Britain and Rome: A Tale of Two Empires
Standing out amid windswept grasslands and rolling hills speckled with flocks of sheep, Hadrian’s Wall is one of the finest Roman sites in Britain. Stretching between the coasts of the Irish and North seas, the Romans constructed it as a garrisoned border wall separating “civilized” Roman Britain with the wild barbarian frontiers to the north. Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction in the early second century a.d. in his consolidation of the empire.
I was privileged to visit a section of it near the town of Hexham in northern England last month. Little of the original structure remains; in its heyday, it would have been an imposing and formidable barrier. But the still-standing foundations are nonetheless impressive. The clean-cut brickwork stretching from one end of the island to the other is testament to how far Roman power extended away from Italy. The nearby Roman Army Museum exhibits select discoveries from the area, from military equipment to everyday household objects, showing how entrenched Roman culture was in the region. And that the wall still exists after almost 2,000 years of erosion, war and scavenging demonstrates how Romans built to last.
Looking over the wall’s horizon, I couldn’t help but have a sense of wonder at being on the edge of an empire that stretched from where I was standing to the sands of Arabia and beyond. Rome ruled the world.
Centuries later, the island it colonized ruled the world as well.
I currently live in England, but I’m from the Pacific coast of Canada, originally. The distance between those two locations is over 4,600 miles. In its heyday, the British Empire ruled both my current and former home and everything between. That’s more than the Roman Empire ever controlled—and this was only a small part of the British Empire. If one visits Vancouver (my hometown), the many Union Jacks and places named after the royal family show how “British” the area remains.
You could say that Rome and Britain were comparable empires. Both controlled territories far larger than any of their predecessors. Both left lasting influences in the places they took over. Both are looked upon in many of their former colonies as laying the bedrock of civilization.
And yet the two empires are fundamentally different as well.
Longtime Trumpet readers will be familiar with our positive coverage on the British Empire and its legacy. Our editor in chief’s article from October last year, “The Glory of Empire,” is a good example of this.
We also have a lot of coverage on the legacy of the Roman Empire. Most of it isn’t as positive; in fact, it’s downright critical.
Some of you may wonder why this is. After all, during the British Empire’s heyday, many looked to Britain as being a “new Rome.” Many of Britain’s imperialists looked to Rome as a source of inspiration for their own empire. Some of London’s most iconic landmarks—Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum—were built to imitate Greco-Roman architecture.
Great Britain does owe some of its success to the foundation laid for it by Rome. Not every aspect of Rome’s legacy was negative. The Romans developed England and Wales extensively. The infrastructure the Romans left behind—towns, forts, roads—became the blueprint that medieval England was built upon. The British adopted the Romans’ Latin alphabet. Many Roman towns—London, Bath, York—became major urban centers later in England’s history.
But the two empires were different from each other in many ways. And those differences gave the empires starkly different legacies.
Slavery may be the most controversial aspect of the British Empire in the eyes of many today. Many consider the word “colonialist” to be an insult because of slavery.
Britain, like the other European colonial powers, partook in the slave trade. But its role in the slave trade was unique. Not because it imported more slaves than any other country (it didn’t, although it imported a high number). But because the British Empire, practically single-handedly, wiped out the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The slave trade was extremely lucrative for the early British Empire. Colonies in the Caribbean, with economies based on slave-run sugar plantations, were among the Empire’s most profitable in the 18th century. “Trade with the Caribbean dwarfed trade with America,” writes historian Niall Ferguson in his book Empire. “[I]n 1773 the value of British imports from Jamaica was five times greater than those from all the American colonies. Nevis produced three times more British imports than New York between 1714 and 1773, Antigua three times more than New England.” Because of this, the trade in the slaves themselves was lucrative. “Caribbean planters were willing to pay roughly eight or nine times what a slave cost on the West African coast,” Ferguson writes.
During the 18th century, Britain’s empire was growing in wealth and power. You would think Britain would want to keep slavery intact to keep the economic momentum going.
