Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.06

Sarah J. Butler, Britain and Its Empire in the Shadow of Rome: The Reception of Rome in Socio-Political Debate from the 1850s to the 1920s.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.  Pp. viii, 263.  ISBN 9781441159250.  $120.00.  


Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King’s College, Cambridge (sdg1001@cam.ac.uk)

What did Rome mean in the Victorian cultural imagination? It meant at least four awkwardly overlapping ideas. First and foremost for us as classicists, it meant the Rome of antiquity – though this in turn is a mansion with many rooms, built out of an education system that privileged classical learning and a culture that idealised the classical. Second, it meant the Catholic Church in an era which saw not merely the Catholic emancipation but also anti-Catholic riots and an often virulent anti-Catholic rhetoric in all fields of endeavour throughout a century of intense religious controversy. Third, it meant the Rome of the traveller, the southern city of warmth, erotic promise, freedom from the restraints of formal British society, in an age where the steamship and train opened Europe to a new ease of travel and type of tourist. Fourth, it betokened the city of the Renaissance, a cultural icon of art, architecture and music that fired the imagination of Walter Pater and many others. These four general areas are usually treated by modern scholars in a quite separate manner, yet for the Victorian Protestant gentleman, visiting Rome, or dreaming of Rome, they formed a complex map of competing desires and interests. The lure and power of Rome was so pervasive and affective in Victorian thinking precisely because it could evoke such layered idealisms and fantasies.

Sarah Butler’s book, a reworked PhD, takes one delimited contour of this map to explore. In three long chapters, she looks first at how ancient Rome becomes a touchstone for thinking about Empire, focusing especially on the later years of the 19th century up until the early years between the wars. In the second, she considers how Rome enters the debate on the state of the nation, focusing here particularly on arguments about race and national identity. Third, she looks at how the massive urbanization of the industrial revolution produced a heated debate on the nature of the city and how the city of Rome offered one template for thinking through the issues of modern civic life. These three debates – Empire, the nation and the city – are self-evidently linked in Victorian writing and in modern scholarly analysis. But they actually provide rather different problems for seeing how Rome becomes part of British socio-political discourse. There can be little doubt – however absent-minded British imperialism has been claimed to be – that in Victorian and Edwardian Britain there was an increasingly articulate and often disturbingly direct ideological argument about the benefits and demerits of Empire. In this debate, Rome provided an integral and necessary model of Empire, not just for British writers but for everyone else too. Niebuhr, whose history of Rome was instrumental in the development of the new critical history, points out that only modern Britain provides an adequate parallel for the Roman Empire – and vice versa. But when we turn to the debates on the city, things look rather different. There are long books on urban planning, arguments about housing and disease, on the use of sewers even, that do not refer at all to Rome – except, perhaps, for the occasional and familiar cultural markers of a quotation from Juvenal on the dangers of urban life, along with, as Butler nicely shows, some eclogic and georgic fantasies about rustic life as a retreat from the city. London did not experience Haussmannism. It would be misplaced, I think, to assert that Rome was as integral and central to this debate on the city as it is to the debate on Empire. In the middle comes the nation. Here, Rome can flare into pointed significance. Genealogy matters, physiognomy is a sign of genealogy and the classical past becomes part of a battleground of representation and self-assertion. It is evident in a host of novels from the Last Days of Pompeii onwards that Egyptians or other Africans are compared to Greeks and Romans to create a systematic scheme of body types that lead into ideas of nationhood and ideals of manhood for the citizens of the nation. But England also developed powerful imagery of its merrie olde medieval past; remained obsessed with ideas of Saxon and northern heritage; and in a history like Macaulay’s best-selling and epoch-making account of England could tell a story that was essentially English – and was so influential precisely because of that. Rome, that is, shifts in and out of focus, becomes more and less integral in different debates – and this makes the history of the reception of Rome especially hard to write.

Butler argues – correctly if not novelly – that this complex engagement with the past was to a good degree a response to rapid and massive cultural and political change, which prompted fear among elite thinkers especially about political stability, national identity, and imperial expansion, which encouraged a turn to the past to articulate, control and analyze these anxieties. John Stuart Mill had pointed this out already in the 1840s, as Butler notes. The strengths of this book are best evidenced in the chapter on Empire which takes a patient look at a series of writers in political theory, novels and other texts commenting on Empire conceived through a Roman lens. It is also a very good decision to link Empire, nation and the city – the city is all too often dropped from the troika – which gives the opportunity to look at some fascinatingly interlinked but different types of material and sorts of argument (though I was less convinced that the Garden City movement, a very British response to industrialization, was not rather distorted by too strong an emphasis on classicism). Rome as a model for the Victorians has been consistently explored in the sphere of art, and particularly well for the cultural appropriation of figures like Caesar or Augustus through to the twentieth century. But Rome has often been rather downplayed in reception studies in favour of the glory that was Greece particularly in the area of political thought – and it is telling that there is no book of the scope or depth of Turner’s The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain, which offers such a wonderfully rich and nuanced account of the political use of Greek history and Greek ideals. Butler is a welcome step in this direction, adding some more detailed political discussion to the well- known studies of Norman Vance, Richard Hingley, and the recent volume edited by Mark Bradley, Classics and Imperialism in the British Empire.

