The sparklers, snakes, rockets and Roman candles will make a grand display at barbecues, fish fries and picnics this week, but between the second hot dog and the third brewski we ought to think about what the Fourth of July actually means. New Year's Day offers a time for personal appraisals of what we like about ourselves and what we'd like to change, and Independence Day offers that same pause for reflection -- for the nation and for each of us.
Santayana famously observed that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and the celebration of the events in Philadelphia in the long, hot summer of 1776 shouldn't obscure the opportunity to choose again what we could repeat -- or not. In his book, "Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America," Cullen Murphy doesn't exactly answer his question, but he draws enough parallels to give us a pause that refreshes. Perhaps it was only one of the cautionary coincidences that history is so fond of that Edward Gibbon published the first volume of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" in 1776 when the British empire was at its zenith. (Benjamin Franklin is said to have told Gibbon that the colonies could furnish the material for a next book about the decline and fall of the British Empire.)
It's certainly no coincidence that the city of Washington self-consciously resembles Rome in its array of grand government buildings. The Jefferson Memorial is a replica of the Pantheon. The Washington Monument shares a likeness to those obelisks taken to Rome after the conquest of Egypt. Capitol Hill was named after a Capitoline Hill in Rome, and a lot of Washingtonians see themselves as Romans at the center of the universe, only writ larger.
Parson Weems, George Washington's early biographer, compared the first president to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a fifth-century B.C. Roman farmer who left his farm when called upon to lead a defense of Rome that was under siege by neighboring tribes. He returned to the plow and its furrow after he proved his mettle as a leader. An early marble sculpture of Washington, now at the Smithsonian, depicts him as a Roman in a toga, exposing a bare chest, but Cullen Murphy observes wryly that visitors probably think it's merely of a man in a sauna, asking for a towel.
Both Rome and Washington are defined more by hubris than humility, and it's the blindness that accompanies self-importance that threatens American decline. When Rome inherited great classical sculptures from Greece, the Romans lopped off the heads and substituted those of powerful Romans. Think now the noble heads of, say, Joe Biden and Newt Gingrich atop such statuary.