The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/An Outline Narrative of the Great Events

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search






Earth's upward struggle has been baffled by so many stumbles that critics have not been lacking to suggest that we do not advance at all, but only swing in circles, like a squirrel in its cage. Certain it is that each ancient civilization seemed to bear in itself the seeds of its own destruction. Yet it may be held with equal truth that each new power, rising above the ruins of the last, held something nobler, was borne upward by some truth its rival could not reach.

At no period is this more evident than in the five centuries immediately preceding the Christian era. Persia, Greece, Carthage, Rome, each in turn was with some justice proclaimed lord of the world; each in turn felt the impulse of her glory and advanced rapidly in culture and knowledge of the arts; and each in turn succumbed to the temptations that beset unlimited success. They degenerated not only in physical strength, but in moral honesty.

Let us recognize, however, that the term "world-ruler" as applied to even the greatest of these nations has but a restricted sense. When the Persian monarch called himself lord of the sun and moon, he only meant in a figurative way that he was acquainted with no other king so powerful as himself; that beyond his own dominions he heard only of feeble colonies, and beyond those the wilderness. Alexander, when he sighed for more worlds to conquer, had in reality made himself lord of less than a quarter of Asia and of about one-sixtieth part of Europe.

No man and no nation has ever yet been intrusted with the government of the entire globe. None has proved sufficiently fitted for the giant task. Each empire has been, as it were, but an experiment; and beyond the border line of seas and deserts which ringed each boastful conqueror, there were always other races developing along slower, and it may be surer, lines.

In those old days our world was in truth too big for conquest. Armies marched on foot. Provisions could not be carried in any quantity, unless a general clung to the sea-shore and depended on his ships. What Alexander might with more truth have sighed for, was some modern means of swift transportation, possessed of which he might still have enjoyed many interesting, bloody battles in more distant lands.


Taking the idea "world power" in the restricted sense suggested, Persia lost it to Greece at Salamis. As the Asiatic hordes fled behind their panic-stricken king, the Greeks, looking round their limited horizon, could see no power that might vie with them. The idea of pressing home their success and overthrowing the entire unwieldy Persian empire was at once conceived.

But the Greeks were of all races least like to weld earth into one dominion. They could not even unite among themselves. In short it cannot be too emphatically pointed out that the work of Greece was not to consolidate, but to separate, to teach the value of each individual man. Asia had made monarchies in plenty. King after king had passed in splendid, glittering pomp across her plains, circled by a crowd of obsequious courtiers, trampling on a nameless multitude of slaves. Europe was to make democracies, or at least to try her hand at them.

It has been well said that a democracy is the strongest government for defence, the weakest for attack. Every little Greek city clung jealously to its own freedom, and to its equally obvious right to dominate its neighbors. The supreme danger of the Persian invasion united them for a moment; but as soon as safety was assured, they recommenced their bickering. Sparta with her record of ancient leadership, Athens with her new-won glory against the common foe, each tried to draw the other cities in her train. There was no one man who could dominate them all and concentrate their strength against the enemy. So for a time Persia continued to exist; she even by degrees regained something of her former influence over the divided cities.

Among these Athens held the foremost rank. She was, as we have previously seen, far more truly representative of the Greek spirit than her rival. Sparta was aristocratic and conservative; Athens democratic and progressive. The genius of her leaders gathered the lesser towns into a great naval league, in which she grew ever more powerful. Her allies sank to be dependent and unwilling vassals, forced to contribute large sums to the treasury of their overlord.

This was the age of Pericles.[1] As Athens became wealthy, her citizens became cultured. Statues, temples, theatres made the city beautiful. Dramatists, orators, and poets made her intellectually renowned. A marvellous outburst, this of Athens! Displaying for the first time in history the full capacity of the human mind! Had there been similar flowerings of genius amid forgotten Asiatic times? One doubts it; doubts if such brilliancy could ever anywhere have passed, and left no clearer record of its triumphs.

