Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Cullen Murphy

Paul Comstock interviewed Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome?, for California Literary Review.

The interview opens:

I’d like to throw out topics that are of concern to Americans and get your thoughts on how we are similar or dissimilar to ancient Rome. Let’s start with our status as scientific and financial innovators.

You might think that a state that was as economically sprawling as Rome (its currency unified the known world; Europe wouldn’t have a common currency again until the modern Euro), and as technologically proficient (that highway system, as big as America’s!), would almost necessarily possess the same innovative streak that the United States has. But it didn’t. In the economic realm Rome was a relatively primitive agrarian society. It was born in the Iron Age and died in the Iron Age. It didn’t have deficit spending: when it needed money, it acquired it the old-fashioned way, by actually minting coins. Of course, it was able to stretch its finances by debasing the currency — governments learned that trick very early — but Rome didn’t have a sense of “economic policy” the way we do or the British Empire did.

As for technology: the Romans loved it, and were masters at its application, but they were not creative geniuses. Rome didn’t foster anything analogous to a Silicon Valley culture. Most of the technologies they used (and improved on) were known to other peoples, and they failed to employ some technologies that were right in front of their eyes. Water power is the classic example — the Romans knew how to put flowing water to work, but did so mainly in trivial ways. The military realm is one technological area where the Romans excelled creatively, which makes for rather lopsided development. There’s a warning there for America.

You have to wonder: with all of its technological prowess, why weren’t the Romans better on the front end — on the creative side of things? One factor was almost certainly slavery. You don’t need to invent labor-saving devices if you don’t need to save labor. Of course, there would come a point when the Romans very much needed to save labor, but by then a mindset of dependence on the sweat of other people’s brows had existed for many centuries. Some of the barbarians, in contrast, were highly inventive. To the barbarians we owe such things as trousers, barrels, the heavy plough, and the stirrup.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue