Monday, April 26, 2010

Reading Journal: "Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts"

Carl J. Richard, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. Paperback. 202 pp. (with index). $16.95.
Dr. Willard entered largely into the field of ancient history, and deduced therefrom arguments to prove that where power had been trusted to men, whether in great of small bodies, they had always abused it, and that thus republics had soon degenerated into aristocracies. He instanced Sparta, Athens, and Rome. The Amphictyonic league, he said, resembled the Confederation of the United States; while thus united, they defeated Xerxes, but were subdued by the gold of Philip, who brought the council to betray the interest of their country...

Mr. Randall said [that] the quoting of ancient history was no more to the purpose than to tell how our forefathers dug clams at Plymouth; he feared a consolidation of the thirteen states.

(from the minutes of the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, January 1788)

For a brief period in the late eighteenth century, the United States passed through an awkward and fascinating neoclassical age. Most of the the Founders, like Adams and Jefferson, were exceptionally well-educated in the Greek and Roman classics, and looked to the ancient world for guidance in setting up their own experiment in republican government. Jefferson established Greek and Roman architecture as the primary model for public architecture in the United States; poets extolled the new nation in neoclassical epics that strove to rival Homer; and politicians—particularly Federalist politicians—quoted the classics as precedents for their own positions on contemporary issues. This neoclassical period was short-lived, however, as American politics and culture became increasingly homespun and democratic. Although classically educated Federalists like Dr. Willard carried the day in 1788, it was men like "plain Benjamin Randall" who came to dominate a more democratic American society. But the influence of the classics was undeniably significant for the founders of the American republic.

A few years ago, I taught a course at Carleton called "America and the Classics." One of the difficulties in teaching the course was that most of my students did not have a particularly strong background in the classics, which made it difficult for them to understand the classical references made by the Founders. What, for example, was the Amphictyonic league that Dr. Willard talks about?

Carl J. Richard's new book, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts, does admirably what I tried to do in the first half of that course. In eight lively and thorough chapters, he provides a crash course in Greek and Roman history, and then briefly discusses some of the lessons that the American Founders drew from that history. For a reader with little grounding in the classics, this book provides an admirable introduction, with chapters on ancient Sparta, Athenian democracy, the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, the rise of Rome, the fall of the Roman republic, and imperial Rome. Each chapter focuses primarily on the ancient background, but concludes with a brief examination of the lessons the Founders drew from that ancient material. Readers who want a more in-depth exploration of the influence of the classics on the Founders can then turn to Richard's The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard University Press 1994).

I'm currently assigning the book as the textbook in the version of "America and the Classics" I'm teaching for the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium. My students, most of whom are in their seventies and eighties, have found the book fascinating and highly readable.

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