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


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).


Arnaldo Momigliano is apt in his, at first sight singular, observation that Greek History was a British invention (214). It is moot whether the laurel should go to John Gillies or William Mitford. However, though Mitford's Greek history was not completed until 1810, his first volume appeared in 1784 and therefore predated Gillies' comprehensive critical two volume history, which was published in 1786.

Mitford was born in London in 1744 to a well-to-do country family. After Oxford, where he was at the same breakfast club as Jeremy Bentham, who "thought his conversation commonplace" (Dict. Nat. Biog. 533) Mitford retired to the family property in Hampshire. Here he lived much of the rest of his life in semi-seclusion, though he was at times a member of parliament, a magistrate, and verderer of the New Forest. He also indulged a love of research and scholarship. He was particularly interested in language and orthography. In 1774 he published An Essay upon the Harmony of Language Intended Principally to Illustrate that of the English Language in which he set forth some uncommon views on spelling. Holding that the spelling of English words, whether coming from Saxon, Latin, or other languages often varied greatly and erratically over time, he tried to create a new system of spelling English. Nevertheless, finding, as his brother pointed out, "the tide of fashion too strong for him," he for the most part corrected his unusual orthography and submitted to the prevailing fashion (Redesdale xvi).

While holding a commission in the South Hampshire Militia he made the acquaintance of Edward Gibbon, a fellow officer, who urged him to write a history of Ancient Greece (Dict. Nat. Biog. 534). Today Mitford is known for the resultant multi-volume History of Greece, which appeared at intervals during the period 1784 to 1810. Thus, omitting Gillies, the first significant British historian of Greece was not a university don but an amateur, a not particularly remarkable circumstance due to the general lack of interest in Ancient History at Oxford and Cambridge. He was extremely proud that he, an Englishman, wrote an extensive history of Greece on what he considered were true historical principles. Near the end of his History he recounted a conversation he had with a French historian, Baron de Sainte Croix, in which the Baron "said, adverting to the restrictions upon the press in France, and the advantage which familiar acquaintance with a free constitution, through association in its energies, offered in England: 'Only an Englishman could write a history of Greece'" (7: 287-88).

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. It is true that he composed a separate treatise in 1823, Observations on the History and Doctrine of Christianity, and, as Historically Connected, on the Primeval Religion, on the Judaic and on the Heathen, Public, Mystical, and Philosophical, which as the subtitle declared was Proposed as an Appendix to the Political and Military History of Greece. As Thomas Macaulay observed, however, "The origin of the drama, the doctrines of the sophists, the course of Athenian education, the state of the arts and sciences, the whole domestic system of the Greeks, he has almost completely neglected" (431). Moreover, Mitford deliberately aimed at didacticism: "A Grecian history, and indeed any history perfectly written . . . but especially a Grecian history perfectly written, should be a political institute for all nations" (3: 464). The most striking characteristic of this political approach is the author's patent partiality and clear adherence to high Tory principles. The History displayed a steadfast anti-democratic bias and especially a manifest hatred for the democracy of Athens where, resulting from the laws of Solon, every military and civil office was open even to those of lowest birth. Even worse for Mitford, they were open to those, a horror to a middle-class eighteenth-century Briton, "totally without property" (2: 197). In no respect would Mitford have concurred with the contemporary Thomas Paine's eulogistic view of Athens as expressed in the Rights of Man published in 1791-1792:

Though the ancient governments present to us a miserable picture of the condition of man, there is one which above all others exempts itself from the general description. I mean the democracy of the Athenians. We see more to admire, and less to condemn, in that great, extraordinary people, than in anything which history affords. (qtd. in Rawson 353).

The Athens loathing Mitford was truly "a Tory of the hot Anti-Jacobin type" and his History "a Tory party pamphlet in five volumes" (Elton 383; Thirlwall 97). It is true that Mitford occasionally spoke less harshly of the oligarchy of Sparta than of the democracy of Athens; still he generally condemned the Spartan political system. As Frank Turner observes, "Mitford was a late voice of the Country party ideology whose spokesman had consistently opposed standing armies, such as Mitford discerned was required by Spartan slavery" (197).