That’s not what happened.
Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807 following years of increasing public pressure to do so. The slave populations in its colonies dwindled until the practice itself was outlawed in 1833.
“It is not easy to explain so profound a change in the ethics of a people,” writes Ferguson. “It used to be argued that slavery was abolished simply because it had ceased to be profitable, but all of the evidence points the other way: In fact, it was abolished despite the fact that it was still profitable. What we need to understand, then, is a collective change of heart.”
Britain not only abolished slavery within its own borders, but also pressured the international community at large to stop as well. During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain pressured its ally Portugal (the largest slave trader by far) to limit the slave trade in 1810. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814, Britain forced defeated France to end its slave trade. The Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron actively captured slave ships of various nationalities and freed their cargoes.
Explorer Dr. David Livingstone helped publicize the East African slave trade. Approximately 2 million East Africans during the 19th century were enslaved and exported to the Arab world and India. Dr. Livingstone’s publicity campaigns helped end that trade as well.
No empire has done more to end slavery—worldwide—than the British Empire.
By contrast, the Roman Empire was built on the backs of slaves. John Madden wrote for the Classical Association of Ireland: “Though slavery was a prevailing feature of all Mediterranean countries in antiquity, the Romans had more slaves and depended more on them than any other people.”
Kyle Harper, in his book Slavery in the Late Roman World, A.D. 275–425, calls the Roman Empire “the most extensive and enduring slave systems in pre-modern history. … Stretching across half a millennium and sprawling over a cast tract of space, Roman slavery existed on a different order of magnitude.” Slavery, Harper writes, “has been a virtually universal feature of human societies, but it is highly unusual for slavery to become a central rather than peripheral institution.” Rome was one of those societies where slavery was a central institution.
Most rich households in Roman times didn’t have large estates of slaves like estate owners did in colonial times. Statilia Messalina, the wife of Emperor Nero, had four or five. Slaves were an expensive commodity. According to Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices, a fair price for a male slave in the prime of life would have been 30,000 denarii. By comparison, a young goat would have cost 12 denarii.
Does that mean that slavery was relatively restrained?
Rich individuals could horde massive amounts of slaves. Pedanius Secundus, a city official from the first century a.d., is recorded as owning 400 slaves. The wife of Apuleius, a philosopher from second-century Roman North Africa, owned “well in excess of 400 slaves.” In the year 8 b.c., Gaius Caecilius Isidorus (ironically, himself a freedman, or former slave) left a whopping 4,116 slaves in his will. By comparison, Thomas Jefferson held on average 130 people at a given time on his estate at Monticello.
How big was the Roman population of slaves?
Estimating the slave population from such an ancient civilization is understandably difficult. But of an estimated city population of 900,000 to 950,000, scholars think Rome in the first century a.d. had a slave population of 300,000 to 350,000. That’s a third of the city’s population. By comparison, London in the mid-18th century had roughly 15,000 black servants (not all of whom were slaves) out of a population of roughly 700,000. That’s about 2 percent of the city population.
And the Roman Empire’s slave craze wasn’t limited to the capital city. Madden estimates that Italy’s slave population was about 2 million out of a population of roughly 6 million. Again, a third of the population. Pergamos, a Greek city under Roman control in Turkey, also had an estimated third of its population enslaved in the second century. The island of Delos off the coast of Greece was a famous slave market even during the Roman Republic. The Greco-Roman geographer Strabo recorded that Delos was “capable of receiving and transporting, when sold, the same day, 10,000 slaves.” Even if Strabo was exaggerating, it still would have been a massive number.
Almost 600 years after Augustus founded the Roman Empire, Justinian, emperor in Constantinople, even went so far as to enshrine slavery in his constitution for the empire, the Corpus Juris Civilis. This despite Justinian’s constitution acknowledging that slavery is “contrary to natural right.”
