E Pluribus Unum, or Why the Founding Fathers Used Latin
By Simon Price and Peter Thonemann
How to write a wide-ranging history of the ancient world which does more than just rehash the old narratives? We decided at the outset that the book must have a good chronological and narrative frame, after all it was going to run from the time of palaces at Mycenae, Knossos and Troy in the middle of the second millennium BC down to that of St Augustine, some 2000 years later.
We also wanted to bring out some key issues. One of these is memory and uses of the past. How did people in antiquity see themselves in relation to their pasts, stretching back to the time of the Trojan War?
In addition, we wanted to explore some of the uses that have been made of the classical pasts in recent centuries. Hence ‘e pluribus unum’. The phrase, which appears today on the Great Seal of the US and on all US coinage, was adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782. ‘Out of many, one’ refers, of course, to the creation of the new state from the thirteen colonies (the Latin phrase conveniently itself has thirteen letters). So far so good.
But why Latin? Engagement with the Roman past helped to shape the arguments of the American revolutionaries. Colleges for men placed enormous emphasis on reading Latin and Greek authors. Thomas Jefferson recorded many classical authors in his commonplace book for 1758-73, and his later huge library included many Latin texts, in which he loved to lose himself.
The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Jefferson, meant that the former British colonies were now republics, and dialogue with the history of antiquity distinguished the new republics, the bastions of liberty, from the old feudal and monarchic regimes of Europe. The dangers of tyranny were exemplified in Alexander of Macedon, Julius Caesar and the subsequent emperors. As Jefferson said, in reference to the US ‘experiment’ of being governed ‘on principals of honesty, not mere force’, ‘we have seen no instance of this since the days of the Roman republic.’
About the authors: Simon Price was a lecturer in Greek and Roman history at Lady Margaret Hall and St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, and has written and edited numerous books on ancient religions. Peter Thonemann has taught Greek and Roman history at Wadham College, Oxford, since 2007. He has published widely on the history of Asia Minor, and is director of the Monumenta Asiae Minoris Antiqua XI project. His first book, The Maeander, will be published shortly.
Image Caption: The Great Seal of the US, devised by Thomas Jefferson and others. In addition to ‘e pluribus unum’, the eagle, which is reminiscent of the bird of Jupiter, carries not only 13 arrows of war, but also a classical olive branch (with 13 leaves), at a time when there was not a single olive tree growing in North America!