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A Tory history of ancient Greece.

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. Like Gillies's, Mitford's is a political rather than an intellectual or social history, his main interest being the political interplay of society's forces and factions. Moreover, he deliberately aimed at didacticism: 'A Grecian history, and indeed any history perfectly written . . . should be a political institute for all nations'.(*) The History's most striking characteristic, and probably its major interest to modern readers, is its steadfast anti-democratic bias. Certainly, as his brother Lord Redesdale observed, one of Mitford's main aims in writing his History was to warn his compatriots not to be swayed by Greek democratic political institutions which he was adamant could never be successfully implemented in the balanced political system of England. Particularly manifest is his hatred for the democracy of Athens. In no respect would he have concurred with the contemporary Thomas Paine's eulogistic view of the Athenian political system as expressed in the Rights of Man. Athens was Mitford's primary bete noire, and not least because every military and civil office there was open to those of lowest birth, even those, a horror to an eighteenth century British squire, 'totally without property'.

The cause of Athen's main political problems, Mitford believed, began in the early sixth century B.C. with the constitutional, economic, and legal enactments of its Chief Archon, Solon. Though Mitford professed high regard for some of this legislator's reforms, he castigated him for introducing excessive opportunities for all sections of Athenian society. In short, he considered the Solonic reforms as opening the floodgates to democratic faction, a mistake, he believed, avoided by Sparta's legislator, Lycurgus. Solon's principal error consisted in giving absolute authority to all citizens in Assembly, 'an authority more universally and uncontrollably absolute than any despot upon earth ever did or ever can possess' and was 'a foundation of evil so broad that all the wisdom of his other regulations was weak against it'. The gradual overcoming of the aristocratical interest eventually resulted in the loss of any balance in the constitution, the outcome being 'ultimately most pernicious to the commonwealth, and involved incalculable evils for all Greece'. The specific outcome was democracy which, 'beyond all other governments subject to irregular, improvident and tyrannical conduct, where unchecked by some balancing power intrusted to a few', over the years became, in Mitford's opinion, 'Ochlocracy, Mob-rule' and necessarily rent the polis. Mitford, clearly accepting Aristotle's dictum that tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, even assigns the name tyrant to the assembled Athenian people in the great age of Pericles.

Mitford's loathing of democracy is obvious throughout his History. each chapter displaying copious anti-democratic sentiments and judgements. For example, he strongly criticizes the gross abuse of the proper activities of the legal system, the peculation of public money, the general sycophancy rampant in the usually vaunted democratic Athens of Pericles, though Pericles himself suffers little reproach. Again, in his account of the law courts after the restoration of the Athenian democracy following the fall of the Thirty Tyrants in 403 B.C., Mitford fervently castigates the necessity of persuasive oratory in order to ensure success, at the same time lamenting that 'no salutary influence of the wiser few could easily effect the mass'. However, things were quite different in England where a jury of twelve men aided by the judge would 'obviate the fascination of oratory'. In like manner, in his discussion of the excesses of Athens after the decline of Spartan and Theban power resulting from the Battle of Mantineia in 362 B.C., he lambasts what he considers the tyrannical power of the democratic majority: 'The people in general assembly being sovereign, with power less liable to question than that of a Turkish sultan . . . any adventurer in politics, who had ready elocution, could interfere in every department of government'. All depended on the persuasive powers of the best orators. Examples of Mitford's antipathy to democratic practices could be multiplied over and over. Indeed, he is consistently categoric that absolute democracy, and the upper case is his own, is 'A TYRANNY IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE'.

Possessed of such views it is not surprising that Mitford is particularly passionate in his denunciation of the French Revolution. The volumes of the History composed in the Revolutionary period are replete with analogies between Greek democratic factions and the contemporary French who, he believed, were caught up 'in the paroxysm of their democratical mania' and who exhibited 'horrors beyond all recorded example'. Indeed, he explicitly declares that recent events in France may serve not only to illustrate Greek history but also 'exculpate the Grecian character from any innate atrocity beyond what may be among other nations'. His main conclusion is that it would be a disaster for the English to emulate the French striving towards democracy.

Mitford has little doubt that we can learn from history and drawing example after example of the evils of popular movements and democratic systems in Ancient Greece, he argues forcefully against introducing any change in the political structure of his nation. Above all, he loses few opportunities to praise the existing mixed British constitution. England, he believes, whose 'history is perhaps altogether more perfect than that of any other nation, ancient or modern', possesses a 'perfection of civil polity' and an 'envied and truly enviable government', all primarily due to her consummate constitution. This devotion to the constitution and the resulting merits of English society leaves him totally blind to any class conflict or disharmony among the various ranks. He quotes approvingly a refugee from Revolutionary France who, disquieted by the troubles there, is adamant that 'nowhere else in the world such harmony subsists between the several ranks of citizens as in England'. It was due to an ignorance, Mitford declared, of this coalition or harmony of ranks that Montesquieu was mistaken in his belief that the British constitution would collapse. For it was through 'this advantageous constitution', whereby the lowest ranks were inextricably linked to the highest, that England had been able to avoid that internal faction fighting which brought the government of Athens to ruin.