Another point of contrast is how Britain and Rome treated their enemies. Both empires were military juggernauts. In the Roman Empire’s heyday, virtually all of its major enemies—Carthage, Greece, Egypt—fell one after another to the legions. For those more difficult for the empire to digest, like the Germanic tribes, Rome may not have outright vanquished them but still held enormous influence over them.
Britain had similar military success in building its empire. It built its empire by fighting both fellow European powers and foreign realms. Wars against France and Spain gave it such possessions as Canada and Gibraltar. Wars with local powers like the Mughal Empire and China brought India and Hong Kong into the empire.
Empires are built by wars. Wars generally mean bloodshed. Wouldn’t that make the way Rome and Britain built their empires morally equivalent?
Nobody is claiming the British Empire was completely altruistic or unblemished. There were atrocities. The “Black War” in Australia, which almost wiped out the population of native Tasmanians, is an oft cited example.
But there were marked differences with how Britain built its empire compared with others—including Britain’s colonial rivals.
Many of Britain’s “conquests,” for example, weren’t really conquests at all. During the settlements of Canada and New Zealand the primary way the British settled the land was through signing treaties with the indigenous populations. The British didn’t always respect those treaties. Both Canada and New Zealand saw their fair share of colonial wars. But the British standard was, nevertheless, to gain sovereignty through negotiation and offer indigenous peoples rights and concessions.
Another example of this would be of Native Americans before the American Revolution. Through signing treaties, the crown recognized the boundary of British colonization to the Appalachian Mountains. Again, the colonists on the ground didn’t always respect the decisions made in London. But the British government’s go-to method of colonizing was much more collaborative with the colonized than other powers.
For the British, even territory gained through less scrupulous means was taken care of. Hong Kong was annexed by Britain in the aftermath of the First Opium War. Opium from British India was turning China into a nation of drug addicts. Britain wouldn’t stop the flow of the drug, and so Beijing declared war. It lost and ceded Hong Kong Island to London.
The British would eventually turn Hong Kong into a prosperous and free colony. Hong Kongers would enjoy protected liberties and rights under a prosperous, capitalist economy. Meanwhile, mainland China would fall into decades of civil war, culminating in a totalitarian Communist regime. In the latest Hong Kong protests, the old British colonial flag became a symbol of resistance against China, an indication of how beneficial British rule was for Hong Kong.
Contrast this with how Britain’s first major overseas rival, Spain, built its empire. Spain’s empire grew out of the barrel of a gun. Great cities like Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City) were besieged and conquered. After the Incan emperor Atahuallpa rejected Catholicism and the rule of Spanish King (and Holy Roman emperor) Charles v, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro led a bloody invasion of Peru and took Atahuallpa hostage.
Many indigenous people were made slaves. When Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico, one of the first tributes the vanquished Maya gave him was 20 concubines for him and his men. In Potosí, a mountain in Bolivia, the Spanish sent thousands of indigenous slaves at a time to mine for silver. Millions died under harsh working conditions; some slaves would go without food for two days. So many died at Potosí that it became known as “the mountain that eats men.”
One could also look at the Belgian example. In 1885, King Leopold ii acquired the Congo River basin in Africa as his personal territory. Leopold ruled the Congo with an iron fist, turning it into his cash cow through the ivory and rubber trades. The rubber tree plantations were especially brutal. Leopold’s men blackmailed men to work as slaves on the plantations by kidnapping their families. If the men failed to meet the rubber quotas, their children would have their hands cut off. It’s estimated that 10 million to 15 million people were killed in Leopold’s colonization of the area.
Spain and Belgium show how empires can be cruel curses to the people they rule over.
The Roman Empire was one of those cruel empires. It built its empire by literally going to war with all of its neighbors. This is even suggested in the empire’s name. It wasn’t the “Italian Empire” or the “Latin Empire,” but the Roman Empire. The city of Rome conquered all of Italy piece-by-piece before it moved to the rest of the world.
