The Magazine

Classical America

How early America was indebted to Rome.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By DAVID WHARTON
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Roman influence sometimes made its way into American life via the Grand Tour, when young American elites visited European sites including Pompeii and Herculaneum. Here they absorbed Roman art and architecture and brought home notions of aesthetic sophistication with which they could emulate their Continental cousins. Classical motifs crept into clothing, jewelry, and furniture, and the exhibit has fine examples of each. One beautifully crafted American couch stands beneath an ancient relief sculpture of Romans at mealtime reclining on dining couches; the American version clearly imitates the form of the Roman, even though that form is entirely impractical for American uses. This section also includes some rare Roman jewelry, an elaborately wrought, massive silver cup from Pompeii, and a large Etruscan sarcophagus. 

Perhaps the most affecting items on display are two slave collars. The Roman one, made of a thin strip of bronze and engraved with instructions on how to return the escaped slave, looks almost like a piece of jewelry next to a (very rare) American version made of heavy wrought iron for a three-time Pennsylvania escapee named Ben. Ben’s collar has spike-like grips on either side, presumably for holding or subduing him. 

The final section, “Expansion and Empire,” does not show direct connections so much as suggest related tendencies of both societies. On one poster, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis is depicted along with the Arch of Titus near the Roman Forum. This is an arresting combination, and one at which I bristled at first: The Arch of Titus is, after all, an explicit glorification of brutal imperial violence, commemorating the sack of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. One of its relief panels shows the treasures of the Jewish Temple being plundered by Roman soldiers. Surely the Gateway Arch is entirely more benign. And yet the juxtaposition invites reflection. The opening of the West to trade and settlement, which the arch commemorates, also entailed some brutal military operations—although it is to our credit that we didn’t glorify them with relief sculptures as the Romans surely would have done. The modernist design of Saarinen’s arch glorifies our love of enterprise and innovation, whereas the Arch of Titus stands squarely in an old Roman tradition of the glorification of military conquest. 

Still, why were the architectural panel of judges drawn to the arch design? The runner-up was a massive vertical slab. 

A dual display of a beautifully preserved gladiator’s helmet and a Philadelphia Eagles football helmet is similarly provocative, but other items in this section, which compare Roman and American technology, weaponry, and religion are less so. Still, in its entirety, this show is remarkable, and invites us to explore more deeply the connections between ancient Rome and America at which it can only hint.

David Wharton is associate professor of classical studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

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