Thursday, December 20, 2012


Mark Bradley (ed.), Classics and Imperialism in the British Empire. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xxiii, 335. ISBN 9780199584727. $125.00.

Reviewed by Leslie Dodd, University of Edinburgh (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This volume is published in the 'Classical Presences' series by OUP and emerges from a conference entitled 'Cornucopia and Hegemony: Classical Scholarship and the Ideology of Imperialism' held at the University of Nottingham in December 2005. It comprises ten chapters, plus envoi and introduction, broadly examining the ways in which classics and imperialism influenced one another during the second British Empire. The contributions do not constitute a comprehensive study but rather a selection of "discrete historical or discursive moments" (p.12) united by thematic considerations.

The introduction by Bradley is lively and informative. It includes a synopsis of the British Museum's development, seen through the volume's twin foci of classics and imperialism, and a handy summary of contemporary scholarship on classical reception. Its flaws are minor and mainly relate to periodisation and contextualisation, for example describing the antiquities brought to Britain under the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria as "advertising British muscle- flexing on the Continent" (p.3), an interpretation which would not be recognisable to anyone familiar with the Napoleonic and Revolutionary periods.

Vlassopoulos' workmanlike chapter, 'Imperial Encounters', is effectively a prologue for the rest of the volume. Unlike the other contributors, Vlassopoulos focuses on the different ways in which pre-nineteenth century thinkers approached the issue of empire, the different epistemological uses they made of classics and the ways their concerns shifted and evolved over time. It notes particularly that Greece, Rome and Carthage jostled with one another as models for Britain's empire. This chapter contextualises the volume's other essays and provides a methodological frame, as well as being an extremely worthy piece of work in its own right.

Mantena's 'Imperial Ideology and the Uses of Rome in Discourses on Britain's Indian Empire' considers Britain's methods of legitimising her Indian empire by looking first at the works of Thomas Macaulay and Charles Trevelyan and then at those of J.R.Seeley. She argues persuasively that Britain initially pursued a policy of "Anglicization" within the context of liberal imperialism whereby Britain would do for the Indians what Rome was perceived to have done for the British: civilise them to the point where they could function independently while remaining part of the civiliser's Kulturwelt. Later, following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British came to see the Indians as intractable and India as a burden which, in a very Periclean sense, should be maintained only because it was so dangerous to release.

The chapter as a whole is cogent, perceptive and eminently readable but does suffer from a certain lack of polish. Repeated use of "England" and "English" for "Britain" and "British" is jarring. A quotation from Macaulay (p. 64) which should say "a territory the present clear revenue of which exceeds the present clear revenue of any state in the world" is rendered "a territory the present clear revenue of any state in the world".

Williamson's 'The Mirror-Shield of Knowledge' discusses the prose of Henry Nelson Coleridge (nephew and later son- in-law of the poet) produced while visiting the West Indies in 1826. This essay is intriguing but also problematic. It opens with a purported description of the classics-oriented British education of the early nineteenth century that draws heavily upon Stray's 1998 study.1 Williamson mischaracterises Stray's monograph as an analysis of "classical education in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain" (p. 77) when, in fact, Stray deals exclusively with the English classical tradition (as the title of his monograph states). Scholars at this level should be aware that Britain and England are not interchangeable terms and that what was true of England was not necessarily true in the rest of Britain or the wider Empire.

