Imperium Romanum vs. British Empire

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Imperium Romanum vs. British Empire

Postby Gaius Florius Lupus » Fri Aug 04, 2017 6:19 pm

Salvete, omnes!

Some historians use the term "empire" quite generously. They talk about the "Roman Empire" and the "British Empire", as if it was the same thing. But it was not, it was something totally different.

Voltaire once said about the Holy Roman Empire in the West that it was "neither holy nor Roman nor an empire", which just showed his ignorance regarding history. It might have appeared so in his own time when the Sacrum Romanum Imperium was in rapid decline, but certainly not a few centuries earlier, where it had the same importance in the West as the Byzantine Empire in the East.
I would now like to make the controversial statement that the British Empire, was neither British nor an empire. And I will show why.

What is an empire?

It is a multinational political entity with a central head of state (an emperor) and a dominant culture on which its laws are based.

The Roman Empire had united many nations around the Mediterranean Sea and ruled them centrally from Rome according to Roman laws. This is what created the term "empire" (= imperium).

The British Empire was nothing like that. It started as private commercial enterprises whose owners were British citizens. There was the infamous "British East India Company" that exploited Asia through unfair trade treaties, the "British South Africa Company" of Cecil Rhodes that mined minerals in Africa, trade posts in Shanghai and Hong Kong established after the Opium Wars et cetera. All of this was only commercial in nature. British companies did business there, they did not establish British rule over these countries.
Over time the British Crown got more and more involved in the administration. They had to deploy British troops to protect the interests of their businessmen abroad. They nationalized the originally private East India Company, which so far had only had a private army. So the colonies became more and more a government operation.
However the British did not try to make the natives of the occupied territories British citizens or impose British laws on them. The people living in these territories never became part of this "empire". Therefore the vast majority of the people never became British or learned the British culture. They kept their original culture and laws and had to accept that the British exploited their natural resources. Only the few businessmen operating in the colonies and the soldiers protecting them were British and fell under British law. So this "empire" was in no way British at all. The native peoples perceived the British as some foreigners in their country.
The entire operation was not that much political, but rather commercial. It was about business, not about governing.

It is also important to note that the British Empire was not ruled by an emperor, but by a king or a queen. During the Middle Ages a European king was formally subject to the Western Emperor and the Pope. Kings were not leaders that had risen out of their country but were often from noble houses that had come from other countries of the Empire. So the English kings came from Denmark, from France (Normans), from Scotland (Stuarts), from Germany (House of Hanover, Windsor) etc.
Until King Henry VIII the English monarch was subject to Rome (the Pope as well as the Western Emperor). Therefore there was a legal reason why a British monarch could not call himself "emperor".
Britain was politically a kingdom, not an empire. Its oversee territories and colonies were no political entity, but a commercial operation. In so far the British Empire was only an empire in the sense as any modern multi-national corporation like Google (Alphabet) or Apple or J.P. Morgan or Exxon Mobil. The best analogy would perhaps be a parastatal company, which is a private enterprise where the government is majority shareholder.

Therefore putting the British Empire at the same level as the Roman Empire is a flawed concept. It was something totally different. It did not create a nation like the Roman Empire did. There was no sense of community or belonging together in the British territories, no common culture. When it fell apart, it left no traces of its existence.
This is different from the Roman Empire, which created a common culture and the community of Christendom during the Middle Ages. Roman culture left its imprint everywhere, even after its fall, and even if it is only the Western Church. In the former British colonies, with the exception of the exclusively British settlements in America, the former colonies do not identify with British culture.

Therefore I think it is very unfortunate that the same word "empire" is used for both things, the Imperium Romanum and the so called "British Empire".

This is not meant as an insult against ourcives from Britannia. The British dominion had many positive points that distinguish it from Roman rule. It was less brutal, more tolerant towards native culture, more rational and business oriented. And it brought industrialization and the values of Enlightenment. The British traders were more focused on the essential and were less intrusive for the natives. They wanted to make money, not to waste efforts in order to show their power.
But the result was something else than what Rome had created. And I think it is important to make that distinction.

The statement "There were many empires, the Roman, the British..." is nonsense. It mixes things that do not belong together. There was only one empire in the sense of the Imperium Romanum. And there was nothing after it that can be compared with it.

It would be interesting to see how other cives of our Republic feel when the word "empire" is used in context with British colonial rule?

Optime vatete!
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Re: Imperium Romanum vs. British Empire

Postby Lucius Florius Brutus » Fri Aug 04, 2017 7:51 pm

Salve, Lupe

This was some marvelous writing, it opened an interesting question, and my respect for you grows once more.

