Classical currents: Antiquity and America

The presence of ancient Greece and Rome can be felt in many places in the early history of the United States of America. Lucia Marchini speaks to Sean Burrus and Emilie Johnson to find out how Americans like Thomas Jefferson were putting antiquity to use as a new nation was forged.


Despite some 3,000 miles of ocean separating the continents, the newly independent American republic maintained close connections to Europe. Founding figures Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all served diplomatic roles in France, while elements of classical architecture, like the columned porticoes and pediments seen in ruins across Italy, Greece, and the south of France, made their way into the grand public edifices required by the new nation. These ancient references also manifested in American homes, through both architecture and furnishings.

John Smibert, The Continence of Scipio. Oil on canvas, c.1726. Size: 116.2 x 159.1cm. IMAGE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of the Honourable James Bowdoin III

Yet while writings that shared philosophical and political ideas and designs after the antique flowed over the Atlantic, the distance meant that travel was a luxury a privileged few could afford. Up until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, fewer than 2,000 Americans a year made the voyage, mostly for business or political reasons. And while substantial works of art travelled around Europe adorning the historic estates of the aristocracy, European sculpture – ancient or modern – was scarce in the US. This makes the gift that Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was offered in 1805 all the more generous.

The remarkable gift was a reduced marble copy of a Roman sculpture of Ariadne in graceful repose (in the Vatican Museums today). At the time, the sculpture was thought to represent Cleopatra, though Jefferson deduced it was the Cretan princess, who was abandoned by Theseus while asleep on the island of Naxos.

Jefferson’s Ariadne still resides in his self-designed Virginia plantation home Monticello, reclining in front of the fireplace in the entrance hall. The cherished sculpture was kept by his family even when much of his collection was sold off when he died in debt. Recently conserved and cleaned, Jefferson’s Ariadne is now also present as a digital model in the extensive online catalogue accompanying Antiquity & America: the ancient Mediterranean in the United States, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s exhibition on the breadth and depth of American interests in classical antiquity.

Ariadne at Monticello. Marble, 1771-1798. Size: 68.5 x 95.3 x 34.3cm. IMAGE: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

The giver of the gift was the Bostonian James Bowdoin III (1752-1811). In 1804, Jefferson appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain. The two had struck up correspondence in 1801 when Bowdoin offered the newly elected President Jefferson his congratulations and support. It turned out they had much in common to fuel their friendly letters, and apparently to qualify Bowdoin for his new role.

Emilie Johnson, associate curator at Monticello and contributor to the exhibition, explains, ‘It’s a really tricky diplomatic position at this time because the United States has just bought the Louisiana territory. They bought it from France, but it had all too recently been ceded from Spain. So Spain’s a little prickly about a significant loss of territory and they don’t really want to engage with the United States.’

‘Jefferson nominates Bowdoin to this position, and you have to wonder why? They were political allies and Bowdoin certainly had experience in Europe. I think that probably weighed heavily on Jefferson. Jefferson didn’t want to send somebody who was a complete rube to this important posting. But also Bowdoin hadn’t spent too much time in Europe. There was this funny thing for Americans in the late 18th century, where it’s great to know Europe but you can become too European, you can become corrupted by the Old World.’

Both Bowdoin and Jefferson had been educated in Greek and Latin from a young age. For Jefferson, as Johnson says, this ‘provided models of communication that really showed erudition and sophistication.’ Unlike Jefferson, Bowdoin was one of a handful of Americans who had encountered artists, collectors, and ancient ruins first-hand on the Grand Tour. Arriving in Naples with Ward Nicholas Boylston in 1773, he visited Sir William Hamilton, British envoy and avid collector of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan vases, explored Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Vesuvius, and frequented balls and galleries in Florence.

