(being continued from 6/10/13)
4. Finlay’s History of Greece BC 146 – AD 1864
Finlay opened his History with the clearest possible statement of what I have
called his ‘dual perspective’ on Greek history:
“The history of Greece under foreign domination records the degradation and the calamities of the nation which attained the highest degree of civilization in the ancient world. [But] Two thousand years of suffering have
not obliterated the national character, not extinguished the national ambition.”17
We hear the almost apologetic tone for taking an interest in Greece in her later periods. The shadow of the “civilization” of the classical period always lingers, against which all other periods represent “degradation”. Nevertheless,
Finlay was determined that even the “calamities” of two millennia had not destroyed his subject – the Greek ‘nation’, specifically, and its “national character”.
Finlay’s conception of the classical period, from which his tale of “degradation” and “calamities” unravels, is clarified by comments made in his History and in the notebooks now preserved in his archive. It had much in common with that of other British thinkers in the nineteenth century. He shared the idealization of classical Athens’ ‘great individuals’,18 and admired the broad basis of her culture (which he explicitly contrasted with modern society)19 and the ‘educative’ nature of her public assemblies.20 He also shared the view that ancient Athens had been a society based overwhelmingly on the productive labour of slaves, one in which there was “a constant enmity between the rich and the poor”.21
‘Decline’ from this idealized classical past set in, he said in the History, after Plato and Aristotle.22 However, the nature of this decline is more strikingly illuminated by a comment made in some unbound papers in his archive:
[…] We must also remember that the history of Greece is the history of a declining nation in morals and politics. The decline commenced at the period when history began to be written. The period of true greatness of the greek nation precedes history. We know little of the time when the greeks filled the Mediterranean and the Black Sea with their colonies. We know nothing of the causes which led to the rapid increase of the greek race. The light of history falls strongly only on the
causes of Hellenic decline.23
It is important to bear in mind when reading the remorseless tale of ‘decline’ that Finlay unfolds in his History that he in fact envisages not only a general decline from the classical past but an even more monumental fall from grace,
as shown here.
However, it is crucial that Finlay did not offer a straightforwardly linear picture of decline. Within the overall framework, periods of rise and fall were envisaged. For instance, within the ‘Byzantine’ period, which he conceptualized as 716-1204 AD, Finlay argued that the iconoclast era had offset decline by “the moral vigour developed in society” and a series of able sovereigns who
attempted to restore national prosperity. This period (716-867 AD) was followed by the Byzantines’ “highest pitch of external power and internal prosperity”, 867-1057 AD, after which followed “the true period of the decline and fall of the Eastern Empire”, 1057-1204 AD.24 The centuries from the fourth Crusade to the fall of Constantinople were, he thought, utterly abject, with
final collapse apparent in the Ottoman period, its indignity epitomized, for him, by the janissary system. Finally, the Revolution and the modern period showed signs of ‘regeneration’ – though all too slow and beset with corruption,
in Finlay’s opinion.
It was Finlay’s admiration for Leo III that led him to attach such significance to 716 AD. As the first iconoclast emperor, the commissioner of the Ecloga (a new legal code to replace the Justinianic legal corpus) and the author
of successes in foreign policy against the East, Finlay found him an impressive figure in a number of respects. However, he was emphatic that his legal reforms made him most worthy of admiration.25 As we shall see, this focus on legal administration is characteristic.
Why, then, did the Greeks ‘decline’? How was revival possible in 716 and,later, towards the end of the eighteenth century? These questions provide the backbone to the History. I shall use them as an interpretive structure for looking at the text, before moving on to the lessons that Finlay wanted to draw from his account.
4.1. Explaining ‘decline’
Certainly, Finlay considered external factors in Greek decline – the kinds of enemies she encountered, for example, and their characteristic vices, such as Roman ‘greed’.26 But he was certain that internal factors were always more important: “The misfortunes of nations are generally the direct consequence of their own vices, social or political”.27 Through his seven volumes, he charged the Greeks with being responsible for their own decline, under Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule. His treatment of these internal factors might be discussed according to the broad categories into which he separates them: governmental
and structural, military, judicial, economic, religious, and social and moral.
For Finlay, decline was overwhelmingly the fault of the system of government itself. It combined and therefore confounded, as he put it, all the legislative, executive and administrative powers in the person of the emperor.28
He regarded the Eastern Roman Empire as a virtual despotism; Basil I’s restriction of the power of both Senate and provinces made it an absolute despotism,29 cemented by Leo VI and Alexander.30 Under the Comneni, from 1057 onwards, government by ‘imperial placemen’ appointed by the emperor became the norm, as opposed to government by skilled public servants.31
This despotism split ‘the people’ from ‘the government’.32 For Finlay,however, popular control of public servants, and the robust exercise of public opinion, were essential for political morality. Further, the despotism involved the systematic oppression of the provinces. The form of government thus tended towards centralisation, at the expense of municipal institutions.
Local institutions were important essentially because they involved people,
drawing them in to the political process. This made them more likely to turn to political debate, and less likely to revolt, in order to effect change. Further,local institutions stimulated material and commercial benefits for the people,33
and made them more likely to defend themselves against external threats. Their absence was thus a serious loss, which was made emphatically clear when Finlay accounted for the disaster of 1204 in these terms:
Never was the national imbecility which arises from the want of municipal institutions and executive activity in local spheres more
apparent. Had the towns, cities, corporations, districts, and provinces,inhabited by a Greek population, possessed magistrates responsible to the people and accustomed to independent action, there can be no doubt that thousands of Greek citizens would have rushed forward to defend their country.34
Here we see aspects of the admiration for the citizen’s readiness to fight which was a significant part of the republican refrain. This loss of martial readiness on the part of citizens was set alongside disorder in the army, and the increasing difficulties with funds to enlist mercenary troops, as explanations for Byzantine military decline.
In this admiration for civic military readiness, we see something of Finlay the champion of ‘the people’. He commended them for a kind of ‘common sense’ political wisdom,35 and for their rural virtues.36 They were the nation’s backbone,37 and in later volumes the Greek Revolution would be portrayed as emphatically their glory.38 However, Finlay admitted that we in fact have very little evidence about these ‘people’39 – they were something of a romantic chimera for him. Here he had much in common with his friend E. A. Freeman.40
It is also relevant that his notebooks show he had been reading Thomas Paine,who was notable for his republican championship of ‘the people’.41
This is not to cast Finlay as radical, however. He placed too much emphasis on the necessity of a middle class in the development of ‘public opinion’ for this description to be accurate.42 He subscribed to the dominant liberal conception of public opinion, in which it was a bulwark of liberty overwhelmingly determined by class and gender.
In contrast, he had venom for the aristocracy. He believed that the ‘great nobles of Asia’ finally destroyed the “scientific fabric” of the political system and its systematic procedure between 1057 and 1204, buttressing a despotism based on personal influence.43 From this point through to the modern period,he frequently portrayed the upper classes as the cause of national suffering.44
Indeed, the slaughter of the aristocracy in 1453 was effectively depicted as a blessing in disguise, since the aristocracy had, he believed, become an obstacle to national moral improvement.45
Thus, centralisation and the absence of municipal participation were harmful to the body politic. Further, they could harm the systematic administration of the law. Although Roman law, which the Byzantines developed, did not have the concept that judicial power should be independent of executive and legislative, Finlay nevertheless admired it. He commented in a notebook: “Had an independent judicial system been formed the Roman empire would probably never have fallen.”46 Conversely, the sign of a bad
emperor was failure in the administration of justice: Finlay’s hostility to the Comnenian dynasty stems from its perceived impoverishment of the judicial system.47 In this vein, Finlay remained critical of the lawlessness he perceived in Greece right through to his own day.48
Economics sat alongside justice as the twin most important branches of government in civilized society.49 His interest in the economic realm stemmed from the time he had spent in Scotland in the care of his uncle, the MP Kirkman Finlay, who was well-read in political economy in particular.50 Finlay’s early essays attest a knowledge of Smith, Ricardo and Malthus, among others.51 He identified financial maladministration and fiscal oppression throughout his work. The taxation of the imperial government was rapacious, making the people merely the “slaves of the imperial treasury”.52 Its effects were far-reaching: “fiscal rapacity was the incurable canker of the Byzantine, as it had been of the Roman government. From it arose all those measures which reduced society to a stationary condition”.53 Greece was thus drained by successive emperors –Constantine,54 Justinian,55 Nicephorus I,56 the Comneni57– and by this process Finlay emphasized that this ‘morality’ could not be infused by literature or Orthodoxy alone.66 Here he was responding to those who argued that either Hellenic culture or Christian religion had been the well-springs of Greek revival. Indeed, for Finlay classical literature had often made the Greeks unjustifiably vain about their heritage – and as such it had proved as much a burden as a boon.67
However, neither were any match, in his opinion, for a public-oriented political morality, which stemmed first and foremost from the individual. If Greece had sunk to moral degeneration as a nation, it was, he said, “because they were destitute of virtue as individuals”.68 Finlay’s explanation for this compared two episodes of British and Greek history. While the Norman Conquest had led to “English liberty”, in his opinion, Greece’s experiences of conquest had led to “Turkish tyranny”, and the explanation “must be sought in the family, the parish, the borough and the county; not in parliament and central government”.69
Thus, the family and the local socio-religious context (“the parish”) first and foremost instilled ‘morality’ or ‘virtue’. At the public level, this morality should be stimulated by activity in local government (“the borough and the county” in the English context). This helped to create that “energy” and “vigour” which sustained liberty. However, Greece had had local institutions, but they had not ultimately proved effective. Finlay had to offer an explanation for this. In part,
he targeted the inadequacy of what he characterized as ‘educative’ support. In other words, to stimulate participation, a certain kind of ‘education’ was required – one that instilled a respect for the public realm. Too often, Greek education was “pedantic”, as he put it, private- rather than public-oriented.70
Yet this was not just a Greek issue: “The most important, and in general the most neglected, part of national education, in all countries, has been the primary relations of the individual to the commonwealth”.71
However, a further difficulty was the very nature of local institutions themselves. Instead of being the instruments of a public-oriented civic virtue that Finlay had in mind, they could be perverted to manipulate the people. Even in Constantine’s time, for example, he saw the local curia partly as a vehicle for extorting taxes.72 Likewise, later, he argued that those municipal institutions which persisted in Greece in the Ottoman period in fact became the instruments of Turkish oppression and tax-collecting, and hence “this vaunted institution protected the liberties of the people by accident”.73 Similarly, in the nineteenth
century, he criticized the king and his “oligarchical elective college” for effectively making local officials an instrument of the central government.74We shall return to the importance of this in the next Section.
