The History and Legend of Antony and Cleopatra

July 24, 2023
25 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Characters and Events of Roman History, From Caesar to Nero, by Guglielmo Ferrero (published 1909).

In the history of Rome figures of women are rare, because only men dominated there, imposing everywhere the brute force, the roughness, and the egoism that lie at the base of their nature: they honoured the mater familias because she bore children and kept the slaves from stealing the flour from the bin and drinking the wine from the amphore on the sly. They despised the woman who made of her beauty and vivacity an adornment of social life, a prize sought after and disputed by the men. However, in this virile history there does appear, on a sudden, the figure of a woman, strange and wonderful, a kind of living Venus. Plutarch thus describes the arrival of Cleopatra at Tarsus and her first meeting with Antony:

She was sailing tranquilly along the Cydnus, on a bark with a golden stern, with sails of purple and oars of silver, and the dip of the oars was rythmed to the sound of flutes, blending with music of lyres. She herself, the Queen, wondrously clad as Venus is pictured, was lying under an awning gold embroidered. Boys dressed as Cupids stood at her side, gently waving fans to refresh her; her maidens, every one beautiful and clad as a Naiad or a Grace, directed the boat, some at the rudder, others at the ropes. Both banks of the stream were sweet with the perfumes burning on the vessel.

Posterity is yet dazzled by this ship, refulgent with purple and gold and melodious with flutes and lyres. If we are spellbound by Plutarch’s description, it does not seem strange to us that Antony should be—he who could not only behold in person that wonderful Venus, but could dine with her tête-à-tête, in a splendour of torches indescribable. Surely this is a setting in no wise improbable for the beginning of the famous romance of the love of Antony and Cleopatra, and its development as probable as its beginning; the follies committed by Antony for the seductive Queen of the Orient, the divorce of Octavia, the war for love of Cleopatra, kindled in the whole Empire, and the miserable catastrophe. Are there not to be seen in recent centuries many men of power putting their greatness to risk and sometimes to ruin for love of a woman? Are not the love letters of great statesmen—for instance, those of Mirabeau and of Gambetta—admitted to the semi-official part of modern history-writing? And so also Antony could love a queen and, like so many modern statesmen, commit follies for her. A French critic of my book, burning his ships behind him, has said that Antony was a Roman Boulanger.

The romance pleases: art takes it as subject and re-takes it; but that does not keep off the brutal hands of criticism. Before all, it should be observed that moderns feel and interpret the romance of Antony and Cleopatra in a way very different from that of the ancients. From Shakespeare to De Heredia and Henri Houssaye, artists and historians have described with sympathy, even almost idealised, this passion that throws away in a lightning flash every human greatness, to pursue the mantle of a fleeing woman; they find in the follies of Antony something profoundly human that moves them, fascinates them, and makes them indulgent. To the ancients, on the contrary, the amours of Antony and Cleopatra were but a dishonourable degeneration of the passion. They have no excuse for the man whom love for a woman impelled to desert in battle, to abandon soldiers, friends, relatives, to conspire against the greatness of Rome.

This very same difference of interpretation recurs in the history of the amours of Cæsar. Modern writers regard what the ancients tell us of the numerous loves—real or imaginary—of Cæsar, as almost a new laurel with which to decorate his figure. On the contrary, the ancients recounted and spread abroad, and perhaps in part invented, these storiettes of gallantry for quite opposite reasons—as source of dishonour, to discredit him, to demonstrate that Cæsar was effeminate, that he could not give guarantee of knowing how to lead the armies and to fulfil the virile and arduous duties that awaited every eminent Roman. There is in our way of thinking a vein of romanticism wanting in the ancient mind. We see in love a certain forgetfulness of ourselves, a certain blindness of egoism and the more material passions, a kind of power of self-abnegation, which, inasmuch as it is unconscious, confers a certain nobility and dignity; therefore we are indulgent to mistakes and follies committed for the sake of passion, while the ancients were very severe. We pardon with a certain compassion the man who for love of a woman has not hesitated to bury himself under the ruin of his own greatness; the ancients, on the contrary, considered him the most dangerous and despicable of the insane.