Even so, I disagree on a number of points. To start, although the trading companies were initially private and independent, they operated under a royal charter which, at first, could be revoked at any time, so the monarch could control the company if he or she really wanted to. Also, while they did not replace the extant laws, they did at times force some part of British law on the locals - Perhaps most notably, they banned slavery throughout the empire in 1834, which led to the Voertreks and contributed to the later Boer Wars.

As for the rule of the empire, the kings themselves were, with a few exceptions, British. Their families may not have been British, but they were British by birth. One could just as easily deny Septimius Severus the status of Roman. While it's true that the British were subject to the Pope until the 1530s, the EIC wasn't founded until 1600, and the Irish Plantations didn't even begin until the 1550s. Whether the Monarch of England was subject to a foreign ruler under Henry VIII is irrelevant to the question of whether the Monarch was an emperor after Henry's death.

Furthermore, Britain has not left "no traces of its existence". Most of the former colonies still speak English, many use British styles of law, most are predominantly Protestant. Some still have the Queen as a ceremonial head of state, and her popularity among the people nearly stopped the coup in Fiji.

Even given the above, however, I am no longer certain of whether I can disagree with your statement, which I initially scoffed at, that the British Empire was neither British nor an Empire. I thank you for giving me a new question to think about, and congratulate you for how well you've presented your case.

As for whether anything other the Roman Empire is comparable to the Roman Empire, I would posit Spain, Persia, China, Russia, Mongolia, and the Islamic Caliphates. Those countries' possessions all fit your definition of an empire - they were multinational, they had a single head of state, and, with the partial exception of Mongolia, they imposed their law and culture upon all that they conquered.

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Re: Imperium Romanum vs. British Empire

Postby Gaius Florius Lupus » Sat Aug 05, 2017 4:06 am

You made some important points.

Yes, it is true that most Roman Emperors after the Julio-Claudian dynasty were not from Rome, but they were from the Roman Empire. In the case of the British monarchs however (including the current House of Windsor, which is actually the German House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) they were from other European countries, which were not part of the British Empire. This is because Britain, even during the time of its "empire", was formally part of the Western Roman Empire, i.e. the Sacrum Romanum Imperium. It is a misconception to believe that the SRI was just Germany; legally it was all of Western Christendom.
Britain rebelled against the Pontifex Maximus in Rome under Henry VIII, but it remained part of the West.

I currently live in Kenya, a former British colony. It is true that English is along Swahili still a national language, but Kenya does not share any cultural identity with Britain. The Roman Catholic Church in Kenya is far bigger than the Anglican Church. And this is true for most of the former British colonies in Africa. Most Africans became Christians after the British had left. In India the people remained either Hindu or Mohammedans; they did not accept the British religion. Apart from drinking tea with milk and driving on the left side of the road the British Empire left no cultural imprint on its colonies.

The British were well aware that they were not a real empire. This is exactly the reason why they never made any attempt to call their monarch an emperor.

You gave some other examples; Spain, Persia, China, Russia, Mongolia, and the Islamic Caliphates

Spain: The Spanish king Carolus V was actually crowned Western Roman Emperor. So Spain was indeed an Empire, but not on its own merit, but due to the fact that it was the Western Roman Empire (SRI).

Persia: The Achaemenids were the predecessors of Alexander's Empire, which was itself the predecessor or the Roman Empire. The claims of the Parthians and the Sassanids to be successors of the Achaemenid Emperors however had no merit, because they were no match for Roman supremacy. Alexander had put an end to the Persian dynasty and replaced it with a Hellenic dynasty. And in the Peace of Apamea (188 BCE) that followed his decisive defeat at Magnesia against the Roman Consul C. Livius Salinator the last Hellenic Emperor Antiochus III had surrendered the Empire to Rome.

China: China is an isolated civilization with very few connections to the rest of the world. The term "empire" can only be an analogy at best. China was never been multi-ethnic. It has always been a nation state rather than an empire.

Russia: Moscow is known as the "Third Rome" (Tertia Roma). Due to the marriage of Sophia Palaiologina, daughter of Thomas Palaiologos, the successor of the last Byzantine Emperor, with Ivan I the Great it became formally the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Mongolia: Like China it is a separate civilization. By the defeat of China it became successor of the Chinese "emperor". However the term "emperor" is just an analogy. The actual title was "khan".

