Greece Under The Romans by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

GREECE UNDER THE ROMANS.[Footnote: By George Finlae]


What is called Philosophical History we believe to be yet in its infancy. It is the profound remark of Mr. Finlay–profound as we ourselves understand it, i. e., in relation to this philosophical treatment, ‘That history will ever remain inexhaustible.’ How inexhaustible? Are the facts of history inexhaustible? In regard to the ancient division of history with which he is there dealing, this would be in no sense true; and in any case it would be a lifeless truth. So entirely have the mere facts of Pagan history been disinterred, ransacked, sifted, that except by means of some chance medal that may be unearthed in the illiterate East (as of late towards Bokhara), or by means of some mysterious inscription, such as those which still mock the learned traveller in Persia, northwards near Hamadan (Ecbatana), and southwards at Persepolis, or those which distract him amongst the shadowy ruins of Yucatan (Uxmal, suppose, and Palenque),–once for all, barring these pure godsends, it is hardly ‘in the dice’ that any downright novelty of fact should remain in reversion for this nineteenth century. The merest possibility exists, that in Armenia, or in a Graeco-Russian monastery on Mount Athos, or in Pompeii, etc., some authors hitherto Î�Î�Î�χÎ�Î�τÎ�Î� may yet be concealed; and by a channel in that degree improbable, it is possible that certain new facts of history may still reach us. But else, and failing these cryptical or subterraneous currents of communication, for us the record is closed. History in that sense has come to an end, and sealed up as by the angel in the Apocalypse. What then? The facts so understood are but the dry bones of the mighty past. And the question arises here also, not less than in that sublimest of prophetic visions, ‘Can these dry bones live?’. Not only can they live, but by an infinite variety of life. The same historic facts, viewed in different lights, or brought into connection with other facts, according to endless diversities of permutation and combination, furnish grounds for such eternal successions of new speculations as make the facts themselves virtually new. The same Hebrew words are read by different sets of vowel points, and the same hieroglyphics are deciphered by keys everlastingly varied.

To us we repeat that oftentimes it seems as though the science of history were yet scarcely founded. There will be such a science, if at present there is not; and in one feature of its capacities it will resemble chemistry. What is so familiar to the perceptions of man as the common chemical agents of water, air, and the soil on which we tread? Yet each one of these elements is a mystery to this day; handled, used, tried, searched experimentally, in ten thousand ways–it is still unknown; fathomed by recent science down to a certain depth, it is still probably by its destiny unfathomable. Even to the end of days, it is pretty certain that the minutest particle of earth–that a dew-drop scarcely distinguishable as a separate object–that the slenderest filament of a plant will include within itself secrets inaccessible to man. And yet, compared with the mystery of man himself, these physical worlds of mystery are but as a radix of infinity. Chemistry is in this view mysterious and spinosistically sublime–that it is the science of the latent in all things, of all things as lurking in all. Within the lifeless flint, within the silent pyrites, slumbers an agony of potential combustion. Iron is imprisoned in blood. With cold water (as every child is now-a-days aware) you may lash a fluid into angry ebullitions of heat; with hot water, as with the rod of Amram’s son, you may freeze a fluid down to the temperature of the Sarsar wind, provided only that you regulate the pressure of the air. The sultry and dissolving fluid shall bake into a solid, the petrific fluid shall melt into a liquid. Heat shall freeze, frost shall thaw; and wherefore? Simply because old things are brought together in new modes of combination. And in endless instances beside we see the same Panlike latency of forms and powers, which gives to the external world a capacity of self-transformation, and of polymorphosis absolutely inexhaustible.

But the same capacity belongs to the facts of history. And we do not mean merely that, from subjective differences in the minds reviewing them, such facts assume endless varieties of interpretation and estimate, but that objectively, from lights still increasing in the science of government and of social philosophy, all the primary facts of history become liable continually to new theories, to new combinations, and to new valuations of their moral relations. We have seen some kinds of marble, where the veinings happened to be unusually multiplied, in which human faces, figures, processions, or fragments of natural scenery seemed absolutely illimitable, under the endless variations or inversions of the order, according to which they might be combined and grouped. Something analogous takes effect in reviewing the remote parts of history. Rome, for instance, has been the object of historic pens for twenty centuries (dating from Polybius); and yet hardly so much as twenty years have elapsed since Niebuhr opened upon us almost a new revelation, by re-combining the same eternal facts, according to a different set of principles. The same thing may be said, though not with the same degree of emphasis, upon the Grecian researches of the late Ottfried Mueller. Egyptian history again, even at this moment, is seen stealing upon us through the dusky twilight in its first distinct lineaments. Before Young, Champollion, and the others who have followed on their traces in this field of history, all was outer darkness; and whatsoever we do know or shall know of Egyptian Thebes will now be recovered as if from the unswathing of a mummy. Not until a flight of three thousand years has left Thebes the Hekatompylos a dusky speck in the far distance, have we even begun to read her annals, or to understand her revolutions.

