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Stanford scholar links Rome and America in Philadelphia exhibition

For generations, Rome has been a metaphor for power, civilization, corruption. But how does Rome speak to the American republic – about its past and its future?

An exhibition, "Ancient Rome & America," opening Feb. 19 and continuing through Aug. 1 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, explores the links between the two empires with an unprecedented collection of more than 300 artifacts.

The center worked with Contemporanea Progetti of Florence for the past three years to assemble this exclusive showing.

They took advice from Caroline Winterer, associate professor of history at Stanford and author of The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900 (2007) and The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (2002).

Winterer spoke with Cynthia Haven at the Stanford News Service about the bridge between the Roman republic and America.

You are named as a "curatorial consultant" for the exhibition. What does that involve?

I was approached last year by the National Constitution Center to help to craft the American side of the story. They had a lot of ancient Rome objects they knew would be loaned from Italy; our task was to show in really palpable ways the many connections between Rome and America in politics, culture, art and architecture. So I helped to figure out what the main stories and themes would be, and then which American objects would tell that story. A lot of my research as a historian for the last 10 years has concerned the important legacy of Rome and Greece in America, so those are objects I know very well.

Courtesy of The American Antiquarian Society Bust of Benjamin Franklin portrayed in a toga. c. 1817

Bust of Benjamin Franklin portrayed in a toga. c. 1817

The exhibition includes busts of Washington, Franklin and Jefferson wearing togas – but surely this is a bit of play-acting? It wasn't unique to America, of course; similar affectations were adopted in France, England and Germany.

It's true that imitating Greeks and Romans was something a lot of people did both in early America and in Britain, France, Italy and Germany. There was enormous cultural prestige attached to the Greeks and Romans from the Renaissance forward. But there was something different about America in the 1700s: It was the first of these states to become a republic, the first to throw off a king and be governed by "the people." That was both very exciting and very scary.

This was a time when some form of monarchy was the norm in many European countries. So Americans during the Revolution looked for guidance to the most successful, long-lasting republic in the history of the world: Rome. Imitating the Romans and Greeks was really a matter of political life or death. The Romans had answers to basic questions like how you should structure a legislature in a republic, and how you made sure "we the people" were fit to rule.

In short, there was an urgency to Americans' imitation of Greece and Rome that made it different, at least initially, from the European infatuation with Greco-Roman models.

How has America's intellectual and cultural history been shaped by Rome?

Until about a century ago, Americans thought that the best of everything had been Roman – and Greek. They thought that art, literature, politics and education had been perfected in the ancient classical world, so they tried to imitate the Romans and Greeks in many aspects of their lives. Until about a hundred years ago, half your time in college would have been spent learning Greek, Latin and ancient history; you learned how to give speeches like a Roman orator, and how to write like a Roman legislator.

Why did people do this? In the age before TV and radio, you had to be able to reach out to audiences with your persuasive talking and writing, so the Romans and Greeks could provide really useful skills for people – sort of like software engineering today is really useful.

Americans also thought that Greek and Roman art and architecture were beautiful and noble. So they built public buildings in Roman and Greek architectural styles and stuffed their houses with classical art – usually not real, just replicas. Some women even dressed in ancient-style clothing – those are the simple white dresses you see in Jane Austen movies. Most people call them Empire dresses, but back in their day these were known as "Grecian robes."

Image Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association This 1773 portrait is from the year of Sarah Middleton's marriage to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a future signer of the Constitution. In her flowing, antique-style dress, posed like the classical prophetess Sibyl, Sarah is portrayed as the very ideal of the ancient Roman matron.

This 1773 portrait is from the year of Sarah Middleton's marriage to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a future signer of the Constitution. In her flowing, antique-style dress, posed like the classical prophetess Sibyl, Sarah is portrayed as the very ideal of the ancient Roman matron.

America has borrowed much from its classical past – everything from its legal system to the kinds of imagery included in the exhibition. But as you note, it also has borrowed from Greece. How is the legacy from Rome different?

It's hard to believe, since we love ancient Greece so much today as the home of democracy and beautiful art, but until about 1830 Americans were very frightened by ancient Greece. The founders liked the idea of a republic like Rome that was guided by educated elites. They didn't much like the idea of a pure democracy, where the people – no matter how uneducated they were – could have a role in government.

So for a long time in American history Greece was an example of what not to do. Gradually Americans became more convinced that democracy was a good idea. More kinds of people were allowed to vote, slaves were emancipated, and Greece – especially Athens in the fifth century B.C. – seemed to offer a new model of a wonderful, beautiful civilization that was the birthplace of democracy. You could say that Americans "invented" ancient Greece for themselves in the 19th century.

But Rome has always been there, the great example of a successful republic and empire, with a great army, great administration and great roads. Greece was just an add-on, later.

The exhibit shows one dark parallel between Rome and the U.S. – slavery. Did early America need Rome to justify slavery?

Not every legacy of ancient Rome has been admirable. The South in the decades before the Civil War was like ancient Rome a slave society. In both places, roughly 30 percent of the population was enslaved. Americans frequently looked to ancient Roman slavery to understand their own slave society. Some Americans in favor of slaveholding argued that slavery freed masters to do the important work of governing, just as in ancient Rome. By contrast, in the decades before the American Civil War a growing number of opponents of slavery pointed to the great slave rebellions of ancient Rome to argue that African Americans should rise up against slavery.

The museum exhibit has many pieces from 18th- and 19th-century America. But what about now? Has Rome's hold on us waned?

One of the strange things about the long history of ancient Rome and Greece in America is that they've both disappeared almost entirely in the 20th and 21st century. They're like lost civilizations to us now, and it's hard to recall that they were at the center of Americans' lives for over 200 years.

But Rome is still in many places in American culture, if you know how to look for it –I call this putting on your classical goggles. Our idea of separation of powers is to some degree based on ancient Roman ideals of government. Our idea that you should serve your country – as JFK put it, "Ask not what your country can do for you … " – this is really an ancient Roman ideal of civic virtue, of thinking of the republic before you think of yourself. And on a different note, there's the whole appeal of Rome as the home of the orgy and the gladiator. Think of Las Vegas and football: Rome definitely lives on!


Media Contact

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu