Stanford scholar links Rome and America in Philadelphia exhibition

Historians in the News

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....

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."

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.

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