Idealistic Imperialism: The Roman Empire in British Imperial Historiography
Mary Beard, one of the more well-known Roman historians alive today, writes “Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves…it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.” Beard and other modern British historians have made important contributions to the study of Rome; but a British fascination with the ancient empire runs far deeper than the last century. British scholars and imperialists have been using Rome in literature and history writing since the dawn of the British empire; yet the Roman-British connection cannot be reduced to pure emulation. Britain did not always champion herself as a “new Rome”, but there is still a clear impression of Roman imperialist philosophy and colonial policy in imperial British administration and thought. This paper will create a historiographic chronology of how British Imperial elites conceptualized Rome throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Unraveling imperialism uncorks a bottle of complex theoretical concepts: the “imagined” power that empires sought to ingrain in their culture; the “othering” of their subjects to justify their civilizing mission; and the desire to continually syphon resources and better their geopolitical. The British interpretation of Rome as a “civilizing force” against tribal barbarian backwaters is one such example of a problematic reading of Roman history used to give credence to Britain’s own belief in herself as the civilizer of the “developing” world. Thus had spawned a historiographic heritage of the Roman-British comparison. Modern historians focus more on the practical correlations of imperial policy between Britain and Rome.
Investigating how British sources interpreted primary Roman writers and their views of imperialism will be a component in this section. It is important to understand that the objective of this paper is not to prove that Britain was a second Rome: but rather that Britons, specifically British imperialists, used Rome to support certain models of administration and rule over growing colonial holdings. Even still, the idea that the British sought to emulate Rome entirely is problematic. The Roman-British comparison is best represented by the establishment of a mythos, a legend of Rome, in the Britons’ own idealization of empire. The examination of Rome in the British imperial historical record is not a collection of cherry-picked quotes relating Roman power to Britain’s dominance of the modern world. Roman studies grew during a time of great identity crisis in Britain. Gibbon’s six-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a seminal work in the history of Rome, and is still considered a large piece of historiography in Western Roman studies. Commentary on The Decline and other works by Gibbon have increasingly focused on contextualizing the language he uses and the narrative he creates against the backdrop of a growing Imperial British consciousness in the 18th century, especially among elites.
The relevance of ancient Rome to the modern British was a development that spanned the course of several centuries. To reiterate an earlier point, the study of Rome in British historiography is not as cut and dry as adoring imperialists fixating on an illustrious view of the ancient empire. In the long 18th century, even as Britain was positioning herself as a world power with colonies spanning multiple continents, some civilians and leaders in the metropole still did not wholeheartedly believe in empire. In the 19th century and beyond, this would change; but examining the inception of Roman studies and the reception of various historical works will contextualize how Rome permeated the growing British imperial consciousness.
18th Century Britain: British Readings of Ancient Imperialism
As early as the 16th century, British writers were using Latin phrases and “neo-Roman” language in an attempt to legitimize Britain’s rise as the main power of western Europe. By the modern period, a wealthy, prospering Britain wanted to position herself in the world as the arbiter of liberty and civilization. Imagining herself as Rome’s inheritors served that purpose. However, the correlation between imperial Rome and Britain during the 18th century is rooted in a conundrum of identity. Professor of modern imperialism, David Armitage, illuminates this quandary in his book, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire. “An intractable dilemma arose [in Britain] between the competing demands of two overwhelmingly desirable but ultimately irreconcilable goals, liberty and empire.” A civilization whose early history had consistently contended with this problem was that of the Romans. The Romans had established societal virtues – dignity, liberty, honor – which were deeply engrained in their cultural practices in the Republican and Principate periods. Rome was founded as a monarchy but transitioned to a Republic; there was a mythological and historical anti-tyranny tradition in Rome. This phenomenon of Roman moral degeneration in the Imperial period is precisely what the British wanted to avoid. The influx of luxury brought about a decline in moral pragmatism, many Roman scholars believed. Thinkers and writers in Britain during the 18th century were much more attracted to the more equitable, noble era of Rome, the Republic. British education and literature was inundated with Latin words: libertas (liberty), dominium (domination), imperium (empire) to name a few. This undeniable influence of Rome on British thinking during this period guided their own created reality of their place in the world as a growing power.