Another instance we have now before us of this new historic faculty for resuscitating the buried, and for calling back the breath to the frozen features of death, in Mr. Finlay’s work upon the Greeks as related to the Roman empire. He presents us with old facts, but under the purpose of clothing them with a new life. He rehearses ancient stories, not with the humble ambition of better adorning them, of more perspicuously narrating, or even of more forcibly pointing their moral, but of extracting from them some new meaning, and thus forcing them to arrange themselves, under some latent connection, with other phenomena now first detected, as illustrations of some great principle or agency now first revealing its importance. Mr. Finlay’s style of intellect is appropriate to such a task; for it is subtle and Machiavellian. But there is this difficulty in doing justice to the novelty, and at times we may say with truth to the profundity of his views, that they are by necessity thrown out in continued successions of details, are insulated, and, in one word, sporadic. This follows from the very nature of his work; for it is a perpetual commentary on the incidents of Grecian history, from the era of the Roman conquest to the commencement of what Mr. Finlay, in a peculiar sense, calls the Byzantine empire. These incidents have nowhere been systematically or continuously recorded; they come forward by casual flashes in the annals, perhaps, of some church historian, as they happen to connect themselves with his momentary theme; or they betray themselves in the embarrassments of the central government, whether at Rome or at Constantinople, when arguing at one time a pestilence, at another an insurrection, or an inroad of barbarians. It is not the fault of Mr. Finlay, but his great disadvantage, that the affairs of Greece have been thus discontinuously exhibited, and that its internal changes of condition have been never treated except obliquely, and by men aliud agentibus. The Grecian race had a primary importance on our planet; but the Grecian name, represented by Greece considered as a territory, or as the original seat of the Hellenic people, ceased to have much importance, in the eyes of historians, from the time when it became a conquered province; and it declined into absolute insignificance after the conquest of so many other provinces had degraded Hellas into an arithmetical unit, standing amongst a total amount of figures, so vast and so much more dazzling to the ordinary mind. Hence it was that in ancient times no complete history of Greece, through all her phases and stages, was ever attempted. The greatness of her later revolutions, simply as changes, would have attracted the historian; but, as changes associated with calamity and loss of power, they repelled his curiosity, and alienated his interest. It is the very necessity, therefore, of Mr. Finlay’s position, when coming into such an inheritance, that he must splinter his philosophy into separate individual notices; for the records of history furnish no grounds for more. Spartam, quam nactus est, ornavit. But this does not remedy the difficulty for ourselves, in attempting to give a representative view of his philosophy. General abstractions he had no opportunity for presenting; consequently we have no opportunity for valuing; and, on the other hand, single cases selected from a succession of hundreds would not justify any representative criticism, more than the single brick, in the anecdote of Hierocles, would serve representatively to describe or to appraise the house.

Under this difficulty as to the possible for ourselves, and the just for Mr. Finlay, we shall adopt the following course. So far as the Greek people collected themselves in any splendid manner with the Roman empire, they did so with the eastern horn of that empire, and in point of time from the foundation of Constantinople as an eastern Rome, in the fourth century, to a period not fully agreed on; but for the moment we will say with Mr. Finlay, up to the early part of the eighth century. A reason given by Mr. Finlay for this latter date is–that about that time the Grecian blood, so widely diffused in Asia, and even in Africa, became finally detached by the progress of Mahometanism and Mahometan systems of power from all further concurrence or coalition with the views of the Byzantine Caesar. Constantinople was from that date thrown back more upon its own peculiar heritage and jurisdiction, of which the main resources for war and peace lay in Europe and (speaking by the narrowest terms) in Thrace. Henceforth, therefore, for the city and throne of Constantine, resuming its old Grecian name of Byzantium, there succeeded a theatre less diffusive, a population more concentrated, a character of action more determinate and jealous, a style of courtly ceremonial more elaborate as well as more haughtily repulsive, and universally a system of interests, as much more definite and selfish, as might naturally be looked for in a nation now everywhere surrounded by new thrones gloomy with malice, and swelling with the consciousness of youthful power. This new and final state of the eastern Rome Mr. Finlay denominates the Byzantine empire. Possibly this use of the term may be capable of justification: but more questions would arise in the discussion than Mr. Finlay has thought it of importance to notice. And for the present we shall take the word Byzantine in its most ordinary acceptation, as denoting the local empire founded by Constantine in Byzantium early in the fourth century, under the idea of a translation from the old western Rome, and overthrown by the Ottoman Turks in the year 1453. In the fortunes and main stages of this empire, what are the chief arresting phenomena, aspects, or relations, to the greatest of modern interests? We select by preference these:

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I. First, this was the earliest among the kingdoms of our planet which connected itself with Christianity. In Armenia, there had been a previous state recognition of Christianity. But that was neither splendid nor distinct. Whereas the Byzantine Rome built avowedly upon Christianity as its own basis, and consecrated its own nativity by the sublime act of founding the first provision ever attempted for the poor, considered simply as poor (i.e. as objects of pity, not as instruments of ambition).

II. Secondly, as the great aegis of western Christendom, nay, the barrier which made it possible that any Christendom should ever exist, this Byzantine empire is entitled to a very different station in the enlightened gratitude of us Western Europeans from any which it has yet held. We do not scruple to say–that, by comparison with the services of the Byzantine people to Europe, no nation on record has ever stood in the same relation to any other single nation, much less to a whole family of nations, whether as regards the opportunity and means of conferring benefits, or as regards the astonishing perseverance in supporting the succession of these benefits, or as regards the ultimate event of these benefits. A great wrong has been done for ages; for we have all been accustomed to speak of the Byzantine empire with scorn, [Footnote: ‘With scorn.’–This has arisen from two causes: one is the habit of regarding the whole Roman empire as in its ‘decline’ from so early a period as that of Commodus; agreeably to which conceit, it would naturally follow that, during its latter stages, the Eastern empire must have been absolutely in its dotage. If already declining in the second century, then, from the tenth to the fifteenth, it must have been paralytic and bed-ridden The other cause may be found in the accidental but reasonable hostility of the Byzantine court to the first Crusaders, as also in the disadvantageous comparison with respect to manly virtues between the simplicity of these western children, and the refined dissimulation of the Byzantines.] as chiefly known by its effeminacy; and the greater is the call for a fervent palinode.

III. Thirdly. In a reflex way, as the one great danger which overshadowed Europe for generations, and against which the Byzantine empire proved the capital bulwark, Mahometanism may rank as one of the Byzantine aspects or counterforces. And if there is any popular error applying to the history of that great convulsion, as a political effort for revolutionizing the world, some notice of it will find a natural place in connection with these present trains of speculation.

Let us, therefore, have permission to throw together a few remarks on these three subjects–1st, on the remarkable distinction by which the eldest of Christian rulers proclaimed and inaugurated the Christian basis of his empire; 2dly, on the true but forgotten relation of this great empire to our modern Christendom, under which idea we comprehend Europe and the whole continent of America; 3dly, on the false pretensions of Mahometanism, whether advanced by itself or by inconsiderate Christian speculators on its behalf. We shall thus obtain this advantage, that some sort of unity will be given to our own glances at Mr. Finlay’s theme; and, at the same time, by gathering under these general heads any dispersed comments of Mr. Finlay, whether for confirmation of our own views, or for any purpose of objection to his, we shall give to those comments also that kind of unity, by means of a reference to a common purpose, which we could not have given them by citing each independently for itself.

