Margaret Malamud, Ancient Rome and Modern America. Classical Reception Series. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xi + 296, incl. 48 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-4051-3934-2. UK£19.99.
English and World Literature, Western Kentucky, USA
The classical heritage of the United States has not received as much attention as that of Great Britain, and Margaret Malamud’s volume provides a concise introduction, whose primary texts range from the high brow to the popular, including literature, architecture, painting, theatre, world fairs, and film. (In whatever version, Chapters 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9 have been published before, which raises the issue of overall originality.) As an attention getter, she begins with United States Senator Robert C. Byrd from West Virginia, who tirelessly orates with Roman gravitas on the dangerous slide from republican ideals into imperial corruption -- yet he is clearly an anomaly in our world of facebook, Davos summits, and global warming.
According to Chapter 1, 'Exemplary Romans in the Early Republic' (pp. 9-33), the American Revolution and the ensuing War of Independence pitted the republican heroes Cato (notably the Cato of Joseph Addison’s play of 1713), Cicero, and Brutus against Julius Caesar, the tyrant and destroyer of the Roman Republic. The Founding Fathers, fully versed in the classics, believed in a westward trajectory of empire: Near East, Greece, Rome, Great Britain, and finally America. In order to avoid the fate of Troy or Athens, Americans needed to dedicate themselves to civic virtue, and what better precepts than the moral exempla from Sallust, Cicero, Livy, and Tacitus? Even in domestic affairs, exemplary Roman women (the Sabines, Portia, Cornelia, Arria, and Marcia the Younger) were to be emulated. An illustration shows George Washington in Roman military garb, with his sword symbolically laid down to stress his abdication of power, thereby avoiding a Caesarean fate (while his nemesis Napoleon consciously modeled himself on Caesar). Then, as the United States became a continental commercial power, American workers identified with the Roman plebeians in their struggle against the 'aristocrats' of industrial capitalism. President Andrew Jackson’s popular democracy thus followed a fifth-century Athenian model, dismissing Rome as run by a patrician elite. The new champions were Caius Marius, slaves in general, and of course Spartacus. At the same time, Jackson was denounced by his Whig opponents as a modern Caesar (or king) corrupted by luxus. Caesar could be all things to all people: anti-democrat and champion of the people (a comparison to Socrates would have been instructive here).
'Working Men’s Heroes' (pp. 34-69) continues the story of President Jackson, an uneducated or self-educated common man who hardly fit into the shoes of Julius Caesar (who traced his family back to Aeneas and Venus), and the foundation and emerging identity of the Democratic Party on democratic rather than republican principles. Jackson, the American Marius, was contrasted with his opponent John Quincy Adams, the aristocratic dictator Sulla. Lack of classical education became an asset, an anti-intellectualism that endeared Jackson to the common man. 'John Quincy Adams can write -- Andrew Jackson can fight' (p. 36), a slogan put it succinctly. Still, working class men were able to benefit from inexpensive translations of classical literature. All this was being negotiated not only in the press but also in the theatre, whose layout replicated the class-oriented structure of society as a whole. Spartacus, in particular, was appropriated and admired for his resistance to slavery, a concept that proved problematic later. As Malamud points out, 'slavery' was used metaphorically (and hypocritically, one should add), describing political and economic oppression of white males by other white males: '"Sweet liberty" was for whites not black slaves' (p. 45).
