Did the British Empire die or did it move its capital? - Thoughts on similarity to Rome and Byzantium.

mindlessobserver

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A common theme that leads to heated online arguments between armchair historians (and actual historians) is "when did the Roman Empire fall?" Most say AD 496 when the Germans deposed the last ruler of the Western Empire. Others argue it was actually AD 1466 when the Turks captured Constantinople. The reasoning being that while the Western Empire did collapse, the Eastern portion of the empire, and more importantly the administrative capital of Constantinople remained, though it was no longer a Latin country but a Greek one.

I feel a similar argument could be made about the British Empire and its "fall". Much like the Romans, the British made massive innovations in economics, military theory and administrative theory to punch massively above what their population size and initial starting territory might indicate were the upper limits of their ability to conquer. To the point that from 1600 to 1900, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland would go from monarchical union of two countries to the heart of a global empire spanning every continent and incorporating by some measures, nearly a quarter of the entire human population and the earths landmass. It fell in 1945 due to a combination of severe financial straights, population loss and the rise of nationalism throughout its colonies and dominions. At least in theory.

The heart of the British Empire however was not based around direct administrative control. The British Empire was at its heart a Mercantile and Defense organization. Britain kept the sea lanes open, allowed people to get rich using commonly administrated legal systems around the world, and maintained a network of ports and colonies to facilitate that global trade. It was in many respects highly decentralized with local military and governing authorities given broad latitude in action. A major innovation the Brits came up with the idea separate legislatures and governing institutions to the crown colonies. This allowed the Empire to extend its rule to the local level and keep subject peoples invested in the State, while at the same time making it more responsive to local concerns. Something necessary as the planet was huge, and as the French and Spanish found out, made it impossible otherwise to govern centrally. There was an obvious sting in this tail of course. Sometimes those local governments decided they did not want to take orders anymore. Like in 1776 when 13 of Britain's colonies in North America declared independence. Even so, after independence the new United States did not abandon the modes economics, law, and governing that the British Empire employed. Americas federal system was in many respects an effort to "reform" the decentralized system of Empire that had been employed. The Americans Liked the idea of a common union, but at the same time also really liked the idea of local autonomy.

When the British Empire came apart in the mid 20th century, the systems they created did not go away. In fact, the vast majority of the British Empires former colonies and dominions turned to Washington DC for support. The United States, eager to counterbalance the threat of the Soviet Union was more then happy to do so. It is no accident then the former dominions, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are now Americas closest Allies. "Ally" being the more acceptable term then Dominion, though there seems to be a very much understood arrangement that, while not spoken aloud is known by all the the US views the arrangement with these countries as something a tad more solid then a mere defense pact. For example, while Canada is "free" to do business and sign treaties with whomever they please, are they "free" to sign a defense pact with the Chinese and allow them to build a naval base and airfield in Newfoundland? Its an intellectual exercise to be sure. As an independent country Canada could certainly try and do so, but somehow I think any Canadian Prime Minister that tried would find themselves in trouble with Washington DC. This is of course not a one sided arrangement. Both Canada and Australia have to deal with serious international issues and the need to maintain access to the global economy without reprisal. Before World War 2, this was facilitated by the British, and post World War 2 it has been facilitated by the Americans. Considering the massive maritime border Canada shares with the Russian Federation, absent such an arrangement the amount of money that Canada would have needed to invest to defend its northern territories would be very different to what it does currently. As an example.

More broadly beyond the obvious passing of responsibility from London to DC over the more central Dominions, is the passing of responsibility for control of the sea lanes from the Royal Navy to the US Navy. It was in fact almost seamless, with most of the Royal Navies basing arrangements around the world going to the US Navy, and many former British Colonies finding the normal warship patrols that used to be done by the British passing seamlessly to the Americans. The US also took over responsibility to the network of global trade by backing the various international institutions that were created in the post world war 2 era. Necessary functions to keep together the newly independent countries that emerged from the collapse of all the European colonial empires.

So in the end the question is academic. Did the Roman Empire fall even though a Greek Empire that used the same structures and filled largely the same role take its place? And did the British Empire fall even though an American Empire that uses the same structures and fills largely the same role took its place?
 