Criticism has not contented itself with re-giving to the ancient romance the significance it had for those that made it and the public that first read it. Archæologists have discovered upon coins portraits of Cleopatra, and now critics have confronted these portraits with the poetic descriptions given by Roman historians and have found the descriptions generously fanciful: in the portraits we do not see the countenance of a Venus, delicate, gracious, smiling, nor even the fine and sensuous beauty of a Marquise de Pompadour, but a face fleshy and, as the French would say, bouffie; the nose, a powerful aquiline; the face of a woman on in years, ambitious, imperious, one which recalls that of Maria Theresa. It will be said that judgments as to beauty are personal; that Antony, who saw her alive, could decide better than we who see her portraits half effaced by the centuries; that the attractive power of a woman emanates not only from corporal beauty, but also—and yet more—from her spirit. The taste of Cleopatra, her vivacity, her cleverness, her exquisite art in conversation, is vaunted by all.

Perhaps, however, Cleopatra, beautiful or ugly, is of little consequence; when one studies the history of her relations with Antony, there is small place, and that but toward the end, for the passion of love. It will be easy to persuade you of this if you follow the simple chronological exposition of facts I shall give you. Antony makes the acquaintance of Cleopatra at Tarsus toward the end of 41 B.C., passes the winter of 41-40 with her at Alexandria; leaves her in the spring of 40 and stays away from her more than three years, till the autumn of 37. There is no proof that during this time Antony sighed for the Queen of Egypt as a lover far away; on the contrary, he attends, with alacrity worthy of praise, to preparing the conquest of Persia, to putting into execution the great design conceived by Cæsar, the plan of war that Antony had come upon among the papers of the Dictator the evening of the fifteenth of March, 44 B.C. All order social and political, the army, the state, public finance, wealth private and public, is going to pieces around him. The triumvirate power, built up on the uncertain foundation of these ruins, is tottering; Antony realises that only a great external success can give to him and his party the authority and the money necessary to establish a solid government, and resolves to enter into possession of the political legacy of his teacher and patron, taking up its central idea, the conquest of Persia.

The difficulties are grave. Soldiers are not wanting, but money. The revolution has ruined the Empire and Italy; all the reserve funds have been dissipated; the finances of the state are in such straits that not even the soldiers can be paid punctually and the legions every now and then claim their dues by revolt. Antony is not discouraged. The historians, however antagonistic to him, describe him as exceedingly busy in those four years, extracting from all parts of the Empire that bit of money still in circulation. Then at one stroke, in the second half of 37, when, preparations finished, it is time to put hand to the execution, the ancient historians without in any way explaining to us this sudden act, most unforeseen, make him depart for Antioch to meet Cleopatra, who has been invited by him to join him. For what reason does Antony after three years, all of a sudden, re-join Cleopatra? The secret of the story of Antony and Cleopatra lies entirely in this question.

Plutarch says that Antony went to Antioch borne by the fiery and untamed courser[1] of his own spirit; in other words, because passion was already beginning to make him lose common sense. Not finding other explanations in the ancient writers, posterity has accepted this, which was simple enough; but about a century ago an erudite Frenchman, Letronne, studying certain coins, and comparing with them certain passages in ancient historians, until then remaining obscure, was able to demonstrate that in 36 B.C., at Antioch, Antony married Cleopatra with all the dynastic ceremonies of Egypt, and that thereupon Antony became King of Egypt, although he did not dare assume the title.

The explanation of Letronne, which is founded on official documents and coins, is without doubt more dependable than that of Plutarch, which is reducible to an imaginative metaphor; and the discovery of Letronne, concluding that concatenation of facts that I have set forth, finally persuades me to affirm that not a passion of love, suddenly re-awakened, led Antony in the second half of 37 B.C. to Antioch to meet the Queen of Egypt, but a political scheme well thought out. Antony wanted Egypt and not the beautiful person of its queen; he meant by this dynastic marriage to establish the Roman protectorate in the valley of the Nile, and to be able to dispose, for the Persian campaign, of the treasures of the Kingdom of the Ptolemies. At that time, after the plunderings of other regions of the Orient by the politicians of Rome, there was but one state rich in reserves of precious metals, Egypt. Since, little by little, the economic crisis of the Roman Empire was aggravating, the Roman polity had to gravitate perforce toward Egypt, as toward the country capable of providing Rome with the capital necessary to continue its policy in every part of the Empire.

