Page images
PDF
EPUB

a

they are but compendious records of memory or hearsay. The political leanings of the writer are manifest; but his aristocratic tastes never lead him to put nonsense into the mouth of a democratic leader. Indeed, after perusing a speech of Cleon or Diodotus, we find a difficulty in refuting his arguments. The great game for Hellenic supremacy is carried on with the ordinary weapons of valour, skill, common-sense, presumption, ignorance, and folly ; and we are not surprised to find, that, when valour is evenly divided, resolution and common-sense eventually determine the issue. The ability of Thucydides as a historian is signally, though unconsciously, attested by Xenophon, who, although successful in almost every other field of literary exertion, in military story, in educational romance, in philosophical biography, in practical and every-day philosophy, yet falls both in style and matter as far behind his predecessor, as does our Smollet behind our Hume.

Livy treats the history of Rome as an inexhaustible subject for grand scene-paintings; and, despite the magnificent efforts of Lord Macaulay, is still the monarch of panoramic history.

Tacitus was miserably circumstanced for a historian. By natural tastes he would seem more fitted for philosophy than for history. In modern times, in the treatment of the latter, he would undoubtedly have chosen the field of philosophic history or political economy, and would have risen from petty and personal details to high and comprehensive generalizations. As it was, he was condemned, to a very great extent, to exhaust

a

his wit and sarcasm, and his marvellous power of Rembrandt-colouring upon the unimproving ana of the imperial court. Rome was to him what Paris would be to a French historian of the last century. Tiberius was the nucleus of the Roman world; as Louis Quatorze of the French. They, in their respective days, and to their respective subjects, were the centres of the political universe ; of centrifugal and centripetal force. When Tiberius was gloomy—and that was not seldom -there was an eclipse of the moon. When Louis changed his mistress—and that was not seldom—there was commotion in far distant planets. The annals of Tacitus form, perhaps, the most melancholy of all historic records. Their details are dismal and sad enough of themselves. But their reader is most saddened by the reflection that a writer of consummate genius should have wasted so much of descriptive power and philosophic thoughtfulness in portraying individual vices, meannesses, and tyrannies. It is as though we had left us cartoons by Michael Angelo, drawn with a charcoal pencil on a large white wall.

It were a pity that the History of Hume should ever lose its place upon our shelves, so long as a value shall be put upon pure and simple and vigorous and unadulterated English. It would be a pity that it should be ever again regarded in the light of genuine history, so long as accuracy of detail and the absence of political bias are held as requisites in a historian. It is a melancholy fact that impartiality was found wanting in a philosopher, so dispassionate, so even-tempered, as the great Scotsman. When cold and phlegmatic wis

a

a

dom warms into political unfairness, who can be trusted? Let us have almanacks again, skeleton Fasti, and genealogical trees; and be left to draw our own inferences.

Perhaps, since the days of the Æneid, no work of fiction has been ever written to compare with what we have of Lord Macaulay's History of England. The quasi-historical-poem and the quasi-fictional-history may be perused by an ordinary and unbiassed reader without his becoming in the slightest degree interested in, or attached to, the hero of either. In the latter work all the resources of scholarship and rhetoric, and a something very akin to genius, are brought to bear upon the life and adventures of a resolute, obstinate, sagacious, cold blooded, hard-headed, uninteresting Dutchman. The painter has set in a large frame of solid gold--or of gilding, very thickly laid on-the portrait of a hero, in whose lineaments are clearly discerned the qualities of bull-dog tenacity and uninspired common-sense. Of all the warriors that fought around Troy, Agamemnon is certainly the most uninteresting. This was to be expected from his position as generalissimo. But still he makes a fool of himself, and is a human being, and a weak one, for all his sceptre and his upper-royalty. His character is as fraught with interest when compared with that of William, as is the great Knight-Templar when compared with his rival Ivanhoe. We can sympathize with a historico-philosopher, even though we yawn over the perusal of his latter volumes, when he waxes enthusiastically prolix in detailing the unimportant eccentricities of the Great

a

Frederick. We can excuse the blindness of a French

а man, who has gazed long, and without smoked glasses, on a Napoleon-sun. But what mental theory will account satisfactorily for the fact that a writer whose catholic reading had made him familiar with the chief heroic characters of Grecian, Roman, and modern history, should have selected for the object of his life-long worship a most unfortunate although a most valiant warrior; a monarch, who, if he surpassed his own ministers in the respectable qualities of resolution and perseverance, was in no way superior to certain among them and their cotemporaries in statesmanlike sagacity and foresight.

It has been the fashion in very recent days for a historian to confine his attention to some one particular epoch or reign. Special monarchs have been selected, whose pilloried faces have for centuries been the favourite mark for rotten eggs and filth of every description. These monarchs have been subjected to a scrubbing process, and had all the ordinary sins of humanity rubbed off them. The writer takes for his raw material what some predecessor has handed to him as a bigot, a sensualist, or a tyrant, and in his closing volume turns you out a character distinguished for zeal in religion, tempered with discretion; with capacities for enjoyment of unforbidden pleasures, not excluding a severe and rigorous discharge of duty; or one compelled by the exigencies of the times to a reluctant but advisable over-exercise of prerogative. Possibly, in the next generation, the fashion will have changed round to the opposite point of the compass. We shall start with a

hero or a saint, and conclude with a Nero or a Bluebeard.

The kaleidoscopic method has been applied with great success to the treatment of the history, and especially the early history of Rome. Each generation seems to produce a German mole, who for a term of years makes the Eternal City his head-quarters, burrows in amongst old manuscripts and tombstones, and plays havoc with the historical theories of all his predecessors. The early kings Ait before us as aërial and dim in form as the blue ghosts on a mountain-side in Ossian. The constitution of old republican Rome is cut and carved, and carved and cut again. It seems to be endowed with some singular crescive faculty. It is a joint off which all the world help themselves ; it never decreases in bulk, although its shape is for ever changing.

There are certain crotchets that stick like barnacles on the sides of Grecian history. In former days, three or four men were found to write dull volumes about the Pelasgi ; and three or four other men are said to have been found to read them. A historical subject was painted in room dim with natural twilight, and exhibited in a room darkened superfluously by artificial

Nobody is supposed ever to have understood the subject; or to have anticipated understanding it. It is a historical conundrum ; like the mutilation of the Hermæ at Athens, or the origin of the late Danish war. When a conundrum is very difficult indeed, it is sometimes as well to give it up. It is just possible that the answer would be a poor one, if we knew it. The lost tribes of Israel have very often been found useful in ac

means.

« PreviousContinue »