The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 1/An Outline Narrative of the Great Events

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History, if we define it as the mere transcription of the written records of former generations, can go no farther back than the time such records were first made, no farther than the art of writing. But now that we have come to recognize the great earth itself as a story-book, as a keeper of records buried one beneath the other, confused and half obliterated, yet not wholly beyond our comprehension, now the historian may fairly be allowed to speak of a far earlier day.

For unmeasured and immeasurable centuries man lived on earth a creature so little removed from "the beasts that die," so little superior to them, that he has left no clearer record than they of his presence here. From the dry bones of an extinct mammoth or a plesiosaur, Cuvier reconstructed the entire animal and described its habits and its home. So, too, looking on an ancient, strange, scarce human skull, dug from the deeper strata beneath our feet, anatomists tell us that the owner was a man indeed, but one little better than an ape. A few æons later this creature leaves among his bones chipped flints that narrow to a point; and the archæologist, taking up the tale, explains that man has become tool-using, he has become intelligent beyond all the other animals of earth. Physically he is but a mite amid the beast monsters that surround him, but by value of his brain he conquers them. He has begun his career of mastery.

If we delve amid more recent strata, we find the flint weapons have become bronze. Their owner has learned to handle a ductile metal, to draw it from the rocks and fuse it in the fire. Later still he has discovered how to melt the harder and more useful iron. We say roughly, therefore, that man passed through a stone age, a bronze age, and then an iron age.

Somewhere, perhaps in the earliest of these, he began to build rude houses. In the next, he drew pictures. During the latest, his pictures grew into an alphabet of signs, his structures developed into vast and enduring piles of brick or stone. Buildings and inscriptions became his relics, more like to our own, more fully understandable, giving us a sense of closer kinship with his race.


There are three different lines along which we have succeeded in securing some knowledge of these our distant ancestors, three telephones from the past, over which they send to us confused and feeble murmurings, whose fascination makes only more maddening the vagueness of their speech.

First, we have the picture-writings, whether of Central America, of Egypt, of Babylonia, or of other lands. These when translatable bring us nearest of all to the heart of the great past. It is the mind, the thought, the spoken word, of man that is most intimately he; not his face, nor his figure, nor his clothes. Unfortunately, the translation of these writings is no easy task. Those of Central America are still an unsolved riddle. Those of Babylon have been slowly pieced together like a puzzle, a puzzle to which the learned world has given its most able thought. Yet they are not fully understood. In Egypt we have had the luck to stumble on a clew, the Rosetta Stone, which makes the ancient writing fairly clear.[1]

Where this mode of communication fails, we turn to another which carries us even farther into the past. The records which have been less intentionally preserved, not only the buildings themselves, but their decorations, the personal ornaments of men, idols, coins, every imaginable fragment, chance escaped from the maw of time, has its own story for our reading. In Egypt we have found deep-hidden, secret tombs, and, intruding on their many centuries of silence, have reaped rich harvests of knowledge from the garnered wealth. In Babylonia the rank vegetation had covered whole cities underneath green hillocks, and preserved them till our modern curiosity delved them out. To-day, he who wills, may walk amid the halls of Sennacherib, may tread the streets whence Abraham fled, ay, he may gaze upon the handiwork of men who lived perhaps as far before Abraham as we ourselves do after him.

Nor are our means of penetrating the past even thus exhausted. A third chain yet more subtle and more marvellous has been found to link us to an ancestry immeasurably remote. This unbroken chain consists of the words from our own mouths. We speak as our fathers spoke; and they did but follow the generations before. Occasional pronunciations have altered, new words have been added, and old ones forgotten; but some basal sounds of names, some root-thoughts of the heart, have proved as immutable as the superficial elegancies are changeful. "Father" and "mother" mean what they have meant for uncounted ages.

Comparative philology, the science which compares one language with another to note the points of similarity between them, has discovered that many of these root-sounds are alike in almost all the varied tongues of Europe. The resemblance is too common to be the result of coincidence, too deep-seated to be accounted for by mere communication between the nations. We have gotten far beyond the possibility of such explanations; and science says now with positive confidence that there must have been a time when all these nations were but one, that their languages are all but variations of the tongue their distant ancestors once held in common.

