Americans and the Ancients — Overview
It is difficult for students to grasp world history because of the vast distances in time and place with which they must grapple. The following fact provides perspective that staggers the imagination. Think of how long ago ancient Rome was: a long time ago indeed. And yet, two-thirds of human beings’ civilizational experience had already transpired by the time the Western Roman Empire “fell” in 476 A.D. (This is a period of approximatley 4,000 years stretching from about 3,500 B.C. to about 500 A.D.) No wonder students need help in understanding these very distant ages. When possible, I try to provide pedagogical pegs between the foreign past that students do not know, with the American experience that they may know. Thus to teach about various ancient peoples, I point out:
- The Pilgrims were like the ancient Hebrews. Moses led Israel on the Exodus out of Egypt to found a new nation in Canaan. It is roughly analogous to the Pilgrims on their errand into the wilderness* to restore God’s people in the “New Canaan.”
- Many of our early educators — the founders of colleges and seminaries — were like the ancient Greeks who launched unfinished philosophical quests.
- Our Founders and Framers were like the ancient Romans and even consciously identified with them. For the remainder of this essay, I would like to look in more detail at Americans’ fascination with ancient Rome.
Americans and the Romans
Rome was both a city and an empire built on the values of a city, thus unlike anything in the American experience. Yet Americans in the new republic identified with Rome in a number of significant ways.
They identified even with Rome’s geography. In Washington, DC, Capitol Hill (formerly called Jenkins Hill) alludes to one of the Seven Hills of Rome.
The Founders’ and Framers’ noms de plume were Roman — Publius, Cicero, Cincinnatus, Cato, Brutus. They consciously identified with Roman models of republican virtue. So:
- Washington: Cincinnatus (to others), Fabius the Delayer (to history), Cato the Younger (to himself)
- Adams: Cicero, the greatest attorney of the ancient world.
- Jefferson: Cicero
- Madison: Publius, to our Founders, the first great republican leader in world history, a model republican.
- Hamilton: Caesar originally, according to Donald D’Elia, then Publius
- Jay: Publius
- John Dickinson (conservative, headed up Articles of Confederation): Fabius in Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania
The Founders’ political ideas were largely informed by Roman republican and imperial ideas. They sought to create a mixed constitution that balanced monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. (This is why our nation is not technically a democracy.)
The political vocabulary they used — republic, virtue, president, capitol, constitution, Senate — was based on Latin words. The legislative processes they utilized — veto, sine die — were Latin. Many of their political symbols — the eagle, the fasces, the image of a leader on a coin — were Roman in inspiration.
The architecture of the American Founding also showed a predilection for the Roman aesthetic sense. It’s not too much of a stretch to assert that the buildings and monuments lining the National Mall in Washington, DC — with its stately, classical architecture — might resemble a Roman colony; the new additions constructed in the 1930s continued the Roman theme. The Capitol was inspired by Renaissance models that, in turn, were loosely based on the Roman Pantheon. Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, looks like a Roman temple. The Founders’ sculpture and painting were also inspired by Roman precedents. It is not unusual to see George Washington adorned in a toga.
The Founders were fascinated by the fall of the Western Empire and took the lessons from that fall and applied those lessons to the American cause. They were especially concerned that luxury would lead to the undoing of republican virtue.
Moreover, the Romans went through a dramatic passage from a somewhat “foreign” monarchy (the Etruscans) to the republic — just as Americans did at our Founding, when we separated from an increasingly foreign and tyrannical British monarchy. (The Georges, recall, were Hanoverians.)
The Founders had ideas of what a good empire could be — e.g., Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty — that borrowed from the universal ideals of the Roman Empire. But our Founders also warned that empires can injure freedom if there are few checks and balances. The dictatorial or absolute rulers who emerged during the Roman civil wars and Roman Empire provided antimodels, examples of the Hell we should never descend into.
Many Southern aristocrats identified with the ancient Romans because of the institution of slavery. Many Northern yankees feared that slavery hurt the development of a middle-class economy, so they took away another lesson from ancient Rome.
Bread and circuses — today’s bridge cards and ESPN — may also be relevant to our experience as Americans, as they tend to keep civil unrest to a minimum because unemployed and underemployed people are fed and entertained and even have a vicarious outlet for frustration, anger, and violence.
The Roman Eras
Each of the major eras of Roman history was instructive to the Americans of the founding period, well read as they were in the classics.
1. The transition from Etruscan kings to the Republic via an outrage — a rape — leads to the emergence of the model republican, Publius.
2. The Republic was destroyed by imperial expansion, even if it was the unintended consequence of security concerns. The Mediterranean narrows significantly between Rome and Carthage, meaning that these two ancient republics would fight to the death for control of transportation and commerce. But long and numerous wars can destroy republics. Republics tend to turn into empires when they have to fight and expand to secure ever bigger defensive and commercial corridors. So the three Punic wars against Carthage slowly turned Rome into an empire.
3. Victories abroad led to unforeseen changes at home, economically, socially, and politically. Slaves imported as the spoils of war drastically altered the economy of the agrarian republic. They undercut the prices of the commodities produced by yeomen farmers. Unable to earn a living off the land, many yeomen farmers migrated to Rome, looking for work. The subsequent unrest led to a century of civil war, culminating in the tyrant Julius Caesar.
The unemployed masses that were driven off the land and into Rome needed food and diversions, so the emperors provided bread and circuses — our bridge cards and ESPN?
4. Out of the civil wars came strong, able rulers like Caesar Augustus and other emperors who established order and the Pax romana. Augustus kept republican forms while adopting imperial powers.
Through its transportation network, military might, and imperial leadership, the Roman Empire achieved what no nation before or since has: It unified Europe south of the Danube and west of the Rhine. Europe has pursued the dream of unification ever since the Pax romana. The pursuit of this dream explains much of the tragedy and triumph of the European experience.
In Roman times, it was as though Alexander the Great’s dream of a united world were finally realized by the caesars: It was politically Roman, but culturally Hellenistic.
5. In its religious history, the Roman Empire went from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism — the opposite, by the way, of what America’s 13 colonies and states went through.
Christianity began on the Palestine frontier — away from the intellectual elite and beautiful people of the day — yet prevailed at the right historic moment, combining three key ingredients that would help it become the established religion of the West: (1) Jewish spiritual yearning and moral rigor; (2) Greek ideas and writing; and (3) Roman imperial transportation, communication, and security.
6. The Western Empire “fell” in 476 A.D. The causes of the “fall” were probably many, thus providing numerous paradigms and warnings for all peoples in all ages to come. The Eastern Empire centered at Constantinople did not fall for another 1,000 years.
The “fall” of the Western Empire was not really a “fall.” Germanic tribes were coopted to defend otherwise indefensible territory. But 476 would be an epochal event nonetheless. The dissolution of imperial authority in the West created opportunities for Germans to acculturate and achieve an unexpected synthesis that would be foundational for later Western civilization. The synthesis was:
- Judeo-Christian in its moral and spiritual foundation;
- Greco-Roman in its philosophical and legal foundation;
- Germanic in its spirit of freedom in the northern woods, having elective monarchies, assemblies of freemen, and sacred property rights. (The Anglo-Saxon expression of the Germanic spirit would blossom in England, and thus be transmitted to America through the supremacy of its representative institution, Parliament, and the Common Law.)
This tripartite synthesis — Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Germanic — informed the civilization called Christendom. By the 15th century it would begin to put its mark on the entire world.
In significant ways, Rome never fell. It certainly never fell in the imagination. Politically Europeans long tried to achieve the “second Rome” and the “third Rome.” (Mussolini and Hitler both vied for the distinction.) Artistically, the Roman aesthetic continued to inform Western sensibilities.
Americans’ fascination with ancient Rome did not end during the founding or the early days of the new republic. It continued in the schools where Latin was taught. It was expressed after the Second World War in the many “swords and sandals” movies set in ancient Rome. It is even apparent in the Star Wars movies that feature the good republic/bad empire dichotomy. Rome is very much alive in our imaginations today.
Notes and sources:
* The term, “Errand into the Wilderness,” was made famous by the great historian of the Puritans, Perry Miller, who used it as the title of one of his books. Miller borrowed the title, in turn, from a 1670 jeremiad delivered from a Massachusetts pulpit on the eve of an election. Like so many Puritan sermons, it warned sinful and unregenerate people of an angry God who had the capacity to destroy.