Print showing a bird's-eye view of Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Capitol in the foreground, and the Washington Monument in the background.

E. Sachse & Co., Lithographer. View of Washington City. Washington D.C, ca. 1870. [Baltimore: E. Sachse & Co., No. 5 N. Liberty St., Balto., 1869] Photograph. link

Antiquity in America’s Capital

Elise A. Friedland

E. Sachse & Co., Lithographer. View of Washington City. Washington DC, ca. 1870. [Baltimore: E. Sachse & Co., No. 5 N. Liberty St., Balto., 1869] Photograph. link

Even before Americans were collecting antiquities, our Founding Fathers sought to recreate the ancient world in America by making Washington, DC a “new Rome” on the Potomac. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others not only adopted systems of government and law from the classical (especially Roman) world, they also built a capital city that first echoed ancient Rome and then later Athens in its architecture, sculpture, and painted interiors.

The project began around 1791 with the selection of a site and a Roman-influenced urban plan designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Just as Rome sits on a bend in the Tiber River, Washington, DC is nestled in the crux of two rivers, now known as the Anacostia and the Potomac. Interestingly, DC’s territory does include a small offshoot of the Potomac that was, as early as 1664, named Tiber Creek.

Left, Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia, engraved by Thackara & Vallance, Philadelphia, 1792. The George Washington University Museum, Washington, DC, AS 64, The Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection, link. Right, Detail from Urbis Ichnographiam (Map of Rome), by Giambattista Nolli, ca. 1785, engraving. Image from the Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection, courtesy Stanford University Libraries. link

Parallel to Rome’s religious hub, located atop the city’s highest hill (Temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline or Collis Capitolinus in Latin), the US Capitol (the nation’s central legislative building) was built on a small rise dubbed Capitol Hill (the names of the hill and the building are spelled with an “o” after Rome’s Capitoline). Other urban features of DC that echo ancient Rome include the monumental scale of federal buildings and the inclusion of plazas for public and civic statuary like the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. DC’s Mall is even modeled on the political, religious, and cultural center of the Roman Forum.

Top, US Capitol, Rotunda, Section  Charles Bulfinch, 1819. Architectural drawings for the US Capitol, Charles Bulfinch Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, link. Bottom, Pantheon, Rome, after 126 CE, Section. Otto Lueger, Lexikon der gasamten Technik und ihrer Hilfswissenschaften, Bd. 5, Stuttgart, Leipzig 1907, S. 790–1. link


One of the first federal buildings, the US Capitol (begun around 1793, then redesigned through 1855) emulates standard Roman temple architecture with its post and lintel construction, pediments, high podium, deep porch, and long, central staircase. Though elongated today, in an earlier phase the Capitol dome was much shorter, since it was designed by Charles Bulfinch to match the proportions of the spherical dome of the Pantheon in Rome (ca. 125 CE). The Capitol’s interior includes columns that adapt all three classical orders of architecture, some modelled on famous classical buildings: the Doric columns in the Crypt quote columns from the fifth-century BCE Temple of Apollo on the Greek island of Delos; the Ionic columns in the Old Senate Chamber were inspired by the late fifth-century BCE Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis; and the Hall of Columns on the first floor of the House Wing includes Americanized versions of Corinthian capitals that feature tobacco leaves above a row of traditional acanthus leaves. Greek and Roman art also informed the Capitol’s decoration. For example, the Statue of Freedom atop the dome, based in part on the Roman goddess Minerva, references Roman acroteria, sculpted figures that appeared on the roofs of temples. In addition, one of the multiple painted committee meeting rooms in the Senate Wing was done entirely in the Pompeian style. Antiquity was also sometimes adapted to portray what we today view as racist messages. One example may be seen in the pedimental sculpture over the Capitol’s Senate Wing that includes a dejected Native American chief modeled on Roman portrayals of defeated peoples in provinces they had conquered, thus adapting Roman modes of showing subjugated “others” for depicting indigenous American peoples.

“Progress of Civilization,” 1863, Thomas Crawford. Senate Wing, US Capitol, Washington, DC. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.

Left, Detail, Indian Chief, “Progress of Civilization,” 1863, Thomas Crawford. Senate Wing, US Capitol, Washington, DC. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol. Right, Reverse, Bronze Sestertius of Vespasian, Rome, AD 71, 1947.2.430. American Numismatic Society.

Left, Reverse, Bronze Sestertius of Vespasian, Rome, AD 71, 1947.2.430. American Numismatic Society. link  Right, Detail, Indian Chief, “Progress of Civilization,” 1863, Thomas Crawford. Senate Wing, US Capitol, Washington, DC. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.

As the federal government and city expanded and political ideologies developed, the successors of the Founding Fathers—along with their architects, artists, and engineers—turned away from Rome and toward Greece, employing echoes of Greek art and architecture to express the evolving ideals of American democracy. This “Hellenization of DC” (Hellas is the ancient and modern Greek word for Greece) appears in a string of Greek Revival buildings, all begun around 1836, that created an imposing, stately, mile-long axis of office buildings for the executive branch and ran along F Street, from the White House to Washington’s Old City Hall in Judiciary Square. The Ionic colonnade and capitals of the Treasury Building are modelled on the late fifth-century BCE Erechtheion of the Athenian Acropolis; the Doric Patent Office building (today the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum) is inspired by the fifth-century BCE Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis; the Corinthian General Post Office (today the Monaco Hotel) includes interior Doric columns that emulate those of the Parthenon; and the Civil War Frieze on the Old Pension Building (completed in 1884; today the National Building Museum) was an adaptation of the famous Ionic frieze of the Parthenon.

