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Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America Paperback – May 5, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Lurid images of America as a new Roman Empire—either striding the globe or tottering toward collapse, or both—are fashionable among pundits of all stripes these days. Vanity Fair editor Murphy (The World According to Eve) gives the trope a more restrained and thoughtful reading. He allows that, with its robust democracy, dynamic economy and technological wizardry, America is a far cry from Rome's static slave society. But he sees a number of parallels: like Rome, America is a vast, multicultural state, burdened with an expensive and overstretched military, uneasy about its porous borders, with a messianic sense of global mission and a solipsistic tendency to misunderstand and belittle foreign cultures. Some of the links Murphy draws, like his comparison of barbarian invaders of the late Empire to foreign corporations buying up American assets, are purely metaphorical. But others, especially his likening of the corrupt Roman patronage system to America's mania for privatizing government services—a "deflection of public purpose by private interest"—are specific and compelling. Murphy wears his erudition lightly and delivers a lucid, pithy and perceptive study in comparative history, with some sharp points. (May 10)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Murphy writes that "Americans have been casting eyes back to ancient Rome since before the Revolution," and goes on to interrogate the comparisons drawn both by "triumphalists," who see the world’s only superpower in terms of the Roman Empire at its height, and by "declinists," who see America as "dangerously overcommitted abroad and rusted out at home," like Rome before its fall. Murphy makes telling points about the solipsism of political élites and the impact of corruption and cronyism on civil society, but he stops short of predicting America’s fall. (Indeed, he argues that it is simplistic to say that Rome fell.) Instead, he points to a malaise exemplified by the debasement of the term "franchise," once associated with freedom to vote, and now with commerce: "Here, in miniature, is the political history of America." Murphy prescribes antidotes, and finds grounds for cautious optimism in the words of Livy: "An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it."
Copyright © 2007 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (May 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547052103
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547052106
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #344,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Cullen Murphy is the editor at large at Vanity Fair and the former managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of The Word According to Eve, about women and the Bible, and the essay collection Just Curious. Murphy lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

99 of 104 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Are We Rome? is a short but highly important examination of the fall of the Roman Empire and its implications for the twenty-first century United States. Cullen Murphy begins by acknowledging that many parallels between Rome and America have been drawn over the years. The similarities and differences he draws, however, differ from those made by other writers and historians in that he focuses on the moods and attitudes of the two empires at their apogees.

Here Murphy finds much which will alarm concerned Americans today. He notes that both Rome and the US have had similar beliefs in their own exceptionalism, that somehow both Romans and Americans are superior to the rest of the world and thus need take little notice of the opinions of others. He observes that both empires saw foreigners as being inferior and somewhat contemptible, fearing their influence while at the same time coming to rely on them more and more. Most interestingly, Murphy sees in both societies a reluctance to take part in public life and to adequately finance public services.

While Murphy sees much over which to be concerned in modern America, he is not completely pessimistic. He calls for Americans to take a greater interest in the outside world while at the same time taking the problems we face within our society more seriously.

Throughout this short (206 pages plus notes) work Murphy writes with a wit and flair that, despite the somber nature of most of the material, helps to inspire his readers. It is a breath of fresh air to read such trenchant observations amidst the obfuscation and blame-throwing which unfortunately has come to characterize political debate today.
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61 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Daniel B. Clendenin on June 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Comparisons between Rome and America are as old as our founding fathers, and thus the picture of Horatio Greenough's marble statue of George Washington on the cover of this book; he looks like a Roman caesar in his toga. Today "triumphalists" celebrate the comparison and want to export America as a model to the world, while "declinists" lament the similarities and warn about over-extension, arrogance and fall. But are we Rome? Murphy, former managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly for twenty years and currently editor at large for Vanity Fair, stakes a middle ground: "In a thousand specific ways, the answer is obviously no. In a handful of important ways, the answer is certainly yes" (p. 197).

After a short prologue, Murphy devotes one chapter each to six parallels of "direct relevance" between ancient Rome and modern America. Both empires exhibit the symptoms of solipsism-- an exaggerated self-identity, the isolating effects of exceptionalism, ignorance of others, the presumptions of privilege, and sheer arrogance. Militarism characterizes both societies. Today America has 700 bases in 60 countries, and in any one year will conduct "operations" of some sort in 170 countries. Murphy suggests that our military is both "too large to be affordable, and too small to do everything it is asked to do." He then turns to how America has blurred the distinctions between the private and public (government) sectors, "the deflection of public purpose by private interest." Outsourcing government responsibilities might be effective and even necessary, but selling the public good for private profit isn't. The fourth parallel between Rome and America is the disdain with which both view outsiders ("barbarians") as inferior.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Stephen C. Jordan on September 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover
To recap some of the salient points already made -- it is short, pithy, and an enjoyable read, the erudition is clearly there, but it doesn't overwhelm the reader. Mr. Murphy focuses mostly on the comparison between the Rome of the 1st - 4th century AD to the U.S. in drawing his six analogies. He has a bit of a liberal bias, but not crazy liberal, and it is a shame that he doesn't include maps and pictures for our ADD-driven, multimedia culture. So far so good.

What I liked about the book is that it is clearly a subject that is close to the bone for the author. He's visited Hadrian's wall and Rome, he's walked the halls of Congress and among the ruins of the Capitoline Hill. He's read his Gibbon, Appian, Livy, Tacitus, etc. Even the casual student of Roman history will acknowledge the author's fluency in the classical materials. I learned some things I didn't know about Roman archaeology and current Roman studies. (Oddly, I didn't have the feeling that he was as well-versed in American political thought.)

I also liked the provocative questions that he raised about our hubris, our military-industrial complex, our borders, our culture etc. because in the end, a book like this isn't about Rome at all, it's about us, who are we? where are we going? what are we doing? how can we have a little more self-knowledge?

But, I don't think he went far enough or even that he chose the right era.
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