Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.02

Edward Bulwer Lytton, Athens: Its Rise and Fall. Bicentenary edition, edited by Oswyn Murray.   London and New York:  Routledge, 2004.  Pp. 610.  ISBN 0-415-32087-9.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University (
Word count: 2287 words

This splendid bicentenary edition of Edward Bulwer Lytton's Athens: Its Rise and Fall by Oswyn Murray has a captivating story that deserves to be known. "Early in the summer of 2002," Murray writes in his introduction, "I was perusing a Dutch book catalogue on the internet, when my eye was caught by a strange entry" concerning a 1837 Parisian English edition of Bulwer Lytton's book; a "strange entry," Murray continues, because "I did not recall ever having come across any reference to a work of history with such a grandiose title by this novelist" (p. 1). Indeed, while Bulwer was known as "the most eminent...Poet, Essayist, Orator, Statesman, Dramatist, Scholar" in Victorian England, he left no mark as an historian of ancient Greece. His Athens was published incomplete --"the Fall is only dimply foreshadowed"-- and soon forgotten to disappear completely from "all accounts of the development of historical writing in the nineteenth century" (pp. 15-16). The work of George Grote, Bulwer's colleague in the Parliament (both of them were associated to James Mill's radicals at the time of the Great Reform Bill of 1832), eclipsed his Athens (although Murray reports a variety of American editions from 1837 to 1874.)

Oswyn Murray's edition is thus meritorious both because it recovers an important book from oblivion and because it completes the1837 edition with a transcribed and edited long fragment of an additional Book VI (eight chapters) titled, "From the start of the Peloponnesian war to the battle of Delium, BC 432/1-BC 424/3." Thanks to Murray (who enriches this publication with two very informative introductions, one to the whole volume and one to Book Six), we have now the most complete edition of Bulwer's reconstruction and interpretation of Athenian's rerum gestarum.

Edward Bulwer Lytton's Athens: Its Rise and Fall is both a document of an epoch (with one foot in the eighteenth-century, as its Gibbonian title shows, and one in the age of nationalism) and a relevant work in its own right. Furthermore, it is a precious document of the development of the historical discipline under the influence of German Romanticism and of the "nineteenth-century love affair with Athens" (p. 27). Ancient political historiography began as an ideological enterprise in the century of the democratic revolutions, and only in the second half of the nineteenth century, after most European countries had endorsed representative government and constitutionalism, did ideological passion gradually relinquish its hold on historiography and historians start to assert claims for objectivity and "freedom from the prejudices of a party."1 Edward Bulwer Lytton, like George Grote and John Stuart Mill, belonged to an age in which the ancients conveyed a strong ideological meaning. In reasserting the superiority of Athens, they contributed in the renaissance of democracy both as a historical event and as a political ideal.

Political thinkers and historians who were under the influence of pre-French Revolution cultural and social values had looked to Sparta (and above all Rome) as a model, not Athens. This is apparent in the works of both radical and moderate republicans (from Rousseau and Helvétius to the American Federalists), and in those of antirepublican and conservative thinkers (from Charles Rollin and John Gillies to William Mitford and Joseph de Maistre). Sparta's distinctiveness lay in the role it assigned to the lawgiver and its mixed constitution. Lycurgus' works were seen as "prodigious," much more than Solon's who, Montesquieu wrote, "acted inconsistently with the old laws" and used the dangerous strategy of debt cancellation to create equality.2 The second factor that favored the admiration for Sparta was its mixed constitution, the reason for its longevity.

After the Napoleonic era, political theorists and historians started looking at Athens. They did so for different reasons. On the one hand, Athens served as an expedient to put Ionic universalism (read "French imperialism") on trial while Sparta served as a model of the newly born nationalist cause. In his very influential History of the Doric Race (translated into English in 1830), Carl Ottfried Mueller praised the Dorians for being the ancestors of the Arian race and Spartan patriotism for prophesizing German nationalism (which marked the beginning of all nationalism). Sparta was a symbol no longer of republican ideals but of the ethnical foundation of the state and the hierarchical order of state machinery. On the other hand, historians used Sparta to counter the egalitarian imagination on the terrain of political institutions and social stratifications: this was the ideological task of Mitford's History of Greece (the main target of the English radicals). These two historical approaches had something in common: they were consciously employed as a criticism of and an alternative to democratic and universalistic values, ethical as well as political. The historian who overturned this conservative project was George Grote; the philosopher who employed the Athenian renaissance to make democracy into a model for the moderns was John Stuart Mill.3

