Between the Eternal City and the Holy City: Rome, Jerusalem, and the Imperial Ideal in Britain

To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the author.


Historians have closely examined the impact of the image of the Roman Empire on British imperial thought, especially as a model of bureaucratic efficiency and legal justice. This article argues that a complementary model, that of ancient Jerusalem, also shaped the way the British perceived their imperial mission and responsibilities. Whereas ancient Rome provided lessons regarding the effective management of an empire, Jerusalem offered a moral justification for the imperial enterprise itself. The British, like the ancient Israelites, understood that their prominence among the nations was divinely mandated and would be maintained only so long as they adhered to those moral principles as laid down by God. The British Empire, like the two cities after which it was modeled, was to be Eternal by means of its effective governance and Holy through its moral uprightness.

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the author.

ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Most of Disraeli's recent biographers have drawn attention to the anti-Semitism which he experienced as a schoolboy and as an aspiring politician at the raucous free-for-all of the early Victorian hustings. But the barrage of anti-Semitism directed at him when he was prime minister between 1874 and 1880 has not received the same scholarly attention. Lord Blake, for example, in a work of almost 800 pages, devotes only three short sentences to the anti-Semitism of this period. To some degree it is easy to see why this is so. Although Disraeli was baptized into Christianity just before he turned thirteen, he was so harangued and ridiculed as a Jew during his early election campaigns that the anti-Semitic mood of the public could not be ignored, either by contemporary observers or by historians. The anti-Semitism he faced as prime minister, however, was not literally thrust in his face, and it did not intrude on his public appearances. It is perhaps understandable then that historians, contemplating the marked contrast between the vigorous Jew baiting of Disraeli's early elections and the absence of it in his later ones, would assume that, whatever prejudices might lurk in private diaries, letters, and memoirs, expressions of anti-Semitism in that most public of all arenas, the world of politics, were now unacceptable. Increasing political decorum, the triumph of liberal and nonconformist ideologies, the Emancipation of the Jews in 1858, their continuing acculturation and assimilation, their greater role in public life, and of course Disraeli's own prominence as leader of the "national" party combined, it might be argued, to create a political and social climate in which public expressions of anti-Semitism were neither profitable nor respectable.
For the American Puritan minister Increase Mather, the battle of Armageddon would be “the most terrible day of battel that ever was.” “Asia is like to be in a flame of war between Israelites and Turks,” he wrote in The Mystery of Israel's Salvation, “[and] Europe between the followers of the Lamb and the followers of the beast.” In the Asian and European spheres of action, or so Mather anticipated, God's Israelite and Protestant armies would “overthrow great Kingdoms, and make Nations desolate, and bring defenced Cities into ruinous heaps.” The inevitable victory would reshape the course of history, for the destruction of Roman Catholic and Ottoman power would be accompanied by the conversion of the Jews and the lost tribes of Israel to Christianity and by their restoration to their ancestral homeland in Palestine. Then would come the birth of the millennium in Jerusalem and the subsequent spread of the kingdom of Jesus Christ throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the rest of the world.
Britain's pre-Victorian overseas expansion stimulated Roman comparisons. But imperial Rome was a warning as much as an inspiration to future empires, a harsh and uncomfortable model for Britain as a former Roman colony. Roman dignity was claimed for British monarchs and achievements by Dryden and others. But there were mixed feelings about identifying expanding Britain as a second Roman Empire. In the eighteenth century the British freedom-fighter Caractacus, defeated by the Romans, appealed far more to popular taste than Virgil's Aeneas or the Emperor Augustus. Sustained unease about imperial Rome, going right back to Tacitus, anticipated the liberal critique of imperialism of some Victorian and Edwardian commentators.