In 'Rome and the Politics of Slavery' (pp. 70-97), in the antebellum years, as the country drifted apart economically and socially, the Gracchi brothers became the new heroes. In the North, they were revered for their agrarian reforms and support of impoverished citizens. In the South, conversely, wealthy landowners admired them for their eloquence and their anti- corruption crusades. As land reform and slavery eclipsed all other issues, some abolitionists identified with Carthage’s resistance to Rome (with Hannibal’s city figuring as an African site sacked by white people), while Southerners argued that slavery contributed majorly to the accomplishments of the Greek city states and to Roman civilization: 'slavery enabled the liberty (libertas) and leisure (otium) necessary for culture and polities, ancient and modern, to flourish' (p. 70). Malamud pays special attention to Louisa S. McCord’s play Caius Gracchus (1851). The pro- slavery McCord, who had published a scathing review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, held up the Gracchi’s mother Cornelia as a model for the perfect matrona and presented an essentially conservative Gracchus, who exhorted Romans to choose honor, civic duty, and patriotism; here McCord was alluding to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, one of the most powerful voices of secession, who obsessively railed against Yankee imperium. With the Confederacy annihilated, Southern classicist Basil Gildersleeve (vainly) exhorted the victorious North to follow Anchises’ advice to Aeneas: parcere subiectis et debellare superbos. Finally, a theatrical John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln with the cry 'Sic semper tyrannis!'
According to 'Corporate Caesars and Radical Reformers' (pp. 98-121), with the South defeated and the North moving toward rapid industrialization, labor reform trumped the political agenda. Analogies to Rome’s rise and fall pervaded: 'For many Americans, robber barons, class warfare, strikes, conspicuous consumption, and corrupt political machines evoked images of imperial Rome -- its decadent rich, huge landed estates, tremendous economic inequality, and corrupt government' (p. 99). Caesar now embodied plutocratic politicians and greedy industrialists. Malamud ends the chapter with Henry Adams, 'a Dinosaur in a Darwinian age' (p. 115), who as late as the early twentieth century believed in a Ciceronian system of government by the best.
'Manifest Virtue' (pp. 122-49) chronicles growing uneasiness with a hitherto neglected (or suppressed) aspect of ancient Rome: the persecutions of Christians and Jews. A new myth emerged, that of heroic resistance to the pagan Romans. And because America was God’s chosen country, wealth and empire, the two usual culprits of the republic’s demise, could fruitfully and triumphantly coexist. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s fantastically popular The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) romanticized ancient Greece, idealized the early Christians, and pictured Romans as bloated and voluptuous in a city of the dead. The Second Great Awakening had democratized salvation and hoped to reverse the apocalyptic trend of sinful nations (Babylon, Nineveh, Sodom and Gomorrah, Carthage, Alexandria . . .), while Greek Revival architecture swept the country, paying tribute to the home of timeless beauty and noble simplicity. Lew Wallace’s never out-of-print Ben- Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) assuaged post- Civil War anxieties with a messianic Old and New Testament narrative, with the Puritan crossing of the Atlantic mirroring the Judaic exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land: 'Wallace’s quest reflected and responded to a widespread desire in the United States for reassurance on the historicity of the Bible and the Christian religion in the face of new and unsettling scientific theories and discoveries' (p. 141).
'The Pleasures of Empire' (pp. 150-85) discusses how the Roman Empire, formerly dismissed as decadent, came to justify the acquisition of an overseas empire. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago, commemorating Columbus’ 'discovery' of America, reveled in triumphal arches, utopian buildings, homages to the Goddess of Chicago, and conspicuous consumption. Classically- minded visitors felt reminded of Aeneas’ palimpsestic tour of the future Rome by Evander. The City Beautiful architectural movement, harking back to fabled Roman might, built colossal train stations, libraries, universities, and other monuments. San Francisco styled itself as the Rome of the Pacific, although after the earthquake in 1906, it rather resembled a new Pompeii. In New York, Fifth Avenue became the Appian Way, where Dewey Arch evoked the Arch of Titus in the Eternal City, where banks towered as modern-day temples, where one traveler instinctively looked for vestal virgins scattering flowers in Grand Central Terminal, where Pennsylvania Station combined the best of the Baths of Caracalla and the Colosseum, where the opulent Fleischman Baths invited its customers to 'Abandon care all ye who enter here and do as the Romans did' (p. 166), and where circuses reenacted gladiatoral combats, staged chariot races, set Christians on fire, killed fabulous beasts, and, of course, wallowed in Neronian orgies. And even the less wealthy benefited from sophisticated technologies of reproduction: 'In contrast to the eighteenth century’s association of classicism with austerity, restraint, and civic virtue, now reproductions of classical art in homes proclaimed the owner’s elevated taste, knowledge of history and art, and individual achievement in the world' (p. 173). At the same time, Americans were ambivalent about their acquisition of empire around the world, a general amnesia that prevails until today (although it was thrust into the spotlight during the Presidency of George W. Bush and his 'axis of evil' crusade).
