« PrécédentContinuer »
ENGLISH REVIEW W, ,
For A PRIL, 1786.
Art. I. The History of Ancient Greece, its Colonies, and Conquests ;
from the earliest Accounts till the Division of the Macedonian Empire in the Eaft. Including the History of Literature, Philosophy, and the
fine Arts. By John Gillies, L.L.D. 400. 2 vols. 21. 2s. boards. Cadell, 1786.
HISTORICAL composition hath assumed a different form,
in modern times, from what it displayed in antiquity. The Greeks, who set the first models in all the arts, gave also the earliest examples of elegant history. When they began to record their transactions, they were deeply tinctured with credulity, and the love of the marvellous; and, partly from the want of authentic materials, partly from the infuence of imagination over a people of such exquifite sensibility, they were more studious to adorn fables than to investigate truth. The ornaments of oratory, and even of poetry, were not rejected by historians; by the beauties of fancy, and embellishments of stile, they endeavoured to make atonement for their want of research and information : and the muse of history, as is said of the angels, frequently covered her eyes with her wings. Among a people who were governed by orators, eloquence was the firłt qualification of an author ; attic ears were only to be charmed by the happiest and most harmonious combinations of language; the works of Polybius, the most judicious and malterly of all the Greek historians, are pronounced, by a celebrated critic *, not to be legible, on account of the bad arrangement of words.
• Dionyfius of Halicarnaffus. Eng, Rey, Vol. VI. April 1786,
When history began to be cultivated by the moderns, the fituation of affairs, and the characters of men, had changed. With less sensibility and imagination than the ancients, their reason was more improved. The accumulation of historical materials, by the invention of printing, presented an ample field' to inquiry, the misrepresentations of religious and political factions compelled the historian to weigh evidence and investigate truth ; and henceforth history made an appeal, not to the imagination, but to the understanding and the reason of men. Accurate research, judicious comparison, philosophical and political views, are indispensable requisites in a' modern hiftorian ; and, for the want of them, no rhetorical embellifhments, nor beauties of stile, can ever compensate. The world, grown wiser as it has grown older, requires discovery instead of declamation ; and prefers the light of philosophy to the colours of eloquence. From the vein of intelligence, penetration, and good sense, which runs through the HISTORY OF ENGLAND, David Hume, although his ftile be sometimes deficient in classical colouring, and always in harmony, still occupies the first place in the list of modern historians.
A history of Ancient Greece, on such an enlightened plan, and from the hand of a philosopher, has long been a defideratum in literature; and we are sorry to find that the work before us is ill calculated to supply this defect, as the merit of it is popular, and not philosophical.
Dr. Gillies begins his work with a view of the progress of civilization and power in Greece preceding the Trojan war. The judicious Thucydides, in the introduction to his history, candidly confesses, that he could receive no authentic or correct information concerning the antiquities of his country. It has been said, indeed, that the scattered fragments of Grecian story were preserved, during thirteen centuries, by oral tradition, in the rhapsodies of the bards, and those of the
cyclic poets, who succeeded them. But are these materials for historical record ?
In one point of view, Homer is the historian of early Greece. By his invocation to the muse, at the beginning of. his poem, he intimates to the reader, that he was not merely to relate facts; yet, though he arranges his incidents in poetical order, and embellishes heroic action, he builds! on tradition; and, as he poflefled all the knowledge of his own times, he gives us the most accurate and perfect information concerning the religion, government, character, and manners. of the heroic ages.
Imtead of antiquarian remark, or historical criticism, on the Grecian traditions ; instead of considering them as tending
te shew the genius of the people, and forming the materia poetica of all ages; Dr. Gillies regards them as the materials of true history, and repeats the tales which have been a hundred times told concerning the early civilization of Greece by means of colonies from Egypt (although it was not civilized for a thousand years after their lupposed arrival); concerning the Argonautic expedition to obtain the golden Aeece; and the wars at Thebes, and at Troy. A history of the Theban and the Trojan wars, in the eighteenth century, is indeed a curiosity ; will be equally amusing to the learned and the ignorant; and can only be paralleled by the credulity of those who believe the poems of Offian to be true history.
In the second chapter we have a differtation on the religion, government, arts, manners, and character of the early Greeks. As, on this part of his subject, Dr. Gillies has departed from the common run of historians, and delivered opinions of his own, we shall lay them before the reader. After having instituted a comparison between the ancient Germans and the ancient Greeks, he thus proceeds :
* In the preference of military glory to all other advantages; in the freedom of debate in the public assemblies ; and in the protection afforded to the rights and liberties of the meanest citizen ; the trea. cise of Tacitus will equally apply to the Germans and to the Greeks, But there is one material circumftance wanting in the German, which adds peculiar . beauty to the Grecian character. Among the rude inhabitants of ancient Germany, the offices of priest and king were not united in the same person. The rites of religion were adminis stered by a particular order of men, who might abuse the superstitious fears of the multitude to promote their own felfth designs; and the dread' of superior powers, though sometimes employed to enforce the dictates of nature, and to promote the operations of government, might also, with equal success, be employed to weaken the impresfions of the one, and to resist the authority of the other. Besides this unfavourable circumstance, the superstition of the Germans was of a dark and gloomy kind, little connected with the ordinary duties of society, recommending principally the practice of courage, the only virtue which there was not any occasion to recommend ; and promifing, as the reward of what was deemed the highest excellence in life, the enjoyment of an infamous paradise of imniortal drunkenness after death.