Mitford's social and political views were seized upon by many reviewers for caustic commentary: "Mitford's greatest service, in fact, was to excite the wrath and partiality of his opponents. In the pages of the reviews Tories and liberals fought over Athens like Greeks and Trojans over the body of Patroclus" (Jenkyns 14). In his 1808 review of Vol. IV the Whig Henry Brougham, though praising the History's "trustworthiness," regretted that the history "of the Grecian republics should have been told by one who has so many anti-republican partialities," and Brougham declared categorically that Mitford "hates democracy" (478, 517, 491). In his 1828 essay "History," Macaulay contended that every page of Mitford's History had falsehoods, all stemming from his anti-democratic passion and his excessive regard for monarchal and aristocratic power:

But his passion . . . led him substantially to violate truth in every page. Statements unfavourable to democracy are made with unhesitating confidence, and with the utmost bitterness of language. Every charge brought against a monarch, or an aristocracy, is sifted with the utmost care. If it cannot be denied, some palliating supposition is suggested; or we are at least reminded that some circumstances now unknown may have justified what at present appears unjustifiable. Two events are reported by the same author in the same sentence; their truth rests on the same testimony; but the one supports the darling hypothesis, and the other seems inconsistent with it. The one is taken and the other is left. (64)

In his earlier essay, "On Mitford's History of Greece," Macaulay had dismissed Mitford as "a vehement admirer of tyranny and oligarchy," declaring that "Democracy he hates with a perfect hatred . . ." (425). In like manner, Byron, though very favorably disposed to the History, observed in a note to Don Juan that Mitford's "great pleasure consists in praising tyrants" (McGann 1063).

John Stuart Mill in a 1846 review of George Grote's History of Greece remarked that though Mitford did employ evidence in his historical endeavors, he "made almost no other use of it than to find reasons for rejecting all statements discreditable to any despot or usurper" (11: 275). A few months earlier in the Spectator he completely ravaged Mitford's History for its bias and total absence of veracity: "Mitford's narrative, written and published during the wildest height of Antijacobin phrensy, is vitiated by an intensity of prejudice against whatever bears the name or semblance of popular institutions, which renders his representation of Grecian phaenomena not only false, but in many particulars the direct contrary of the truth" (24: 867-68).

Even the Quarterly Review, no great lover of democracy and popular causes, considered that Mitford was excessive in his appreciation of tyrants. A reviewer in an 1811 issue wrote of the historian's "natural alliance" to the Greek enemies of democracy and acknowledged that much of the History was composed "when the enormities of the French revolution had inspired most moderate men with a deep horror of democracy." Nevertheless, the reviewer continued that though he "cannot pretend to the possession of any great share of democratical prejudice," still he has "been much fatigued by the perpetual recurrence of a defensive or a laudatory tone whenever a tyrant happened to appear on the ground" (32-33). Nevertheless, the ultra-Tory historian Sir Archibald Alison in his 1854 History of Europe staunchly praised Mitford's political stance: "the cause of truth has been essentially aided by his exertions; and the experiences of the working of democracy in our own times have been such as to forbid a doubt as to the accuracy of the facts he has stated, whatever hesitation may be felt as to the wisdom of the expressions in which they are sometimes conveyed" (1:487).


Mitford composed much of his History during and in the years immediately succeeding the French Revolution. It is likely, as Timothy Webb points out, that his antipathy to democracy "became more attractive to many readers as the French Revolution took its troubled course" (29). Mitford again and again drew analogies between certain political and social movements in Ancient Greece and in contemporary France: "Incensed patriotism combined with terrified conservatism would not permit Mitford to omit the French Revolution from Greek history" (Peardon 90). No follower of Thomas Paine, the rights of man, and populist agitation for reform, Mitford viewed Revolutionary France with horror. He was particularly concerned that the reformist movement in France would cross over into England, imbue English folk with democratic leanings, and foment trouble that might upset what he considered the best political system and constitution in history. He had a patent historiographical principle: readers were to learn from his History not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He frequently juxtaposed democratic factions in Ancient Greece with the Revolutionary French who, he declared, were caught up "in the paroxysm of their democratical mania" and who exhibited "horrors beyond all recorded example" (3: 12; 2: 166). He explicitly stated that recent events in France may illustrate Greek history and serve to excuse the Greeks "from any innate atrocity beyond what may be among other nations" (3:459). For example, in a note, in a later edition, to what he referred as the almost unbelievable atrocities perpetrated by the democratical Corcyraeans upon their aristocratical brethern, Mitford glossed that his account "was written before the transactions in France had beggared all ideas formerly conceived, among the modern European nations, on such subjects." He asserted that a similar massacre had recently occurred at Lyons after its surrender to the republicans (3: 5-6).

