CHAPTER VII. ROMAN LITERATURE.
His histories describe Rome in the fullness of imperial glory, when the will of one man was the supreme law of the empire. He also wrote of events when liberty had fled, and the yoke of despotism was nearly insupportable. He describes a period of great moral degradation, nor does he hesitate to lift the veil of hypocrisy in which his generation had wrapped itself. He fearlessly exposes the cruelties and iniquities of the early emperors, and writes with judicial impartiality respecting all the great characters he describes. No ancient writer shows greater moral dignity and integrity of purpose than Tacitus. In point of artistic unity he is superior to Livy and equal to Thucydides, whom he resembles in conciseness of style. His distinguishing excellence as an historian is his sagacity and impartiality. Nothing escapes his penetrating eye; and he inflicts merited chastisement on the tyrants who reveled in the prostrated liberties of his country, while he immortalizes those few who were faithful to duty and conscience in a degenerate age. But his writings were not so popular as those of Livy. Neither princes nor people relished his intellectual independence and moral elevation. He does not satisfy Dr. Arnold, who thinks he ought to have been better versed in the history of the Jews, and who dislikes his speeches because they were fictitious.
[Qualities which give immortality to historians.]
Neither the Latin nor Greek historians are admired by those dry critics, who seek to give to rare antiquarian matter a disproportionate importance, and to make this matter as fixed and certain as the truths of natural science. History can never be other than an approximation to the truth, even when it relates to the events and characters of our own age. History does not give positive knowledge which cannot be disputed except in general terms. We know that Caesar was ambitious, but we do not know whether he was more or less so than Pompey, nor do we know how far he was justified in his usurpation. A great history must have other merits than mere accuracy, or antiquarian research, or display of authorities and notes. It must be a work of art, and art has reference to style and language, to grouping of details and richness of illustration, to eloquence and poetry and beauty. A dry history, if ever so learned, will never be read; it will only be consulted, like a law- book, or Mosheim's "Commentaries." We wish life in history, and it is for the life that the writings of Livy and Tacitus will be perpetuated. Voltaire and Schiller have no great merit as historians, in a technical sense, but the "Life of Charles XII." and the "Thirty Years' War" are still classics. Neander has written one of the most searching and recondite histories of modern times, but it is too dry, too deficient in art, to be cherished, and may pass away, like the voluminous writings of Varro, the most learned of the Romans. It is the art which is immortal in a book, not the knowledge, or even the thoughts. What keeps alive the "Provincial Letters"? It is the style, the irony, the elegance. It is the exquisite delineation of character, the moral wisdom, the purity and force of language, the artistic arrangement, and the lively and interesting narratives, appealing to all minds, like the "Arabian Nights," or Froissart's "Chronicles," which give immortality to the classic authors of antiquity. We will not let them perish, because they amuse us, and inspire us. Livy doubtless was too ambitious in aspiring to write accurately the whole history of his country. He would have been wiser had he confined himself to a particular epoch, of which he was conversant, like Tacitus and Thucydides. But it is taking a narrow view of history to make all writers after the same pattern, even as it would be bigoted to make all Christians belong to the same sect. Some will be remarkable for style, others for learning, and others again for moral and philosophical wisdom. Some will be minute, and others generalizing. Some dig out a multiplicity of facts without apparent object, and others induce from those facts. Some will make essays, and others chronicles. We have need of all styles and all kinds of excellence. A great and original thinker may not have the time or opportunity or taste for a minute and searching criticism of original authorities; but he may be able to generalize previously established facts, so as to draw most valuable moral instruction. History is a boundless field of inquiry. No man can master it, in all its departments and periods. What he gains in minute details, he is apt to lose in generalization. If he attempts to embody too much learning, he may be deficient in originality; if he would say every thing, he is apt to be dry; if he elaborates too much, he loses life. Society, too, requires different kinds and styles of history, - history for students, history for ladies, histories for old men, histories for young men, histories to amuse, and histories to instruct. If all men were to write history according to Dr. Arnold's views, then we should have histories of interest only to classical scholars. A fellow of Christ Church may demand authorities, even if he never consults one of them, but a member of Congress may wish to see learning embodied in the text, and animated by genius, after the fashion of the ancient historians, who never quoted their sources of knowledge, and who were valued for the richness of thoughts and artistic beauty of style. The ages in which they flourished, attached no value to pedantic displays of labor, or evidences of learning paraded in foot-notes.