Washington on the Tiber

Posted: Jul 02, 2007 12:01 AM
Washington on the Tiber

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.

The Roman code of virtus included discipline, obligation and duty, all grounded in the minds of our Founding Fathers, but such virtus have become touchstones only of nostalgia in modern Washington, as they did in ancient Rome. Washington, as Rome, has become swollen with bureaucracy and titled powers-that-wannabe. Only 29 persons in the Kennedy administration held the title of "assistant," "deputy assistant" or "special assistant" to the president; when Bill Clinton left office, 141 pretenders claimed these titles. The United States, like Rome, began with citizen-soldiers drawn from all ranks of Roman society, and its military legions were a unifying force for nationhood.

Now we separate the cultures between the military and the professional class, as Rome eventually did. The universal military draft was once the equalizer that an all-volunteer army can never be. Of 750 graduates of Princeton in 1956, at least 450 took on the nation's colors. Only 8 of 1,100 graduates in 2004 would wear the uniform. Like that of Rome, our military struggles to find recruits.

Analogies often bite more with wit than insight, and it's amusing -- and no doubt instructive -- to compare the garbage draining from Washington via the Internet into the blogosphere to the engineering wonder that was the Roman sewerage system. Like Rome, Washington doesn't create many of the things a consumer-citizen actually needs. In Washington we manufacture rhetoric, and that requires huge entourages of administration critics and flatterers eager to make a name for themselves.

There aren't nearly as many books about the comparisons between the Roman Empire and the United States as there should be, although hundreds of authors have written about how Rome endured for 12 centuries. We're still a work in progress in our third. "Americans would glare in disbelief at Rome's self-satisfaction," writes Cullen Murphy. "Striving to make life 'better than this' for ourselves and for others, for people living now and for those to come, is part of our social compact." Here's a hope that it will always be so. Happy Fourth of July.