Amid such splendor it seems captious to point out the flaw. Yet Athenian and all Greek civilization did ultimately decline. It represented intellectual, but not moral culture. The Greeks delighted intensely in the purely physical life about them; they had small conception of anything beyond. To enjoy, to be successful, that was all their goal; the means scarce counted. The Athenians called Aristides the Just; but so little did they honor his high rectitude that they banished him for a decade. His title, or it may have been his insistence on the subject, bored them.

His rival, Themistocles, was more suited to their taste, a clever scamp, who must always be dealing with both sides in every quarrel, and outwitting both. Athens was driven to banish him also at last, at his too flagrant treachery. But he was not dismissed with the scathing scorn our modern age would heap upon a traitor. He was sent regretfully, as one turns from a charming but too persistently lawless friend. The banishment was only for ten years, and he had his nest already prepared with the Persian King. If you would understand the Greek spirit in its fullest perfection, study Themistocles. Rampant individualism, seeking personal pleasure, clamorous for the admiration of its fellows, but not restrained from secret falsity by any strong moral sense—that was what the Greeks developed in the end.

Neither must Athens be regarded as a democracy in the modern sense. She was only so by contrast with Persia or with Sparta. Not every man in the beautiful city voted, or enjoyed the riches that flowed into her coffers, and could thus afford, free from pecuniary care, to devote himself to art. Athens probably had never more than thirty thousand "citizens." The rest of the adult male population, vastly outnumbering these, were slaves, or foreigners attracted by the city's splendor.

But those thirty thousand were certainly men. "There were giants in those days." One sometimes stands in wonder at their boldness. What all Greece could not do, what Persia had completely failed in, they undertook. Athens alone should conquer the world. By force of arms they would found an empire of intellect. They fought Persia and Sparta, both at once. Plague swept their city, yet they would not yield.[2] Their own subject allies turned against them; and they fought those too. They sent fleets and armies against Syracuse, the mightiest power of the West. It was Athens against all mankind!

She was unequal to the task, superbly unequal to it. The destruction of her army at Syracuse[3] was only the foremost of a series of inevitable disasters, which left her helpless. After that, Sparta, and then Thebes, became the leading city of Greece. Athens slowly regained her fighting strength; her intellectual supremacy she had not lost. Socrates,[4] greatest of her sons, endeavored to teach a morality higher than earth had yet received, higher than his contemporaries could grasp. Plato gave to thought a scientific basis.

Then Macedonia, a border kingdom of ancient kinship to the Greeks, but not recognized as belonging among them, began to obtrude herself in their affairs, and at length won that leadership for which they had all contended. A hundred and fifty years had elapsed since the Greeks had stood united against Persia. During all that time their strength had been turned against themselves. Now at last the internecine wars were checked, and all the power of the sturdy race was directed by one man, Alexander, King of Macedon. Democracy had made the Greeks intellectually glorious, but politically weak. Monarchy rose from the ruin they had wrought.

As though that ancient invasion of Xerxes had been a crime of yesterday, Alexander proclaimed his intention of avenging it; and the Greeks applauded. They understood Persia now far better than in the elder days; they saw what a feeble mass the huge heterogeneous empire had become. Its people were slaves, its soldiers mercenaries. The Greeks themselves had been hired to suppress more than one Persian rebellion,[5] and to foment these also. They had learned the enormous advantage their stronger personality gave them against the masses of sheeplike Asiatics.

So it was in holiday mood that they followed Alexander, and in schoolboy roughness that they trampled on the civilization of the East. In fact, it is worth noting that the most vigorous resistance they encountered was not from the Persians, but from a remnant of the Semites, the merchants of the Phoenician city of Tyre.[6] In less than eight years, B.C. 331-323, Alexander overran the whole known world of the East,[7] only stopping when, on the border of India, his soldiers broke into open revolt, not against fighting, but against further wandering.

If this invasion had been the mere outcome of one man's ambition, it might scarce be worth recording. But Alexander was only the topmost wave in the surging of a long imminent, inevitable racial movement. Its effect upon civilization, upon the world, was incalculably vast. Alexander and his successors were city-builders, administrators. As such they spread Greek culture, the Greek idea of individualism, over all their world.

