The ancient Romans didn’t exactly have a Fourth of July (the month they named for JULius Caesar), but two dates in their history were analogous.
They marked April 21, 753 B.C., as the day of Rome’s founding by Romulus, the city-state’s legendary first king; and 509 B.C. as the year the increasingly tyrannical monarchy was overthrown. Like Americans in the Revolutionary War, Romans rose up against a foreign monarch, Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquin the Arrogant”), whose Etruscan family had usurped the kingship a century earlier, and established a constitutional republic/respublica.
The Roman “constitution,” never a single document but an evolving set of laws, precedents and procedures, was in its day highly innovative and provided for annual election of magistrates (two consuls were the counterpart to our president, each with veto power over the other), a legislative branch including a Senate and popular assemblies, and a system of courts and chief justices (praetors).
Like the U.S., Rome was by no means a pure democracy, like that invented by the ancient Athenians. Only free male citizens could vote (as was the case even in the U.S. until passage of the 19th Amendment less than a century ago), office holding and membership in the Senate were essentially limited to the “nobility” (from a Latin word meaning “well known,” by virtue of wealth and birth), and voting restrictions in the assemblies heavily favored the rich. Nevertheless, the government’s overarching structure was praised in antiquity as a uniquely effective blend of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, and it served in the 18th century as a principal model for our own Founding Fathers.
So many elements of our cultural heritage - our art and architecture, philosophy and literature, political theory and jurisprudence - are rooted in the Greco-Roman world. America’s founders were broadly educated in the Greek and Latin languages and ancient history, and the design of our Constitution, with its careful balance of executive, legislative, and judicial authority, was inspired by the workings of the Roman Republic.
George Washington knew and loved the Classics, and a 10-foot high sculpture commissioned by Congress for the centennial of his birth and completed by Horatio Greenough in 1840 depicted him seated on a throne in ancient dress. Greenough modeled the work after Phidias’ statue of Olympian Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (the original was destroyed in the 5th century A.D., but ancient representations survive).
Thomas Jefferson, principal author of our Declaration of Independence, once wrote to a friend regarding his classical training, “I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight.”
The influences exerted by Latin in particular upon our culture and language have been enormous. At least half of our English vocabulary derives directly or indirectly from Latin, and an even greater number of our more substantive words come to us from the Romans. Consider, for example, the preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Here’s what’s left with the Latin-based words - nearly all the “meaty” ones - removed:
We the… of the… in… to… a more… for the… the… Welfare, and… the Blessings of… to ourselves and our… do… and… this… for the… of…
The motto appearing on the obverse of the Great Seal of the U.S. is the Latin phrase e pluribus unum, meaning “out of many, one” (as in PLURality and UNify) and referring, with its 13 letters, to the UNion of the original 13 colonies into a single nation. If you have a dollar bill in your pocket, you’ll see this and two other Latin mottoes on the seal’s reverse, annuit coeptis (as in inCEPtion)/ “he (God) has favored our beginnings” and novus ordo seclorum (as in reNOVate, ORDain, SECULar) “a new ordering of the ages.”
All three phrases were adapted from texts either by or attributed to the Roman epic poet Vergil - as legislators well knew when in 1782 they approved the seal’s design, which had been finalized by Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress and a former Latin teacher at the Philadelphia Academy.
Further proof, I might add, of the importance of having a Latinist on call, should you ever consider founding a new nation!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities. His latest book is Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where The Wild Things Area, ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.