I. First, then, as to that memorable act by which Constantinople (i. e. the Eastern empire) connected herself for ever with Christianity; viz. the recognition of pauperism as an element in the state entitled to the maternal guardianship of the state. In this new principle, introduced by Christianity, we behold a far-seeing or proleptic wisdom, making provision for evils before they had arisen; for it is certain that great expansions of pauperism did not exist in the ancient world. A pauper population is a disease peculiar to the modern or Christian world. Various causes latent in the social systems of the ancients prevented such developments of surplus people. But does not this argue a superiority in the social arrangements of these ancients? Not at all; they were atrociously worse. They evaded this one morbid affection by means of others far more injurious to the moral advance of man. The case was then everywhere as at this day it is in Persia. A Persian ambassador to London or Paris might boast that, in his native Iran, no such spectacles existed of hunger-bitten myriads as may be seen everywhere during seasons of distress in the crowded cities of Christian Europe. ‘No,’ would be the answer, ‘most certainly not; but why? The reason is, that your accursed form of society and government intercepts such surplus people, does not suffer them to be born. What is the result? You ought, in Persia, to have three hundred millions of people; your vast territory is easily capacious of that number. You have–how many have you? Something less than eight millions.’ Think of this, startled reader. But, if that be a good state of things, then any barbarous soldier who makes a wilderness, is entitled to call himself a great philosopher and public benefactor. This is to cure the headache by amputating the head. Now, the same principle of limitation to population a parte ante, though not in the same savage excess as in Mahometan Persia, operated upon Greece and Rome. The whole Pagan world escaped the evils of redundant population by vicious repressions of it beforehand. But under Christianity a new state of things was destined to take effect. Many protections and excitements to population were laid in the framework of this new religion, which, by its new code of rules and impulses, in so many ways extended the free-agency of human beings. Manufacturing industry was destined first to arise on any great scale under Christianity. Except in Tyre and Alexandria (see the Emperor Hadrian’s account of this last), there was no town or district in the ancient world where the populace could be said properly to work. The rural laborers worked a little–not much;–and sailors worked a little;–nobody else worked at all. Even slaves had little more work distributed amongst each ten than now settles upon one. And in many other ways, by protecting the principle of life, as a mysterious sanctity, Christianity has favored the development of an excessive population. There it is that Christianity, being answerable for the mischief, is answerable for its redress. Therefore it is that, breeding the disease, Christianity breeds the cure. Extending the vast lines of poverty, Christianity it was that first laid down the principle of a relief for poverty. Constantine, the first Christian potentate, laid the first stone of the mighty overshadowing institution since reared in Christian lands to poverty, disease, orphanage, and mutilation. Christian instincts, moving and speaking through that Caesar, first carried out that great idea of Christianity. Six years was Christianity in building Constantinople, and in the seventh she rested from her labors, saying, ‘Henceforward let the poor man have a haven of rest for ever; a rest from his work for one day in seven; a rest from his anxieties by a legal and fixed relief.’ Being legal, it could not be open to disturbances of caprice in the giver; being fixed, it was not open to disturbances of miscalculation in the receiver. Now, first, when first Christianity was installed as a public organ of government (and first owned a distinct political responsibility), did it become the duty of a religion which assumed, as it were, the official tutelage of poverty, to proclaim and consecrate that function by some great memorial precedent. And, accordingly, in testimony of that obligation, the first Christian Caesar, on behalf of Christianity, founded the first system of relief for pauperism. It is true, that largesses from the public treasury, gratuitous coin, or corn sold at diminished rates, not to mention the sportulae or stated doles of private Roman nobles, had been distributed amongst the indigent citizens of Western Rome for centuries before Constantine; but all these had been the selfish bounties of factious ambition or intrigue.

