Item of the Day: The General History of the Wars of the Romans, by Polybius (1812)
Full Title: The General History of thw Wars of the Romans, by Polybius. Translated from the Original Greek. By Mr. Hampton. And now reprinted and enlarged with several additions. Complete in one volume. London: Printed and published by J. Davis, 38, Essex Street, Strand, and sold by all the booksellers, 1812.
Among all the historians of antiquity, whose works have been adjudged worthy of the admiration or regard of later times, there is none, perhaps, so little known, as the author who is now offered to the public. The words grave, judicious, excellent, are, indeed, transmitted from pen to pen, and fill the mouth of every critic. But though the name of Polybius be thus still accompanied with some mark of respect and honour, his real character has remained almost unnoticed; and his writings, even though confessed to be the objects of esteem and praise, by degrees have fallen under that kind of neglect and general disregard, which usually foreruns oblivion.
It may be useful, therefore, to consider some of the chief among the causes that have concurred to produce so perverse an accident, before we attempt to lead the reader into a closer view of those many excellences that are peculiar to the following history, and which drew towards it the attention of the wise and learned, in the enlightended times of the Greeks and Romans.
Amidst all the advantages which the moderns are by many supposed to have gained against the ancients, with respect to the points of useful knowledge, and the enlargement of all true and solid science, it cannot but be allowed, that, in the art of writing, the latter still maintain their rank unrivalled; and that the graces and charms, the exactness, strength, and energy, which make severally the character of their most perfect compositions, are in vain sought for in the productions of the present age. Those, therefore, that take into their hands the remains of any celebrated name either of Greece or Rome, are, in the first place, accustomed to expect, if not a faultless work, yet some display, at least, of that superiority which the warmest emulation has not yet been able to exceed; some beaming of those excellences, which strike and captivate the mind, and render irresistible the words of wisdom, when delivered through the lips of beauty. It is not, therefore, judged sufficient, that the matter be grave and weighty, unless the manner also be enchanting. In vain are things disposed in order, and words made expressive of the sense. We demand, likewise, an arrangement that may please the fancy, and a harmony that may fill the ear. On the other hand, if the style be such as rejects the embellishments of art, yet let us find in it at least that full and close conciseness, that commanding dignity, that smooth and pure simplicity, in a word, those naked graces which outshine all ornament.
Such are the expectations of every reader, who has gained a taste sufficient to discern, that these beauties are, in fact, diffused through all the finished pieces of antiquity. For though, even among the antients, there were as many different styles as authors, yet nature, and sound criticism which drew its rules from nature, referred them all to two or three different kinds, of which each had its established laws; which, while they served to instruct the writer in his art, afforded likewise a sure criterion by which his works were either censured or approved. Was it the purpose of an author to recite past events, or convey lessons of instruction, in a language simple and unadorned? It was demanded by these laws that his style should be concise and pure; that the sentiment and diction should be closely joined, and no word admitted that did not add somewhat to the sense: that through the whole should be found a certain air of ease and freedom, mixed, however, with strength and dignity; and that, void of all appearance of study and art, he should strive to make even negligence itself alluring. If on the contrary, his desire was to excel in the florid kind, the same laws required that the simple charms of nature should be adorned with all the elegance and pomp of art; that splendid images should flatter and delude the fancy; that the diction should be noble, polite, and brilliant; that every word should be dressed in smiles; and that the periods should be measured with the nicest care, joined together in the softest bands of harmony, and flow intermingled without obstacle or pause. Lastly, with respect to that likewise which was called the intermediate kind of compositon, these laws were careful also to prescribe the proper temperament in which the beauties of the former two should meet and be united; and to adjust the mixture of graceful and austere, the artificial and the simple, in such exact proportion, that the one never should prevail against the other, but both govern through the whole with a kind of mingled sway . . .