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Mon, 23 Jun 2008 16:06:57 -0500
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Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding 
Fathers. By CARL J. RICHARD. Lanham, MD and Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, 2008. Pp. 248. Cloth, $22.95. ISBN 978𢠩42556232.

Order this text for $16.52 from Amazon.com using this link and
benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:


A CJ Online Exclusive 2008.06.03

This book, intended for the general reader, gives a lively overview of
Greek and Roman civilization as it was known and understood by the Founding
Fathers of the United States, and highlights the ways in which the Greeks
and Romans influenced the Founders views on political matters.

Richard (R.) argues that the classical education the Founders experienced
as young students inspired them to undertake the American Revolution and
influenced their approach to a host of constitutional and practical issues
crucial to the shaping of the new American republic. R. explores how the
Founders learned the importance of individual rights from the absence of
such rights in Sparta, the superiority of the republican form of government
to monarchy from the Greek victory over the Persians, the perils of
democracy from the instability of Athens, the need for a strong central
government from the fall of Greece to Macedon and Rome, the importance of
virtue in the success of a republic from early Rome, the need for vigilance
against ambitious individuals from the fall of the Roman Republic, and the
value of liberty from its destruction by Roman emperors.

In Chapter One (揟he Storytellers and the Founders) R. acquaints the
reader with the accomplishments and impact of the small, select group of
classical historians and orators studied by the Founders in the
18th-century educational system. These 搒torytellers were Herodotus,
Thucydides, Demosthenes, Polybius, Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus
and Suetonius. These authors tended to be條ike the Founders
themselves條earned, moralistic, aristocratic males who possessed some
political and military experience. In his remaining seven chapters, R.
summarizes what these storytellers said about the following topics: Sparta
and individual rights, the Persian Wars and the superiority of republican
government, Athens and the perils of democracy, the fall of Greece and the
need for a strong central government, early Rome and republican virtue, the
fall of the Roman Republic and the need for vigilance, and the Roman
emperors and the preciousness of liberty.

In each chapter R. assumes no background in ancient history or classics on
the part of the reader, but clearly and engagingly explains what the
Founders were likely to have known as a result of their study of the
classics in the educational system of the time. As R. presents this
background, he suggests ways in which it influenced the Founders thinking
in the shaping of the United States. For instance, in Chapter Two, on
Sparta and Individual Rights, R. explains the legend of Sparta, e.g., the
Helots, Spartan colonization, the Spartan political system, the rearing of
Spartan children, and the advantages and disadvantages of the Spartan
social system. He summarizes problems with the account of Sparta the
Founders had, and which was largely drawn from Plutarch抯 life of Lycurgus,
whom most modern historians regard as a mythological figure. R. points to
the difficulties and problems inherent in interpreting the ancient world
solely from select and limited literary sources without the help of
archaeology or written material not included in this canon of literary

R. cites some of the lessons Founders derived from their story of Sparta.
Samuel Adams, for instance, refers to Spartan frugality, selflessness,
valor and patriotism. John Dickinson, author of Letters from a Pennsylvania
Farmer, praised Spartan calm and courage and said that Americans ought to
imitate this calm firmness in resisting unconstitutional taxation. In 1790
John Wilson applauded Spartan 揺mphasis on the training of youth. Benjamin
Rush admired Spartan frugality and in 1798 wrote, The black broth of Sparta
and the barley broth of Scotland have alike been celebrated for their
beneficial effects on the minds of young people. In 1814 the economist
John Taylor contrasted the virtues of the landed aristocracy of Sparta with
the vices of the British commercial elite (p. 31). But the Founders
admiration for many of the traits of Sparta抯 intense military training was
tempered by the realization that the Spartans suppressed individuality.
Thomas Jefferson referred to the Spartans as 搈ilitary monks. Alexander
Hamilton in the Federalist No. 6 noted that 揝parta was little better than
a well regulated camp. John Adams agreed and called Sparta抯 communal
ownership of goods 搒tark mad. The Founders sought the Spartans numerous
admirable qualities without the brutal system of socialization that
produced them (p. 32). According to R., the Founders were less
individualistic than most modern Americans but less collectivist than the
ancients. The Spartan model was not adopted for the new American republic.

R.抯 treatment of Sparta is typical of the remainder of the book. He tells
us clearly what the Founders knew about various aspects of the classical
past, and then shows us particular instances of the influence of this
knowledge. Rather than assuming that the reader knows something about the
classical past, he explains it, according to him because the reception his
earlier book The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome and the American
Enlightenment (1994) showed him the need to assume nothing by way of
background in classics and ancient history.

It was not Sparta or Athens that the Founders considered the greatest
ancient model for the United States, but the early Roman Republic. Athens
was viewed as too democratic and unstable. Sparta was too collectivist and
militaristic. The Roman Republic, by contrast, gave the masses enough
power, in the Founders belief, to avoid a tyrannical oligarchy, without
giving them so much control as to establish a chaotic ochlocracy. The
Founders also admired the Romans not only as political models but as models
of personal behavior, i.e., as heroes. R. argues that the Founder抯
preference for the Romans over the Greeks mirrored the educational system抯
traditional preference, reaching back to the Middle Ages, for Latin over
Greek (p. 97).

R.抯 book has many strengths. His clarity and sparkling style in providing
background about the classical past will attract many readers. General
reader and classicist alike will enjoy his accounts of such topics as the
First and Second Triumvirates and the Roman Revolution among many others.
The general reader will also get a good overview of classical antiquity, at
least in so far as it can be gleaned from the literary sources known to the

R.抯 account of how the Founders mined and used the ancients in their
deliberations on the American republic will fascinate readers. He offers
engrossing examples, telling us, for example, that Alexander Hamilton cited
the failure of the Greeks to rally around a strong central government as
the chief reason for the fall of Greece to Philip of Macedon. We learn that
the Federalists, at the Constitutional Convention, at the state ratifying
conventions and in published essays repeatedly cited ancient Greece as a
civilization destroyed by decentralization (p. 92). R. also discusses the
admiration of Jefferson for Tacitus, 搕he finest writer in the world
without exception, whom he fondly quotes as saying that the more corrupt
the commonwealth the more numerous its laws (p. 19). R. informs us that one
of the Founders greatest heroes was Cincinnatus. In 1776 John Adams
expressed his desire to emulate the Roman hero by resigning his worldly
powers and cares; George Washington took notice of the fact that people
compared him with Cincinnatus and worked actively to promote the analogy;
John Trumbull and Charles Wilson Peale painted Washington as Cincinnatus;
even King George III grudgingly admired the Cincinnatan character of
Washington抯 Farewell Address and handing over of power, though the king
did not, as Richard points out, comprehend the enormous emotional power
that classical republican ideals wielded over American minds (p. 126).

Finally, a few quibbles. References to Sparta as a Greek republic (pp. xi
and 179) may upset some readers, given that Sparta retained a monarchy. The
reference to Parthia as 揳 new Persian Empire (p. 141) may rankle others.
The expression 搇ocal small change (p. 169) referring to money may also be
confusing, and there is a typographical error in the spelling of Suetonius
name on p. 145.

I hope that Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts will be widely circulated and
read. My impression, born of my own curriculum development on the classical
heritage in America, is that colleagues in the field of American history
and civilization and political science, as well as general readers, need
and will appreciate the solid grounding in our classical tradition and its
impact on the Founders that this book provides. America抯 classical
heritage and its Nachleben is a topic very much neglected in school and
college curricula, and R抯 book should help remedy that neglect.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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