George Washington depicted as a Roman emperor
Antonia Canova (1821)
It's difficult to read about any period of history without feeling an inclination to draw comparisons been past and present. And why shouldn't we? Yes, no two periods or situations are identical, but even when history is more rhyme than repeat, there is still the opportunity to gain perspective. After all, history is the experiment already run. Anyone still in the midst of shuffling the beakers labelled economy, security, and liberty would be wise to check previous results.
When reading about ancient Rome, this inclination to draw parallels practically becomes compulsion. Roman history offers all the tantalizing color of gladiatorial spectacle, depraved emperors, and the world's largest toga party. It features brilliant set-piece battles that defined military tactics for centuries, poems beloved by scholars (and hated by students) from Ovid's day 'til this, and lessons in the application of power that speak to every age. The British, the Germans... there may be no nation that has persisted longer than a mud puddle or controlled a space greater than that of a phone booth which hasn't seen itself as the new Rome.
Certainly Americans have drawn these connections. America's founders, educated on Virgil and Livy, were quick to adopt the mantle of the vanished republic. Images of George Washington garlanded with the laurels of a conquering Roman general were common for a century after the revolution, and many federal buildings deliberately recall their perceived Roman counterparts. The Senate itself was built along the model of the ancient Roman debating body. Whether it's pondering the burdens of empire, or aligning some modern moral failing with lurid descriptions of imperial debauchery, Rome offers a talking point, if not a deeper lesson, good for all occasions.
But while we appreciate the breadth of events in ancient Rome, we often fail to recall the depth of time that separates them. There's more space between Caesar crossing the Rubicon and Nero's fire than there is between the Civil War and Vietnam. More time between the end of the Republic and the Sack of Rome than there is between the landing of the Curiosity probe and the first landing at Jamestown. During those periods, Roman society was buffeted by as many events and as much change as American society over the same span of time. When we draw lessons from the experience of the past, we need to remember that it's hard to associate cause A and effect B if the space between can be measured in centuries.
That problem, losing something in time, is another connection we share with the Romans. They misplaced their republic, and most of them didn't realize it was missing until half a century after it was gone.