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Washington: Rome Reborn

New Grant Funds Research of Roman Influences on U.S. Founding

By Karen Shih ’09

Apotheosis of Washington

Roman influences permeate our nation’s capital, from Latin inscriptions in federal buildings and the classical design of the Capitol to the mural of George Washington surrounded by Roman gods in its dome.

The new $500,000 Ernest L. Pellegri grant from the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) to the Department of Classics will fund research to further understand the links between ancient Rome and the founding of the United States, as well as scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students.

Greenough's Sculpture of Washington

“We saw an opportunity to really encourage younger generations to study this topic and to really understand the civilization that provided the fundamentals for the founding of America,” says Anita McBride, chair of NIAF’s Education and Scholarship Committee.

Classics scholars have long worked to show that ancient Greece and Rome are part of the contemporary world, and this major grant validates and demonstrates that point, recognizing the scholarship and teaching of UMD’s department.

“In Roman mythology, the god Janus has two heads,” says classics Professor Gregory Staley. “He looked forward and backward. Our grant does the same things: We look forward to America to understand its identity as the new Rome and look back at Rome to explain that connection.”

Staley, for example, will explore why paintings in the Capitol are modeled on the ancient wall paintings of Pompeii. Classical art often contains open portrayals of sexuality, which seems at odds with the United States’ Puritan roots.

This dichotomy is also seen in the semi-nude sculpture of Washington modeled after Zeus and created by Horatio Greenough, who studied in Italy. It was supposed to be installed in the Capitol in the mid-1800s, but because of widespread controversy and criticism, it wound up in the National Museum of American History.

The grant, named for an NIAF donor, will also support as many as 20 students per year seeking to study abroad or conduct research in Italy.

“In hero myths, heroes regularly have to leave home, to go on a quest, to discover themselves and to gain new talents,” Staley says. “Studying abroad is simply a modern version of that mythical pattern.”

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