Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America

In Cullen Murphy’s book “The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America,” he makes a comparison between the evolution of the Roman Republican into the Roman Empire, and the moment of history we are in America now where we are “heavily thickening to empire” to use the phrase from Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Shine, Perishing Republic”.

Or I should say a series of comparisons, because in a series of chapters he compares the following features which are common to both Imperial Rome and America today:

  • the insular culture of the capitals, and the complacency behind the idea of exceptionalism
  • the steady debilitating effect of corruption, as public coffers bleed into politically-connected private hands
  • the increasing hysteria regarding the maintenance of borders

I won’t go into the details of the comparison here, but rather his prescription for preventing America from succumbing to the same rate as Rome, what he calls the “Titus Livius” plan, after the famous Roman historian who lived from 59 BC to AD 17 and wrote a six-volume History of Rome.

1. Instill an appreciation of the wider world

Murphy thinks that too many people in America are worried about immigrants assimilating and learning English.   Rather, the people of America should be learning a foreign language and learning about the culture of the world.    How can you maintain a global empire and yet be ignorant of its many countries, languages, and cultures?    It is not out of some altruistic notion of love for the world, but the very real strategic advantage it gives you to be able to empathize with those over those you want to influence.    If you do not spend the effort on winning hearts and minds, you may end up having to pay for bullets (or drones, nowadays) to get what you want.

2.  Stop treating government as a necessary evil

Privatization has its uses, but you need to have people in the country have a sense of civic engagement and loyalty to one another, at the community level if not at the national level.    Those who are against the idea of government have no business running for office to be at the head of it.    Government serves as a counter-force to growing economic inequality, and can be held accountable in ways that the private sector can’t.

In the book “Why Nations Fail”, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, they argue that those nations fail where the government is an instrument of repression and extraction in the hands of economic or political elites, but succeed where the government becomes a useful instrument for the disadvantaged in their struggles against the local elites.

So rather than the simplistic idea idea that corporations are inherently evil or that government is inherently evil, people should graduate to the more complex Aristotelian notion that virtue is to be found in the median between two vices.    Government and the private sector should have control over those domains of civic life that are compatible to their mission.

3,  Fortify institutions that promote assimilation

If you think that immigrants should assimilate into the American culture and thus promote social stability, then you are going to have to do this through institutions such as public schools, colleges and universities.   Those who would make it illegal for undocumented immigrants to attend such institutions are preventing them from being exposed to America’s powerfully absorptive and transformative domestic culture.

4.  Take some weight off the military

This means instituting some form of national service, as exists in other democracies, which would take young people and create in them the same spirit of public service that John F. Kennedy envisioned with his creation of such programs like the Peace Corps.   This also means devolving some of the military burden onto regional powers through NATO and other alliances.

5.  Decrease economic inequality

Although this is not explicitly mentioned by Murphy, it is alluded to in many of the discussions above.   When the middle class in Rome was hollowed out, it meant that the society was unable to withstand  subsequent exogenous shocks whether they were military, economic, or environmentally based.    If we strengthen the middle class in this country, then we can reclaim the positive quality that Rome had of stubborn perseverance such as America had in World War II.   We were able to thread a middle course between the Scylla and Charybdis of the middle 20th century, Communism on the far left and Fascism on the far right, only because we felt that we were in the fight together.   By the time of the Iraq war, the burden of the fight was being shouldered by an all-volunteer military, and the maintenance of empire became a concern more and more remote from the minds of most Americans.     The wars in the Gulf created a corresponding gulf between our military and civilian cultures.

The next exogenous shocks to America over the next 20 years will more likely be economic and environmental than military, in my opinion, and our middle class needs to be strengthened in order to weather the increasing frequency and severity of global storms, both literal and figurative.

The qualities that Murphy sees in America that were NOT present in Rome may be our saving grace–our egalitarianism which supports the institutions of government, and our entrepreneurship which supports the pursuits of private enterprise.    These two strains co-exist within America and together, they can form the twin strands of cultural DNA which will allow us to avoid the fall that befell the previous empire of Rome.


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