Ancient Rome and America

Roman historian Campbell Grey helps curate exhibition exploring America's Roman inheritance.
March 1, 2010
When Assistant Professor of Classical Studies Campbell Grey was called on to lend his expertise as a Roman historian to the development of the National Constitution Center's Ancient Rome and America exhibition, he thought: "This is the most fantastic thing I've ever seen; where have you been all my life?" Grey joined the project as a co-curator of the exhibition, which showcases the cultural, political and social connections between ancient Rome and the United States.

"In my teaching, I've looked at the reception of the ancient world, not just as a straight reception, but as an adaptation, adoption and reconstitution," Grey says. "This exhibition seemed like a really exciting way to explore this subject in a very specific but multi-dimensional context."

Ancient Rome and America runs through August 1 and features more than 300 artifacts, including a never-before-seen collection from leading archaeological institutions in Italy as well as objects from more than 40 lending institutions in the U.S. The exhibition is structured to invite viewers to draw comparisons between aspects of ancient Rome and America, from theories of government to architecture to popular culture.

"In my teaching, I've looked at the reception of the ancient world, not just as a straight reception, but as an adaptation, adoption and reconstitution. This exhibition seemed like a really exciting way to explore this subject in a very specific but multi-dimensional context." – Campbell Grey

For example, statues of the American Founding Fathers dressed in togas are interspersed with statues of Roman figures from both republican and imperial Rome. The American leaders, it's apparent, preferred to be represented like leaders of Rome the Republic—with saggy eyes and jowls and worry lines—rather than the eternally youthful representations of Roman emperors. The exhibition also invites comparisons between the architecture of Roman temples and the U.S. Capitol building, and between Roman enjoyment of gladiatorial combat and the enjoyment of sports in contemporary America.

One of Grey's favorite juxtapositions features discharge papers for a Roman soldier that present him with property and citizenship and an Englishman's discharge papers from the American army that grant him citizenship.

"It's a really striking way of exploring how the military has functioned as a vehicle for social cohesion," Grey explains.

Ancient Rome and America concludes with a video presentation—featuring Grey and Stanford American historian Caroline Winterer—that asks visitors to ponder what Rome's legacy has to say about America's future. The question is one that relates closely to Grey's own research interests.

"One of the fundamental questions everyone who comes to the exhibit is going to be asking themselves is, ‘Is America Rome? Rome fell; is America going to fall?" Grey says. "This question actually presupposes something that's kind of problematic—that Rome fell. A lot of my scholarship questions what the ‘fall of Rome' actually means as a concept. As a historian, I believe it's more an issue of transformation—an issue of different trajectories of change and continuity."

Grey is currently finishing up a book that examines how small communities experienced the changes of the late Roman world, arguing that political changes at the state level had a relatively minimal impact from the perspective of the household, family or village. Grey explains, "When you think about Rome's fall or decline, you've got to account for differential experiences of this."

The goal of the exhibition is not to present a definitive conclusion about Rome's legacy for America, but to encourage visitors to not only ask questions but also to think about the questions they're asking. "We hope that when people walk out, they're sort of musing on what it actually means to wonder whether America is Rome and whether America is going to fall," Grey says.

In helping curate Ancient Rome and America, Grey provided input on its design and generated and edited many of its labels. As one of the exhibition's public faces, he also participates in related outreach programs and is running a conference to be held on April 28th. A collaborative venture between Penn's Center for Ancient Studies and the National Constitution Center, the conference will be open to the public and will feature scholars speaking on America's Roman inheritance.

In addition to "being a lot of fun," Grey feels that working on the exhibition was an ideal exercise in collaboration and engagement. "You cooperate with people who bring something different to the table than you do," he says, "and in that creative mix, something that's bigger and better than the sum of its parts emerges. The exhibit also shows that you can fruitfully exploit the interest people have in what we scholars do—to their advantage and to our advantage. I'd like to think that as a result of this experience, I'm a better teacher because I'm able to communicate more broadly; I'm a better communicator of my own material to non-specialists; and people realize that what we do as academics is not as far removed from their interests and experiences as they might think."