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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XIV. Historians

§ 2. Arnold’s Roman History

Arnold’s interest in historical work had always been great, and, while, like Niebuhr’s, it was closely associated with philological studies, it particularly directed itself to geographical and topographical research, in their bearing upon history. He had begun historical composition with a short history of Greece, which never saw the light, and with a series of articles on Roman history from the second Punic war onwards to the age of Trajan—a period which Niebuhr, had he ever reached it in his History, would have treated as one of decay. (Arnold’s edition of Thucydides, where the topographical element is not wanting, is mentioned in a subsequent chapter.) But it was in his History of Rome that, inspired by Niebuhr’s, he first essayed a historical narrative on a large scale. The book appeared in three volumes, reaching to the end of the second Punic war (1838–43); the History of the later Roman Commonwealth followed posthumously, in 1845. It is, of course, above all in the earlier parts of the work that the spiritus of his great exemplar dominates the scene.

  • “I need not tell you,” Arnold writes to Bunsen in 1836, “how entirely I have fed upon Niebuhr; in fact, I have done little more than put his first volume into a shape more fit for general, or at least for English, readers, assuming his conclusions to be proved when he was obliged to give the proof in detail.”
  • Yet the work, as a whole, was very far from being a mere secondhand reproduction; his independence of judgment and openness of outlook would, in any case, have made this impossible; and it was precisely in the period before reaching which his predecessor’s narrative breaks off, and in his account of the mighty conflict of the second Punic war itself that Arnold’s powers as a historian rise to their height. His capacity for military and geographical expositions and statements here found the amplest opportunity for display: he loved this side of his task, and, as he writes, “thirsted for Zama.” At the same time, no student or writer of history has ever been more conscious than Arnold of the responsibility implied in Acton’s memorable saying that “if we lower our standard in History, we cannot uphold it in Church and State.” When speaking, with that inborn modesty which was part of his constant homage to truth, of the many advantages which he lacked in carrying on the “overpowering labour of writing the history of Rome,” he added:
  • Yet I feel that I have the love of history so strong in me, and that it has been working in me so many years, that I can write something which will be read, and which I trust will encourage the love of all things noble and just, and wise and lovely.
  • This sense of the grandeur and dignity of his theme the English historian of free Rome took over from the conception and development of his narrative into its style. Though clearness and directness of speech were like a natural law to him in all his public utterances, he told his nephew that it had cost him trouble so to “pitch his style” in his History as to bring it to the level of his subject; and he afterwards said of his work, in words which it would be well if some historians not less eminent than he could have applied to theirs:

  • I feel to regard the History more and more with something of an artistic feeling as to composition and arrangement of it—points on which the ancients laid great stress, and I now think very rightly.
  • To the great satisfaction of what was already an important part of Oxford, Arnold was, in 1841, appointed regius professor of modern history there, and at once threw himself with his wonted energy into the fulfilment of his new duties. Although he died in the following year, he had lived long enough to justify the only official tribute which his friends in power ever paid to his deserts; and it is probable that, before very long, he would have exchanged Rugby, where the chief work of his life had been done, for Oxford. He had enough insight as well as knowledge to perceive the folly of attempting to draw a hard and fast line between the civilisation of Greece and Rome and the progress of what is called modern history; and it is quite likely that, had his life been prolonged, he might have carried on his chief work to a much further point (he had in fact, so far back as 1824, written on the period from Augustus to Aurelian, which he declared he would not give up to anyone), or, better still, have written a history of Hellas, to which his sympathies were, most of all, attracted. But, in his inaugural lecture, he laid out the ground, in accordance with the accepted notion of the work of his chair, plainly and unostentatiously, and, in his first brief course, essayed a survey of the advancement of civilisation in England, more or less analogous to what Guizot, not long before, had achieved for France.

    Arnold’s judgment of Niebuhr as a historian of Rome, passed, as has been seen, from partial doubt into full acceptance; and it was not till 1855 that, in Sir George Cornewall Lewis’s Credibility of Early Roman History, the conclusions adopted by Arnold were subjected to a searching analysis, in the light both of their genesis and of the comments which they had called forth. But this master of argument did not himself advance to constructive history.