To Christianity was reserved the inaugural act of public charity in the spirit of charity. We must remember that no charitable or beneficent institutions of any kind, grounded on disinterested kindness, existed amongst the Pagan Romans, and still less amongst the Pagan Greeks. Mr. Coleridge, in one of his lay sermons, advanced the novel doctrine–that in the Scripture is contained all genuine and profound statesmanship. Of course he must be understood to mean–in its capital principles; for, as to subordinate and executive rules for applying such principles, these, doubtless, are in part suggested by the local circumstances in each separate case. Now, amongst the political theories of the Bible is this–that pauperism is not an accident in the constitution of states, but an indefeasible necessity; or, in the scriptural words, that ‘the poor shall never cease out of the land.’ This theory or great canon of social philosophy, during many centuries, drew no especial attention from philosophers. It passed for a truism, bearing no particular emphasis or meaning beyond some general purpose of sanction to the impulses of charity. But there is good reason to believe, that it slumbered, and was meant to slumber, until Christianity arising and moving forwards should call it into a new life, as a principle suited to a new order of things. Accordingly, we have seen of late that this scriptural dictum–‘The poor shall never cease out of the land’–has terminated its career as a truism (that is, as a truth, either obvious on one hand, or inert on the other), and has wakened into a polemic or controversial life. People arose who took upon them utterly to deny this scriptural doctrine. Peremptorily they challenged the assertion that poverty must always exist. The Bible said that it was an affection of human society which could not be exterminated; the economist of 1800 said that it was a foul disease, which must and should be exterminated. The scriptural philosophy said, that pauperism was inalienable from man’s social condition in the same way that decay was inalienable from his flesh. ‘I shall soon see that,’ said the economist of 1800, ‘for as sure as my name is M—-, I will have this poverty put down by law within one generation, if there’s a law to be had in the courts of Westminster.’ The Scriptures have left word–that, if any man should come to the national banquet declaring himself unable to pay his contribution, that man should be accounted the guest of Christianity, and should be privileged to sit at the table in thankful remembrance of what Christianity had done for man. But Mr. M—- left word with all the servants, that, if any man should present himself under those circumstances, he was to be told, ‘the table is full’–(his words, not ours); ‘go away, good man.’ Go away! Mr, M—-? Where was he to go to? Whither? In what direction?–‘Why, if you come to that,’ said the man of 1800, ‘to any ditch that he prefers: surely there’s good choice of ditches for the most fastidious taste.’ During twenty years, viz. from 1800 to 1820, this new philosophy, which substituted a ditch for a dinner, and a paving-stone for a loaf, prevailed and prospered. At one time it seemed likely enough to prove a snare to our own aristocracy–the noblest of all ages. But that peril was averted, and the further history of the case was this: By the year 1820, much discussion having passed to and fro, serious doubts had arisen in many quarters; scepticism had begun to arm itself against the sceptic; the economist of 1800 was no longer quite sure of his ground. He was now suspected of being fallible; and what seemed of worse augury, he was beginning himself to suspect as much. To one capital blunder he was obliged publicly to plead guilty. What it was, we shall have occasion to mention immediately. Meantime it was justly thought that, in a dispute loaded with such prodigious practical consequences, good sense and prudence demanded a more extended inquiry than had yet been instituted. Whether poverty would ever cease from the land, might be doubted by those who balanced their faith in Scripture against their faith in the man of 1800. But this at least could not be doubted–that as yet poverty had not ceased, nor indeed had made any sensible preparations for ceasing from any land in Europe. It was a clear case, therefore, that, howsoever Europe might please to dream upon the matter when pauperism should have reached that glorious euthanasy predicted by the alchemist of old and the economist of 1800, for the present she must deal actively with her own pauperism on some avowed plan and principle, good or evil–gentle or harsh. Accordingly, in the train of years between 1820 and 1830, inquiries were made of every separate state in Europe, what were those plans and principles. For it was justly said–‘As one step towards judging rightly of our own system, now that it has been so clamorously challenged for a bad system, let us learn what it is that other nations think upon the subject, but above all what it is that they do.’ The answers to our many inquiries varied considerably; and some amongst the most enlightened nations appear to have adopted the good old plan of laissez faire, giving nothing from any public fund to the pauper, but authorizing him to levy contributions on that gracious allegoric lady, Private Charity, wherever he could meet her taking the air with her babes. This reference appeared to be the main one in reply to any application of the pauper; and for all the rest they referred him generally to the ‘ditch,’ or to his own unlimited choice of ditches, according to the approved method of public benevolence published in 4to and in 8vo by the man of 1800. But there were other and humbler states in Europe, whose very pettiness has brought more fully within their vision the whole machinery and watchwork of pauperism, as it acted and reacted on the industrious poverty of the land, and on other interests, by means of the system adopted in relieving it. From these states came many interesting reports, all tending to some good purpose. But at last, and before the year 1830, amongst other results of more or less value, three capital points were established, not more decisive for the justification of the English system of administering national relief to paupers, and of all systems that reverenced the authority of Scripture, than they were for the overthrow of Mr. M—-, the man of 1800. These three points are worthy of being used as buoys in mapping out the true channels, or indicating the breakers on this difficult line of navigation; and we now rehearse them. They may seem plain almost to obviousness; but it is enough that they involve all the disputed questions of the case.

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First. That, in spite of the assurances from economists, no progress whatever had been made by England or by any state which lent any sanction to the hope of ever eradicating poverty from society.

Secondly. That, in absolute contradiction of the whole hypothesis relied on by M— and his brethren, in its most fundamental doctrine, a legal provision for poverty did not act as a bounty on marriage. The experience of England, where the trial had been made on the largest scale, was decisive on this point; and the opposite experience of Ireland, under the opposite circumstances, was equally decisive. And this result had made itself so clear by 1820, that even M— (as we have already noticed by anticipation) was compelled to publish a recantation as to this particular error, which in effect was a recantation of his entire theory.

Thirdly. That, according to the concurring experience of all the most enlightened states of Christendom, the public suffered least (not merely in molestation but in money), pauperism benefited most, and the growth of pauperism was retarded most, precisely as the provision for the poor had been legalized as to its obligation, and fixed as to its amount. Left to individual discretion, the burden was found to press most unequally; and, on the other hand, the evil itself of pauperism, whilst much less effectually relieved, nevertheless through the irregular action of this relief was much more powerfully stimulated.

Such is the abstract of our latest public warfare on this great question through a period of nearly fifty years. And the issue is this–starting from the contemptuous defiance of the scriptural doctrine upon the necessity of making provision for poverty as an indispensable element in civil communities, the economy of the age has lowered its tone by graduated descents, in each one successively of the four last decennia. The philosophy of the day as to this point at least is at length in coincidence with Scripture. And thus the very extensive researches of this nineteenth century, as to pauperism, have re-acted with the effect of a full justification upon Constantine’s attempt to connect the foundation of his empire with that new theory of Christianity upon the imperishableness of poverty, and upon the duties corresponding to it.

Meantime, Mr. Finlay denies that Christianity had been raised by Constantine into the religion of the state; and others have denied that, in the extensive money privileges conceded to Constantinople, he contemplated any but political principles. As to the first point, we apprehend that Constantine will be found not so much to have shrunk back from fear of installing Christianity in the seat of supremacy, as to have diverged in policy from our modern methods of such an installation. Our belief is, that according to his notion of a state religion, he supposed himself to have conferred that distinction upon Christianity. With respect to the endowments and privileges of Constantinople, they were various; some lay in positive donations, others in immunities and exemptions; some again were designed to attract strangers, others to attract nobles from old Rome. But, with fuller opportunities for pursuing that discussion, we think it would be easy to show, that in more than one of his institutions and his decrees he had contemplated the special advantage of the poor as such; and that, next after the august distinction of having founded the first Christian throne, he had meant to challenge and fix the gaze of future ages upon this glorious pretension–that he first had executed the scriptural injunction to make a provision for the poor, as an order of society that by laws immutable should ‘never cease out of the land.’

II. Let us advert to the value and functions of Constantinople as the tutelary genius of western or dawning Christianity.

