The decline and fall of the British Empire

Piers Brendon examines why Edward Gibbon's 18th-century history of Rome became essential reading for Britain's imperialists, who saw illuminating links between ancient politics and the future of their empire

English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94), author of 'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine

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With impeccable timing Edward Gibbon produced the first three volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the very moment when the revolt of the 13 American colonies threatened to destroy the British Empire. They contained many passages which implied that the British Empire – over-extended, prone to luxury, attacked by barbarians, reliant on mercenaries – would follow suit. Unable to resist the pun, Gibbon dwelt fondly on the insurrection of the Armoricans (inhabitants of Brittany) against Rome. “Imperial ministers,” he wrote, “pursued with proscriptive laws, and ineffectual arms, the rebels whom they had made”. As a result the Armoricans achieved “a state of disorderly independence”, while the Romans lost freedom, virtue and honour, as well as empire.

➞ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (seven volumes, 1776–88), by Edward Gibbon, is arguably the greatest work of history in the language.

This probably summed up Gibbon’s view of the American revolution. True, he was prepared to condemn it as a “criminal enterprize” in return for a sinecure from ➞ Lord North, which prompted ➞ Fox to say that Gibbon, who had described the corruption that overthrew the Roman Empire, exemplified the corruption that would overthrow the British Empire. At heart, though, Gibbon was wedded to liberty and in the Decline and Fall he denounced any political system that consigned a people to “the arbitrary dominion of strangers”. There was nothing more adverse to nature and reason “than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations, in opposition to their inclination and interest”.

➞ Lord Frederick North (1732–92) North is famous as the Prime Minister who “lost the American colonies” and led a cabinet described by Dr Johnson as a “bundle of imbecility”. But North was also a master of patronage.

➞ Charles James Fox (1749–1806) Fox was a brilliant parliamentarian who so deplored the American policy of North that he toasted Washington’s forces as “our army” and spoke of an English victory as “terrible news”.

Gibbon’s caveats complemented ➞ Edmund Burke’s mantras, notably his celebrated proclamation that “the British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other”. The Empire was a trust, Burke Hard though it was for those under the imperial yoke to appreciate this boon, the Empire carried within itself from birth an ideological bacillus that would prove fatal. It was, in the last resort, a self-liquidating enterprise.

➞ Edmund Burke (1729-97) Burke was an eloquent writer, an inspired parliamentary orator and a political philosopher of genius. He put forward the classic argument that there could be only one justification for imperial rule: it must serve the interests of the ruled.

When and how it would expire were puzzling questions, though not beyond all conjecture. British rulers, educated in the classics, familiar with the scenes of antiquity, looked to Rome for guidance. Steeped in Gibbon’s tremendous drama (though ignoring his admonition about the danger of comparing epochs remote from one another), they perceived striking analogies between the two powers that dominated their respective worlds. Of course, other nations saw themselves as reincarnations of Rome. But it seemed axiomatic, as ➞ J A Froude wrote at the start of his biography of Julius Caesar, that “the English and the Romans essentially resemble one another”. Thus the Declineand Fall became the handbook for Britons anxious to plot their own imperial trajectory. They found the key to understanding the British Empire in the ruins of the Eternal City.

➞ James Anthony Froude (1818–1894) This popular historian and scandalously candid biographer of Thomas Carlyle, took an ultra-nationalistic view of the Empire.

They exhumed a huge miscellany of signs and exhumed a huge miscellany of signs and portents from layer upon layer of archaeological remains. Sometimes they unearthed relics of imperial Rome, which had thrived on conquest, discovering grounds for confidence in an aggressive, authoritarian Greater Britain. For instance, ➞ Thomas De Quincey praised virile Caesar for deflowering Roman liberty. Sometimes, shards of republican Rome gave them cause for optimism. ➞ Macaulay’s Horatius and ➞ Kipling’s Regulus embodied the heroic virtues of imperial patriots down the ages (in his allusions to the Roman Empire, Kipling acknowledged that Gibbon was “the fat heifer I ploughed with”).

