What the Romans did for the US

  • Themes: American Democracy, Geopolitics

An awareness of Roman history was crucial to the founding of the American Republic. Perhaps the solution to the United States’ current external and internal crisis still lies with the wisdom of the Ancients.

Giovanni Paolo Panin's 1757 Ancient Rome hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Giovanni Paolo Panin's 1757 Ancient Rome hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Credit: PAINTING / Alamy Stock Photo

A recent social media trend on TikTok prompted women to ask men how often they thought about the ancient Romans. Obsessing over Rome and the classical world is not by any means a new phenomenon. At pivotal moments in history, the shadow of ancient Rome has dramatically shaped perceptions of the present. The Founding Fathers of the United States were no exception. They found the history of Rome utterly compelling and for many of the same reasons as people today, but amid the fervour of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers drew upon Roman history for the unique task of creating a republic.

The history of ancient Rome, then as now, is often told through the lives of ‘great’ men and women. In our increasingly chaotic and complex world of technological change and geopolitical upheaval, it is harder to see how any one person can change the course of history, but in ancient Rome there were individuals who could bring about massive change in war, politics, culture, and society. Rome’s journey from monarchy to republic to empire to collapse was shaped by the actions and characters of people who appear to us larger than life. It is intriguing to think how the Founding Fathers, themselves portrayed as ‘great men’, were also in awe of the ancients.

For the Founding Fathers, the most important lesson to learn from the history of ancient Rome was why and how the republic degenerated into corruption and authoritarianism. Classical republicanism sat alongside English history, Christian theology, and Enlightenment philosophy as sources of inspiration. But this debate did not take place within a vacuum. From Machiavelli during the Renaissance through to eighteenth-century thinkers such as Montesquieu and David Hume, the West had long pondered on the problem of Rome. It influenced the American colonists as much as the political establishment in Britain and elites in other European powers. The lessons of Roman history also informed people across the political spectrum, not fitting into any neat political binary. Republican values, for example, were highly prized in Britain and France despite their monarchical systems of government. Classical republicanism entailed the life of the citizenry as much as the form of government.

Roman history had already brought about a profound impact on eighteenth century British politics that would be of immense importance for the American colonists. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had turned Britain into a constitutional monarchy and threats to the new political settlement were frequently framed with Roman terminology. Republican language and values were embraced by Tories critical of the great Whig aristocrats as much as Whigs were concerned by the possible return of the Stuart dynasty. Critics of the Whig oligarchy under Sir Robert Walpole weaponised Roman history, accusing the establishment of surrendering to corruption and luxury. One of the most devastating attacks came in the form of Cato’s Letters (1720-23), named after the Roman senator who was one of Julius Caesar’s chief political rivals, which would be read and referenced widely in the American colonies. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, bears its name today.

The reason why Roman history formed such a large part of political debate, both inside and outside the American colonies, was that it was a common reference point for the educated classes. They learned about ancient Rome as schoolchildren and could easily understand the connotations of different figures, terms, and events. Abbe Rene-Aubert Vertot’s two-volume history of Rome was widely circulated. With this shared knowledge and appreciation for the faults and strengths of ancient Rome, it was commonplace for authors to assume Roman pseudonyms for anonymous publications. This would often help to signal the author’s political leanings or make fun of their opponents.

Evidence of how Roman history unfolded was provided by the literary works of politicians, historians, and writers who lived during the period between the fall of the Republic in the mid-first century BC and the birth of Empire in the mid-second century AD. The speeches of Cicero and the bravery of Brutus and Cassius provided role models for admirers of classical republicanism. Tacitus, the republican historian of imperial Rome, was also a crucial source. Alongside Plutarch, Livy, and Sallust, they all wrote when the republic was under threat or had already been dismantled. These writers looked back to a golden age of Roman republicanism that they never actually experienced.

Through these authors, the Founding Fathers venerated the heroes of the Roman republic. The most enduring of these figures was Cincinnatus. George Washington appeared to be the reincarnation of the great Roman general, assuming vast power and military might to defend the republic from its enemies and then relinquishing his power willingly to the people’s representatives and returning to his farm. This was the very model of the citizen-farmer that the Founding Fathers hoped would be the bedrock of their new nation. Even today, former prime minister and classics student Boris Johnson compared to himself to Cincinnatus when leaving Downing Street, hinting at his desire to return.

