"Are We Rome?"

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Roman Forum

Now that is a question I've asked, myself, many times? I'm no historian but the parallels have struck me as more than a little obvious. Which is why I privately refer to President Bush as Caligula. Salon takes up the question in a review of a new book of the same name. Former Atlantic Monthy editor Cullen Murphy's Are we Rome? hit bookstores last month.

So are there parallels? You betcha.

First, just as Romans saw Rome as the literal center of the world -- they placed in the Forum a stone omphalos, or "navel," that they believed stood over the entrance to Hades -- America's political ruling class suffers from delusions of Beltway grandeur. "[T]he way the tiny, elite subset of Americans who live in the nation's capital see America -- and see Washington itself," Murphy argues, is a "faulty premise" that "leads to an exaggerated sense of Washington's weight in the world: an exaggerated sense of its importance in the eyes of others, and of its ability to act alone." He tartly recounts the way that courtiers in such self-obsessed capitals become obsessed with prestige. In JFK's time, "only 29 people held the coveted title of 'assistant,' 'deputy assistant,' or 'special assistant' to the President; by the time Bill Clinton left office, there were 141 such people."

As a military spouse, I found this correlation rather chilling.

Second, there's military power. Like Rome, America suffers from a "two cultures" problem, in which military and civilian society are increasingly alien to each other. A Roman historian wrote that soldiers returning from distant posts were "most savage to look at, frightening to listen to, and boorish to talk with." Murphy notes: "America's Delta Force would fare no better in Saddle River, Brentwood, or Winnetka." Moreover, like Rome, America is unable to sustain its enormous military, and is forced to turn to outsiders -- for Rome, barbarians, for America, contractors. "The Iraq War is the most privatized major conflict since the Renaissance," Murphy notes.

This one is subtle, but it is probably the most disturbing in its portents for the future of our "democracy."

Murphy illuminates one key facet of the decline of Rome by citing the Oxford historian Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, who explored the evolution of a single Latin term: the word "suffragium," which originally meant "voting tablet." Citizens could cast votes, although in practice great men who ran patronage systems controlled large blocs of votes. Over time, Roman democracy withered, but the patronage system remained, and the word "suffragium" came to mean only the pressure that a powerful man could exert on one's behalf. Eventually, the word came to denote simply the money paid for a favor: a bribe. Ste. Croix's devastating conclusion: "Here, in miniature, is the political history of Rome."

In a telling historical-etymological comparison, Murphy looks at the history of the word "franchise." It too originally "had to do with notions of political freedom and civic responsibility": It denoted the right to vote. "Only much later, in the mid twentieth century, did the idea of being granted certain 'rights' acquire its commercial connotation: the right to market a company's services or products, such as fried chicken or Tupperware ... In the Wiktionary, the commercial meaning of 'franchise' is now the primary definition. The definition involving political freedom and the right to vote comes fifth." Murphy's disturbing conclusion: "Looking back at the history of 'franchise,' then, it's tempting to write this epitaph: Here, in miniature, is the political history of America."

The book also addresses the role of neoconservative movement that, embracing our imperialism, has set the country on its most disastrous course yet.

Those who are inspired include figures whom Murphy calls the "triumphalists," who "see America as at long last assuming its imperial responsibilities, bringing about a global Pax Americana like the Pax Romana at its most commanding, in the first two centuries A.D." In this camp are neoconservative pundits like Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Max Boot and "the triumphalist-in-chief, trading jodhpurs for flight suit," George W. Bush. These figures unapologetically advocate that the U.S. dominate the world.

Are we Rome? There are certainly key differences, which the author addresses. But the similarities are akin to those which saw the decline of that once great empire. It is up to us whether we address these as, in Murphy's words, "a grim cautionary tale or an inspirational call to action."