(Editor’s Note – Professor Carl Richard was featured on the podcast (Episode 7, Season 2): “Washington Wore a Toga.” The following is a transcript of the interview that was first published on the blog in 2011. Professor Richard wrote the book: Why We’re all Romans: The Roman Contribution to the Western World). This engaging yet deeply informed work not only examines Roman history and the multitude of Roman achievements in rich and colorful detail but also delineates their crucial and lasting impact on Western civilization. Noted historian Carl J. Richard argues that although we Westerners are “all Greeks” in politics, science, philosophy, and literature and “all Hebrews” in morality and spirituality, it was the Romans who made us Greeks and Hebrews.
Carl J. Richard is professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and received his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt. He has written numerous books on the impact of Greco-Roman civilization on history, particularly on American history. His prior research and conclusions appear frequently in this work; and much is made of how the Greco-Roman literati influenced the American Founding Fathers.
Rob Cain: In your book I’ve read the line which said something like, “Polybius agreed with Aristotle that the best constitution assigned approximately equal amounts of power to the three orders of society.” I couldn’t help but thinking of our own government the Judicial, the Executive, and the Legislative. Is it possible that there were some founding father read this from a Latin text and formulated an idea of a new American Republic?
Dr. Richard: Well, yes. I mean they definitely were influenced by not only Aristotle but Polybius and Cicero, and many of the ancients who talked about mixed government. And by a mixed government they meant a balance of power between the one, the few, and the many, being the leader executive, the rich and the well-born on the one hand and the masses on the other hand; the one, the few, the many. And the founders definitely have that in mind when they wrote the constitution because they created a balance between the one the president whose kind of a king, a limited king, but still a king, and the senate which was the designed to represent or protect the rich from being plundered by the masses, and the senate would do that, and then the house which was supposed to be so called democratic branch, the branch that would represent the masses.
Rob Cain: What do you teach at your school?
Dr. Richard: Well, I mostly teach American history, but I also teach history of Greece and Rome, which is an unusual combination, but most of my research has been the influence of Greece and Rome in America so it makes sense.
Rob Cain: The title of your book is, “How We Are All Romans.” Well, if we are all Romans then were the Romans Greek?
Dr. Richard: Well, the Romans certainly received many ideas from the Greeks. The Greeks were the older civilization and more advanced in many ways. And early on, they ran into the Greeks, in Southern Italy, the Greeks had colonized Southern Italy. And they got many things early on including alphabet, the same alphabet we use today which is called the Modern Latin. There have been a few changes but it’s mostly the Latin alphabet. They got that from the Greeks. They got many things from the Greeks, but one thing I emphasized in the book is that they didn’t just adopt these ideas they adapted them. They adapted them. They brought them down to earth and then of course they spread them throughout their vast empire. So the title “Why We Are All Romans” is based on Percy Shelley, the British poet who said, “We’re all Greeks.” And I don’t dispute that, I think so many of our ideas are Greek. But I put a twist on it and say we’re all Romans because it’s the Romans who not only adopted those ideas but adapted them, brought them down to earth and then spread them throughout Western Europe. And so if not for the Romans…it’s the Romans who made us all Greek in a sense so that’s the reason for the title.
Rob Cain: In your book you write that you hope to demonstrate the surprising ways in which we modern Westerners are indeed still Romans. Could you share with us some examples of how this is true?
Dr. Richard: Yes. I think in many ways Americans especially we’re much like the Romans in terms of our pragmatism, traditionally hard work and discipline. You know some people think those things are breaking down, but historically Americans have been that way. And there are other things too. I mean I can’t help but laugh when I read some of the Romans, there’s so many of them, they’re complaining by the first century AD that the people are getting soft into there’s so much luxury and people are just getting soft, and it’s so much like what we hear today. And there are other things too that things that you wouldn’t necessarily think about, but French has their passion about sports. Of course they had gladiatorial combat, a very violent form of entertainment, much more violent even than the forms of entertainment we have, but very passionate about them, the sport they were most passionate about was chariot racing. And when you read about how passionate they were either for the blue team or the green team, it reminds me a lot of American men especially in our passion about our favorite teams. All kinds of things like that, things that you would not think of but when you read the ancient Roman texts they come up. There’s one about global warming. Columella the Roman agricultural writer writes in his work that everybody knows that it’s getting warmer, the last generation it’s getting warmer. And he thinks it’s a good thing because it leads to more food production and so on. And so you find little things like that you don’t expect to find, it’s interesting. And then some things are just basic humanities, things that all people share. There’s a marvelous letter from Pliny the Younger to a friend of his about a mutual friend who has lost his daughter. She passed away at 12 or 13, I think. It’s just a heartbreaking letter. So there are some things that I guess are just universal.
