Skip to main content

The Ancient World and Later

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

History of Ancient Civilisation. Two volumes. By Albert A, Trever, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $10.00. A History of Hurope from the Invasions to the Sixteenth Century. By Henri Pirenne. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $5.00.

Throughout the past seventy years, the historical world has been blessed—or according to some, cursed—by the more or less regular appearance of treatises having to do with the science or philosophy of history. Buckle is responsible, among English historians at least, for inaugurating the movement. Buckle’s demonstration of the influence of the material world on history was followed by the appearance of Marx’s “Das Kapital.” The tendency towards the elaboration of theory in the writing of history has culminated in the hypotheses of Spengler, Schneider, and Toynbee of the present day.

It appears indeed that he who essays to deal with history on a grand scale nowadays is inevitably tempted tc don the philosophical cap. But this temptation has been successfully resisted by Albert A. Trever, who has recently completed his “History of Ancient Civilization” down to the usual turning-point of recent chronological studies, the death of Con-stantine the Great. His expressed aim is not the propounding of a new political theory but something infinitely more modest: “to present all phases of the civilization of each people or period, not in vacuo or as an appendix to the main narrative, but in their proper chronological setting, interwoven with the very texture of the whole.” This is undoubtedly as history should be written, but it is hardly necessary for the author to emphasize a method that is, after all, so universally pursued.

Indeed, the work would have profited, one feels, by the omission of the foreword which inclines the reader to anticipate with suspicion what is in store for him. For the work is one that manifests wide and careful reading; nor is the element of true research entirely lacking, particularly in the Greek section. Common sense and good taste are conspicuous throughout, and the work as a whole may be characterized as sound. However, the reader who traverses the two volumes, which contain some fourteen hundred pages in all, will be irked by their almost unrelieved seriousness which becomes wearisome in a work of such great length.

The author is not at his best in treating of the vast expanse of recorded and unrecorded history that precedes Greek civilization. In fact, he disposes of it in some 130 pages. Once he reaches the days of Homer and Hesiod, he gathers momentum and steers a remarkably even course till the environs of the Middle Ages are in sight. The second volume is concerned wholly with Roman civilization.

Professor Trever’s analysis of the causes of the downfall of the Western Empire or, as it is more aptly denominated nowadays, the disappearance of ancient culture, is little short of masterly, and few will question the truth of his conclusions. If, however, we approach the problem from the angle of established mediaevalism instead of from the angle of the age which precedes, we may perhaps be able to see more clearly what lies behind the catastrophe and to suggest two possible principles of causation that Professor Trever overlooks. The culture of pagan antiquity is intimately involved in the essentials and the externals of Greek and Roman religion. When Christianity took root in the Roman state, there were found a few followers of the new faith, such as Prudentius, who had sufficient breadth of vision to conceive the possibility of some sort of fusion of the new and the old. These were the so-called Christian humanists, but their numbers were negligible. To the vast majority of Christians, almost no elements of the earlier world, apart from law and the military system, were acceptable. Christianity, being essentially an attitude of mind rather than a system, had as yet produced no distinctive culture of its own. Hence there was no immediate replacement of classical culture, and the remnants of it that lingered in Europe were not distinguished for their vigor.

It has been fashionable for something like a generation to minimize the importance of the barbarian invasions as a contribution to the decay of classical culture. Certainly if we attempt to paint a picture wherein the military force of Rome is shattered by the legions of the incoming barbarians who are bent on overthrowing Roman culture, we have become a prey to complete deception. The true picture seems to be one in which the population is neither sufficiently numerous nor energetic enough to maintain the civilized standard in the face of new circumstances.

As it happens, Henri Pirenne’s “History of Europe” carries on from almost the precise point at which the “History of Ancient Civilization” concludes; otherwise, they are in almost complete contrast.

Interned in a German village in the third year of the World War, M. Pirenne, who had been a professor at the University of Ghent, undertook to write, as a defense against madness, a history of mediaeval Europe. His entire bibliographical equipment consisted of a little manual borrowed from the local school. Yet had the task been undertaken under the normal conditions of historical research, it is doubtful that so remarkable a result would have been achieved. The mind of the author, fortified and enriched by thirty-five years of continuous study and investigation in mediaeval history, enjoyed the advantage of being obliged to empty itself without the influence of authority and the constant intrusion of details of uncertain interpretation. The result is descriptive, hardly narrative, prose. The patterns of the successive phases of European politics and society are revealed to the reader in a series like that produced by a still rather than by a movie camera.

Professor Pirenne declares war on the prevailing belief that the Middle Ages — particularly the first third — were chaotic in character. His view is essentially coherent. Beneath the troublous surface is to be discerned a new order gradually and purposefully taking form. The main formative cause of mediaeval society is seen in the progress of Islam, which isolated Europe from Constantinople and forced it to work out its own salvation. This it found in the Church which in turn sought a protector in the Carolingian Mayor of the Palace, who had a reciprocal interest in securing the aid of the Church to support his own ambitions. Thus was born the Holy Roman Empire.

Islam likewise intercepted Mediterranean trade, checked the growth of the town, and thus brought on the feudal system. Its overthrow was occasioned by the Crusades and by the consequent renewal of contact with Constantinople, which meant a revival of trade. Thus developed the modern world. Professor Pirenne makes good his case that the thread of social life was cut neither by the presumed collapses of society attendant upon the dismemberment of the Roman Empire nor upon the coming of the Rebirth and the Reformation.

As the author’s purpose in writing the book was “to kill time and not allow himself to be killed by it,” he seems to have been quite indifferent to the matter of publication; he failed even to reread his manuscript. Nevertheless, it passed through eight editions in Brussels and Paris before receiving its English dress in the current year.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading