Trisha Ingraham reviews Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers by Carl J. Richard.

Carl J. Richard, professor of history at Louisiana University at Lafayette, has found a unique niche in the historical milieu. After receiving his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University with a focus in early national American history and U.S. intellectual history, Richard has authored numerous books concerning the influence of the Classics on the Founding Fathers. One such book, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers, superbly describes the importance of the histories and myths of the Ancients to the Founders of the United States. Richard correctly points out that the heroic stories of the Ancients which so influenced the Founding Fathers are virtually unknown to Americans today. Through his book Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts, Richard attempts to remedy that problem.

In the introduction of his book, Richard admonishes current American culture for its abandonment of the ancient histories which so shaped the early United States. Indeed, he describes how unfortunate it is that the public is unaware of such stories, “for in neglecting [them] we neglect an important part of our own heritage.” Richard maintains that instead of looking to the heroes of the Founders for inspiration, Americans now look to the Founders themselves as the ideal American heroes. While venerating the founders of one’s country is certainly admirable, Richard calls for Americans to return to the Classics that influenced the Founders, for only then will Americans truly appreciate how the United States came to be as it is today.

Motivated by a desire to return to the stories of the Ancients, Richard devotes the vast majority of his book to just that: stories. Almost the entirety of the book consists of a chronological narrative of the foundings of Greece and Rome, as well as their respective falls. Richard understands the importance of telling a story well; he is a master-craftsman of tales, weaving colorful language and description throughout all of his accounts. In describing the stubbornness of Rome during the First Punic War, for instance, Richard constructs this vibrant sentence: “Rome was a pit bull that would not release its grip on the enemy’s leg, no matter how many times it was beaten on the head or offered the milk bone of peace.” Similar depictions abound throughout the book, making it an engaging and quick read. Yet such rich storytelling does not diminish the excellent historicity of Richard’s book in the slightest. He also provides a vast amount of detail, and includes an appropriate number of excerpts from primary sources, some of which the author translated himself. Richard constructs a delightful account of the stories of the Ancients, all the while maintaining the accuracy one would expect from his level of scholarship.

Richard does not simply leave his readers with mere stories, however. Instead, he supplements each chapter’s historical account with a “lesson.” Each chapter’s lesson describes explicitly how the stories found in that chapter directly influenced the Founding Fathers. After the chapter which recounts the Persian Wars, for instance, Richard notes that “[w]hen Jefferson wished to compliment John Adams, a staunch supporter of a strong American navy, he compared Adams with Themistocles, whose success in building the Athenian fleet had secured victory for Greece in the Persian Wars.” Such a comparison has true significance when placed after a chapter that devotes multiple pages specifically to Themistocles’ naval construction program. Without this historical background, however, the comparison would have been useless. Using the lessons at the end of each chapter, Richard bridges the gap for his readers between the Classics and their specific influences on the Founders, thereby demonstrating the Classics’ supreme importance.

While Richard provides an excellent analysis of how the Classics influenced the Founders, his analysis unfortunately stops there. Very rarely in his book does Richard acknowledge any other sources that influenced the Founding Fathers, a fact that may cause some readers to draw false conclusions. On some level, one can hardly fault the author for failing to extend the scope of his analysis to include other authorities of significance to the Founders; for the most part, that task is outside the purview of his book. Still, the inattentive reader could easily mistake Richard’s thesis to imply that the Ancients were the only influences on the Founders. While Richard himself would almost certainly deny such an assertion, his book does little to ensure that readers do not mistakenly draw this false conclusion. Had Richard at least tipped his hat to some of the other formative influences in the Founders’ lives, his book would have been much fairer and more comprehensive.

Still, Richard’s overall thesis rings true. The Classics enabled the Founding Fathers to piece together the wisdom of hundreds of thoughtful individuals from throughout the ancient world. The “Spartan frugality, selflessness, valor, and patriotism,” for instance, provided Samuel Adams with a model for the ideal citizen he hoped America would produce. Similarly, the accounts of Livy, Polybius, and Plutarch demonstrated that virtue was of critical importance to the success of a republic. Armed with insights such as these, the Founders far exceeded what they would have been able to accomplish without such positive examples. Additionally, the Founders were able to use the mistakes of the Ancients to attempt to prevent cancerous errors from developing in the civilization they were trying to create. For instance, the tyrannical reign of the ambitious Caesars of Rome assured American leaders of the necessity of a strong system of checks and balances. Indeed, the Founders learned from the fall of Rome “to regard one-man rule as an absolute horror to be avoided at all cost.” Such preventative insights enabled the Founders to avoid mistakes into which the Ancients had unknowingly fallen, thereby providing them the means to craft a more successful society. As Richard laments over and over again, the wisdom and insight gained from the Classics have little bearing on American culture today. Americans bask in the success of the Founders, not realizing the careful study their forefathers labored through in order to create the society modern Americans enjoy so much. Soon, after abandoning the Classics for so long, Americans are liable to forget where they have come from entirely. History repeats itself; America is certainly not above continuing that pattern. Without the strong backbone of the Ancients to speak wisdom into the lives of modern Americans, contemporary citizens run the risk of undoing all that the Founders accomplished.

Books such as Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts, however, provide a shining beacon of hope. The charming prose and poignant stories of Richard’s book are sure to delight interested laypeople with a wide range of familiarity with the subject. In time, by re-infusing American culture with the stories of ancient Greece and Rome, the lessons from such stories may once again provide modern American culture with the needed wisdom it has far too long gone without.

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