The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a Modern Cultural Myth

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


For this study, I am investigating the “decline and fall” of Rome, as represented in British and American culture and thought, from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries. It is my argument that the “decline and fall” of Rome is no straightforward historical fact, but a “myth” in the academic sense coined by Claude Lévi-Strauss, meaning not a “falsehood” but a complex social and ideological construct. It represents the fears of European and American thinkers as they confront the perceived instability and pitfalls of the civilization to which they belonged. The material I have gathered illustrates the value of the decline and fall as a spatiotemporal concept, rather than a historical event - even when most of its popular and intellectual representations characterises it as such. I am therefore inquiring into the ways in which writers, filmmakers and the media have conceptualized this “decline”; and the parallels they have drawn, deliberately or unconsciously, with their contemporary world. My work fits into a broader collection of studies examining the continuing impact of the Greco-Roman heritage on our cultural and ideological horizons. However, though the representation of antiquity is a fast-growing field of scholarly inquiry, the theme of this project has been little examined. I am critical of the standard model of the “sociology of representation” in history, which holds that such media is almost exclusively a vehicle to articulate contemporary concerns, and which omits the recurring role of deeper, underlying historical and cultural narratives. When I consider the “decline and fall,” it instead becomes apparent how the present is adapted to fit the enduring tropes of the past.
Date of Award2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorRichard Howells (Supervisor)

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