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Is The US Mirroring Rome's Fall?

by Richard Gwyn

Circling around Washington is a broad swath of highways known as The Beltway. Two Americas exist today: one, "inside the Beltway," is composed of all the people who run the country; the other, "outside" it, is made up of all of the rest of the United States.

Ancient Rome was the same. It too was surrounded by a sacred boundary known as the pomerium.

Run, don't walk, to get a copy of Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy. This slim book compares ancient Rome and contemporary U.S., and does it in an exceptionally intelligent and highly literate way.

Murphy examines the crucial question whether the U.S., like Rome, is destined to decline and fall. This notion isn't new but Murphy's approach is fresh and sharp and wholly captivating.

As one example, he points out that Rome never "fell" in the sense most people use the term of a sudden collapse; rather, it "dissolved into history" over about 200 years.

Today, like then, there is the presumption that because an impressive, indeed overpowering, empire exists, it must go on forever.

Washington, Murphy points out, has set aside $20 million for a "day of celebration" to mark eventual victory in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Romans thought the same way. Among the very last Roman coins to be stuck were those that bore the legend, Roma Invicta - Rome Invincible.

There is the same dependence on military strength and the same ever-mounting difficulty in getting enough soldiers to enlist - Rome depending more and more on barbarians and the U.S. more and more on "military contractors."

There is the same gap between rich and poor. Far wider in Rome, which had almost no middle class, but far more socially destructive in the U.S. because of America's founding myth as an egalitarian society. Once that belief is lost, can belief in democracy, a contradiction in terms in a wildly unequal society, be sustained?

There is also a parallel across the centuries in the way the private sector in the U.S. is taking over more and more governmental activity in the form of philanthropy (as for universities and hospitals); the change agent here is the multiplication in the number of multi-millionaires, all eager to get their name on a piece of stone.

No differently so in Rome where the exorbitantly wealthy few paid for temples, baths, stadiums, public feasts.

The consequence was that the collectivity was hollowed out. In the U.S., as in Rome, public undertakings of all kinds arrive like gifts, with the public excluded from either involvement or obligation.

Murphy suggests that three horror-futures may await America. There's Fortress America, with the world kept at an ever greater distance.

There's City-State America with the U.S. nation-state dissolving and the cities becoming increasingly self-governing and autonomous like the old Italian city-states.

And there's what Murphy calls The Boardroom Scenario in which more and more of government is contracted out and corporations effectively run the country.

And he has a fourth option to suggest. Murphy writes: "The antidote is being American."

Unlike the Romans, who never changed much, Murphy writes, Americans are not happy with the way things are. If arrogant, they aren't complacent. There is anger at the wealth gap, at the decay of government (as in Hurricane Katrina), and there is a rooted belief in the power of invention, self-help, reform.

Let's hope he's right because the price for Rome's decline and fall was paid by everyone, not just the Romans themselves.

Richard Gwyn usually appears on Tuesdays. 

© 2007 The Toronto Star

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