Similarly, the cruelty and machinations of Euphron, leader of a populist coup that left him tyrant of Sicyon, so reminded Mitford of French excesses that he observed "almost the whole of this history of Euphron might seem, instead of having been written two thousand three hundred years ago, an account of transactions within the last three years from the time of first editing this volume" (5: 169).[1] Referring to the account by the historian Diodorus of the excesses of the democratic government in Argos in 371-370 B.C., Mitford wrote,

This translation of a passage written eighteen hundred years ago, and applying to times four hundred years before, so exactly describes what has just been occurring in France, that it may almost be necessary to desire the reader to look at the original, for proof that it is not a forgery. What follows wants only the change of a name or two to make it apply equally to the French as to the Grecian revolution. (5: 261)

Again, pointing out that the real cause of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was the oligarchal latter's great fear of the former's increasing ferocity, imperialistic tendencies, and tyranny, he patently displayed his antipathy to Revolutionary France:

The alarm spread over Europe by a similar spirit, carried indeed to a greater extravagance, in the French democracy, may possibly be supposed to have furnished this idea; but it was derived purely from the Grecian contemporary historians; and indeed the passage was written before the spirit of conquest and tyranny among the French had given the lie direct to their pretension of peaceful and equitable principles. (4: 3)

Mitford also observed that a student of Athenian history who reflects on the French Revolution must inevitably perceive the manifest similarity between the activities of the Council of Judicature of Athens' tyrannical Thirty and those of the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris' Committee of Public Welfare (4: 55).


The later historian of Greece, George Grote, observed in volume III of his History that "To an historian like Mr. Mitford, full of English ideas respecting government . . . anti-monarchical feeling appears of the nature of insanity, and the Grecian communities like madmen without a keeper" (3:16). Mitford considered the English constitution to be incapable of improvement. England, whose "history is perhaps altogether more perfect than that of any other nation, ancient or modern" and which enjoys a "perfection of civil polity" possesses "the most perfect (constitution) that has yet existed upon earth" (7: 248, 247; 3: 464). This was particularly obvious with regard to the law which Mitford considered was far superior in England than anywhere else. Even at periods when the constitution and law had been less well defined in England, they had still been better than those of Athens (5: 20). In fact, Mitford's ideal, according to Frank Turner, "was nothing more and nothing less than the existing, theoretically balanced constitution of England" (204).

The English Constitution's great virtue, Mitford was convinced, was that it was mixed, containing elements of monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The best form of government "can only be a government so mixed and balanced that it may have strength to restrain popular folly and popular injustice, without being strong enough to support its own injustice or folly" (4: 55). The English Constitution was clearly monarchal; the oligarchal aspect was furnished by the Lords; the Commons constituted the aristocratical part; the democratic principle pervaded all, even the highest born being subject to the identical laws and courts as was the lowest citizen. Accordingly, the English political system was "more wisely given, and more wisely bounded . . . than in any other government that ever existed" (1: 255). Furthermore, this powerful constitution enabled England "to resist the contagion of French politics, so alluring in distant prospect, so hideous in near approach, which perhaps no other European government . . . could, without foreign assistance have withstood" (3: 463).

Supremely sanguine about conditions in England, Mitford was totally blind to any class conflict or disharmony among his country's ranks. He quoted, with manifest approval, the French Minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne, a refugee in England from Revolutionary France, who was adamant that "'nowhere else in the world such harmony subsists between the several ranks of citizens as in England'" (3: 460). Mitford was convinced that this harmony was the substructure on which the English constitution rested. Though there existed a great many ranks among the population, there was an intimate connection among all. No rank, even the very lowest, was denied a hope of rising: ". . . the English government thus is the completest commonwealth . . . known in history" (7: 245). It was due to an ignorance, Mitford declared, of this coalition or harmony of ranks that Montesquieu was mistaken in his belief that the English constitution would collapse. For, Mitford believed, it was "through this advantageous constitution" (3: 462), whereby the lowest ranks were inextricably linked to the highest, that England had been able to avoid that internal faction fighting that brought the government of Athens to ruin. In much of ancient Greece the most appalling political crimes were the unavoidable results of a system in which there existed no real community of interests and just linkings of ranks, the result being that one part of the population was necessarily at enmity with another (4: 391).


