Are we Rome?

That is, are we Americans, citizens of the mightiest empire the world has known since the days of the Caesars, living in the last days of our civilization? Is the United States, like the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, doomed to collapse from its own decadence? Or can we avoid Rome’s fate?

As historian Arnold J. Toynbee famously observed, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” While any number of Rome’s particular poisons could have been most responsible for its demise, the generally accepted view is that wealth and power corrupted its character, eroding the virtues that made Rome great and leading to its ultimate dissolution.

In his fascinating new book “Are We Rome?” journalist Cullen Murphy argues that yes, contemporary America is unnervingly like the Late Roman Empire. But it also has saving graces and resources that the doomed Romans lacked.

In Murphy’s view, America parallels Rome in its late imperial phase in six broad ways:

n The overweening importance of the capital city.

n A military unsuited for imperial responsibilities.

n A tendency toward private exploitation of public goods.

n A self-centeredness that deforms attitudes toward and perceptions of the rest of the world.

n Porous borders.

n A complexity that risks becoming unmanageable.

Several are central to American politics of the moment, none more than military overstretch. Rome couldn’t sustain the army it needed to maintain imperial commitments. Most late Romans of means had no desire to set aside private pursuits for military service. Rome – especially the Roman elite – went soft. As has America.

The same brash self-confidence that allowed Rome and America to stand boldly astride the world blinded the imperial powers to reality. The arrogant Romans couldn’t conceive that others didn’t see things as they did. They thought themselves an exceptional people divinely appointed to rule and civilize humanity, which naturally wanted to be Roman.

So it goes today with American liberal democracy. To read President Bush’s second inaugural address is to encounter the U.S. version of this fallacious worldview at its lyrical messianic height. To read the news out of Iraq is to behold the cost of living by it.

And there’s the matter of migration across borders of the imperium. Rome had always assimilated barbarian tribes but toward the end lost the ability to control the rate of migration, as well as the facility for effectively Romanizing the immigrants. The comparison with the United States’ relationship to Mexico is obvious.

Further, the corruption of civic virtue in the politicians and the people dovetails worrisomely with the immigration crisis. Murphy writes that in Rome’s final days, “a republic sustained by flinty yeomen had become a precarious autocracy administered by grasping bureaucrats.” The Roman masses came to depend too heavily on the government, and the governing elites ruled as if the common good coincided with their private interests. In latter-day Washington, this sensibility is on full display in the carnival of pork-barrel spending (which the public never punishes), and the oily machinations of the lobbying industry.

What does this have to do with immigration? Fredo Arias-King, foreign policy adviser to former Mexican president Vicente Fox, wrote last year of a visit he and a delegation made to Washington in 2000. They met with 80 congressional lawmakers, nearly all of whom – Republicans and Democrats – openly welcomed immigration because, in his view, they saw Mexicans as potential dependents on the state and therefore loyal voters. The advance into the U.S. of the client-patron model of governance, which has helped stagnate Mexico, bothered Arias-King greatly.

For all these troubling parallels, there are crucial differences between the U.S. and Rome – and these could make the saving difference. Most important, says Murphy, we are a middle-class democracy, not an aristocracy with sharp, cruel gaps between the classes. Americans have far more power to control their fate. Murphy contends that if Americans recommit ourselves to good government, if we focus more intensely on assimilating new immigrants, if we quit asking our armed forces to do more than is reasonable and we start paying more attention to other cultures – well, we just might succeed where Rome failed.

This is right, but not entirely so. Murphy does not pay enough attention to the health of our culture. Classical historian Jerome Carcopino, for example, pointed to the loss of social cohesion and purpose that resulted from the traditional family’s decline as a reason for Rome’s collapse. The habits of civic virtue that Murphy identifies as critical come first from an ordered home and a commonly shared commitment to remissive moral norms, which contemporary American individualism undermines.

Under late Rome’s decadent “bread and circuses” regime, the common man satisfied himself with material pleasures, ignoring the betterment of himself and society. Murphy sees this in contemporary America, but it’s hard to discern why, absent a robust belief in God or some other authoritative ideal, people can be convinced to sacrifice the pursuit of luxury for a higher good – even their civilization’s survival.

If Murphy’s optimistic prescriptions fail to take, we’re left with an alternative posited by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In his 1981 book “After Virtue,” he noted the parallels between late Rome and our own time and wrote that “a crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.”

Those men and women decided that the survival of the moral community would not be possible under the old order – so they pioneered the nucleus of a new one. They became the Benedictine monks and nuns and their followers, who spread throughout the Europe of the Dark Ages, preserving the remnants of Christian and classical virtues and laying the groundwork for the rebirth of a new civilization.

The question facing men and women of good will today: Do we believe that America can and should be renewed, and therefore seek restoration through the exercise of heroic republican virtue, like the venerated early Roman Cincinnatus? Or do we believe that America is bound to succumb to the process the great 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon identified as “the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness” – and so await what MacIntyre identified as “a new, and doubtless very different, St. Benedict”?

The Cincinnatus Option or the Benedict Option – sooner or later, the choice is going to be upon us. As Gibbon saw, it is a law of history and human nature that prosperity ripens the principle of decay.

To live as if our present peace and prosperity will last forever would be a most foolish mistake.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. E-mail him at [email protected]
The Roman masses came to depend too heavily on the government, and governing elites ruled as if the common good coincided with their private interests.
In latter-day Washington, this sensibility is on display in the carnival of pork-barrel spending, and the oily machinations of the lobbying industry.

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