About 30 years ago, an Italian friend of ours visited. After a few days doing the tourist thing, he exclaimed: “I love Washington! It’s like a Rome where everything works.”
I don’t know what Adriano would think of D.C. today, when Metro breaks down routinely and Congress seems proud of its dysfunction. But I understood his point: With its classically inspired public architecture, Washington is reminiscent of the Eternal City.
Many Americans might not make the connection. The classics department at the University of Maryland hopes to rectify that. Last month, it beat out two dozen U.S. and Italian universities and landed a $500,000 grant from the National Italian American Foundation to study the Roman influence on American identity.
“If we can call people’s attention to the way in which, particularly during the founding era, the nation, particularly Washington, looked to Rome as a model, I think that would be valuable,” said Greg Staley, professor of classics and director of honors humanities at Maryland.
The humanities are under siege these days, as experts tell us that students should focus instead on the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. I’m fine with those, but, personally, I’ve never liked a plant that was all stem. Give me some flower petals. Give me humanities.
And there’s nothing more humanitiesish than classics: studying dead people, their dead languages and their dead ways.
Or maybe not so dead. Most of the English words we use are derived from Latin. We number our Super Bowls with Roman numerals. We have a Senate and a Capitol Hill.
“I’ve always loved the fact that the past is not a museum, but is a window into where we’ve come from,” Greg said.
It’s a window the Founding Fathers enjoyed gazing through. Greg said: “The myth of Rome was that Rome was founded when the survivors of the Trojan War left Troy, sailed across the sea, claimed a new land and recreated Troy eventually in Rome. Americans read that story and said that’s our story. Our ancestors came from Europe across the seas. Now we’re going to recreate Rome here.”
The Founders wanted the representative democracy of the Roman Republic, but they also thought that our capital city should look like Rome — or what they thought Rome looked like. (In fact, Greg said, during the Republic — which lasted from about 508 B.C. to 31 B.C. — Rome was largely brick, not a city of gleaming marble. The marble came later, during the Empire.)
“The Pantheon was Jefferson’s favorite building,” Greg said. “It is distinctly Roman in that it has a dome. Domes were made possible by the Romans’ discovery of concrete.”
The curved inner surface of the dome suggested the sky itself. By the time of the Renaissance, cathedral domes would be painted with religious scenes. At the U.S. Capitol, Italian artist Constantino Brumidi painted George Washington ascending to Heaven, surrounded by such Roman deities as Minerva, Neptune and Vulcan.
The new grant will allow more U-Md. students to travel to Italy as well as to study Latin and Roman culture here. Distinguished visiting scholars will be invited to speak in College Park. There are plans to create a Web site highlighting classical influences on Washington and a mobile app to provide translations of the Latin inscriptions on Washington’s public buildings and monuments.
“We want to create something people can use to see the connections themselves,” Greg said.
Of course, the Roman Republic eventually fell and the Roman Empire eventually crumbled. In a delicious irony, the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was published in — 1776.
“It was a constant worry in [the Founding Fathers’] minds that our republic could follow the course of Roman political history and even degenerate into an empire and fall,” Greg said.
I asked Greg why the Romans themselves thought their republic fell.
“I think they would say any system created by humans cannot prevent the destructive impulses in human nature, for example ambition and greed. . . . So, what caused the Republic to fall was that it was a system designed to control human weakness and it didn’t.”
If that’s not a lesson worth keeping in mind 2,000 years later, I don’t know what is.