In democratic Athens and elsewhere, Mitford believed, the most appalling political crimes were the unavoidable results of a system 'in which, through want of a just gradation of ranks, and amalgamation of interests, one portion of the people was, by political necessity, the enemy of another'. On the other hand, Mitford praises the settling of the island of Rhodes, during the decades after the Peloponnesian War, into a 'liberal aristocracy' which he declares endured to all inhabitants' benefit for a long time. His views were pure patriarchal Toryism, those of the 'wets' in Thatcherite language:

The men of higher rank and fortune learnt so to govern, that the lower people, through a constant employment of their industry, a careful attention to their wants, a strict and impartial administration of justice, were happy, quiet, and zealously attached to their country and laws. An extraordinary prosperity followed, and lasted for ages.

Though contemporary radicals would probably have considered much of Mitford's disquisition on the harmonious coalition of different ranks in English society to be nothing other than Tory cant, it is true that slavery did not exist in England. However, it did in Ancient Athens and it was only because there was such an extensive system of loathsome slavery, Mitford argues, that this detested democracy was possible. Without slaves doing most of the work and leaving the small number of citizens free for civic affairs, true participatory democracy would have been 'absolutely absurd and impracticable'.

If Mitford abhorred the democracy of Athens, he patently admired those Greek states possessing a mixed political system, as the British, and especially those with a strong monarchal or aristocratic element. For example, he lauded the government of Phaeacia which is represented in the Odyssey as enjoying a blend of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, a system, according to Mitford, 'not less marked than in the British constitution'. Likewise, the Macedon of King Philip, who was 'supreme, but not despotic', 'was little disturbed with . . . pretensions to oligarchal privilege on the one side, and to democratical despotism on the other'. Though most would consider Philip's constitution to have been absolutely despotic, Mitford was convinced that in Macedon, just as in the balanced system in Britain, there were sufficient constitutional checks to curb any appetite for despotism. Still, a reviewer in an 1808 issue of the Whig Edinburgh Review was not convinced of this point, remarking that Mitford's historical 'judgement . . . has been warped by that antipathy to democracies . . . one of his leading characteristics'. Mitford also took pains to deny the common charge that the Macedonians were not Greeks at all. (Once again we are hearing a modern echo of this in the Balkans with tension growing between Greece and Macedonia.) Rather, he believed, their stigmatization as barbarians was merely the odious result of 'the foul language of democratical debate'. Complementing a keen regard by Mitford for Philip himself was a fervent antipathy for Philip's main Athenian enemy, Demosthenes, who is denounced as 'an unpleasant companion, a faithless friend, a contemptible soldier and of notorious dishonesty'. Of course, later in the nineteenth century respect for Demosthenes grew immeasurably, with every Victorian schoolboy learning to extoll him for championing democracy, liberty, and liberalism.

Mitford's History received much contemporary attention. Understandably, the Tory Quarterly Review was rather favourable, an 1811 reviewer writing of Mitford's 'natural alliance' to the Greek enemies of democracy at a time when the French Revolution had rendered 'most moderate men' deeply antagonistic to the democratical interest. However, Mitford's anti-democratic sentiments did not remain uncriticized by others, not least by Byron who observed in a note to Don Juan that Mitford's 'great pleasure is in praising tyrants'. In like manner, in 1808 a reviewer in the Edinburgh Review categorically declared that Mitford 'hates democracy' and regretted that the history 'of the Grecian republics should have been told by one who has so many anti-republican partialities'. Macaulay was also highly critical asserting in 1824 in Knight's Quarterly Magazine that Mitford 'never fails to inveigh with hearty bitterness against democracy as the source of every species of crime', a criticism followed up four years later in the Edinburgh Review with a charge that falsehoods littered every page of the History. John Stuart Mill, as we read in his Autobiography, had been warned by his father to beware of Mitford's 'Tory prejudices' and 'his perversions of facts for the whitewashing of despots, and blackening of popular institutions'. Mill himself soon came to the same conclusion and in the Edinburgh Review, the Spectator, London Review and elsewhere ravaged Mitford's History for what he believed its anti-democratic bias and total absence of veracity.

Though William Mitford's History was heavily criticized in the reviews it still had a very wide readership during the early decades of the nineteenth century. It went through at least six editions, the last in 1835, and was translated into French and German. Having little competition - John Gillies' two-volume 1786 history being the only real rival - perhaps made it natural that it would sell very well. However, an added appeal was the political conviction of the author which clearly found ready acceptance and sympathy in many readers. Not everyone favoured the notion of Greek liberty fostered by Byron. Of course, many, thinking of art, culture, and human progress, would have welcomed Shelley's belief that 'Another Athens shall arise'. Still, any bolstering by Shelley, or others espousing radical politics, by positive reference to the ultra democratic values of Athens would have been anathema to very many of contemporary readers. Indeed, the admiration, once widespread, for the reactionary Spartan political tradition still lingered. Moreover, Shelley's observation that 'We are all Greeks' by no means necessarily indicated to all Britons that 'We are all Athenians', despite the manifest historical significance of Pericles' democratic Athens. The hegemony of Athens in the public mind and particularly the pervasive admiration for that polls' democracy and for her notion of political liberty came later. This new image owed much of its popularity to the extremely influential political orientation of the twelve volume History of Greece (1846-56) of the Utilitarian banker George Grote. With the supremacy of Grote's Whig History, which reflected the Victorian age's belief in liberalism and its ever growing trust in democracy, Mitford's work lapsed into obscurity.

* All quotations from Mitford are from The History of Greece, 8 vols., revised by William King. London: Cadell and Blackwood, 1838.

Brendan Rapple is a librarian at Boston College, Massachusetts. This article was conceived at a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.
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Author:Rapple, Brendan A.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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