British philosophical history and the empires of antiquity

Leighton, C. D. A.
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Bilkent University
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Although eighteenth-century British empire may seem a topic much exhausted by historians, there is still room for fresh primary sources and new approaches. Ancient Greek and Roman histories published in eighteenth-century Britain are in fact valid primary sources to contribute to the studies of empire. This dissertation strives to place these sources among the vast literature on the eighteenth-century British empire. In comparison with other types of history, ancient history was believed to play a more significant role in the design of guiding the political nation. Historians were attracted to ancient history particularly on account of the belief that the ancients had already experienced all the hardship that troubled the moderns in their political life. In this sense, the eighteenth century witnessed the publication of an inordinate number of texts on ancient history. Throughout the first half of the century, in particular, the analogy between Rome and Britain so predominated that the historians of antiquity thought of little else than demonstrating a common interest in producing the most authentic, well-written and informative Roman history ever, with the hope of providing the political nation with all the instruction required. Only from the 1740s onwards was the attention of the historians with ancient history diverted to ancient Greece to a certain degree. Therefore, it was an eighteenth-century truism that ancient history had the capacity to offer valuable insights into all contemporary political debates among which the question of empire had a prominent place. The British looked into a multitude of sources with the hope of finding guidance in the unknown path to imperial greatness. Eighteenth-century ancient history writing offered insights into imperial matters such as expansion, colonial governance, the role of commerce as a substitute for military action, the desirable degree of interaction with natives and the fight against decline. Under the influence of Plutarch and venerable literary genre, the “mirror for princes,” ancient Roman histories elucidated those subjects. As for ancient Greek histories, whose publications mostly coincided with the rise of discussions about civilisation, they sought to deliver their remarks on empire through comparisons of the states and civilisations that ancient Greece sheltered.

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Eighteenth-century British empire, Ancient history-writing, Imperial studies
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