Detail, Caspar Buberl, Civil War Frieze, 1887, National Building Museum (formerly Pension Building). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith [LC-DIG-highsm-09936].

Detail, Parthenon Frieze, 447–438 BCE, Acropolis, Athens. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Even Horatio Greenough’s 1841 Portrait of George Washington—the original Washington monument, designed to sit at the center of the Capitol’s Rotunda—was modeled on the fifth-century BCE cult statue of Zeus from his sanctuary at Olympia in Greece (also one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). Among other issues, “Naked George” offended American sensibilities, so that this adaptation of Greek art was eventually relegated to the halls of history (today it is on view in the National Museum of American History), and instead an Egyptian-inspired obelisk (the Washington Monument) memorializes our first president.

Left, Horatio Greenough, George Washington, 1840, marble. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the US Capitol, 1910.10.3, link. Right, Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, Le Jupiter Olympien, vu dans son trône et dans l’intérieur de son temple, 1814. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collections. link

These adaptations of Greek and Roman art and architecture continued through the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. To name a few: a triple-bay, Roman triumphal arch provides entry to Washington’s central train depot, Union Station (1907); a massive Doric temple housing a colossal, seated “cult” statue of a former president, the Lincoln Memorial (1912), punctuates the western end of the Mall; and no fewer than three Pantheon-inspired domes rise on and around the Mall in the National Archives Building (1935), the National Gallery of Art (1937), and the Jefferson Memorial (1943).

Why does the public art and architecture of our nation’s capital so consciously adopt and adapt monuments of ancient Greece and Rome? Many of America’s Founding Fathers and their successors lived in “a culture of classicism,” instilled by their European origins and education. Classical subjects and motifs were a mainstay of their visual vocabulary, so they used this imagery in public art to construct new American narratives and identities. Early Americans also saw the historical figures, ideals, art, and architecture of antiquity as exempla (examples) to be emulated, adapted, equaled, and even surpassed. Classica Americana, as this material is sometimes called, also helped the fledgling nation compete on the Eurocentric world stage. Interestingly, many of the adoptions and adaptations in the US were rooted in the latest European academic publications and newest discoveries about the ancient world, so their appearance on the western side of the Atlantic responded to European intellectual and artistic trends while also demonstrating the learned, sophisticated nature of Americans and America.

To this day, there is, ironically, no major collection of antiquities in Washington, DC, like those found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and even the nearby Walters Art Museum. A walk through the core of the nation’s capital, however, does provide some semblance of an urban landscape of antiquity, albeit one that is mediated through an American lens.

Elise A. Friedland is an Associate Professor of Classics and Art History at George Washington University

Suggestions for Further Reading

Allen, William C. History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2001. link

Bedford, Steven McLeod. John Russell Pope: Architect of Empire. New York: Rizzoli, 1998.

Berg, Scott W. Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Friedland, Elise A. “Pompeii on the Potomac: Constantino Brumidi’s Nineteenth-Century, Roman-Style Frescos for the Naval Affairs Committee Room in the United States Capitol.” The Capitol Dome 56.1 (2019): 2–15. link

George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum. Gallery Guide for Eye of the Bird: Visions and Views of D.C.’s Past, 2018. link

Highsmith, Carol M. and Ted Landphair. Union Station: A Decorative History of Washington’s Grand Terminal. Washington, DC: Chelsea Publishing, 1988.

Miller, Katya. “An Appreciation of Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom: A Statue Called America, Pocahontas, Liberty, and Freedom.” The Capitol Dome (2007): 18-30.

Miller, Katya. “Behold the Statue of Freedom: Sculptor Thomas Crawford & Senator Charles Sumner.” The Capitol Dome 50.3 (2013): 16–23. link

Rand, Harry. Horatio Greenough and Form Majestic: The Biography of the Nation’s First Washington Monument. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Scholarly Press, 2020.

Richard, Carl. The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. 

Richard, Carl. Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

Robertson, Charles J. Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark. London: Scala Publishers, 2006.

Scott, Pamela. Fortress of Finance: The United States Treasury Building. Washington, DC: Treasury Historical Association, 2010.

Thomas, Christopher A. The Lincoln Memorial and American Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Winterer, Caroline. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.



America was frequently referred to as “a new Rome” from very early in its history. For example, see “America, A New Rome,” The New York Daily Gazette, September 14, 1789. For a mid-nineteenth century reference, see Henry David Thoreau, who in 1851 writing in his journal calls the United States “a new Rome in the West.” See Francis H. Allen and Bradford Torrey, eds., The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, (Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1984), 151. The phrase “a new Rome on the Potomac” does not seem to have early American origins, but is used widely in modern discussions of America as an empire, for example David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 171.


This essay provides an overview of a book that I am currently writing, Classical Washington: Greece and Rome in the Art and Architecture of DC. Funding for multiple aspects of this project has come from The George Washington University. In addition, an NEH Public Scholar Fellowship provided major funding for research and writing of Classical Washington in 2020–2021. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


The best known example of these Roman portrayals relates to the province of Judaea and appears on a series of coins cast by Vespasian in 71 CE (and later by his successors) to celebrate his victory over the First Jewish Revolt in 66–70 CE.


“Hellenization of DC” is a term that I have coined to describe a trend in art and architecture that parallels well-known trend in political ideology. I identify and discuss this “mile-long axis of Greek Revival federal buildings” in my book, now in progress, Classical Washington: Greece and Rome in the Art and Architecture of DC.


See Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); Carl Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 1995); ibid, Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).