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Richard Jenkyns

George Grote was one of the most remarkable minds of the early Victorian age. But although he has never been forgotten, other Victorian intellectuals less wise than he, less strong in judgment, more erratic, more colourful and perhaps more imaginative, have enjoyed a fame and a following that he has never quite achieved. This is partly because he sought to be a scholar rather than a sage, partly because his work has not been easily accessible. Routledge’s reissue of an Edwardian abridgment of his 12-volume History of Greece, prefaced with an illuminating new introduction by Paul Cartledge, provides the best chance that there is likely to be of bringing him to a modern readership.

He is one of those Victorians with an astonishing range and energy. Though he got a solid classical grounding at Sevenoaks Grammar School and Charterhouse, his formal education ended at the age of 16, when his father put him into the family bank. He was not to give up managing the bank’s affairs until he was nearly 50. For eight years he was a radical Member of Parliament, representing the City of London, and he was one of the founding fathers of London University. Like a number of the Victorian sages – Mill, Carlyle, Lewes – Grote had a highly intelligent wife who was a full intellectual helpmeet, and like even more of them (add Ruskin, Pater and George Eliot, for example) he was childless – to be exact, his only child died a week after birth. The sight of Mrs Grote in a turban is supposed to have provoked Sydney Smith to the comment that at last he understood the meaning of the word ‘grotesque’, but she seems to have been an admirable person, and the memoir of her husband that she compiled as a dutiful widow is the best source for his life. He did not have to worry about the pram in the hall, and his wealth enabled him from the age of 50 to devote his time to the ancient world. But even with these advantages, the History of Greece, ranging ‘from the earliest period to the close of the generation contemporary with Alexander the Great’, was a work of heroic industry in reading, sifting, assimilating and composing; nor was it all he did for the understanding of classical Greece, for he was to go on to write Plato and the Other Companions of Socrates and an unfinished study of Aristotle. No Englishman of his time contributed so much to the study either of Greek history or of Greek philosophy, and no one at all has contributed comparably to both.

Born in 1794, a year before Carlyle, Grote was already in his forties when Queen Victoria came to the throne. He is among those Victorians whose formation really belongs to the Regency, a period redolent in the common imagination of elegant debauchery but actually the heyday of many of the strengths and failings popularly associated with Victoria’s reign. In that, he resembles Thomas Arnold, a year his junior: the first of Strachey’s ‘eminent Victorians’, he actually died less than five years into the Queen’s reign. But whereas Arnold was a liberal Anglican of passionate faith, Grote’s spiritual home is among the philosophical radicals; he belongs with Bentham, Austin and the Mills in a world of religious scepticism and high-minded striving for the public good, the milieu from which Utilitarianism sprang, and the ‘godless college in Gower Street’. These influences were to inform his History, and can be seen reflected in its political and ethical outlook, though also, it must be admitted, in an earnest solidity of manner which does not always escape dullness.

In championing the Athenian democracy, Grote was perhaps not quite as novel as Cartledge seems to imply. Half a century earlier, Tom Paine had declared that he found more to admire and less to blame in the Athenians than in any other people; but Paine was a radical, provocatively setting himself against (for example) the American Republic’s founding fathers (of whose strongly anti-democratic beliefs recent events have reminded us). And historiography had commonly taken the story of democratic Athens as an awful warning. Before the 1840s the two most notable Greek histories in Britain, and indeed in Europe, were by the Scotsman John Gillies, who dedicated his work to George III with the assurance that it exemplified ‘the dangerous Turbulence of Democracy’, and the outspokenly Tory William Mitford. Macaulay noted Mitford’s liking for Sparta and dislike of Athens; Byron declared outright, ‘His great pleasure is in praising tyrants,’ and yet allowed him to be ‘perhaps the best of all modern historians’. His merits, the poet thought, were ‘labour, learning, research, wrath, and partiality. I call the latter virtues in a writer, because they make him write in earnest.’ John Stuart Mill, too, admitted to the constant delight he had taken in Mitford in boyhood, despite his dislike of the historian’s politics.

Grote had the labour and learning which Byron approved, and beneath the sober surface perhaps something of that salutary wrath and partiality as well. Above all, he showed his independence of even the greatest names. In a superb chapter on the Sophists, he defended that very mixed bag of teachers, thinkers and stirrers from the censure that Plato had heaped on them; and his challenge to the most potent name in Greek historiography provoked from Richard Shilleto, a Cambridge don, a riposte entitled simply Thucydides or Grote?

