Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

British (Post)Colonial Discourse and (Imagined) Roman Precedents: From Bernardine Evaristo's Londinium to Caesar's Britain and Gaul 1

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

British (Post)Colonial Discourse and (Imagined) Roman Precedents: From Bernardine Evaristo's Londinium to Caesar's Britain and Gaul 1

Article excerpt

THERE HAS BEEN MUCH DEBATE about the comparability or non-comparability of empires across time and space. In Tensions of Empire, for instance, Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler invite inquiry into "the extent to which the colonizing projects of different states at different times influenced each other, giving rise to common colonial structures" despite the numerous incongruities and variations that have existed between them.2 Ultimately, the extent of influence is deemed sufficient to validate (cautiously) comparative approaches.3 Although Cooper and Stoler concentrate on the European colonial empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they also suggest that broader inter-imperial comparisons are legitimate in the future.4 At the same time, they stress the distinctness of modern European colonialisms, both from earlier forms of "conquest, exploitation, and subjugation" (because the former were in notable tension with contemporaneous ideals of a "universal public good" - for instance, regarding liberalism, citizenship, and social rights) and from intra-European marginalizations of internal or neighbouring peripheries (e.g., because the latter often envisaged a lesser degree of difference and a higher possibility of full integration of the margin into the mainstream).5 However, they also concede that at times there are indeed plausible points of comparison, and that "the extent to which models of rule passed back and forth across different kinds of imperial territory should be examined."6 Empires in World History, a more recent comparative study co-authored by Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank, confidently includes both modern and ancient empires within its broad scope.7 Observations on inter-imperial influences, which to some extent already featured in Tensions of Empire, are now expressly said to include Rome's influence on later imperial powers: Burbank and Cooper assert that Rome left behind "a powerful imperial imaginary" that "became a reference point for later empires" - "Romans created an imperial vocabulary, institutions, and practices that would be called upon by empire-makers, critics, and defenders for the next two thousand years."8

The archaeologist Richard Hingley has offered case studies of how "the Roman Empire provided an origin myth for the purpose and morals of the elite of the British Empire" in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century (e.g., regarding administrative efficiency, the 'civilizing mission', and assimilation), and how modern colonial preoccupations influenced the ways in which Roman materials were interpreted. Hingley's British sample texts include writings by imperial administrators, scholarly works in Roman studies, and even a libretto.9 The ways in which the Roman Empire was re-imagined and appropriated as a model and comparative reference point for British and other modern European imperial self-fashionings have also been explored by other scholars.10

Taking this historical and archaeological debate as a starting point, the present essay investigates the question of inter-imperial influence and comparability from the perspective of postcolonial11 literary studies. I will discuss two modern British literary texts (Bernardine Evaristo's verse novel The Emperor's Babe and, very briefly, Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness) which construct parallels between the Roman Empire and modern im- perial (and at times also post-imperial) Britain.12 I would then like to approach the question of the comparability of empires from the other, Roman side, through a case study of Julius Caesar's historical commentarii on his Gaulish and British campaigns, De bello Gallico (The Gallic War, written c. 51 BCE). This highly canonical text will be used as a case study on Roman representations of empire and its 'barbarian' peripheries, to discuss the extent to which these can be regarded as anticipating modern patterns of colonial discourse. The backward move 'from Evaristo to Caesar' alluded to in the title of this essay should not be understood as a simple continuity of colonial representational schemes which can be traced back across two millennia as smoothly as a journey along a railway track, but merely as a selective exploration of intertextual readings providing connectivity across considerable distances and ruptures. …

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