First to go were the Carthaginian empire and the Gauls of northern Italy and southern France. Rome then conquered the Greek kingdoms of Macedon, Syria and Egypt. In 146 b.c., Roman forces destroyed both Carthage and Corinth, two leading cities in the ancient world, for resisting Roman rule. The ruins of either city are from the Roman period; little remains of their earlier golden ages.
Most of Rome’s wars took place in the republican period. In fact, Republican Rome conquered so much that there were few independent countries left to war against during the imperial period.
So, instead, the Romans turned on each other.
After Emperor Severus Alexander died in a.d. 235, the imperial throne went to the general with the biggest guns. During a 50-year period called the “crisis of the third century,” there were 23 emperors. That’s one emperor for every 2.2 years. Emperor Diocletian stabilized the situation by turning the empire into a tetrarchy (where four emperors governed different parts of the empire simultaneously). But after his departure, the empire quickly fell into civil war once more.
By the time of the seventh century, all that was remaining of the empire was in the east, ruled by Constantinople. This is when Emperor Justinian sent his general Belisarius to reconquer Italy. He spent almost 20 years hacking his way through Italy to conquer it from the barbarians.
What happened after Rome had taken over a region?
The Romans were relatively tolerant of local customs and cultures after they took over a region, but they could be heavy-handed when they wanted to. After crushing Spartacus’s slave revolt in the first century b.c., Gen. Marcus Crassus crucified 6,000 rebel slaves along Rome’s Appian Way. Diocletian led a vigorous persecution of Christians that martyred thousands.
Of course, comparing Rome and Britain isn’t the most balanced comparison: Britain still exists as a country today; Rome fell 1,500 years ago. But men have tried to revive that empire ever since. And how those men have interpreted that legacy shows its real meaning.
Justinian’s takeover of Italy was one of those resurrections. So was the rule of Charlemagne. He was the first man to unify Europe under one imperial rule since Rome’s fall. Unlike the caesars of old, Charlemagne’s motivation to conquer was not just for personal glory but also to spread Catholicism to the barbarians. In his attempt to Catholicize the Saxons, Charlemagne in one instance executed 4,500 people. Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes his legacy: “The violent methods by which this missionary task was carried out had been unknown to the earlier Middle Ages, and the sanguinary [bloody] punishment meted out to those who broke canon law or continued to engage in pagan practices called forth criticism in Charles’s own circle” (15th edition).
Charles v was another of those men who looked to ancient Rome as inspiration for his empire. We’ve already looked at some of the blood he shed in his conquest of the Americas.
The most recent man to try and resurrect the Roman Empire was Adolf Hitler. The Nazi eagle was adapted from the Roman eagle. The Nazi salute was adapted from what was popularly known as the Roman salute. Hitler’s Congress Hall in Nuremberg was designed to look like the Colosseum. Sixty million people died in World War ii, including 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
Britain, meanwhile, inspired countries around the world to become parliamentary democracies. Britain voluntarily allowed its colonies to become independent countries. And the settler colonies—Canada, Australia, New Zealand—eventually became inclusive societies where their indigenous populations could hold office, become prosperous and successful.
Why such a difference in legacy?
The Biblical Perspective
Both Britain and Rome ruled the world. But for very different reasons.
Longtime Trumpet readers are familiar with the work of Herbert W. Armstrong, editor in chief of our predecessor magazine, the Plain Truth. In his book The United States and Britain in Prophecy (request your free copy), he proved that the British (and American) peoples are descended from ancient Israel.
The Israelites’ ancestor was the patriarch Abraham. Because of Abraham’s obedience to God, God promised him: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee, and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (renamed by God “Israel”), inherited that promise by birthright. On his deathbed, he passed it jointly on to his two grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh. Manasseh was the eldest, but Jacob gave the lion’s share of the blessing to Ephraim. Genesis 48:19 says that Manasseh “also shall become a people, and he also shall be great: but truly his younger brother [Ephraim] shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude [group, or commonwealth] of nations.” The British are the descendants of Ephraim. And true to God’s promise, the British Empire became the greatest group of nations in man’s history.
