A Tory History of Ancient Greece

Article excerpt

During the first half of the eighteenth century it was Ancient Rome, particularly the period of the Augustan Principate, which captured the interest of the educated English rather than Ancient Greece. However, as the century progressed a focus on Greece became more and more intense as the public had its appetite whetted by increased contact with the wider Hellenic world. Particularly influential were the multitude of travelogues, diaries, sketch-books, paintings produced by a plethora of actual visitors to Greece, especially those of the Dilettanti Society, which brought the physical remains of the Hellenic past more into general consciousness and which helped foster the Greek Revival in art and architecture. At the same time, writers lost few opportunities to hymn the glories of Greece, a literary tendency increasingly pronounced with the rise of the Romantic movement. Moreover, the study of Greece was receiving a major impetus from the influence of the literary, artistic, historical, and cultural criticism of Wolf, Lessing, Niebuhr, and Goethe respectively. Again, early in the following century the political activities of those Philhellenes who sought to free the modern Greeks from the Turkish yoke were well publicized in England and at the same time effected a fuller engendering of interest in the Greek past.

Nevertheless, by the end of the eighteenth century this new regard for the culture and history of the Hellenic world was not yet strongly reflected in the educational curricula of either the English universities or the public schools. The teaching of the Classics remained primarily linguistic. Textual criticism and emendation was the order of the day for university scholars, with translation, prose and verse composition, and the study of metrical forms being the staple for students at school. Many were the boys, as Byron points out, 'whom public schools compel/To 'Long and Short' before they're taught to spell'. Moreover, Latin was invariably studied more widely than Greek.

Ancient History was particularly neglected, apart from the reading of selected works of a few ancient historians, and even when it was studied, more often than not it was that of Rome. Of course, some Greek history had been written already. Earlier in the century had appeared Temple Stanyan's two-volume Grecian History, published in 1707 and 1739 respectively, Charles Rollin's universal work Histoire ancienne which began to be published in 1730, Oliver Goldsmith's 1774 The Grecian History: From the Earliest State to the Death of Alexander the Great. There were others also. However, it is true to say that to a great degree they were all anecdotal, uncritical, naive, redolent of the compiler, and excessively influenced both stylistically and thematically by Plutarch. In fact, a reading of Plutarch's Lives was the closest most people came to accounts of Greek history. Even the Germans, so proficient and prolific in Classical scholarship, had as yet produced no full-scale, original, critical history of Greece, though histories of Rome as well as commentaries on the ancient historians were plentiful in Germany as in Britain. Accordingly, it was a momentous event in European historiography when there appeared at intervals during the period 1784 to 1810 the History of Greece of William Mitford, the first modern multi-volume, critical, comprehensive, narrative Greek history, whose first volume beat by two years the two-volume Greek history of the Scot John Gillies. Well might Arnaldo Momigliano observe that Greek History was a British invention of the late eighteenth century.

Though William Mitford (1744-1827), Hampshire squire, member of parliament, verderer of the New Forest, wrote on a multitude of topics - military affairs, language, the Corn Laws, history of religion, architecture, among others - he is best known for his history of Greece from Homer to Alexander. It is of note that he had been urged to undertake this work by Edward Gibbon at a time when they were fellow officers in the South Hampshire militia. …