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Ancient Rome in America


Sarah Middleton
This 1773 portrait is from the year of Sarah Middleton's marriage to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a future signer of the Constitution. In her flowing, antique-style dress, posed like the classical prophetess Sibyl, Sarah is portrayed as the very ideal of the ancient Roman matron.
Photo Credit: 
© Image Gibbes Museum of Art/ Carolina Art Association

Ancient Rome in America

Eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Americans were fascinated by ancient Rome and emulated classical style and philosophy in many facets of their lives. During this pivotal period of United States history, homes were adorned with classical architectural elements, students learned Latin in school, and the founding fathers aspired to the ideals of the ancient Roman republic.

Through the course of her research, Caroline Winterer, an associate professor of history at Stanford, has focused on the idea that the Roman influence in America was more than an intriguing cultural phase; it played an integral role in the development of the nation. Winterer, who specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of early America, describes the pervasive classical Roman influence during that period as being like the “wallpaper of the world.”

Winterer’s research has also led her to consider how the ancient Roman influence continues to be relevant today, an especially pertinent subject at a time when many wonder whether the United States, like Rome, will fall after a period of rapid expansion and success. Curators with The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia called upon professor Winterer’s unique expertise as they began to develop an exhibit that would investigate how America’s emulation of so many components of ancient Rome shaped the trajectory of American history. Professor Winterer became a curatorial consultant on the exhibit that has since been titled “Ancient Rome in America.”

Winterer helped museum curators organize and present a vast array of over 300 artifacts that span a 2,000-year time period; some objects date to ancient Rome, and others are drawn from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. Presented in five themed galleries, the objects, including bronze and marble sculptures, ceramics, coins, and jewelry help visitors to gain an understanding of how the ancient Roman republic turned into an empire, and how this transformation shaped the politics and culture of Americans from the era of the America Revolution to the present day.

“Ancient Rome in America” will be exhibited at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia from February 19th through August 1st, 2010.

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