Primus inter pares? Ancient Rome and the Victorians.

Quentin J. Broughall has just completed a PhD in Classics at Maynooth University with a thesis entitled ‘Assuming the purple: the rehabilitation of ancient Rome in Victorian culture, 1837-1901’. He held a John and Pat Hume Scholarship 2007-9 and was an I.R.C.H.S.S. Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar 2009-11. His academic interests are centred upon intersections between the historical reception of antiquity, Victorian and Edwardian culture, and the British Empire.

William Dyce, 'Neptune resigning to Britannia the empire of the seas' (1847)

William Dyce, ‘Neptune resigning to Britannia the empire of the seas’ (1847)

When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert became betrothed in October 1839, they chose an engagement ring based on a Roman design: an emerald-set gold serpent coiling about itself as a symbol of good luck and eternal love. Later, when they designed and built Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, they had William Dyce paint a fresco in its main stairwell portraying a figurative transition between Roman and British power entitled Neptune resigning to Britannia the empire of the seas (1847). Finally, following Albert’s sudden death in 1861, Victoria had a tomb constructed for his last resting place bearing the Latin epitaph ‘Vale desideratissime’ – ‘farewell most beloved’. In the same way that aspects of its culture seemed to entwine throughout Victoria and Albert’s life together, classical Rome percolated British culture increasingly throughout the nineteenth century. Having already looked at how the Victorians interacted with their Hellenic inheritance, in this piece I will explore their alternative reception of ancient Rome, which differed in a number of key respects from its Greek counterpart – not least in its more popular reputation.[1]

For a start, ancient Rome enjoyed a higher profile than its Greek equivalent, owing to the extensive teaching of Latin in Victorian education, as well as to the use of the Roman world as a common setting for contemporary art and literature. Unlike Greek antiquity, Roman history could also be divided into republican and imperial phases, which provided two separate historical incarnations to interrogate and appropriate. In contrast to the importation of Hellenic culture, Roman antiquity also seemed to represent a more indigenous discourse: unlike the artificial appearance of the Parthenon friezes in the middle of London, Britain possessed a wealth of Roman remains scattered throughout the country, many of which were explored archaeologically for the first time during the nineteenth century.[2] When this physical heritage was linked to Britain’s speculative imperial destiny, Rome emerged as a potent comparative model that seemed to connect the nation’s past, present and future. With Victorian personalities as diverse as Lord Palmerston, Anthony Trollope, Benjamin Disraeli, Cecil Rhodes and Thomas Hardy all invoking its relevance, classical Rome came to possess an active and important role in Victorian culture.

Significantly, the British historical link to Rome went all the way back to antiquity itself, when Roman imperial forces conquered most of the country and imprinted a Latinate tradition that remained present long after the legions had left. Indeed, this connection reached a veritable height during the Georgian era of the early-to-mid eighteenth century with the advent of ‘Augustan’ literature and neoclassical architecture.[3] With the irruption of the revolutionary era, however, the new political experiments of the United States of America and Revolutionary France looked closely to Roman antiquity for a guiding model.[4] As a result, ancient Rome was eclipsed for a number of decades by British Hellenism because of its negative association with the American and French state-building projects.

Indeed, by 1840, Thomas Carlyle felt that the Romans were ‘dead out [and the] English […] come in’, which implicitly suggested that a translatio imperii – or a passing of the torch of civilisation – was occurring between classical Rome and Victorian Britain.[5] Yet this seemed to encourage the extensive popularity of two major contemporary works set in Roman antiquity, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The last days of Pompeii (1834) and Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The lays of ancient Rome (1842). In addition, the religious controversies of the 1830s, 40s and 50s led to a spate of novels set in late antiquity that sought to relocate their primary debates to the ancient world, such as Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia (1853) and John Henry Newman’s Callista (1855). Consequently, while Rome underwent a period of transition in its usage, by the mid-century period it had emerged renewed as a potent comparative model for British society.

