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Why America is Not a New Rome

Author(s):Smil, Vaclav
Reviewer(s):Temin, Peter

Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

Vaclav Smil, Why America is Not a New Rome.? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.? xi + 226 pp.? $25 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-262-19593-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter Temin, Department of Economics, MIT.

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This short and well-written book makes the obvious point that there was a Scientific Revolution, an Industrial Revolution and a Demographic Transition between the Roman Empire and today.? This cannot be news to any reader of this review.? The first chapter of the book reports and disparages many recent comparisons of the United States and Rome.? The second chapter compares the extent of various empires.? The third chapter contrasts American productivity advances with a view of Roman technological stagnation that is rather out of date.? The fourth chapter notes that we live longer, better and richer than the Romans.?

Smil is right that we are not Rome, but he seems to throw the baby out with the bath water.? His concluding statements (p. 172) expose the problem:

?That many Roman and American particulars are similar, some even nearly identical in their general features, is inevitable.? It would be surprising if they were not, because basic human qualities, failures, and propensities have not undergone any cosmic shift in the last two millennia of human evolution. … That is why, if they are to be successful, American solutions to America’s immense challenges will have to fit the unique imperatives of a new global civilization.? Polybius concluded that the Roman ascent was ?an event completely without precedent in the past,? and America’s ascent surely merits the same description.? When seen in its requisite complexity, it is this very similarity that makes the two societies fundamentally so different.? Comparisons uncover some fascinating parallels derived from shared imperatives of human behavior and from recurrent modes of social dynamics, but, above all, they illuminate two incomparable worlds.?

Smil appears to be impugning history in this conclusion.? He argues that since Rome and America are different in many ways, there are no ways in which similarities may be usefully employed.? People reason by analogy, and many authors have noted that one benefit of a liberal education is a large fund of analogies on which to draw.? David Brooks of the New York Times expressed it as follows in a column on June 7, 2010: ?Studying the humanities will give you a wealth of analogies. People think by comparison — Iraq is either like Vietnam or Bosnia; your boss is like Narcissus or Solon. ?People who have a wealth of analogies in their minds can think more precisely than those with few analogies. If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon, you?ll have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons.?

If we take Smil seriously, we would abandon this way of thinking and possibly the rationale for our teaching and research.? Not a good deal.

Smil is an environmentalist and climatologist who has written many books.? You can read this book for amusement, but if you want to know more about ancient Rome, I recommend the opening essays in Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard P. Saller, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), as I indicated in another review for EH.NET.? Smil knows a fair amount of the literature on Rome, but you will do better to get a systematic survey from professionals.

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Peter Temin is Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT.? He is the author of The Economics of Antiquity: The Early Roman Empire and Adjacent Periods and Places (Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming).

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):Ancient
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII