The British Empire vs The Roman Empire - Historical Comparison

The British Empire vs The Roman Empire - Historical Comparison

As the series Game of Thrones starts a new season, depicting a bloody scenario of Kings and Queens vying for control of lands and all-out supremacy, we might be reminded that such a fiction was a reality in the past – minus the dragons and the walking dead of course. Empires have risen, and they have fallen. Declinism, the state of irreversible decline of an empire, country, or society, seems to be the natural order of things. However great and powerful, empires always seem to crumble. Historians look back on once powerful empires and are divided, concerning if the damage they caused and carnage they wrought was worth the advances they gave to the world. Today we’ll look at two such mighty empires, in this episode of the Infographics show, The British Empire vs. The Roman Empire. We’ll start with the elder empire, that of the Romans. The city of Rome dates back to the 9th century when it was ruled over by kings. In 509 BC it became a Republic, and its biggest foe was the dominant power of Carthage. The Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire after countless civil wars and political strife, and it was formally recognized as an empire after the adopted son of Julius Caesar, Gaius Octavius, took power over the free Roman Republic. He became known as Augustus, and is considered the first Roman Emperor.

After hundreds of years of war and competing factions plotting to murder each other, under Augustus, Rome saw relative peace and did so for a number of years after him. Peace inside Rome, however, did not mean Rome wasn’t busy spilling blood and expanding its empire. We shall soon see how that developed.

In his seminal book Empire, historian Niall Ferguson puts much of the very early British monetary gains down to good ships and marauding pirates as exemplary thugs of the high seas. Prior to that, parts of what is known as Great Britain now were ruled over by the Roman Empire after the first Roman invasion of ‘the Britains’ by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC. It took a while for Britain to become the superpower it did, with England at the helm and building slowly after the Norman invasions. Along with other European nations such as Spain, The Netherlands, Portugal and France, Britain steadfastly began exploring and exploiting the world starting in the 16th century. When Britain was finished exploring and warring, it was the largest empire that has ever existed, eliciting the epithet: “The empire on which the sun never sets”.

Back to ancient history and the Romans. As we know, the Romans invaded Britain, which was no easy feat considering the distance and the sea crossing. The entirety of the Roman invasions are too vast to recount, but the expansion of the empire as we know it started with the invasions of the Roman Republic across parts of Italy and the western Mediterranean. Prior to being an empire, the Romans had heretofore fought with tribes from all over Europe, including Celts and Germanic tribes. Julius Caesar led conquests into the Iberian Peninsula, what we now think of as parts of Andorra, Portugal and Spain, and also against the Gauls spread across present day France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. Caesar didn’t stop there, launching assaults against the Parthian Empire of now Iran and Iraq, the Helvetii tribe located in modern day Switzerland, as well as moving into much of North Africa. When Augustus took power as the first emperor, Roman feet had already trampled on much of Europe and its outlying regions. During its height, the Roman Empire defeated most of Europe, North Africa, including much of present Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, as well as parts of countries in the present day Balkans and the Middle East. In all, the empire comprised of about 12 percent of the world’s population, compared to about 23 percent the British Empire consisted of at its zenith.

The British Empire went a step further and pushed into regions of the world that had been more or less uncharted territory. Much of Europe was attempting to the do the same, including Britain’s main rivals, the French, the Spanish and the Dutch. Britain became the colonial power in North America, only to lose some of it to what would become the United States of America. Part of the reason for this loss is Britain was just fighting on too many fronts, and it didn’t want to lose its strength in other areas of the globe when perhaps a friendly outcome could be produced with its lost colony. Britain’s main threat was from Napoleon, but when he and his army was defeated, Britain became the dominant power in Europe. “Britannia rules the waves” was a slogan of the British, and for good reason, as its ships sailed into India, South America, Australasia, other parts of Asia, as well as Africa, expanding its empire and becoming extremely rich through trade – much of which it did with its former colony, America.

The Brits, stuck on a small island with perennially inclement weather, were an industrious lot. They created machines that led to what is called the industrial revolution. The machine of empire was unstoppable, and historians now agree that Britain in all invaded 90% of the world’s countries at some point in time. This leaves only 22 countries, including the likes of Sweden and Vatican City. Britain exerted political and economic control over much of the world, and even where it wasn’t holding power, it was passively subjugating countries to play into its hands. Britain made lucrative economic deals with countries such as Thailand, and as payment Thailand was never invaded. There was a dark side to making all that money. British imperialists took part in the slave trade – although later asked for it to be abolished. Imperialists murdered and imprisoned wholesale indigenous people, committed terrible crimes from Africa to Ireland regarding military actions, was to blame for mass starvation and death in India, but it also gave countries infrastructure, systems of justice and formal education, plumbing, at least a semblance of human rights, transportation systems, medicine and healthcare, science, industrial practices and literature. This is why the British Empire is a very divisive issue today.

Looking at other more cultural aspects of Rome, we know that during the good ole days life expectancy was about 20-30, but those that made it through battle or childbirth could expect to live to a ripe old age as people do now. If you were unlucky enough to be put into the Colosseum’s gladiatorial ring you might die even quicker, but there would be around 50,000 people at times cheering on your demise. Brutality was not uncommon in ancient Rome, with vestal virgins sometimes being buried alive if they broke their vow and their hymens. Many Roman bigwigs were unapologetic sadists, but perhaps the Romans could be seen in a better light when we understand they had a holiday in which masters switched places with their slaves, or at least allowed slaves to criticize them. Hmm, good luck with that. This was part of the Saturnalia festival. Slaves did much of the grunt work, and didn’t get paid in currency but in kind. As for those hardworking soldiers, they were given a ‘stipendium’ paid in denarius, a Roman silver coin. Under Augustus, a soldier is said to have gotten a pay raise in denarius equal to about 10 asses a day.

In 1686 it’s said that the British empire shipped in today’s money about 230 billion US dollars of goods to London, that included tea, tobacco, rice, sugar…and slaves. One of the surprising things is that Britain achieved domination with relatively few soldiers when we think about armies today. In the time of the Napoleonic War, there were less than 100,000 British soldiers, with each private making one shilling, or 12 pence a day. That’s less than 20 cents. Their daily ration of food was a bit of bread, as well as some biscuit and beef. There was a lot of money coming from the empire, but were the British at home living the high-life? For royalty, the bigger merchants, the lords and the dukes, certainly, but if you’ve ever reads Charles Dickens you’ll know that life was grim for many of the tinkers, tailors and British working classes.

Both empires declined, with Rome succumbing to barbarian invasions, financial crisis due to overspending, political corruption, societal decadence, as well as the weakening of its military. The British Empire was perhaps too big for its own good, and when Britain had to pool its resources for two great wars the decline started, and ended with Hong Kong’s independence in 1997. From 57 colonies and 25 percent of the world’s land mass, Great Britain was left with the Falkland islands but still a relatively stable economy. Winston Churchill once famously said, “I have not become the king’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”, but he must have seen it coming.

The Roman Empire lasted longer, with a duration of 1,500 years in total, albeit not always as an imperious invader throughout that time. “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,” said Augustus, which could be said not only of Rome but of the places it invaded. In Britain for instance, the Romans landed in a fairly outback country and gave it sewage systems, roads, more modern architecture, advanced agricultural practices, trading posts, mining, even fire-fighting skills, only for later less progressive invaders to destroy much of that and lead Britain into what was called The Dark Ages.

As we’ve seen, the British and Roman Empires were at times brilliant monstrosities. The question is, was all the heartache and bloodshed worth it? Did it have to be that way? That’s a question for you to answer, so please let us know in the comments! 

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