Ancient Rome and America

The National Constitution Center
Independence Mall, Philadelphia
Through August 1


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
virtues of strength and courage. But did Congress choose the eagle because of its Roman connections? We aren’t told, although it’s worth noting that Congress rejected two previous proposals for our Great Seal, one of which, at Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion, showed Moses overcoming Pharaoh at the Red Sea. 

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: 

It adds no small weight to all these considerations, to recollect that history informs us of no long-lived republic which had not a senate. Sparta, Rome, and Carthage are, in fact, the only states to whom that character can be applied. .  .  . These examples, though as unfit for the imitation, as they are repugnant to the genius of America, are, notwithstanding, when compared with the fugitive and turbulent existence of other ancient republics, very instructive proofs of the necessity of some institution that will blend stability with liberty.

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.

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.