Study has progressed beyond this point, can tell us far more intricate and fainter facts. It argues that one by one the various tribes left their common home and became completely separated; and that each root-sound still used by all the nations represents an idea, an object, they already possessed before their dispersal. Thus we can vaguely reconstruct that ancient, aboriginal civilization. We can even guess which tribes first broke away, and where again these wanderers subdivided, and at what stage of progress. Surely a fascinating science this! And in its infancy! If its later development shall justify present promise, it has still strange tales to tell us in the future.


Turn now from this tracing of our means of knowledge, to speak of the facts they tell us. When our humankind first become clearly visible they are already divided into races, which for convenience we speak of as white, yellow, and black. Of these the whites had apparently advanced farthest on the road to civilization; and the white race itself had become divided into at least three varieties, so clearly marked as to have persisted through all the modern centuries of communication and intermarriage. Science is not even able to say positively that these varieties or families had a common origin. She inclines to think so; but when all these later ages have failed to obliterate the marks of difference, what far longer period of separation must have been required to establish them!

These three clearly outlined families of the whites are the Hamites, of whom the Egyptians are the best-known type; the Semites, as represented by ancient Babylonians and modern Jews and Arabs; and the great Aryan or Indo-European family, once called the Japhites, and including Hindus, Persians, Greeks, Latins, the modern Celtic and Germanic races, and even the Slavs or Russians.

The Egyptians, when we first see them, are already well advanced toward civilization.[2] To say that they were the first people to emerge from barbarism is going much further than we dare. Their records are the most ancient that have come clearly down to us; but there may easily have been other social organisms, other races, to whom the chances of time and nature have been less gentle. Cataclysms may have engulfed more than one Atlantis; and few climates are so fitted for the preservation of man's buildings as is the rainless valley of the Nile.

Moreover, the Egyptians may not have been the earliest inhabitants even of their own rich valley. We find hints that they were wanderers, invaders, coming from the East, and that with the land they appropriated also the ideas, the inventions, of an earlier negroid race. But whatever they took they added to, they improved on. The idea of futurity, of man's existence beyond the grave, became prominent among them; and in the absence of clearer knowledge we may well take this idea as the groundwork, the starting-point, of all man's later and more striking progress.

Since the Egyptians believed in a future life they strove to preserve the body for it, and built ever stronger and more gigantic tombs. They strove to fit the mind for it, and cultivated virtues, not wholly animal such as physical strength, nor wholly commercial such as cunning. They even carved around the sepulchre of the departed a record of his doings, lest they—and perhaps he too in that next life—forget. There were elements of intellectual growth in all this, conditions to stimulate the mind beyond the body.

And the Egyptians did develop. If one reads the tales, the romances, that have survived from their remoter periods, he finds few emotions higher than childish curiosity or mere animal rage and fear. Amid their latest stories, on the contrary, we encounter touches of sentiment, of pity and self-sacrifice, such as would even now be not unworthy of praise. But, alas! the improvement seems most marked where it was most distant. Perhaps the material prosperity of the land was too great, the conditions of life too easy; there was no stimulus to effort, to endeavor. By about the year 2200 B.C. we find Egypt fallen into the grip of a cold and lifeless formalism. Everything was fixed by law; even pictures must be drawn in a certain way, thoughts must be expressed by stated and unvariable symbols. Advance became well-nigh impossible. Everything lay in the hands of a priestly caste the completeness of whose dominion has perhaps never been matched in history. The leaders lived lives of luxurious pleasure enlightened by scientific study; but the people scarce existed except as automatons. The race was dead; its true life, the vigor of its masses, was exhausted, and the land soon fell an easy prey to every spirited invader.

