Friends, Romans, Americans: Lend me your ideas

busts of Bacchus and George Washington
 The statue of Bacchus, c. 150-200 C.E. (top) and the bust of George Washington, c. 1817, will be among the items on display in the exhibition at the National Constitution Center, “Ancient Rome & America.

Eleven score and 13 years ago, when our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, they thought of Rome.

As America’s founders sat down to form a more perfect federal constitutional republic, they sought to model it after the republican system of ancient Rome. Perhaps not exactly, or directly, says Campbell Grey, an assistant professor in the Department of Classical Studies, but it was a conscious modeling of “their imagination of what the ideal functions of the Roman republican system was.”

They considered the best aspects of the Roman Republic: its diversity, its dynamism and its adaptability; and they weighed the evil side of the Empire: Caligula, Nero, Pontius Pilate and Roman legions marching across Europe.

So enamored with the Roman ideal were the American founders that there are busts from the early 19th century depicting George Washington and Benjamin Franklin wearing togas and other Roman garb. And in her letters to her husband John, Abigail Adams would sign off as “Portia,” the wife of Brutus.

“They’re explicitly claiming the Roman republic as something that’s very real and living for them,” Grey says.

An exhibition now on display at the National Constitution Center, “Ancient Rome & America” showcases the cultural, political and social connections between ancient Rome and modern America. Grey, who co-curated the exhibition with Caroline Winterer of Stanford, says there are specific areas in which America deliberately borrowed from ancient Rome, but also an “unconscious set of parallels in the origin stories of both societies.”

Americans, for instance, have long heard the myth of George Washington and his cherry tree, while the Romans had the legend of Aeneas leaving Troy with his father.

Stephanie Reyer, director of exhibitions at the National Constitution Center, says the exhibit, which features more than 300 artifacts from Italy and the United States, highlights a part of America’s heritage “that has been lost over time.”

“A lot of people don’t know the connection to the classical world,” she says. “We see it every day and sort of take it for granted. It’s on everything from the dollar bill that we use every day, to the architecture we walk by every day.

“And Rome is sexy,” she adds. “What we want to show people is that those connections to America are equally as sexy. It’s not just about gladiators and senators.”

At its height, the Roman Empire encompassed all of the Mediterranean world, France, Germany, Spain, Britain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Turkey and beyond. Grey says the Empire then was as diverse as America is today. It also allowed aristocrats from all parts of the Empire to rise through the ranks of society to eventually become emperor. Roman Emperor Septimius Severus was, for example, originally from Africa, and Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus, also known as Philip the Arab, is believed to have been from Syria.

“It’s a great message and a great model for American society,” Grey says. “And it’s certainly one of the ideals of the American society. That’s the American dream, isn’t it?”

Militarily, Grey says that while America’s fighting forces are infinitely more powerful than their Roman counterparts, when considered in historical context, the Roman military was “as much as a juggernaut as the American military is.”

“You didn’t mess with the Romans,” he says, adding that both republics offered a path to citizenship for those who served in the military.

Sports were a prominent part of Roman culture, as they are in America today. The exhibition features a replica of a gladiator’s helmet in a case next to the helmet of a former Philadelphia Eagle.

Grey says people often compare modern-day boxers and football players to Roman gladiators.

“But gladiators kill each other. People actually die, and they die at the will of the crowd,” he says. “We are actually explicitly trying to get people to reflect upon what that metaphor means in contemporary sports.”

Reyer says she experienced many “ah ha” moments as she discovered American/Roman connections while preparing the exhibit. There are obvious ties, such as the architectural columns visitors see all over Washington, D.C. But Grey says there are also not-so-obvious instances, such as the many places in America where the Roman vocabulary has been adopted and altered. Franklin Field is an example, he says.

“Franklin Field isn’t a Roman amphitheater, but it kind of calls to mind a Roman amphitheater with the rolls of arches and such,” says Grey. “I think that’s actually what’s particularly interesting about the American adaptation of Roman architectural form, that in many cases it’s not just a direct taking and placing, it’s a slightly reshaped adoption into a present contemporary context.”

Reyer says she hopes visitors to the exhibition experience similar revelatory moments.

“I think that the exhibition uncovers a part of our heritage that’s been hidden for a very long time, or it’s been in plain sight but not necessarily acknowledged,” she says. “I hope that this will be an eye-opening experience that will have [visitors] looking at their lives and their surroundings and this country in a different way.”

Depending on the start date, the Roman Empire reigned for 1,200 to 1,500 years. Its decline, known today as the “Fall of Rome,” is usually attributed to the Empire growing too big and complex and collapsing from within.

Grey, however, prefers to describe Rome as transforming rather than falling.

“You’ve got later monarchs in Europe who are claiming some kind of connection with the Roman emperors, so you could actually make an argument that Rome still hasn’t fallen, that Rome never fell,” he says.

The “Fall of Rome,” he says, is a characterization meant to appease the American psyche. Americans aspire to be the best of Rome, but worry about being the worst of Rome.

“In our contemporary culture, it’s really important that Rome fell and we believe that Rome fell,” he says. “And I think that says more about our contemporary feelings and our contemporary concerns than it does about the historical reality of what actually happened.”

“Ancient Rome & America” is on display at the National Constitution Center through Aug. 1.

Originally published on May 6, 2010