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National Columnists

Views: Why knowing Roman history is key to preserving America's future

The U.S. didn’t simply poof into existence, fully formed, from the brains of the Founders. History guided them as they crafted the American system of governance. This included the European traditions they were partially rejecting, but also elements from an older generation of republics that they wished to copy, especially the Roman Republic.

And while our problems today feel distinctly modern, Rome still has lessons that can guide our republic. Polybius, a Greek who saw Rome’s republic conquer the world, believed those statesmen and citizens who knew Roman history could shape the future with wisdom and justice. This is what the Founders did, adapting the lessons of Rome to new problems – and it’s what we must do again today.

In 509 B.C., leading citizens in Rome overthrew a monarchy and created a republic that slowly took over the Mediterranean. For 500 years, this republic dazzled the world with its hardworking farmers, good laws, shrewd diplomacy and indomitable citizen armies.

The Founders knew this history well. They had read Roman historians such as Sallust and Livy, reveled in the biographies of Roman statesman by Plutarch and were steeped in the orations of Cicero. Thomas Jefferson even tweaked the poems of Horace celebrating Roman farms to describe Virginia agricultural life.

Not surprisingly, then, Rome inspired many features of our own Constitution, including its checks and balances, bicameral legislature, term limits and age requirements. In some cases, the Founders copied terms straight out of the Roman constitution: words like senate, capitol and committee. American coinage and civic architecture are also strikingly Roman.

The Founders also preferred Rome’s approach to warfare over Britain’s. This preference explains why they denounced standing armies and made militias and conscription of citizen-soldiers the primary method for national defense. And citizen-soldiering was only one aspect of the Roman-inspired civic virtue the Founders believed citizens should exhibit. A tour through the artwork of the U.S. Capitol today reveals that early Americans saw the Roman ideals of farming, working hard, raising strong families and participating in local government as the building blocks for a strong national republic.

This Roman influence was crucial, because a very different path presented itself at the time the Founders were designing the U.S. The French Revolution took a different course than its American counterpart. It did not simply seek to rebalance power but rather to eradicate all existing power bases. The revolutionaries overthrew everything: the monarchy, the church, the nobility, property rights and most of the other things that had held the French people together for centuries. The result was total anarchy fueled by bloody purges of whoever happened to be on the wrong side of the revolution, which was constantly in flux in the 1790s.

While George Washington was a case study in republican civic virtue, the French Revolution became a model for the brutal communist and fascist takeovers of the 20th century in Russia and Germany. Like the French, Russian and Nazi revolutionaries believed they could ignore the bounds of history and create a new world order from scratch.

These alternatives reveal how differently things might have gone for the U.S. had Founders such as Washington not humbly sought the wisdom of the ancients. By staying rooted in history, America did not descend into France’s revolutionary tyranny or the totalitarian utopianism of the 20th century.

In a broad sense, America was remarkably unoriginal. The way it governed, the virtues it demanded of its citizens and the heroes it celebrated were inspired by the successes of the past. By looking at the republican path hewed by Rome so many centuries earlier, the American founders learned how to move into the future. They knew what humans were capable of, what government could and couldn’t do and what citizens ought to do.

That was the brilliance of the Founders: rather than trying to create something never tested, they adapted the lessons of history to their own age.

Their legacy challenges us not just to know history, but to understand how it applies to the questions of today.

A republic can endure many things, but a citizenry ignorant of the past dooms it to failure.

Understanding the successes and failures of our republican forebears does not guarantee we can solve all our problems, but it does promise that we’ll bring the arsenal of history’s wisdom with us into the fray.

• Steele Brand is assistant professor of history at The King’s College, a former U.S. Army tactical intelligence officer and author of “Killing for the Republic: Citizen-Soldiers and the Roman Way of War.”

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