BMCR 2009.07.34

Ancient Rome and Modern America. Classical Receptions

, Ancient Rome and Modern America. Classical Receptions. Malden, MA/Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. xi, 296. ISBN 9781405139342. 39.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

In Ancient Rome and Modern America, Margaret Malamud offers an alternative account of American history from the eighteenth century to the present day. The book focuses on the importance of Republican and Imperial Rome to modern America, and more specifically on the way in which the latter has used and moulded contemporary perceptions of ancient Rome. In her history of the United States of America seen ‘through the lens of antiquity’, Malamud presents a variety of source material, ranging from theatre, painting, novels, personal writings and speeches by politicians to more popular domains in which ancient Rome has played an active part (cinema, material wealth and luxury goods…).

Chapter 1 treats the period from the War of Independence to around 1840, when ancient Rome evolved from being an example of moral virtue to being a negative example, incarnating the excesses of tyranny, loss of liberty and moral decadence. Malamud illustrates how the history of ancient Rome initially functioned as a source of inspiration for modern America’s struggle against British imperialism; consider the importance attached to the figure of Cato, as in the play Cato which was performed to demoralized American soldiers in 1778 at the request of George Washington. Figures such as Cato and Cicero became central heroes in the fight against tyranny, which was represented by in turn Julius Caesar. This emotional interest in late Republican Rome endured during the first years of independence, when some started to perceive America as a new kind of empire. The traces of this tendency can be found in writings of politicians, as well as in those of elite women, who saw themselves as reflections of Roman matronae, and in historical plays. With the rise to power of Andrew Jackson, a caesura occurred in many an American’s perception of the Caesarian era. Indeed for many members of the old aristocratic class, Caesar now represented an internal rather than an external enemy, i.e., the president himself as a popular kind of dictator. As such, during the Jacksonian era a vivid debate developed, which focused mainly on Julius Caesar, imperialism and tyranny.

The second chapter illustrates how Roman history was simultaneously being written in the opposite sense The (mainly aristocratic) opponents of Andrew Jackson and of the democratic ideals he represented saw in the late Roman Republic and above all in Caesar a negative historical example and a warning against the menace of authoritarian rule by Jackson, in an era of increasing wealth and the accompanying social tensions provoked by it. But Jackson’s supporters focused on themes of civic liberty and equality, which they often traced back to the Roman past. As has been the case in the preceding chapter, Margaret Malamud supports her analysis with examples taken from a number of plays, books and speeches by politicians. She also includes a growing number of press reports and figurative artworks. The chapter ends with the growing importance which was being attached to the Gracchi brothers, who, at least in the North, were seen as quintessential examples of ‘working man’s heroes’.

The following chapter focuses on the discourse concerning the politics of slavery, both in ancient Rome and in modern America. Through examples of speeches and writings of contemporaries, Malamud illustrates ways in which both defence and condemnation of slavery were often being supported by references to antiquity. Abolitionists, for example, often had recourse to Carthage, whose ‘heroic’ resistance to Roman imperialism they saw as being motivated by a fear of enslavement to the Roman Empire. Other Northerners referred not to slavery as it was generally known, but to what could be termed (white) ‘wage slavery’, i.e. the risk of becoming ‘enslaved’ by wage capital. In this context, the Gracchi brothers featured as historical exempla. In the South, supporters of slavery equally turned to the Roman Empire, arguing that slavery had brought Rome to greatness, and that it had permitted the development of culture. In their line of thinking, the decline of Rome had been the result of the avarice of the rich, and not of its dependence on slavery. The chapter ends with a case study of Southern matron Louisa S. McCord’s tragedy Caius Gracchus, which reflected the way in which many Southerners saw the possibility of a Northern victory as a form of enslavement of the South to the Yankees, comparable to the effects of ancient Roman imperialism.

The fourth chapter is one of the more interesting ones, at least to a contemporary reader, while at the same time it seems to be of somewhat lesser importance to the subject of reception of antiquity. It treats the growing social tensions between finance capital and the poor working -and unemployed- classes, and elevates the discussion beyond party politics to issues of human dignity and the threat of social inequality, in other words to the level of universal themes which are recurrent in many a modern capitalist society. The specific subject of the reception of Roman antiquity rather stays in the background, and is mainly based on references to the oppression of the poor in Roman antiquity which can be found in political speeches and writings.