It is a step that still needs considerable expansion. The book is short, and takes many shortcuts. There are four specific areas which troubled me in particular. First of all, there is almost no mention of religion, even when the very quotations offered cried out for it. Christianity is one of the most burning issues of the nineteenth century, and invades all aspects its culture. The discussion of Rome was also significant first because it was in and against the Roman Empire that Christianity took shape, and second because after the Empire became Christian, the question of how Christendom is to be comprehended and ruled becomes insistent. There are over 200 novels set in the Roman Empire published in the period covered by Butler’s book. She treats almost none of them – but almost all of them are explicitly about Rome as a place to think about the development of early Christianity. Critical historiography is part of a politics of religion. She quotes Thomas Arnold claiming that “institutions and religion” had been passed down to Britain from antiquity, but that while Rome had been “the source of law and government and social civilization” it was only Christianity that could furnish “the perfection of moral and spiritual truth”. This is a paradigmatic nineteenth-century gesture of Christian teleology, framing claims of political history and classical genealogy. But this trajectory is simply not followed up by Butler.

Second, the delimited focus on Rome and political thinking, while perhaps advisable for a PhD, needs broadening for the book. It is telling that Frank Turner’s great book is not cited – and nor is there any comparison with how Greece functions as model for political thinking. Yet the engagement with Greece and Rome is a repeated gesture from the American Revolution onwards, and is a significant element in how antiquity is used to explore different political positionings. The lack of reference to the example of America, where so much good modern work has been done on classicizing political rhetoric, and to Germany, where, as many have also discussed, Herder and the reception of German thought in Britain is integral to English thinking on these issues, makes Butler’s work feel painfully parochial at times. There were innumerable places where the argument would have been enriched by a wider look both at nineteenth- century materials and at contemporary scholarship on them: a handful of completely pertinent and worrying examples? Duncan Bell’s The Idea of Greater Britain, which won the Whitfield prize in 2007; John Clive’s seminal Macaulay: the Shaping of the Historian; Caroline Winterer’s widely reviewed The Culture of Classicism; should all have been formative for a study such as Butler’s. But the most striking and disturbing omission of all? There is not a single reference to Gibbon, who remained the historian of Rome as a model for Empire throughout the nineteenth century.

My first two worries are about content and scope. My third and fourth worries are about the approach taken to the material. There are many figures, most famous and some obscure, cited by Butler. But there is very little prosopography or network theory. So, even when we get quite extensive treatment – as with Charles Kingsley, who is offered as an example of racial thinking about the nation – neither are the most pertinent classicizing sources used – in his case, the preface to Hypatia, nor do we learn enough about Kingsley as a person to place such remarks as are cited. It is one of the complexities of Kingsley that although he had strong and to our mind horrible views on racial identity, he was also “Parson Lot”, a radical Christian Socialist who was a celebrated force in Chartism. Similarly, the connections between the different characters who populate the book are rarely explored. Kingsley and Froude appear juxtaposed, without alluding to the fact that their similar political views might have something to do with the fact that they were brothers-in-law –though their attitude to faith were markedly opposed. We need a richer view of the personal in this political story.

Finally, the account of change itself and the general background history is often rather sketchily drawn – to the point at times of being quite misleading. The case of John Eyre, the governor of Jamaica who put down a revolt by killing 500 people, including its suspected leader, without trial, was indeed a celebrated political scandal of the period. Butler records some remarks from a single provincial newspaper, and then from a party attended by the poet Tennyson and John Addington Symonds, at which Gladstone spoke of the affair. But the Eyre case resulted in rival groups of grandees calling for prosecution or defending his action, a major public debate, and, above all, a failed law case, where the principles of law at stake went right to the heart of what it meant to be an imperial power. The description offered by Butler barely scratches the surface, and in using it to make only a point about racism in high places, misses the real significance of the case.

This books starts to open an important field of research to some extended analysis – but it leaves much, much more to be done.

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