Burke’s Rome

by James Himberger

mentor: Robert Devigne, Political Science; funding source: Michael Ewald Summer Scholars Fund


In the summer of 2020, I had the chance to delve into the thought of the eighteenth-century philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke with Professor Robert Devigne. Burke is most famous for his criticism of the French Revolution in his book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Written in 1790, his book analyzed the dynamics of mass revolutions, and how their attempts to uproot traditional institutions like the monarchy, the Church, and aristocracy would end in violence and anarchy. In doing this, he correctly predicted the reign of terror, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power, and the ensuing period of ideological warfare that scarred Europe until 1815. Because of his trenchant critiques of natural rights and absolute democracy, and his defense of the historically accumulated wisdom embodied by inherited institutions and customs, he is often referred to as the father of modern conservatism. Burke is also remembered for his defense of the rights of peoples across the British Empire, including Irish Catholics, American colonists, and Indians living under the East India Co. Throughout his long political career, Burke produced a voluminous collection of letters, pamphlets, essays, speeches, and books. As a result of his accomplishments in philosophy and politics, Burke is regarded as one of the foremost intellects and statesmen of the 18th century.

One aspect that has remained unexplored in studies of Burke is his relationship with Ancient Rome and its history. There are three reasons why Burke’s relationship with Rome must be understood. First, classical history and literature formed the bulk of his university education and left a formative impact on his later thought. Second, Burke consistently scattered quotes and allusions to Roman literature and history throughout his works. Third, eighteenth-century Britain was awash with Roman-style architecture, sculpture, theatre, literature, and even garden design. Ancient Rome was not only culturally salient, but also a source of reference and comparison in British political life. The Roman republican ideals of liberty, virtue, and balanced government were considered the lodestars of the British Constitution. References to Roman history littered contemporary thought and political polemics.

I found that Burke’s reading of Roman history impacted three key areas of his thought: the British Constitution, the British Empire, and the French Revolution.

In Burke’s time, comparisons of the British constitutional order composed of Crown, Lords, and Commons with the similarly mixed Roman political system were commonplace. Burke, however, went a step further to show how the Roman Republic depended on an informal party system that ensured political unity in the commonwealth. Britain, too, Burke argued, needed strong political alliances between its politicians to ensure the independence of Parliament from King George III.

Roman strategies of imperial rule also influenced Burke’s views on the British Empire. Burke recognized that the Romans only imposed their laws and culture gradually and by degrees. They allowed their subject peoples to maintain local customs and privileges, rarely imposing direct rule from Rome. In Burke’s mind, the British Empire could only sustain itself through similar policies of indirect rule, otherwise they would only invite rebellion. It was on this principle that Burke argued for the British Parliament to conciliate the American colonists’ demand for “no taxation without representation” in 1775.

The decline of the Roman Republic, in Burke’s view, was repeated at an accelerated pace when the French Revolution began in 1789. The rapid deterioration of French institutions, the factional street violence, and the grasping for arbitrary power had clear precedents in the breakdown of the Late Roman Republic and the tales of demagogues like Marius, Sulla, Catiline, and Caesar. The aggressive French foreign policy of this period also reminded Burke of the Roman Republic in its violent infancy.

Against the “Republic of Paris,” Burke wished to rally the ancient “commonwealth of Europe,” which shared not only a commitment to the Christian faith, but also the influence of Roman law with its premium on property rights and prescription. This shared heritage would animate European efforts to exorcise the Jacobin phantom, like the heroes and patriots of old. As much as the experience of Rome aligned with the fall of France, so too could its example muster Europe to defend itself.

Ultimately, my research into this overlooked element of Burke’s thought affirms the importance of classical thought and literature in understanding Enlightenment and modern political theory.

2 thoughts on “Burke’s Rome

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    I had the advantage of having seen James’ presentation, but this poster is great! It is clear, succinct, and to the point. I’m really fascinated by the role of Rome in both Burke but others as well. I had loosely known the connections, but James’ project makes it really clear. The point of Burke’s use of history, as a way to understand his modern institutions, feels especially appropriate now. Really, really interesting.

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:00 pm

    Hi James. I’m curious about what you think of the potential paradox of promoting an empire as brutal and oppressive as the British empire and yet maintaining the desire for a “commonwealth” which has as its object the common good and is grounded in Christian faith. In this same vein, what were Burke’s thoughts on the motivations behind the French Revolution? Surely, as an advocate for a European commonwealth he would not have been insensitive to the plight of the majority of the French population, kept in penury by the opulence of the aristocratic class. While you are focused of course on Rome, your presentation of Burke’s views on the need for the British empire to exercise “indirect rule” seems to stem from Montesquieu’s praise of Alexander the Great. Montesquieu says of Alexander, “The Romans conquered all in order to destroy all; he conquered only in order to preserve all” (X. 14). I’d be curious to know more about Burke’s “indirect rule” and how that is rationalized given the rampant abuses and destruction of both British officers and members of the East India Trading Company.

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