In 1850, in one of the first major examples of the public invocation of classical Rome, Lord Palmerston called upon the phrase ‘civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’) during the Don Pacifico Incident.[6] But, as the British Empire rose from the mid-century period, numerous increasingly direct allusions were made between the Roman Empire and the Victorian imperial project. In contrast to Greek history, which offered only the short and unsuccessful examples of the Athenian Empire and Alexander the Great’s realm, Rome presented a lengthy chronological and geographical span that appealed to Victorian self-assurance. With the development of ‘new’ imperialism, Rome became central to British colonial self-definition, leading Charles Prestwood Lucas to remark later that ‘all or nearly all the terms which indicate the political status of Greater Britain and its component parts are a legacy of Rome’.[7] For instance, by 1879, Benjamin Disraeli was quoting ‘one of the greatest of Romans’ and asserting that ‘imperium et libertas’ (‘authority and freedom’) should represent the twin planks of Britain’s colonial policy.[8] So, from the mid-to-late Victorian era, imperial advocates and adherents sought to project the British Empire solidly into the shadow of the Roman Empire.

Edward John Poynter, 'Faithful Unto Death'

Edward Poynter, ‘Faithful unto death’ (1865)

Apart from imperialism, many important Victorian concepts emulated aspects of Roman culture. For instance, one could extrapolate many typical Victorian values from their Roman forebears, such as ‘decorum’ from dignitas, ‘character’ from gravitas, ‘respectability’ from honestas, ‘hard work’ from industria, or ‘duty’ from pietas. Perhaps most importantly, Roman and Victorian society shared a similar patriarchal structure that was enacted, not only within the domestic household, but also on a national level. When bound to the contemporary notion of the ‘stiff upper lip’, the Victorians found many parallels in the Roman value of virtus and the philosophy of Stoicism, which they idealised in works such as Edward Poynter’s painting Faithful unto death (1865).[9]

As Henry Newbolt noted of his own Victorian schooling, the Roman example seemed to provide an ideal educational model for Britain in producing commonsensical, disciplined, hard-working and patriotic individuals:

It was a Roman rule, particularly fitted to the needs of the English schoolboy […] that demand[ed] of us the virtues of leadership, courage, and independence; the sacrifice of selfish interests to the ideal of fellowship and the future of the race. […] [In short,] to play the Horatian man of the world, the Gentleman after the high Roman fashion, making a fine art, almost a religion, of Stoicism.[10]

In the adult world, mid-to-late-Victorian art, literature and theatre also increasingly registered Roman themes that ranged from high to low culture. One sees this trend displayed, for instance, in the paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema and other so-called ‘Olympian’ artists, ‘swords-and-sandals’ fiction, such as Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880), ‘toga plays’, such as Lord Alfred Tennyson’s The cup (1881), and theatrical spectacles, such as the American Kiralfy Brothers’ show Nero, or the fall of Rome (1889).

Despite this multifaceted use, however, it was impossible to overlook the many issues and problems in Rome’s employment as a comparative model. After all, Edward Gibbon represented the primary mediator of ancient Rome for Victorian culture, but his study had focussed upon its alleged ‘decline and fall’. Worried that Britain had passed its own Antonine golden age and was facing into decadence, during the late-Victorian era many began to discuss Rome in the context of avoiding its fate and arresting Britain’s perceived national degeneration.[11] In addition, there were many negative associations within Roman culture that it was difficult to square with Victorian morality, including its gory arena entertainments and its problematic use of slavery.[12] Of course, Britain had also once been a Roman province, so, blended with its assumption of Roman imperium, went the realisation that a territory such as India, for instance, might in the future make a similar leap. Even structurally, there were more points of difference than similarity between the contiguous territorial empire of the Romans and the scattered maritime one of the British. As a result, while Rome may have been on more lips than Greece by the later Victorian era, its reception was complicated by its vexed historical legacy.

