In 1952 Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-87) informed the learned world that Greek history had been invented by the British. It is no surprise then that one of the most illustrious names in this field is that of an Englishman, George Grote, whose History of Greece fundamentally shaped the perception of ancient Greek culture and history among English-speaking scholars and readers in the Victorian age and had a major impact on the Continent as well, especially in Germany, where “all... studies on Greek history of the last fifty years of the nineteenth century are either for or against Grote” (Momigliano, 65).
Yet this great historian began his professional life not as a scholar but as an employee in his father’s bank, Grote, Prescott & Co. Taken from school at the age of fifteen and a half, the man who helped found a new university was himself deprived of a university education by a practically minded father anxious for his son to enter the family business. In later years Grote deplored “that mistaken impatience with which parents ... abridge those years requisite for their son’s complete education, and hurry him into professional life a half-educated man” (H. Grote, l0n). In Grote’s case, how was the half made whole? And of what did it consist?
Grote’s formal education was traditional for a boy of his class. In 1800, at age five and a half, he was sent to a grammar school to prepare for Charterhouse, one of the great English public schools, which he attended from 1804 to 1810. Other notable Carthusians were the rival historian of Greece, Connop Thirlwall (1797-1875; later Bishop of St. David’s), the lexicographer H. G. Liddell (1811-98), and the novelist Thackeray (1811-52). The latter two attended the school in the 1820s, but Thirlwall, who entered in 1809, met Grote there and became a lifelong friend.
This was the extent of Grote’s schooling, but we should add that his mother had taught him at home to read and write “and had even grounded him in the rudiments of Latin; she having a strong desire to see her son excel in learning” (Ibid., 6). This information supplied by Grote’s wife and biographer suggests that the impulse and interest that carried the future historian far beyond the narrow confines of a British public-school education had their basis in this early maternal influence.
After leaving school the young banker devoted much of his spare time to a rigorous course of self-education despite the demands of his profession. He continued and broadened his study of Greek and Latin authors—Charterhouse had, after all, given him a thorough grounding in the classical languages. And he embarked on a study of philosophy, political economy, and above all German, the key to the most important classical scholarship of the time. Grote initially learned the language in order to read literature and philosophy: by 1819 he was deep into Kant. Still, it was not all work and study with no play: he played cricket regularly and began the cello, which he learned well enough to play Handel.
From 1810 to 1818 the stimulus for all this study came from himself and from his close friendship with several young men who shared his intellectual interests. But about 1818 a major change occurred. Grote became acquainted with the great economist David Ricardo (1772-1823), who in turn introduced him to James Mill (1773-1836), the father of John Stuart Mill (1806-73) and Grote’s chief intellectual mentor for almost twenty years. About this time Grote also met Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and the circle was complete.
Three of the greatest intellects in Europe became Grote’s “professors” in politics, philosophy, and economics (the “Modern Greats” of twentieth-century Oxford). It was beyond anything a young Englishman might expect at either of his own great universities and could hardly be matched even on the Continent. The effect on Grote was decisive: in politics he became an ultrademocrat, in religion, an unbeliever, and in philosophy, a Utilitarian. Of particular importance was the influence of James Mill, historian and philosopher, to whom Grote owed “an amount of intellectual stimulus and guidance such as he [could] never forget” (Minor Works, 284).
Who or what inspired a London banker to write the finest Greek history of his age? There are rival claimants, chiefly James Mill and Harriet Lewin, the woman Grote married in 1820. And what of Grote himself? Two unpublished essays on Greece and Macedon in the fourth century B.C. date from 1815, three years before the meeting with Mill and five years before marriage. The beginnings of the History may be traced back to the historian himself and perhaps also to the encouragement he received from his closest friend of this period, George Warde Norman (1793-1882). Next came induction into the circle of Utilitarian philosophers under the aegis of James Mill, where the idea for the History took concrete form. Certainly Grote’s historical method is essentially that of the elder Mill in his History of British India (1817), and it was Mill who inspired the passionate dedication to democratic principles that underlies Grote’s concept of Greek political history. But one can hardly deny the support and influence of the strong-minded wife, who ever aided and abetted her husband’s scholarly efforts by deed (e.g., correcting proofs, drawing maps) as well as word. Modern research, however, has conspired to rob her of the title she claimed for herself, that of sole muse and inspiration.