The history of Constantinople, or more generally of the Eastern Roman empire, wears a peculiar interest to the children of Christendom; and for two separate reasons–first, as being the narrow isthmus or bridge which connects the two continents of ancient and modern history, and that is a philosophic interest; but secondly, which in the very highest degree is a practical interest, as the record of our earthly salvation from Mahometanism. On two horns was Europe assaulted by the Moslems; first, last, and through the largest tract of time, on the horn of Constantinople; there the contest raged for more than eight hundred years, and by the time that the mighty bulwark fell (1453), Vienna and other cities upon or near the Danube had found leisure for growing up; so that, if one range of Alps had slowly been surmounted, another had now slowly reared and embattled itself against the westward progress of the Crescent. On the western horn, in France, but by Germans, once for all Charles Martel had arrested the progress of the fanatical Moslem almost in a single battle; certainly a single generation saw the whole danger dispersed, inasmuch as within that space the Saracens were effectually forced back into their original Spanish lair. This demonstrates pretty forcibly the difference of the Mahometan resources as applied to the western and the eastern struggle. To throw the whole weight of that difference, a difference in the result as between eight centuries and thirty years, upon the mere difference of energy in German and Byzantine forces, as though the first did, by a rapturous fervor, in a few revolutions of summer what the other had protracted through nearly a millennium, is a representation which defeats itself by its own extravagance. To prove too much is more dangerous than to prove too little. The fact is, that vast armies and mighty nations were continually disposable for the war upon the city of Constantine; nations had time to arise in juvenile vigor, to grow old and superannuated, to melt away, and totally to disappear, in that long struggle on the Hellespont and Propontis. It was a struggle which might often intermit and slumber; armistices there might be, truces, or unproclaimed suspensions of war out of mutual exhaustion, but peace there could not be, because any resting from the duty of hatred towards those who reciprocally seemed to lay the foundations of their creed in a dishonoring of God, was impossible to aspiring human nature. Malice and mutual hatred, we repeat, became a duty in those circumstances. Why had they begun to fight? Personal feuds there had been none between the parties. For the early caliphs did not conquer Syria and other vast provinces of the Roman empire, because they had a quarrel with the Caesars who represented Christendom; but, on the contrary, they had a quarrel with the Caesars because they had conquered Syria, or, at the most, the conquest and the feud (if not always lying in that exact succession as cause and effect) were joint effects from a common cause, which cause was imperishable as death, or the ocean, and as deep as are the fountains of animal life. Could the ocean be altered by a sea-fight? Or the atmosphere be tainted for ever by an earthquake? As little could any single reign or its events affect the feud of the Moslem and the Christian; a feud which could not cease unless God could change, or unless man (becoming careless of spiritual things) should sink to the level of a brute.

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These are considerations of great importance in weighing the value of the Eastern Empire. If the cause and interest of Islamism, as against Christianity, were undying–then we may be assured that the Moorish infidels of Spain did not reiterate their trans-Pyrenean expeditions after one generation–simply because they could not. But we know that on the south-eastern horn of Europe they could, upon the plain argument that for many centuries they did. Over and above this, we are of opinion that the Saracens were unequal to the sort of hardships bred by cold climates; and there lay another repulsion for Saracens from France, etc., and not merely the Carlovingian sword. We children of Christendom show our innate superiority to the children of the Orient upon this scale or tariff of acclimatizing powers. We travel as wheat travels through all reasonable ranges of temperature; they, like rice, can migrate only to warm latitudes. They cannot support our cold, but we can support the countervailing hardships of their heat. This cause alone would have weatherbound the Mussulmans for ever within the Pyrenean cloisters. Mussulmans in cold latitudes look as blue and as absurd as sailors on horseback. Apart from which cause, we see that the fine old Visigothic races in Spain found them full employment up to the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, which reign first created a kingdom of Spain; in that reign the whole fabric of their power thawed away, and was confounded with forgotten things. Columbus, according to a local tradition, was personally present at some of the latter campaigns in Grenada: he saw the last of them. So that the discovery of America may be used as a convertible date with that of extinction for the Saracen power in western Europe. True that the overthrow of Constantinople had forerun this event by nearly half a century. But then we insist upon the different proportions of the struggle. Whilst in Spain a province had fought against a province, all Asia militant had fought against the eastern Roman empire. Amongst the many races whom dimly we decry in those shadowy hosts, tilting for ages in the vast plains of Angora, are seen latterly pressing on to the van, two mighty powers, the children of Persia and the Ottoman family of the Turks. Upon these nations, both now rapidly decaying, the faith of Mahomet has ever leaned as upon her eldest sons; and these powers the Byzantine Cæsars had to face in every phasis of their energy, as it revolved from perfect barbarism, through semi-barbarism, to that crude form of civilization which Mahometans can support. And through all these transmigrations of their power we must remember that they were under a martial training and discipline, never suffered to become effeminate. One set of warriors after another did, it is true, become effeminate in Persia: but upon that advantage opening, always another set stepped in from Torkistan or from the Imaus. The nation, the individuals melted away; the Moslem armies were immortal.

Here, therefore, it is, and standing at this point of our review, that we complain of Mr. Finlay’s too facile compliance with historians far beneath himself. He has a fine understanding: oftentimes his commentaries on the past are ebullient with subtlety; and his fault strikes us as lying even in the excess of his sagacity applying itself too often to a basis of facts, quite insufficient for supporting the superincumbent weight of his speculations. But in this instance he surrenders himself too readily to the ordinary current of history. How would he like it, if he happened to be a Turk himself, finding his nation thus implicitly undervalued? For clearly, in undervaluing the Byzantine resistance, he does undervalue the Mahometan assault. Advantages of local situation cannot eternally make good the deficiencies of man. If the Byzantines (being as weak as historians would represent them) yet for ages resisted the whole impetus of Mahometan Asia, then it follows, either that the Crescent was correspondingly weak, or that, not being weak, she must have found the Cross pretty strong. The facit of history does not here correspond with the numerical items.