Islamic Caliphate: The Caliphate claimed to be successor of the Eastern Roman Empire, after Mehmed II had conquered Constantinople. "Emperor of Rome" was in fact one of the titles of the Ottoman sultan. If you accept this claim, then the Ottomans were indeed an Empire. But since the Ottoman culture had little in common with Roman culture, most historians consider this claim as unfounded.
However it was taken serious by Napoleon I who was eager to get the recognition of the Turkish sultan in order to justify his claim to be the Western Emperor. And it was taken serious by the Entente during the Great War (WWI), which saw the end of all aspirants to the Roman throne in the West and the East. Turkey had to give up all claims to the Eastern Roman throne after their defeat in WWI.

The question, who is a legitimate Emperor, has a much greater importance for the history of the Modern Age than most people realize. It was WWI that put a final end to the imperial system, and it was most likely the true reason for this war.
In this time it was believed that the second branch of the Empire, the papacy, had been finally destroyed when the Italian nationalists conquered Rome in 1870. However Mussolini returned the Vatican hill to the Roman Pontifex Maximus in the Lateran Treaty (Pacta Lateranensia) in 1929; so the Roman Empire is still formally in existence.
What the public has mostly not realized is that the Declaration of Vienna (2007) formally reunited the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire on a clerical level. The Pontifex Maximus of Rome (= the pope) is therefore the religious head of the reunited Roman Empire. If one day a pope decides to crown a new Emperor, the Imperium Romanum, the one and only Empire, would formally be restored.
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Re: Imperium Romanum vs. British Empire

Postby Lucius Florius Brutus » Sat Aug 05, 2017 4:54 am

Salve, Lupe

Spain: Irrespective of being crowned Western Roman Empire, Spain still meets the definition you gave of "empire".

Persia: So, this is granting that Persia and Alexander's realms are deserving of the title of empire? Also, in what way was Rome the successor to Alexander?

China: Very well, I concede China

Russia: Is this granting that Russia is deserving of the title of empire?

Mongolia: Whether or not they used the term emperor, they imposed Mongol law over a multiethnic territory

Islamic Caliphates: Irrespective of claiming to be the successor to the Byzantines, aren't the Caliphates - most of them - deserving of the title of Empire under the definition you put forward?

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Re: Imperium Romanum vs. British Empire

Postby Gaius Florius Lupus » Sun Aug 06, 2017 12:29 pm

Spain and Russia are not separate from the Roman Empire; they ARE the Roman Empire. Moscow was the seat of the Eastern Emperor in exile after the fall of Constantinople.
Carolus V was Romanorum Imperator and Spain and its colonies were part of the territory he ruled.

The Translatio Imperii, the legal and formal foundation of Empire considers Babylon, Persia, Alexander's reign and Rome not as separate empires, but as different dynasties of the same Empire. One dynasty ends and is replaced by a stronger one, sometimes the capital is moved (like from Rome to Constantinople), but the Empire always persists.
The Achaemenids (Persians) replaced the Chaldaean dynasty in 605 BCE. Even then Babylon remained the imperial capital. So there is no break in continuity of imperial rule.
Alexander overthrew in turn the Achaemenid dynasty after his victory over Darius III in 336 BCE. Again Babylon remained the principle capital.
After Alexander's death the Wars of the Diadochi broke out, from which Seleucus I Nicator came out victorious in 319 BCE. The capital Babylon was devastated by the civil war, so that he moved the capital of his Seleucid dynasty to the new founded city Seleucia. His successor Antiochus II Theos moved it later to Antiochia.
The Carthaginians who were actually Phoenicians and as such a satellite kingdom of the Seleucid Empire were decisively defeated by Rome. Afterwards Hannibal Barca went to the Seleucids and pleaded Emperor (basileus) Antiochus III for help against Rome. However the Seleucids were also defeated by Rome in the battle of Magnesia in 190 BCE. This led to the Treaty of Apanea (188 BCE), in which Antiochus III conceded the Empire to Rome. He became a vassal to Rome.
This was the beginning of the Roman era of the Empire, although Rome remained a republic for the first 150 years.

Regarding the Mongols, they simply slaughtered everybody they came across. They did not rule, they destroyed. And when the khans finally started building a kingdom in the conquered territories, they had already split into several branches: the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate, the Chinese Yuan dynasty, the Ilkhanate.

The Caliphate is until today the archenemy and competitor of the Empire. They claim all the territories for themselves, which is why the successors of Rome have been at war with them for 1400 years almost continuously. In 2014 the Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi formally renewed the declaration of war against "Rome" in a video issued by the Islamic State.
So they are not really separate, but competing to rule over the same Empire, hence the claim to the title "Emperor of Rome" by the Ottomans.
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