How deep was the change, made upon the imbruted Asiatics, we may perhaps question. Our own age has seen how much of education may be lavished on an inferior race without materially altering the brute instincts within. The building-up of the soul in man is not a matter of individuals, but of centuries. Yet in at least a superficial way Greek thought became the thought of all mankind. We may dismiss Alexander's savage conquests with a sigh of pity; but we cannot deny him recognition as a most potent teacher of the world.

His empire did not last. It was in too obvious opposition to all that we have recognized as the Grecian spirit. At his death the same impulse seems to have stirred each one of his subordinates, to snatch for himself a kingdom from the confusion. Instead of one there were soon three, four, and then a dozen semi-Grecian states in Asia. The Greek element in each grew very faint.

From this time onward Asia takes a less prominent place in world affairs. Her ancient leadership in the march of civilization had long been yielded to the Greeks. Now her semblance of military power disappeared as well. Only two further happenings in all Asia seem worth noting, down to the birth of Christ. One of these was the Tartar conquest of China, an event which coalesced the Tartars, helped make them a nation.[8] It was thus fraught with most disastrous consequences for the Europe of the future. The other was the revolt of the Hebrews under Judas Maccabaeus, against their Grecian rulers. This was a religious revolt, a religious war. Here for the first time we find a people who will believe, who can believe, in no god but their own, who will die sooner than give worship to another. We approach the borders of an age where the spirit is more valued than the body, where the mental is stronger than the physical, where facts are dominated by ideas.[9]

Had Alexander even at the moment of his greatest strength directed his forces westward instead of east, he would have found a different world and encountered a sturdier resistance. He himself recognized this, and during his last years was gathering all the resources of his unwieldy empire, to hurl them against Carthage and against Italy. What the issue might have been no man can say. Alexander's death ended forever the impossible attempt to unite his race. Once more and until the end, Grecian strength was wasted against itself.

This gave opportunity to the growing powers of the West. Alexander is scarce gone ere we hear Carthage boasting that the Mediterranean is but a private lake in her possession. She rules all Western Africa and Spain, Sardinia and Corsica. She masters the Greeks of Sicily, against whom Athens failed. Rome is compelled to sign treaties with her as an inferior.


Rome was only husbanding her strength; the little republic of B.C. 510 had grown much during the two centuries of Grecian splendor. Her people had become far better fitted for conquest than their eastern kinsmen. It is presumable that here too it was the difference of surroundings which had differentiated the race. The ancient Etrurian (non-Aryan) civilization on which the Latins intruded, was apparently more advanced than their own. For centuries their utmost prowess scarce sufficed to maintain their independence. Thus it was not possible for them to become too self-satisfied, to stand afar off and look down on their neighbors with Grecian scorn. The ego was less prominently developed; the necessity of mutual dependence and united action was more deeply taught. Their records display less of brilliancy, but more of patient persistency, than those of Greece, less of spectacular individualism, more of truly patriotic self-suppression. In Rome, even more than in Sparta, the "State" was everything. During the early days men found their highest glory in making their city glorious; their proudest boast was to be "citizens of Rome."

To trace the slow steps by which the tiny republic grew to be mistress of all Italy would take too long. She settled her internal difficulties as all such difficulties must be settled, if the race is to progress; that is, she became more democratic.[10] As the lower classes advanced in knowledge and intelligence they insisted on a share of the government. They fought their way to it. They united Rome, mastered the other Latin cities, and admitted them to partnership in her power. She conquered the Etruscans and the Samnites. For a moment we find her almost overwhelmed by an inroad of the wild Celtic tribes from the forests of Central Europe;[11] but, fortunately for her, the other Italian states were equally crushed. It was weakness against weakness, and the Romans retained their foremost place.

Not till more than a century later were they brought into serious conflict with the Greeks. In the year B.C. 280, Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, who had won a temporary leadership over a portion of the Grecian land, undertook the conquest of the West.[12] Fifty years before, Alexander with far greater power might have been victorious over a feebler Rome. Pyrrhus failed completely. If the Romans had less dash and a less wide experience of varied warfare than his followers, they had far more of true, heroic endurance. The Greeks had reached that stage of individual culture where they were much too selfishly intelligent to be willing to die in battle. Pyrrhus withdrew from Italy. Grecian brilliancy was helpless against Roman strength of union.