Meanwhile a rougher, stronger civilization was growing in the river valleys eastward from the Nile. The Semitic tribes, who seem to have had their early seat and centre of dispersion somewhere in this region, were coalescing into nations, Babylonians along the lower Tigris and Euphrates, Assyrians later along the upper rivers, Hebrews under David and Solomon[3] by the Jordan, Phoenicians on the Mediterranean coast.

The early Babylonian civilization may antedate even the Egyptian; but its monuments were less permanent, its rulers less anxious for the future. The "appeal to posterity," the desire for a posthumous fame, seems with them to have been slower of conception. True, the first Babylonian monarchs of whom we have any record, in an era perhaps over five thousand years before Christianity, stamped the royal signet on every brick of their walls and temples. But common-sense suggests that this was less to preserve their fame than to preserve their bricks. Theft is no modern innovation.

They were a mathematical race, these Babylonians. In fact, Semite and mathematician are names that have been closely allied through all the course of history, and one cannot help but wish our Aryan race had somewhere lived through an experience which would produce in them the exactitude in balance and measurement of facts that has distinguished the Arabs and the Jews. The Babylonians founded astronomy and chronology; they recorded the movements of the stars, and divided their year according to the sun and moon. They built a vast and intricate network of canals to fertilize their land; and they arranged the earliest system of legal government, the earliest code of laws, that has come down to us.[4]

The sciences, then, arise more truly here than with the Egyptians. Man here began to take notice, to record and to classify the facts of nature. We may count this the second visible step in his great progress. Never again shall we find him in a childish attitude of idle wonder. Always is his brain alert, striving to understand, self-conscious of its own power over nature.

It may have been wealth and luxury that enfeebled the Babylonians as, it did the Egyptians. At any rate, their empire was overturned by a border colony of their own, the Assyrians, a rough and hardy folk who had maintained themselves for centuries battling against tribes from the surrounding mountains. It was like a return to barbarism when about B.C. 880 the Assyrians swept over the various Semite lands. Loud were the laments of the Hebrews; terrible the tales of cruelty; deep the scorn with which the Babylonians submitted to the rude conquerors. We approach here a clearer historic period; we can trace with plainness the devastating track of war;[5] we can read the boastful triumph of the Assyrian chiefs, can watch them step by step as they adopt the culture and the vices of their new subjects, growing ever more graceful and more enfeebled, until they too are overthrown by a new and hardier race, the Persians, an Aryan folk.

Before turning to this last and most prominent family of humankind, let us look for a moment at the other, darker races, seen vaguely as they come in contact with the whites. The negroes, set sharply by themselves in Africa, never seem to have created any progressive civilization of their own, never seem to have advanced further than we find the wild tribes in the interior of the country to-day. But the yellow or Turanian races, the Chinese and Japanese, the Turks and the Tartars, did not linger so helplessly behind. The Chinese, at least, established a social world of their own, widely different from that of the whites, in some respects perhaps superior to it. But the fatal weakness of the yellow civilization was that it was not ennobling like the Egyptian, not scientific like the Babylonian, not adventurous and progressive as we shall find the Aryan.

This, of course, is speaking in general terms. Something somewhat ennobling there may be in the contemplations of Confucius;[6] but no man can favorably compare the Chinese character to-day with the European, whether we regard either intensity of feeling, or variety, range, subtlety, and beauty of emotion. So, also, the Chinese made scientific discoveries—but knew not how to apply them or improve them. So also they made conquests—and abandoned them; toiled—and sank back into inertia.

The Japanese present a separate problem, as yet little understood in its earlier stages.[7] As to the Tartars, wild and hardy horsemen roaming over Northern Asia, they kept for ages their independent animal strength and fierceness. They appear and disappear like flashes. They seem to seek no civilization of their own; they threaten again and again to destroy that of all the other races of the globe. Fitly, indeed, was their leader Attila once termed "the Scourge of God."


Of our own progressive Aryan race, we have no monuments nor inscriptions so old as those of the Hamites and the Semites. What comparative philology tells is this: An early, if not the original, home of the Aryans was in Asia, to the eastward of the Semites, probably in the mountain district back of modern Persia. That is, they were not, like the other whites, a people of the marsh lands and river valleys. They lived in a higher, hardier, and more bracing atmosphere. Perhaps it was here that their minds took a freer bent, their spirits caught a bolder tone. Wherever they moved they came as conquerors among other races.

