18th- and 19th-century Americans of all races, classes and genders looked to the ancient Mediterranean for inspiration

The ancient world of the Mediterranean has long permeated American society, in everything from museum collections to home furnishings. The design of the nation’s public monuments, buildings and universities, as well as its legal system and form of government, show the enduring influence of Mediterranean antiquity on American culture.

Until the late 19th century, Americans encountered the ancient world almost exclusively through reproductions – in books, artwork and even popular plays. Very few could afford to travel abroad to encounter Mediterranean artifacts firsthand.

Yet despite barriers to access, many Americans forged personal connections with the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean – not only the Greeks and Romans, but also the Egyptians and Israelites. Perhaps the newness of American culture inspired this deep interest in the ancient past.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Mediterranean antiquity’s influence on America, even before it officially became a country, is how it cut across cultural lines of race, class and gender. Far from being the preserve of a privileged few, the art and literature of the ancients was often embraced by Americans of all stripes – including the enslaved Black poet Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784) and Black and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907). But the circumstances of these encounters and the way individual Americans thought about antiquity varied greatly.

I’m an art historian specializing in ancient Mediterranean art and culture. I am particularly fascinated by the way Americans, from the earliest days, made creative connections between past and present, despite being separated by thousands of miles and millennia of history.

In researching and selecting works of art for the exhibit “Antiquity and America,” on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, I was excited to show an exceptionally diverse range of American encounters with the ancient world, especially in portrait painting.

Marker of education

Take, for example, Samson Occom (1723-1792), a member of the Mohegan nation, Presbyterian minister and one of the first Native Americans to pen an autobiography in English.