Washington D.C. has long captured the imaginations of those concerned with political intrigue and given to believe in conspiratorial theories of dark dealings. Many of these fantasies implicate the city planning and architecture of the Capitol in revealing a secret symbology, a knowing wink on the urban scale from the engineers of a New World Order. Despite the ostensible ridiculousness of such claims, there is more truth to be found in them than might at first be imagined.
The Neo-Classical architecture so prominently displayed in the Capitol’s landscape has long been attributed to the tradition of democracy in ancient Greece and the Roman Republic and the adoption of this ideal by the Founding Fathers. While this is certainly a plausible explanation for the popularity of the Greco-Roman style there is in fact a far more direct, albeit extraordinary reason for the application of this aesthetic across our federal and cultural institutions. The revered framers of our Constitution were (unbeknownst to all but a very few) de facto members of the Roman Empire of classical antiquity.
In 27 BCE, the Roman Senate officially vested near total power in Octavian who, becoming Augustus, was the first Emperor of a vast civilization that spanned Europe, Northern Africa, the Levant and Western Asia. While the Western half of the Empire survived only until the 5th century, the Eastern component (also known as the Byzantine Empire) carried on until 1453 – only decades before Columbus’ famed voyage to the New World. Exiled by the ascendant Ottoman Empire, the Eastern Roman intelligentsia dispersed throughout Western Europe, helping to spark the Renaissance.
Over the next century, the members of this diaspora re-established contact with one another and formed a fraternal order whose charter committed them to upholding the ideals and values of the ancient Empire. A pseudo-religious reverence emerged among the group for the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian. In honor of the Emperor’s attempt to re-establish control in Western Europe after the fall of Rome, the order took Justinian’s famed military campaign, Renovatio Imperii (restoration of the empire) as their namesake.
As descendants of statesmen, bureaucrats and intellectuals, the members of Renovatio Imperii easily enmeshed themselves in political institutions throughout the West and began to assert their collective will. Autocratic rule, however, grew increasingly unpopular among an ever more riotous public. Renovatio Imperii gradually became a clandestine organization in order to maintain their broad and newfound influence. By the 18th century the order had a firm, if covert, grip on the British Empire. After fomenting revolution in New England they seized the opportunity to influence the shape and scope the ascendant United States of America.
The photographs displayed above offer a rare glimpse within the structures that house various components of the Renovatio Imperii network as it exists in the nation’s capitol.