Greco-Roman history and culture had so deeply permeated British learning and reading that it inserted the dichotomy of empire and liberty into the British imperial consciousness. For a time ancient Greece, namely Athens, was a more popular case study than Rome. Athens was, and still is considered by many, as the birthplace of democracy. The British viewed Athens as a similarly pragmatic, but fairer society to emulate rather than Rome. Duncan Bell elucidates this development in British historical thought in his book, The Idea of Greater Britain. Bell identifies a shift in historical interest of the British over time. During the rise of the British empire in the long 18th century, the settler-colonialism model of the Greeks seemed more attractive due to its less coercive, less cruel administration. As the Victorian era came to pass, imperialists saw Rome as a more complete model to obsess over.
The most impactful piece of literature to come out of Britain in the 18th century could arguably have been Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The creation of Gibbon’s great work is not simply the initiative of one man: the growing place for Classics in British education for wealthy boys contributed toward Gibbon’s choosing of Rome as a topic. History writing, for much of time in the western world and beyond, had been a pastime of the elite. As history and social studies grew as an educational discipline, boys in school learned more Roman history in school than they did British history. Rome, intentionally, was British students’ only exposure to empire. Classical studies and the study of the Roman empire (and therefore the idea of empire itself) was only accessible to the elites, however. It is no coincidence that the upper echelons of society were schooled in the ways of ancient imperialism, so that they could contextualize it in a modern sense to proport British imperialism.
In 18th century Britain, popular writers and thinkers doubled as lords, wealthy acolytes, and members of parliament. Edward Gibbon was no different, and his historical philosophy was impacted deeply from his wealthy background and the nostalgic sentiments of antiquity which were popular at the time. In Georgian Britain, British elites began to discern their place in both the history and the future of the world. “Georgian England was a land saturated with history. But, despite the popularity of antiquarianism, circumstances were not conducive to profound works of historical research. This sets the scene for Gibbon himself.” Gibbons’ life story also includes a longing to detach himself from his father’s success and his overbearing attitude. His ideas about freedom of the governed population from tyranny likely stem from what Gibbon’s experienced as a “tyrannical father.” These personal experiences may have influenced Gibbon, but more importantly, he was a product of his environment. Gibbon and any likeminded peers also were of a post-Glorious Revolution generation: the idea of a tyrannical, absolute monarchy had been conquered by a more equitable constitution. Gibbon’s work popularized the flaws of imperialism in Rome and Rome’s failures. It was overly critical in a way that made grandiose comparisons to Rome less attractive. The beliefs of Gibbon and others – that imperialism has serious limitations – lead to some moving away from the idea of an imperial Britain altogether (at least temporarily during the 18th century). Imperialists took these sentiments as a sort of warning from a bygone era and examined Roman imperialist policies to learn from their mistakes. These ideals were reflected in Gibbon’s main conclusions in his studies of Rome.
Gibbon saw Rome as a timeless example of monarchial power gone wrong, which is why it proved to be a suitable topic of research. His works on Rome and empire in general are complicated in their tone: both “horrified and fascinated” by the Roman Empire, Gibbon attempts in his vast corpus to diagnose the vices and extenuating circumstances which caused blunders in governance and leadership. Gibbon goes a step further than criticizing Roman emperors: he engages with Roman society and common folk with a critical eye, attempting to analyze the root stem of cultural deterioration in the Roman imperial period. Gibbon historian Roy Porter writes:
“Imperial Rome, its patricians corrupted by luxury, its plebeians slaves to bread and circuses, afforded a spectable of arid despotism. The proponets of this vision of history feared that Britain, like Rome, would lapse from liberty into despotism through a chain of socio-political transformations set off by changing circumstances but exploited by crafty opportunists.”
A tyrannical Roman imperial authority is central to Gibbon’s argument. He posits that imperial power brings about cruelty and unjust governance by natural means. In one of his articles written in 1761, he went so far as to say that the “history of empire is that of the suffering of man”. From these beliefs, it is hard to see how British readers would want to emulate the Roman Empire, lest they desire the same fate.
Gibbon’s analysis of the Romans is not limited to criticism. The parts of his work which focus on the Roman Republic and its successes seem to align with the great British “mission” of its time. In “Lessons for Europe on the Fall of the Roman Empire”, Gibbon connects the civilizing mission of the British and Europeans in colonies abroad to ancient Rome as a “civilizing force” against savage barbarians. He writes:
“To consider Europe as one great republic, whose various inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation…the savage nations of the globe are the common enemies of civilized society; and we may inquire with anxious curiosity, whether Europe is still threatened with a repetition of those calamities, which formerly oppressed the arms and institutions of Rome.”