Williamson focuses on Coleridge's use of classical allusion and language in order to construct a theory whereby classics is "deployed defensively, as a kind of talisman, at moments of [social] threat" (p.84). Unfortunately, Williamson's examples simply cannot bear the weight placed upon them. During a line-crossing ceremony at the equator (p.82), Neptune and "Amphitritty" (i.e. Amphitrite) appear to the crew. For Williamson, the "spelling of Amphitritty…alludes to the sailors' pronunciation and thus to the limits of their classical knowledge" and illustrates the sailors' status as non-elite outsiders. It was, however, British maritime practice, regardless of education or class, to pronounce and refer to Neptune's female companion in these ceremonies as Amphitritty.2 So, far from marking the sailors' outsider status, its use marks Coleridge's insider status as a newly-inducted member of the maritime fraternity. Similarly, when Coleridge uses Spanish and Latin phrases to describe a scene in which the Governor of Trinidad speaks in a slave patois (p.83), Williamson sees another instance of social threat. The more obvious reading is as an ironically comic anecdote juxtaposing learned and unlearned language. It must also be noted that the Governor – Sir Ralph James Woodford – had held his post for 13 years at this point, the longest tenure of any British Governor of Trinidad.3 Thus Coleridge's vignette highlights Woodford's longstanding connexion to the island through his familiarity with vernacular language. The use of Spanish, meanwhile, rather than being "talismanic", surely references the fact the island had been Spanish-ruled until 1797 and still retained a distinctly Spanish (and, following the 1783 Cedula of Population, French-tinged) culture.

The chapter is far stronger and more persuasive when discussing Coleridge's interaction with the slaves themselves, the related class-, sex- and race-based boundaries and his own ambiguous approach to slavery. Overall, though, one cannot shake the sense that further reading of contemporary sources by the author would have been beneficial and would have alleviated the many problems of contextualisation and superficiality from which this chapter suffers.

Challis' 'The Ablest Race' is an overview of the influential position occupied by Greek art in Victorian race theory. She shows how a classical physical ideal was employed as evidence of a supposed racial-cultural relationship between Greeks and Anglo-Saxons and discusses the ways in which this was used both as justification of British imperial rule and as an argument against imperialism and the attendant dangers of racial miscegenation. This chapter constitutes an excellent contribution to the field. However, editing issues exist: a quotation from Disraeli's Tancred "And when a superior race, with a superior idea of Work and Order, advances…" is rendered "And when a superior race, with a superior race, with a superior idea…" (p. 111) while in a quotation from Disraeli's Lothair the word 'then' is omitted in the phrase "Semitism then began…" (p.114).

Bradley's 'Tacitus' Agricola and the Conquest of Britain' adroitly explores the many, sometimes contradictory, uses made of this most ambiguous of imperial texts by British scholars, educators, politicians and popular writers during the Empire's heyday. It is a lively, enlightening and wide-ranging endeavour which, like many other chapters in this volume, should be of considerable interest to students outside the usual limits of classics as well as to anyone with any interest in late Victorian reception generally.

Fearn's 'Imperialist Fragmentation and the Discovery of Bacchylides' is the most forcefully argued and unashamedly tendentious chapter in the volume. It discusses the dubious appropriation of the Bacchylides papyrus by agents of the British Museum in 1896 and the wider ideological and imperial contexts within which this and other appropriations took place. Even if one does not accept Fearn's assessment, even if one thinks Fearn sometimes forces his sources to say more than is warranted, his is nevertheless a chapter that has many thought-provoking things to say about the intersection of the philological, the archaeological and the papyrological within the discipline of classics. Papyrologists and those interested in the text as artefact will find this chapter particularly worthwhile.

Rogers and Hingley's 'Edward Gibbon and Francis Haverfield' discusses the background to Gibbon's theories of decline and the influence which imperialism (both Roman and British) had on his work before going on to examine the position of Gibbon in Haverfield's historical and archaeological studies of Roman Britain. The chapter covers more ground than its title suggests and represents a noteworthy addition to the study of British declinist thinking in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. One error creeps in: the (Second) Boer War is dated 1898-1902 (p.202) when the war did not begin until 11th October 1899; this mistaken date is repeated in the index (p.328).

Reisz' 'Classics, Race, and Edwardian Anxieties about Empire' ably discusses how the Edwardians used classics in analysing, explaining and responding to the issues of the contemporary and imagined future Empire. The essay's first half focuses on anxieties about the multiracial nature of the Empire and describes how "classical models remained touchstones and comparators" for understanding and responding to the concerns of empire (p.213) while a classically-inspired civilising mission remained a justification for direct imperial rule outside the self-governing white Dominions. The latter part of the chapter examines the position of malaria in Edwardian declinist thought with some especially constructive analysis of the work of W.H.S. Jones. Reisz demonstrates not only how classics could be used to explain Britain's empire but how Britain's ongoing imperial experience was used as a means of understanding the ancient world.

Kaicker's 'Visions of Modernity in Revisions of the Past' examines the Urdu poetry of Altaf Hussain 'Hali' (1837-1914) and shows that Hali's great poem on Islamic history (Musaddas-e Madad-o Jazr-e Islam or Poem on The Ebb and Flow of Islam) responded to classics as a justificatory mechanism for European imperialism.

Amongst other things, Kaicker shows how Hali ('the Contemporary') internalised British criticisms of Indian indolence and employed Gibbon's theories of decline, using the latter to explain the former. The poem's function was to show that Islamic culture shared ownership of the classical past along with the Europeans and that the classical corpus upon which perceived European cultural superiority was built had depended on "the magnanimity of the ancient Arabs" (p.247). This is a fascinating essay showing classics and empire from a perspective we rarely see explored: that of the ruled rather than the ruler.

Malamud's 'Translatio Imperii: America as the New Rome c.1900' is something of a cuckoo in the nest as it is about American appropriation of antiquity and relates only tangentially to the British Empire. Nevertheless, it is an excellent contribution, particularly in its energetic treatment of Roman-inspired architecture and entertainment in New York during the Gilded Age and in its explanation of how antiquity was used to legitimise and glorify American imperialism. Those with an interest in declinist thought will be intrigued by the way that Americans of this era, unlike earlier Americans and contemporary Europeans, embraced what they perceived as the most excessive and decadent elements of Imperial Rome without any fear of an ensuing moral decline; Malamud shows that they saw popular entertainment based on the (imagined) excesses of Imperial Rome not as something dangerous or threatening but as a visible manifestation of American power and wealth. A word should be said about the illustrations, which are excellent throughout but nowhere more so than in this chapter.

This collection leaves an impression that is overwhelmingly positive. As a whole, the work makes some very significant contributions to a neglected field of study. It has its faults – the quality of essays, while generally very high, is not uniform; many errors have somehow survived the editing process; the index could be fleshed out a little more – but they are venial when compared to the volume's many strengths. Surprisingly for a collection of this kind, there is quite a unitary character to the essays. Disparate and varied as they may be, they seem nevertheless to complement one another very effectively. The extensive cross-referencing contributes to the collaborative feel of the work.

This is an important collection, potentially even a landmark volume, and it is the reviewer's hope, first, that it will receive the attention it deserves and, second, that it may inspire further attention to classical reception within a British imperial context.

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION: Approaches to Classics and Imperialism
Mark Bradley
1. Imperial Encounters: Discourses on Empire and the Uses of Ancient History During the Eighteenth Century, Kostas Vlassopoulos
2. Imperial Ideologies and the Uses of Rome in Discourses on Britain's Indian Empire, Rama Sundari Mantena
3. 'The Mirror-Shield of Knowledge': Classicizing the West Indies, Margaret Williamson
4. 'The Ablest Race': The Ancient Greeks in Victorian Racial Theory, Debbie Challis
5. Tacitus' Agricola and the Conquest of Britain: Representations of Empire in Victorian and Edwardian England, Mark Bradley
6. Imperialist Fragmentation and the Discovery of Bacchylides, David Fearn
7. Edward Gibbon and Francis Haverfield: The Traditions of Imperial Decline, Adam Rogers and Richard Hingley
8. Classics, Race and Edwardian Anxieties about Empire, Emma Reisz
9. Visions of Modernity in Revisions of the Past: Altaf Hussein Hali and the 'Legacy of the Greeks', Abhisheck Kaicker
10. Translatio Imperii: America as the New Rome c.1900, Margaret Malamud
Phiroze Vassunia


1.   C. Stray, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960 (Oxford, 1998)
2.   See contemporary accounts of the ceremony, e.g., The Cruise of HMS Bacchante (London, 1879-1882) by Princes Albert and George of Wales or To India and Back by the Cape (London, 1859) by CR Francis; cf. also Folklore and the Sea (New York, 1999) by H Beck. Williamson cites no period sources and uses, instead, the US Navy website (p.82).
3.   M. Anthony, Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago (London, 2001)

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