American Ethnonationalism and the Mos Maiorum: 21st Century Rhetoric with Roots in the Late Roman Republic Open Access

Karpen, Emily (Spring 2021)

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The mos maiorum (custom of the ancestors) of ancient Rome was a concept invoked by members of the ruling classes to establish and maintain the continuation of certain social practices by connecting them to ancestral practices and authority. Connection to ancestral authority could occur in many ways, but it was achieved most prominently through adulation of particular ancestral figures, their actions, and their words. These ancestral actions and words that were used to justify current behavior were known as historical exempla (examples)Such exempla included virtues and values that were vital to the formation of Roman civic identity and served to promote civic pride and even nationalist sentiment in the population. The invocation of the mos maiorum by the Romans, and similar uses of ancestral practice as justification for current social practice by the United States of America, both reflect collective psychological and sociological influences of social conditioning within their respective populations. The Romans perceived themselves as embodying the historical exempla of the ancestors and sought to return to a state of former glory through tradition and the mos maiorum. The Founding Fathers also engaged in a form of historical consciousness in which they drew upon select ancestors for authority and imprimatur. When drafting the foundation documents for the United States of America, the Founders envisioned themselves as emulating certain prominent Romans of the Late Roman Republic such as Cicero and Sallust. In doing so, the Founders thus engaged in a concept similar to the mos maiorum—they relied upon the words and actions of their claimed ancestors to validate their perspectives. In contemporary society, some politicians and scholars also rely upon this method of tapping into a curated historical consciousness in a modern mos maiorum in an effort to promote ethnonationalist perspectives within American society and politics. By engaging in a form of ethical nostalgia (nostalgia for a previous ethical state) the Romans, and subsequently the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, encouraged ethnonationalist sentiment that was intertwined within their respective national civic identities. 

Table of Contents

Introduction                                                                                                                             p. 1

Mos Maiorum in the Late Roman Republic                                                                p. 5

The Roman Republic, United States of America, and Nationalism                           p. 10

Chapter 1: Mos Maiorum, Nationalism, and Civic Identity in the Roman Republic             p. 14

Defining Mos Maiorum                                                                                              p. 14

Interpretations of Mos Maiorum by Roman Authors                                                 p. 18

Roman Civic Identity and Ethnonationalism                                                              p. 26

Chapter 2: Americana Classica: Classical Traditions and American Ethnonationalism        p. 36

Education and Social Conditioning                                                                            p. 36

Social Conditioning and Mos Maiorum                                                                     p. 39

Historical Consciousness and Ethnonationalism                                                         p. 45

Validation through Authority Figures, Language and Symbols                                p. 48

Political Incitement of Ethnonationalism through American Tradition                     p. 51

American Identity through the Lens of Ethnocentrism                                               p. 54

Conclusion                                                                                                                              p. 59

Bibliography                                                                                                                           p. 65

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