According to 'Screening Rome during the Great Depression' (pp. 186-207), in the Roaring Twenties, movie stars were anointed as the new caesars, living in palatial Roman residences, enjoying Neronian nights, and ingesting Lucullan luxuries. Then everything changed in 1929, and the inevitable progress toward empire was halted. Hollywood’s sword-and-sandal epics pitted Roman decadence against wholesome Protestant values, notably in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), which completed his trilogy instigated with The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings. Malamud aptly terms Sign a 'potent combination of sex, sadism, and religion' (p. 193), where, because of his morally didactic message, DeMille even got away with homosexuality and lesbianism. However, an extraordinary movie released in 1933, Roman Scandals (commissioned by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Eddie Cantor, both Jewish), exposed corruption regardless of classical or modern setting. Yet both Sign and Scandals 'offered reassuring and essentially conservative responses to the crises of the Depression era. The prospective alternatives for radical change -- anarchism and socialism on the left and various brands of right-wing populism or fascism on the right -- were both likely to frighten the studios and the distributors of films in the 1930, as well as many movie patrons' (p. 204).
'Cold War Romans' (pp. 208-28) documents a more critical stance in Hollywood. Marxist Howard Fast’s historical novel Spartacus appeared in 1951, with McCarthyism in full bloom, and was turned into the more famous movie of 1960, starring Kirk Douglas. In the novel, Rome embodies capitalism, wage-slavery, and the proletariat, issues that were considerably toned down in the movie, for the prevailing Cold War ideology adamantly maintained that all social revolutions must fail. Fast, who was imprisoned for contempt of Congress and whose works were blacklisted and banned, identified with the persecuted early Christians in Rome, who suffered as much as Communists did at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover. The movie similarly 'portrays the slave uprising as an exodus narrative tinged with modern Zionism rather than a political revolution against an oppressive Roman state' (p. 222). A re-release of The Sign of the Cross, on the other hand, explicitly equated Nero with the Nazis: 'The symbolic malleability of cinematic Romans, who stand in for Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, projected onto antiquity an American Cold War discourse that collapsed fascism and communism into one overriding totalitarianism that, reassuringly, would be defeated by the requirements of history' (p. 209). But Romanization also served another purpose. Fast got around the censor by expressing the forbidden in Roman garb or toga. (Unfortunately, what gets short shrift here is the Civil Rights movement. We know that Socrates represented an advocate of civil disobedience to, for example, Mahatma Gandhi and to Martin Luther King. What Roman models did they draw on?)
Malamud is at her best in the final chapter, 'Imperial Consumption' (pp. 229-52). In the twentieth century, if one wants to find Rome in the United States, one does not travel to Rome, New York but to Las Vegas, home of the resort Caesars (no apostrophe) Palace. At its inauguration in 1966, 50,000 glasses of French champagne, two tons of filet mignon, and the largest order on record of Ukrainian caviar were served. Rome’s supposed fabulous wealth invites emulation in the casino -- and is even made democratically available to the lower classes in the Forum Shops mall next door (the Warner Brothers Studio Store is not to be missed: 'Warnerius Fraternius Studius Storius'). The nightclub Cleopatra’s Barge allures Julius Caesars and Marc Antonys alike, as does the Circus Maximus Supper Club, featuring swinging Egyptian queens. (Just three years earlier, the movie Cleopatra had portrayed a den of debauchery on the Nile.) A copy of Giovanni Bologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women at the entrance invites fantasies of sexual domination, while naked (!) vestal virgins and scantily-clad wine goddesses greet diners in the Bacchanal Restaurant (in the 1960s, they were instructed to say 'I am your slave' and 'Yes, master'). At private parties, weight-lifters dressed as red plumed centurions will carry privileged guests on gold litters, and a hired audience will enthusiastically boom 'Hail Caesar!' The hotel’s stationery features (fake) burned edges, alluding to Nero’s alleged burning of Rome. Owner Jay Sarno did it all: 'Augustus claimed to have found Rome a city of mud-brick and left it a city of marble, while Sarno built a marble palace and casino empire in the sands of Las Vegas' (p. 238). However, since the mall is private property, the rights of free speech and assembly are curtailed, and the equation of Rome with democracy is thus diminished or obliterated. No religious or political significance attaches to the Forum mall, only a fetish of material desire.
