Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

other nation upon

[ocr errors]

nities of learning its contemporary history, and that this history was
likely to interest them more than that of any
earth.---A journey into Asia in pursuit of knowledge appears to
have been a frequent qualification with those who professed either
moral or natural philosophy. The wealthiest, if not the most ex.
tensive, part of Greece, the Ionian provinces, were, for more than
a century, the peaceful subjects of the court of Susa; the agents of
the great king traversed European Greece in all directions, to enlist
its youth in their master's service, or to maintain his secret interest
with the factions of Athens and Lacedæmon; Greek physicians
were always resident at the Persian capital; at the battle of Issus
no less than thirty thousand Greeks were in Persian pay; the cha-
racter of an officer in that service was as common on the Athenian
stage as a sailor is on our's; and the intercourse between Perse-
polis and Athens was, to all appearance, little less incessant than
that which now exists between Petersburgh and the smaller states
of Germany. It is very possible, indeed, that the greater part
of those who thus explored the east had no great inclination or
ability to decide on the antiquities or extraction of the people
with whom they dwelt ; and it is on questions of remote antiquity
only, that the Grecian writers will be found to dissent materially
from each other. But we are not now contending for the accu-
racy of their information where Ninus or Semiramis is con-
cerned; nor do we deny that the accounts of Diodorus Siculus
and Justin are extremely inconsistent with those which we receive
on the far earlier and therefore better authority of Herodotus.
As little do we wish to extenuate the obvious exaggeration of the
number of Xerxes' army; which will appear, however, far more
excusable, when we reflect on the difficulty of ascertaining the
amount of an enemy's force, and the fear and astonishment which
à royal army would cause in a nation who had never before seen
more than a few thousand men in battle array. But we cannot but
contend that, in their outlines and more essential circumstances of
Persian history, which rest on the authority of contemporary or
nearly contemporary historians, as it was almost impossible that
the Greeks could be deceived themselves, no reason can be given
why they should have desired to deceive posterity.

But, if the testimony of the Greeks be thus worthy of reception, the testimony of Ferdusi will retain very little historical value.There are, no doubt, some insulated points of resemblance between the accounts thus severally furnished ; and of these Sir John-Malcolm has made the most which can be made, in the seventh chapter of his first volume,-of which the avowed intention is to reconcile the jarring narratives, and which contains, perhaps, more learning, candour, and original information, than any thing which had

R2

[ocr errors]

previously appeared on the intricate subject of Persian history. Thus, will the famous eclipse which Thales had foretold, and which so terrified the contending armies of Cyaxares and Halyattes, that those princes immediately made peace and allied their families-Sir John Malcolm compares a magic blindness, which, according to the Persian historian, was inflicted by the enchanters of Mazenderan on the army of Kai-kobad, in consequence of which the Persians were defeated with great slaughter, and their king consigned to a dungeon. But Mazenderan, or Hyrcania, is very far indeed removed from the Halys and the frontiers of Lydia--and the consequent events are so completely different,—the one ending in a great misfortune, the other in a peace and a wedding,--that we can hardly, on such grounds, allow that Herodotus and Ferdusi are speaking of the same event; or that Cyaxares and Kai-kobad are identical. And though the history of a royal youth devoted to death in infancy, who is brought up among peasants, and afterwards becomes the preserverand sovereign of his country,presents, beyond doubt, a striking likeness to what the Greeks have told us of Cyrus ; --yet is this tale, which oceurs, in fact, more than once in Ferdusi, too common in the fabulous history of all ancient nations, to make us wonder that we should find it in the Shah Namch. That no instances of coincidence can be found more striking than these, it would, certainly, be hazardous to maintain ; but, the most considerable facts in their ancient history-of which the Persians appear to us to have retained any tradition-are, that one of their kings had very long hands and arms; that another, named Gushstasp, (Hystaspes,) was the protector of their prophet Zoroaster; and that a king of Rome named Secunder (Alexander) subdued king of Persia