To summarize, Gibbon’s Rome reveals so much about how the British sought to position themselves. The overwhelming popularity of The Decline allows for this generalizing of British nostalgic thought from Gibbon’s work. In plain English, Gibbon’s ideas resonated with a larger audience, because the idealist mission of civilizing the world and upholding liberty and freedom was a driving imaginative force in British imperialism. “The Decline and Fall became an essential guide for Britons anxious to plot their own imperial trajectory.” Bernard Porter, British historian of empire, writes that Rome’s “great selling point was that it was supposed to have been the means of bringing ‘civilization’ to more backward regions of the ancient world, including the country of the Angles. Wasn’t modern Britain, the new Rome, doing exactly the same today?”
Gibbon syphons some of his ideas from previous sources. Roman writers, such as Salus and Augustine, argue that it was the Republic which allowed the unique skills and gifts of the Roman people to be known to the rest of the world, free from the tyrannical rule of a cruel monarch. Vast territorial expansion and the establishment of Rome as the richest power in the Mediterranean allowed greedy opportunism to corrupt both the highest and lowest echelons of Rome. Gibbon likely relied on sources like these to draw his conclusions.
As the Georgian era yielded to the Victorians in the early 19th century, something incredible happened: the British people began to see themselves more unilaterally as an empire. The precautious attitudes towards imperial might and coercive dominance in the colonies were overtaken by the capitalist motives to maintain and increase colonial revenue and influence. Once people began to decidedly place wholehearted belief in a British empire, Rome reached the forefront of historical fascination and imagination. Some of the imperial hang-ups that imperial detractors saw as detrimental to society were now revisited for the sake of modelling. British Bernard Porter writes:
“The model that British imperialists took for themselves was, of course, the ancient roman empire; ‘of course’ because it was the only one of the great historical empires that Britain (or most of her) had ever been a part of; and because it featured so prominently in the education of her elite.” 
19th Century: The British Emulation of Rome
In the 19th century, Rome had a clear place in the philosophical, political, and popular discussion on Britain and the concept of Empire. The use of Rome was not completely unanimous, however. Duncan Bell writes that propping up Britain as a new Rome “greatly exaggerate and oversimplify the legacy of the ancient world in nineteenth century political thought.” Still, the British embraced these comparisons from all directions. Even the concept of Pax Britannica was conceived and used in Latin as to harken back to and connect it with the Pax Romana; now, the golden age of the Roman Imperial period was being modelled heavily, even down to language. At this time, it was becoming historiographically common, by both advocates and enemies of Britain, to examine the British as a new Rome. The comparisons were not limited to writers of history: politicians were (and still do to this day) invoking Roman gradeur and success to support their imperial aspirations for Mother Britain. “The Earl of Carnarvon, formerly a tory secretary of state for the colonies, argued in 1878 that the only comparable precedent for the vastness of the British empire was Rome.” The 19th century sentiment for Rome was, overwhelmingly, positive and emulative. New philosophical and historical methodologies created an environment that encourages this emulation. Humanism provided some justification for global expansion and colonial dominance, while others contrived the more equitable Republican period of Roman history to fit a modern imperial context.
As Britain’s empire became more engaged with her colonies – and more coercive – the aggressive Rome of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE was often exhumed for imperial colonial strategies of government. The landscape, circumstances and demographics of their respective colonial holdings are simply too dissimilar to reduce Britain as a mirror image of Rome. Yet some specific policies concerning the relationship between the imperial force and its subjects can be equated. In the 19th century, India was established as the most lucrative and strategically important colony in the British Empire after the American Revolution. The influence of Rome on the British attitudes of rule in India is a good example. British colonial administrative leaders were often referred to as “Proconsuls”, the Roman name of the post of governor. In India, British proconsuls were often depicted in togas and other classical dress by artists. Latin mottoes, both old and modernized to reflect glorious sentimentality for the queen and her country, began to be popularized on city building facades (including the India Office and the Foreign Office), office crests, and more.
Some aspects of Roman imperial rule were refused, however, even by imperialists. There was a clear divide between conceptions of rule as they were understood from the study of ancients, and this reinvigorated arguments that Greece, namely the Athenian Empire, was a more prudent imperial example to imitate. Imperialists looked at Rome with a critical eye in some aspects of their colonial rule: “The Romans worked with native collaborators; but not with any deliberate intention of handing rule over to them ultimately. That was what gave the British hope that their empire might last for longer than the Roman.” In modern times, the circumstances of imperial rule were vastly different from the Roman period. The British understood that imperial influence could extend beyond colonial dominance. A lasting legacy left behind in its colonies was something that Britain hoped for; long after the empire “collapsed”, Britain wanted to be remembered and revered, just as the Romans were. What sets Britain apart from Rome is the fact that they were conscious of this desire to build a historical legacy.
