The Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity

At its height in the second century C.E., the Roman Empire stretched from Britain in the north to Egypt in the south, from Spain in the west to Syria in the east. One in every five people in the ancient world lived under Roman rule. During the great age of empire building in the eighteenth century, Europeans and Americans obsessively inspected the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Why had Rome triumphed? Why did it fall?

The intensive archaeological recovery of Roman artifacts in the eighteenth century added a visual and palpable dimension to these questions. The enormous, beautiful books you see here emerged from this moment. By opening this ancient world for all to see, they inspired a century-long vogue for classical architecture, dress, and interior decoration in America and Europe.

Familiar classical shapes also concealed radical messages: in both revolutionary America and France, images plucked from ancient Rome and Greece—the goddess Liberty, eagles, bundles of sticks, fluted columns—cloaked political and social innovation in the majestic authority of antiquity.

William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Court of Naples (1764–1800), amassed an enormous collection of ancient Etruscan, Greek, and Roman vases during his decades in Italy. Some antiquities had been exhumed from the recently excavated Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly two thousand years before. Hamilton arranged for his ancient vases to appear in one of the most splendid publications of the eighteenth century, the four-volume Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Honble. Wm. Hamilton (1766–1767). The beautiful plates were the creation of Pierre-François Hugues, self-styled Baron d’Hancarville, a well-connected if shady character personally known to the great American promoter of neoclassicism, Thomas Jefferson.

D’Hancarville’s Collection was among the first color-plate books to be acquired by the Library Company of Philadelphia (founded 1731), the leading lending library of Enlightenment America. The richly colored and precisely drawn images triggered “vase fever” around the Atlantic. In England, at his aptly named manufactory, Etruria, Josiah Wedgwood began to manufacture pottery inspired by ancient styles and colors. Shapes and uses unknown in antiquity filled Enlightenment American houses and public buildings. The institution of slavery, for example, which had elicited little moral outrage in the ancient world, became a prime target of the neoclassical enterprise. Wedgwood, an abolitionist, manufactured one of the most famous images in the antislavery arsenal: a jasperware portrait of a kneeling black man in chains, surrounded by the words, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

In the early fourth century C.E., the Roman emperor Diocletian retired to his magnificent villa in the Roman province of Dalmatia (modern Croatia), there to putter peacefully among his cabbages. Diocletian’s palace essentially vanished from European knowledge until it was first surveyed systematically in the middle of the eighteenth century by the Scottish architect Robert Adam and the French antiquary Charles-Louis Clérisseau. A product of the new eighteenth-century obsession with the private lives of the Romans, this publication trumpeted itself as containing “the only full and accurate Designs that have hitherto been published of any private Edifice of the Ancients.” It helped to spur the classical revival in European and American houses.

Home of the legendary Queen Zenobia, Palmyra was an ancient Syrian oasis city and trading center that flourished under Roman rule. The British scholar Robert Wood traveled there in the middle of the eighteenth century. His lavishly illustrated Ruins of Palmyra became one of the main inspirations for the revival of classical architecture in England and America. The vanished glory of Palmyra enjoyed a long afterlife in the American imagination. Zenobia is the name of a major character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), a tale of the decline and fall of an ideal social community, based in part on Hawthorne’s own experiences at the American Transcendentalist utopian experiment of Brook Farm in Massachusetts in the 1840s.