All Symbolic Roads…


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The funny thing about Rome is that anyone can invoke it. The whole death-to-Caesar thing is popular. John Wilkes Booth seems like something of a quack, quoting Brutus’ “Sic semper tyrannis” as he jumped to the stage after shooting Lincoln. But Abigail Adams thought the same of George III, and signed her wartime letters to her husband John with the name “Portia” — Brutus’ wife. Everyone also seems to love thinking themselves Rome to their enemies’ Carthage. Washington’s victory over Britain was often compared to Rome’s ultimate victory in the Punic Wars. But back before the war ended, Britain’s Charles Van told Parliament, “Delenda est Carthago” (“Carthage must be destroyed”) in discussing the trouble with the colonies — lines spoken by Cato the Elder when Carthage broke the treaty ending the Second Punic War. Tyrants and Carthage, it seems, are in the eye of the oppressed and those facing a herd of elephants descending the Alps.

  • “Ancient Rome and America: The classical influence that shaped our nation.” Through August 1. National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA.

This was one of the more interesting observations at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia’s new exhibit: “Ancient Rome and America: The classical influence that shaped our nation.” The premise of the exhibition is compelling, especially situated at the heart of the city’s historic district. Tourists come here to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross’ house and Ben Franklin’s grave and the country’s oldest residential street. They ostensibly want to see where the country was born, and the city is happy to oblige: the neighborhood and its attractions give off an air of primacy, as of concepts of liberty sprang up here one humid summer. But through artifacts and placards, “Rome” demonstrates how the nation’s founders looked to the ancient republic for political models and symbolic imagery.

Many of the connections are well-known. Romans had overthrown a monarchy, just as the Americans were hoping to do. Like Rome, America subsequently created a political system in which power was spread. The former was governed by senators, magistrates, and popular assemblies; the United States adopted a similar division, and even retained the elite nature of the Senate: Before senators were elected by popular vote, they were selected by state legislatures. The new nation modeled its public buildings on those of Rome. Both adopted the symbol of the eagle.

The exhibit does a competent if unsurprising job of demonstrating how many public aspects of America operate and look as they do because of interest in Rome: Jefferson’s neoclassical Monticello, for example, or American stadiums. Busts of Franklin and Washington and other leaders in togas and senatorial robes are unmistakable allusions. Public buildings and currency display Latin phrases, and Roman numerals mark our Super Bowls. Museum exhibitions can often be faulted for failing to thoroughly explain, but sometimes they serve just in pointing out: that we just saw Super Bowl XLIV and not Super Bowl 44 seems like a meaningless observation, until you stop to think that XLIV over 44 reflects a conscious decision to do so.

Other connections feel weak, possibly because they don’t seem as closely linked as the exhibition suggests. Rome had as its origin myth the twins Romulus and Remus, while America has Betsy Ross’ role in the flag, Washington’s cherry-tree honesty, and Paul Revere’s ride (embellished in Longfellow’s famous poem). I’m not sure why anyone would assume America had stories only because Rome did. Others seem unsupported by the evidence: connections between Roman and American jewelry, or Roman and American dress, or Roman and American furniture seem less allusions to ancient Rome than desires for what was fashionable in Europe — empire waists and sofas and so on.

Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire is treated as a distinct aspect of the narrative; its growth during this change is compared to that of America’s. Both increased greatly in size and population (America much faster than Rome, the exhibit points out). Both invested heavily in infrastructure to link their holdings. Both granted citizenship in exchange for military service.

The exhibit eases you out with reprints of Thomas Cole’s five-painting series, “The Course of Empire.” I think we’re supposed to feel we’re somewhere between “The Consummation of Empire” and “The Destruction of Empire” (and longing for “The Arcadian or Pastoral State”) As for Rome’s ultimate fall, well, the scholars appearing in a video at the exhibit’s end don’t think it’s so easy to say exactly why Rome’s power waned. They understand the interest in comparing our nation to Rome, and how the follow-up to that interest is to question how we avoid the same fate (Indeed, the day after I visited, The New York Times ran an op-ed titled “Like Rome Before the Fall?” The answer from the author of The Decline and Fall of the British Empire? Not yet.) The academics have no easy answer. They talk about decadence, which is exactly what you’d expect. A Stanford professor also points out that the United States has a military force that a Roman emperor could have only dreamed about. Just an FYI, I suppose.

Leaving an exhibit on Rome’s influence on America, one wonders what influence (if any) America could have on a world power 2,000 years out. What would that future culture find inspiring in ours? What would be our Colosseum, our Pantheon? There is, however, little immediate time for reflection. After the video, you come upon a sign encouraging you to “Rome on over to the museum store.”

There, I watched groups of schoolkids trying to decide how to spend the money their parents had given them for the field trip. A DVD of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or a Barbara Bush bobblehead? Socks with the words “Freedom Rocks,” or rock candy? How about a shot glass — that curiously ubiquitous souvenir of all museums in a country otherwise rather puritanical about drinking? The shop also sold three different recipe books inspired by ancient Roman recipes. I actually thought of buying one of these, until I remembered the cookbook inspired by the Lewis and Clark exhibition that I had already bought a few years ago. You think these historic cookbooks would make for funny dinner parties until you get home and start actually reading the recipes. But it was only $17.95, which didn’t feel like a waste until I thought, $17.95 for a book I never used is, in fact, a waste of $17.95.

Walking through the museum gift shop, you realize it would probably have to mimic a squat office building in Wilmington, Delaware, where a credit card company makes it possible for someone to buy a $32 admission to a museum and exhibition. Or a puzzle of the Boston Globe’s front page the day Obama won the election. Or a faux-parchment list of the “18 remarkable coincidences” in the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy. Or a cookbook that, if you’re honest, should go immediately in your donation pile. Talk about decadence! • 1 March 2010