It is important to distinguish the different definitions assigned to "democracy" by Mitford. As seen, he praised that "democratic" aspect of the English constitution, the element that rendered the blessings of the mixed polity open to all. On the other hand, he condemned any species of democracy that embraced under its aegis most forms of populist government. Above all, he damned that democratic system that existed at different periods in Ancient Athens. He was adamant that Athenian "Democracy being beyond all other governments subject to irregular, improvident, and tyrannical conduct," and "unchecked by some balancing power intrusted to a few," necessarily became "OCHLOCRACY, Mob-rule" and rent the polis (1: 253). The main problem for Mitford was that this fostering of Athenian democracy signified the overcoming of the aristocratic interest and the loss of any balance in the constitution, the necessary outcome being "ultimately most pernicious to the commonwealth, and involved incalculable evils for all Greece" (2: 287). Justly, he believed, was the Athenian government in the fifth century B.C. termed "A TYRANNY IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE" (4: 10).

Mitford concluded that the primary political problems of Athens, his main bete noire in Ancient Greece, began with the legislation of Solon--probably an eccentric view to many. It is true that Mitford professed high regard for some of the reforms of this legislator; still he blamed him for introducing what he considered excessive opportunities for all sections of Athenian society. In short, he viewed the Solonic reforms as opening the floodgates to democratic faction, a mistake carefully avoided by Sparta's legislator, Lycurgus. Mitford acknowledged that Solon, by his division of Athenian citizens into four ranks on the basis of personal economic worth and then allowing their participation in appropriate councils and bodies pertaining to their rank, proved that he was by no means an unbridled democrat. Still, Solon's primary error, he considered, lay in giving absolute authority to all citizens in Assembly. This was "an authority more universally and uncontroullably 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" (1: 373, 366). Mitford even considered that the turbulence of the Athenian democracy rendered it "unsafe" and "unpleasant" for women to move about freely:

That form of government compelled the men to associate all with all. The general assembly necessarily called all together; and the vote of the meanest citizen being there of equal value with that of the highest, the more numerous body of the poor was always formidable to the wealthy few. Hence followed the utmost condescension, or something more than condescension, from the rich to the multitude; and not to the collected multitude only, nor to the best among the multitude, but principally to the most turbulent, illmannered, and worthless. (2: 290)

Women wishing to avoid such a society were obliged to live in seclusion with their female slaves.

Though radicals contemporary with Mitford would probably have considered much of his 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. It did, however, in Ancient Athens, and it was only because there was such an extensive system of slavery, Mitford argued, that this detested "democracy" was possible. Without slaves Athenian democracy would have been "absolutely absurd and impracticable." Besides his natural abhorrence of slavery--he declared of the slavery in Sparta that "never was human nature degraded by system to such a degree"--Mitford was appalled that so many (about 400,000 men, women, and children, he reckoned) had no say whatsoever in the running of Athens (1: 368-70, 291). Athenian democracy was limited in practice to about ten per cent of the males of the State. Despite his frequent juxtaposition of the virtues of the English political system with what he considered were the grievous flaws of that of Athens, it never seems to have occurred to Mitford that there might also be something reprehensible in the fact that only a tiny proportion of the adult English population enjoyed the suffrage and had any meaningful say in the political affairs of their nation.

Another hateful characteristic, in Mitford's opinion, of Athenian democracy, where all was devoted "to the pleasure and fancy of the people," was the great danger that it posed to private property (4: 26). Mitford viewed "the spirit of tyranny" in the law requiring that when the expense of an office or a trireme was assessed on anyone, he might avoid the cost by pointing out a richer individual "and, if the superior wealth was denied, offering to exchange estates." The latter must under law accept the expense or agree to the exchange. To Mitford such a situation was despicable: "For men of rank and property, excepting the few who could make the popular will the instrument of their own ambition, to be satisfied with the Athenian government was impossible" (4: 27-28).