Mrs. Grote was a woman of remarkable vigor and independent character, who later made her mark in the literary, musical, and social life of London. And it is both curious and noteworthy that the storms and intrigues that clouded Grote’s budding romance with this formidable lady in 1815 are emblematic of his position within the tradition of English scholarship. The scope and force of Grote’s intellect were acknowledged by all but his most inveterate detractors: he was a great historian, but not a “great Greek Scholar.” His rival in love, however, who schemed and lied to separate Grote from his beloved and win her for himself, was precisely that: one Peter Elmsley (1773-1825), a notable master of the niceties of Attic verse and diction. In the end neither philological subtlety nor the strong opposition of Grote’s family prevailed: our historian wed his Harriet.
By 1822 Grote was hard at work on the History, progressing steadily until early 1831. (By 1829 he had reached the end of the Sicilian Expedition—413 B.C.) But the political frenzy leading inexorably to the passage of the Reform Bill in 1832 caught him up, put an almost decade-long hiatus to the History, and landed him in Parliament, where he served until 1841. Work on the History was not resumed until 1842, when it was substantially rewritten. But preliminary and primary research had been done in the 1820s, when Grote was under the intense and steady influence of James Mill. Though it did not appear until 1846-1856, one may agree with Grote’s modern biographer in calling his History “the most distinguished example of Benthamite historiography” (Clarke, 106).
During the 1820s, in addition to the early draft of the History and his work at the bank—he had become a full partner in 1816—Grote wrote several papers and edited a book, all of which shed important light on his concept of history. In 1821 he published a pamphlet on parliamentary reform, followed ten years later by a more elaborate work on the same subject. The ancient historian also wrote on contemporary politics, and the conceptual basis for applying current models to ancient forms of government is evident.
The historian of religion also learned his craft at this time. In 1820 Grote produced an essay on magic, which James Mill called “a very learned, and what is more, a truly philosophical discourse on the subject of Magic” (Bain, James Mill, 193ff.). “Magic” in this case meant the realm of the supernatural. The paper was recommended for publication in the Encyclopedia Britannica but never appeared. In addition, Bentham handed over to Grote “four volumes of illegible notes” on religion, out of which Grote, with immense labor, produced An Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind (published in 1822 under the pseudonym Philip Beauchamp). More directly historical is a review of Henry Fines Clinton’s (1781-1852) Fasti Hellenici published in the Benthamite Westminster Review for April 1826. This gave Grote the opportunity to launch a full-scale attack on the antidemocratic bias of the current standard Greek history by William Mitford (1744-1827). It was, in effect, Grote’s political- historical battle cry and the rationale for his own History.
As if this were not enough, to round out his activities in this period Grote turned his hand to founding a new university free from the religious shackles and elitism of Oxford and Cambridge. From 1825 to 1830 he served on the council and several key committees of what later became University College. According to the Dictionary of National Biography (8:729) he was one of “the pioneers of a movement that... had the effect of transforming the whole higher education of the country.” In 1830 Grote resigned from the council over a disputed professorial appointment but returned in 1849, becoming Treasurer in 1860 and President in 1868.
The University of London (established in 1836) also was the scene of Grote’s educational activities. In 1850 he became a member of the academic senate and from 1862 to the end of his life he held the post of Vice-Chancellor. This academic cursus brought special honor and distinction to a politician and man of business who held no regular university degree. (Honorary doctorates were awarded in 1853 from Oxford and 1861 from Cambridge.)
Grote’s parliamentary career (1833-41) was on the whole not a success. A political thinker of considerable intelligence and a good speaker, the future scholar lacked the personal talents necessary for success in the public arena. As the famous wit Sydney Smith put it, he was “an honest and able man who would have been an important politician if the world had been a chess board” (Clarke, 65). Nevertheless, the practical experience of parliamentary debate and maneuver for over eight years gave Grote a profound understanding of political reality that few historians can claim. Certainly his passionate advocacy of Athenian democracy is as much the pleading of a committed party man—Grote was a “Philosophical Radical” on the extreme left of the Whig party—as it is the reasoned argument of the historical interpreter.