That may be a more complex question than Shilleto realised. Thucydides argued that the Athenian Empire was hated by its subject peoples; admirers of Athenian democracy are naturally eager to confute that judgment. Moreover, though Thucydides has a fair claim to be reckoned the greatest historian who ever lived, he is a difficult source for the modern historian to use, because for the most part, unlike Herodotus, he did not cite his sources. Should we start from a presumption that Thucydides is likely to be right, at least most of the time? Or should we suspect that he is no more likely to have been unbiased than anyone else? The answer is not obvious, and historians still argue about it. But the effect of Thucydides on Grote and, one is tempted to say, on all historians also goes broader and deeper.

The Western tradition of historiography was created in a remarkably short time by two men. Herodotus invented the idea that a major work of history should be a work of art, the idea that history-writing should be analytical, not merely narrating but also searching for the causes of things, and the idea of weighing evidence and recognising that it comes in different categories with different degrees of reliability (what you have seen, what you have read, what you have been told).

Thucydides then took the step of excluding the gods from history, a step which seems obvious to us, but which was really extraordinary: for if the gods exist and play a part in human affairs, they ought properly, one might suppose, to have a place in the narrative of events, as the God of Israel does in the historical books of the Old Testament. Thucydides also removed most of the ethnography and geography that Herodotus had included and focused intensely on the study of political and psychological process under the pressure of extreme events, expressed through narrative. He thus created a concept of history that was to predominate until the 20th century; that is, of history as story, with, typically, an emphasis on politics and war. Outside the academy that is still what history means to most people.

Cartledge suggests that Grote, like many others, was inclined to undervalue the Athenian democracy of the fourth century BC in comparison with the fifth. Thucydides wrote about events in which he had himself been involved – the Peloponnesian War, between Athens and Sparta, in the last third of the fifth century – and he was not to know of their aftermath. His influence has encouraged people to regard that war as the pivotal moment in Greek history. The victorious Spartans treated Athens with comparative mildness, however – more mildly than Athens had treated some of its own rebellious subjects, not massacring or enslaving the defeated population – and the city recovered. Thucydides’ idea that this war represented for Greece a supreme political and moral crisis was reinforced, for 19th-century historians, by the biological metaphor, so popular in that age, which likened the progress of a culture or civilisation to the history of a living creature – birth, youth and maturity, followed by increasing enfeeblement and decay. In one version of the metaphor, ancient Greece, taken as a whole, is seen as representing the youth (or alternatively the infancy) of the civilised world. Another version depicts archaic Greece as the adolescent period of a civilisation which comes to its perfect maturity in the fifth century, in the Athens of Pericles and Sophocles. The biological metaphor encourages the assumption that states and cultures necessarily pass through a more or less symmetrical process of rise and fall. It suggests that Greece in the fourth century was almost bound to be inferior to Greece in the fifth, despite the presence of Plato, Aristotle and Demosthenes, to which list those of a Napoleonic temperament might wish to add Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great.

For Grote, the rise of Macedon, terminating the independence of the Greek city-states, was the supreme disaster: it marked the end of that great adventure, the story of Greek freedom, which was his central theme. He did not want to carry the tale on beyond Alexander’s generation. But there is another story which can be told. The third century was for Greek civilisation in some respects a period not of decline but of energy: it is the most creative age for science and scholarship, the age in which Greek power was greatest, and the age in which, thanks to the successor-empires consisting of territories conquered by Alexander, Greek language, culture and values were most widely spread. Grote may perhaps be faulted for underestimating this side of the Greek achievement. But the shape of his history is the product of a particular moral idea, and the combination of moral engagement with strong, independent and sometimes original judgment is one of the things that make him a great historian.

It is a tribute to him that he is admired most by those who know him best; for example, he emerges heroically as the central figure in Frank Turner’s study of intellectual history, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981). He can still be practically useful: at least, when I was trying as an undergraduate to make sense of the desperately confusing politics of the mid-fourth century, I turned to Grote’s narrative, already more than a century old, as the best in English that I could find. The abridgment by Mitchell and Caspari (the latter better known under his subsequent adoptive name, Max Cary) is not ideal, as Cartledge himself observes. It excises not only Grote’s first chapters on the ‘legendary period’ of Greek history but the whole of the fourth century. Focusing on the study of democracy and political evolution, it conceals his awareness of the significance of cultural history (the famous chapter on the Sophists, which comes after the abridgers’ cut-off point, is left out).

Grote cannot begin to match Gibbon or Macaulay for literary verve and skill, but as Mitchell and Caspari observed, ‘His expression is always clear and precise, and occasionally, as in his account of the Athenian disaster at Syracuse, rises to the most dignified grandeur.’ That seems about right. And as they go on to say, with something of the measured sobriety of Grote’s own style, ‘The reader is throughout impressed by a feeling of security; the argument breathes authority and sanity of judgment, and the consciousness that all obtainable evidence has been duly weighed.’ Grote has what the 18th century called bottom; and today, in an age when showmanship and self-advertisement may seem necessary to the historian as public intellectual, it is a quality especially to be prized.