A Roman-British Comparison of Imperial Practices
The concept of Britain as a guiding force for civilization, not an overbearing oppressor, was important, especially to anti-imperialists. In “Empire? What Empire?”, a 2004 article by Bernard Porter, a statistic is provided at 70-80% of British subjects in England were not aware of empire as a new cultural concept in Britain. When discussing British imperialism as it was being imagined and espoused, it is important to remember that this did not include most people. British imperialists were comprised of elites and creating the idea of a greater British empire did not require popular support from the working class or even the gentry. Britain was indeed the preeminent imperial power: and yet at the same time, British voices were some of the loudest and most impactful anti-imperialists during the 18th and 19th centuries. Anti-imperialism in Britain further complicates the Roman comparison. While the middle class was unaware or not mindful of the practices of imperialism taking place, there was some dissent among the elites. When news of the atrocities against the Congolese at the hands of the Belgians reached Europe, the first Congo reform organization originated in London. Where some elites despised imperialist practices openly, others sought apologetic excuses. British historian and political journalist John Robert Seeley expresses this sentiment during the 19th century. He articulates that the establishment of the British Raj was Britain’s way of “stumbling onto empire”, in the same vein as the Roman Republic did two millennia prior. There were an assortment of attitudes, therefore, in how elites grappled with the idea of empire and how they implicated Roman history.
Rome’s imperial grandeur was rejected in some examples, while in others, it was praised as being a less cruel and more practical empire than what the British were practicing.
“Where Romans had rubbed shoulders with persons from all corners of the known world, the British had shunned ‘lesser breeds’. Whereas the Roman poet Claudian had written ‘we are all one people’, Goldwin Smith [British historian and journalist if the 19th century] said that the gulf between the races now ‘yawns even wider than ever’.”
The interpretation of Rome as an accepting, inclusive overlord is debatable; but the creation of that idea proves that the British people were conscious, in some ways, of their imperial wrongdoings. The forming of abolition groups in the metropole are one example of this self-awareness. “Britain’s brand of imperialism must be more humane than the Romans”, many believed. “Slavery was unchallenged in the ancient world, but modern empires set themselves to stamp it out.” The British civilized places like Egypt, by dismantling oppressive cultural institutions such as the harem, and outlawing torture as a means of punishment. This supposedly contrasts the gruesome and gory exploits of the Romans, who used draconian means to punish and dominate their subjects.
The most notable difference between the two empires, then, is their means of maintaining power. Britain commanded a vast global economy that was predicated on exploiting the resources of some colonies to bring steady flows of material goods to others. They still used coercive methods to preserve their consumer base, the Opium War in China being a prime example. In large part, however, the British domination of her colonies depended on continued subsidizing from taxpayers and consumers at home and abroad. Rome did not micromanage colonial centers like the British: locales, towns and even some major cities were largely left on their own, as long as they paid tribute and respect to Roman leadership. The British were more concerned with establishing strong financial connections with their colonies to utilize the materials and manpower to grow their imperial economy. By the late 19th century, they were aware that their firm grip on their colonies was a tenuous circumstance.
Roman-British comparisons were not simply limited to how they treated their imperial subjects. Their innovations in industry and architecture – the lasting contributions they left behind in their “developing” colonies – are often contrasted. The roads, aqueducts, monuments and drainage systems of the Romans are more than equaled by the railways, mills, and canals of the British. While both societies sought to increase their power and the stability of their territories from external and internal threats, Britain was more conscious of the work needed to accomplish that on a cultural level. British imperialists staunchly believed that the Anglicizing of the developing world would insure its place in the British sphere of influence. With some of her colonies, the British intentionally held out against independence because they believed the countries were still not ready for self-administration, or still not civilized enough in the British sense. Thomas Babington Macaulay, a politician who served as the Paymaster-General and the Secretary of War, believed that an Anglicized India would forever prevent the colony from slipping out of British control. Macaulay and other imperialists, by the 1850s, figured that the continual expansion of the British Empire meant its inevitable decline. Imperialists had accepted that Indian independence was unavoidable, but leaving the subcontinent with European culture, institutions and government would allow British influence to extend beyond direct imperial administration. Macaulay was one 19th century British figure who frequently used Imperial Rome in his conceptualization of British imperial power. The British took their role as a civilizing force more deliberately than the Romans, it seemed.
20th Century and Beyond: Trends in Scholarship
The perspectives on Roman imperialism have evolved over the last century, as the field has grown. With greater emphasis on historical theory being applied to ancient studies, some scholars attempt to identify Roman imperialism using modern terms and experiences. This is where comparisons with Britain come into play. British historian of Rome, Richard Hindley, writes in 1994 that “past Roman studies have been deeply influenced by an implicit connection between the imperial missions of Britain and Rome and the classical origin of modern European civilization.” That much has been proven true from the consistent comparisons exposed throughout the 19th century. In many ways, the imperial British fascination with ancient Rome, and Western antiquity as a whole, was an act of self-identification in a modern, multicultural world. In the 1960s and 1970s, scholars of empire were interested in the “domino theory”. The domino theory postulates that, for empires, the loss of one colony signaled overextension, and triggered decline. With dissent in the form of newsprint and community circles rising in the late 19th century, Britain was verging on decolonization. “The abandonment of Canada in particular was thought to bean open invitation to enemies to trample on British interests, and would prove as fatal to the British empire as the withdrawal from peripheral provinces had been to the Romans.”
Scholarship during the 20th century touches on the idea of “defensive imperialism”. The idea that Rome always acted defensively in their military endeavors is a concept that goes back to ancient primary sources. Taking them at face value is no longer a viable means of interpreting the Roman past, however the Roman justification of defensive imperialism is something that the British were interested in and included in their own language. Another British historian of Rome, W.S. Hanson, believes that Roman defensive imperialism is an “apologist approach”, in which the power denies any fundamental expansion strategy. The concept of defensive imperialism, especially in the Roman context, has lost much credibility. Eric Adler posits that British imperials, specifically in the 19th century, used defensive imperialism to create some moral legitimacy behind Britain’s imperial exploits.
Defensive imperialist sympathizers aside, classicists have moved away from a methodology including modern comparisons. Since the 1960s, scholars have warned against comparisons between Rome and Britain and the United States: anachronisms abound in examining philosophy of rule and global circumstances. Understanding the full scope of British imperialism includes history-altering developments such as the industrial and scientific revolutions, the Enlightenment in the West, and the rise of capitalism. The intense limitations of applying Roman history to modern thinking and experience was not fully understood by the British in the 19th century. Similar to the approach of this paper, the current trend in comparative history between Rome and Britain is historiographical. Scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought to make a definitive connection between Britain and Rome. Scholars today are less focused on the ways in which Britain may have emulated Rome in practice. Rather, they contend with how Roman beliefs and language was co-opted by the British in their pursuit of empire.
Comparisons between modern day Britain and ancient Rome persist. Boris Johnson, the current British Prime Minister, likened the problems facing the late empire to hot button political issues that the West has been grappling with. “When the Roman Empire fell,” he said while traveling to the Italian capital last week, “it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration. The empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east, all over the place, and we went into a Dark Ages.” While comparisons like these, even from professors of Classics such as Johnson, are highly flawed and reductive, they offer some validity to how important the Roman legend is to western history and identity. Historians have thankfully moved away from the concept of any nation or empire being a “second Rome”, and instead opt for useful comparisons in societal influences, art and architecture, and historiography.
There is palpable evidence that Britain, through its own process of imperialism, harkened back to Rome. Rome was used a model, both to emulate and also as a guide for avoiding mistakes in colonial governance. The idealization of Rome as a “civilizing force” in a barbaric and hostile world was what energized 18th and 19th century British imperialists and historians the most. A true assessment of whether Britain was a renewal of Roman imperialism is impractical due to the vast differences that occurred in the roughly two millennia that separate the empires. Britain utilized imperfect interpretations of Roman history to better understand herself. It needed some sort of western imperial precedent from which to legitimize her place as a growing imperial, dominating power in the world. The uniqueness of the British imperial experience, especially when contrasted against Rome, was the sharp self-awareness of her elites. Legacy building in British imperial history was predicated on justifications and virtue signaling: a stable, secure, free world is a British world. The civilizing mission of the British was in some ways more detrimental to communities and more coercive than some aspects of Roman imperialism.
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