This ‘morality’ was the source of Finlay’s depiction of what he sweepingly calls “Greek character”. He could be extremely disparaging – frequently the Greeks are depicted as “selfish”, “vain” and “presumptuous” in terms of individual and national character. Indeed, his comments about Greek ‘national character’ are one of the reasons he is little read today. However, some
sensitivity to contemporary uses of the term ‘character’ is essential. Stefan Collini’s recent work on the nineteenth-century use of the concept character has argued that it was a new articulation, in a different register, of that ‘civic virtue’ which was the keystone of eighteenth-century political discourse.75
‘Morality’ and ‘character’, I suggest, were Finlay’s terms for encouraging ‘virtue’ in citizens. Thus his comments on Greek character cannot be read as the straightforwardly chauvinistic criticism they might appear to us now. Further,
Finlay’s disparaging comments about ‘national character’ were certainly not confined to the Greeks. His journals and papers contain a number of such remarks about the national characters of others. Indeed, Charles Frazee aptly captured Finlay’s critical temper when he said that Finlay “did not spare those whom he felt did not measure up to his ideals. Within this group could be
placed the overwhelming majority of mankind”.76
(to be continued)
17 1: p. xv.
18 2: p. 236.
19 1: p. 9.
20 2: p. 4.
21 Finlay papers, E.13: “Reflections suggested by reading Aristotle’s Politics”, pp. 31-33.
22 2: p. 4.
23 Finlay papers, E.58: a collection of hand-written essays and notes. [Capitalisation as
given in his note.]
24 1: p. xviiff, 2: p. 9ff.
25 2: pp. 9, 23, 32ff.
26 Vol. 1 passim.
27 5: p. 136.
28 1: p. 184f.
29 1: p. 292, 2: p. 237f.
30 2: pp. 259, 283, 302.
31 3: p. 3.
32 Some examples among many: 1: pp. 104, 295ff, 3: p. 283.
33 See especially Finlay’s “Observations on the Characteristic Features of Byzantine
History”, Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, 1851.
34 3: p. 282. Cf. 4: p. 264, 5: p. 228f.
35 E.g. 2: p. 62, 6: p. 410.
36 2: p. 215, 5: p. 135, 6: p. 12.
37 5: p. 135.
38 6: p. 231.
39 E.g. 4: pp. 166 and 47.
40 On Freeman, see J. W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent. Victorian Historians and the
English Past, Cambridge 1981.
41 Finlay papers, A.30.
42 See esp. 1: pp. 10, 108, 199, 2: pp. 218f, 457f, 4: pp. 47, 274, 7: p. 2.
43 2: p. 10f.
44 E.g. 4: p. 47f, 5: p. 122, 6: pp. 5, 337.
45 5: p. 121.
46 Finlay papers, D.12.
47 Esp. 3: p. 6.
48 E.g. 7: p. 47.
49 5: p. 18f.
50 1: p. xl.
51 “Some Observations on the Commercial Situation and Policy of Great Britain”, Finlay
52 1: p. 195.
53 2: p. 202.
54 1: p. 102ff.
55 1: p. 193ff.
56 2: pp. 93, 97.
57 2: p. 11.
66 5: p. 28f; cf. 5: pp. 245 and 286.
67 E.g. 1: pp. 25f, 70, 417, Vols. 5-7 passim.
68 5: p. 8.
69 4: p. 227f.
70 See 2: p. 4 and 4: p. 43.
71 4: p. 427 (my emphasis).
72 1: p. 109.
73 7: p. 102.
74 7: p. 120f.
75 S. Collini, Public Moralists. Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850-
1930, Oxford 1991, esp. Chapter 3.
76 C. A. Frazee, op. cit.