For this Constitution Monday I want to discuss how the Founding Fathers of the United States were influenced by studying the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Since I studied a little about the two cultures in my humanities class, my appetite for learning more about them has greatly increased.
I knew previously that the Founding Fathers were well-read and well-educated individuals who studied various governments before they began to write the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, I decided to do some research to discover exactly what they learned from these two ancient cultures that they used in founding the United States.
I found a blog post titled “How ancient Greeks influenced America’s founding fathers.” Below are some summaries of the eight ways that ancient Greek influenced the Founding Fathers.
1. They were inspired by the Hellenic and Roman history. They knew the stories from the ancient civilizations and learned valuable personal, social, and political lessons from them.
2. They knew how to read and write Greek. They learned Greek and Latin in grammar school and met the ancient historians at a young and teachable age.
3. They studied and were impressed by the courage of the ancient Greeks as they fought stronger and better prepared opponents. This was important information to know as the colonists went up against the strongest military in the world.
4. They looked to the Greek history of overcoming insurmountable odds and compared it to their own fight. No one expected the Greeks to defeat the Persian Empire, and no one expected the Americans to defeat Great Britain.
5. They learned what worked and didn’t work from Greek democracy. They knew Plato’s story of Socrates being executed on false grounds and determined to create a nation where the power of the government would be balanced by the power of the people. This is why they created a republic rather than a simple democracy.
6. They appreciated the values of community as well as honor that defined Sparta.
They learned the strengths and the weaknesses of republics from studying Sparta and found a way to protect individual rights while working for the good of the collective.
7. They wanted to emulate their Greek heroes. They wished to create an elevated and virtuous society.
8. They learned important lessons from Greek history that we can still benefit from studying.
The Greeks were defeated by the Romans. The Roman civilization spanned more than 1000 years and was located on three continents. The decline of Rome was caused by several problems, one of which was over-expansion. It got so large that it could not be protected from enemies or governed correctly. One can quickly see why the Founders would want to study the decline of Rome.
This site has information on the Roman civilization. The author says that the Founders and Framers of our nation were “like the ancient Romans and even consciously identified with them.” Rome was built on one of seven hills, thus the name “Capitol Hill.” They identified with “Roman models of republican virtue” such as Publius, Cicero, Cincinnatus, Cato, and Brutus and many Roman ideas.
The Founders’ political ideas were largely informed by Roman republican and imperial ideas. They sought to create a mixed constitution that balanced monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. (This is why our nation is not technically a democracy.)
The political vocabulary they used – republic, virtue, president, capitol, constitution, Senate – was based on Latin words. The legislative processes they utilized – veto, sine die – were Latin. Many of their political symbols – the eagle, the fasces, the image of a leader on a coin – were Roman in inspiration.
The architecture of the American Founding also showed a predilection for the Roman aesthetic sense. It’s not too much of stretch to assert that the buildings and monuments lining the National Mall in Washington, DC – with its stately, classical architecture – might resemble a Roman colony; the new additions constructed in the 1930s continued the Roman theme. The Capitol was inspired by Renaissance models that, in turn, were loosely based on the Roman Pantheon. Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, looks like a Roman temple….
Knowing the Founders’ interest in ancient Rome, one can quickly see how they were influenced by this civilization. The Founders studied each of the important eras in Roman history – the kingdom, the republic, and the empire. They learned how the successive wars turned the republic into an empire. They learned the problems that are caused by becoming a welfare state. They learned the importance of having good infrastructure – roads, bridges, etc. – to span their territory.
There is another comparison between the founding of America and the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations that I found particularly interesting. During the Greek control of the region, all the people learned to speak a common language – Greek – and retained it when ancient Greece fell. The Roman civilization prospered from the common language and made travel around the kingdom/republic/empire much easier with its roads, bridges, etc. The common language, ease of travel, and freedom of religion eased the way for the spread of Christianity.
The American comparison is the fact that within fifty years of the founding of this nation (1776), the Lord restored the gospel of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith (1820). The Constitution provided freedom of religion, an important requirement for the restoration.
The Founding Father gained many ideas and much knowledge from studying the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. I believe that Americans today would understand the Constitution and the government much better by studying these ancient cultures also. I encourage you to do so because I will continue to study them.