Page images

light wbich he has thrown on the rise and progress of the Greek commonwealths, and their analogy with the States of modern Europe; and apply, in their manifold relations, the principles which he has laid down with regard to the peculiar ideas attached in the Greek world to race, to citizenship, and to law. They can still catch the glow of almost passionate enthusiasm, with which he threw himself into the age of Pericles, and the depth of emotion with which he watched, like an eye-witness, the failure of the Syracusan expedition. They can still trace the almost personal sympathy with which he entered into the great crisis of Greek society when,“ Socrates, the faithful servant of truth and virtue, fell a victim to the hatred alike of the democratical and aristocratical vulgar;” when, “ all that audacity can dare, or subtlety contrive, to make the words of “good” and “evil ” change their meaning, was tried in the days of Plato, and by his eloquence, and wisdom, and faith unshaken was put to shame.” They can well imagine the intense admiration, with which he would have dwelt, in detail, on what he has now left only in faint outline—the career “ of the greatest man of the ancient world,"—the scene which seems to have impressed him as one of the most solemn in all history

Alexander at Babylon; they can conceive the melancholy pleasure with which he would have hung over the last decay of Greek genius and wisdom

the worn out and cast-off skin, from which the living serpent bad gone forth to carry his youth and vigour to other lands.”

But, deep as was his interest in Grecian history, and, though in some respects no other part of ancient

literature derived so great a light from his researches, it was to his History of Rome that he looked as the chief monument of his historical fame. Led to it partly by his personal feeling of regard towards Niebuhr and Chevalier Bunsen, and by the sense of their encouragement, there was, moreover, something in the subject itself peculiarly attractive to him, whether in the magnificence of the field which it embraced, (“ the History of Rome,” he said, “ must be in some sort the History of the World,”) or in the congenial element which he naturally found in the character of a people, “whose distinguishing quality was their love of institutions and order, and their reverence for law.” Accordingly, after approaching it in various forms, he at last conceived the design of the work, of which the three published volumes are the result, but which he had intended to carry down, in successive periods, to what seemed to him its natural termination in the coronation of Charlemagne. (Pref. vol. i. p. vii.)

The two earlier volumes occupy a place in the History of Rome, and of the ancient world generally, which in England had not and has not been otherwise filled up. Yet in the subjects of which they treat, his peculiar talents had hardly a fair field for their exercise. The want of personal characters and of distinct events, which Niebuhr was to a certain extent able to supply from the richness of his learning and the felicity of his conjectures, was necessarily a disadvantage to an historian whose strength lay in combining what was already known, rather than in decyphering what was unknown, and whose veneration for his predecessor made him distrustful not only of dissenting from his judgment, but even of seeing or discovering, more, than had been by him seen or discovered before. “ No man,” as he said, “ can step gracefully or boldly when he is groping his way in the dark,” (Hist. Rome, i. p. 133,) and it is with a melancholy interest that we read his complaint of the obscurity of the subject :-“I can but encourage myself, whilst painfully feeling my way in such thick darkness, with the hope of arriving at last at the light, and enjoying all the freshness and fulness of a detailed cotemporary history.” (Hist. Rome, ii. p. 447.) But the narrative of the second Punic war, which occupies the third and posthumous volume, both as being comparatively unbroken ground, and as affording so full a scope for his talents in military and geographical descriptions, may well be taken as a measure of his historical powers, and has been pronounced by its editor, Archdeacon Hare, to be the first history which “ has given any thing like an adequate representation of the wonderful genius and noble character of Hannibal.” With this volume the work was broken off: but it is impossible not to dwell for a moment on what it would have been had he lived to complete it.

The outline in his early articles in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana, of the later history of the Civil Wars, “a subject so glorious,” he writes in 1824, “ that I groan beforehand when I think how certainly I shall fail in doing it justice,”—provokes of itself the desire to see how he would have gone over the same ground again with his added knowledge and experience—how the characters of the time, which even in this rough sketch stand out more clearly than in any other English work on the same period, would have been reproduced—how he would have represented the pure character and military genius of his favourite hero, Pompey—or expressed his mingled admiration and abhorrence of the intellectual power and moral degradation of Cæsar;—how he would have done justice to the coarseness and cruelty of Marius, "the lowest of democrats"-or, amidst all his crimes, to the views of “the most sincere of aristocrats,” Sylla. And in advancing to the further times of the Empire, his scattered hints exhibit his strong desire to reach those events, to which all the intervening volumes seemed to him only a prelude. “I would not overstrain my eyes or my faculties,” he writes in 1840, “but whilst eyesight and strength are yet undecayed, I want to get through the earlier Roman History, to come down to the Imperial and Christian times, which form a subject of such deep interest.” What his general admiration for Niebuhr was as a practical motive in the earlier part of his work, that his deep aversion to Gibbon, as a man, was in the latter part.

My highest ambition,” he said, as early as 1826, “and, what I hope to do as far as I can, is to make my history the very reverse of Gibbon in this respect,—that whereas the whole spirit of his work, from its low morality, is hostile to religion, without speaking directly against it; so my greatest desire would be, in my History, by its high morals and its general tone, to be of use to the cause, without actually bringing it forward.”

There would have been the place for his unfolding the rise of the Christian Church, not in a distinct ecclesiastical history, but as he thought it ought to be written, in conjunction with the history of the world.

“ The period from Augustus to Aurelian,” he writes, as far back as 1824, “ I will not willingly give up to any one, because I have a particular object, namely, to blend the civil and religious history together more than has ever yet been done.” There he would, on the one hand, have expressed his view of the external influences, which checked the free growth of the early Church-the gradual revival of Judaic principles under a Christian form—the gradual extinction of individual responsibility, under the system of government, Roman and Gentile in its origin, which, according to his latest opinion, took possession of the Church rulers from the time of Cyprian—there, on the other hand, he would have dwelt on the selfdenying zeal and devotion to truth, which peculiarly endeared to him the very name of Martyr, and on the bond of Christian brotherhood, which he delighted to feel with Athanasius and Augustine, discerning, even in what he thought their weaknesses, a signal testimony to the triumph of Christianity, unaided by other means, than its intrinsic excellence and holiness. Lastly, with that analytical method, which he delighted to pursue in his historical researches, he would have traced to their source, “ those evil currents of neglect, of uncharitableness, and of ignorance, whose full streams we now find so pestilent,” first, “ in the social helplessness and intellectual frivolousness” of the close of the Roman empire; and then, in that event which had attracted his earliest interest, “ the nominal conversion of the northern nations to Christianity,—a vast subject, and one of the greatest importance both to the spiritual and temporal advancement of the nations of Europe,

[merged small][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »