Are We Rome?



“President and emperor, America and Rome—the comparison is by now so familiar, so natural, that you just can’t help yourself: it comes to mind unbidden,” writes Cullen Murphy in Are We Rome?, a trenchant book that is as much about the cultural habit, cultural and intellectual need, if you will, we have as Americans to compare our country to Rome as it is about its own comparison of the two civilizations.

Clearly, one reason for the steady stream of historical comparisons is that America is so unique in its exercise of power and influence that its magnitude can be measured only against the greatest empire in human history. Comparing ourselves to Rome, as “Triumphalists” (America is a good imperial empire), is an indication of our self-conscious sense of grandeur, the self-possession of our claim to exceptionalism. One argument goes that the world needs empires as organizing principles and principals, and empires as long as they are good. And Murphy reminds us that part of American exceptionalism has been the unshakable belief among a significant number of Americans that we are the good.

But in another sense, this books is about America’s anxiety of influence, the awareness of “the eagle in the mirror,” the “Declinist’s” view of an overcommitted, “rusted out” nation, gutted by overweening corruption, unhinged by the insanity of its decadence. When we reflect on Rome the question, generated by nervousness and dread, is not Are We Rome but rather Are We Rome Yet? Have we come to the end or the beginning of the end?

Murphy has six points of comparison between us and the Romans: our capital cities (Rome and Washington), our militaries (powerful, but weakened by over-commitment, the rise of privatization or the weakening of our sense of the public good, our views of the outside world or foreigners, our views of borders and growing impossibility of protecting them, and finally the complexity of managing the sprawling complex of power that was Rome and that is the United States. “Are We Rome? In a thousand specific ways, the answer is obviously no. In a handful of important ways, the answer is certainly yes.”

What makes this book so impressive is not simply how elegantly and wittily it is written or that it is succinct but it seems to be charged by our current moment in history. This is, in a sense, an anti-George Bush book—Murphy’s four suggestions to stave off creeping empire-itis (learning languages, enjoying big government, embracing assimilation, reducing the military) sound typically liberal democratic and anti-American exceptionalism. Yet Murphy affirms that which makes us truly exceptional as Americans—our need to constantly improve and our impatience with the status quo. Clearly, we are not quite Rome, at least not yet.

—Gerald Early, 2008 finalist judge

2008 Nonfiction Runner-Up

(Click play to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Cullen Murphy
Are We Rome?

Cullen Murphy is the editor-at-large of Vanity Fair magazine. He was previously, for two decades, the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Before that he was a senior editor at The Wilson Quarterly. In addition to his work as a magazine editor Murphy for twenty-five years wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant, which was drawn by his father, the illustrator John Cullen Murphy. Murphy’s articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, where he wrote a monthly column, Harper’s, The New Republic, Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, American Heritage, and Smithsonian. His books include The Word According to Eve (1998), about women and the Bible; Just Curious (1995), a collection of essays; and Rubbish! (1992, with William L. Rathje), an anthropological study of garbage. He is currently at work on a book about the Inquisition.

Professional activities aside, Murphy is involved in the work of many organizations. He is a member of the board of trustees of Amherst College, and serves on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Emily Dickinson Museum, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. He is also on the editorial board of The American Scholar and of OnEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and he is a member of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.

He lives and works at his home near Boston.

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“It's an extraordinary honor to have been chosen as the runner up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and to find myself in such distinguished company.”

—Cullen Murphy                        


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