America's Classical Catalyst
While in Paris Jefferson sent home his design for the Virginia capitol, a building to be “simple and sublime . . . copied from the most precious [mode of ancient] architecture remaining on earth.” He wrote that from “Lyons to Nismes I have been nourished with the remains of Roman grandeur . . . I am immersed in [antiquities from morning to night].” Understanding that modern man stood on the shoulders of giants, men like Jefferson looked to the foundations of Western Civilization for guidance in their experiment in government.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
America’s Classical Catalyst
“We no longer characteristically study the ancient tongues. Greek has disappeared from most public education; Latin has shrunk to a shadow of its importance in the days when the founding fathers read it fluently; and though the vogue of courses in translation and of general education has restored a certain pale of vitality to the Greeks, it has done less for the Romans. For these and other reasons the notion that the classical past has exerted an important influence on the culture of the United States seems to many absurd.
Yet evidence of that influence lies all around us. Many villages, towns and cities have either classical names such as Rome, Troy, Athens, Syracuse, Ithaca, Utica, Alexandria, or Augusta, or names compounded, sometimes uncouthly, out of one or more classical elements, as Thermopolis, Minneapolis, Itasca, or Spotsylvania.
Our streets are sometimes known as Euclid Avenue, Appian Way, Acadia Drive, or Phaeton Road. The names of the States occasionally reveal classicism, as in the cases of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia.
The American college occupies something called a campus, a word that came into American English in this sense in 1774. Fraternities and sororities display Greek letters standing for words known only to the initiate, as if the Eleusinian mysteries were still operative. Certain categories of students in high school and college are sophomores, juniors and seniors; the first of these Latin derivatives dates (in this country) from 1726, the third to 1651, and the middle term from some period in between.
Constitutionally we are not a democracy but a republic; that is, res publica, a phrase referring to the commonweal, which in the sense of a government by elected representatives came into English in the seventeenth century. The congress meets not in a parliament house . . . but a capitol, a word originally designating a citadel or temple on a hilltop, like the Jupiter Optimus Maximus which stood on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
The great seal of the United States bears an eagle, a bird suggested by the eagle of the legions, the difference being that the American eagle is a bald eagle and not a Roman one. It clasps and olive branch in one talon, a sheaf of arrows in the other, emblems of peace and war . . . having classical connotations. The figure is surrounded by an enigmatic Latin phrase, E pluribus unum.
Our coinage, largely created by Jefferson, is decimal coinage . . . it was early agreed that our hard money would not show the head of any living president, partly because Roman coins had displayed the heads of deified emperors. The goddess [Liberty] persists . . . she is known as Columbia, but she is always a goddess. She is clad in classical garment; and on her head, or near her on a pole or standard she sometimes clasps, is a Phyrgian cap, worn in Rome by liberated slaves.
That the young nation should have accepted a set of classical coordinates to particularize components of its government and its republican culture is less astonishing than its failure would have been. To western man between the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the fall of Napoleon (1815) the classical past was perpetually a catalytic agent, a dynamic force so wonderful and so elusive that generation after generation of thinkers recast Greece and Rome in their own images.
If the humanists did not literally rediscover antiquity, they remolded it, they energized it, they caused it to shine upon the horizon of European culture with a golden splendor. [This study revealed to them] a world at once timeless and flexible, elusive and permanent, a lost Utopia of the west inhabited by noble beings – Aspasia, Pericles, Marcus Aurelius, Horatius Cato, Cornelia, Caesar, Harmodius, Aristogeiton – men and women capable of creating republics and extending empires, writing tragedies and concocting satires, codifying wisdom and anticipating modernity. They were the wisest and most beautiful of mankind.”
(O Strange New World, Howard Mumford Jones, The Viking Press, 1964, pp. 227-234)