Next is a chapter which focuses on two novels, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880). Both novels had a tremendous impact on their readership, conveying notions of virtue and (Christian) religious piety, as opposed to (Roman) degenerate imperialism. Whereas The Last Days of Pompeii combined this message with a stress on the importance of Greece and hence of democratic values,an issue which was highly sensitive during and in the aftermath of the presidency of Andrew Jackson, for many a reader Ben-Hur provided an alternative answer to the increasing cry for social justice. It not only offered the image of Christianity as a possible catalyst for the survival of ancient Rome -and hence also of modern America—but it also suggested that wealth and riches need not necessarily be seen as the cause of social inequality and injustice. Indeed they were to be considered as just the thing which American Christians needed to safeguard the future of their country.

Chapter 6 treats the triumph of American imperialism at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century. The latter led to, among other things, the development of a lavish classicist architectural style which gradually invaded the country’s major cities. This ‘American Renaissance’ also reflected an increasing interest in luxury goods and services. Americans seemed to have lost much of their sense of measure; Roman antiquity became a reservoir of aesthetic rather than of moral values, as is for example evidenced by baths erected in a style which was termed Roman and luxury goods which copied ancient Roman relics. Indeed quite an untold story: ‘how America’s imagined relationship with ancient Rome was re-articulated to celebrate empire, wealth, and power is a fascinating but buried moment in the history of America’s identification with ancient Rome.’ (p. 179)

The subsequent chapter treats the period of the Great Depression. It focuses mainly on two films which appeared shortly after the Crash of 1929: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross and Samuel Goldwyn’s Roman Scandals. Through the example of these two highly popular productions, Malamud illustrates the way in which in these times of economic and social crisis the Roman Empire, in its more decadent form, became a counter-example for modern America. Whereas Roman Scandals, featuring Jewish actor Eddie Cantor, focused exclusively on pagan Rome, DeMille also made an outspoken religious statement, using, quite ironically, images of Roman luxury and decadence as elements to attract and titillate crowds. The example of both productions shows how moviemakers used antiquity to respond to the dire economic and social conditions by offering ‘reassuring and essentially conservative responses to the crises of the Depression era.’ (p. 204)

In the eighth chapter, Malamud offers an insightful treatment of some instances in which, during the early Cold War years, the international political climate influenced the way in which ancient Rome was interpreted and used in the US. In an America which was rapidly evolving into a nation proffering a Manichean world view in which the Soviets and their communist ‘faith’ stood for the total negation and opposite of mainly Christian, democratic and free Americanism, productions such as Quo Vadis and The Robe pointed at the dangers of tyranny and ‘political heresy’. Rome became mainly a negative example, the fierce, decadent oppressor for which there was only one true alternative: true, Christian faith. There were however also dissident voices, such as the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast. The latter used the example of Spartacus to promote his socialist world view, in a rare effort at criticizing the American Cold War rhetoric. Years later, his novel also inspired Kirk Douglas, who starred in a film based on the book. For all its cinematic qualities, the movie had to make many concessions to Fast’s version, the result being a much less controversial, more salonfähige Spartacus.

The last chapter treats increasing American consumerism since the end of World War II, using as an iconic exemplum the ever expanding city of Las Vegas. Here we see Rome being exclusively put at the service of empty consumerist ideology. Indeed in the two main examples described in the chapter, Caesars Palace and the Forum Shops, Roman art and history are ornamentally inserted into a world which has as sole purpose the accumulation of riches through the attractive powers of pleasure and diversion. Devoid of any ideological value, antiquity becomes a symbol of opulence, riches and decadence. The latter aspect is now no longer being criticized, but it has effectively become the core element around which life seems to orbit.

The book fittingly ends in a brief assessment of the dangers of modern American imperialism, which bears striking resemblance—at least when observing the Bush-era—to the excessive, arrogant variant of Roman imperialism.

Ancient Rome and Modern America is an imaginative account on the importance of Roman antiquity throughout the history of the United States of America. The book is as much a history of American identity and culture as a history of the American reception of Roman antiquity. The fact that it considers both examples of higher and lower culture is an aspect which adds to its overall value. These merits are joined by an element which is of great value from a sociological viewpoint, and which is all too often neglected in reception studies, namely what could be termed the ‘reception of the reception’: not only does Margaret Malamud trace the importance of antiquity to modern America in the mentioned forms of culture, but her inclusion of press reports and personal writings gives us an idea of how the presentation of Rome in politics, novels, film, and architecture was received in turn by its American audience.