How an Ancient Italian Volcano Changed America

By Amy Barr

 

Several years ago my husband and I visited all the usual places while giving our children a tour of Washington, D.C. We trekked miles to see the major memorials. As we walked, we chatted about American history, political thought, Classical ideals, art, and architecture. While waiting to see The National Archives, an impromptu group of listeners formed as we explained the neoclassical images adorning the building. One eavesdropper remarked, “I didn’t know this art had to do with Greece and Rome!”

Thomas Jefferson was more than architect of our Declaration of Independence; he also was fascinated by real architecture as he imagined the construction of our new nation.1 He gave considerable thought to crafting buildings to last for generations. Jefferson could have recommended the flowery architecture of European cathedrals or the onion-bulb towers of Russia or even the down-to-earth Colonial style. Instead, he dreamed up enough columns and capitals to make Cicero himself feel at home.

Our nation’s Founding Fathers drew inspiration from the Classical world, but what brought Roman ideals to the fore in the late 1700s? Two factors came into play. First was Jefferson’s brilliant Classical education. Second, I suggest, was the unearthing of thousands of mysterious things in northern Italy that had remained hidden since the tragic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The discovery of these objects came to light during our nation’s most formative years.      

A home-educated teenager named Pliny (the younger) tells us that one warm August day his Uncle Pliny (the elder) noticed a strange cloud in the distance near what is today Naples, Italy. He observed that this cloud was shaped just like a pine tree. If you haven’t been to Italy, you may not know that pine trees there look like umbrellas. Pliny was grasping for words to describe this event, since such a catastrophe had never been witnessed before. Romans would eventually call this natural disaster a volcano, named for a small island by the same name near Sicily and their god, Vulcan, who crafted lightning bolts for Jupiter in his spare time.2

Natural curiosity and rock-solid Roman bravery would win out over terror on the day of the eruption.  Pliny the elder rushed by sea to help the panicked residents of the area as darkness closed in around him.3 Pliny the younger, however, did not go. His uncle had assigned him a writing project. Seventeen-year-old Pliny decided to finish his schoolwork instead of sailing headlong into an exploding mountain. Who would blame him? As proof that long homeschool assignments can save lives, Pliny the younger would live to tell this volcanic tale while Uncle Pliny would not.

The eruption would last for three excruciating days. When it was over, what had once been lush vineyards, pleasant hillsides, and thriving towns—most notably Pompeii and Herculaneum—would look lifeless and ashen like the surface of the moon. The dead remained where they fell, utterly forgotten for seventeen centuries.4

Excavations in Herculaneum began in 1738, well before archaeology included much science. Workers knew nothing about the events that had placed these items in the ground. Mystery added to the beauty of the discoveries. Soon Europe was engrossed with the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, her sister city, discovered in 1749. As workers uncovered perfectly preserved homes, temples, baths, sculptures, and paintings, a remarkable thing happened: the world’s imagination was captured by ancient Rome and, by association, ancient Greece. What had once been forgotten now retook center stage in the minds of the best thinkers and doers of the day.

While Thomas Jefferson was ambassador to France from 1784 to 1789, he took a few well-earned breaks. He scoured France looking at her Romanesque architecture, he toured her Roman ruins, and he voraciously read Classical authors (both Latin and Greek) looking for insight, inspiration, and warning.  Having started his Classical education at age 9, he was fluent in Greek, Latin, and at least three other languages, skills that would inform every aspect of his career.5 He, too, felt the powerful pull of Pompeii and the potent words of Roman authors. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would work together to craft a constitution with a tripartite system of government that found its roots in Rome.6 Jefferson himself would introduce the neoclassical style of architecture to the United States.

All of this enthusiasm was not just because Jefferson thought Roman buildings were majestic, but because he believed that the Roman Republic’s system of checks and balances was a brilliant idea for our new nation. What better model for our architecture? Ever the student of Roman history, he also knew that a nation must be vigilant lest it topple at the hands of a tyrant, as Rome once did.

Intellectual souvenirs from Jefferson’s time in France included his design of the Virginia State Capitol, the University of Virginia, and Monticello, his home. He would suggest the name “Capitol” after the Capitoline Hill in Rome and would inspire the plan for our Capitol building modeled on the ancient Pantheon of Rome. So, when you look at it this way, from the ruins of Rome and the ashes of Pompeii would come the enduring structures of our nation. At least in some small way, the tragic end of the cities of Vesuvius would inspire the rise of the United States of America.

Endnotes:

1. Giordano, Ralph, “Thomas Jefferson: The Education of an Architect,”  www.earlyamerica.com/review/2001_summer_fall/architect.html#_edn3.

2. www.volcano.si.edu/world/volcano.cfm?vnum=0101-05=.

3. www.smatch-international.org/PlinyLetters.html.

4. sites.google.com/site/ad79eruption.

5. Jefferson, Thomas, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, with notes by Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984. Autobiography, p. 4.

6. www.andreafedi.com/216/doku.php/216:neoclassicism#jefferson_in_france [excellent site with plenty of links for further research on this topic].

Amy Barr is a homeschool mother of three and a full-time instructor of other home educated students as co-founder of The Lukeion Project,  http://www.lukeion.org/. As an archaeologist, she spent more than a decade excavating sites throughout the Mediterranean and teaching Classics at the college level. Now she and her husband, Regan Barr, offer their expertise through live online workshops and college preparatory high school courses about the Classical world, Latin, and Greek. The two of them lead annual family tours to the Mediterranean and invite you to join them for a tour of the best sites in Greece, June 2012.

 Copyright 2012, used with permission.  All rights reserved by author.  Originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine.  Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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