Imperial Washington
The Author of 'Are We Rome?' Takes In the Sights And Similarities

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."

* * *

Next stop, Union Station. Buses, cabs and a tourist-laden amphibious "duck" clutter the view of the architecture Murphy wants to discuss.

He's a reddish-haired man of 54 who gives no indication that the blue blazer and gray vest he's wearing might be at least one layer too many for a warm day. A longtime editor at the Atlantic Monthly who recently signed on with Vanity Fair, Murphy also worked in Washington for eight years, at the Wilson Quarterly, beginning in 1977.

He'd been through Union Station maybe 150 times, he says, but "never saw the obvious thing about it."

Which is?

"That it's a triple Roman triumphal arch in the front." And that, when you head inside, you'll enter a vast room with "vaulted ceilings taken from the Baths of Diocletian."

At the time of Union Station's construction in 1907, this historical allusion meant nothing more than that neoclassical architecture was still in vogue and that a gargantuan Roman bathhouse offered a useful model for a super-sized train station. But these days, when you think about who the emperor Diocletian was, the allusion gets more interesting.

He came to power in A.D. 284, after a long period of imperial decline. "Diocletian finally pulls the empire back together," Murphy says. But there's a downside: Diocletian's Rome "is largely a military state. Security becomes paramount."

Murphy opens his book with an imagined scene of Diocletian on the road. Advance men negotiate the emperor's security. Eagle-bearing legionaries follow to ensure it. Diplomats, adjutants and interpreters stay close at hand, along with "the core group of bureaucrats and toadies who function within any nimbus of great power."

Sound familiar?

As we'll see, it was a similar, modern-day vision that finally spurred Murphy to write his book. But he'd been fascinated by Rome long before that.

Murphy's father was an illustrator and cartoonist who drew, among other things, the long-running historical comic strip "Prince Valiant." (For a quarter of a century, beginning in 1979, the son wrote his father's scripts.) A cartoonist can work anywhere, and when the younger Murphy was 11, the family moved from Connecticut to Dublin. There he found himself in a school where studying Latin was taken for granted.

He loved it. A family trip to Rome cemented his interest.

The idea for the book first came to him more than a decade ago, after the Cold War ended and discussion of America's Rome-like role came out of the democratic closet. "This was the first time in my lifetime that I really remember hearing an overtly imperial ideology in America," Murphy says. By way of example, he cites the boast made to reporter Ron Suskind by an anonymous official in George W. Bush's administration.

"We're an empire now," the official said. "And when we act, we create our own reality."

In the summer of 2004, Murphy found himself back in Ireland, flying into Shannon airport. "If you look out the right side of the plane," he recalls the pilot saying, "you're going to see something that you probably will never again see in your life." When Murphy looked, he saw two presidential jumbo jets parked nose to nose on the tarmac.

President Bush had dropped in for a European summit. Concertina wire, surface-to-air missiles and U.S. troops in battle fatigues surrounded the planes. Men with automatic weapons stalked airport rooftops. Six thousand Irish soldiers and police officers -- more than enough to man a Roman legion -- patrolled the nearby roads.

"You could almost have imagined, 1700 years earlier, someone saying the same thing to you in almost the same words," Murphy says. "Come look. You're going to see something that you may never see again in your life:

"Diocletian is going by."

'Imperial Overstretch'

The "Are We Rome?" tour doesn't make it across the Potomac to the Pentagon. This doesn't stop Murphy from noting that the most obvious analogy between 4th-century Rome and 21st-century America has to do with global military commitments, and with the problem historian Paul Kennedy has called "imperial overstretch."

The phrase, as Murphy employs it, refers to far more than the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- but the narrower connotation is impossible to avoid. "Such a mess," he says when the day's headline from the Middle East ("New Detainees Strain Iraq's Jails") is mentioned.

"When you think of the number of times that Rome ventured into that part of the world. Sometimes successfully, but often they had their head handed to them . . . "

Murphy titles his military chapter "The Legions: When Power Meets Reality." He acknowledges huge differences between the American and Roman military situations, among them the vast technological advantage Americans have over their foes and the fact that U.S. troops are not normally asked to hold conquered territory.

Yet the similarities he points to are instructive.

There are the two militaries' enormous investments in logistical capability and in training. There are shared concerns about the ability to fight on multiple fronts at once. There are increasing manpower shortages, with Rome responding by incorporating "barbarians" into its legions and the U.S. Army by lowering its recruiting standards and relying, more and more, on private contractors.

And there is the recurring question of what true security means.

