The title of this book, with its echoes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, needs an explanation—if not an apology. It was chosen not because I am setting up as a rival to Edward Gibbon but because his work has a profound and hitherto unexplored relevance to my subject. No historian in his senses would invite comparison with Gibbon. His masterpiece, sustained by a prodigious intellect and an incomparable style, has no competitors. It filled the imagination of readers for two centuries and it performed a unique function as a towering piece of literary architecture. As Carlyle and others have observed, the book acts as a kind of bridge between the ancient and modern worlds, and “how gorgeously does it swing across the gloomy and multitudinous chasm of those barbarous centuries.”1 It satisfied a general desire, as its author said in his autobiography, to increase the scope of human comprehension. Our lives are short. So we

stretch forwards beyond death with such hopes as Religion and Philosophy will suggest, and we fill up the silent vacancy that precedes our birth by associating ourselves with the authors of our existence. We seem to have lived in the persons of our forefathers.2

However, Gibbon’s work exercised a peculiar fascination on his compatriots. If everyone looks back to seek a way forward, the British looked back especially to Rome. Their rulers were educated in the classics. Many of their elite had toured the scenes of antiquity. They lived in the light of the Renaissance. Steeped in Gibbon’s tremendous drama (but 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. The Decline and Fall became the essential guide for Britons anxious to plot their own imperial trajectory. They found the key to understanding the British Empire in the ruins of Rome.

Thus part of my purpose in this book is to assess the implications of that colossal wreck. It was construed in countless ways. British imperialists exhumed a huge miscellany of signs and portents from layer upon layer of archaeological remains. The Eternal City was a universal city, cosmic in amplitude and Delphic in utterance. It embraced a galaxy of worlds, some contrasting, others coinciding. There was republican Rome, pure, virtuous, heroic, the matrix of Macaulay’s Horatius and Kipling’s Regulus. Allied to it was the Stoic Rome of noble Brutus and righteous Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations accompanied Cecil Rhodes on his treks across the veldt. Then there was imperial Rome, an armed despotism bent on conquest and eventually used to justify the “authoritarian politics”3 of imperial Britain—Thomas De Quincey praised virile Caesar for deflowering Roman liberty. There was the Rome of the Antonines, who presided over a golden age of civilisation and whose Pax Romana plainly anticipated the Pax Britannica. There was pagan Rome, whose muses shed immortal lustre over the culture of the West. There was Catholic Rome, which Gibbon pilloried for combining superstition, fanaticism and corruption. He also confirmed some of the prejudices of Britain’s Protestant Empire, remarking that the rapist Pope John XII deterred “female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of St. Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.”4 There was monumental Rome, imitated wherever British imperialists wished to enshrine power in stone. Finally, though this by no means exhausts the catalogue, there was decadent Rome. While aesthetes such as Swinburne and Wilde might celebrate its romantic degeneracy, stern custodians of Greater Britain, whose goal was “a physically A1 nation,”5 saw it as an augury of racial deterioration and imperial decay.

Sigmund Freud was so impressed by all these separate but overlapping identities that he visualised Rome as a model of the mind. He imagined a city where everything was preserved, like thoughts in the unconscious, and new structures coexisted with old.

In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand—without the Palazzo having been removed—the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terracotta antefixes. Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House. On the piazza of the Pantheon we should not only find the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built.6

Freud checked himself, saying that he could not properly represent mental life in pictorial terms. Yet his vision of Rome as a psychic entity is marvellously suggestive. It points to the way in which the Roman past infuses the present and it shows how this multiple metropolis can be all things to all men. Rome was a vast palimpsest of human experience, barely legible, hard to decipher, inveterately oracular. The ambiguity of its messages was a positive advantage to those who were chiefly interested in the lessons that they could adduce from history. Needless to say, Britons were not alone in validating their national mythology by reference to Rome. Tsar (the Russian form of Caesar) Ivan the Great claimed Moscow as the Third Rome. Napoleon crowned himself Emperor with a laurel wreath of gold in a ceremony based on the coronation of Charlemagne—it included the attendance of twelve virgin maids, not easy to find in post-revolutionary Paris. Both Hitler and Mussolini drew on the Roman model, the Nazis claiming that England was “the modern Carthage.”7 Yet it was the British, masters of an Empire far larger than Trajan’s, who seemed to have the best claim to be the “spiritual heirs of Rome.”8