Rob Cain: From your study of the ancient Romans is there anything going on today you wish to warn us about?
Dr. Richard: Well, one thing that strikes me in the late Roman Empire is the increased taxes, but beyond that when that fail to meet the needs because they were just spending like crazy, the government was, they began devaluing the currency. And by the end of the Roman Empire the currency was so worthless that even the Roman government wasn’t taking it in taxes. They were demanding goods, back to a barter system virtually because they had so devalued the coinage. The so called silver coins no longer had any silver in them, and the gold coins no longer had any gold in them. And I can’t help but notice it in the last couple of years the Federal Reserve has printed $2 trillion in currency. Well, I shouldn’t say printed, they don’t print it anymore they just say it exists and that’s a concern. I think military power follows economic power. And so I think if our economic power declines because of too much debt or too much devaluation or whatever that this is going to impact our military power just as it did Rome.
Rob Cain: What influence did Cicero have on the founding fathers?
Dr. Richard: Well, Cicero, I think may have been the most influential of all the ancients. And I say that, and this is a big theme in my book. I say that because the educational system throughout medieval and modern Europe and America was so heavily focused on Latin. Not much more than Greek, they did take a little bit of Greek but it was mostly Latin. And so Cicero was of course the greatest Latin writer at least of prose, I guess Virgil was the greatest poet, but Cicero was the greatest writer of prose and he was a politician, he was interested in political theory. And so what they read from Cicero was all about the foundational principles of a political system. Popular sovereignty, you know, this idea that the government is by the consent of the natural law, this idea that there’s a universal right and wrong, which is where we get natural rights from, the idea that the individual has rights. And we met some mixed government, it was a third idea. These were all Greek ideas, Cicero did not invent them. He just put them into Latin and into a very beautiful Latin that was very powerful. And so I think it’s through Cicero that the founders got in touch with all these Greek ideas and then incorporated them into our political system.
Rob Cain: I saw a movie about John Adams where Abigail Adams was teaching her children Latin. How were the Romans incorporated into early education? Why was it important for children in our early republic to know their early republic?
Dr. Richard: Yes. Well, the educational system went back to the middle ages and it was dominated by Greek and Latin but especially Latin. There was a little bit of Greek thrown in but it was mostly Latin. And in fact this term grammar school which we are familiar with term grammar school as a synonym for elementary school, that actually they didn’t refer to English grammar for the Latin grammar, Latin and Greek mostly Latin. So you know you went to school not to study English, they didn’t add English to the curriculum until after the Revolutionary War because they thought, “Well you know English is kid’s stuff, you learn that at home, you come to school to study serious things like Latin and Greek.” And so from grammar school all the way through college the educational system was focused on Latin and Greek especially Latin. And the founders then were immersed in it from childhood days which have a very powerful effect, anything that you’re immersed in from childhood days will have that powerful effect on you. They saw themselves as recreating the Roman Republic in many ways and that’s why they used terms like Senate which is a Roman term. And only this time they thought they had a greater chance of success. They were going to recreate the Roman Republic but this time it would last. That’s how they looked at it.
Rob Cain: What is the state of classical study in the U.S. today?