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Oil on canvas, c.1805-1807. Size: 123.2 x 101.3cm. IMAGE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of the Honourable James Bowdoin III

While other figures like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and John Adams preferred the pursuit of perceived practical knowledge, Jefferson valued the soft power of the arts. He makes this plain in a 1785 letter to his friend (and later fourth president) James Madison, writing:

I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. but it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as it’s object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world & procure them it’s praise.

Clearly sharing these ideals, Bowdoin bequeathed over 200 works of art to Bowdoin College in Maine and thus established one of the US’s first public collections. ‘His collecting is very voracious and rather comprehensive,’ says Sean Burrus, curator at the BMCA and organiser of the exhibition. ‘He inherited a small group of works (probably about two dozen paintings and about 100 prints) from his father. He assembled America’s first significant collection of Old Master drawings, which remains an important collection at the college to this day. He acquired throughout his lifetime another group of paintings, so he donated some 70 paintings.

‘At this time, America does not have a museum devoted to the fine arts. The whole fine arts scene is really emerging in a very nascent form.’

Bowdoin bought from artists’ studios, like that of John Smibert. Born in Scotland, Smibert had settled in Boston after moving across the Atlantic to a failed school in the Bahamas. He had died in 1751, but his nephew was selling parts of the studio in the late 18th century. ‘Smibert’, Burrus explains, ‘brings over with him some of the first plaster copies of ancient sculptures that ever arrive in America, probably the first, as well as copies of important paintings by European artists that would serve generations of American artists as models of paintings inspired by classical values. For example, one of the most important pieces in the exhibition is a copy, probably brought over to America by John Smibert, of Nicolas Poussin’s The Continence of Scipio. We think that the copy was done by Smibert himself as a young painter in Europe.

Charles-Louis Clérisseau, Interior of a Roman Building with Figures Carrying the Body of a Man. Gouache within black framing lines, c.1750-1800. Size: 46.8 x 59.6cm. IMAGE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of George and Elaine Keyes

‘At Bowdoin College, a scene like The Continence of Scipio, where you have a Roman general magnanimously returning a princess to a Carthaginian prince as this supreme moral gesture, then serves a generation of Bowdoin students as a visual tool for educating in justice and morals, just as Greek and Latin texts were being approached as a source of wisdom and moral instruction.’

Evocations of ancient Rome and its tried and tested structures also created a sense of endurance, but it was not empire that figures like Jefferson wanted to bring to mind, rather Rome’s Republic. Burrus explains, ‘You have this common refrain that America is being set up as the new Roman Republic, as opposed to the monarchical and imperial models that exist in England and on the Continent. I think Americans would look at it as claiming a direct lineage that places them on par with their European counterparts and, in many ways, claiming that they were the ones doing the most to honour that ancient legacy in their form of government.’

Johnson adds, ‘Jefferson would always say that they were forging a new nation. He believed that modern societies had issues that ancient governments were ill-equipped to solve. He did not favour taking on an absolute model of a Roman or Grecian government.’

‘Thinking about cultural matters, this question of permanence and stability in a situation that was inherently unstable was important for him. He and other Americans, including Bowdoin, I think, pushed those classical connections to project a sense that this is going to work and going to last because there were so many questions about whether it would or not.’

Simmons & Alexander, askos (vessel). Silver, 1801. Size: 20.3 x 23.2 x 12.4cm. IMAGE: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

For Jefferson, adopting elements of ancient architecture was also a matter of taste. One building he planned, the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, has a clear ancient model: the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France. While working on the plans with the Virginia state government in 1785, Jefferson had not yet been to Nîmes (which, when he does visit, becomes his ‘epicentre of the classical world’, as Johnson puts it). Having met the learned architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau in Paris, he decided – likely based on Clérisseau’s descriptions and drawings – that this Roman temple in Nîmes was the perfect building to emulate. As Jefferson wrote to Madison:

It is very simple, but it is noble beyond expression, and would have done honour to our country as presenting to travellers a morsel of taste in our infancy promising much for our maturer age.

