Today one struggles to find much sympathy for Edward Gibbon’s view that, at its height, “the vast extent of Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” Contempt for empire, and for the British Empire in particular, is palpable. The student-led campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from a building at the University of Oxford last year was no anomaly. Even among those who accept that there is little to be gained from obliterating such monuments, unease often still lingers over the roots of Western power and prosperity. That unease has found its place in the academy, and some say that it has done so to its detriment. While few would advocate a return to the gung-ho attitudes of some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians, there is certainly a risk that, by going too far in the other direction, we develop a myopic understanding of the empires of...


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