named Darab or Darius. Nor will this dearth of ancient history seem surprising when we consider the many political revolutions to which Persia has been exposed, and the injudicious manner in which her sovereigns attempted to recover a knowledge of the exploits of their ancestors. In both these misfortunes their nation is by no means singular; and the same circumstances will account for by far the greater part of those fables and mis-statements by which the ancient history of other nations is more or less deformed. Time, in itself, has little power to interrupt such truths as are once written down, in their progress to the most distant generations. Where, then, a nation is sufficiently civilized to record contemporary events, we might expect that those events would, thenceforward, be never allowed to sink in oblivion. And this would probably be the case so long as the political frame of the country remained uninjured or entire. But the hand of a conqueror can efface in a day what the lapse of many ages has spared; and where printing is unknowo, and the possession of books a privilege confined to few, the work of havoc will be more easy and more irreparable than can be well conceived by those who are accustomed to that boundless diffusion of literary treasures, which would seem, in modern Europe, to render the return of barbarism impossible. Nor is it by the destruction of public libraries and national records alone that the misfortunes of a vanquished nation affect its historical knowledge. Such ruin, where it is total, is almost always gradual ; many years of weakness and calamity will generally be found to have preceded that decisive blow by which the sceptre is dashed from the grasp of an ancient government; and of political adversity, and the vices by which it is produced and accompanied, neglect of literature has always been a leading symptom. Men who are themselves dispirited and miserable soon cease to care for those ancestors whose happiness and renown they can never hope to equal. As the readers grow few and indifferent, the scribes discontinue their labours ; the ancient volumes disappear in proportion as less va. lue is affixed to them; and, if any escape this destruction, they will be either manuals of devotion and fragments of poetry, -of which both the one and the other are dear to men under misfortune. After a time, indeed, when the conquered recovering from their dejection, have begun to look out for sources of self-respect; and the conquerors, more assimilated with their vassals, to regard withan eye of curiosity and interest the vestiges of ancient grandeur which surround them; the priests and scribes will probably again exert themselves to recover the history of their forefathers. In the mean time, however, the language of their country has been corrupted by an admixture of foreign idioms, and the few ancient books which remain are only accessible through considerable labour. To invent, in such a case, is easier than to examine and compare : it is more profitable also, and may be practised without fear of detection. Where ornaments are to be had for nothing, men will seldom be sparing of them ; every hero is therefore swelled into a giant, and every emperor is described as leading millions into the field; and thus, by degrees, every story gains by the additions and cor rections of its retailers, till the nation at length, become more instructed, dashes away with an indiscriminate indignation the whole tawdry fabric of mingled truth and falsehood, without staying to extricate the pearls from the dunghill.

The events which we have been supposing are not hypothetical only; they are known to have taken place, in the fullest extent, after the downfall of the only great empire which has been established and destroyed in Europe ; and in all the convents of the middle ages, the manufactory of ancient history went on with a spirit which even the boldest eastern fabulist has hardly been able to excel. So strange indeed are the perversions of historical truth contained in the Gesta Romanorum, the Alexandreis, the various chronicles of Arthur and his Knights, the Siege of Troy Town, and the legends of Hercules, Virgil, and Aristotle, that it would, at the present day, be difficult to believe that such liberties were ever taken with the credulity of mankind, did not the works remain, composed with all commendable gravity, and with an assertion of their own accuracy and truth so frequent and so solemn as to be something more than ludicrous. If such were the consequences produced by the destruction of the Roman empire, we need not wonder that a similar oblivion of their former history has taken place in nations by far less favourably circumstanced; and to this cause we mayascribe with safety the fables which alone have descended to us of the Egyptian and Assyrian monarchies, and the similar romances which compose the bulk of the Shah Nameh. Two nations, indeed, are known, and only two, whose original records survived, in their primitive sinplicity, the destruction of their government by foreign usurpation. But the circumstances which rendered the Grecian literature a fashionable study with their conquerors did not occur in the instance of Persia, after the Mohammedan invasion : and the Jewish annals were so inseparably connected with the private faith and religious practice of every individual in their nation; their distinct, if not their national, existence, has, in all their misfortunes, been so strangely preserved ; and the adoption of their scriptures, before the last great dispersion, by the sect which rose on their ruins, is a circumstance so anomalous to the common course of revolutions, that is would be idle to quote their example against the experience of ages, which would teach us to apprehend that the destruction of a nation's literature is for the most part contemporaneous with the ruin of its civil polity:

