Ideology and History: William Mitford's History of Greece (1784-1810)

By Rapple, Brendan A. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Ideology and History: William Mitford's History of Greece (1784-1810)


Rapple, Brendan A., Papers on Language & Literature


THE STUDY OF GREEK HISTORY IN ENGLAND AT THE CLOSE OF THE 18TH CENTURY

By the end of the eighteenth century the growing regard for the wider Hellenic world among the English intelligentsia was not yet strongly reflected in the educational curricula of either the English Universities, the Public Schools or the endowed grammar schools. The teaching of the Classics generally looked to the model earlier provided by the prodigious efforts of Richard Bentley (1662-1742) in the field of Latin and presently emulated by Richard Porson (1759-1808) in Greek (Ogilvie 87). It was an approach primarily focused on syntax, accidence, and grammar with little attention focused on the culture, art, philosophy, science, religion, or the general society of ancient Greece and Rome. Textual criticism and emendation was the order of the day for scholars, with translation, prose and verse composition, and the study of metrical forms being the staple for students. The curriculum at the school level had changed little since the days of the Renaissance.

This prevailing linguistic approach to the Classics meant that the study of Ancient History was well nigh ignored in the Public Schools. The works of such historians as Eutropius and Cornelius Nepos, who were considered to have written easy Latin, were studied mainly as reading-books (Clarke, Classical Education 51). Ancient History was neglected even in the Universities, apart from the reading of selected works of a few ancient historians. Even when such history was studied, more often than not it was that of Rome. Moreover, for the most part ancient historians were studied for their language and writing rather than for their historiography. This practice continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Of course, some Greek history was written in Britain during the eighteenth century, but it was generally produced outside the university by amateurs rather than academics. History "was considered a branch of belles-lettres. It was the occupation of the dilettante, of the gentleman of leisure, and occasionally of the dignified statesman or the ambitious literary worker" (Thompson 280). As M. L. Clarke observed of Oxford at this period, "In ancient history, apart from Dodwell's chronological studies, Oxford had little or nothing to show" ("Classical Studies" 531). And Cambridge was not much better.

Furthermore, what little Greek history was written in the eighteenth century was generally rudimentary, a major problem of the time being that it "lacked the fruits of special research" (Thirlwall 97). The French Charles Rollin's Histoire Ancienne des Egyptiens, des Carthaginois, des Assyriens, des Babyloniens, des Medes et des Perses, des Macedoniens, des Grecs, which began to be published in 1730, and which was translated into English, covered the Greeks among many other ancient peoples. Though this was an extremely popular work, Rollin was essentially a compiler, not a real historian. In 1774 Oliver Goldsmith wrote another popular compilation, The Grecian History, From the Earliest State to the Death of Alexander the Great, on contract for money, but the Edinburgh Review, over a century later, was just in dismissing it as "a popular and entertaining schoolbook" (Plumptre 295). Temple Stanyan's two volume The Grecian History: From the Original of Greece, to the Death of Philip of Macedon, published in 1707 and 1739 respectively, was naive, anecdotal, lacking in criticism, and was strongly influenced, both stylistically and thematically, by Plutarch (Clarke, Greek Studies 104). Indeed, a reading of Plutarch's Lives was the closest most people, even the better educated ones, came to Greek history in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, the Germans, so proficient and prolific in Classical scholarship, had as yet produced no comprehensive history of Greece. All in all, commentaries on the ancient historians were far more common than original historiography (Watson 32).

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