Equally, this created a demonology of republicanism that still echoes today. Caesarism was an accusation that has been levelled at Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump. While modern readers might have a fascination with the achievements of the Roman emperors, the Founding Fathers had no time for praising the men they believed to be tyrants and despots. The misdemeanours of the Roman Empire became intertwined with opposition to absolute monarchy and tyrannical government. Roman histories by Sallust and Plutarch demonstrated how imperial expansion to the east led republican Rome towards luxury and then corruption and finally the loss of liberty. Vast new wealth, they argued, reduced the ability of someone’s personal virtue to help them progress, giving way to a hierarchy defined by birth and inheritance.

Britain appeared to be a new Rome in the eyes of the Founding Fathers and radical Whigs critical of the London establishment. Corruption in Britain was represented by the emergence of the national debt, rising prices, higher taxes, the standing army, the moneyed classes in the City, and the Whig oligarchy in Parliament. Luxurious goods flowed from the eastern empire, though from India rather than Asia Minor. A member of the Continental Congress in 1774 said: ‘From the fate of Rome, Britain may trace the course of its present degeneracy and its impending destruction. Similar causes will ever produce similar effects.’ In 1776, the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published, reflecting Britain’s own anxieties over the fate of its empire.

This went further than a superficial interest in ancient Rome. Classical republicanism was at the heart of the Founding. American colonists had relied on translations of the original Roman texts by radical Whigs such as Thomas Gordon, Basil Kennet, Walter Moyle, and Edward Wortley Montagu. Learning from antiquity would help America to avoid the same mistakes that had befallen ancient Rome and now Britain. Historian Gordon S. Wood argued that this awareness of Roman history was ‘the result of the peculiar character of the literary legacy Rome had passed on to the modern world, a body of writing that was obsessed with the same questions about degeneracy that fascinated the eighteenth century’.

The influence of classical republicanism more broadly has been a defining part of intellectual debate regarding the origins of the American Revolution. For Wood, republicanism in eighteenth-century North America was a distinctive body of thought rooted in classical politics but largely separate from the arrival of modern politics in the form of liberalism. Wood has claimed that this interest in classical politics was a fundamental part of the eighteenth-century mentality:

In essence, republicanism was the ideology of the Enlightenment. In the eighteenth century, to be enlightened was to be interested in antiquity, and to be interested in antiquity was to be interested in republicanism. Although the classical past could offer meaningful messages for monarchy, there is little doubt that most of what the ancient world had to say to the eighteenth century was latently and often manifestly republican.

Wood believes that classical republicanism enabled the shift towards liberalism, helping the Founding Fathers come to terms with modernity. These two philosophies were viewed together through the interaction between republican participation and individual rights despite their tensions and roots in Machiavelli and Locke. J.G.A. Pocock’s account, however, ‘stresses Machiavelli at the expense of Locke; it suggests that the republic – a concept derived from Renaissance humanism – was the true heir of the [Puritan] covenant and the dread of corruption the true heir of the jeremiad’.

Classical republicanism achieved a legacy through the American republic. Republican impulses against corruption continued despite the rise of modern liberalism under capitalism and individualism. Republican freedom, as opposed to liberal freedom, asks much more of citizens. According to Pocock, ‘the ideal of virtue is highly compulsive; it demands of the individual, under threat to his moral being, that he participate in the res publica and, when the republic’s existence in time is seen to have grown crucial, in history’. The very notion of virtue was at the heart of classical republicanism and never abandoned entirely by the Founding Fathers in favour of liberal self-interest.

In Europe, the understanding of virtue departed from the harsher and more military values of classical politics towards more modern ideas of politeness and sociability. In America this took a somewhat different turn with the emergence of the yeoman farmer and the frontiersman as the backbone of Jeffersonian and then Jacksonian politics. Fear of collapse from internal decay was a constant fear that continued after the American Revolution. Hamilton’s financial reforms and army proposals were compared to Walpoleon schemes of corruption. As a result, the Federalist-Republican divide of the 1790s echoed the Court and Country fights of previous decades in Britain. Polarisation was driven by a conflict over whether self-interest or virtue would define the American republic.