In the epilogue, Malamud points to the decline of learning in the United States (especially about classical antiquity) and a lingering anxiety that the tidy, linear trajectory linking capitalism, democracy, and Christianity into one nation under God may not be true. The blockbuster film Gladiator (2000) once again toys with the myth of the virtuous republic, which, it is hinted at, Marcus Aurelius intended to re- establish. Released one year before 9/11, in both America and Rome of the second century, there are no enemies abroad, only an internal cancer. With his dying words, Maximus, the gladiator, defies the corrupt empire: 'There was once a dream that was Rome . . . it shall be realized' (p. 254). Malamud draws a contemporary parallel, with echoes of sunny optimism during the Reagan years: 'It is the intervention of a white heroic male -- the gritty, self-assured, yet also civilized, sensitive, and home-loving image of the modern, all-American hero transposed to the Roman Empire -- that holds open the possibility of reversing the process of decline and fall' (p. 255). After 9/11, democracy got into dire distress. Senator Byrd, who voted against the War Authorization Bill that gave President Bush the power to attack Iraq, cast Bush as a blood-thirsty Caesar. (One could adduce here the Lex Gabinia, which gave Pompey almost unlimited power and most generous access to the Roman purse for his war on pirates/terror, which was followed by Julius Caesar’s usurpation of power in Gaul, just as American liberals were shocked at the loss of civil liberties, the suspension of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, and the quasi implementation of torture.) Fortunately, at last, there is Gore Vidal, who vigorously warns against a vanishing sense of the past, what he terms 'the United States of Amnesia.'
Malamud concludes: 'I [initially] set out to write a book that showed how Roman antiquity remains relevant for today, how its malleability keeps it alive in surprising and often overlooked form,' but along its writing Malamud also excavated 'the often forgotten, marginalized, or silenced history of modern America' (p. 7). At times, though, the book would have benefitted from greater sophistication and more diversity. For example, the myth of 'manifest destiny' (pp. 28f.), which is usually attributed to Genesis, is equally indebted to Jupiter’s promise of an imperium sine fine to Aeneas and would have merited more attention. How about literary allusions to Rome, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (originally entitled Trimalchio) or Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March? Moreover, few people know that President John F. Kennedy’s famous exclamation of 'Ich bin ein Berliner' was preceded by 'Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.' Finally, there is Hunter S. Thompson’s very suggestive equation of Richard Nixon with Nero and of Watergate as the end of American innocence.[]
[] A lengthy bibliography terminates the volume, though it lacks some classics: David J. Bederman, The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution: Prevailing Wisdom (Cambridge 2008); John Eadie (ed.), Classical Traditions in Early America (Ann Arbor 1976); Richard M. Gummere, The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition: Essays in Comparative Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1963); Richard Hingley (ed.), Images of Rome: Perceptions of Ancient Rome in Europe and the United States in the Modern Age (Portsmouth 2001); Carl J. Richard, The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, Massachusetts 2009); John C. Shields, The American Aeneas: Classical Origins of the American Self (Knoxville 2001); Susan Ford Wiltshire, Greece, Rome, and the Bill of Rights (Norman 1992).