Cæsar already understood this; his mysterious and obscure connection with Cleopatra had certainly for ultimate motive and reason this political necessity; and Antony, in marrying Cleopatra, probably only applied more or less shrewdly the ideas that Cæsar had originated in the refulgent crepuscle of his tempestuous career. You will ask me why Antony, if he had need of the valley of the Nile, recurred to this strange expedient of a marriage, instead of conquering the kingdom, and why Cleopatra bemeaned herself to marry the triumvir. The reply is not difficult to him who knows the history of Rome. There was a long-standing tradition in Roman policy to exploit Egypt but to respect its independence; it may be, because the country was considered more difficult to govern than in truth it was, or because there existed for this most ancient land, the seat of all the most refined arts, the most learned schools, the choicest industries, exceedingly rich and highly civilised, a regard that somewhat resembles what France imposes on the world today. Finally, it may be because it was held that if Egypt were annexed, its influence on Italy would be too much in the ascendent, and the traditions of the old Roman life would be conclusively overwhelmed by the invasion of the customs, the ideas, the refinements—in a word, by the corruptions of Egypt. Antony, who was set in the idea of repeating in Persia the adventure of Alexander the Great, did not dare bring about an annexation which would have been severely judged in Italy and which he, like the others, thought more dangerous than in reality it was. On the other hand, with a dynastic marriage, he was able to secure for himself all the advantages of effective possession, without running the risks of annexation; so he resolved upon this artifice, which, I repeat, had probably been imagined by Cæsar. As to Cleopatra, her government was menaced by a strong internal opposition, the causes for which are ill known; marrying Antony, she gathered about her throne, to protect it, formidable guards, the Roman legions.

To sum up, the romance of Antony and Cleopatra covers, at least in its beginnings, a political treaty. With the marriage, Cleopatra seeks to steady her wavering power; Antony, to place the valley of the Nile under the Roman protectorate. How then was the famous romance born? The actual history of Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most tragic episodes of a struggle that lacerated the Roman Empire for four centuries, until it finally destroyed it, the struggle between Orient and Occident. During the age of Cæsar, little by little, without any one’s realising it at first, there arose and fulfilled itself a fact of the gravest importance; that is, the eastern part of the Empire had grown out of proportion: first, from the conquest of the Pontus, made by Lucullus, who had added immense territory in Asia Minor; then by Pompey’s conquest of Syria, and the protectorate extended by him over all Palestine and a considerable part of Arabia. These new districts were not only enormous in extension; they were also populous, wealthy, fertile, celebrated for ancient culture; they held the busiest industrial cities, the best cultivated regions of the ancient world, the most famous seats of arts, letters, science, therefore their annexation, made rapidly in few years, could but trouble the already unstable equilibrium of the Empire. Italy was then, compared with these provinces, a poor and barbarous land; because southern Italy was ruined by the wars of preceding epochs, and northern Italy, naturally the wealthier part, was still crude and in the beginning of its development. The other western provinces nearer Italy were poorer and less civilised than Italy, except Gallia Narbonensis and certain parts of southern Spain. So that Rome, the capital of the Empire, came to find itself far from the richest and most populous regions, among territories poor and despoiled, on the frontiers of barbarism—in such a situation as the Russian Empire might find itself today if it had its capital at Vladivostok or Kharbin. You know that during the last years of the life of Cæsar it was rumoured several times that the Dictator wished to remove the capital of the Empire; it was said, to Alexandria in Egypt, to Ilium in the district where Troy arose. It is impossible to judge whether these reports were true or merely invented by enemies of Cæsar to damage him; at any rate, true or false, they show that public opinion was beginning to concern itself with the “Eastern peril”; that is, with the danger that the seat of empire must be shifted toward the Orient and the too ample Asiatic and African territory, and that Italy be one day uncrowned of her metropolitan predominance, conquered by so many wars. Such hear-says must have seemed, even if not true, the more likely, because in his last two years, Cæsar planned the conquest of Persia. Now the natural basis of operations for the conquest of Persia was to be found, not in Italy, but in Asia Minor, and if Persia had been conquered, it would not have been possible to govern in Rome an empire so immeasurably enlarged in the Orient. Everything therefore induces to the belief that this question was at least discussed in the coterie of the friends of Cæsar; and it was a serious question, because in it the traditions, the aspirations, the interests of Italy were in irreconcilable conflict with a supreme necessity of state which one day or other would impose itself, if some unforeseen event did not intervene to solve it.