In their primeval home and probably before the year B.C. 3000, they had already acquired a fair degree of civilization. They built houses, ploughed the land, and ground grain into flour for their baking. The family relations were established among them; they had some social organization and simple form of government; they had learned to worship a god, and to see in him a counterpart of their tribal ruler.

From their upland farms they must have looked eastward upon yet higher mountains, rising impenetrable above the snowline; but to north and south and west they might turn to lower regions; and by degrees, perhaps as they grew too numerous for comfort, a few families wandered off along the more inviting routes. Whichever way they started, their adventurous spirit led them on. We find no trace of a single case where hearts failed or strength grew weary and the movement became retrograde, back toward the ancient home. Spreading out, radiating in all directions, it is they who have explored the earth, who have measured it and marked its bounds and penetrated almost to its every corner. It is they who still pant to complete the work so long ago begun.

Before B.C. 2000 one of these exuded swarms had penetrated India, probably by way of the Indus River. In the course of a thousand years or so, the intruders expanded and fought their way slowly from the Indus to the Ganges. The earlier and duskier inhabitants gave way before them or became incorporated in the stronger race. A mighty Aryan or Hindu empire was formed in India and endured there until well within historic times.

Yet its power faded. Life in the hot and languid tropics tends to weaken, not invigorate, the sinews of a race. Then, too, a formal religion, a system of castes[8] as arbitrary as among the Egyptians, laid its paralyzing grip upon the land. About B.C. 600 Buddhism, a new and beautiful religion, sought to revive the despairing people; but they were beyond its help.[9] Their slothful languor had become too deep. From having been perhaps the first and foremost and most civilized of the Aryan tribes, the Hindus sank to be degenerate members of the race. We shall turn to look on them again in a later period; but they will be seen in no favorable light.

Meanwhile other wanderers from the Aryan home appear to the north and west. Perhaps even the fierce Tartars are an Aryan race, much altered from long dwelling among the yellow peoples. One tribe, the Persians, moved directly west, and became neighbors of the already noted Semitic group. After long wars backward and forward, bringing us well within the range of history, the Persians proved too powerful for the whole Semite group. They helped destroy Assyria,[10] they overthrew the second Babylonian empire which Nebuchadnezzar had built up, and then, pressing on to the conquest of Egypt, they swept the Hamites too from their place of sovereignty.[11]

How surely do those tropic lands avenge themselves on each new savage horde of invaders from the hardy North. It is not done in a generation, not in a century, perhaps. But drop by drop the vigorous, tingling, Arctic blood is sapped away. Year after year the lazy comfort, the loose pleasure, of the south land fastens its curse upon the mighty warriors. As we watch the Persians, we see their kings go mad, or become effeminate tyrants sending underlings to do their fighting for them. We see the whole race visibly degenerate, until one questions if Marathon[12] were after all so marvellous a victory, and suspects that at whatever point the Persians had begun their advance on Europe they would have been easily hurled back.

It was in Europe only that the Aryan wanderers found a temperate climate, a region similar to that in which they had been bred. Recent speculation has even suggested that Europe was their primeval home, from which they had strayed toward Asia, and to which they now returned. Certainly it is in Europe that the race has continued to develop. Earliest of these Aryan waves to take possession of their modern heritage, were the Celts, who must have journeyed over the European continent at some dim period too remote even for a guess. Then came the Greeks and Latins, closely allied tribes, representing possibly a single migration, that spread westward along the islands and peninsulas of the Mediterranean. The Teutons may have left Asia before B.C. 1000, for they seem to have reached their German forests by three centuries beyond that time, and these vast migratory movements were very slow. The latest Aryan wave, that of the Slavs, came well within historic times. We almost fancy we can see its movement. Russian statesmen, indeed, have hopes that this is not yet completed. They dream that they, the youngest of the peoples, are yet to dominate the whole.