Rhetoric was extremely important in Athens because of the nature of the city state's political system. Democracy was direct, every citizen having the prerogative and the opportunity to address all other citizens openly. Athens was small enough in area and its citizens were few enough for such a system of government to be utilized. The man who could deliver the most persuasive and influential speech at the Assembly and who could impose his own opinion on the gathered citizenry became an important political personage. It was a system Mitford loathed. Mere fecundity, power to persuade, to make the worse argument appear the better was, he believed, an extremely jeopardous characteristic of the Athenian political process. He considered the force of oratory to have been especially manifest in the excesses of Athens after the decline of Spartan and Theban power resulting from the Battle of Mantineia in 362 B.C. The increase in democracy meant a more unruly and unsteady Athens with decisions regarding decrees, treaties, foreign proposals depending on the persuasive powers of the best, though not necessarily the most well meaning, intelligent, or statesman-like, orators: "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" (6: 136).

In his discussion of the law courts after the restoration of the Athenian democracy following the fall of the Thirty, Mitford fervently castigated the necessity of frequently glib oratory for ensuring success, lamenting that "no salutary influence of the wiser few could easily effect the mass." It should be no surprise that he believed the situation to be quite different and far superior in England where a jury of twelve men aided by the judge would "obviate the fascination of oratory" (4: 79). Mitford viewed the process of the charge against Socrates to be a particularly egregious instance of the Athenian legal system corrupted by democratic excesses: "Nothing in the accusation could, by any known law of Athens, affect the life of the accused. In England no man would be put upon trial on so vague a charge: no grand jury would listen to it. But in Athens, if the party was strong enough, it signified little what was the law" (4: 136). Generally, Mitford was adamant, Athens seldom enjoyed genuine free discussion: "Never was more complete democracy. . . . To flatter the multitude, and to flatter excessively, was the burthensome, disgraceful, and mischievous office principally incumbent upon all" (6: 169).

Though Mitford was not unappreciative of the great productions of Greek art during the Periclean age, perhaps the most vaunted period of Athenian democracy, it sometimes seems as if he considered they happened in spite of the flourishing democracy. Whereas Winckelmann maintained that the great production of Greek art required the maximal social and political freedom and was accordingly particularly responsive to the age of burgeoning democracy that commenced with the fall of the Tyrants, Mitford tended to consider that the most favorable time for the arts to flourish is in a period of greater disparity of wealth and liberty, for example the distinctly non-democratic Homeric age. He concluded that "This state of things is generally favourable to the arts; a few who have a superabundance of wealth being better able, and generally more willing to encourage them, than numbers who have only a competency" (1: 169).


Mitford was by no means critical of all political systems and structures. He praised the settling of the island of Rhodes into a "liberal aristocracy." 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. (5: 271)

In fact, any system in Ancient Greece approximating to Britain's constitution tended to merit Mitford's approval. For example, Homeric Phaeacia revealed a "mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy not less marked than in the British constitution." Likewise, in the Macedon of Philip Mitford, seeing a similarity to the polity of his own country, lauded "that popular attachment to the constitution and to the reigning family, the firmest support of political arrangement" (qtd. in Clarke, Greek Studies 108). As Momigliano observed, it was natural that Philip and his politics would strike a sympathetic chord in Mitford at a time of enlightened despotism (215). To Mitford, Philip, though supreme, was not despotic. For despite the latter's great powers Mitford was convinced that in Macedon there were sufficient constitutional checks to curb any appetite for despotism.

This notion of a limited Macedonian government at the time of Philip, as Henry Brougham pointed out, was open to much debate. Though Brougham acknowledged the difficulty of certitude in such a case, he considered that Philip's constitution was most likely absolutely despotic. Mitford's problem, he declared, was that his historical "judgment . . . has been warped by that antipathy to democracies . . . one of his leading characteristics" (Brougham 492). Mitford certainly seemed to overstep the mark when, in his praise of Macedon's appropriating of Amphipolis without doing violence to the latter's municipal constitution, he observed that "it became a member of the Macedonian state nearly as our colonies, holding their several constitutions, are members of the British empire" (6: 188). Contemporary Irish nationalists may not have seen the similarity. Allied to Mitford's regard for Macedonian polity was his regard for Philip himself, a partiality Brougham believed was due to Mitford's "aversion to democracy in general, and to [the Athenian] democratical party in particular" (495). Just as many today would find Mitford's fondness for Philip to be quite unusual, so also would they be somewhat shocked by his appendix praising the character and government of Dionysius of Syracuse, a tyrant whose polity, if not his patronage of the arts, has generally received censure from more liberal historians (5: 473-82).