Then came the far more serious contest between Rome and Carthage.[13] Carthage was a Phoenician, a Semite state; and hers was the last, the most gigantic struggle made by Semitism to recover its waning superiority, to dominate the ancient world. Three times in three tremendous wars did she and Rome put forth their utmost strength against each other. Hannibal, perhaps the greatest military genius who ever lived, fought upon the side of Carthage. At one time Rome seemed crushed, helpless before him.[14] Yet in the end Rome won.[15] It was not by the brilliancy of her commanders, not by the superiority of her resources. It was the grim, cool courage of the Aryan mind, showing strongest and calmest when face to face with ruin.

Our modern philosophers, being Aryan, assure us that the victory of Carthage would have been an irretrievable disaster to mankind; that her falsity, her narrow selfishness, her bloody inhumanity, would have stifled all progress; that her dominion would have been the tyranny of a few heartless masters over a world of tortured slaves. On the other hand, Rome up to this point had certainly been a generous mistress to her subjects. She had left them peace and prosperity among themselves; she had given them as much political freedom as was consistent with her sovereignty; she had wellnigh succeeded in welding all Italy into a Roman nation. It is noteworthy that the large majority of the Italian cities clung to her, even in the darkest straits to which she was reduced by Hannibal.

Yet when the fall of her last great rival left Rome irresistible abroad, her methods changed. It is hard to see how even Carthaginians could have been more cruel, more grasping, more corrupt than the Roman rulers of the provinces. Having conquered the governments of the world, Rome had to face outbreak after outbreak from the unarmed, unsheltered masses of the people. Her barbarity drove them to mad despair. "Servile" wars, slave outbreaks are dotted over all the last century of the Roman Republic.

The good, if there was any good, that Roman dominion brought the world at that period was the spreading of Greek culture across the western half of the world. As Rome mastered the Greek states one by one, their genius won a subtler triumph over the conqueror. Her generals recognized and admired a culture superior to their own. They carried off the statues of Greece for the adornment of their villas, and with equal eagerness they appropriated her manners and her thought, her literature and her gods.

But this superficial culture could not save the Roman Republic from the dry-rot that sapped her vitals from within. As a mere matter of numbers, the actual citizens of Rome or even of the semi-Roman districts close around her were too few to continue fighting over all the vast empire they controlled. The sturdy peasant population of Italy slowly disappeared. The actual inhabitants of the capital came to consist of a few thousand vastly wealthy families, who held all the power, a few thousand more of poorer citizens dependent on the rich, and then a vast swarm of slaves and foreigners, feeders on the crumbs of the Roman table.

In the battles against Carthage, the mass of Rome's armies had consisted of her own citizens or of allies closely united to them in blood and fortune. Her later victories were won by hired troops, men gathered from every clime and every race. Roman generals still might lead them, Roman laws environ them, Roman gold employ them. Yet the fact remained, that in these armies lay the strength of the Republic, no longer within her own walls, no longer in the stout hearts of her citizens.

Perhaps the world itself was slow in seeing this degeneration. The Gracchi brothers tried to stem the tide, and they were slain, sacrificed by the nation they sought to save.[16] Cornelius Sulla was the man who completed, and at the same time made plain to all, the change that had been growing up. Having bitter grievances against his enemies in the capital, he appealed for redress, not to the Roman senate, not to the votes of the populace, but to the swords of the legions he commanded. Twice he marched his soldiers against Rome. He brushed aside the feeble resistance that was offered, and entered the city like a conqueror. The blood of those who had opposed his wishes flowed in streams. Three thousand senators and knights, the flower of the Roman aristocracy, were slain at his nod. Of the common folk and of the Italians throughout the peninsula, the slaughter was immeasurable. And when his bloody vengeance was at last glutted, Sulla ruled as an extravagant, conscienceless, licentious dictator. Rome had found a fitting master.