Nothing has ever surprised us more, we will frankly own, than this coincidence of authors in treating the Byzantine empire as feeble and crazy. On the contrary, to us it is clear that some secret and preternatural strength it must have had, lurking where the eye of man did not in those days penetrate, or by what miracle did it undertake our universal Christian cause, fight for us all, keep the waters open from freezing us up, and through nine centuries prevent the ice of Mahometanism from closing over our heads for ever? Yet does Mr. Finlay (p. 424) describe this empire as laboring, in A. D. 623, equally with Persia, under ‘internal weakness,’ and as ‘equally incapable of offering any popular or national resistance to an active or enterprising enemy.’ In this Mr. Finlay does but agree with other able writers; but he and they should have recollected, that hardly had that very year 623 departed, even yet the knell of its last hour was sounding upon the winds, when this effeminate empire had occasion to show that she could clothe herself with consuming terrors, as a belligerent both defensive and aggressive. In the absence of her great emperor, and of the main imperial forces, the golden capital herself, by her own resources, routed and persecuted into wrecks a Persian army that had come down upon her by stealth and a fraudulent circuit. Even at that same period, she advanced into Persia more than a thousand miles from her own metropolis in Europe, under the blazing ensigns of the cross, kicked the crown of Persia to and fro like a tennis-ball, upset the throne of Artaxerxes, countersigned haughtily the elevation of a new Basileus more friendly to herself, and then recrossed the Tigris homewards, after having torn forcibly out of the heart and palpitating entrails of Persia, whatever trophies that idolatrous empire had formerly wrested from herself. These were not the acts of an effeminate kingdom. In the language of Wordsworth we may say–

‘All power was giv’n her in the dreadful trance;
Infidel kings she wither’d like a flame.’

Indeed, no image that we remember can do justice to the first of these acts, except that Spanish legend of the Cid, which assures us that, long after the death of the mighty cavalier, when the children of those Moors who had fled from his face whilst living, were insulting the marble statue above his grave, suddenly the statue raised its right arm, stretched out its marble lance, and drifted the heathen dogs like snow. The mere sanctity of the Christian champion’s sepulchre was its own protection; and so we must suppose, that, when the Persian hosts came by surprise upon Constantinople–her natural protector being absent by three months’ march–simply the golden statues of the mighty Caesars, half rising on their thrones, must have caused that sudden panic which dissipated the danger. Hardly fifty years later, Mr. Finlay well knows that Constantinople again stood an assault–not from a Persian hourrah, or tempestuous surprise, but from a vast expedition, armaments by land and sea, fitted out elaborately in the early noontide of Mahometan vigor–and that assault, also, in the presence of the caliph and the crescent, was gloriously discomfited. Now if, in the moment of triumph, some voice in the innumerable crowd had cried out, ‘How long shall this great Christian breakwater, against which are shattered into surge and foam all the mountainous billows of idolators and misbelievers, stand up on behalf of infant Christendom?’ and if from the clouds some trumpet of prophecy had replied, ‘Even yet for eight hundred years!’ could any man have persuaded himself that such a fortress against such antogonists–such a monument against a millennium of fury–was to be classed amongst the weak things of this earth? This oriental Rome, it is true, equally with Persia, was liable to sudden inroads and incursions. But the difference was this–Persia was strongly protected in all ages by the wilderness on her main western frontier; if this were passed, and a hand-to-hand conflict succeeded, where light cavalry or fugitive archers could be of little value, the essential weakness of the Persian empire then betrayed itself. Her sovereign was assassinated, and peace was obtained from the condescension of the invader. But the enemies of Constantinople, Goths, Avars, Bulgarians, or even Persians, were strong only by their weakness. Being contemptible, they were neglected; being chased, they made no stand; and thus only they escaped. They entered like thieves by means of darkness, and escaped like sheep by means of dispersion. But, if caught, they were annihilated. No; we resume our thesis; we close this head by reiterating our correction of history; we re-affirm our position–that in Eastern Rome lay the salvation of Western and Central Europe; in Constantinople and the Propontis lay the sine qua non condition of any future Christendom. Emperor and people must have done their duty; the result, the vast extent of generations surmounted, furnish the triumphant argument. Finally, indeed, they fell, king and people, shepherd and flock; but by that time their mission was fulfilled. And doubtless, as the noble Palaeologus lay on heaps of carnage, with his noble people, as life was ebbing away, a voice from heaven sounded in his ears the great words of the Hebrew prophet, ‘Behold! YOUR WORK IS DONE; your warfare is accomplished.’

