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Wednesday, June 6th, 2007
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Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

by Cullen Murphy

Are We Rome?

A review by Tim Heffernan

In this age of military and cultural conflict, it's no surprise that pundits on both sides of the political fence say the answer is a simple yes. (We're either a civilizing democracy, the Right's take, or a brutalizing imperium, the Left's.) A new book, Are We Rome?, by Cullen Murphy, former editor of the Atlantic, offers a more nuanced and convincing view. It's true, he writes, that there are many similarities between our empire and Caesar's. Yet the American national character and Rome's couldn't be more different. And that, Murphy argues, will be the key to avoiding Rome's fate. Here's a crib sheet on how the two empires stack up.

Governments begin to fail when they lose sight of all that's going on under their watch. Rome got too big physically; we've become too complex operationally. Or, to use Murphy's taut phrase, "Bureaucracy is the new geography."

Rome sought ever-increasing military might, a goal that emptied the treasuries and led military affairs to define the purpose of the Roman government -- exactly what Eisenhower was talking about when he warned of the military-industrial complex.

For a superpower to defend its interests, it has to succeed everywhere; for a smaller enemy to advance its own, it can succeed anywhere. Rome learned this in A.D. 9, when a barbarian victory in Germany set off a crisis in Rome. We learned this in a rice paddy in...well, no, we didn't.

For the most part, Rome's borders were porous; culture and commerce flowed across them and mingled. It was only when the capital itself felt threatened by distant migrations that the guard towers went up. War, bankruptcy, and collapse soon followed.

Certain that they were fated to eternal earthly success, the Romans didn't welcome outsiders -- and didn't notice that the outsiders had outpaced them until it was too late. Whatever the similarities between them and us, this isn't one of them. At least not all of us. Yet.

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