Grote’s History began to appear in 1846 with the publication of the first and second volumes and ended ten years later with the completion of the twelfth volume. From an exhaustive survey and analysis of myth and legend it proceeded with painstaking detail, bold innovation, and scrupulous argument to the death of Alexander the Great. A kind of preview had appeared in the Westminster Review of 1843 (=Minor Works, 75-134) presenting at considerable length Grote’s extreme skepticism on the historical value of ancient Greek legend: for Grote, true history begins only with the first Olympiad in 776 B.C. Such skepticism is not without serious modern adherents: for example, Sir Moses Finley in Aspects of Antiquity (London, 1968, 24ff, esp. 29). And it is all too easy to forget that the first excavation of “Troy” by the Englishman Frank Calvert took place some ten years after the History was completed.
Noteworthy also is Grote’s pioneering reevaluation of Thucydides as an historical source. It was chiefly from Grote that we learned to distinguish the careful reporting of facts from the sometimes flawed judgment on political integrity and military competence (especially true in the case of the notorious Athenian demagogue, Cleon). Even today Grote merits being read as an important historical commentary on the greatest of Greek historians.
“... Grote’s history set new standards and gave new impulse to the writing of Greek history. Under Grote’s archonship a new era started” (Momigliano, 65). But Grote was also a trained philosopher and a notable historian of Greek philosophy.
Indeed, intellectual history forms a vital part of the History, nowhere more so than in the famous defense and vindication of the Sophists. This was Grote’s major contribution to the history of Greek thought and redirected the course of all subsequent research on the subject. “. . . Theodor Gomperz took pride in acknowledging how much his Greek Thinkers owed to Grote, whom he knew personally. I suspect that Gomperz was in fact Grote’s greatest pupil” (Ibid., 66).
Grote had originally intended to include a study of Plato and Aristotle in his account of the fourth century, but the impracticality of this scheme convinced him that separate treatment was necessary. By 1858 he was hard at work on Plato and in 1865 published three volumes entitled Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates. This monumental achievement would lead W. K. C. Guthrie (1906-81), the author of the standard modern history of Greek philosophy, to place Grote in the ranks of Zeller and Wilamowitz as one of the “few indestructibles” of Platonic scholarship (A History of Greek Philosophy, 4:xv). As John Stuart Mill put it, it was “quite wonderful for one man to have written the best history and the best philosophical history of Greece” (Amberley Papers, 1: 372).
Of particular importance for contemporary scholarship was the sober and thorough account of the Platonic canon. Here Grote cogently defended the authenticity of certain dialogues now universally accepted as genuine but which at that time had been seriously called into question. In addition, Grote decisively rejected the theory of Friedrich Schleiermacher(1768-1834), the leading German Platonist of the early nineteenth century, who held that Plato wrote his dialogues according to a preconceived scheme and in an intentional sequence. For Grote there was no grand plan behind the dialogues: they were independent works whose date and order remained in general unknown and unknowable. Again, Grote proved that none of the dialogues had been written before the death of Socrates, though many Platonists of that time thought otherwise. Finally, as regards the general interpretation of Plato’s philosophy Grote’s most important contribution was to emphasize the skeptical side of Plato’s method as opposed to the dogmatic: “[Plato’s] purpose is to provoke the spirit of enquiry—to stimulate responsive efforts of the mind by a painful shock of exposed ignorance—and to open before it a multiplicity of new roads with various points of view” (Grote, Plato, 3d ed., 2:15).
“No sooner had the Plato been completed, and the printing begun (viz. in Sept. 1864), than the author ‘set the loom’ afresh for his Aristotle. Scarcely permitting himself breath, as it were, he applied his spare hours to the preparation of what he used to call ‘my Trilogy’ ” (H. Grote, 277). Grote had retired from banking in 1843 in order to devote himself fully to scholarship. But by the 1860s much of his time was taken up by administrative work for University College, the University of London, and the British Museum—he had been made a Trustee in 1859. Indeed, a disputed appointment to the chair of philosophy at the College embroiled Grote in “bitter and noisy controversy” that cost him six months work on Aristotle. It was, in fact, the many demands on his time in addition to his research that prompted Grote to decline a peerage offered him in 1869.