* The mythology of the Greeks was of a more agreeable, and of a far more useful nature. The sceptre, which denoted the connection of civil power with sacred protection, was conferred on those who, while they continued the humble ministers of the gods, were appointed to be the chief, but accountable guardians of the people. The same voice that summoned the warriors to arms, or that decided, in time of peace, their domestic contentions, conducted the order of their religious worship, and presided in the prayers and hymns Q2
addressed to the divinity. These prayers and hymns, together with the important rite of facrifice (which likewise was performed by foyal hands), formed the ceremonial part of the Grecian relig.on. The moral was far more extensive, including the principal offices of life, and the noblest virtues of the mind. The useful quality of courage was peculiarly acceptable to the stern god of war; but the virtues of charity and hospitality were still more pleasing to the more amiable divinities. The submislion of subjects to their prince ; the duty of a prince to preserve inviolate the rights of his subjects; the obedience of children to their parents; the respect of the young
for the aged; the sacred laws of truth, justice, honour, and decency, were inculcated and maintained by the awful authority of religion. Even the most ordinary transactions of private life were consecrated by the piety of the Greeks. They ventured not to undertake a voyage, or a journey, without foliciting the propitious aid of their heavenly proteciors. Every meal (and there were three in a day) was accompanied with a facrifice and libation. The common forms of politeness, the customary duties of civility, were not decided by the varying taste of individuals, but defined by the precise voice of the gods.
• It would have answered little purpose to oppose salutary laws to the capricious licence of barbarians, without guarding those laws by very powerful fanétions. Whether these sanctions be founded on opinion, or'on fact, is, with respect to their influence on the mind, a matter of little moment. The dreaded vengeance of imaginary powers may be equally effectual with the fear of the axe and halter. The certainty of this vengeance was firmly established in the Grecian creed ; and its operation was supposed to be so immediate and palpable, that it was impoflible for the inattention of men to overlook, or for their address to elude its force. The daring violations of the sacred law were speedily overtaken by manifelt marks of the divine displeasure. “ The infolence and violence of the corrupted youths,” fays Homer, “ cried aloud to Heaven, whose decrees were soon executed by the avenging hands of Ulyfies.". The judgments inflicted on guilty communities were so familiar to the minds of men, that the poet introduces them by way of similies ; and it is evident, from his. writings throughout, that every important event, prosperous or ad. verle, which happened, either to individuals or to nations, appeared, to the pious resignation of the Greeks, the reward of their religion. and virtue, or the punishment of their irreligion and vice. The merit of the father was often acknowledged in the protection of the son ; and the crimes of a guilty progenitor were often visited on his descendants to the third and fourth generation,
· These observations are confirmed, not only by the writings of Homer and Hefiod throughout, but by almost every page of Herodotus, of Pindar, as well as of the Greek tragedians and historians ; and yet they feem to have escaped the notice of some of the most ingenious inquirers into the opinions of antiquity. The authority of Greek writers strongly oppoles two systems, which have been supported with great ability, and which have gained considerable credit
in the world. The first, that the religion of the ancients had little or no connection with morality: the second, that the governments of Greece could not have been supported without the doctrine of a future state. The connection between religion and morality is clearly asserted in the various passages to which we have had occasion to allude ; and the belief of a future state of retribution cannot, according to the principles of the learned author of the Divine Legation of Mofes, be reckoned necessary to the government of men, who are fully perfuaded of the actual and immediate interposition of divine wisdom and justice to regulate, by temporal rewards and punishments, the affairs of the present life.
• The nature, the characters, and the occupations of the gods, were suggested by the lively feelings of an ardent, rather than by the regular invention of a cultivated mind. These celestial beings were fube jcct to the blind passions which govern unhappy mortals. Their wants, as well as their desires, were similar to those of men. They required not the grofs nourishment of meat and wine, but they had occasion to repair the waste of their etherial bodies by nectar and ambrofia ; and they delighted in the steam of the sacrifices, which equally gratified their senses, and flattered their vanity. The refresh. ment of sleep was necessary to restore their exhauited strength; and, with the addition of a superior, but limited degree of power, and wisdom, and goodness, the gods of the heroic ages were nothing more than immortal men.
• What was wanting in the dignity and perfection, was supplied by the number of the gods Homer only describes the principal and reigning divinities; but Hefiod, who gives the genealogical history of this fanciful hierarchy, makes the whole number amount to thirty thousand. Among thefe, every virtue had its protector; every quality of extensive power in human life had its patron; and every grove, and mountain, and river, its favourite inhabitants. Twelve divinities, of superior rank, presided over the active principles of the uni. verse, and the leading virtues of the 'mind: but even these distinguished beings, were subject to the unrelenting power of vengeance and the fates, “ who pursue the crimes of men and gods, and never cease from their wrath, till they have inficted just punishment on the guilty sons of earth and heaven.”
• The materials which fancy had created, poetry formed into .beauty, and policy improved into use. The creed of the Greeks, thus adorned and enlarged, became the happiest antidote against the furious resentment, the lavage cruelty, and the fierce spirit of sullen independence, which ulually characterize the manners of barbarians. Yet theie dreadful passions sometimes forced their way through every mound which wisdom had erected in ordvi to oppose their course. Laws, facred and profane, were feeble barriers against the impetuofity of their rage. The black vengeance of the heart was exerted in deeds of horror. The death of an enemy could not satisfy their in'human cruelty. They burned with desire to drink his hated blood, to devour his quivering limbs, and to expose his mangled remains to indignities, equally odious and abominable in the light of gods and
The powerful influence of religion was directed against the