Clérisseau worked on the design that was sent to Virginia, and Jefferson wanted a fitting gift to express his gratitude. As Johnson relates, ‘Jefferson, when he finally gets to Nîmes in 1787, sees a bronze Roman drinking vessel excavated from the Maison Carrée in the collection of an antiquarian and he becomes enamoured with the shape of it. He asks someone in Nîmes to carve a model of the vessel in wood and send it to him in Paris. It goes missing, so in the meantime Jefferson orders a Parisian silversmith to make a coffee urn in the shape of an antique urn to give to Clérisseau.

‘But this vessel just sticks in Jefferson’s head. He sends back down to Nîmes for another wooden model, which he brings back to the United States. Fast forward to 1801: Jefferson is president in Washington and he orders a pair of Philadelphia silversmiths to make the vessel in silver. It was used at Monticello; the family refers to it as a chocolate pot and they called it “the duck” because of its shape.’

Souche, model askos (vessel). Wood, 1789. Size: 17.8 x 23.2 x 12.4cm. IMAGE: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

While new neoclassical buildings were being designed by Jefferson and his associates, it was very often enslaved labourers actually constructing them. One was John Hemmings, who worked on building Jefferson’s retreat south of Monticello and wrote to him with regular updates. ‘He’s talking about architraves; he’s talking about lintels; he’s talking about porticoes,’ Johnson elaborates. ‘Classical architecture has a specific language and Hemmings is clearly fluent in it. He is one person that we have, but we know that neoclassical architecture remained extraordinarily popular through the American South in particular. There are a lot of plantation houses with big porticoes, big columns, some version of Ionic, or Doric, or Corinthian capitals, and some order of classical cornices and friezes. Hemmings is one person of thousands who were knowledgeable in these practices.’

Another figure beyond the elite circles of Jefferson who committed their knowledge of the ancient world to paper was the poet Phillis Wheatley. Her poems, published in London in 1773 when Wheatley was about 20 years old, contain many references to the Greek and Latin literature in which she was educated. Yet, because of her race and status, some Americans questioned her authorship. ‘Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved Black American who was sold into slavery at a young age,’ Burrus explains. ‘She is enslaved in a Massachusetts household, where, along with the daughters of that household, she learns to read and write in Latin. She goes on to write a very important book of poetry, with many poems and verses that show the deep influence of her classical learning. Some of the most poignant are ones that meditate on the plight of Africans and enslaved people.’

Among the poems that most clearly display Wheatley’s familiarity with ancient literature is ‘To Maecenas’, which borrows the name of Gaius Maecenas, friend of Augustus and patron of celebrated poets Horace and Virgil. In it, she references great writers of antiquity, naming Homer, Virgil, and Terence, who is blessed by the Muses (though she questions ‘why this partial grace / To one alone of Afric’s sable race?’). As Burrus comments, the poems ‘point to figures from the ancient world, figures like Terence, the African playwright, as proof of the inherent humanity and wisdom of Africans.’

John Sartain (after Nathaniel Jocelyn), Cinqué, Chief of the Amistad Captives. Mezzotint, 1840-1841. Size: 23.3 x 19.1cm IMAGE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, Lloyd O and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund

‘Very few people could believe that an enslaved Black American like Phillis Wheatley could produce poetry like this,’ Burrus continues. ‘And so her book of poetry was accompanied by a letter signed by prominent Bostonians including James Bowdoin II, attesting to the fact that this really was the work of Phillis Wheatley.’

‘And Bowdoin was arguing against people like Thomas Jefferson,’ Johnson adds. ‘Jefferson calls Phillis Wheatley out as a fraud in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. He does not believe that Wheatley is capable of creating the poetry that she did.’

There are, however, darker uses of classical allusions in relation to slavery, even by one of Wheatley’s supporters, James Bowdoin II (the father of James Bowdoin III). ‘You have this current of enslaved Black Americans being named after figures from the ancient world,’ Burrus says. ‘This is very much the case when it comes to the enslaved people in the home James Bowdoin III grew up in, where his father kept a number of household slaves, among them individuals named Caesar, Polydorus, and Cyrus.

