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ART. IV.—The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern
World; or, the History, Geography, and Antiquities of Chaldæa, Assyria, Babylon, Media, and Persia. By GEORGE RAWLINSON, M.A. Vols. I. to III. London. 1862–65.
The student of history in its widest form—of the records of civilized mankind for the last four thousand years--of that wide field of inquiry of which modern history formd though the brightest, but an infinitesimal portion if measures, by years—cannot fail to be struck, like Pascal, with the 'mingled greatness and littleness of man.' Nation after nation has risen into greatness, only to fade and utterly disappear. At successive times and in widely severed countries—now in China, or India, in Egypt, or in the valley of the Euphrates, or far away amid the highlands of Peru, on the plateau of Mexico, or amid the now wilderness of Yucatan-some tribe of mankind has flowered into civilisation, has risen like a sun amid the surrounding barbarism, only to set, leaving again the darkness of night behind it. Each has perished in turn, extinguished by some other tribe or nation-by some people which hated it, despised its knowledge, and sought not to profit by or perpetuate its peculiar civilisation, but to destroy its monuments and obliterate its memory. In the youth of civilisation, nations preferred to destroy each other's works and wisdom, rather than to preserve and profit by them.
Another and not less striking feature of those early times, so dissimilar from the present state of things, was, that each civilized community led a solitary life of its own, unknown to the rest of mankind,-a fountain of civilisation within its own narrow sphere, but whose light did not spread to other parts of the world. Barriers of darkness lay between them, separating each from the others. Egypt, China, India, Babylonia, were local suns, each shining brilliantly in its own narrow sphere, faintly illuminating a few surrounding satellites; but each of them was as little known to the other as the solar systems of the bright abysses of space are known to this little orb of ours. And just as we look upon this fair planet where we dwell as if it were everything, and all else were naught—as if it were in fact (as our ancestors believed) the centre and chief end of creation, and that all the other distant orbs existed only to act as suns or moons or stars to us, things which would be meaningless and useless but for the fact of our existence: even so did each of those old nations regard the rest of the world. Each, shut in by impassable barriers, or looking disdainfully athwart the intervening darkness upon the distant glimmering lights beyond, led a hermit life, borrowing nothing from others, and developing knowledge and civilisation for itself. Even when, after the collision of races began, a people succeeded by martial superiority in establishing itself in the seat of a prior civilisation, it scorned the rich spoils of knowledge there laid like tribute at its feet-it would not stoop to pick them up, and preferred to destroy the mental wealth of the vanquished, rather than to preserve and inherit it.
It was in this fashion-so strange to us of modern time—that the great drama of civilisation proceeded in early ages. Each nation, either from necessity or by a bigoted choice, began life anew, working out for itself the endless problems, alike in the arts and in beliefs, which existence forces upon man's regard. Just as every individual has to learn for himself the varied lessons of life, so in far greater degree did those old nations proceed. By this means a vast variety of development, in different parts of the world, was rapidly attained in the early stages of civilisation. The very isolation of the nations of antiquity helped to produce the same result. The growth of humanity doubtless would have been hastened if the means of locomotion and of diffusing knowledge which we now enjoy had existed from the first; but in such a case the career of mankind would never have been so various. A certain form, or forms, of civilisation would have been more rapidly developed, but there would not have arisen that infinite and beautiful variety of national life which the past has bequeathed as a legacy of instruction to later times.
We of the present day can best appreciate the advantage of this. Now-a-days, no nation does or can lead a solitary life: it knows, and is in direct communication with, and is more or less affected by, all the others. National life, instead of necessarily developing diversity and variety as in early times, now tends more and more towards unity, similarity; and this tendency is as truly the progress of matured life as variety is the product of healthy youth. An eclectic spirit is the special characteristic of the present age. Each nation, having grown up to maturity in its own way, now begins to look around, and to learn from others. Without abdicating its own individuality, it compares itself with others, and modifies and improves its own life by observing what is good in theirs. This tendency will continue and advance: the natural result being the gradual disappearance of many points of difference, and a greater approximation of civilised life to a common standard. Variety, almost endless, has already been established; the special progress of the future will be in selecting whatever is good in each of those varieties, and crowning the work of ages by a fuller,
freer, and grander type of national life than has yet been developed by any single people.
Professor Rawlinson startles us by observing how little modern Europe has advanced upon the civilisation of one of those old and long-dead countries, Babylonia. It must be confessed that in many departments of art and knowledge, mankind have advanced little during the last two thousand years, but in the practical and general use of that knowledge we have advanced surpassingly. It is true that the germs of knowledge, upon which the greatest triumphs of modern times are based, were familiar to a favoured few in one or other of the earliest civilized nations. It is also true that in some departments of human development we have actually not advanced at all. The motive power of steam, the application of which to practical use is the grandest triumph of the present century, was known to, and employed by, the ancient priesthood of Egypt. The compass, which enables our mariners to traverse the trackless wastes of ocean, was in use in at least equally remote times in China. Electricity, another great triumph of our times, was known as a fact to the Greeks and Romans. Astronomy, in Babylonia, was carried to a perfection which only in recent times has been equalled and surpassed in Europe. Printing was invented and turned to practical account in China nearly a thousand years ago. Constitutional government, another boast of our age, was recognised as the principle of administration in China before the Christian era; and even the last phase of that system, namely, competitive examination as the means of selecting the employés of the State, was adopted in China a thousand years ago, before William the Conqueror had set foot in England. In mental philosophy, the sages of India, and in a lesser degree of China, long ago anticipated all the really notable phases of that science in modern Europe. The same may be said of the doctrines of morality (as apart from religion). And in fine art, no country, it is allowed on all hands, has yet surpassed the wondrous development of the beautiful which arose in the narrow peninsula of Greece, at a time when all the rest of Europe lay in the darkness of barbarism. Even as regards the department of fine art in which modern times have most excelled-namely, poetry,—we put more knowledge into our verses, but not more beauty.