➞ Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) De Quincey wrote a vivid and often horrific account of eating opium, a drug that Britain fought to sell to China.

➞ Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–59) Macaulay was a scintillating essayist and, as a historian, the only British rival to Gibbon. He also wrote the Lays of Ancient Rome.

➞ Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) Kipling was born in India and became one of Britain’s best short story writers and the unofficial poet laureate of the Empire.

Often, though, Britons discerned in the wreckage of Rome the inexorable doom of their own empire. Soon after the loss of the American colonies, Horace Walpole forecast that in due course voyagers from the New World would “visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul’s”. Macaulay, rehearsing the prophecy on a Gibbonian visit to Rome, gave it classical form: he visualised some future traveller from New Zealand would take “his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s”. The image was repeated so often that it became parodied: when an earthquake shattered Wellington in 1855, one Australian newspaper envisaged a Cockney gazing on its ruins.

Towards the end of the Victorian age, the Positivist ➞ Frederic Harrison offered a particularly elaborate variation on this theme. He advocated the creation of a British Pompeii, a subterranean city under Skiddaw or Stonehenge, to preserve the treasures and trivia of each century. This “time capsule” would contain items such as photographs, manufactured goods, encyclopaedias, Bradshaw Railway Guides, Whitaker Almanacs and the correspondence of Mr Gladstone, which would require a vault to itself. The souvenirs would fascinate the globe-trotter from New Zealand who, a millennium hence, might “moor his electric balloon on the last broken arch of London Bridge”.

➞ Frederic Harrison (1831–1923) A versatile author, Harrison was the high priest of Positivism, a doctrine of scientific progress known as the “religion of humanity”.

Ironically, intimations of imperial mortality proliferated at a time when the British Empire was reaching its apogee and they affected its most fervent devotees. During Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Kipling famously warned that “all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre”.

En route from India for the Jubilee, young Winston Churchill, who had been reading Gibbon during the hot afternoons while his brother officers slept, paused in Rome. Here, among the stones of the Capitol (perhaps listening to barefoot friars singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter), he conjured up grim forebodings about the decline and fall of the British Empire. Yet later that year, in his first political speech, Churchill castigated the “croakers” who predicted that the British Empire, now at the height of its glory, would follow the course of Rome.

Britons plotting their imperial trajectory found the key to understanding the British Empire in the ruins of the Eternal City

Decay and corruption

Similarly, in the pages of the Daily Mail, its star reporter ➞ George Steevens lauded the might and majesty of the Empire as exhibited during the Jubilee. Yet writing in Blackwood’s Magazine in July 1897 under the pseudonym “the New Gibbon” and mimicking the historian’s style with some panache, Steevens discerned “in the public felicity the latent cause of decay and corruption”. Britain relied too much, he said, on “the martial virtue of subject barbarians”. The imperial race was losing its force under the “enervating influence of industrial civilisation”. Hunting, shooting and fishing, sports in which man matched himself against nature, were giving way to lazy spectatorship. Watching games of football and cricket – British circuses – stunted people’s growth. A puny breed was emerging, blind to the prospect of imperial ruin. Indeed, Steevens concluded, “decline was already accomplished, and fall was… impending.”

➞ George Warrington Steevens (1869–1900) A Balliol scholar who stormed Fleet Street, Steevens conjured up imperial scenes with rare panache.

Of course, it took well over half a century to occur, the result of two world wars, economic frailty and imperial overstretch, nationalist revolt and international pressure. Even so, the collapse was rapid compared to that of Rome. But the shock was cushioned by the feeling that the development was inevitable. It was part of an evolutionary process whereby British colonies progressed from tutelage to liberty (Empire mutating into Commonwealth). It was also the natural effect of immoderate greatness whereby, as Gibbon had said of Rome, “the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight”. Unwittingly echoing Churchill’s maiden speech, Harold Macmillan condemned the “croakers” who descried “the decline and fall of the British Empire”. Privately, though, Macmillan acknowledged: “This is the age of Diocletian – the end of Empire.”

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Piers Brendon is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and author of The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (Jonathan Cape, 2007). He was formerly keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre.