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The sun eventually sets

Rome's empire fell. So did Britain's. Will the U.S. be any different?

November 04, 2007|Piers Brendon | Piers Brendon is the author of "The Decline and Fall of the British Empire," to be published in the U.S. next year by Knopf.

In 1774, an English newspaper called Lloyd's Evening Post published a futuristic fantasy. It was set in 1974 and featured two visitors from "the empire of America" touring the ruins of London. These resembled Piranesi's prints of Roman ruins -- empty, rubble-strewn streets, a single broken wall where Parliament once stood, Whitehall as a turnip field, Westminster Abbey a stable, the Inns of Court a pile of stones "possessed by hawks and rooks," and St. Paul's, its dome collapsed, open to the sky. The sun had set on British greatness and, thanks to the immigration of merchants, artisans and workers, it had risen over "Imperial America."

This fantasy was, of course, far-fetched at the time, but it reflected real concerns. Even before the loss of the 13 colonies, the British feared that their empire, however wide its bounds, was vulnerable to an expansionist America. Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher, had memorably pronounced: "Westward the Course of Empire takes its way." And that astute commentator, Horace Walpole, prophesied that "the next Augustan Age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic."

By far the most authoritative harbinger of British imperial doom, though, was Edward Gibbon, the author of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." According to his renowned account, he was inspired to write it while musing amid the ruins of Rome's Capitol and listening to barefoot friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. No stones in history were more eloquent than those of the Eternal City, recalling as they did the melancholy evanescence of imperial might.

To be sure, Gibbon believed that Europe had so advanced by his own time that it was probably secure from the kind of catastrophe visited on Rome. But he also warned that foes might appear who would carry desolation to the verges of the Atlantic. After all, he said, when the Prophet Muhammad breathed the soul of fanaticism into the bodies of the long-despised Arabs, they "spread their conquests from India to Spain."

Gibbon published the third volume of his magisterial work, which described the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, a few months before George Washington's crushing victory over Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. There were many passages in his book that implied that the British Empire -- overstretched, corrupted by luxury, attacked by barbarians, reliant on mercenaries -- would follow suit.

Most suggestively, Gibbon described the revolt of the "Armoricans" -- inhabitants of Britanny -- against Rome. "Imperial ministers," he wrote, "pursued with proscriptive laws, and ineffectual arms, the rebels whom they had made." As a result, the Armoricans (whom he obviously saw as analogous to the Americans) achieved "a state of disorderly independence." And the Romans (and here he was clearly thinking of the British) lost virtue and honor as well as empire.

This probably represented Gibbon's true view of the American Revolution. However, the vain little historian, with his chubby cheeks (which a blind woman once literally confused with a baby's bottom) and his weakness for puce-colored velvet suits and orange zig-zag dimity waistcoats, otherwise paraded his patriotism. He refused an invitation to dine with Benjamin Franklin in Paris because, he said, he could not consort with the ambassador of an enemy country. Franklin riposted by offering "to furnish materials to so excellent a writer for the 'Decline and Fall of the British Empire.' "

The prospect of such a decline haunted the British even as their empire grew to unprecedented size. Finally Britannia ruled not only the waves but a quarter of the Earth, holding sway over India, much of the Middle East and huge swaths of Africa from the Cape to Cairo, an empire seven times larger than Rome's at its greatest extent. Yet T.B. Macaulay, Gibbon's only English rival as a historian, classically envisioned a future globe-trotter taking "his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's." Winston Churchill, a young subaltern who had spent the hot afternoons in India reading Gibbon and who was returning home in 1897 for the celebrations of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, paused in Rome's Capitol to conjure up forebodings of imperial decline and fall.

At the same time, Rudyard Kipling, the unofficial poet laureate of the British Empire, issued his famous warning about current hubris and imminent nemesis:

"Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dunes and headlands sinks the fire;

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre."

Kipling also made his celebrated appeal to Americans: "Take up the White Man's burden." This they did, in a sense, the following year. After the victorious war against Spain, the United States annexed its colonies, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

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