The Founders lavished praise upon the Roman republican heroes who defended their government from tyranny in the turbulent final days of the Republic.
Rome’s history can be split into three broad thematic periods. First, there was the founding of Rome, when kings of Rome reigned supreme. Following the removal of the tyrant king Tarquin from his lofty position, Rome became a Republic. During this Republican period, Rome rose to prominence. After conquering Italy and overcoming the Carthaginians, the Romans became the dominant power of the ancient world. Roman historians were captivated by the virtuous and selfless men who populated the rustic pastures of Republican Rome. Once the Republic fell apart as a result of civil war, the Imperial era began. During this final period, Rome was ruled by the emperors until its eventual collapse.
It may seem odd that many Americans of the eighteenth century felt any affinity towards ancient Rome, but there are many parallels between the two societies. Akin to the Republican Romans, eighteenth-century Americans were mainly rural farmers. Roman poets such as Horace and Virgil praised an agrarian lifestyle, and their writings struck a chord with the self-sufficient, hardy farmers of early America. The Romans praised the virtues of independence, patriotism, and moderation which were also cornerstones of American society. During the Enlightenment, the Western world as a whole was enchanted by ancient Rome. The famous French philosopher Montesquieu once stated that “it is impossible to be tired of so agreeable a subject as ancient Rome.” For a time, every educated person in the Western world had a deep understanding of the ancient past, and America was no exception. It is therefore unsurprising that Plutarch’s Parallel Lives was a consistent bestseller in America in the early days of the Republic. Ancient literature was devoured by the educated elite of early America. This resulted in the emergence of a common language of classical references in the writings of the founding generation.
The American Revolution further intensified interest in the Roman world. By anchoring those arguments for freedom to ancient precedent, Revolutionary American authors aimed to demonstrate that their arguments were timeless and firmly embedded in history. Historians such as Plutarch, Livy, and Tacitus successfully encapsulated in writing the eternal and unavoidable struggle between liberty and power. Parallels between Rome and America were made frequently by Revolutionary writers and orators. Josiah Quincy compared the tyrant Caesar to King George, asking “is not Britain to America what Caesar was to Rome?” One of the most dramatic and obvious examples of reference to Rome was Joseph Warren’s oration on the Boston Massacre in 1775, during which he wore a Roman toga. It would be difficult to find any public figure of the Revolutionary period who did not quote a classical author in their pamphlets, orations or letters.
Many of the educated American Revolutionaries not only read about the Romans as a scholarly pursuit, some actively tried to emulate their behaviour and virtues.