In the light of these considerations, the conduct of Antony becomes very clear. The marriage at Antioch, by which he places Egypt under the Roman protectorate, is the decisive act of a policy that looks to transporting the centre of his government toward the Orient, to be able to accomplish more securely the conquest of Persia. Antony, the heir of Cæsar, the man who held the papers of the Dictator, who knew his hidden thoughts, who wished to complete the plans cut off by his death, proposes to conquer Persia; to conquer Persia, he must rely on the Oriental provinces that were the natural basis of operations for the great enterprise; among these, Antony must support himself above all on Egypt, the richest and most civilised and most able to supply him with the necessary funds, of which he was quite in want. Therefore he married the Cleopatra whom, it was said at Rome, Cæsar himself had wished to marry—with whom, at any rate, Cæsar had much dallied and intrigued. Does not this juxtaposition of facts seem luminous to you? In 36 B.C., Antony marries Cleopatra, as a few years before he had married Octavia, the sister of the future Augustus, for political reasons—in order to be able to dispose of the political subsidies and finances of Egypt, for the conquest of Persia. The conquest of Persia is the ultimate motive of all his policy, the supreme explanation of his every act.

However, little by little, this move, made on both sides from considerations of political interest, altered its character under the action of events, of time, through the personal influence of Antony and Cleopatra upon each other, and above all, the power that Cleopatra acquired over Antony: here is truly the most important part of all this story. Those who have read my history know that I have recounted hardly any of the anecdotes, more or less odd or entertaining, with which ancient writers describe the intimate life of Antony and Cleopatra, because it is impossible to discriminate in them the part that is fact from that which was invented or exaggerated by political enmity. In history the difficulty of recognising the truth gradually increases as one passes from political to private life; because in politics the acts of men and of parties are always bound together by either causes or effects of which a certain number is always exactly known; private life, on the other hand, is, as it were, isolated and secret, almost invariably impenetrable. What a great man of state does in his own house, his valet knows better than the historians of later times.

If for these reasons I have thought it prudent not to accept in my work the stories and anecdotes that the ancients recount of Antony and Cleopatra, without indeed risking to declare them false, it is, on the contrary, not possible to deny that Cleopatra gradually acquired great ascendency over the mind of Antony. The circumstance is of itself highly probable. That Cleopatra was perhaps a Venus, as the ancients say, or that she was provided with but a mediocre beauty, as declare the portraits, matters little: it is, however, certain that she was a woman of great cleverness and culture; as woman and queen of the richest and most civilised realm of the ancient world, she was mistress of all those arts of pleasure, of luxury, of elegance, that are the most delicate and intoxicating fruit of all mature civilisations. Cleopatra might refigure, in the ancient world, the wealthiest, most elegant, and cultured Parisian lady in the world of today.

Antony, on the other hand, was the descendant of a family of that Roman nobility which still preserved much rustic roughness in tastes, ideas, habits; he grew up in times in which the children were still given Spartan training; he came to Egypt from a nation which, notwithstanding its military and diplomatic triumphs, could be considered, compared with Egypt, only poor, rude, and barbarous. Upon this intelligent man, eager for enjoyment, who had, like other noble Romans, already begun to taste the charms of intellectual civilisation, it was not Cleopatra alone that made the keenest of impressions, but all Egypt, the wonderful city of Alexandria, the sumptuous palace of the Ptolemies—all that refined, elegant splendour of which he found himself at one stroke the master. What was there at Rome to compare with Alexandria?—Rome, in spite of its imperial power, abandoned to a fearful disorder by the disregard of factions, encumbered with ruin, its streets narrow and wretched, provided as yet with but a single forum, narrow and plain, the sole impressive monument of which was the theatre of Pompey; Rome, where the life was yet crude, and objects of luxury so rare that they had to be brought from the distant Orient? At Alexandria, instead, the Paris of the ancient world, were to be found all the best and most beautiful things of the earth. There was a sumptuosity of public edifices that the ancients never tire of extolling—the quay seven stadia long, the light house famous all over the Mediterranean, the marvellous zoological garden, the Museum, the Gymnasium, innumerable temples, the unending palace of the Ptolemies. There was an abundance, unheard of for those times, of objects of luxury—rugs, glass, stuffs, papyruses, jewels, artistic pottery—because they made all these things at Alexandria. There was an abundance, greater than elsewhere, of silk, of perfumes, of gems, of all the things imported from the extreme East, because through Alexandria passed one of the most frequented routes of Indo-Chinese commerce. There, too, were innumerable artists, writers, philosophers, and savants; society life and intellectual life alike fervid; continuous movement to and fro of traffic, continual passing of rare and curious things; countless amusements; life, more than elsewhere, safe—at least so it was believed—because at Alexandria were the great schools of medicine and the great scientific physicians.