According to Murray, the paternity of the radical and democratic turn should, however, be attributed not to Grote or Mill but the forgotten Edward Bulwer Lytton, who had already in 1837 sketched a comparison between ancient democracy and modern representative government, rediscovered the "cultural and educational consequences of the democratic assembly" (p. 26) of the city of Solon, and furthermore turned the historical trajectory from Sparta to Athens, thus revising both the eighteenth-century tradition and the newly born German one. Bulwer was equally severe against Mueller's racial historiography and Mitford's prize of oligarchy. Finally, well before Grote "he sees the history of Greece both conceptually, and in its relation to the modern age, as a history of the rise and fall of Athens, on which the histories of all other Greek cities are dependent" (p. 21).

How then to explain the eclipse of such a pioneering work? Why do we still read Grote's and Mill's works but not Bulwer's? In the preface to the later reprint of his Miscellaneous Works (1873) we are told that when Bulwer's Athens was not yet finished "the appearance of Mr Thirlwall's 'History of Greece' induced him to suspend his labours, and he finally abandoned them in consequence of Mr. Grote's great work upon the same subject" (pp. 15-16). It is fair to say that in making his drastic decision Bulwer stated himself as the most authoritative judge of his work and the works of his contemporaries. Indeed, we know from J.S. Mill's Autobiography that Grote too felt demoralized by the publication of Thirlwall's work (which started in 1835). Yet Grote did not make the decision of "abandoning" his project. But Bulwer did. And he did it with bitterness and resentment, implying that Grote and his wife were responsible for his aborted work. Murray accepts this interpretation and thinks that Bulwer was the victim of Grotes' ambition. "The fact is that George Grote, and even more his wife Harriet (in her somewhat mendacious biography), were intent to portraying Grote alone as the founder of the modern study of Greek history... The passionate history of the man who had once been his friend and colleague (and whose magnificently purple prose far surpassed the leaden tread of the bank clerk from Threadneedle Street) was deliberately written out of history by the cold and cautious Grote" (p. 33).

Yet in 1837, the year Bulwer printed his incomplete work, Grote could hardly claim to be "the founder of the modern study of Greek history" (the first two volumes of his History of Greece came out in 1846.) But Grote had made himself known in 1826 when had attacked Mitford's work in the Westminster Review. This review article was probably enough indication to Bulwer that Grote was writing something important. As Murray acknowledges, "Grote's long article marked a turning point in historical scholarship; it was essentially a defense of ancient democracy against its ancient and modern critics, and was part of a widespread new movement in the British re-evaluation of Sparta and Athens" (p. 13). Nine years before the publication of Bulwer's Athens, Grote had set the tone of his History of Greece. Bulwer's decision to abandon his project can be seen as an implicit assessment of his achievement as an historian.

Perhaps it is true that Grote's attack against Mitford epitomized the "characteristic arrogance" of the Utilitarians. Yet it is undeniable that "it was true that Mitford's scholarship was now out of date...the strength of [Grote's] position, as was to become apparent twenty years later, lay not in his political views as such, but in the way that he proceeded to combine them with the tools of German scholarship" (p.13). This explains why nineteenth and twentieth-centuries ancient historians chose Grote as their ancestor and interlocutor not Bulwer, whose work was still written in a narrative style that fit eighteenth-century's literary taste more than the scientific ambitions of nineteenth-century's historians. Perhaps his "style of the professional orator and novelist" (p. 29) was Bulwer's main obstacle in an age in which History was acquiring the status of an autonomous discipline with its own method of inquiry and interpretation, its philosophy and narrative style. A quick comparison between their footnotes can illuminate the difference between Grote's work and Bulwer's.

