by Tom McBride

The Mindset List of America’s

Greece and Rome

Recently the Mindset List presented its list of “American Biblical Illiteracy.” But the Bible isn’t the only great American frame of reference: language we still use but origins we’ve forgotten. The other great pervasive influence—on our vocabulary, our phrases, our buildings, and our customs—is the ancient world of Greek and Rome. This is the realm of Socrates and Julius Caesar, of Plato and Nero and multiple others. It’s myth and history and architecture and literature. Without the background of classical Greek and Rome, America as it is now would never have existed, Our Founding Fathers knew the classics very well, and we ordinary Americans know a lot more about ancient
Greece and Rome than we think we do. Hence follows this List of how amazingly embedded are these cultures, going back over two thousand years, in American life.

  1. A political leader indifferent to America’s fate might as well be fiddling while Rome burns.
  • We could build big stadia and call them a funny word like “coliseums.”
  • Could months like March, June, and July be named for ancient gods and emperors?
  • Not as many schoolchildren these days know how much Gaul Julius Caesar had.
  • Most Americans still know that “Et tu Brute,” refers to political betrayal and not to men’s after shave or to the Incredible Hulk.
  • Fewer Americans may know that their Founding Fathers knew and admired the ancient Romans, thought voting was an elite privilege, and weren’t upset that only about four percent of citizens were eligible to vote.
  • Nuclear energy is powerful and cheap until you have to dispose of the waste—but enough about an Achilles heel.
  • We abhor Greek and Roman slavery but don’t ask too many questions about who makes our smart phones.
  • Are the Kardashians “sirens,” and where did that word come from?
  1. The old Romans had trouble with the question of whether they were a republic or an empire—thank goodness we’ve settled that in America.
  1. We’ll always be grateful to Russell Crowe for going from general to slave to gladiator in just a couple of hours.
  1. Our sports arenas have a lot of Christians, and on circus days they include lions, but they are generally kept apart.
  1. Antony has always gone bust courting Cleopatra, and so did the movie production company that tried to film it.
  1. Socrates was a troublemaker forced to drink hemlock, but nowadays they are just murdered in embassies.
  1. There’s always been an Aristotle who taught rhetoric and politics and another one who married an American presidential widow.
  1. Popular contemporary authors claim that Stoicism can cure your road rage.
  1. As two-thirds of us are either obese or overweight, one might say, however erroneously, that Americans are “Epicureans.”
  1. As an average of 11 Americans drown every day, Heraclitus was surely right to say that you never step into the same stream twice.
  1. Pythagoras’ theorem continues to be one of the few truly beautiful things taught in high school.
  • In America, it seems the score is Golden Arches umpteen billion; Golden Mean, zero.
  • They’ve always presented Rock of Ages in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns but never Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
  • Thomas Jefferson might have been our only Platonic philosopher king, but he’d just overthrown a king two decades earlier.
  • You can buy a toga via Amazon for $29.99 plus shipping.
  • Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, and Mars were great Roman gods, and, come to think of it, they might also be good names for planets—Pluto, not so much.
  • “I came, I saw, I conquered” might be the sort of thing Elon Musk would say.
  • Pig Latin has never died out in America, and it’s easy to learn.
  • Every now and then, someone will refer to their car as their chariot.
  • Baby Boomer Masterpiece Theater addicts have still not quite gotten over “I, Claudius.”
  • A Princeton classics progressor says that the only way to get rid of white supremacy is to stop teaching about ancient Greece and Rome
  • Jesus’ demarcation between Caesar and God remains a powerful motive for keeping the American church separate from the American state.
  • Once upon a time in America, only gentlemen knew Latin; now only scholars do.
  • Eighteen US towns or cities are named Athens; 13 are named Rome.
  • An American male who has never gotten over his mother, such as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” is still said to be suffering from the same problem that bedeviled the ancient King Oedipus.
  • Overweening American pride remains self-destructive, rather like a young man who is so proud of his waxen wings that he flies too near the melting sun.
  • In protesting against 1960s hippies, Merle Haggard sang that among real Americans, “beards and Roman sandals won’t be seen” (“Okie from Muskogee”).
  • “August” and “august” (syllable on either the first or second syllable) comes from one of the most famous Caesars (though few American leaders have ever been in august in August or in any other month).
  • Resting on one’s laurels is hard for American athletes, who have trouble knowing when to retire, but the old Roman runners did it all the time, or so it is said.
  • In the 1960s, a Texas Baptist preacher of great renown said that just as Paul needed to go to Rome to convert Caesar to Christianity, American presidents needed to go to Moscow to convert Soviet leaders to capitalism.  
  • A popular translation of “The Bacchae,” an ancient Greek play about the dangers of excess revelry, has a cover photograph of young Elvis Presley, on the verge of being mobbed by his female fans.
  • The Parthenon is actually sort of in Nashville.
  • The Gettysburg Address is the American version of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, or perhaps Pericles’ Funeral Oration is the ancient Greek version of the Gettysburg Address.
  • Socrates called out the Sophists for using misleading and slippery rhetoric—but enough about the American tradition of carnival barkers and demagogues.
  • Is NASCAR the American version of chariot races or were chariot races the Roman NASCAR?
  • The original Olympics were hot on TV and neither Nike nor Coke sponsored them.
  • Americans used to keep pictures of Washington, Lincoln, Jesus, and John F. Kennedy in their homes in the US version of Roman household gods.
  • There were no filibusters in the Roman Senate, but its members were unelected aristocrats.
  • American readers might get why the medieval poet Dante shows Satan chewing on Judas’ head but can’t quite grasp why he would also be chewing on the heads of Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar, as well.
  • The most classically-columned city in the United States is Washington, D.C., and it’s a testament to the appeal and influence of the ancient world on the American project.
  • One of the greatest Roman orators was Demosthenes, and the late Senator Evert Dirksen called himself “the Demosthenes of Pekin, Illinois.”
  • A Civil War general who wrote a novel about a Roman charioteer (and who later chased Billy the Kid) never lived to see his book turned into two hit movies and lend its name (Ben-Hur) to a tiny village in central Texas.

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