Reminiscences of George Grote

IT was on the 7th of December, 1843, that I first met with George Grote, who, shaking off for the first time in thirty years the trammels of a banking house, had come to pass the winter in Italy. He was not yet known as a great historian, but as a strenuous advocate of parliamentary reform on the floor of St. Stephen’s, and a student who might one day tread boldly in the footprints of Niebuhr. He came well provided with letters, and among them were two to me, one from an English and one from an American friend. The American friend was Charles Sumner, whose memory is associated with the best and brightest days of my Roman life. The Englishman was a member of the English bar, a man of fine literary and artistic tastes, who worked hard in term time, but gave his vacation to statues and paintings.

I held at that time the office of United States consul, and the day on which Grote presented his letters was my reception day, or rather my reception evening, and I sent him a card. Evening came: the rooms were filling fast; the broken ice of the first half hour was well-nigh melted; acquaintances were gathering in groups, and strangers casting about them for a face that they might have seen before, when Grote was announced.

I can see him now, — a man somewhat above the common height, with the air and bearing of one accustomed to act and be acted upon by his fellow-men, and mind written all over his spacious brow. You felt at once that you were in the presence of a remarkable man. For an hour or two my duties as host left me no time for real conversation, though I took advantage of a few moments of freedom to introduce him to the sculptor Crawford. At last the evening began to wear away; guest after guest made his parting salutation, and by midnight I was alone with my new friend.

At first he turned to the clock with a look that seemed to say, “ I am keeping you from your rest,” but upon my assurance that I habitually kept late hours, he laid aside his hat and sat down to talk.

He had come to Rome as a scholar for scholarly recreation; to breathe the pure air of ancient art, and to see with his own eyes what hitherto he had seen only with the eyes of others. With all the fundamental questions of Grecian and Roman archæology he was perfectly familiar, and plunged into them with the ardor of one who had theories and convictions of his own. The Rome of that day, like the Rome of our own, was divided into two schools, the Roman and the German; both equally zealous, equally persistent, and in all except questions of pure topography equally learned. In one respect, however, the Roman archæologist had the advantage of his competitor: he was born and grew up in the midst of the monuments he was to interpret. In this as in some other things of a similar nature the influence of birth was acknowledged. The purest modern Latinity is to be found in the Latin writings of Italians. Grote was keenly alive upon all these subjects. It was a curious and suggestive step from the Reform Bill to the ruins of Rome.

Morning had encroached deeply upon the still hours of middle night before we parted. But we did not part without planning an archæological walk for the next day, and I was still at the breakfast table when his servant came with a basket for the books I had promised to lend him. I still remember as if it were but yesterday the smile of gratification with which Grote fastened upon a copy of Tacitus, the quarto Elzevir, cum Notis Variorum, and asked if he might keep it during his stay.

“I am not particularly alive to such associations,” said he, “ but I must read Tacitus in Rome.”

I have cherished the rare little volume ever since as Grote’s copy; but he hardly seemed to need the printed work, his tenacious memory had so grasped it with its hooks of steel. It would not be enough to say that he was fond of quotation, but that he quoted because he could not help it.

One day, as we were passing under the arch of Gallieno, I pointed out to him the site of the original Potter’s Field of old Rome. His popular sympathies were immediately awakened, and, turning to me, he repeated with an under-tone of deep commiseration the touching lines of Horace: Hic misero plebi stabat commune sepulchrum.

The foundations of his scholarship had been laid at the Charter House, and with that English accuracy of detail which in the eyes of a thoroughly trained Etonian makes a false quantity the one unpardonable sin. He caught me in one, one unlucky afternoon, and, though he tried hard to forget and to forgive it, I could not help feeling ever after that I had sunk a degree in his scale. Porta Ratu'mena I should have said; Porta Ratume'na I did say, and that under the walls of Rome, and with one of the finest scholars of the age to witness my discomfiture. I once asked Thorwaldsen how a false proportion affected him. “ Like a discord in music,” was the instant reply.

The winter of 1843 was a brilliant season for our little circle in Rome. There from time to time was the great Dane, who lived long years of teeming invention in the land of his adoption, and returned before his locks had fallen, or his eye had lost its lustre, to die in the land of his birth. There was Crawford, with the light from Thorwaldsen’s mantle upon his path, full of glorious promises and glowing hopes. There was Cole, with his tender heart and fervid imagination. And there, on the border land betwixt history and art, stood Grote, revolving in his capacious mind the marvelous tale of Grecian civilization. And now they are all gone, leaving their footprints deeply set in the soil which they tilled so faithfully for the coming ages. One laid him down in the calm evening of his days in the midst of the creations of his own wonderful genius; one fought the battle of life with a firm front and unconquerable will, and was stricken down while his victory was still unenjoyed; one sleeps at the foot of his beloved Catskill; and one in the midst of England’s greatest and best under the vaulted roof of Westminster Abbey. “Requiescant in pace.”