The Roman people, the mighty race who had defied a Hannibal at their gates, were clearly come to an end. Sulla had proved the power of the Republic to be an empty shell. After his death, men used the empty forms awhile; but the surviving aristocrats had learned their awful lesson. They put no further faith in the strength of the city; they watched the armies and the generals; they intrigued for the various commands. It was an exciting game. Life and fortune were the stakes they risked; the prize—the mastery of a helpless world, waiting to be plundered.

Pompey and Caesar proved the ablest players. Pompey overthrew what was left of the Greek Asiatic kingdoms and returned to Rome the idol of his troops, wellnigh as powerful as had been Sulla. Caesar, looking in his turn for a place to build up an army devoted to himself, selected Gaul and spent eight years in subduing and civilizing what was in a way the most important of all Rome's conquests. In Gaul he came in contact with another, fresher Aryan race.[17] Rome received new soldiers for her legions, new brains fitted to understand and carry on the work of civilizing the world.

When Caesar, turning away from Britain,[18] marched these new-formed legions back against Rome, even as Sulla had done, it was almost like another Gallic invasion of the South. Pompey fled. He gathered his legions from Asia; and the world resounded once more to the clash of arms.

This, then, was the third and final stage of the huge struggle for empire. War was still the business of the world. Rome had first defeated foreign nations; then she had to defeat the uprisings of the subject peoples; now her chiefs, finding her exhausted, fought among themselves for the supreme power. Armies of Asiatics, armies of Gauls, each claiming to represent Rome, battled over her helpless body.

Caesar was victorious. But when the conquering power which had once belonged to the united nation became embodied in a single man, there was a new way by which it might be checked. The government of Rome, like that of the Greek and Asiatic tyrannies, became a "despotism tempered by assassination"; and Caesar was its foremost victim.[19]

His death did not stop the fascinating gamble for empire. It only added one more move to the possible complexities of the game. The lesser players had their chance. They intrigued and they fought. Egypt, the last remaining civilized state outside of Rome, was drawn into the whirlpool also.[20] Cleopatra and Antony acted their reckless parts, and at length out of the world-wide tumult emerged "young Octavius," to assume his rôle as "Augustus Caesar," acknowledged emperor of the world.[21]

Note, however, that the term "world" is still one of boast, not truth. Emperor over many men, Augustus was; but the powers of nature still shut many races safe beyond his mastery. The ocean bounded his dominion on the west; the deserts to the south and east; the German forests to the north. These last he did essay to conquer, but they proved beyond him. The wild German tribes having no cities, which they must defend at any cost, could afford to flee or hide. Choosing their own time and place they rose suddenly, smote the legions of Augustus, and melted into the wilderness again.[22]

Rome was checked at last. No civilized nation had been able to stand against her; but the wild tribes of the Germans and the Parthians did. Barbarism had still by far the larger portion of the world wherein to live and develop, and gather brain and brawn. Rome could not conquer the wilderness.

(For the next section of this general survey see Volume III.)


  1. See Pericles Rules in Athens, page 12.
  2. See Great Plague at Athens, page 34.
  3. See Defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, page 48.
  4. See Condemnation and Death of Socrates, page 87.
  5. See Retreat of the Ten Thousand Greeks, page 68.
  6. See Alexander Reduces Tyre, page 133.
  7. See The Battle of Arbela, page 141.
  8. See Tartar Invasion of China, page 126.
  9. See Judas Maccabaeus Liberates Judea, page 245.
  10. See Institution and Fall of the Decemvirate in Rome, page 1.
  11. See Brennus Burns Rome, page 110.
  12. See First Battle between Greeks and Romans, page 166.
  13. See The Punic Wars, page 179.
  14. See Battle of the Metaurus, page 195.
  15. See Scipio Africanus Crushes Hannibal at Zama and Subjugates Carthage, page 224.
  16. See The Gracchi and Their Reforms, page 259.
  17. See Caesar Conquers Gaul, page 267.
  18. See Roman Invasion and Conquest of Britain, page 285.
  19. See Assassination of Caesar, page 313.
  20. See Cleopatra's Conquest of Caesar and Antony, page 295.
  21. See Rome Becomes a Monarchy, page 333.
  22. See Germans Under Arminius Revolt against Rome, page 362.