Hubert Robert, Ruins of the Louvre, 1796
© Musée du Louvre


Classical models acted as guides to public life and morality for Americans seeking lessons from history.

Guiding Ideas and Themes

Into the Lesson

In the 19th century the study of ancient history became ingrained in the American school and college curriculum. The classics were used to deduce right and wrong for the individual and the state, providing sources of authority equaled only by the Bible. Americans read the classics for instruction and pleasure, many of them enjoying classical stories while they learned lessons from the past.

By the 1840s, for many Americans the downward trajectory of the Roman Empire had taken on a lurid aspect. It was a popular cautionary tale. Historian Caroline Winterer suggests why it had enduring popular appeal:

Sometimes everyday life was wholesome and virtuous, and sometimes it was deliciously not, especially as the republic degenerated into debauched empire. But that was part of the appeal of Rome and cyclical history. Readers knew what was coming, as day followed night. So after sitting patiently through the agrarian republic of virtuous frugality when simple farmers ate porridge out of wooden bowls and fought for Rome, … the part with the bad emperors and the orgies, the naked slaves, and the dinners of peacock tongues and parrot heads. It was all a bit de trop, but such books would not have sold (in multiple editions and translations) if there had not been a market for this kind of thing.

The Lessons of Antiquity and Edward Gibbon

The rise and fall of ancient civilizations was of deep interest to Americans. For Americans before Gibbon, including the Founders, the story of the Roman empire had been confined mainly to evil Caesar (military autocrat and enemy of the republic) and Nero (libertine and burner of Christian martyrs).

During the 18th century Charles Rollin’s ancient history dating from the 1730s was the leading authority on classical antiquity. Rollin’s masterpiece was superseded by other works of scholarship, not only Gibbon, some of the greatest histories ever written. The histories of the 18th and 19th centuries include a formidable list of great works and scholarship.

Then came Gibbon. Published between 1776 and 1788 in several volumes, Gibbon's opus and super-hit had immediate and lasting public impact in London. It was a great critical success, and it remains a definitive history to this day. Its popularity in the U.S. grew steadily throughout the 19th century. It is valuable to keep in mind that Gibbon did not at first have a monopoly on the subject of ancient history. Gibbon’s admiration for the second-century empire and antagonism to Christianity made him, in the eyes of some early 19th-century Americans, a heathen and atheist. Decline and Fall nonetheless became an essential book of the 19th century. In 1857, the abridged Student's Gibbon (New York: Harper and Brothers) appeared, becoming a staple in U.S. libraries and classrooms for the next seventy-five years.

Thomas Jefferson and The Ruins

Americans read Constantin Volney’s The Ruins, first published in French in 1793. A friend of Thomas Jefferson, Volney was visiting Virginia in the United States from France three years later. Together they decided to translate The Ruins into English.

As Vice-President, Jefferson was spending most of his time rebuilding Monticello. (There was no Washington D.C. and Jefferson had few public responsibilities.) Abraham Lincoln was an avid reader of The Ruins as a young man. A long meditation on antiquity, Volney’s tome sought a new world political order based on reason and equality. Volney says in his invocation:

HAIL solitary ruins, holy sepulchres and silent walls! you I invoke; to you I address my prayer. While your aspect averts, with secret terror, the vulgar regard, it excites in my heart the charm of delicious sentiments -- sublime contemplations. What useful lessons, what affecting and profound reflections you suggest to him who knows how to consult you! When the whole earth, in chains and silence, bowed the neck before its tyrants, you had already proclaimed the truths which they abhor; and confounding the dust of the king with that of the meanest slave, had announced to man the sacred dogma of Equality. Within your pale, in solitary adoration of Liberty, I saw her Genius arise from the mansions of the dead … O Tombs! what virtues are yours!

Thomas Cole and The Course of Empire

Consummation of EmpireThomas Cole, Consummation of Empire


Cole’s moral cycle of five large-scale paintings told of the rise and fall of civilization with distinctly classical features.

Course of Empire: the five paintings

Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire, a five-painting narrative cycle, was completed in 1834. Thomas Cole was the leading American painter of his generation. Course of Empire illustrates, in five related panels, what the artist called Savage State, Pastoral State, Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. Course of Empire arguably embodies better than any other work American thought-lines about the lessons of the classical past. It is a cautionary tale. It depicts and spans the rise and fall of an unknown (but distinctly classical) civilization.

Thomas Couture and Romans of the Decadence

Consummation of Empire
Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence, 1847

Thanks to cheap engraved reproductions, this lurid view of Rome was extremely well known to Americans by the late 19th century. It became the image of the late Roman Empire, the moment of abandonment and peacock tongues, one observed critically by two philosophers (possibly foreign visitors to Rome) in the foreground and right.

Thomas Couture’s salon painting, Romans of the Decadence, quoted the second-century Roman poet Juvenal in the catalogue for the 1847 Salon where the painting was first exhibited: "Crueller than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world." Romans of the Decadence imagined the Roman orgy, taking place in the great halls amid the statues of virtuous republican or Augustan ancestors, false in every way, but with immense popular appeal. Widely reproduced, Romans of the Decadence became the mother of all toga parties.

In the 19th century artists often used classical themes to make comment about current events, and history painting often invoked the theme of liberty. Apart from illustrating an ancient text, Couture was alluding to French society of his time. A Republican, Couture opposed restoration of the monarchy.

Edward Everett at Gettysburg: The Classics and Heroes

Edward Everett

Edward Everett was widely considered the greatest academic of his generation. He spoke with Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

One of the towering figures in 19th-century American intellectual history, Edward Everett, born in 1794, was professor of Greek literature at Harvard University. He served five terms in Congress. He was Governor of Massachusetts, United States minister to Great Britain, president of Harvard University, and Secretary of State under President Millard Fillmore (to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Daniel Webster). Everett was elected as a Whig to the Senate from Massachusetts in 1854 and was an unsuccessful candidate for vice president in 1860. Everett spoke at Gettysburg with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

Just as the classics were mined for individual instruction, virtue and vice and political guidance, 19th-century statesmen and public figures used antiquity to highlight and compare contemporary events and commemorate heroes. These classical allusions signaled the gravity, solemn simplicity, grandeur, and magnitude of public occasions of all kinds.

These words open Everett’s famously long and wordy speech at Gettsyburg:

Such were the tokens of respect required to be paid at Athens to the memory of those who had fallen in the cause of their country. For those alone who fell at Marathon a special honor was reserved. ... [Today we stand] over the graves of our dear brethren, who so lately, on three of the all-important days which decide a nation's history, days on whose issue it depended whether this august republican Union, founded by some of the wisest statesmen that ever lived, cemented with the blood of some of the purest patriots that ever died, should perish or endure rolled back the tide of an invasion, not less unprovoked, not less ruthless, than that which came to plant the dark banner of Asiatic despotism and slavery on the free soil of Greece?" Heaven forbid!

For an extended study of Edward Everett, consult Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, especially Ch. 1, “Oratory of the Greek Revival,” and Edward Everett Papers, edited by Frederick S. Allis, Jr., Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1972.

For Further Study: Neoclassicism Around Us

Illinois Memorial, Vicksburg, 1906

Navy Memorial, 1911