They constantly identified themselves with their imperial precursors. J. A. Froude opened his biography of Julius Caesar with the statement that “the English and the Romans essentially resemble one another.”9 Lord Bryce said that the men who won the Roman Empire and the British Raj “triumphed through force of character.”10 In his comparative study of Greater Rome and Greater Britain, Sir Charles Lucas asserted that both peoples possessed “an innate capacity for ruling.”11 Such avowals were usually made to boost the confidence of British imperialists. Indeed, the modern Empire was most often depicted as an advance on the ancient, especially in matters of liberty, probity and science—Gibbon mocked the Emperor Heliogabalus’s attempt to discover the number of the inhabitants of Rome from “the quantity of spiders’ webs.”12 Yet, as appears below, the contrasts were not all in Britain’s favour. Lord Cromer acknowledged that Rome, whose rulers frequently came from provinces outside Italy, was far more advanced than any current power in assimilating subject peoples. Despite endorsing the kind of racial discrimination that was deeply corrosive to the British Empire, he went so far as to admit that his countrymen were “somewhat unduly exclusive.”13

Rome warned as well as taught. Indian civil servants nervous about the North-West Frontier discussed the lessons of Roman provincial policy with W. D. Arnold, an Oxford don “haunted lest the tragedy of the Roman Empire, whose extremities grew at the expense of its heart, should repeat itself.”14 In an article about Roman ruins, a Victorian contributor to the Edinburgh Review tried to imagine “how much of the topography of London will be recovered from the fragments of our own literature which may be in existence a thousand years hence.”15

To avert the decline and fall of their own Empire some Britons contemplated inveigling the United States into an Anglo-Saxon federation. John West, the mordant historian of Tasmania, even proposed for membership the European ghost of Rome. “The American and British empires are seated on all waters,” he wrote in 1852. “The lands conquered by Caesar, those discovered by Columbus, and those explored by Cook, are now joined together in one destiny.”16 Together they could dominate the world. But Gibbon, though he could be interpreted optimistically, suggested a less auspicious fate. When his first volume appeared (in 1776) the American colonies were already in revolt and the British Empire was suffering from some of the ills that destroyed the Roman Empire, notably luxury, corruption and overextension. Despite its revival and expansion over the next 150 years, Britons continued to find in Gibbon (whose Byzantine conclusion covered a millennium) intimations of their own imperial doom. After it was accomplished, classical echoes were sometimes still heard. When Harold Macmillan visited India in 1958 his fellow student of Gibbon, Prime Minister Nehru, said to him: “I wonder if the Romans ever went back to visit Britain.”17 Such reflections, which appear in protean form throughout this book, provide a counterpoint to its central theme—the decline and fall of the British Empire between 1781 and 1997.

Despite Gibbon’s long goodbye to the Roman Empire, it may seem paradoxical, even perverse, to trace the collapse of the British Empire back to the revolt of the thirteen colonies. True, Washington’s victory at Yorktown was a signal calamity for the mother country, foreshadowing future setbacks and anticipating the rise of an almighty American empire. But Britain’s recovery was dramatic and its sustained triumph in the East evidently compensated for the debacle in the West. And there is no denying the spectacular growth of the Empire, which expanded willy-nilly throughout the Victorian age and reached its territorial apogee between the two world wars. Nevertheless, as Fernand Braudel says, the rise and fall of great powers can only be understood over an immense timescale. Without succumbing to the teleological fallacy and reading their subject backwards, historians have already detected mortal stresses inside the British Empire as early as the 1820s. Yet the evidence suggests—and the American rebels proved—that it was physically weak from the start. Furthermore, the Empire carried within it from birth an ideological bacillus that would prove fatal. This was Edmund Burke’s paternalistic doctrine that colonial government was a trust. It was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright—freedom.