It we turn our attention to the content, further important differences emerge. It is, for instance, interesting to see that while Grote tried to find in the Athenian political order an equivalent of modern political institutions (namely, the constitution, the deliberative structure of the legislative, and representation) Bulwer looked still at Sparta for institutional learning. Although he did not make the city of Lycurgus into a paradigm, Bulwer deemed the silent Spartan assembly, which only "ratified laws, but it could propose none," as a "semblance of a democracy" (pp. 129-30). But what attracted him most were the Spartan ephors, whom he saw as an anticipation of modern representatives (his political theory guide was Aristotle, who pointed to the ephors to stress the double face of elections, partly aristocratic and partly democratic.) Bulwer thought that Sparta, not Athens, anticipated parliamentary government: "The Spartan populace was constantly innovating, not openly, as in the noisy Agora of Athens, but silently and ceaselessly, through their delegate ephors" (p. 133). Bulwer's parallel between Spartan ephors and modern representatives was truly perceptive; however, it tells us that he identified democracy with the direct presence of the people and thus deemed it incompatible with both large states and representation. This brought him to think that Sparta had some institutional similarity with modern states, not Athens which had no representative institution and was a pure democracy.

This issue shows the innovative role of Grote, and Mill above all, since they revised precisely the perspective Bulwer endorsed -- that is to say the idea that Athens was a "model" to the moderns in its social and cultural life but not in its political order. In "discovering" the political Athens, the Utilitarians contributed to the renaissance of democratic thought within a representative context, both as an historical event of the past and as a political project for the future. Although Montesquieu, Hume, Condorcet, Constant, Hegel, and Bulwer had introduced the modernity of Athens to liberal thought, they saw Athenian society and culture as modern, rather than the Athenian political order. Mill and Grote radically changed this perspective and located Athens' vitality and modernity in its deliberative institutional system. They situated their Greek scholarship within the European debate over the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns and advanced a reading of democracy that could encompass representation because it pivoted on the identification of politics with speech or indirect presence rather than physical direct presence (only voting). This was the innovative ideological horizon that Bulwer's Athens missed.

Yet Bulwer's work has a value in its own right. First of all, it is interesting to notice his insightful Machiavellian reading of domestic political conflicts as an engine of freedom because and insofar as they were stimuli to an imperial policy (Machiavelli is one of the few non English modern authors Bulwer mentioned). Social divisions within the aristocratic class "contributed to prevent any deadly or ferocious revolutions" in those cases in which colonization and expansion were able to relax domestic tensions by satisfying the economic and social ambitions of the grandi (p. 152). Related to this aspect is finally Bulwer's interesting observation concerning the revolutionary role of the tyrant as the leader who is able to interpret the "principles" of his time and accelerate the historical process in a way ordinary politicians (and politics) cannot do. It is hard to say whether Bulwer took inspiration from Hegel's theory of the representative men (but the last chapter of Machiavelli's The Prince could have suggested him a similar idea), yet his words on the demiurgic role of virtuous dictators are very perspicacious and of great force: "As Cromwell was the representative of the very sentiments he appeared to subvert -- as Napoleon in his own person incorporated the principles of the revolution of France, so the tyranny of Pisistratus concentrates and embodied the elements of that democracy he rather wielded than overthrew" (p. 209). Finally, Bulwer's work was deeply marked by the European process of nation-state building and partook of the irredentist and democratic sentiments that Greece's emancipation from the Ottoman Empire and the proclamation of Greek national independence spread all over Europe. As Murray writes in the introduction to the fragment of Book VI, although Bulwer does not make us "in a position to understand how [he] would have envisaged [Athens'] fall, still less how he would have dealt with the succeeding three centuries before the Roman conquest" (p. 529), yet his narrative was "immediately relevant" to his contemporaries who could not fail to recognize in his passionate narrative the clash of European armies in the battle of Navarino (1826) against the Turks.


1.   This is the expression that A. E. Taylor used to compare Grote's work to his own (cited in T.H. Irvin, "Mill and the Classical world," in The Cambridge Companion of Mill, ed. John Skorupski, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 446.)
2.   Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), translated by Anne M. Choler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, book 5, chap. 4.
3.   I discussed the Radicals' challenge to Mitford and the conservatives in Mill on Democracy: from the Athenian Polis to Representative Government (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002). Murray observes that I believe that "Mill had to wait for the publication of Grote'sHistory of Greece to understand the place of Athens in Radical thought" (p. 31). However in the book I refer to the 1820s as the time Mill began his radical reading of Athens to counter the conservatives' attack against democratic ideas. Grote's contribution to Mill's knowledge consisted in providing him with the normative and technical analysis of the deliberative procedures and institutions of Athenian democratic republic.

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