Dr. Richard: Well, it’s interesting because I think the scholarship is probably never been better. I mean it’s never been more advanced, we’ve never known more I think than today about the Romans. But the level of popular knowledge is much lower than in the days of the founding fathers. Their whole educational system was Latin and Greek, Roman history was very popular. So they knew an awful lot about Romans that the public doesn’t know today. I think most people today their knowledge of Rome and of Greece is based on films. And of course films can be very entertaining and so on, but they’re not always that accurate. And so you know the films like Gladiator and in the case of Greece, the 300, and then you have miniseries like Rome miniseries, and they learned some things that I think from these films and miniseries, but there are also a lot of liberties taken.
Rob Cain: Is there a Roman attitude about the world that Americans seem to have?
Dr. Richard: Well, Americans do for a long time I think Americans have had this feeling that it’s natural for the United States to be the world leader. And Romans felt that way. They felt Rome was protected and guided by the gods. And so even when the Romans lost the battle, even a major battle like to Hannibal for instance, there was always a sense that, “Well, the gods may just be trying to humble us, but they’re really on our side, and it’s natural for us to be the leaders of the world.” And I forgot who it was, one of the Roman authors who said, I think it was Livy the Roman historian who said, “It is as natural for Romans to win battles as for water to go downhill.” And I think there’s long been that sense by Americans at least in the 20th and 21st century that as we’re the natural leaders of world. And of course as we talked about earlier that can change, you know countries or empires can go downhill. But I think that’s one common attitude I think.
Rob Cain: Do you think that Roman attitude is where we as Americans got the idea of Manifest Destiny?
Dr. Richard: There is a kind of Manifest Destiny with the Romans and as I just mentioned they really believed the gods are behind them. They were enormously ritualistic and I think that’s something that went into the Roman Catholic Church, an inheritance there. And part of that was they thought if we do the rituals exactly right the gods will bless us. And so they were extremely…they had a ritual for everything, even just having a meal there was a ritual. And if you messed something up you would go back to the beginning, even if the ritual is hours long. But it was all tied up in this belief that the gods were behind them. And I think we see this throughout American History as well, but a god singular is behind this.
Rob Cain: How is your book doing?
Dr. Richard: I don’t really know. I haven’t gotten the royalty statement from last year which it came out last year. But it has been adopted by the History Book Club, and in the past I had another book called Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts which was adopted by the History Book Club and that seems to do well per se also I’m hopeful.
Rob Cain: Are you working on something else that you can share with us?
Dr. Richard: Yes. It’s completely different. I mean I’ve published six books thus far and all of them have been about Greece and Rome and the influence of Greece and Rome. And this book has nothing to do with that. I’m finishing up a book manuscript which is basically an adaptation of my master’s thesis from a long time ago. It’s called, “When the United States Invaded Russia: Doughboys in Siberia 1918 to 1920.” Woodrow Wilson sent roughly 8000 American troops to Siberia in 1918 and the goal was to help the anti-Bolsheviks overthrow the Soviet government in hopes of recreating the Russian front against the Germans in World War I. But even after the Germans were defeated, the soldiers stayed there for about a year and a half just trying to overthrow the Soviet government in its infancy. And it’s a very interesting story. I mean it was a tragic failure I would say. It was the first counterinsurgency operation by the United States on foreign soil in the Eastern Hemisphere. Of course the United States had often intervened in politics in our own hemisphere, but to go across the world and send troops to try to overthrow some other government and keep them there for a year and a half was unprecedented. And I think, obviously, there’s a lot of influence or a lot of a connection I think to things today because we’re involved in so many counterinsurgency operations. And so the obvious questions of, should you intervene in other people’s civil wars?
Rob Cain: Just one final question. I wonder if there’s something you can tell us about the university you teach at?
Dr. Richard: Yes. University of Louisiana at Lafayette, we have about 16,000 or 17,000 students. I think it’s the second largest in the state behind LSU, of course LSU is twice as big, but it’s a good university. We don’t have a PhD program in history but we do have masters, and we often send people…they get their masters here and go on to very good programs and get PhDs and I really enjoy it here. The people are very friendly.
Rob Cain: Well, thank you very much. Thanks for giving us the time. That was Dr. Carl J. Richard who wrote the book, “Why We’re All Romans: The Roman Contribution to the Western World.” Sir, you have a good day.
Dr. Richard: Thank you.