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Historical Difficulties
by [?]


[Footnote 1:
Historical Difficulties and Contested Events. By Octave Delepierre, LL. D., F. S. A., Secretary of Legation to the King of the Belgians. 8vo. London: Murray. 1868.]

History, says Sainte-Beuve, is in great part a set of fables which people agree to believe in. And, on reading books like the present, one certainly needs a good deal of that discipline acquired by long familiarity with vexed historical questions, in order to check the disposition to accept the great critic’s ironical remark in sober earnest. Much of what is currently accredited as authentic history is in fact a mixture of flattery and calumny, myth and fable. Yet in this set of fables, whatever may have been the case in past times, people will no longer agree to believe. During the present century the criticism of recorded events has gone far toward assuming the developed and systematized aspect of a science, and canons of belief have been established, which it is not safe to disregard. Great occurrences, such as the Trojan War and the Siege of Thebes, not long ago faithfully described by all historians of Greece, have been found to be part of the common mythical heritage of the Aryan nations. Achilleus and Helena, Oidipous and Iokasta, Oinone and Paris, have been discovered in India and again in Scandinavia, and so on, until their nonentity has become the legitimate inference from their very ubiquity. Legislators like Romulus and Numa, inventors like Kadmos, have evaporated into etymologies. Whole legions of heroes, dynasties of kings, and adulteresses as many as Dante saw borne on the whirlwind, have vanished from the face of history, and terrible has been the havoc in the opening pages of our chronological tables. Nor is it primitive history alone which has been thus metamorphosed. Characters unduly exalted or defamed by party spirit are daily being set before us in their true, or at least in a truer, light. What Mr. Froude has done for Henry VIII. we know; and he might have done more if he had not tried to do so much. Humpbacked Richard turns out to have been one of the handsomest kings that ever sat on the throne of England. Edward I., in his dealings with Scotland, is seen to have been scrupulously just; while the dignity of the patriot hero Wallace has been somewhat impaired. Elizabeth is proved to have befriended the false Mary Stuart much longer than was consistent with her personal safety. Eloquent Cicero has been held up as an object of contempt; and even weighty Tacitus has been said to owe much of his reputation to his ability to give false testimony with a grave face. It has lately been suspected that gloomy Tiberius, apart from his gloominess, may have been rather a good fellow; not so licentious as puritanical, not cruel so much as exceptionally merciful,–a rare general, a sagacious statesman, and popular to boot with all his subjects save the malignant oligarchy which he consistently snubbed, and which took revenge on him by writing his life. And, to crown all, even Catiline, abuser of our patience, seducer of vestal nuns, and drinker of children’s blood,–whose very name suggests murder, incest, and robbery,–even Catiline has found an able defender in Professor Beesly. It is claimed that Catiline was a man of great abilities and average good character, a well-calumniated leader of the Marian party which Caesar afterwards led to victory, and that his famous plot for burning Rome never existed save in the unscrupulous Ciceronian fancy. And those who think it easy to refute these conclusions of Professor Beesly had better set to work and try it. Such are a few of the surprising questions opened by recent historical research; and in the face of them the public is quite excusable if it declares itself at a loss what to believe.