The special and really grand triumph of modern times has been to carry the uses of knowledge to an infinitely further development than ever before; and also to extend that knowledge, and its practical appliances, to the general mass of the community. Learning, instead of being confined to a few, sometimes to an exclusive sect, has been made the portion of the
community at large ; and the knowledge of the properties of matter-for example, steam-power, the compass, and electricity
-has been turned on the widest scale to practical use. The immense outburst of human power, the amazing development of human faculties, which so remarkably characterize recent times, are due to the two great agencies of the printing-press and the steam-engine. The former, combined with a knowledge of languages, enables the student, without stirring from his armchair, to behold the world, both past and present: it makes him acquainted with the best thoughts of the best men, in all ages and countries; it enables him, as it were, to live in distant countries and remote times, and to see their people and places, almost as if he were actually there. The steam-engine, while increasing a hundred-fold the productive power of man, and thereby greatly adding to human well-being, has attained its most marvellous results in its twin offspring, steam-navigation and railways, which have thrown the whole world open, carrying thousands of men daily into all corners of the earth, and drawing all nations into mutual acquaintance and incipient brotherhood. And the knowledge which steam-locomotion enables us to acquire, the printing-press preserves and diffuses. The knowledge acquired by travel, instead of being confined to a few, almost to travellers themselves, is spread abroad like a common property; it is published, as it were, on the house-tops and in the highways, so that every one who has an ear to hear can hearken and understand.
With this vast and sudden expansion of the means of knowledge, which have virtually rendered each educated man a cosmopolite, an equally notable change has taken place in the spirit and desires of mankind. In the products of the printingpress, the literature of long-past times has become the property and inheritance of the cultivated classes in Europe. We not only have the means of knowing the past in literature, and of seeing the distant by means of improved locomotion, but our desire to see and to know have been proportionally increased. We have lost the bigotry and intolerance natural to early times. Instead of despising, we desire earnestly to know the past history of our race, however diverse from our own; we have come to view it in an impartial spirit, willing to do justice to every form of civilisation which has arisen in the Divine drama of humanity. Hence our numerous translations of ancient literature; hence our explorations of the globe, and most of all, of those parts where civilisation and power once had their mighty seats. We make a study of distant China and India, alike in their present condition and in their more famous past. We resuscitate the records, and investigate the relics, of ancient
micalities te in this, the isolateree distin
Mexico and Peru. We translate and comment upon the old books of Confucius, Zoroaster, and Mahomet. We study the hieroglyphics and photograph the temples of ancient Egypt; artists make a pilgrimage to the pillared beauties of desolate and desert-girdled Palmyra; and we explore the sites, and arduously seek to reconstruct the history, of vanished Persepolis and of mound-buried Nineveh and Babylon.
A wide chasm separates nearly all of those old civilisations from the comparatively modern civilisation of Europe. Rome, the connecting link between the old times and the new, and the true mother of civilized Europe, was but a village upon the Palatine Hill when some of those old civilisations were crumbling into the dust. Rome embraced the transition from Paganism to Christianity; she introduced to civilized Europe the arts of short-lived Greece; she gave a conscious existence by her conquests, to the present nationalities of our continent; and died at last, slowly and grandly, beneath the united pressure of the new states and nations which she had called into being. But in pre-Roman times, in that earlier period of which we have been speaking, there were three distinct centres of grand civilisation (apart from the isolated worlds of India and China), all remarkable in this, that they arose in narrow localities. These localities were, the narrow valley of the Nile, the not much wider valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, and the bare and rocky peninsula of Greece. Greece, severed into little rival States, no bigger than the republics of mediæval Italy, never combined into one power, and each finding full vent for its energies in contests of arms or in art with its fellows, never became a great political power-never threw its chain as a conqueror over other countries. It sent out colonies indeed, but these remained severed like the states in the mother country. The vast energies of the Greeks never coalesced in building a solid commonwealth, much less in creating an empire. Save in the expedition of Alexander, the last grand triumph of Greek life—the solitary effort of an exceptional man,--the Greeks contented themselves with their narrow peninsula, girdled by the blue seas, and fringed with the rocky islets of the Ægean. Egypt led a life of equal political quiescence, and much more isolated morally from the surrounding countries. Stable and colossal, like her own pyramids, she lived politically alone in the world, rarely overpassing the desert frontiers of her narrow valley, and maintaining to the last the calm immutable aspect of her own Sphinx, undisturbed in her power and idiosyncrasy by foreign influence and invasion, until the sword of the Persian Cambyses pierced her god, and let out the life of Egypt. Unity of power characterized Egypt, as diversity and disunion char
mwider valley of the narroney arose in neat India and