How early America was indebted to Rome.
Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By DAVID WHARTON
Ancient Rome and America
The National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center’s exhibition gathers impressive Old and New World artifacts that evoke America’s cultural debt to Rome and invite us to contemplate our own national character. The sheer variety of antiquities makes this show unique; where else can you see tea leaves from the Boston Tea Party in the same show as a Roman gladiator’s mask? The exhibit would be worth visiting just to see its fine Roman, Etruscan, and early American antiquities, but the juxtaposition of related ancient and American pieces adds to its strength.
The exhibit falls into three sections. On entering the first, “Building a Republic,” we are greeted by the fragmentary head of a Roman legionary eagle next to a carved and gilded early American eagle, both with impressively bellicose expressions. The point is clear: Both nations chose the same animal as their national symbols because they saw in them similar
This section also includes several of the Founders’ personal copies of classical texts, hinting at the intellectual ties between the Founders and the ancients. Most people today would be amazed at how thoroughly steeped in classical literature our Founders were; college entrance exams at the time required applicants to translate several pages of Cicero’s orations or Virgil’s Aeneid at sight, to compose competently in Latin prose (and sometimes in verse), and to know the basics of ancient Greek grammar. Once admitted, they continued their Greek and Latin studies for three or four years. Some, like Jefferson, kept reading in the original Latin and Greek all their lives.
A first edition of the Federalist is also here, and the accompanying text notes that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay liked to sign their papers “Publius,” expecting their readers to catch the reference to Publius Valerius Publicola, a lawgiver of the early Roman republic. The Federalist is salted with dozens of references to ancient politics, which they and their readers took seriously as models, both good and bad, for their new republic. For example, in Federalist 63, “Publius” (probably Hamilton or Madison) argues for the necessity of an appointed senate in the Constitution:
The middle section of the exhibit, “A Classical Revival,” focuses more on the aesthetic than the political, and we get glimpses of how Roman sensibilities seeped into American domestic life. One of the more charming pieces of Americana on display is an embroidered silk picture on linen which shows two young women as muses, one holding a trumpet in her left hand while writing history with her right, the other painting what appears to be a portrait of George Washington. Above them floats, cherub-like, a strange gilt-embroidered eagle, and in the background stands a neoclassical building which is clearly not an ancient structure. Young Sarah Skinner Ward made this as a school exercise, not only to show off her knowledge and skill, but also to lend an aura of classical prestige and enchantment to early American society. (Of course this impulse did not die after the 18th century: Consider how delightfully Meredith Willson lampooned aspiring classical culture in small-town middle America with the River City dance troupe’s absurd tableaux of Grecian urns in The Music Man.)
Early Americans also paid homage to the Romans and glorified themselves through their use of Roman-style portrait sculpture. Scattered throughout the galleries, along with many ancient Roman portrait busts, are renditions of Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, John Marshall, and Henry Clay, all sporting togas. To a modern audience, whose most famous togate figure is probably John Belushi wearing a knotted bedsheet in Animal House, the iconography probably seems a bit absurd, but for most 18th- and 19th-century viewers, it surely added gravitas.
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