Item of the Day: Orations of Demosthenes Translated by Mr. Francis (1757)

Full Title: Orations of Demosthenes, Translated by the Rev. Mr. Francis, with Critical and Historical Notes. Vol. I. London: Printed for A. Millar in the Strand, MDCCLVII.

AN ESSAY

ON THE POLITICAL STATE

OF ANCIENT GREECE.

PERHAPS, never any one Form of Government appeard among Mankind, of which there was not some Resemblance among the States of Greece. An Argument of much Probability, that the Laws and Institutions of different Countries are generally founded upon the original Manners and Genius of their People. However, it may be not unentertaining, certainly not unuseful, to give a general Idea of their political History: the Principles, upon which their various Constitutions of Government were formed, and the Revolutions, to which they were liable, by the Nature of those Principles. Yet as a Knowledge of the Polity of Athens will be more necessary, than any other, with Regard to the follwoing Orations, we shall there fix our principal Attention.

In the earliest Period of their History, the Grecians are in general represented as Wanderers and Vagabonds, perhaps not unlike the Indians of America. They supported this miserable Life by Rapine and Plunder. The Sea-Coasts were infested with Pryracies, the inland Country with Robberies. Their Wars, however, were of short Continuance, for they had not yet learned, that to slaughter and enslave their Fellow-Creatures could be disquised with the Names of Conquest and Ambition.

But while Thessaly, Peloponnesus and the more fertile Parts of Greece were laid waste with perpetual Ravages and Depredations, the People of Attica enjoyed Tranquility and Security, for which they were indebted to the Barrenness of their Country. As Foreigners and Strangers very seldom resided among them, the original Inhabitants were more unmixed, and the Descent of Families more exactly preserved. From hence, perhaps, their best Claim to the Vanity of being created with the Sun, and Natives of the Soil. Undoubtedly, its natural Sterility obliged them to the Labours of Agriculture, with which the mechanical Arts have a necessary Connexion. These Arts exercised, improved, and enlarged their Understandings. The Passions began to unfold themselves in artifical Wants. A kind of Luxury, frugal indeed and temperate, introduced among them the first Sciences, that civilise Mankind. Industry now produced Ideas of Property; Laws were enacted for its Preservation, and the Possessors united in mutal Defence of each other, when invaded by any foreign Enemy.

This Account of Athenians, without any Compliment to their superior Genius, will support the Assertions of their Historians, who assure us, that this People first threw off the universal Barbarism of their Country. They formed themselves, probably under the parental Authority, into little Communities. These afterwards extended into Villages, which had, each of them, its own Magistrates and Laws, and Forms of Government, peculiar to itself and independent. In any common Danger or Invasion, the Man of supposed greatest Ablities and Integrity was chosen by general Consent, and intrusted, during the War, with whatever Power appeared necessary for the public Safety.

From hence their first Ideas of regal Authority. But their Kings were rather Generals in War, than Magistrates in Peace, until the Credit and Influence, gained in their military Character, by Degrees enlarged their Authority, and extended it to the civil Administration. They reigned, however, in Consciousness of having been promoted by the Affection and Esteem of their People. Whatever Prerogatives were annexd to their high Office were exercised with a Temper, which seemed to acknowledge, that Liberty can never, without apparent Absurdity, allow any Power to contradict or dispense with the Laws that were made for its Preservation.

In other Countries, Liberty rose occasionally from the abuse of Authority delegated to the Magistrate; from Tyranny, from Revolutions, in which the Rights of Mankind were successfully asserted. That of the Athenians was really, and without a Metaphor, a Native of the Soil. It sprung like their other Blessings, itself the greatest of all Blessings, from the Barrenness of their Lands. The Fertility of a Country is a Temptation to the Ambition and Avarice of its Neighbours. The Plains, in which alone this Fertility must exist, are open to their Incursions. The Inhabitants, enervated by Luxury, are easily conquered; they submit, and are enslaved. Thus by Folly of Mankind, the Countries, which Nature intended for our Happiness, are made the Scenes of Misery and Devastation. On the contrary, the Mountain-Nymph, sweet Liberty, if we may be permitted to use the Language of Poetry, and Milton, chooses to fix her Residence in barren, uncultivated Sands, or Mountains inaccessible to her Enemies, like those of Attica. Exercised by a necessary Industry, and inured to Labour, her People are already formed to the Fatigues of War; they are conscious of their own Strength; they feel the Courage, inspired by Independece, and as Liberty is their sole Good, the Preservation of it is the sole Object of their Attention.

To these Reflexions upon their first Situation, let us add a Zeal for Religion, and we shall finish the Character of the Athenians during this Period of their History. Cecrops, the Founder of Athens, was an Aegyptian, and he probably carried with him into Greece the Superstitions of his Country. He dedicated his new City to Minerva, and by the fabulous Contest between her and Neptune for the Honour of partronizing it, we may believe, that all the Influences of Religion were employed in the Dedication. The Athenians now saw themselves collected into one Body, and from thence conceived a formidable Idea of their own Strength. They enjoyed the Blessings of Society; grew civilized in their Manners, and cultivated the Arts and Sciences under a Spirit of Liberty best fitted to improve them, while all the other Nations of Greece continued in their original Barbarism. From this Period, therefore, we may date the high Ideas they ever afterwards entertained of their own superior Genius and Abilities, with that extravagant Opinion, which they maintained with so much Obstinacy, that they were destined to be the future Conquerors of the World, and that those Countries alone, where neither Corn, or Vines, or Olives grew, should be the Boundaries of their Empire.They imagined themselves the chosen, peculiar People of the Goddess, whose Name they had assumed; who presided over the Arts of Peace, and was worshippped as the Patroness of all military Virtues. . . .

 

 

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Filed under 1750's, Ancient Greece, Greek/Roman Translations, History, Oratory, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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