taxpayers in the bottom 20% in 1996 were found, on average, to have nearly doubled their income by 2006. Those leaving the lowest-rung bracket are replaced by others, who will then become the new symbols of the gap between rich and poor in America - until they, too, move up. The poorest bracket of society will always be just that, but the richest may indeed get richer. Criticism of income inequality amounts to complaining that it's unseemly.

Some of Murphy's shopworn observations are of an older vintage. 'Americans are repressed,' he says, apparently still yet to take a spin through Facebook. But he is comparing them with 'bawdy' Romans. He cites a litany of other differences before concluding that 'the distance between the modern American mind and the ancient Roman one is hard to bridge'.

Indeed, Murphy doesn't entirely buy into the idea that America is the new Rome. 'America and Rome are built on different premises. As people, Americans and Romans cherish different values. But Rome and America share certain dangerous traits - habits of mind and behavior.' Murphy proposes several ways for America to avoid Rome's fate, but the solution will lie in its desire for constant improvement: 'The antidote is being American.'

The only antidote for declinist commentary about America, of course, will be the election of a Democrat as Liar Bush's replacement in November.

Mark Lasswell is deputy books editor of the Wall Street Journal.

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