The British Empire had a small human and geographical base, remote from its overseas possessions. In the late eighteenth century it gained fortuitous industrial, commercial and naval advantages that rivals were bound to erode. Having such a limited capacity to coerce, it sought accord and found local collaborators. But imperial domination, by its very nature, sapped their loyalty. Gibbon made the point with the first sentence he ever published, in his Essay on the Study of Literature, whereby, as he put it, he lost his “literary maidenhead.”18 “The history of empires,” he wrote, “is the history of human misery.” This is because the initial subjugation is invariably savage and the subsequent occupation is usually repressive. Imperial powers lack legitimacy and govern irresponsibly, relying on arms, diplomacy and propaganda. But no vindication can eradicate the instinctive hostility to alien control. Gibbon, himself wedded to liberty, went to the heart of the matter: “A more unjust and absurd constitution cannot be devised than that which condemns the natives of a country to perpetual servitude, under the arbitrary dominion of strangers.”19 Resistance to such dominion provoked vicious reprisals, such as the British inflicted after the Indian Mutiny, thus embedding ineradicable antagonism. Yet Britain’s Empire, much better than any other, as even George Orwell acknowledged, was a liberal empire. Its functionaries claimed that a commitment to freedom was fundamental to their civilising mission. In this respect, Lloyd George told the Imperial Conference in 1921, their Empire was unique: “Liberty is its binding principle.”20 To people under the imperial yoke such affirmations must have seemed brazen instances of British hypocrisy. But this was, at least, the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And in the twentieth century, facing adverse circumstances almost everywhere, the British grudgingly put their principles into practice. They fulfilled their duty as trustees, giving their brown and black colonies the independence (mostly within the Commonwealth) long enjoyed by the white dominions. The British Empire thus realised its long-cherished ideal of becoming what The Times called in 1942 “a self-liquidating concern.”21

Long before this Victorians had hoped that “some future Gibbon” would write “the history of the British Empire.”22 Failing that, modern historians may at least draw inspiration from his achievement and instruction from his method. Gibbon teaches, first of all, that chronology is the logic of history. This is not to say that he felt anything but contempt for mere chroniclers. He did, though, favour a narrative that relies on “the order of time, that infallible touchstone of truth.”23 Then, he is a model of irony and scepticism. Gibbon shunned universal systems. He regarded philosophical history much as he regarded rational theology, “a strange centaur!”24 He offered lofty moral and political explanations for the disintegration of the Roman Empire, not all of them consistent. But his abstractions, including the abstract quality of his prose, reflected a sublime understanding of the concrete. Gibbon’s great tapestry is distinguished by its threads. It is a theatrical representation of the past, full of character and action, both tragic and comic, set against a richly embroidered background. But the daemon was in the detail. Where Voltaire damned details as the vermin that kill masterpieces, Gibbon saw the universe in a grain of sand and captured the macrocosm in the microcosm. His history is a constellation of brilliant particulars. Often they complicated his story but he criticised simple-minded historians “who in avoiding details have avoided difficulties.”25 Walter Bagehot joked that Gibbon could never write about Asia Minor because he always wrote in a major key. On the contrary, he rejoiced in minutiae and advocated the preservation of trivia. The Decline and Fall includes recondite information about everything from silk to marble, from canals to windmills, from Russian sturgeon to Bologna sausage, “said to be made of ass flesh.”26 Above all, it captures the spirit of places, notably Rome in its state of eloquent ruin, through sharp circumstantial description. Thus Gibbon vividly conveys the colour, tone and texture of human life during the long span of years he covers.

This is my aim, for a shorter period, in the following pages. I endeavour to give the big picture vitality through abundance of detail, telling the imperial story in terms of people, places and events; through brief lives, significant vistas and key episodes. My stage is thronged with the British dramatis personae of the Empire, from the Iron Duke to the Iron Lady. There are politicians, proconsuls, officials, soldiers, traders, writers, explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, prospectors, missionaries, heroes and villains. But the cast list is not exhausted by the likes of Palmerston, Salisbury, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill, Curzon, Kitchener, T. E. Lawrence, Livingstone and Rhodes. For the Empire is seen from the viewpoint of colonies as well as colonialists. So suitable parts are allotted to statesmen from the dominions (such as Laurier and Hughes), Irish leaders (such as Parnell and de Valera), white minority Prime Ministers (such as Welensky and Ian Smith), and a host of indigenous nationalists, among them Kruger, Zaghlul, Nasser, Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Bandaranaike, Ba Maw, Aung San, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Makarios, Nkrumah, Azikiwe, Kenyatta and Mugabe. The characters appear against the backcloth of their circumstances, small as well as great. I trace the warp and weft of imperial existence. And some strands come under particularly close scrutiny: the food and drink empire-builders consumed, the clothes they wore, the homes they built, the clubs they joined, the struggles they endured, the loot they acquired, the jubilees, durbars and exhibitions they attended. Also observed are their trimmed moustaches and clipped foreskins, their addiction to games and work, their low-brow ideas and high-minded attitudes, their curious blend of honesty and hypocrisy, their preoccupation with protocol and prestige, their racial prejudices and the extent to which they lived in symbiosis with their charges.

