Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.21

William M. Calder, III and Stephen Trzaskoma, George Grote Reconsidered: A 200th Birthday Celebration with a First Edition of his Essay "Of the Athenian Government." Hildesheim: Weidmann, 1996. Pp. x, 97. DM 29,80. ISBN 3-615-00180-X.

Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy,

Very nearly the first serious book of classical scholarship that I bought for my own library was George Grote's History of Greece. Thirty-two years ago the volumes caught my eye in a second-hand bookstore on Manhattan's Upper West Side; I was interested in Greece and ancient history; a naive freshman and his money were soon parted. Opening my new purchase, I skipped the author's preface, full as it was of unfamiliar names. Who, I wondered, are Mitford and Thirlwall, or Niebuhr and O. Müller? The early chapters on "Legendary Greece" struck me as jejune rationalizations of magical stories, and I gave up reading. From time to time something would send me back to those twelve black volumes: a reference to Grote's account of the death of Socrates, or (just before my first visit to Greece) the chance discovery of Grote's exemplary summary of Greek geography at the beginning of Part II of his History. I came across Grote's name often enough to learn that his work was a classic of ancient historiography, but like all too many classics, he remained unread.

Important books stay on the shelf because the community of readers has forgotten why they are important. Many years after that early purchase, I came across Arnaldo Momigliano's lecture inaugurating his tenure of the chair of ancient history at the college Grote helped to found.1 It sent me back to Grote with a deeper understanding of why his work was important. Grote had established, not only for English-speaking historians but for European historiography generally, the shape of Greek history that still prevails in textbooks and popular accounts of the ancient world. In that familiar scheme, Athenian democracy of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. stands at the center of Greek history. The political example of Athens justifies the study of ancient Greece.

Grote's view was rooted in the liberal values of English Utilitarianism and in a cultural movement that saw Greece gradually replace Rome as the ancient exemplar for European culture. Grote's Greece prevailed over that represented by his rival and predecessor, William Mitford: a view that saw Sparta as a better object of attention than Athens and deeply distrusted the excesses of democratic rule. Grote in turn came under attack from personalities as different as Ruskin and Wilamowitz. New discoveries made his history obsolete in both outline and detail, and in the second half of this century new ways of thinking about the ancient world have made his Athens an object of suspicions differently motivated, but no less powerful, than those of Mitford. Grote, however, remains worth attention, precisely because of the fearless clarity with which he argued and practiced his understanding of history and the writing of it. As Momigliano said in peroration, Grote "was determined to understand and respect evidence from whatever part it came; he recognized freedom of speech, tolerance, and compromise as the conditions of civilization; he respected sentiment, but admired reason."2

Momigliano's lecture, M. L. Clarke's biography,3 and John Vaio's article in Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia4 are indispensable introductions to Grote's work and its importance. To them can now be added this short book, another in the series of contributions to Wissenschaftsgeschichte that have appeared from the pen or under the aegis of William M. Calder III. Calder himself has contributed a preface describing the book's origin in a conference commemorating the 200th anniversary of Grote's birth in 1794. Mortimer Chambers' essay, "George Grote's History of Greece," covers much of the same ground as Momigliano's 1952 inaugural lecture but gives a more thorough account of Grote's thinking in the crucial years 1815-1822, when he was developing the ideas that would shape his great History. Chambers draws on unpublished material to give the most complete available picture of Grote's early intellectual development. His essay paves the way for the first publication of an essay from this early period, Grote's "Of the Athenian Government" (1821), which appears, edited by Chambers, Vaio, and John Buckler, as an appendix to this volume.

I wish I had been able to read Chambers' essay thirty years ago, before I opened Grote for the first time, and I wish equally that I could have seen George Huxley's "George Grote on Early Greece" before I formed my hasty dismissal of Part One of the History. Huxley situates Grote's chapters on legendary Greece, the Homeric poems, and the early Archaic period in the context of early nineteenth-century understanding of these matters, and he carefully delineates what Grote could and could not have done with the evidence available to him. The early sections of the History are the best place, as Huxley makes clear, to see Grote's mastery of evidence and his ability to take exiguous testimony as far as it will go and no farther.

Because Grote attained such distinction as author of the History of Greece, it is easy to forget that he also produced Plato and the Companions of Sokrates, three 600-page volumes that he described as "a sequel and supplement" to the History. In just over 15 pages on "George Grote's Plato and the Companions of Sokrates," Charles Kahn manages to do three things with this remarkable parergon. First, he elucidates the philosophical position that emerges from Grote's reading of Plato. Second, he shows how this philosophical position grew out of Grote's engagement with contemporary German scholarship on Plato and with contemporary debate over empiricism and idealism in metaphysics and Utilitarianism in politics. Third, Kahn carries Grote's reading of Plato forward to set it against modern scholarship on Plato. Grote comes off remarkably well from this dialectic, and Kahn's essay demonstrates why Gregory Vlastos could say that Plato and the Companions of Sokrates was the best book ever written on Plato. (The statement, as Kahn explains, says as much about Vlastos as about Grote.)

Finally, John Vaio concludes the volume with "George Grote and James Mill: How to Write History," in which he assesses the claim that of all the English and Scottish Utilitarians, James Mill had the strongest influence on Grote's conception and practice of history. This proposition can hardly be doubted, since both Grote himself and John Stuart Mill acknowledged its truth. The historian of ideas faces the challenge of judging exactly what Grote meant when he said that he owed "to the historian of British India [James Mill] an amount of intellectual stimulus and guidance such as he can never forget." Vaio gives a clear account of James Mill's ideas on historiography and of Grote's use of them at successive phases of his development as a historian. The elder Mill's influence decreased, Vaio argues, after his death in 1836. Evidence for this can be seen in the difference between Grote's treatment of Cleisthenes in his famous review article, "Institutions of Ancient Greece," which appeared in 1826, and in the second version of his History begun in 1842. In the 1820s Grote saw Cleisthenes as an aristocratic politician who, had it not been for the political defeat of his party and the threat of Spartan intervention, "would probably have played the part of Pisistratus over again." After James Mill's death Grote can moderate his strict Utilitarianism and present Cleisthenes as a sincere reformer. Presenting a democratic hero becomes more important than adhering to the radical Utilitarian view that aristocrats, like all men, must necessarily act in their own interests.

The History of Greece cannot, of course, be reduced to a Utilitarian tract. Vaio's essay highlights one strand of Grote's complexly woven intellectual fabric, and the other essays in this volume are equally illuminating. Together they validate Sterling Dow's advice to his pupils: buy a Grote, and start reading it.


1. "George Grote and the Study of Greek History," Studies in Historiography (New York, 1966), 56-74.

2. Op. cit. 71.

3. George Grote: A Biography (London, 1962).

4. Edd. Ward Briggs and William M. Calder III (New York and London, 1990), 119-126.