I have often regretted that, though I passed a month in daily intercourse with Grote, I kept no record of his conversation; and I have regretted it all the more from the impression it made upon me at the time. He was not like Johnson, an overwhelming talker, nor like Macaulay, an eloquent talker, much less like Sydney Smith, a scintillating and brilliant talker; but he was an earnest and truth-loving talker, who made social intercourse a means of testing and elucidating his subject. We were talking one evening about Roman dwellings. This naturally brought up the vexed question of domus and insula. I had studied it with no little care, and fancied myself at home in it. Grote had taken a different view of the subject, and as he went on calmly but distinctly adducing his authorities and interpreting his texts, I felt my ground gradually sinking under me, till I had hardly an inch of it left me to stand upon. I could only wonder at my own audacity in trying to hold it. For him it was evidently not a conversational triumph, but a careful review of a subject on which his opinion — always the result of careful thought and extensive reading — had been already formed. He talked like the friend of Ricardo and the two Mills. And this was the distinctive characteristic of his conversation: he sought truth everywhere, and seemed to feel that he had no time to talk for victory. He could take up a theory and lay it down again as facts demanded. In historical questions especially, he held all trifling with truth to act like a malignant pustule, poisoning and corrupting the whole system.

His manner corresponded with his matter, — calm, firm, and earnest; and though a frequent speaker in the House of Commons, he never put on the tone of a declaimer at the dinner table or an evening circle. His words were well chosen, neither elaborately Saxon, nor fastidiously Latin, but coming freely at his bidding from either source. The structure of his sentences was simple and direct, rising at times to eloquence under the inspiration of his deep convictions, but leaving something, perhaps, to desire in harmony and variety. He would seem, indeed, to have contented himself with a secondary place among pictorial historians, if he could but make for himself a sure place among the philosophers who have written history.

We took long walks in the pleasant winter afternoons, and more than once gave ourselves up to the inspiration of the gorgeous sunsets of San Pietro in Montorio, where you stand with Rome and her Tiber at your feet, and with a sweep of the eye embrace Soracte naked and bare on the northern horizon, and the rugged mountains of Sabina, and the soft outline of the Alban Mount, and, solemnly brooding over all, sweet memories of Horace and Cicero. But our longest walk was round the walls. We took our time for it, often pausing to dwell upon some historical association, or call each other’s attention to some new feature of the landscape; Rome’s blue sky over our heads, and under our feet the catacombs. And there, as we walked slowly along, sometimes in glowing interchange of thought, sometimes in silent meditation, he yielded himself to the influences of the spot, and told me the story of his life,— told me at how early an age he had conceived the idea of a book which should interpret the marvels of Greek civilization; and how diligently he had worked upon it in hours stolen from uncongenial pursuits and painful conflicts of duties; and how, having brought it down to Pisistratus, public cares, the banking house, and Parliament had pressed upon him so urgently that, yielding the past to the present, he laid Greece aside for Great Britain, the reform of Solon for the reform of English representation.

And now, after anxious, exciting years of uncongenial labor, the presence of these classic scenes awoke a longing for the sweet companionship of books and the hopes which had cheered his early manhood. He had stood on the floor of the House of Commons as the representative of one of the greatest constituencies of England; had always raised his voice for progress and freedom; had borne his part in stormy debates and laborious investigations; had learned how men and parties are formed and governed, — how difficult the progress of truth, and how deep set the roots of error. He had brought a new interpreter to the elucidation of ancient history, by whose aid dark places became clear and crooked ways were made straight. He was passing from the hustings to the Pnyx, from Leadenhall Street to the Parthenon; from the damps and fogs of London to the skies which look down so lovingly upon the seat of ancient art. He was but just touching the prime of life. How many years of happy labor lay before him!

Among Grote’s tastes was a fondness for music, which he carried so far as to make some progress on the violoncello; often accompanying his mother on it, much to the enjoyment of a part, at least, of the family circle. Another early taste, not persevered in, was a fondness for making verses. That it ever went further than it often goes with boys and young men of warm feelings and some imagination we have no means of deciding. But no good prose writer ever yet wrote verse without feeling the influence of it in the rhythm of his prose. I was not with him long enough to do more than get a general idea of his reading. Next to history social science was his favorite pursuit. The personal influence of Ricardo led him to political economy, and he almost permitted himself to become a disciple of Bentham. But the writer to whom he bowed in reverent admiration was Aristotle. Arnold used to say that he never wanted a son of his to go to a university where they did not study Aristoile’s ethics.