Murphy cites a 4th-century letter from a concerned Roman citizen to his emperor, which "makes the very modern point that security isn't just a matter of raw military power but also derives from a society's overall health." These days, that point is often made by concerned American citizens on the political left. But Murphy -- a registered independent who has voted for presidential candidates of both parties and thinks "centrist" is a fair term to describe his political views -- supports it with a quotation from a man whose military credentials are unimpeachable.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired," Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1950, "signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed."

'I'll Make a Buck as I Do It'

"I forget how wonderful a place like this is," Murphy says as he leads the way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Schoolchildren line up to be photographed in front of Lincoln's statue, or flop on the ground to sketch it.

Murphy isn't here to admire Lincoln, however. He wants to point out the Roman fasces -- bundles of sticks bound with straps -- sculpted into the arms of Honest Abe's chair.

By the time they were used here, the fasces had become an innocent symbol associated with the old Roman republic, which the Founding Fathers greatly admired, and they'd lost the ax that often accompanied the sticks and straps. But "what they really were," Murphy says, "was a portable kit for flogging and decapitation," menacingly paraded in advance of Roman consuls.

The next stop is a nondescript building at 401 14th St. SW, where a sign reads Financial Management Service. This, too, takes a bit of explanation.

The biggest element in the Roman government by far, Murphy says, was the military, but "the next biggest was ensuring that grain came to Rome from the various breadbaskets of the empire." Ships from all around the Mediterranean unloaded their cargo at Rome's harbor city, Ostia, from which the grain moved by barge to immense docking and storage facilities that lined the river Tiber. By contrast, the flood of tax revenue that keeps the U.S. government in business arrives electronically (and almost invisibly, Murphy marvels) at this little known arm of the Treasury Department.

But the most surprising and thought-provoking analogy Murphy makes on the whole "Are We Rome?" tour is one for which he hasn't got a specific stop picked out. He settles for a stroll across K Street NW, symbolic home of the Washington lobbying establishment, and an expense-account lunch at McCormick & Schmick's.

This particular analogy starts with a question: "Where is the boundary between public good and private advantage, between 'ours' and 'mine'?" It's a question, Murphy writes, increasingly relevant in America, "where some form of degenerative neuro-political condition has left government responsive to particular interests but deaf to the popular will." A more specific version of the analogy involves the increasingly fashionable practice of "privatization," in which government functions are farmed out to private contractors.

A kind of privatization, Murphy argues, occurred in ancient Rome as well -- and at least one highly respected historian believes it did the empire in.

That historian is Yale's Ramsay MacMullen, author of "Corruption and the Decline of Rome." MacMullen's argument (even in Murphy's condensed version) doesn't lend itself to easy summary. But in essence, he says that for government to be effective, its will must be transmitted with minimum friction or "misdirection" -- and that the insertion of private interests into the equation inevitably dilutes effectiveness.

"Everyone says, 'Yeah, I'll do more or less as I'm told, but I'll make a buck as I do it,' " is how MacMullen puts it when reached at his Connecticut home. The result, over the empire's final hundred years or so, was that Rome's "force could no longer be focused."

The differences between Rome and the United States are great, the professor cautions. But Murphy, he thinks, is careful not to push his analogies too hard and has identified "points of similarity" that are well worth contemplating.

"I agree with him. They look bad for America," MacMullen says.

'It Invites You to Imagine'

There's plenty more to see on the "Are We Rome?" tour. But it's time to wrap it up.

Sure it's tempting to linger near the Zero Milestone marker on the Ellipse, the symbolic place from which American roads are measured. This little-known equivalent to the "all roads lead to Rome" milestone is a great place to talk about how living in "the most powerful city in the world" produces what Murphy calls "a form of myopia" that makes one underestimate the rest of the world.

It would be useful, as well, to hear more about fundamental ways the two capitals differ. A huge one, for Murphy -- "you just can't stress it enough" -- is that the United States remains a democracy. It is not yet "a place where you have a million people on subsidy and one thousand elite patricians living in their gardens."

"Maybe we'll get there someday," he says. For now, however, "there's still a big tiller called vox populi that can make the ship go one way or another."

Speaking of differences: Murphy has one last stop he wants to make.

It's at the East Building of the National Gallery, and it has to do with something he's referred to already: The difficulty of observing, in a city as new as Washington, the humbling effects of time.

He walks a few yards to the right of the entrance, to a particularly sharp-edged corner in the marble wall. It's unusual enough so that the human impulse is to reach out and touch it. As a result, it is worn and discolored in a way that reminds him of the paving stones in Rome's Via Sacra, which are filled with ruts created, over centuries, by the wheels of carts.

"It invites you to imagine," Cullen Murphy says, "what's going to be happening here."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company