The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83
Your only pungent writer is the prejudiced one. Every one has predilections. To us, German literature is a desert, relieved by few oases, of which Mommsen's "Rome" is the greenest. After many years of waiting we are treated to a new volume.
The Bishop of Sydney, Dr. Barry, lost his splendid library by a disaster on shipboard, which carried to the maws of the sharks, algae, and globigerinæ, all the tomes of the Fathers, with poor South, Tillotson, Sherlock, Atterbury, Simeon, and the rest of the unctuous bishops. This, though, was not so bad as the sermon case of a Canadian prelate. He transported a full sermon tub from his old field of labour in England to the new one in America, but, alas! his new house was burnt down, with all the old sermons.
A few years ago Mommsen's unrivalled library was destroyed by fire. The catastrophe was worse than that wreaked by Mrs. Peter Taylor—John Stuart Mill's servant girl, when she lit her page 25 fire with the precious manuscript of the first volume of Carlyle's "French Revolution."
Buckle relates how that when he first viewed the entrancing field of universal knowledge, he thought he could grasp the whole, but he soon found what a poor little pocket-handkerchief allotment he could surround. Gibbon is enviable for the completeness both of his survey and his accomplishment. As Sydney Smith says, we have to remember we are not Antediluvians.
Mommsen's dream as a young man was that of writing the whole History of Rome. He would be Niebuhr and Gibbon in one. His first volumes, issued not very far from thirty years ago, showed that a genuine historian had sprung up. Like so many other geniuses, he has been hampered by the necessity of working for bread. Critics have asked how it is that a man capable of taking such a bird's-eye view, and, indeed, eagle vision of affairs, should be condemned to literary toil and drudgery, which almost spoilt the great work of his life. But perhaps this discipline is essential. For years Turner had to "wash in skies" for amateurs' drawings. Look, again, at poor Deutsch, in the British Museum.
The real essence of the hatred of Mommsen, by Bismarck and the powers that be in Germany, is that he is a democrat to the backbone and spinal marrow. With this his History of Home is saturated though it lurks in artful concealment. All throughout his criticisms we are conscious of an oblique reference to modern society, a trick which Froude employed, rather clumsily, in his "Cæsar," a skimble-skamble work, not much better than Anthony Trollope's "Cicero."
Thinking over Mommsen, we find the plumb-line bottoms on land—the Agrarian question. He is a precursor of Henry George. Rome is great with a bold and independent peasantry. Mommsen suggests, though he never says it, that France is the stable state, while Germany and England are inverted pyramids.
"This is the best history of the Roman Republic," wrote the Edinburgh Review, when Mommsen first came out, and we may add, "It is the only one," for dear old garrulous Livy is not even a Macaulay.
It is surprising what unexplored fields remain in history. Commonplace writers find that an era, or a character, is worked out, but a fresh writer arises who takes, perchance, the most obvious and palpable feature. All becomes new. So it is with Mommsen's fine and clear-cut portrait of Cæsar. Who else has painted Cæsar? We place Mommsen's Cæsar beside Shakespeare's Brutus.
He suggests the dramatist, too, in his Sulla and Marius, superbly contrasted personages. They represent the endless conflict, the eternal see-saw, between aristocracy and democracy, patrician and plebeian. When aristocracy languishes, some Sulla, page 26 Bolingbroke, or Disraeli flings his hat into the scale, and again the forces are equalised. The same gentleman is quite ready for the other side of the scale, if need be. Cæsar was the successor of Sulla; Pompey of Marius.
You have read of Lassalle, the dashing socialist, who was patronised by Bismarck. He fell in a duel, over a lady. Once he was standing, with a lady, in front of a full length pier-glass, and exclaimed, "How would we figure as Emperor and Empress, eh?"
Unless Mommsen is blessed with the years of a Ranke, he will be able to do no more than stand on the Pisgah of his republic, and view, as a Canaan, the glories of the empire. No man—not even Gibbon—could dissect them like him. Indeed Gibbon simply yields to the glamour. Niebuhr laid the foundations. Mommsen has built a basement. Possibly Germany may have a stronger than either in reserve, to historise the Empire, analytically, as a record of the people, and not merely of the gorgeous pageant of Augustus, Tiberius, the Antonines, Nero, Caligula, Trajan, Severus, Domitian, Julian, Caracalla, Justinian, and Constantine, Rome, the Eternal City!
There has been so much written about Mommsen's portrait of Cicero that we will only say it is very like the Grand Old Man.