Boasting a military procession through London that mirrored the triumphs of Roman antiquity, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 arguably represents the symbolic apogee of nineteenth-century Britain’s appropriation of ancient Rome. From 1870 to 1900, Britain acquired c.4.75 million square miles of fresh territory and c.88 million new subjects, but, throughout this period, it also experienced its first intimations of challenge and decline. Authorised by Britain’s long Latinate tradition, allusions to Rome therefore provided a useful means of understanding British power at a time of contradictory challenge and expansion. Yet, while it was called upon more than ever in the last decades of Victoria’s reign, it became associated increasingly with a superficial discourse that bore limited resemblance to the reality of current trends and events. So, if Victorian Hellenism had become too high-minded in its drive, the contemporary reception of Rome was at times democratised into merely a shallow parallel or an exotic setting.

When one explores the Victorian reception of ancient Greece and Rome, one discovers a quest for both certainty and guidance, which was manifested in attempts to draw parallels between antiquity and contemporary British society. Yet, the use of the ancient world as a ground for theoretical speculation was not an effort to circumvent reality, but, rather, to understand it more deeply:

Living in the past – devoting one’s life to the study of the ancient world – was, in nineteenth-century Britain, very rarely undertaken in order to escape from the contemporary world: it rather became a way to participate all the more aggressively in it.[13]

None of these historical models ‘provided such a large, consistent, and satisfying refuge as the culture of Greece and Rome’, however, which offered a vital storehouse of cultural memory for the West.[14] Within that, the separate traditions of Greece and Rome offered two vital, variant visions of the classical past that could be appropriated and manipulated in order to throw light on contemporary affairs. Of course, some could always bind their interests in both Greece and Rome by looking to figures such as the Hellenist Roman emperor Hadrian. But, when compared with Greece, ancient Rome can be argued to have emerged primus inter pares, or ‘first among equals’, within the classical reception of Victorian culture.

William Bell Scott, 'Romans cause a wall to be built' (1857) © National Trust.

William Bell Scott, ‘Romans cause a wall to be built’ (1857) © National Trust.


[1] See N. Vance, The Victorians and ancient Rome (Oxford, 1997) and S.J. Butler, Britain and its empire in the shadow of Rome (London, 2012).

[2] See V. Hoselitz, Imagining Roman Britain (Woodbridge, 2007).

[3] See Blanford Parker, The triumph of Augustan poetics (Cambridge, 1998) and V. Coltman, Fabricating the antique (Chicago, 2006).

[4] See E. Shalev, E. (2009), Rome reborn on Western shores (Charlottesville, 2009) and H. Talbot Parker, The cult of antiquity and the French revolutionaries (New York, 1965).

[5] T. Carlyle, ‘Chartism’ (1840) in Carlyle, Selected writings, ed. by A. Shelston (London, 1971), 202.

[6] See D. Whitten Jr, ‘The Don Pacifico affair’ in The Historian, vol. 48, no. 2 (1986), 255-67.

[7] C.P. Lucas, Greater Rome and Greater Britain (Oxford, 1912), 1.

[8] Quoted in G.E. Buckle and W.F. Monypenny, The life of Benjamin Disraeli (London, 1912), vol. 2, 1367.

[9] See P.J. Cain, ‘Empire and languages of character and virtue in later Victorian and Edwardian Britain’ in Modern Intellectual History, vol. 4, no. 2 (2007), 249-73 and L. Behlman, Faithful unto death (Ann Arbor, 2000).

[10] H. Newbolt, My world as in my time (London, 1932), 165.

[11] See N. Vance, ‘Decadence and the subversion of empire’ in C. Edwards (ed.), Roman presences (Cambridge, 1999), 110-24.

[12] See N. Vance, ‘Anxieties of empire and the moral tradition: Rome and Britain’ in International Journal of the Classical Tradition, vol. 18, no. 2 (2011), 246-61.

[13] E. Richardson, Classical Victorians (Cambridge, 2007), 29.

[14] G. Highet, The classical tradition (Oxford, 1949), 438.

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One response to “Primus inter pares? Ancient Rome and the Victorians.

  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of Sept. 21 | JHIBlog·

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