The more significant departure from classical republicanism came with the framing of the Constitution. The ancient Roman and British constitutions were both forms of mixed government, balancing the power of the one, the few, and the many to secure stable governance. America, however, lacked a distinct social hierarchy, with no aristocracy or monarchy, to match this framework and social distinctions would become even less marked over time. The Founding Fathers’ response to the problem of having no aristocracy was embodied in the emergence of senates. Wood has explained how this came to be:

As a balancing force between these governors and the popular assemblies, upper houses or senates (the term taken from Roman antiquity) were created in all the states except Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Vermont. These senates were designed to embody the aristocracy set between the monarchical and democratic elements of these republicanised mixed constitutions. The senates were composed not of a legally defined nobility, but, it was hoped, of the wisest and best members of the society who would revise and correct the well-intentioned but often careless measures of the people, exclusively represented in the states’ houses of representatives. These senates, although elected by the people in several states, had no constituents and were not at this point considered to be in any way representative of the people.

Ancient Rome provided a rich mine for constitutional experimentation. Pennsylvania, which had a unicameral legislature, went so far as to introduce a council of censors, named after the ancient Roman body, which was an elected assembly that existed to scrutinise the constitution every seven years and call a special convention should revisions be needed. John Adams favoured the blending of the few and the many in a mixed constitution but was criticised for appearing to support aristocratic privilege. Although the Founding Fathers were part of a patrician class, the United States was moving in a more socially egalitarian direction. As the United States continued its westward expansion, the influence of classical republicanism certainly waned.

Jefferson’s vision of a vast agrarian republic of small farmers was upended by the transformation of the United States into a mighty commercial empire and a rising industrial working class during the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the country politics of Jefferson and Jackson persevered in the form of populism. This tradition includes the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, George Wallace, Ross Perot, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. They each represented different creeds but share the common impulse against elites in politics, culture, and business. Defending his thesis that classical republicanism still lingers in the American mind, Pocock said Americans ‘were concerned with the question of retaining values under changing historical conditions’.

The United States is now the most powerful military and economic power in the world, but under immense pressure. Victory in the Cold War secured a period of relative stability and unipolarity that has been gradually undone by the rise of Islamist terrorism, revanchist Russia, and Communist China. Talk of the ending of the ‘Pax Americana’, inspired by the ‘Pax Romana’ of ancient times, is widely accepted. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hamas’ Iranian-backed attack on Israel, and China’s threats to seize Taiwan have all put the United States and its allies on the backfoot. Foreign policy restrainers have flourished in recent years on Left and Right with warnings of imperial overstretch.

Echoes of Roman decline and fall can also be found in the internal politics of the United States. Increasingly fractious culture wars reflect a loss of social trust and growing inequality. Online men’s groups have become fixated with ancient Rome in their search for masculinity. Political violence has escalated to new levels with the Capitol riots of January 6, 2021. Populists rail against the self-interest of corrupt elites just as the Gracchi brothers once did against aristocratic landowners. The establishment warns against the arrival of an American Caesar. A profound sense of crisis is reaching a fever pitch, making Rome’s fate ever present in people’s minds.

The solution to the United States’ current external and internal crisis lies perhaps with Roman wisdom. Postliberal theorist Patrick Deneen has made the case for a ‘mixed constitution’ that can secure political order by blending the power of the many and the few. At present, there is an imbalance favouring the interests of the few over the needs of the many. This goes beyond the specific wording of the nation’s founding document. It is about the need to rebuild the middle class, restore the importance of family and community, and returning to a shared sense of national identity. Americans have found ways before to overcome and tame the concentrated power and wealth of the few, from Abraham Lincoln’s triumph over slavery to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s success against the economic royalists. Reasserting republican virtue can help Americans to do so again and forge a new politics of the common good.


David Cowan