God is the great giver (James 1:17). And as God promised, the British Empire was a blessing to mankind. Wherever the British colonists went, they brought with them such concepts as personal rights and liberties, the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, Western standards of education, hygiene and health care, capitalism and infrastructure. The empire’s ports, railways and telegraph cables connected the world as never before. Through the enforcement of law and missionary work, barbaric practices like cannibalism and ritual killings were wiped out in places like New Zealand and India. The warrior cultures of people like the Zulu and the Maori were pacified. And the world was saved from tyrants like Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler—time and again.
And there’s more to the story.
Mr. Armstrong wrote in The United States and Britain in Prophecy (emphasis added):
And so now, as God had started the whole world with one man, He started His own peculiar nation in the world from one single man—Abraham. As the world, which has strayed far from God and the blessings of God’s worship and rule, was started with one man who rebelled against God and rejected His rule, so God’s own flesh-born nation, from which is to be reborn the Kingdom of God, was started with one man who obeyed God without question, and accepted His divine rule.
The Kingdom of God is the rule, or empire, God will establish at the end of man’s era, when God will rule the kingdoms of this world (Revelation 11:15). It is the gospel Jesus Christ proclaimed when He was on this Earth (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43). It is the good news of God coming to save mankind from extinguishing himself (Matthew 24:21-22) and finally bring everybody to world peace and prosperity.
And it is to be from the Israelites—including the British Empire—that the Kingdom of God is to be reborn.
What about the Roman Empire?
Satan the devil, as the god of this world, has been the evil power working behind violent and barbaric empires throughout history (2 Corinthians 4:4). In the book of Revelation, Satan is depicted as “a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his head” (Revelation 12:3).
Revelation also describes the Roman Empire in detail. It is symbolized in chapter 13 as a “beast … having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns” (verse 1). The Roman Empire is made in the image of Satan.
Satan rules this world (Luke 4:5-6). And he endowed his world-ruling empire with his qualities. He, the original murderer, is the reason the Roman Empire was as murderous as it was (John 8:44). He enslaves (Romans 6:20; Hebrews 2:14-15). He gave the Roman Empire its unstoppable military prowess (Revelation 13:4).
And Satan raised it up specifically to snuff out the Kingdom of God from ever existing.
Revelation 13:7 reads, speaking of the “beast”: “And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.”
The “saints” here are speaking of the Church of God, from which the Kingdom of God will also be born (Daniel 7:18, 22; 1 Peter 2:9).
This gets to the heart and core of the fundamental difference between the British and Roman empires. God raised up the British Empire to help set up His Kingdom on Earth. Satan raised up the Roman Empire to stop that Kingdom from existing.
This isn’t just ancient history. The Bible prophesied that the Roman Empire would be resurrected seven times (Revelation 17:10). Six have come and gone, Hitler’s Reich being the most recent.
That means that there is one more.
This time, Britain won’t be as successful as it was in World War ii. Ephraim is prophesied to fall (Hosea 5:5) at the hands of a “king of fierce countenance” (Daniel 8:23) who will “destroy many” (verse 25). This man’s hatred for God and His Kingdom is so great that he will even challenge Jesus Christ Himself at His Second Coming (same verse). This man will make “the earth to tremble” and “shake the kingdoms” (Isaiah 14:16).
This last resurrection of the Roman Empire is forming in Europe right now.
For more information, we have two free books I highly encourage you to order. They are The United States and Britain in Prophecy, by Herbert W. Armstrong, and The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy, by theTrumpet.com managing editor Brad Macdonald. Together, these two books show just how different these two empires are and what they mean in the grand scheme of things. And they can bring you up to speed with how these two empires are relevant to every person alive right now. Request your free copies today.