Classicism in the broadly British world system was well established by the time of the first revolutionary riots in British America

The elites of British America predominated in the construction of the USA and also had unusual access to classical education.

In what ways did the governance of Rome inspire their ideology about the governance of the USA, then under revolutionary construction?

Did the American mobility, the riotous mob, have any classical associations in their demands regarding the governance of the revolutionary USA under foundation?


2 Answers 2


There is no evidence that I know suggesting that knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome had much influence on the thinking of the "founding fathers," but of course knowledge of history will always influence political thinking at some level. For example, in Britain the upper house of parliament was (and is) called the "House of Lords"--not a viable name for the corresponding American institution, so borrowing the term from Rome, they named it the "Senate".

Some indications of ideas from the ancient world that informed the founding fathers are in the Federalist Papers, a summary of which points are listed below:

In Federalist No. 6 it reads:

Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a wellregulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.

Federalist No. 18 ("The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union") is a long summary of the Achaean League and politics of ancient Greece . The general point was to argue that confederacies (like the colonial states) were weak due to dissension. This was an argument for Federalism (the introduction of a central power).

As a weak government, when not at war, is ever agitated by internal dissentions, so these never fail to bring on fresh calamities from abroad. -- Federalist No. 18

In Federalist No. 34, the example of Rome is cited to demonstrate that a bicameral Congress can be successful:

It will be readily understood that I allude to the COMITIA CENTURIATA and the COMITIA TRIBUTA. The former, in which the people voted by centuries, was so arranged as to give a superiority to the patrician interest; in the latter, in which numbers prevailed, the plebian interest had an entire predominancy. And yet these two legislatures coexisted for ages, and the Roman republic attained to the utmost height of human greatness.

In Federalist No. 41 Madison used the example of Rome to argue that the existence of standing armies should be limited due to the threat they might have to liberty:

The veteran legions of Rome were an overmatch for the undisciplined valor of all other nations and rendered her the mistress of the world. Not the less true is it, that the liberties of Rome proved the final victim to her military triumphs; and that the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have, with few exceptions, been the price of her military establishments. A standing force, therefore, is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary, provision.

In Federalist No. 63, Rome is cited as a justification for creating a senate:

It adds no small weight to all these considerations, to recollect that history informs us of no long-lived republic which had not a senate. Sparta, Rome, and Carthage are, in fact, the only states to whom that character can be applied.

Later in the same essay Madison cites ancient examples of representative democracy and how the senate will not be a threat to it:

Lastly, in Sparta we meet with the Ephori, and in Rome with the Tribunes; two bodies, small indeed in numbers, but annually ELECTED BY THE WHOLE BODY OF THE PEOPLE, and considered as the REPRESENTATIVES of the people, almost in their PLENIPOTENTIARY capacity. The Cosmi of Crete were also annually ELECTED BY THE PEOPLE, and have been considered by some authors as an institution analogous to those of Sparta and Rome, with this difference only, that in the election of that representative body the right of suffrage was communicated to a part only of the people. From these facts, to which many others might be added, it is clear that the principle of representation was neither unknown to the ancients nor wholly overlooked in their political constitutions. ... The Tribunes of Rome, who were the representatives of the people, prevailed, it is well known, in almost every contest with the senate for life, and in the end gained the most complete triumph over it... It proves the irresistible force possessed by that branch of a free government, which has the people on its side.

Hamilton used the examples of Rome in several instances to argue for a strong single executive (rather than multiple, Consul-like executives):

The Decemvirs of Rome, whose name denotes their number, 3 were more to be dreaded in their usurpation than any ONE of them would have been.

In general, the different theorists tended to cite the example of Rome and Greece more to bolster individual arguments than to serve as a model. However, in a few respects, such as the institution of the Senate (and its name) is due to the inspiration of Rome. Also, the idea of having two senators from each state may have been inspired by Rome having two Consuls, although it does not explicitly say this in the Federalist papers.

  • Your first sentence contradicts your entire answer. Strange.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Sep 30, 2015 at 22:06
  • @Oldcat I think that if you change "influence" to "direct influence" it all makes sense. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 22:57
  • I think when one of our houses of government is named for the Roman Senate, that is pretty darned direct influence.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 0:06

In their book, "Generations," p. 175, William Strauss and Neil Howe described the influence of Rome on the "Republican" generation (the Continental Soldier or "World War II" generation of the American Revolution) as follows: "Without these Res Publicans, our public buildings and banks would not look like miniature Parthenons. ...Our government would not sound as if it had been transplanted from the age of Augustus (with states, capitols, Presidents, and Senators.)"

These "Republicans" included founding fathers like Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison, who had been "steeped" in the classics of Rome (and Greece). They suppressed attempts at "mob" disorder, such as Shays' rebellion, and the Whiskey rebellion, but with limited bloodshed, since the men on the "other side" were basically their (poorer, less well-armed) peers.

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