Marco Fucko

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Pretty sure Rome actually did fall, that's why they're referred to as separate from Byzantium. Likewise, even if you argue the US is the successor to Britain in terms of geopolitical dominance, the US at its base political foundation is against the monarchy and feudalism that defined Britain for the longest time, and even with Britain a functional democracy, the Founding Fathers were more into aristocratic Republics over more populist Democracies, and we've evolved differently as a result.

So the short version would be yeah they're dead, I guess.
 

Damn Near

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Everyone knows that when people say 'Roman', they mean the ancient Western empire. Byzantium saying they were Roman was talmud-tier trickery. Also Britain became gay after the second world war for some reason.
 

Chive Turkey

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The British Empire's main strength in the late 19th century was finances, and that never really died, unlike their manufacturing and territorial empires. The bongs led world finance to such an extent that they practically owned countries like Argentina for decades. To this day, the City of London is one of the biggest hubs of finance in the world (about half of all global financial transactions still through through Britain, and it invented shit like off-shore banking. It's no coincidence that many of the world's tax havens are former Brit colonies. It wasn't just the locals who shrewdly and independently decided to pursue such policies, they must've had some strong nudging by investors from the former motherland. The City has quite seriously probably had a larger impact on shaping the modern global financial system than Wall Street has.
 

Syaoran Li

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The American Empire is more of a spin-off to the British Empire than its direct continuation. It's like how Frasier started out as a spin-off of Cheers but became its own thing (also I think I just realised my pop culture references are stale as fuck).

So basically, the United States is like The Simpsons and the British Empire is like the Tracey Ullman Show?

Does that mean the People's Republic of China is the geopolitical equivalent of Family Guy?

As for the whole "Byzantium is not Rome" malarkey, I'd say that the Byzantine Empire is pretty much a direct continuation of the Roman Empire, considering the term "Byzantine Empire" is very much a product of modern historiography and the empire at the time referred to itself as the Roman Empire or similar variants thereof and it was a direct continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire of the classical era. Even the transition of Latin to Greek was not an immediate one but an organic one that took a couple of centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

Emperor Justinian I was the Eastern Roman Emperor and his famous code of Civil Law was written primarily in Latin, and both Latin and Greek were the two official languages of the Eastern Roman Empire up until midway into the reign of Emperor Heraclius in the 7th Century AD. Of course, even in the time of the Caesars, Hellenistic Greek was the prime language in the eastern parts of the empire, which is why the majority of the New Testament was written in Greek as opposed to Latin.

Now, you could make a more reasonable claim that the Carolingians, the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Dynasty, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Fascist Italy were simply pretenders trying to claim the heritage of the Roman Empire.

As for the United States being a continuation of the British Empire? Eh, I'm a little iffy about that in all honesty, simply because the British Empire is still technically around (even if it's just Britain, Northern Ireland, and a few minor overseas departments) and aside from the fall of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties (and the Hanovers becoming the House of Windsor) there hasn't been a collapse of the old British state even if the empire itself is largely gone.

The United States also broke away in open rebellion against the British Empire and actually surpassed the British Empire economically at the start of the 20th Century. The Byzantine Empire was the ultimate result of a legal division of the Roman Empire into East and West, and it just happened that the Eastern Roman Empire outlasted the Western Roman Empire after the final split in administration.

If anything, the United States is the new Roman Empire and the British Empire would be like Hellenistic Greece, much like how Classical Rome was heavily influenced by Hellenistic Greek culture, the United States was heavily influenced by British culture, especially in its formative years during the Colonial and Antebellum eras.
 

mindlessobserver

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If anything, the United States is the new Roman Empire and the British Empire would be like Hellenistic Greece, much like how Classical Rome was heavily influenced by Hellenistic Greek culture, the United States was heavily influenced by British culture, especially in its formative years during the Colonial and Antebellum eras.

That's actually an interesting take, and actually a better analogy now that I think about it. The Greeks did after all conquer much of "the known world" under Alexander. It was a bit of a flash in the pan if we are being honest, but it had a massive influence on most of what constituted human civilization for the time. The Romans took that and ran with it, meeting much greater success at Empire building then the Greeks did.

To be fair though, the USA has a cheat code by having access to unexploited resources of a full third of an entire continent. Part of what drove European colonialism was the fact that the resources for a modern industrial economy were not readily available within the borders of each of the European countries. The USA by comparison not only possessed all of that in abundance, it also has every possible environmental biome within its territory from Tundra to Tropical Rain Forest (though we did have to go adventuring to get those, thanks Spain!). We could even grow our own Sugar and Coffee. Something Britain and France could never do.
 

millais

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I notice Britbongs really like the analogy of Imperial Rome and Greece, because they like to think that UK still has an outsized cultural influence on US, just like how Greek philosophers and tutors were all the rage in Roman high society. Britbongs think that their exportation of a handful of overrated BBC TV shows to USA is proof of such an analogous cultural trendsetting. But really, it's the other way around. Britbongs' English is getting Americanized with each successive generation, and they get inundated in American Hollywood movies and pop music and McDonalds fast food and Coca-Cola in much higher proportion than Americans consuming British multimedia and literature offerings.
 

Beautiful Border

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I notice Britbongs really like the analogy of Imperial Rome and Greece, because they like to think that UK still has an outsized cultural influence on US, just like how Greek philosophers and tutors were all the rage in Roman high society. Britbongs think that their exportation of a handful of overrated BBC TV shows to USA is proof of such an analogous cultural trendsetting. But really, it's the other way around. Britbongs' English is getting Americanized with each successive generation, and they get inundated in American Hollywood movies and pop music and McDonalds fast food and Coca-Cola in much higher proportion than Americans consuming British multimedia and literature offerings.
Eh, I'd say that British culture at least has a bigger influence in America than most other countries. For example, most people can name a lot more British bands (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Oasis, The Who, etc.) than French or German bands. There are also plenty of British actors in America, some of whom people don't even realise are British (Hugh Laurie, Christian Bale, etc.). I guess the question is how much of that is through British soft power or just through the virtue of speaking the same language.
 

Emperor Julian

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As for the whole "Byzantium is not Rome" malarkey, I'd say that the Byzantine Empire is pretty much a direct continuation of the Roman Empire, considering the term "Byzantine Empire" is very much a product of modern historiography and the empire at the time referred to itself as the Roman Empire or similar variants thereof and it was a direct continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire of the classical era. Even the transition of Latin to Greek was not an immediate one but an organic one that took a couple of centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

Emperor Justinian I was the Eastern Roman Emperor and his famous code of Civil Law was written primarily in Latin, and both Latin and Greek were the two official languages of the Eastern Roman Empire up until midway into the reign of Emperor Heraclius in the 7th Century AD. Of course, even in the time of the Caesars, Hellenistic Greek was the prime language in the eastern parts of the empire, which is why the majority of the New Testament was written in Greek as opposed to Latin.

In a legal sense yes, The Byzantines are a continuation. But on a cultural and realpolitik level the Byzantine Empire is effectively a succesor state. Personally I think the real Break occurs due to Christianization effectively absorbing Roman culture into a faith which then fragments and becomes so universal as to make Rome redundant.

Ultimatly it's just a question of Semantics and just a useful mental shortcut so we can wrap our mind around the Classical mostly pagan Latin Western Imperium and the very Medieval Greek, very Christian Palatial Monarchy. Being the same state.
 

millais

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Eh, I'd say that British culture at least has a bigger influence in America than most other countries. For example, most people can name a lot more British bands (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Oasis, The Who, etc.) than French or German bands. There are also plenty of British actors in America, some of whom people don't even realise are British (Hugh Laurie, Christian Bale, etc.). I guess the question is how much of that is through British soft power or just through the virtue of speaking the same language.
That may be. But the cultural influence is nowhere near as deep as that exerted by the Greeks on Imperial Rome. Much of the Roman mythology and epics and classics were lifted straight from the Greek tradition, and those who could afford it had their children educated by Greek tutors.

I would posit that the only profoundly deep and lasting cultural influence that the Britbongs gave to America is via those twin titans of the English language: Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Everything else is just superficial: pretentious fancies and ephemeral fads of that Trans-Atlantic Anglophilic subsection of American Yankeedom. In Queen Victoria's day, it was manifest in the American aping of Christmas celebration and the Charles Dickens craze, etc. These days it is manifest in those Britbong celebrity actors, pop music, "Youchewb" stars, BBC dramas, and Harry Potter books.

Now though, Britbongs have been coerced into celebrating Halloween, meanwhile Americans don't even know what the fuck is Boxing Day and Guy Fawkes Day.
 