Nor did Grote’s personal life provide the peace and tranquility needed for work on the great Peripatetic. By 1864 he had, according to the confidante of his embittered wife, “conceived a passion” for the sculptress, Susan Durant (1827-73), and “had made an old fool of himself’ (Amberley Papers, 1:477). This affair with a woman at least 25 years younger than himself lasted until the end of 1868 and caused a serious estrangement from his wife, whose health broke down under the strain. Half a decade of storm and stress must have taken its toll on poor Aristotle as well.
In any case, the work was left unfinished at Grote’s death in 1871 and was published posthumously in the following year. The fragment begins with an account of Aristotle’s life that won much praise from contemporaries and includes careful discussion of the Aristotelian canon. For the most part, the extant study is devoted to an analysis of the logical treatises, a subject of limited interest for the general reader: thus Aristotle had less impact than Plato. Papers on the Ethics and Politics were later published in Fragments on Ethical Subjects (1876) and included in the second edition of Aristotle (1880).
Grote died on 18 June 1871 and was buried in Westminster Abbey with much pomp and ceremony on June 24th. Among the pallbearers were John Stuart Mill, the illustrious son of Grote’s great mentor, and Benjamin Jowett (1817-93), the Master of Balliol and Grote’s chief Platonic rival. As was fitting, the major ancient historian of Victorian England was laid to rest near the grave of Edward Gibbon (1737-94), his most famous eighteenth-century predecessor.
For a complete bibliography see Clarke, 189-191.
Bain, A. “The Intellectual Character and Writings of George Grote.” In Minor Works: -; ------, James Mill: A Biography (London, 1882; reprinted New York, 1967); M. L. Clarke, George Grote: A Biography (London, 1962); E.F. Dow, “George Grote, Historian of Greece.” CJ 51 (1956) 211-19; S. Dow, “Grote’s History of Greece: A Bibliographical Note.” Ibid. 220; Lady Eastlake (Elizabeth Rigby). Mrs. Grote: A Sketch (London, 1880); E. Freeman, E. A. Historical Essays, Second series, 3d ed. (London, 1889) 109-178; T. Gomperz, Essays und Erinnerungen (Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1905) 184-95; H. Grote, The Personal Life of George Grote (London, 1873); I. Guest, Fanny Essler (London, 1970); K. Lehrs, Populäre Aufsätze aus dem Alterthum, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1875) 447-8; J.S. Mill, Autobiography, ed. R. Hawson (New York, 1924; reprinted 1969); A. D. Momigliano, “George Grote and the Study of Greek History.” Studies in Historiography (London and New York, 1966) 56-74 = Contributo alla storia degli studi classici (Rome, 1955; repr. 1979) 213-31 (Originally an Inaugural Lecture delivered at University College, London, in 1952.); G.C. Robertson, “Grote, George” DNB 8:727-36; J. Ross, Three Generations of English Women (London, 1893); J.C. Thirlwall, Jr. Connop Thirlwall. (London, 1936); Mr. & Mrs. L.A. Tollemache, Safe Studies (London, 1891) 131ff., 211ff.; F.M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven and London, 1981).
The Amberley Papers. Edited by B. Russell and P. Russell. 2 vols. (London, 1937); H. Gomperz, Theodor Gomperz, Briefe und Aufzeichnungen. Vol. 1. (Vienna, 1936); ------ &R.A. Kahn, Theodor Gomperz, Briefe und Aufzeichnungen. Vol. 2. (Vienna, 1974); Letters Literary and Theological of Connop Thirlwall, ed. J. J. Stewart Perowne and L. Stokes (London, 1881); Letters of J.A. Symonds, ed. H. M. Schueller and R. L. Peters. Vol. 1. (Detroit, 1967); B.G. Niebuhr, Briefe 1816-1830, ed. E. Vischer. Vol. 3. (Bern & Munich, 1983).
Posthumous Papers ...of the Late George Grote, ed. H. Grote (Privately printed, 1874); Lewin Letters, ed. T. H. Lewin (Privately printed, 1909).