By Cullen Murphy ’74. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 262 pp. $24 hardcover.
Reviewed by Fredric L. Cheyette
The Roman Empire may have declined (some historians consider the participle inappropriate) and may also have fallen (though exactly when can be endlessly debated), but, clearly, it has never gone away. On Christmas day in 800, a Frankish warlord named Charles, with the help of the pope, took the title Emperor and Augustus, never mind that there was still a Roman emperor (or at least an empress) in Constantinople. Thereafter, for more than 1,000 years, give or take a few vacancies and interregnums, there were Roman emperors in the West, as well as (until 1453) Greek-speaking emperors in the East. By the 11th century, Western warlords, not satisfied with titles like count or duke, were insisting that their scribes call them “consul.” Soon enough, barons—as well as, eventually, kings—were claiming descent from Trojan refugees that Homer and Virgil never knew about, and the lawyers of the king of France (with the help, once again, of the pope) were claiming that the king was “emperor in his kingdom.” With ebbs and flows, these imperial fantasies continued into the 19th century and then reappeared in the mid-20th with Hitler’s Third Reich and Mussolini’s fascist ambitions that sprinkled pseudo-antique statues of emperors around Rome and affixed monumental maps of the ancient empire to a wall near the newly excavated imperial fora.
Meanwhile, 15th-century Florentines rediscovered republican Rome, especially its heroic age as presented by Livy. This tradition—reclaiming the myths of republican morality, pride and heroism for nascent modern republican governments—passed via English gentleman-scholars to our own founding fathers and bred not only the overbearing classical architecture of Washington, D.C., and many state capitols but also the monumental academic history paintings that now gather dust in the storerooms of many museums. Us and Rome: the comparison is a fixture of Western civilization.
Flash forward to the end of the Cold War, with the United States as the only superpower, and with journalists and publicists of all stripes suddenly and astonishingly trumpeting the arrival of the new American empire. “A decade ago,” wrote the Harvard historian Charles Maier in 2002, “the concept aroused righteous indignation. How could the United States be compared to Rome—with its conquering legions, its subjugation of peoples, its universalist claims to law and order—or even to Britain, the former ruler of millions of subjects in India, the Middle East and Africa? ... These days ... the bashfulness has ended.” Gratia Georgii II et alii.
Cullen Murphy ’74 has an ironic sense of humor (well known to the fans who regularly read his bimonthly column in The Atlantic, of which he was, until recently, the managing editor) that happily renders him immune to such trumpeting boastfulness. Instead, in this book, it sends him rooting around the possibilities of the seamy and often hilarious underside of that comparison, with the emphasis not on what was great and heroic in ancient Rome but on what went—and could go—wrong. Murphy’s touch is light, but it is supported at every moment by an exceptional amount of research, both in ancient sources and in the very best of modern scholarship. He has done his homework well. (Disclosure statement:
I was Murphy’s thesis adviser many years ago, but I claim no credit for either his scholarship or his delightful prose.)
It would take much more space than I am allowed here to mention all the pleasures and surprises the book contains. Murphy ranges over topics as varied as U.S. and Roman attitudes toward foreigners and immigrants, divisions between rich and poor, patronage and influence- peddling and insiders and outsiders of all sorts. The Roman examples are plucked from the reigns of everyone from Octavian to Romulus Augustulus, while the U.S. examples are, appropriately, almost entirely from the reign of Georgius II.
Murphy’s method is simple, no different from a medieval stained-glass-window-maker putting scenes from the Old and New Testaments side by side to make a theological point: describe a place, a type of person, a cultural attitude in ancient Rome, then find a contemporary near equivalent. It works almost like magic, and right from the start: Murphy describes the arrival of the emperor Diocletian at some way station, surrounded by his vast entourage, then switches to President George W. Bush’s arrival on Air Force One, with an entourage of troops and tanks, “courtiers and cooks, speech doctors and spin doctors,” the presidential comitatus.
The technique works in the small, as when, reflecting on all the Roman references in the landscape of Washington, D.C., Murphy muses, “I doubt I’m the only person who has trod the sculpted gardens of the Capitol and been seized with the vision of how the city below might appear as a ruin. ... What calamity could bring the capital to this condition? Earthquake? Pestilence? Pride? The end of air conditioning?” It works in the large as well, as Murphy’s description of Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan recalls the Roman camp of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall; both camps found a way to make troops at the end of the earth feel at home. The Roman “friend of friends”—the indispensable person to know if you wanted something from the emperor—recalls Jack Abramoff, as Murphy muses on how “You da man!! How much $$ coming tomorrow?” would go in Latin.
A reviewer not subject to strict word-count controls could end up quoting the entire book. This one can say only, ab eo delectationem lector festina habere.
Cheyette is a professor emeritus of history at Amherst.