ike many Victorians working in education, politics, literature, and the arts, Thomas Arnold, Rugby's great reformist headmaster and later Regius Professor of History at Oxford, urged the importance of Rome to his contemporaries. Of course, such an interest, particularly by historians, is hardly novel. Indeed, some have claimed that attempts to apply Roman history to contemporary situations placed a crucial role in the development of history as an academic discipline. In his pioneering The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny (1955), for instance, Hans Baron argued that writers defending either monarchy or republican governments in Renaissance Italian city states, made Julius Caesar a hero or villain depending on their political position. Baron's history of historiography makes clear that no one should ever be surprised to learn that individual historians, no matter how honest or fair, have political agenda.
Such was certainly the case with Thomas Arnold. Unlike many late-Victorians whose imperial aspirations made them see their country as the natural successor to the Roman imperium, Arnold saw very different connections between English and Roman history. In the first place, he sees the political flux, even near chaos, of ancient Rome had special interest for his contemporaries. In fact he urged they could understand it better than Englishmen and women of earlier times (a rather odd claim considering the continuing effect of the English Revolution of the 1640s on both Victorian political thought and historiography). According to Arnold,
Much which our fathers could not fully understand, from being accustomed only to quieter times, and which again, from the same cause, may become obscure to our children, is to us perfectly familiar. This is an advantage common to all the present generation in every part of Europe; but it is not claiming too much to say, that the growth of the Roman commonwealth, the true character of its parties, the causes and tendency of its revolutions, and the spirit of its people and its laws, ought to be understood by none so well as by those who have grown up under the laws, who have been engaged in the parties, who are themselves citizens of our kingly commonwealth of England. [I, vii]
Arnold's emphasis on the contemporary relevance of Roman history appears nowhere more clearly than when he discusses what every Victorian reader would have immediately recognized as obvious parallels to the Corn Laws, Chartism, and the 1832 Reform Bill:
Now, as a popular cry for reform has never originated in the love of abstract justice, or in the mere desire of establishing a perfect form of government, but has been always provoked by actual grievances, and has looked especially for some definite and particular relief, so the Roman commons, in supporting the Terentilian law, were moved by certain practical evils, which lay so deep in the existing state of things, that nothing else than a total reform of the constitution could remove them. These were, the extreme separation and unequal rights of the burghers and the commons, the arbitrary powers of the consuls, and the uncertainty and variety of the law; evils which affected every part of men's daily life: and the first of them in particular was a direct obstacle to that execution of Cassius' agrarian law, on which the actual subsistence of the poorer commons after the late times of misery and ruin might be said to depend. [I, 228-29]
Arnold immediately follows the statement above by urging that reform and evolution of political systems are what we might term a Law of History (though he does not here make that explicit claim himself): "Society has almost always begun in inequality, and its tendency is towards equality. This is a sure progress; but the inequality of its first stage is neither unnatural nor unjust; it is only the error of preserving instead of improving which has led to injustice; the folly of thinking that men's institutions can be perpetual when every thing else in the world is continually changing" (I, 229). Arnold's specific example here involves the changing relations in Roman law between "the conquered Latins" and Roman citizens, but his remarks sound very much like his support for Roman Catholic emancipation, the 1832 Reform Bill, and his basic attitude toward social, political, and religious reform — views for which he was virulently attacked while headmaster at Rugby. Arnold here once again shows that he was a liberal, not a radical, in political theory and practice with his claim that original inequality "is neither unnatural nor unjust;" just resisting its evolution.
Arnold's political sympathies also appear in his claim, surely highly unusual and possibly even unique among Victorian graduates of Oxbridge, that when popular leaders go bad the results are far better than when the aristocracy does. Citing the example of Appius, Arnold urges
Experience has shown that even popular leaders when entrusted with absolute power have often abused it to the purposes of their own tyranny, yet these have commonly remained so far true to their old principles as zealously to abate the mischiefs of aristocracy; and thus they have done scarcely less good in destroying what was evil, than evil in withholding what was good. But to give absolute power to an aristocratical leader is an evil altogether unmixed. An aristocracy is so essentially the strongest part of society, that a despot is always tempted to court its favour; and if he is bound to it by old connexions, and has always fought in its cause, this tendency becomes irresistible. [I, 300/301]
Arnold (who died in 1842 and hence did not live long enough to see Carlyle's reactionary turn) here seems to share the sage's distrust of aristocracy. Most important, though, is the way Arnold uses his knowledge of ancient history to support what to many Victorians were radical political positions.
Arnold, Thomas. History of Rome. 3 vols. 2nd ed. London: B. Fellowes, etc., 1840.
Last modified 10 August 2006