Mitford also took pains to deny the common charge that the Macedonians were not Greeks at all. Rather, their stigmatization as barbarians was merely the result of "the foul language of democratical debate" (6: 85). Moreover, in praising Philip and his political system in Macedon Mitford understandably took a dim view of Philip's main enemy in Athens, the orator Demosthenes. The latter, whom later nineteenth-century schoolboys extolled for his championing of liberty, liberalism, and democracy, was denounced by Mitford as possessing "a weak habit of body and an embarrassed manner," "a defective utterance," "a sour, irritable temper," and "an extraordinary deficiency, not only of personal courage, but of all that constitutes dignity of soul." Demosthenes was, in short, "an unpleasant companion, a faithless friend, a contemptible soldier, and of notorious dishonesty" (6: 340, 342). Mitford in particular dismissed the reliability of the orator's evidence for later historians: "those who, like Rollin and some others, give entire confidence to Demosthenes, may produce an amusing romance, with touching panegyric and invective, but their narrative will be very wide of real history" (6: 182). Of course, the main fault of Demosthenes in Mitford's eyes was that this highly effective and influential orator "adopted and encouraged the profligate sentiments of the Athenian democracy" (6: 161).[3]


William Mitford's History was extremely popular 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 perhaps made it natural that it would be a best seller. A patent indication of its popularity, as J. P. Mahaffy observed, was "the all-important fact that he called forth two tremendous refutations,--the monumental works of Thirlwall and of Grote" (1: 6). Much of its popularity was due to its style. Carlyle, for example, praised its readability. Mitford's great-grandson Bertram relates, "Mitford's history naturally took the Tory side in Greek politics: Grote and Thirwall followed on the Radical side. One day Thomas Carlyle began talking to me about my great-grandfather; Carlyle was certainly no Tory, but he praised the so-called Tory book far above the other two. He said that Mitford had the talent of clothing the dry bones of history with living flesh and blood . . ." (qtd. in Guinness 27). A particular appeal, however, was the political conviction of the author that clearly found ready acceptance and sympathy in many readers. G. P. Gooch declares that the History "owed its success mainly to its political bias" (289-290). Not everyone favored the notion of liberty fostered by Byron.

It is true that many, thinking of art, culture, and human progress, would have welcomed Shelley's belief that
   Another Athens shall arise,
   And to remoter time
   Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
   The splendour of its prime,
   And leave, if nought so bright may live,
   All earth can take or Heaven can give. (439)

Still, any bolstering by Shelley of his radical politics by positive reference to the ultra-democratic values of Athens would have been anathema to very many of his contemporary readers. Moreover, Shelley's observation that "We are all Greeks" by no means necessarily indicated to all British 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 polis' democratic polity 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 opus, in the words of James Westfall Thompson, "was taken off the shelves" (2: 493).

[1] Though he did not explicitly mention France, Mitford was undoubtedly thinking of her when he referred to the Athenian democracy's execution in 421 B.C. of every adult male Scionaean and the reduction to slavery of every woman and child as "a shocking instance to the many that occur in history of the revengeful and unrelenting temper of democratical despotism" (3: 87).

[2] M. L. Clarke points out that a reviewer of Mitford's second volume was dismayed, as he observed in an 1790 issue of the Monthly Review, that "We do not perceive that it breathes that ardent spirit of liberty which might have been expected in a history of Greece" and criticized him for failing to support "the present arduous struggle for freedom in France." On the appearance of volume three in 1797, however, British liking for France and her Revolution had abated somewhat and the same Monthly Review lauded Mitford for his political sagacity (Clarke, Greek Studies 109).

[3] It is somewhat amusing that Mitford, ever mindful of the horror of the French Revolution, took the opportunity in decrying one of Demosthenes' decrees, a Philippic, by observing that The French, who, in their late revolutions, have been quick and ingenious imitators, but original scarcely in anything, have set an example which it is to be hoped will not be followed, of depraving the simplicity and decency and dignity, formerly characterising European state-writing, by adopting, and pushing to greater extravagance, the manner of this libellous decree of Demosthenes. (7: 131)


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BRENDAN A. RAPPLE, Ph.D., is Collection Development Librarian, O'Neill Library, Boston College. He also teaches in Boston College's College of Advancing Studies. He has published on aspects of 19th-century education in England, Victorian literature, Ancient Greek education, and electronic libraries, among other topics.
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