Book Review: Are We Rome by Cullen Murphy

Are We Rome?

Reblogged from SinkingArk:

I’ve developed a recent interest in Roman History- from Romulus & Remus through the Republic to Empire to Fall. Aside from being an interesting time in history in of itself – of which I knew, sadly, too little – I believe there are lessons to take away from the past failings of a giant society. So while on vacation I decided to read a book called “Are We Rome” by Cullen Murphy. While by now some of its contemporary examples are a bit dated (it was published in 2008), I believe Murphy provides very good overviews of both some leading hypotheses on the causes of Rome’s fall as well as challenges facing America today.

Needless to say, this sort of historical comparison invites sensationalism. I found Murphy’s approach, however, to be even handed, and I felt that he tries to objectively evaluate both similarities and differences between modern day America and the Roman Empire. The takeaway is, essentially: there is quite a bit that distinguishes us from the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, before its fall. However, there is enough in common that should, if not concern us, then at least catch our attention.

The book was easy to read, relatively short, and fun. There was no drudgery that is often found in history books, and the comparisons to recent events kept any in-depth historical examples feeling relevant and fresh. I highly recommend picking it up. Find it on here.

Above all, this book is extremely quotable. In order to encourage you all to go pick it up, I’m going to include a handful of interesting quotations from the book below.  Don’t worry, there’s plenty more:

“Urbs antiqua …Urbs antiquia ruit”
“There once was an ancient city…The ancient city fell”
– Virgil, The Aeneid
(P. 1)


“But, he argues, Rome’s situation was more parlous in 220 B.C. (when it faced the challenge of Carthage) than in 400 A.D. (when it faced the barbarians): “The difference over six centuries, the dissimilarity that led to the end, was a result not of imperial overstretch on the outside but something happening within that was not unlike what we ourselves are now witnessing. Earlier Romans knew what it was to be Roman, why it was at least better than the alternative, and why their culture had to be defended. Later in ignorance they forgot what they knew, in pride mocked who they were, and in consequence disappeared.”” (P. 15)

“But Rome in all its long history never left the Iron Age, whereas America in its short history has already leapt through the Industrial Age to the Information Age and the Biotech Age. Wealthy as it was, Rome lived close to the edge; many regions were one dry spell away from famine. America enjoys an economy of abundance, even surfeit; it must beware the diseases of overindulgence. Rome was always a slaveholding polity , with the profound moral and social retardation that this implies; America started out as a slaveholding polity and decisively cast slavery aside. Rome emerged out of a city-state and took centuries to fully let go of a city-state’s methods of governance; America from very early on began to administer itself as a continental power. Rome had no middle class as we understand the term, whereas for America the middle class is the core social fact— our ballast, our gyroscope, our compass. Rome had a powerful but tiny aristocracy and entrenched ideas about the social pecking order; even at its most democratic, Rome was not remotely as democratic as America at its least democratic, under a British monarch.”  (P. 15)

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Are We Rome by Cullen Murphy

  1. Looks like a great read. The analogy to America is unavoidable. Empires do rot from within.

    I would submit, however, that the world’s technological transition under primarily Anglo-American rule has created the kind of existential threat to the current empire that the Romans never had to face. The Industrial Age enabled war on a planetary scale. The Information Age allowed the masses to communicate quickly and comprehensively. The “Biotech Age” (“globalism” in my view) has generated such productive efficiency as to undermine wage-labor economics and thereby causing instability through severe social stratification.

    That rapid development of technology has also resulted in overpopulation, depletion of non-renewable resources, ecosystem degradation, and climate change. Robert Marston Fanney’s recent book “Growth Shock” explains how the confluence of these and other factors pose a danger to human civilization of unprecedented proportions.

    Then, there’s less substantive – though still meaningful – cultural analogies to Rome such as professional sports. American football sure looks like Rome’s gladiator games, and it undoubtedly serves the same purpose.

    • I largely agree with you. You’d enjoy this book, because “overpopulation,” “depletion of non-renewable resources,” and “ecosystem degradation” are all issues discussed. “Social stratification” – although brought about by different causes – is a huge topic of discussion in the book regarding fall of the Roman Republic.

      Of course, climate change is an existential threat that our generation faces that has never been seen before.

      The book is calling out a lot of the differences between Rome and America, as well. For example – we would look at Rome’s culture of slavery as abhorrent (it lasted for nearly 1,000 years, we got rid of ours within 100 years of being a country).

      That said, based on a lot of what you’ve said, we do face climate change and other existential risks that simply didn’t exist back then. It will be a challenging century for mankind.

      Have you heard of Martin Rees? He wrote a book called “Our last century” or something like that. Haven’t read it yet but you may enjoy it.

      • Yes, Martin Rees is a rather distinguished British astrophysicist and cosmologist. I believe the book is titled “Our Final Century,” in which he gives human civilization a 50-50 chance of survival in the 21st century.

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