Of these European Aryans the only branches that come within the limits of our present period, that become noteworthy before B.C. 480, are the Greeks and Latins.

Their languages tell us that they formed but a single tribe long after they became separated from the other peoples of their race. Finally, however, the Latins, journeying onward, lost sight of their friends, and it must have taken many centuries of separation for the two tongues to grow so different as they were when Greeks and Romans, each risen to a mighty nation, met again.

The Greeks, or Hellenes as they called themselves, seem to have been only one of a number of kindred tribes who occupied not only the shores of the Ægean, but Thrace, Macedonia, a considerable part of Asia Minor, and other neighboring regions. The Greeks developed in intellect more rapidly than their neighbors, outdistanced them in the race for civilization, forgot these poor relations, and grouped them with the rest of outside mankind under the scornful name "barbarians."

Why it was that the Greeks were thus specially stimulated beyond their brethren we do not know. It has long been one of the commonplaces of history to declare them the result of their environment. It is pointed out that in Greece they lived amid precipitous mountains, where, as hunters, they became strong and venturesome, independent and self-reliant. A sea of islands lay all around; and while an open ocean might only have awed and intimidated them, this ever-luring prospect of shore beyond shore rising in turn on the horizon made them sailors, made them friendly traffickers among themselves. Always meeting new faces, driving new bargains, they became alert, quick-witted, progressive, the foremost race of all the ancient world.

They do not seem to have been a creative folk. They only adapted and carried to a higher point what they learned from the older nations with whom they now came in contact. Phoenicia supplied them with an alphabet, and they began the writing of books. Egypt showed them her records, and, improving on her idea, they became historians. So far as we know, the earliest real "histories" were written in Greece; that is, the earliest accounts of a whole people, an entire series of events, as opposed to the merely individual statements on the Egyptian monuments, the personal, boastful clamor of some king.

Before we reach this period of written history we know that the Greeks had long been civilized. Their own legends scarce reach back farther than the first founding of Athens,[13] which they place about B.C. 1500. Yet recent excavations in Crete have revealed the remains of a civilization which must have antedated that by several centuries.

But we grope in darkness! The most ancient Greek book that has come down to us is the Iliad, with its tale of the great war against Troy.[14] Critics will not permit us to call the Iliad a history, because it was not composed, or at least not written down, until some centuries after the events of which it tells. Moreover, it poetizes its theme, doubtless enlarges its pictures, brings gods and goddesses before our eyes, instead of severely excluding everything except what the blind bard perchance could personally vouch for.

Still both the Iliad and the Odyssey are good enough history for most of us, in that they give a full, outline of Grecian life and society as Homer knew it. We see the little, petty states, with their chiefs all-powerful, and the people quite ignored. We see the heroes driving to battle in their chariots, guarded by shield and helmet, flourishing sword and spear. We learn what Ulysses did not know of foreign lands.. We hear Achilles' famed lament amid the dead, and note the vague glimmering idea of a future life, which the Greeks had caught perhaps from the Egyptians, perhaps from the suggestive land of dreams.

With the year B.C. 776 we come in contact with a clear marked chronology. The Greeks themselves reckoned from that date by means of olympiads or intervals between the Olympic games. The story becomes clear. The autocratic little city kings, governing almost as they pleased, have everywhere been displaced by oligarchies. The few leading nobles may name one of themselves to bear rule, but the real power lies divided among the class. Then, with the growing prominence of the Pythian games[15] we come upon a new stage of national development. The various cities begin to form alliances, to recognize the fact that they may be made safer and happier by a larger national life. The sense of brotherhood begins to extend beyond the circle of personal acquaintance.

This period was one of lawmaking, of experimenting. The traditions, the simple customs of the old kingly days, were no longer sufficient for the guidance of the larger cities, the more complicated circles of society, which were growing up. It was no longer possible for a man who did not like his tribe to abandon it and wander elsewhere with his family and herds. The land was too fully peopled for that. The dissatisfied could only endure and grumble and rebel. One system of law after another was tried and thrown aside. The class on whom in practice a rule bore most hard, would refuse longer assent to it. There were uprisings, tumults, bloody frays.

