Between the Eternal City and the Holy City: Rome, Jerusalem, and the Imperial Ideal in Britain

By Reisenauer, Eric M. | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Between the Eternal City and the Holy City: Rome, Jerusalem, and the Imperial Ideal in Britain


Reisenauer, Eric M., Canadian Journal of History


As interest in and enthusiasm for the empire reached its zenith in the late Victorian period, the British understanding of their imperial project experienced a transformation. Marty Britons, who sought to make sense of the empire increasingly saw it as a significant phenomenon in world history and a potential force for good among the nations. The long-held economic, strategic, and demographic justifications for empire carne to share the stage with other raisons d'etre which spoke to higher and nobler goals for British dominion--the spreading of law and of liberty, of civilization, and of order. Such aims possessed a permanence of value, not subject to the variable winds of market forces, military alliances, and population fluctuations. In this way, it was the expansion of England's mission and not simply the "expansion of England," to use J.R. Seeley's phrase, which truly seemed to broaden and deepen the historical footprint of the enterprise. (1) Assessing Britain's mission obviously required looking towards the future needs and obligations of the nation and empire, but such assessment also inspired a plumbing of the depths of history.

The study of previous nations and empires, especially those with momentous impact, was seen to have potential to provide useful instructions and important cautions that imperial Britons would be wise to heed. The aim of this article is to examine the place of two previous peoples, imperial Romans and ancient Israelites, in the development of the British imperial ideal during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is well established that Rome and Britain were commonly compared, the Pax Britannica having replaced and even surpassed the Pax Romana. But the image of Jerusalem also played a part in British imperial vision, with William Blake's exhortation to build it again in England's "green and pleasant land" ultimately conscripted into the very model of an imperial anthem. (2) Blake, himself rather ambivalent towards empire, would likely have been appalled at this triumphalist use of his lines--comforted perhaps only by the fact that this expropriation of the Holy City has been neglected in modern scholarship and has largely faded from public consciousness. (3) Yet in the later decades of the nineteenth century, the ideals of Rome, as the centre of the Roman Empire, and Jerusalem, as the capital of the ancient Hebrews, were integrated into the British understanding of the empire in contrasting but ultimately complementary ways.

That Rome should figure prominently in British reflections on empire is not at all surprising--the very vocabulary (colony, empire, imperialism) derived from the language of the caesars. (4) The place of Rome in British imperial consciousness has been examined on a few previous occasions beginning with Raymond F. Betts's 1971 article in the journal Victorian Studies. (5) In contrast to the enthusiasm of earlier classicists who surmised that the study of Rome's imperial example would benefit Britons, Betts points out the limits of the Roman lesson in both applicability and appeal, and shows that the Victorian public, when imagining its empire, was far more interested in the "Oriental" and exotic than anything neo-classical. In fact, he concludes, "only among those who would be proconsuls or were schoolmen, did the Roman empire find much favour." (6)

More recent scholarship has furthered Betts's work, and, while not substantially altering his conclusions, has shown that the Roman past had a larger and longer impact than he indicated. Norman Vance bas argued that both the proponents and opponents of empire used the history of Roman expansion to justify their positions, noting that the Roman model possessed a "rich, unstable ambiguity" that allowed it to be widely applied in general terms to the reality of Greater Britain, and also to specific concerns such as imperial governance, consolidation, and, more forebodingly, decline. …

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