But the Persians, it will be said, at length attempted to recover their ancient annals. And when was it, and by what agents, that they attempted this desirable object ? Four centuries had elapsed from the time of the Mohammedan conquest before any anxiety of the kind was felt; and when, at length, the celebrated Mahmood of Ghişni was inspired with the wish to know the exploits of those ancient heroes, with the greatest of whom he might himself be justly compared, he selected for his purpose, not a laborious antiquary, but a popular poet, whom he enjoined to mould them into a continued epic. The prince, it may be thought, was, at least, as anxious for amusement as forauthentic information; and the poet, we may be sure, would be less occupied in comparing dates and unravelling difficulties, than in selecting and new-modelling such specious wonders' as would afford the greatest scope for romantic interest, and the ornaments of pathos and description. That the Shah Nameh is a poem of the most splendid kind, the extracts which Sir William Jones and Sir John Malcolm have furnished are sufficient evidence. But that it is a poem only, not an history, is also, we think, sufficiently proved by the nature of those extracts themselves mand, till we take Lidgate and Chaucer as historians of Theseus and Hippolita, we cannot allow Ferdusi to correct Herodotus or Xenophon. Do we, then, deny altogether, that any truth is to be found in the earlier cantos of the Shah Nameh!-certainly not. We have already allowed that the memory of three, at least, among the ancient kings of Persia, is preserved, the one by a peculiarity of his person, the second by the religious opinions which he introduced, and the third by his remarkable misfortunes. And to these we may add that there are other circumstances which, in their general outline, without any exceeding stretch of fancy, may be identified with the leading circumstances of Grecian history,—though all these are in their detail so blended with fable, that hardly any two of those authors who have attempted to reconcile the writers of the east and west have agreed to what events they refer. Thus, to omit, for the present, all mention of those kings whose existence appears to rest on the doubtful authority of the Dabistan, Sir William Jones supposes that the eleven whose names stand first in the Shah Nameh, and who make up that dynastywhich the Persians call. The Judges,? are the same with the Assyrian kings of Nineveh, and, consequently, that Kai-kobad, with whom the Kaianian dynasty begins, is no other than the Deïoces of the Greeks. Sir John Malcolm, while he agrees with him in identifying Kai-kobad with Deïoces, does not consider the Paishdadian and Assyrian dynasty as identical. The former he regards as that of the ancient native kings of Iran who reigned before their country was known to the geographers and historians of the west,--and, indeed, before the west could boast of either a geographer or historian. The Assyrian conquerors of Persia he conceives to be personified in the tyrant Zohauk, who is supposed by some of the eastern writers to have been of Arabian or Syrian origin; and whose reign, of a thousand years, he understands of the whole time during which the country was a province in subjection to Nineveh. And Anquetil du Perron apprehends the Paishdadian dynasty toʻreferto sovereigns who reigned overtheeastern provinces of Persia only, and who were consequently, from their remote situation, no less than their remote antiquity, entirely unknown to the writers of Greece, of Judea, and of Rome. But the first of these hypotheses involves the apparent improbability of supposing that the Perians of any age would reckon their Assyrian invaders among their native kings and under so advantageous a name as that of

dispensers of justice,' even if it were proved, which is far from being clear, that the Assyrians ever possessed any considerable part.

« AnteriorContinuar »