The (Roman?) Revolution

It was an era consumed by radicalism, violence, and unprecedented upheaval. It was an era of fallen kings and rolling heads.

It was the French Revolution.

After years of subjection to the whims of the Old Regime, in which nobles and royalty enjoyed all social privileges minus all obligation to pay taxes, The Third Estate, composed of commoners, began to meet in new public venues such as coffee houses, salons, places of higher learning, libraries, debates, and secret societies. In these meetings, they stumbled upon shared frustrations and ideas, discussing the practical applications of radical thinkers like John Locke. This particular philosopher asserted that humans are born free and posses “unalienable rights,” a notion that had been recently adopted by Thomas Jefferson in America’s Declaration of Independence.

The King called the Estates-General in 1789 in hopes of conversing with all Three Estates – clergy, nobles, and commoners – and quieting the qualm, presumably by somehow subduing the Third Estate and maintaining the current social order. However, the Third Estate recognized they were being unfairly represented and formed a new group called the National Assembly without the permission of the King, who, shortly afterward, locked them out of the Estates-General. They reassembled at a tennis court and devised a new constitution, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

The Oath of the Tennis Court

“The Oath of the Tennis Court” by Jacques-Louis David, 1791.

The Revolution had officially begun.

The Third Estate looked to the ancient world for inspiration as to how to move forward from the Ancien Regime. Popular art and philosophy reveals how the masses aligned themselves with two ancient emblems of democracy, Greece and Rome, almost to the point of “emulation” (Landes, 91). Napoleon even borrowed his title, “consul,” from Julius Caesar. So what were the similarities and differences between Revolutionary France and Rome, one of the ancient cultures they held so dear?

Both Rome and the rebels were grounded in patriotism. It was viewed as the superior virtue of a citizen; it drove the Romans to conquer and convert neighboring lands to the religion of state-worship, and it drove the French to view emigration during the revolution as nothing short of betrayal. In fact, the French public was infinitely more tolerant of black citizens in popular art than of Marie Antoinette, a woman with an “impure mix of races” in her blood. Artists used friendly black and white cherubs to depict the black and white inhabitants of the country both being cared for by the mother France whilst Marie Antoinette’s image was frequently subject to gross perversion, typically mocking her sexuality and foreign heritage (Landes, p. 104-105, p. 118).

"The Death of Joseph Bara" by Charles Moreau-Vauthier. Joseph Bara was a drummer boy killed by counter-revolutionaries. After Robespierre praised him publicly, he became a hero and martyr. He is shown here in full sans-culottes garb.

“The Death of Joseph Bara” by Charles Moreau-Vauthier. Joseph Bara was a drummer boy killed by counter-revolutionaries. After Robespierre praised him publicly, he became a hero and martyr. He is shown here in full sans-culottes garb.

While patriotism was essential to French rebels and ancient Roman citizens, both parties expressed it differently in their clothing. The French, in addition to wearing a tricolored cockade, made a statement by dressing down, a stark contrast from the lavish court fashions.


“After 1792 the red cap of liberty, the short jacket known as the carmagnole, and loose-fitting trousers seemed to define the sansculotte, that is, true republican sentiment (Perrot, 18).”


The Empress Joséphine in Malmaison Park

“The Empress Joséphine in Malmaison Park” by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1805. This portrait shows Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, dressed in a Greco-Roman style.

Women adopted more simplistic dresses evocative of stolas, the traditional garb of Roman women. This adoption of a classical style by the middle class was an ironic twist considering stolas and togas were an indication of high social status, usually obtained through stronger connection to the state, and therefore through more intense patriotism (Dolansky, 54). Romans used embellishment to visually signify their alliance with the state, though their form of embellishment was much more subtle compared to that of French nobility in the late 18th century. Whereas notable dress was used in Rome to signal adherence to the state and possession of political privilege, it was used in France to signal rebellion against the Old Regime and personal, political alignment.

It seems the French spent more time defining the state than worshiping it as the Romans did. After having blind loyalty in an absolutist ruler for so long, it comes as no surprise that they were intellectually ignited by Locke, a thinker who deeply analyzed the (ideally consensual) relationship between the individual and the state.

One of the possible reasons for the French identifying so strongly with Romans is the similarity of their states: they were both an incredibly liberal people for their time, particularly in their democratic government structure and their secularized concept of marriage. Romans considered marriage “an arrangement between two families” more than anything else, and the union was truly held together by consent and “had no legal force of its own” (The Roman Empire in the First Century). By 1792, the French state began marrying people “in the eyes of the law (Perrot, 29).” Both cultures had legal hurdles couples had to jump over before marriage, but because both merely viewed marriage as the French put it, “a civil contract,” it was also peculiarly easy to get a divorce (Perrot, 30). The French grounds for divorce wavered between seven and three throughout the course of shifting rule during this time, the most compelling being that a spouse emigrated under suspicion of disloyalty to the New Regime (Perrot, 33). Roman divorce was even easier: “All that the law required was that they declare their wish to divorce before seven witnesses (The Roman Empire).”

Both cultures had a knack for hero worship. But while Roman admiration was directed more towards ancestors, with the exception of the Romans themselves, the French mostly admired modern role models and martyrs for the Revolution. They wanted a new society in which men were praised for their accomplishments rather than their birth alone (Landes, p. 89), something with which the Romans were not entirely unfamiliar. Roman men could circumvent the birth requirement with great wealth or military accomplishment. For Revolutionary France, great men were their new motivation, their goal, their gospel. In the past, only the First Estate (clergy) had the power to elect saints to eternal glory, but now the public reclaimed heroism, informally electing through public opinion those whom they believed deserved to stand for something greater. Perhaps the very monarchical system their new heroes stood against what exactly what made the public so practiced at assigning great passion and allegorical value to an individual. Nevertheless, Fame was the new King, Country the new God.

While the French may have not been the Romans exactly, they had relative success spring-boarding off of the ancients’ ideals in order to establish a goal for their political movement. After the Directory brought some semblance of stability to the nation, the people were ripe for someone (not a king, of course) to take the front seat (not a throne, of course) of the New Regime and lead them somewhere great. A fresh-faced general named Napoleon Bonaparte rose to the occasion.

Works Cited

  •  Bouffonidor. Les Fastes De Louis XV. Paris: Ville-Franche, Chez La Veuve Liberté, 1782. Print.
  • Edmondson, J. C., and Alison Keith. “Togam Virilem Sumere: Coming of Age in the Roman World.” Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2008. N. pag. Print.
  • Landes, Joan B. Visualizing the Nation: Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth-century France. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001. Print.
  • Perrot, Michelle. A History of Private Life. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1990. Print.
  • “The Roman Empire in the First Century: Weddings, Marriages, & Divorce.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.