The exhibition called Ancient Rome and America at the National Constitution Center is a little dumbed down. It makes a vivid but narrow comparison of American “Republican,” values with those of the Roman Empire, which fell in the Fifth Century. If Rome fell because of a moral decline in their citizenry, then the USA – whose military might is unmatched historically – may have a problem. Not bad, but it barely does justice to a subject which has significant depth and considerable topical controversy. Pitched for 10-12 year olds, the premise is simple: we have always used Roman iconography. Based on several convenient “Roman” tropes we inherited from Europe, the exhibition uses incidental, visual culture and many governmental symbols to make an indeterminate case. These art historical forms include classical domes, columns, and leaders depicted on coins in togas. Sculpture of both Washington and Franklin are depicted in this garb. The use of the eagle to represent the country is all very obvious. The curators might have stopped before illustrating lame cultural borrowings from sports teams and Star Wars. The Philadelphia Eagles are our Gladiators!? Come on! Expert Academicians appear at the end of the tour – should have been at the front – discussing the pros and cons of the real America’s “Empire.” Their concerns are clear – is the USA going to crumble soon? – but dated and almost benign. Those are now the Bush Years. Incidently, George W. does resemble the bust of Emperor Caracalla, a complete bastard who kills his own brother for the throne.
However, the real meat of this comparison is not in our adoption of a few iconic styles representing power, but in our language (Latin derived) and art and long-lasting master narratives that central government gives strength and order while also needing vigilant overseeing of its sometimes despotic leaders. Napoleon and Hitler make interesting analogies here. The big question remains is mysterious; how did our Founding Fathers see the distinction between themselves and all the nations of Europe and their squabbling outdated monarchies. Something to do with the Enlightenment? This context goes way beyond comparing the ancients via classical studies and neo-classical architecture made popular after the discovery of Pompeii in the 1760’s. Missing also from this investigation is Christian iconography which overlaps directly with real Roman History. This “Christian” problem may have added to Rome’s disintegration from within. The beginnings of a Christian Church literally grew out of the ashes of the Roman Empire and the early church was, in fact, based on the Empire’s coherent myth of strength and longevity. Hence the name, the Vatican uses to this day: The Roman Catholic Church. Also over-looked is the influence of the Judaic Traditions dating from well before the “Year Zero.” The Romans were responsible for the original Jewish diaspora. Talk about topical, if not politically correct.
Hollywood film posters like Ridley Scott’s recent Gladiator (2000) complete the survey. We’ve come a long way; clearly now, Hollywood at directors know their Roman portraiture. Case in point: Marcus Aureleus in Gladiator, played by the marvelous Richard Harris, is the spitting image of the real Roman sage and military man seen in marble portrait busts. Luckily, the Romans were keen on verism. Sadly, numerous “sword and sandal” movies starring Jesus of Nazereth and Romans (always featuring an aloof Pontius Pilate, if not an evil Caesar) are omitted. By my calculations, it was Tiberius who ruled in 33 AD. Even Monty Python’s The Life of Brian offers this connection in their daft version of Ancient Judea. The subject is fascinating, but this exhibition barely scratches the surface.
James Rosenthal is an artist/critic who teaches art history at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.