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

XIV. Historians

§ 3. Merivale’s Romans under the Empire

The history of Rome, from nearly the point which Arnold had reached, was carried on by a Cambridge scholar who was a sincere admirer of his and a liberal theologian, although, in general, conservative in his tendencies and tastes. Charles Merivale could, in his old age, from his fair deanery at Ely, look back with satisfaction on a life in which he had achieved everything that his father would have wished him to achieve and would, in the son’s modest opinion, have himself achieved with superior distinction. The elder son, Herman, gained a high reputation by his writings, more especially on colonial and Indian subjects, and by his services in the colonial and the India offices. Charles seemed at one time likely to be chiefly renowned for pure scholarship—as it was, he had few equals in Latin verse composition, of which he was, through life, an enthusiastic practitioner. But a visit to Rome in 1845, when he is found taking careful notes of the impression made on him by the imperial portrait-busts, seems to have finally confirmed in him the idea of writing a history of Rome from the Social war to Constantine, and thus bridging, as it were, the interval between Arnold (Niebuhr) and Gibbon. By the close of 1846, he had nearly completed the first volume. In 1848, he accepted the rectory of Lawford near Manningtree in Essex; and here—in the quiet Constable country—he finally matured the scheme of his magnum opus; benefiting much by the counsel of his old college friend, William Bodham Donne, a fine scholar and sound critic. The first volume of The History of the Romans under the Empire was published in 1850, and the last in 1864. The first three volumes were so successful that, after in vain seeking to secure feminine aid to this end, he epitomised them under the title The Fall of the Roman Republic (1853). A better book of the kind, sober and stimulating at the same time, never blessed a generation of schoolmasters and schoolboys, no longer satisfied with Keightley and only on the eve of a flow of “up to date” students’ manuals. Merivale afterwards brought out a short General History of Rome (1875), besides subsidiary contributions to the history of the empire. The most interesting of these, as taking wide views of a great historical problem which famous predecessors had treated after their own fashion, is to be found in the companion Boyle lectures, The Conversion of the Roman Empire (1864) and The Conversion of the Northern Nations (1866).

Merivale’s chief book, if it does not quite bear out the comparisons which gratified the author in his old age, is a history of high merit and enduring value, composed in a style of simple dignity and dealing, in a spirit of both candour and justice, with the many difficult moral as well as intellectual problems which, in its course from Tiberius and, indeed, from Tacitus himself, downwards, call for solution. The narrative is based on an intimate knowledge of contemporary literature. Merivale, to begin with, was a close student of Cicero, whose Life and Letters by Abeken he translated into English (1854); before this, he had edited Sallust (1852); and he was not less familiar with Tacitus and Suetonius than he was with his beloved Lucan and Statius. Thus, his History was as free from pragmatic dryness and preconceived onesidedness as it was from mere fine writing, which his reserved and rather humorous nature abhorred. On the other hand, he was lacking in complete command of the primary sources of Roman history and had only partially investigated the unwritten remains of Roman life and its surroundings. He was pre-Mommsen in his unavoidable neglect of epigraphic material, and could not, in most cases, bring to bear upon his theme the observation of a traveller. While, in these respects, he still belonged to an older school of historians, he shared with the newer their freer outlook upon men and things, and the single-minded pursuit of truth by the application of the critical method. He is no more “without bias” than is Niebuhr or Arnold, or any historian whose mind is merged in his work; but the point of view from which he favours monarchical government is a different one from Mommsen’s. It may, perhaps, be added that Merivale’s Cambridge life had gone some way towards teaching him the advantages of a knowledge of men as well as of things—though his fellow Saturday reviewers he had, for the most part, only known, when there, de haut en bas: no doubt, the correct “apostolic” attitude—and that, in his later days, when, as chaplain to the Speaker, he regularly watched the House of Commons and its vicissitudes, he found that he had gone through a good preliminary training in his study of Roman public character and life.