If other Italians who landed in Alexandria were dazzled by so many splendours, Antony ought to have been blinded; he entered Alexandria as King. He who was born at Rome in the small and simple house of an impoverished noble family, who had been brought up with Latin parsimony to eat frugally, to drink wine only on festival occasions, to wear the same clothes a long time, to be served by a single slave—this man found himself lord of the immense palace of the Ptolemies, where the kitchens alone were a hundred times larger than the house of his fathers at Rome; where there were gathered for his pleasure the most precious treasures and the most marvellous collections of works of art; where there were trains of servants at his command, and every wish could be immediately gratified. It is therefore not necessary to suppose that Antony was foolishly enamoured of the Queen of Egypt, to understand the change that took place in him after their marriage, as he tasted the inimitable life of Alexandria, that elegance, that ease, that wealth, that pomp without equal.

A man of action, grown in simplicity, toughened by a rude life, he was all at once carried into the midst of the subtlest and most highly developed civilisation of the ancient world and given the greatest facilities to enjoy and abuse it that ever man had: as might have been expected, he was intoxicated; he contracted an almost insane passion for such a life; he adored Egypt with such ardour as to forget for it the nation of his birth and the modest home of his boyhood. And then began the great tragedy of his life, a tragedy not love-inspired, but political. As the hold of Egypt strengthened on his mind, Cleopatra tried to persuade him not to conquer Persia, but to accept openly the kingdom of Egypt, to found with her and with their children a new dynasty, and to create a great new Egyptian Empire, adding to Egypt the better part of the provinces that Rome possessed in Africa and in Asia, abandoning Italy and the provinces of the West forever to their destiny.

Cleopatra had thought to snatch from Rome its Oriental Empire by the arm of Antony, in that immense disorder of revolution; to reconstruct the great Empire of Egypt, placing at its head the first general of the time, creating an army of Roman legionaries with the gold of the Ptolemies; to make Egypt and its dynasty the prime potentate of Africa and Asia, transferring to Alexandria the political and diplomatic control of the finest parts of the Mediterranean world.

As the move failed, men have deemed it folly and stupidity; but he who knows how easy it is to be wise after events, will judge this confused policy of Cleopatra less curtly. At any rate, it is certain that her scheme failed more because of its own inconsistencies than through the vigour and ability with which Rome tried to thwart it; it is certain that in the execution of the plan, Antony felt first in himself the tragic discord between Orient and Occident that was so long to lacerate the Empire; and of that tragic discord he was the first victim. An enthusiastic admirer of Egypt, an ardent Hellenist, he is lured by his great ambition to be king of Egypt, to renew the famous line of the Ptolemies, to continue in the East the glory and the traditions of Alexander the Great: but the far-away voice of his fatherland still sounds in his ear; he recalls the city of his birth, the Senate in which he rose so many times to speak, the Forum of his orations, the Comitia that elected him to magistracies; Octavia, the gentlewoman he had wedded with the sacred rites of Latin monogamy; the friends and soldiers with whom he had fought through so many countries in so many wars; the foundation principles at home that ruled the family, the state, morality, public and private.

Cleopatra’s scheme, viewed from Alexandria, was an heroic undertaking, almost divine, that might have lifted him and his scions to the delights of Olympus; seen from Rome, by his childhood’s friends, by his comrades in arms, by that people of Italy who still so much admired him, it was the shocking crime of faithlessness to his country; we call it high treason. Therefore he hesitates long, doubting most of all whether he can keep for the new Egyptian Empire the Roman legions, made up largely of Italians, all commanded by Italian officers. He does not know how to oppose a resolute No to the insistences of Cleopatra and loose himself from the fatal bond that keeps him near her; he can not go back to live in Italy after having dwelt as king in Alexandria. Moreover, he does not dare declare his intentions to his Roman friends, fearing they will scatter; to the soldiers, fearing they will revolt; to Italy, fearing her judgment of him as a traitor; and so, little by little, he entangles himself in the crooked policy, full of prevarications, of expedients, of subterfuges, of one mistake upon another, that leads him to Actium.