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III. Such, then, being the unmerited disparagement of the Byzantine government, and so great the ingratitude of later Christendom to that sheltering power under which themselves enjoyed the leisure of a thousand years for knitting and expanding into strong nations; on the other hand, what is to be thought of the Saracen revolutionists? Everywhere it has passed for a lawful postulate, that the Saracen conquests prevailed, half by the feebleness of the Roman government at Constantinople, and half by the preternatural energy infused into the Arabs by their false prophet and legislator. In either of its faces, this theory is falsified by a steady review of facts. With regard to the Saracens, Mr. Finlay thinks as we do, and argues that they prevailed through the local, or sometimes the casual, weakness of their immediate enemies, and rarely through any strength of their own. We must remember one fatal weakness of the Imperial administration in those days, not due to men or to principles, but entirely to nature and the slow growth of scientific improvements–viz.: the difficulties of locomotion. As respected Syria, Egypt, Cyrenaica, and so on to the most western provinces of Africa, the Saracens had advantages for moving rapidly which the Caesar had not. But is not a water movement speedier than a land movement, which for an army never has much exceeded fourteen miles a-day? Certainly it is; but in this case there were two desperate defects in the imperial control over that water service. To use a fleet, you must have a fleet; but their whole naval interest had been starved by the intolerable costs of the Persian war. Immense had been the expenses of Heraclius, and annually decaying had been his Asiatic revenues. Secondly, the original position of the Arabs had been better than that of the emperor, in every stage of the warfare which so suddenly arose. In Arabia they stood nearest to Syria, in Syria nearest to Egypt, in Egypt nearest to Cyrenaica. What reason had there been for expecting a martial legislator at that moment in Arabia, who should fuse and sternly combine her distracted tribes? What blame, therefore, to Heraclius, that Syria–the first object of assault, being also by much the weakest part of the empire, and immediately after the close of a desolating war–should in four campaigns be found indefensible? We must remember the unexampled abruptness of the Arabian revolution. The year sixteen hundred and twenty-two, by its very name of Hegira, does not record a triumph but a humiliation. In that year, therefore, and at the very moment when Heraclius was entering upon his long Persian struggle, Mahomet was yet prostrate, and his destiny was doubtful. Eleven years after, viz. in six hundred and thirty-three, the prophet was dead and gone; but his first successor was already in Syria as a conqueror. Such had been the velocity of events. The Persian war had then been finished by three years, but the exhaustion of the empire had perhaps, at that moment, reached its maximum. We are satisfied, that ten years’ repose from this extreme state of collapse would have shown us another result. Even as it was, and caught at this enormous disadvantage, Heraclius taught the robbers to tremble, and would have exterminated them, if not baffled by two irremediable calamities, neither of them due to any act or neglect of his own. The first lay in the treason of his lieutenants. The governors of Damascus, of Aleppo, of Emesa, of Bostra, of Kinnisrin, all proved traitors. The root of this evil lay, probably, in the disorders following the Persian invasion, which had made it the perilous interest of the emperor to appoint great officers from amongst those who had a local influence. Such persons it might have been ruinous too suddenly to set aside, as, in the event, it proved ruinous to employ them. A dilemma of this kind, offering but a choice of evils, belonged to the nature of any Persian war; and that particular war was bequeathed to Heraclius by the management of his predecesors. But the second calamity was even more fatal; it lay in the composition of the Syrian population, and its original want of vital cohesion. For no purpose could this population be united: they formed a rope of sand. There was the distraction of religion (Jacobites, Nestorians, etc.); there was the distraction of races–slaves and masters, conquered and conquerors, modern intruders mixed, but not blended with, aboriginal mountaineers. Property became the one principle of choice between the two governments. Where was protection to be had for that? Barbarous as were the Arabs, they saw their present advantage. Often it would happen from the position of the armies, that they could, whilst the emperor could not, guarantee the instant security of land or of personal treasures; the Arabs could also promise, sometimes, a total immunity from taxes, very often a diminished scale of taxation, always a remission of arrears; none of which demands could be listened to by the emperor, partly on account of the public necessities, partly from jealousy of establishing operative precedents. For religion, again, protection was more easily obtained in that day from the Arab, who made war on Christianity, than from the Byzantine emperor, who was its champion. What were the different sects and subdivisions of Christianity to the barbarian? Monophysite, Monothelite, Eutychian, or Jacobite, all were to him as the scholastic disputes of noble and intellectual Europe to the camps of gypsies. The Arab felt himself to be the depository of one sublime truth, the unity of God. His mission, therefore, was principally against idolaters. Yet even to them his policy was to sell toleration for tribute. Clearly, as Mr. Finlay hints, this was merely a provisional moderation, meant to be laid aside when sufficient power was obtained; and it was laid aside, in after ages, by many a wretch like Timor or Nadir Shah. Religion, therefore, and property once secured, what more had the Syrians to seek? And if to these advantages for the Saracens we add the fact, that a considerable Arab population was dispersed through Syria, who became so many emissaries, spies, and decoys for their countrymen, it does great honor to the emperor, that through so many campaigns he should at all have maintained his ground, which at last he resigned only under the despondency caused by almost universal treachery.

The Saracens, therefore, had no great merit even in their earliest exploits; and the impetus of their movement forwards, that principle of proselytism which carried them so strongly ‘ahead’ through a few generations, was very soon brought to a stop. Mr. Finlay, in our mind, does right to class these barbarians as ‘socially and politically little better than the Gothic, Hunnish, and Avar monarchies.’ But, on consideration, the Gothic monarchy embosomed the germs of a noble civilization; whereas the Saracens have never propagated great principles of any kind, nor attained even a momentary grandeur in their institutions, except where coalescing with a higher or more ancient civilization.

Meantime, ascending from the earliest Mahometans to their prophet, what are we to think of him? Was Mahomet a great man? We think not. The case was thus: the Arabian tribes had long stood ready, like dogs held in a leash, for a start after distant game. It was not Mahomet who gave them that impulse. But next, what was it that had hindered the Arab tribes from obeying the impulse? Simply this, that they were always in feud with each other; so that their expeditions, beginning in. harmony, were sure to break up in anger on the road. What they needed was, some one grand compressing and unifying principle, such as the Roman found in the destinies of his city. True; but this, you say, they found in the sublime principle that God was one, and had appointed them to be the scourges of all who denied it. Their mission was to cleanse the earth from Polytheism; and, as ambassadors from God, to tell the nations–‘Ye shall have no other Gods but me.’ That was grand; and that surely they had from Mahomet? Perhaps so; but where did he get it? He stole it from the Jewish Scriptures, and from the Scriptures no less than from the traditions of the Christians. Assuredly, then, the first projecting impetus was not impressed upon Islamism by Mahomet. This lay in a revealed truth; and by Mahomet it was furtively translated to his own use from those oracles which held it in keeping. But possibly, if not the principle of motion, yet at least the steady conservation of this motion was secured to Islamism by Mahomet. Granting (you will say) that the launch of this religion might be due to an alien inspiration, yet still the steady movement onwards of this religion through some centuries, might be due exclusively to the code of laws bequeathed by Mahomet in the Koran. And this has been the opinion of many European scholars. They fancy that Mahomet, however worldly and sensual as the founder of a pretended revelation, was wise in the wisdom of this world; and that, if ridiculous as a prophet, he was worthy of veneration as a statesman. He legislated well and presciently, they imagine, for the interests of a remote posterity. Now, upon that question let us hear Mr. Finlay. He, when commenting upon the steady resistance offered to the Saracens by the African Christians of the seventh and eighth centuries–a resistance which terminated disastrously for both sides–the poor Christians being exterminated, and the Moslem invaders being robbed of an indigenous working population, naturally inquires what it was that led to so tragical a result. The Christian natives of these provinces were, in a political condition, little favorable to belligerent efforts; and there cannot be much doubt, that, with any wisdom or any forbearance on the part of the intruders, both parties might soon have settled down into a pacific compromise of their feuds. Instead of this, the cimeter was invoked and worshipped as the sole possible arbitrator; and truce there was none until the silence of desolation brooded over those once fertile fields. How savage was the fanaticism, and how blind the worldly wisdom, which could have co-operated to such a result! The cause must have lain in the unaccommodating nature of the Mahometan institutions, in the bigotry of the Mahometan leaders, and in the defect of expansive views on the part of their legislator. He had not provided even for other elimates than that of his own sweltering sty in the Hedjas, or for manners more polished, or for institutions more philosophic, than those of his own sunbaked Ishmaelites. ‘The construction of the political government of the Saracen empire’–says Mr. Finlay (p. 462-3)–‘was imperfect, and shows that Mahomet had neither contemplated extensive foreign conquests, nor devoted the energies of his powerful mind to the consideration of the questions of administration which would arise out of the difficult task of ruling a numerous and wealthy population, possessed of property, but deprived of equal rights.’ He then shows how the whole power of the state settled into the hands of a chief priest–systematically irresponsible. When, therefore, that momentary state of responsibility had passed away, which was created (like the state of martial law) ‘by national feelings, military companionship, and exalted enthusiasm,’ the administration of the caliphs became ‘far more oppressive than that of the Roman empire.’ It is in fact an insult to the majestic Romans, if we should place them seriously in the balance with savages like the Saracens. The Romans were essentially the leaders of civilization, according to the possibilities then existing; for their earliest usages and social forms involved a high civilization, whilst promising a higher: whereas all Moslem nations have described a petty arch of national civility–soon reaching its apex, and rapidly barbarizing backwards. This fatal gravitation towards decay and decomposition in Mahometan institutions, which, at this day, exhibits to the gaze of mankind one uniform spectacle of Mahometan ruins, all the great Moslem nations being already in a Strulbrug state, and held erect only by the colossal support of Christian powers, could not, as a reversionary evil, have been healed by the Arabian prophet. His own religious principles would have prevented that, for they offer a permanent bounty on sensuality; so that every man who serves a Mahometan state faithfully and brilliantly at twenty-five, is incapacitated at thirty-five for any further service, by the very nature of the rewards which he receives from the state. Within a very few years, every public servant is usually emasculated by that unlimited voluptuousness which equally the Moslem princes and the common Prophet of all Moslems countenance as the proper object of human pursuit. Here is the mortal ulcer of Islamism, which can never cleanse itself from death and the odor of death. A political ulcer would or might have found restoration for itself; but this ulcer is higher and deeper:–it lies in the religion, which is incapable of reform: it is an ulcer reaching as high as the paradise which Islamism promises, and deep as the hell which it creates. We repeat, that Mahomet could not effectually have neutralized a poison which he himself had introduced into the circulation and life-blood of his Moslem economy. The false prophet was forced to reap as he had sown. But an evil which is certain, may be retarded; and ravages which tend finally to confusion, may be limited for many generations. Now, in the case of the African provincials which we have noticed, we see an original incapacity of Islamism, even in its palmy condition, for amalgamating with any superior culture. And the specific action of Mahometan ism in the African case, as contrasted with the Roman economy which it supplanted, is thus exhibited by Mr. Finlay in a most instructive passage, where every negation on the Mahometan side is made to suggest the countervailing usage positively on the side of the Romans. O children of Romulus! how noble do you appear when thus fiercely contrasted with the wild boars who desolated your vineyards! ‘No local magistrates elected by the people, and no parish priests connected by their feelings and interests both with their superiors and inferiors, bound society together by common ties; and no system of legal administration, independent of the military and finan
cial authorities, preserved the property of the people from the rapacity of the government.’