Sparta, at this time the most prominent of the Greek cities, evolved a code which made her in some ways the wonder of ancient days. The state was made all-powerful; it took entire possession of the citizen, with the purpose of making him a fighter, a strong defender of himself and of his country. His home life was almost obliterated, or, if you like, the whole city was made one huge family. All men ate in common; youth was severely restrained; its training was all for physical hardihood. Modern socialism, communism, have seldom ventured further in theory than the Spartans went in practice. The result seems to have been the production of a race possessed of tremendous bodily power and courage, but of stunted intellectual growth. The great individual minds of Greece, the thinkers, the creators, did not come from Sparta.

In Athens a different régime was meanwhile developing Hellenes of another type. A realization of how superior the Greeks were to earlier races, of what vast strides man was making in intelligence and social organization, can in no way be better gained than by comparing the law code of the Babylonian Hammurabi with that of Solon in Athens.[16] A period of perhaps sixteen hundred years separates the two, but the difference in their mental power is wider still.

While the Greeks were thus forging rapidly ahead, their ancient kindred, the Latins, were also progressing, though at a rate less dazzling. The true date of Rome's founding we do not know. Her own legends give B.C. 753.[17] But recent excavations on the Palatine hill show that it was already fortified at a much earlier period. Rome, we believe, was originally a frontier fortress erected by the Latins to protect them from the attacks of the non-Aryan races among whom they had intruded. This stronghold became ever more numerously peopled, until it grew into an individual state separate from the other Latin cities.

The Romans passed through the vicissitudes which we have already noted in Greece as characteristic of the Aryan development. The early war leader became an absolute king, his power tended to become hereditary, but its abuse roused the more powerful citizens to rebellion, and the kingdom vanished in an oligarchy.[18] This last change occurred in Rome about B.C. 510, and it was attended by such disasters that the city sank back into a condition that was almost barbarous when compared with her opulence under the Tarquin kings.

It was soon after this that the Persians, ignorant of their own decadence, and dreaming still of world power, resolved to conquer the remaining little states lying scarce known along the boundaries of their empire. They attacked the Greeks, and at Marathon (B.C. 490) and Salamis (B.C. 480) were hurled back and their power broken.[19]

This was a world event, one of the great turning points, a decision that could not have been otherwise if man was really to progress. The degenerate, enfeebled, half-Semitized Aryans of Asia were not permitted to crush the higher type which was developing in Europe. The more vigorous bodies and far abler brains of the Greeks enabled them to triumph over all the hordes of their opponents. The few conquered the many; and the following era became one of European progress, not of Asiatic stagnation.



  1. See page 1 for an engraving and account of this famous stone. It was found over a century ago and its value was instantly recognized, but many years passed before its secrets were deciphered. It contains an inscription repeated in three forms of writing: the early Egyptian of the hieroglyphics, a later Egyptian (the demotic), and Greek.
  2. See the Dawn of Civilization, page 1.
  3. See Accession of Solomon, page 92.
  4. Compilation of the Earliest Code, page 14.
  5. See Rise and Fall of Assyria, page 105.
  6. See Rise of Confucius, page 270.
  7. See Prince Jimmu, page 140.
  8. See The Formation of the Castes, page 52.
  9. See The Foundation of Buddhism, page 160.
  10. See Destruction of Nineveh, page 105.
  11. See Conquests of Cyrus, page 250.
  12. See The Battle of Marathon, page 322.
  13. See Theseus Founds Athens, page 45.
  14. See Fall of Troy, page 70.
  15. See Pythian Games at Delphi, page 181.
  16. See Solon's Legislation, page 203, and Compilation of the Earliest Code, page 14.
  17. See The Foundation of Rome, page 116.
  18. See Rome Established as a Republic, page 300.
  19. See Battle of Marathon, page 322, and Invasion of Greece, page 354.