I think I have shown that Antony succumbed in the famous war not because, mad with love, he abandoned the command in the midst of the battle, but because his armies revolted and abandoned him when they understood what he had not dared declare to them openly: that he meant to dismember the Empire of Rome to create the new Empire of Alexandria. The future Augustus conquered at Actium without effort, merely because the national sentiment of the soldiery, outraged by the unforeseen revelation of Antony’s treason, turned against the man who wanted to aggrandise Cleopatra at the expense of his own country.

And then the victorious party, the party of Augustus, created the story of Antony and Cleopatra that has so entertained posterity; this story is but a popular explanation—in part imaginatively exaggerated and fantastic—of the Eastern peril that menaced Rome, of both its political phase and its moral. According to the story that Horace has put into such charming verse, Cleopatra wished to conquer Italy, to enslave Rome, to destroy the Capitol; but Cleopatra alone could not have accomplished so difficult a task; she must have seduced Antony, made him forget his duty to his wife, to his legitimate children, to the Republic, the soldiery, his native land,—all the duties that Latin morals inculcated into the minds of the great, and that a shameless Egyptian woman, rendered perverse by all the arts of the Orient, had blotted out in his soul; therefore Antony’s tragic fate should serve as a solemn warning to distrust the voluptuous seductions, of which Cleopatra symbolised the elegant and fatal depravity. The story was magnified, coloured, diffused, not because it was beautiful and romantic, but because it served the interests of the political coterie that gained definite control of the government on the ruin of Antony. At Actium, the future Augustus did not fight a real war, he only passively watched the power of the adversary go to pieces, destroyed by its own internal contradictions. He did not decide to conquer Egypt until the public opinion of Italy, enraged against Antony and Cleopatra, required this vengeance with such insistence that he had to satisfy it.

If Augustus was not a man too quick in action, he was, instead, keenly intelligent in comprehending the situation created by the catastrophe of Antony in Italy, where already, for a decade of years, public spirit, frightened by revolution, was anxious to return to the ways of the past, to the historic sources of the national life. Augustus understood that he ought to stand before Italy, disgusted as it was with long-continued dissension and eager to retrace the way of national tradition, as the embodiment of all the virtues his contemporaries set in opposition to eastern “corruption,”—simplicity, severity of private habits, rigid monogamy, the anti-feministic spirit, the purely virile idea of the state. Naturally, the exaltation of these virtues required the portrayal in his rival of Actium, as far as possible, the opposite defects; therefore the efforts of his friends, like Horace, to colour the story of Antony and Cleopatra, which should magnify to the Italians the idea of the danger from which Augustus had saved them at Actium; which was meant to serve as a barrier against the invading Oriental “corruption,” that “corruption” the essence of which I have already analysed.

In a certain sense, the legend of Antony and Cleopatra is chiefly an anti-feminist legend, intended to reinforce in the state the power of the masculine principle, to demonstrate how dangerous it may be to leave to women the government of public affairs, or follow their counsel in political business.

The people believed the legend; posterity has believed it. Two years ago when I published in the Revue de Paris an article in which I demonstrated, by obvious arguments, the incongruities and absurdities of the legend, and tried to retrace through it the half-effaced lines of the truth, everybody was amazed. From one end of Europe to the other, the papers resuméd the conclusions of my study as an astounding revelation. An illustrious French statesman, a man of the finest culture in historical study, Joseph Reinach, said to me:

After your article I have re-read Dion and Plutarch. It is indeed singular that for twenty centuries men have read and reread those pages without any one’s realising how confused and absurd their accounts are.

It seems to be a law of human psychology that almost all historic personages, from Minos to Mazzini, from Judas to Charlotte Corday, from Xerxes to Napoleon, are imaginary personages; some transfigured into demigods, by admiration and success; the others debased by hate and failure. In reality, the former were often uglier, the latter more attractive than tradition has pictured them, because men in general are neither too good nor too bad, neither too intelligent nor too stupid. In conclusion, historic tradition is full of deformed caricatures and ideal transfigurations; because, when they are dead, the impression of their political contemporaries still serves the ends of parties, states, nations, institutions. Can this man exalt in a people the consciousness of its own power, of its own energy, of its own value? Lo, then they make a god of him, as of Napoleon or Bismarck. Can this other serve to feed in the mass, odium and scorn of another party, of a government, of an order of things that it is desirable to injure? Then they make a monster of him, as happened in Rome to Tiberius, in France to Napoleon III, in Italy to all who for one motive or another opposed the unification of Italy.

