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

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

Cullen Murphy, . . Houghton Mifflin, $23 (262pp) ISBN 978-0-618-74222-6

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)