The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States (review)
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Ancient Greece, Roman Empire, Classics, Classical studies

The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States. By Carl J. Richard. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. 272. Cloth, $45.00.)

In this well-written and anecdotally rich book, Richard marshals a wide array of documentary, literary, and material evidence to demonstrate the enduring influence of Greek and Roman morals, mores, and models on [End Page 312] the intellectual, artistic, and political cultures of antebellum America. Even more importantly, he reveals the emergence of an increasing contradiction in the minds and manners of contemporaries between asserting the enduring relevance of the classical past and embracing the new and different challenges of living in their contemporary society. While Richard's title signals his explicit intention to argue that this period, not that of the Founders, was the "Golden Age" of the classics in America, it is this contradiction, and its awful outcome in the form of the American Civil War, that underpins and drives the narrative of the book.

Richard tells a story of challenge and backlash as classical models and morals were alternately attacked and defended during the period. He begins in his "Preface" with a strong argument for the democratization of classics, supporting this argument in his first chapter ("Classical Conditioning: School, Home, and Society"), where he traces the multitude of ways in which the influence of the classics on American society can be discerned outside the ranks of its wealthiest members. He emphasizes a subtle shift in the focus of attention, too, from the figures of the late Roman Republic whose writings and ideas had dominated the attention of America's founding generation, to the writers and thinkers of (pre-dominantly) fifth-century Athens, who were increasingly taken as exemplars for contemporary American public and political figures.

Richard picks up this theme in his second chapter ("Democracy"), exploring the ways in which classical models and rhetoric were implicated in the extension of male suffrage in the period. Most particularly, politicians needed to develop strategies for emphasizing their plain origins and shared experience with the less educated and aristocratic members of their audience, while simultaneously using their mastery of the classics as a marker of their wisdom and virtue among their peers. In this context, the attractiveness of Athens as a quarry for examples is clear: As "popular" opinion and the "popular" vote became increasingly important, the specter of populist demagogues of the late Roman Republic like Julius Caesar loomed large and threatening.

The new American democracy was increasingly, and self-consciously, a plutocracy, conferring status according to wealth. As a consequence, economic utilitarianism became a fraught cultural debate in the period, and Richard turns to the ways in which classical models were implicated in this debate in his third chapter ("Pastoralism and Utilitarianism"). In particular, the period witnessed strong calls to embrace the sciences and contemporary languages at the expense of languages and philosophies [End Page 313] deemed to be outdated. Ultimately, however, these calls were unsuccessful, principally because the classics remained so deeply embedded in intellectual practices and cultural expectations. Indeed, as Richard demonstrates in his fourth chapter ("Nationalism"), it is possible to argue that the series of attacks upon the exemplars of antiquity, as against American figures deemed more worthy of reverence and imitation, is clear proof of the strong hold that the classics continued to have over writers, thinkers, and cultural commentators in the period.

As Richard's fifth chapter ("Romanticism") reveals, the tension between Greece and Rome as the most suitable model for the new American state was particularly fraught in the field of literature, where American Romantic authors sought to refute the European dogma that it was impossible for a democracy to produce a national literature. As in debates over architectural forms and representations in pictorial and statuary form, particular attention focused upon the merits of imitation of classical forms, with both supporters and detractors of Romanticism propounding the value of the "classical spirit" while acknowledging the value of departing from the rigid canon of classical laws. The period also witnessed ongoing attempts among antebellum southerners in particular to reconcile Christianity...