Emperor Julian

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Now though, Britbongs have been coerced into celebrating Halloween, meanwhile Americans don't even know what the fuck is Boxing Day and Guy Fawkes Day.

Americans don't have Boxing day? That's depressing, I actually Enjoy Boxing day more than Christmas day as you get to wind down, eat leftover and either hammer a new console/games or watch my team fail against and actual football team. It's probably one of the most chill days of the year. You don't have to keep your shit together and force yourself to have 'fun' in a socially respectable way.

What do you poor buggers do? Go back to work?
 

Feline Supremacist

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I'm not sure the US is a social/political/economic extension of the UK but there is a weird obsequious obsession of the UK by the moneyed class in the US and it's very noticeable in politics and celebrities. It went from Nancy Reagan being excoriated for curtsying to Princess Diana to the Clintons slobbering over Blair. Madonna faked a British accent and went fox hunting (disgusting) during her marriage to Guy Ritchie, Angelina Jolie was said to harbor delusions of moving to the UK and standing for Parliament after her divorce while Michelle Obama was obsessed with Downton Abbey. I notice one thing they all seem to have in common is they're all new money so that probably has a lot to do with it but the average person in the US could care less. It's hilarious because these people think everyone in the UK speaks with an Oxbridge accent and has tea whereas there's dozens of regional accents and they're more likely to run into a chav or a fundamentalism Paki when roaming around London.

It's also an expression of their disdain for America, period. It goes hand in hand with calling everything between NYC/DC and LA/SF flyover country. These people really wish we had a rigid class system. Hopefully rural Virginians will remind them that's not happening anytime soon.
 

Spooky Bones

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At least parenthetically, we should note than in classical thinking, authority that was legitimate was Roman power, so it is no surprised that the Russian Czar ("Caesar") and the Holy Roman Empire and Nazi Germany (first and third "Reich", the first having drawn on explicitly and the latter implicitly Roman legitimacy), among others, all tried to hold on to Roman power, derived from increased legitimacy as the leader of Orthodoxy after the fall of Constantinople, and the military leaders of Europe, and often victors over the Romans, after the fall of Western Rome, respectively. Given how thoroughly the Germans were pwnt militarily and spiritually after 1945, this seems to suggest that the legitimate successor of Rome, if any, is found to the north and the east; when Communist, this would be a rather odd thought, but now under Putin and with the resurgence of Orthodoxy, it makes a bit more sense. Nova Roma is russkiy? It's more likely than you might think. Again on the Eastern side, the loss of political power and relevancy to the Roman Catholic Church is another blow to the idea of a legitimate successor to Western Rome.

Enough about that though. I like this analogy a lot, although I think it is more useful to call the "Anglosphere" an Empire that has changed capitals. The sort of empire we have today, however, is substantially different: as OP mentioned, the US, like the British, does a lot to enable basic stability and commerce. However, the US does this in a way that is devoid of a lot of the redeeming features of the British and simultaneously more about raw power and not exactly overtly "imperialistic" in the sense that installing a governour-general and a regiment is imperialistic. The role of the military is prominent, however: see the "lily-pad" military bases, especially in AFRICOM, which are often tiny bases that serve only as a "reminder" of American might, a listening-post, and a site for power-project (all the more important in the age of drones.) These are not enough to have in and of themselves an overt effect on the lives of those living in these "shithole countries" even in the capitals except indirectly: although sometimes this can be a good thing indeed: see those threatened by Chinese expansion, for instance. Given that China (and Russia for that matter) is not in the headlines daily, people who aren't IR majors or enthusiasts can easily enough forgot that it's a huge geopolitical threat and that the best way to avert war is a show of strength. America wouldn't be in position to do this or to need to do this if they weren't the successor to an Anglo empire.