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Such, we are to understand, was not the Mahometan system; such had been the system of Rome. ‘Socially and politically,’ proceeds the passage, ‘the Saracen empire was little better than the Gothic, Hunnish, and Avar monarchies; and that it proved more durable, with almost equal oppression, is to be attributed to the powerful enthusiasm of Mahomet’s religion, which tempered for some time its avarice and tyranny.’ The same sentiment is repeated still more emphatically at p. 468–‘ The political policy of the Saracens was of itself utterly barbarous; and it only caught a passing gleam of justice from the religious feeling of their prophet’s doctrines.’

Thus far, therefore, it appears that Mahometanism is not much indebted to its too famous founder; it owes to him a principle, viz. the unity of God, which, merely through a capital blunder, it fancies peculiar to itself. Nothing but the grossest ignorance in Mahomet, nothing but the grossest non-acquaintance with Greek authors on the part of the Arabs, could have created or sustained the delusion current amongst that illiterate people–that it was themselves only who rejected Polytheism. Had but one amongst the personal enemies of Mahomet been acquainted with Greek, there was an end of the new religion in the first moon of its existence. Once open the eyes of the Arabs to the fact, that Christians had anticipated them in this great truth of the divine unity, and Mahometanism could only have ranked as a subdivision of Christianity. Mahomet would have ranked only as a Christian heresiarch or schismatic; such as Nestorius or Marcian at one time, such as Arius or Pelagius at another. In his character of theologian, therefore, Mahomet was simply the most memorable of blunderers, supported in his blunders by the most unlettered of nations. In his other character of legislator, we have seen that already the earliest stages of Mahometan experience exposed decisively his ruinous imbecility. Where a rude tribe offered no resistance to his system, for the simple reason that their barbarism suggested no motive for resistance, it could be no honor to prevail. And where, on the other hand, a higher civilization had furnished strong points of repulsion to his system, it appears plainly that this pretended apostle of social improvements had devised or hinted no readier mode of conciliation than by putting to the sword all dissentients. He starts as a theological reformer, with a fancied defiance to the world which was no defiance at all, being exactly what Christians had believed for six centuries, and Jews for six-and-twenty. He starts as a political reformer, with a fancied conciliation to the world, which was no conciliation at all, but was sure to provoke imperishable hostility wheresoever it had any effect at all.

We have thus reviewed some of the more splendid aspects connected with Mr. Finlay’s theme; but that theme, in its entire compass, is worthy of a far more extended investigation than our own limits will allow, or than the historical curiosity of the world (misdirected here as in so many other cases) has hitherto demanded. The Greek race, suffering a long occultation under the blaze of the Roman empire, into which for a time it had been absorbed, but again emerging from this blaze, and reassuming a distinct Greek agency and influence, offers a subject great by its own inherent attractions, and separately interesting by the unaccountable neglect which it has suffered. To have overlooked this subject, is one amongst the capital oversights of Gibbon. To have rescued it from utter oblivion, and to have traced an outline for its better illumination, is the peculiar merit of Mr. Finlay. His greatest fault is–to have been careless or slovenly in the niceties of classical and philological precision. His greatest praise, and a very great one indeed, is–to have thrown the light of an original philosophic sagacity upon a neglected province of history, indispensable to the arrondissement of Pagan archaeology.

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