But nothing contributed more to Grote’s enjoyment of his month in Rome than the coming into direct contact with a party of young Italians, who used to meet every week at my house to discuss questions of Roman history. We were but seven when we first came together, and all but myself Italians, strongly marked with the peculiar traits of Italian character. Three of them were from the east of the Apennines; three were native Romans. As time passed on we began to bring visitors to our meeting, and gradually opened the door to representatives of England, France, and Germany. Among the English was Sir Frederic Adams, who had fixed upon Rome for the closing years of his honorable and active career. Among the Germans, Abeken, Braun, Reumont the historian of Tuscany, and Zumpt, each with some pet theory of his own, and with learning gathered from the widest fields of art and science and literature to enforce it. Many Italians came also, two of whom did us, as we felt, great honor by their coming: the Marquis Massimo d’Azeglio, the painter, novelist, and statesman, and the poet Giuseppe Giusti. We gave D’Azeglio a dinner in a pleasant vineyard on the north bank of the Tiber, that bank on which the conspiracy of Catiline received its fatal blow, and Constantine saw his vision. Yet it was less of these that we thought than of a day that was dawning in the eastern horizon, faint as yet and feeble, but which, as we looked out upon it through the vine leaves, still bade us hope; and in these hopes Grote, fresh from the battle-field, fully shared.

The following letter, with its interesting references to literary and political events, will fitly close these reminiscences:—


MY DEAR SIR: — I take the opportunity of Colonel Moor going to Rome, first, to express my hope that you are well and have passed an agreeable summer; next, to send you a book recently published here, which I think will interest you. It is entitled The Lays of Ancient Rome, and is the production of a person highly distinguished both in literature and politics, Mr. T. B. Macaulay. It consists of four ballads, of no ordinary merit, composed upon the subject of certain points in early Roman history, with respect to which he adopts Niebuhr’s general views. The two first lays upon Horatius and the Battle of Regillus appear to me singularly beautiful. Altogether the book has had great success here, and recollecting as I do the many interesting discussions on the subject of the early Roman history to which I have been a party in your library, with Dr. Pantaleone and Signor Gennarclli, I thought that these ballads would be gratifying both to you and them, and that you might perhaps not otherwise see them.

Mrs. Grote has been tolerably well during this summer; suffering still under her cruel nervous headaches, but during the intervals active and enterprising as usual. I have been also very well, and am working continuously at my history of Greece, which, however, I find very long, though a very interesting task. I propose to leave business now as early as I can, probably at Christmas, and I shall then devote myself more exclusively to the performance of my historical duty. The attachment which I feel to the labor does not by any means flag. In regard to present politics, there is nothing to divert my attention, no great question stirring, no hopes for any speedy advance in the great interests of the people, and I feel constant satisfaction in being exempt from the obligation of meddling with fruitless party quarrels.

I have not seen Parks since his return from Rome. He has only just reached London, so that I have not yet heard the last news respecting you and Dr. Pantaleone. It will give me great pleasure to receive a copy of Gennarelli’s Dissertation, if it is printed. I have not forgotten either his facts or his reasonings respecting the Italian as grave, and a recent work, called Metrologie, by Professor Boeckh, of Berlin, which I have read within the last two months, caused me to think of them yet more fully. It is a very learned work, written by the most illustrious philologer in Europe; it enters in the most elaborate manner into the weights, measures, and moneys of the ancient world, Greek and Oriental, but it takes no notice of the new and interesting facts brought to light by Marchi and Sessieri respecting the Latin copper money. Boeckh seems very unwilling to admit indigenous Etruscan civilization; he is inclined constantly to make them borrowers from the Greeks.

Mrs. Grote and I have labored as well as we can to procure for Lsome opportunity of exercising his pen upon Neapolitan subjects in an English periodical; I am sorry to say we have been hitherto unsuccessful. The number of poor literary men here competitors for the pay of periodical publications is frightfully great, and literary duty adapted to a foreigner is very difficult to procure.

Lord Ashburton’s treaty between England and the United States this summer has given universal satisfaction here, except to Lord Palmerston and to his newspaper organs. The chances of collision between the two nations are now, I trust, reduced to a minimum.

Mrs. Grote desires her best regards. Trusting soon to hear from you, I remain, my dear sir, yours sincerely,


Remember me also cordially to Pantaleone and Gennarelli.

George Washington Greene.