‘I think that these ancient-inspired names are a double violence. On the one hand, they’re an erasure of the African names and the histories of the people who they are bestowed on. They project another history onto these people and overwrite their own. On the other hand, they’re also probably tinctured with a bit of irony. What does it mean to name a person who is enslaved, who is without freedom, Caesar? There’s a very awful humour in that type of naming practice.’

Nathaniel Smibert, Portrait of Reverend Samson Occom. Oil on canvas, c.1751-1756. Size: 76.5 x 63.3cm. IMAGE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of the Honourable James Bowdoin III

In art, again we can see elements from ancient Rome (where, of course, slavery was a significant part of society) used in the discourse of American slavery. The toga, that enduring emblem of Roman male citizenship, was adopted in an image of Sengbe Pieh. In 1835, Sengbe Pieh led the rebellion on La Amistad, the ship on which he and a group of other enslaved people were being transported from West Africa. They took over the ship, killing the captain. When the case came to the Supreme Court, the defendants were found justified in their actions and were returned to Africa at their request.

Burrus says, ‘The image was first commissioned by a wealthy Black Philadelphian and a prominent abolitionist, Robert Purvis, as a painting by Nathaniel Jocelyn. The painting and the print after it show Sengbe Pieh – or Joseph Cinqué, as he was known in the press – both with a reference to his African origins in the backdrop and in the bamboo staff that he holds, but then dressed in the white toga of a Roman, a reference probably to republican freedoms that abolitionists would have found in the writings of authors like Cicero.’

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Portrait of Caroline Sanders Truax as Sappho. Oil on linen, 1899. Size: 88.9 x 70.5cm IMAGE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of Carolyn Aldrich Frost and Hunter S Frost

An earlier figure to be depicted wearing a toga was Reverend Samson Occom, in a c.1751-1756 portrait by Nathaniel Smibert (John Smibert’s son) in Bowdoin’s collection. A Mohegan Native American, Occom was a graduate of Eleazar Wheelock’s Latin School. (Wheelock went on to found Dartmouth College, repurposing funds Occom had raised in London for a school for Native Americans.) ‘The portrait,’ Burrus explains, ‘shows Samson Occom both as a Native American, but also in the guise of a Roman with a blue toga draped over his shoulder. In Samson Occam’s case, the toga is a reference to his learning in Latin and in Greek – and also in Hebrew. Precisely because classical learning and knowledge of the ancient world was such a marker of sophistication, it was a way of proving oneself and wielding power in America.’

And it was not just men depicted in ancient dress. Moving forward in time, another woman – one in a more privileged position than that of Phillis Wheatley – to manifest an interest in ancient literature is Caroline Sanders Truax. In a vibrant 1899 portrait by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, we are presented with a modern American woman in the guise of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, poised with a kithara on her lap and some sheets of paper on the ground she sits on, all against the picturesque backdrop of seaside cliffs. ‘It is an incredibly bold choice for an American woman to be portrayed as Sappho, who at this time is recognised both as an icon of early feminism, as one of the few surviving female authors from antiquity, but also as a lesbian erotic poet,’ Burrus remarks. ‘Caroline Sanders Truax, from everything I know of her, was a very bold woman. She was one of the first graduates of the New York University women’s class of law. By virtue of graduating in law she must have known Latin and Greek, and she also composed lyric poetry in the tradition of Sappho millennia before her.’

‘This appreciation for the ancient Mediterranean world,’ says Burrus, ‘really cut across divisions of class, divisions of race, and divisions of gender.’

Antiquity & America: the ancient Mediterranean in the United States runs at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, until 5 February 2023.

The comprehensive online catalogue is available in perpetuity at, with images of the works in the exhibition, digital models, and a collection of essays on different aspects of classical antiquity in America.