Imperial settings provide a crucial dimension to this book. It surveys the vegetable Eden of the West Indies, horribly scarred by slavery. It inspects the pristine, topsy-turvy world of Australia and the idyllic wilderness of New Zealand, apparently a once and future Britain in the southern hemisphere. It visits the jungles of Asia and Africa, which became a breathing presence in so much imperial life and literature. It gauges the impact of nature on man and vice versa. And it considers especially the collision between topography and technology: the passage of steam-driven, screw-powered, iron leviathans through the Suez Canal; the railroad, stretching across prairies, mountains, forests and plains, that bound together land masses the size of Canada and India; the Maxim gun by which “civilisation” subdued “savagery.” The book also explores imperial cities—London, Dublin, Jerusalem, Ottawa, Kingston, Lagos, Nairobi, Cairo, Delhi, Rangoon, Singapore and Hong Kong. It contrasts white palaces and coloured slums. It decodes the messages conveyed by imperial architecture. These were often mixed. Government House in Melbourne was modelled on Osborne, Queen Victoria’s Italianate mansion on the Isle of Wight, whereas Government House in Poona was apparently “a blend of the Renaissance, the Romanesque and the Hindu styles.”27 Lutyens’s New Delhi, though, resembled Rome as an unmistakable symbol of might—completed, ironically, just as the Raj entered its terminal stage of decay. Here and elsewhere I dwell on statues, memorials and edifices of all kinds, relics of the past and ruins of the future.

Against this background unfolds a narrative that bridges the gulf between the foundation of the American republic and its emergence as the sole superpower—a situation from which some now descry its own decline. The presence of the United States is ubiquitous, though it is sometimes unspoken. Indeed, I lack the space, not to mention the knowledge, to treat all aspects of the history of the British Empire. Like Gibbon, I have had to represent some happenings with others. The development of the dominions, for example, is only a sketch, not least because they attained virtual independence so early and so easily. The text is lightly burdened with economics. The characters are, alas, predominantly male. Little is said about the colonial masses, who feature in what are now oddly called “subaltern studies.” Little is said, too, about the “official mind” of the Empire as it functioned in Whitehall. Clerks talked to other clerks interminably and often contradictorily; and in any case their latter-day deliberations are comprehensively embodied in the many volumes of the indispensable British Documents on the End of Empire Project. I rely mainly on printed sources and, although most chapters are fleshed out with manuscript material, I could only sample the archival wealth available. Other omissions are not hard to detect.

Naturally I hope that the book will be judged by the story it does tell. This story contains many exciting episodes, though less emphasis is placed here on triumphs than on the disasters that undermined the fabric of the Empire. Among the topics covered are the slave trade, the Opium Wars, the Indian Mutiny, the Irish Famine, the Boer War, Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge, defeat in the Far East, the struggles for Irish and Indian independence, the morass in the Middle East, the Palestine imbroglio, the retreat from Suez, the Mau Mau uprising, the flight from Africa, and the imperial epilogue in the Falklands and Hong Kong. The deeds that won the Empire, and even those that lost it, were sometimes valiant. But I do not shrink from also dealing with the seamy side of the enterprise, especially as it is apt to be played down in the unhealthy neo-imperialist climate of today. Just as the collapse of Rome has a perennial relevance, so too has the decline and fall of (to employ the inescapable cliché) the greatest empire that the world has ever seen. In this book, above all, I try to convey the full fascination of that momentous saga.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!