Imperial Washington

Cullen Murphy, at Union Station, finds architectural parallels as well as economic and political ones between ancient Rome and the United States today. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007

As Cullen Murphy stands on the west side of Capitol Hill, gazing in the direction of the Mall, he sees what the tourists around him see: the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian museums, the Washington Monument and, shining white in the distance, the Lincoln Memorial.

But unlike the tourists, Murphy is imagining these things in ruins. The monument toppled, perhaps. Marble museums cracked and broken. Kudzu engulfing the temple to the Great Emancipator.

And why not? The man has spent years mulling the American future and the ancient past.

Murphy's new book -- titled, simply, "Are We Rome?" -- is an extended examination of one of the most contested historical analogies around.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has stood alone as the world's dominant power. So, for centuries, did Rome. Much has been made of the comparison, both by those who have urged America to seize its imperial destiny and by others who fear the consequences of doing so.

Edward Gibbon, after all, didn't call his life's work "The Rise and Continued Prosperity of the Roman Empire." How relevant is the phrase "Decline and Fall" in the American capital today?

During a customized "Are We Rome?" tour of Washington, Murphy will do his best to address this question.

He will point out numerous physical manifestations of the Rome-Washington link, among them that obelisk chosen to memorialize our first president (the Romans imported their obelisks from Egypt). He will warn about the misuse of oversimplified historical analogies. He will also argue, as he writes in his book, that some comparisons do hold up, "though maybe not the ones that have been most in the public eye."

But right now, with the familiar Mall vista laid out below him, he is visualizing its decay. Because one of the most important differences between Washington and Rome, he says, is that the American city retains youth's powerful illusion of immortality.

In Rome, by contrast, "you can't turn a corner without seeing the actual effect of time."

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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