The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia hosted the world premiere of an exhibit, together with the cultural ministry of Italy, called “Ancient Rome and America.” The exhibit was focused on the influence of Ancient Rome on the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. It featured hundreds of Ancient Roman and American artifacts.
Although it is often thought that the democracy of Ancient Greece was the primary inspiration for the American form of government, Americans were clearly influenced by the example of the Roman Republic, founded in 509 B.C., which was nearly contemporaneous to Greek democracy. The U.S. and each of the states of the Union have republican forms of government, not democracies, as the Founding Fathers recognized the dangers to liberty of direct popular rule. The Founders, for example, adopted the Roman Republican model of two legislative assemblies: a lower body that was popularly elected and an upper one, the “Senate,” that was comprised of aristocrats. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution established a similar model of a popularly-elected lower chamber, the “House of Representatives,” and an upper one, also called a “Senate,” that was appointed by state legislators. The Senate would serve as a check on the House.
The Americans also adopted the Roman model of divided government, with separate executive and legislative branches. Roman law, which was promulgated in writing, of which there were several examples in the exhibit, also influenced the Founding Fathers. One Roman practice in particular they adopted was the census. The Roman concept of citizenship, which they expanded during the Imperial age to all the male inhabitants of the Empire, also inspired the American ideal of equality.
That the American Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by ancient Rome is not surprising, considering that they had received the typical education of the time (the Medieval trivium and quadrivium), which included reading Ancient Greek and Roman classics, several Eighteenth-Century copies of which were exhibited. The Americans especially admired those Romans who favored the republican form of government, such as Livy and Cicero, or who esteemed virtue.
The model of duty and humility provided by the Roman Republican General Cincinnatus inspired George Washington, for example. Cincinnatus, a farmer, was called from his field to fight the enemy, but after defeating it, instead of becoming the dictator, he returned to farming. The exhibit included depictions of Washington as Cincinnatus and artifacts from the Society of the Cincinnati, the association of retired American Revolutionary War officers. A bust of Washington in a Roman toga portrayed him as the Roman general Fabius, known for “Fabian” tactics during the Second Punic War with Hannibal. Fabian tactics refer to the avoidance of a direct confrontation with a superior force and the conduct of hit-and-run attacks against smaller units of the enemy, a strategy which General Washington successfully used during the War of American Independence to harass the British.
Busts of several other Founding Fathers in togas also appeared throughout the exhibit. The exhibit demonstrated in many ways how some of the leading early Americans and even their spouses saw themselves as modern Romans. The Grand Tours of Europe they would take or the books about Roman ruins influenced American architectural and artistic styles. The Romans invented the arch, for example, which is symbolic of Ancient Rome and seen in American architecture in its basic form, as most notably in the from of the dome, such as the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
There were numerous examples of American symbols in the exhibit that were inspired by Roman symbols, with which they were juxtaposed for comparison. Indeed, the Roman symbols of the eagle (adopted by the Roman army as a symbol of strength), the Goddess Liberty, and the fasces (a symbol of power; a fasces called the “mace” symbolizes authority in the House of Representatives) were featured in numerous Roman artifacts beside American examples. For example, the Roman depictions of the Goddess Liberty were compared with American depictions of the allegorical figure of Liberty on coinage.
I hope the exhibit and my post about it will inspire Americans to learn more about the influence of the Roman Republic on America. On a personal note, I was pleased also to participate in a Tea Party that was being held today on Independence Mall near the Constitution Center with the same spirit of independence and liberty that inspired the American Patriots during the Revolution and the Federal Period. I recall the words of Benjamin Franklin, buried a few yards away, who, when asked what the delegates to the Constitutional Convention at Independence Hall had created, replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” May we keep the Republic! May God Bless America!