Focus area 2: The Imperium Romanum and the decadence discourse (Marco Walter)
The transition from the British to the American Empire gradually takes place successively during what Eric Hobsbawm called the long 19th century, ranging from the French Revolution to World War I. The contemporary reflection of this development predominantly recurs to the mirror of Roman imperial experiences. The transformation of the ancient decadence motif plays a central role in this context. This might explain the remarkable anticipations of imperial decline.
The British Empire began to reflect on its own descent already during its greatest imperial success in the 19th century, for example when the British member of parliament Edward W. Montagu, develops an exemplary diagnosis of decadence in his Reflections of the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republics adapted to the Present State of Great Britain in 1759, and when John Robert Seeley notes laconically in his Expansion of England from 1883 that the acquisition of the Empire took place "in a fit of absence of mind".
In a similar way in the United States, not only did the 2nd president John Adams argue with Rome’s example as early as 1755 in order to predict the decline of Britain and the rise of the United States; moreover did the U.S. problematize very early on not only its own ascent, but it also showed exorbitant interest in the reflection of the possibility, or even inevitability, of the own demise.
This applies to the political interest in theories of universal history, as apparent in Theodore Roosevelt's preface to Brooks Adams' Law of Civilization and Decay from 1893, up to the impact of The Course of Empire, a five-part cycle of paintings created by Thomas Cole in 1834-36, in which an inevitable decline of every empire through decadence is predicted. Its title also reappears as the introductory motto to George Bancroft’s History of the United States from 1834.
It therefore seems indicated to put the material of the Anglo-American decadence discourse in the long 19th century under the perspective of the working thesis that empires’ introspective obsession with decadence leads to the continuing unease in the United States to portray itself as an empire at all.
This strange simultaneity between fear of decadence and an almost obsessive identification with Western Roman late antiquity has brought about tangible political consequences.
South African Prime Minister Jan C. Smuts, for example, noted in 1917 in a speech during a banquet given for him by both houses of the British Parliament that the term empire would be misleading, since the Commonwealth – unlike the Roman Empire – was not a homogeneous entity.
Thus, a political lesson had been drawn from a suspicion voiced in Thomas Hodgkin’s book Italy and her Invaders in 1879 and reformulated in 1908 by British Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour in his brief treatise Decadence 1908. According to this suspicion, the mixture of distinct and incompatible foreign cultures, as attempted in Rome since Augustus, would inevitably lead to the collapse of the empire.
The second major strand of discourse concerns the tension between imperial patterns of interpretation and republican beliefs. Here, a typological juxtaposition can be made between the traditional republican decadence motif on the one hand, which considers luxury a threat and aims at salvation through the return to a lifestyle of simplicity, and the imperial perspective on the other hand, which presents "barbarians" as a threat and the civilizational attraction of empire as the only salvation.
This dichotomy is, to be sure, problematic especially for republican empires like the U.S. which have consistently developed an alternative, liberal paradigm. The rather institutionalist than intentionalist tenor of this paradigm presents itself as a way out of the inevitable decadence dilemma.