The British were a superpower in their (19th-century) day, but unlike in the post-1949 realities of MAD, they could still fight wars with Continental powers (first twenty years) and Russia (1850s), although the vast majority of their conflicts were colonial in nature:

Napoleonic Wars 1802–1813
War of 1812 1812-1815
Hundred Days 1815
Anglo-Nepalese War 1813–1816
Third Anglo-Maratha War 1817–1818
First Ashanti War 1823–1831
First Anglo-Burmese War 1824–1826
First Anglo-Afghan War 1839–1842
First Opium War 1839–1842
First Anglo Marri War 1840
First Anglo-Sikh War 1845–1846
New Zealand Wars 1845–1872
Second Anglo-Sikh War 1848–1849
Second Anglo-Burmese War 1852–1853
Crimean War 1853–1856
Anglo-Persian War 1856–1857
Second Opium War 1856–1860
Indian Rebellion 1857–1858
Second Ashanti War 1863–1864
Bhutan War 1864–1865
Third Ashanti War 1873–1874
Second Anglo-Afghan War 1878–1880
Anglo-Zulu War 1879
Second Anglo Marri War 1880
First Boer War 1880–1881
Third Anglo-Burmese War 1885
Mahdist War 1891–1899
Fourth Ashanti War 1894
Anglo-Zanzibar War 1896 Shortest war in history lasted 38 minutes ("lol whoops nm"--niggos)
Six-Day War 1899
Boxer Rebellion 1899–1901
Second Boer War 1899–1902
(Wikipedia)

Admitting the enormity of WWI and WWII even compared to the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, this actually looks a lot like the U.S.'s docket in especially the later half of the 20th century. This in and of itself is worth considering. The Anglo empire in the 19th century (British) was acting as World Police in the 19th century over areas where it had influence (and the sun never set on it, remember) just as the Anglo empire in the latter half of the 20th century did. Somebody had to take on this role militarily to ensure the success of commerce and the containment of a restive Eastern Europe, Africa, and Mideast. Especially in a globalizing contest, not having this locked down would have been disastrous.

However, while extractive and paternalistic, the British Empire, especially later on, was also concerned with lifting up, in a rather Kiplingesque fashion, it's charges through instruction, infrastructure, education, varying degrees of Christianization depending on where we're talking about, etc. This is sadly absent in the American empire and is a damn shame. However, nominally independent countries can't send enough back into the coffers of the Empire to justify such expenses, and anti-colonial sentiment has made it a difficult exercise in the first place, much to the disadvantage of people who are unfortunate enough to live in many places in Africa (among others.)

The American revolution was by and large a bourgeois revolution by people who had a lot in common with the people they were rebelling against (with the exception of noble titles.) But by and large, they had a lot of shared values although the Americans tended more towards religious skepticism and, not unconnected, a skepticism of ruling classes: appropriate enough in some cases, e.g. Franklin was middle class through and through, Washington was no doubt in the power elite by his birth, but he was of humble ancestry. This can be connected to the styles of Empire: bourgeois efficiency and practicality and noninterventionist sentiment on the American side and royalist grandiosity and ideas of divine right on the other. This is, of course, the same bourgeois practicality that brought a slave trade rivaled in brutality only by the (not-technically slaving) Congo and British (but also rather American) colonies in the Caribbean like Jamaica, as well as, much later, interventionist wars of great brutality, while the British, also "a nation of shopkeepers" and (a while after the American Revolution) more and more Evangelical (which could be considered an Anglosphere-wide reality) went more the way of some of the general social piety that was involved in the better-hearted elements of their own colonialism.
 
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L50LasPak

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Yes a complicated empire died and now has a complicated set of treaties binding its former Dominions AND dominions (EVEN THE USA) to it in horrible reams of red tape that even the most bureaucratic, lawyery or authoritarian of us will never be able to decipher.

Why is this a thread?
 

Syaoran Li

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That may be. But the cultural influence is nowhere near as deep as that exerted by the Greeks on Imperial Rome. Much of the Roman mythology and epics and classics were lifted straight from the Greek tradition, and those who could afford it had their children educated by Greek tutors.

I would posit that the only profoundly deep and lasting cultural influence that the Britbongs gave to America is via those twin titans of the English language: Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Everything else is just superficial: pretentious fancies and ephemeral fads of that Trans-Atlantic Anglophilic subsection of American Yankeedom. In Queen Victoria's day, it was manifest in the American aping of Christmas celebration and the Charles Dickens craze, etc. These days it is manifest in those Britbong celebrity actors, pop music, "Youchewb" stars, BBC dramas, and Harry Potter books.

Now though, Britbongs have been coerced into celebrating Halloween, meanwhile Americans don't even know what the fuck is Boxing Day and Guy Fawkes Day.

Eh, technically Halloween started in the British Isles and was brought to America by Scots-Irish and Irish immigrants in the early 19th Century, although the majority of modern Halloween customs are uniquely American.