It is true that after a time the interests that have coloured certain figures with certain hues and shades disappear; but then the reputation, good or bad, of a personage is already made; his name is stamped on the memory of posterity with an adjective,—the great, the wise, the wicked, the cruel, the rapacious,—and there is no human force that can dissever name from adjective. Some far-away historian, studying all the documents, examining the sequence of events, will confute the tradition in learned books; but his work not only will not succeed in persuading the ignorant multitude, but must also contend against the multiplied objections offered by the instinctive incredulity of people of culture.

You will say to me, “What is the use of writing history? Why spend so much effort to correct the errors in which people will persist just as if the histories were never written?” I reply that I do not believe that the office of history is to give to men who have guided the great human events a posthumous justice. It is already work serious enough for every generation to give a little justice to the living, rather than occupy itself rendering it to the dead, who indeed, in contradistinction from the living, have no need of it. The study of history, the rectification of stories of the past, ought to serve another and practical end; that is, train the men who govern nations to discern more clearly than may be possible from their own environment the truth underlying the legends. As I have already said, passions, interests, present historic personages in a thousand forms when they are alive, transfiguring not only the persons themselves, but events the most diverse, the character of institutions, the conditions of nations.

It is generally believed that legends are found only at the dawn of history, in the poetic period: that is a great mistake; the legend—the legend that deceives, that deforms, that misdirects—is everywhere, in all ages, in the present as in the past—in the present even more than in the past, because it is the consequence of certain universal forms of thought and of sentiment. Today, just as ten or twenty centuries ago, interests and passions dominate events, alter them and distort them, creating about them veritable romances, more or less probable. The present, which appears to all to be the same reality, is instead, for most people, only a huge legend, traversed by contemporaries stirred by the most widely differing sentiments.

However the mass may content itself with this legend, throbbing with hate and love, with hope and the fear of its own self-created phantoms, those who guide and govern the masses ought to try to divine the truth, as far as they can. A great man of state is distinguished from a mediocre by his greater ability to divine the real in his world of action beneath its superfice of confused legends; by his greater ability to discriminate in everything what is true from what is merely apparently true, in the prestige of states and institutions, in the forces of parties, in the energy attributed to certain men, in the purposes claimed by parties and men, often different from their real designs. To do that, some natural disposition is necessary, a liveliness of intuition that must come with birth; but this faculty can be refined and trained by a practical knowledge of men, by experience in things, and by the study of history. In the ages dead, when the interests that created their legends have disappeared, we can discover how those great popular delusions, which are one of the greatest forces of history, are made and how they work. We may thus fortify the spirit to withstand the cheating illusions that surround us, coming from every part of the vast modern world, in which so many interests dispute dominion over thoughts and will.

In this sense alone, I believe that history may teach, not the multitude, which will never learn anything from it, but, impelled by the same passions, will always repeat the same errors and the same foolishnesses; but the chosen few, who, charged with directing the game of history, have concern in knowing as well as they can its inner law. Taken in this way, history may be a great teacher, in its every page, every line, and the study of the legend of Antony and Cleopatra may itself even serve to prepare the spirit of a diplomat, who must treat between state and state the complicated economic and political affairs of the modern world. And so, in conclusion, history and life interchange mutual services; life teaches history, and history, life; observing the present, we help ourselves to know the past, and from the study of the past we can return to our present the better tempered and prepared to observe and comprehend it. In present and in past, history can form a kind of wisdom set apart, in a certain sense aristocratic, above what the masses know, at least as to the universal laws that govern the life of nations.

Guglielmo Ferrero


[1] A swift or spirited horse. (Merriam-Webster)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Support Men Of The West

Previous Story

Friday Music: Gaming Legacy Medley

Next Story

Crisis Looms – YT Interview of Neil Howe

Latest from History

The Weimar Years – Part 1

This started out as an attempt to better understand Weimar Germany by chronicling my reactions to the audiobook version of “The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918-1933” by Frank McDonough. Writing my
Go toTop