Cromohs 2005 - Briant - Alexander the Great and the Enlightenment: William Robertson (1721-1793), the Empire and the road to India

Alexander the Great and the Enlightenment:
William Robertson (1721-1793), the Empire and the road to India[1]

Pierre Briant[2]
P Briant, «Alexander the Great and the Enlightenment: William Robertson (1721-1793), the Empire and the road to India», Cromohs, 10 (2005): 1-9
< URL: http://www.cromohs.unifi.it/10_2005/briant_robertson.html >

1. In his inaugural lecture, delivered on the nineteenth of February, 1952, at University College London, Arnaldo Momigliano chose to discuss for his audience the development of research on Greek history since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He justified his course of action with these words: “All students of Ancient History know in their hearts that Greek History is passing through a crisis.” A historiographic meditation would make it possible, he thought, “to clarify the nature of this crisis.” (Momigliano 1952: 4).
Today, it is enough to say “history of Alexander” in place of “Greek History” to justify returning similarly to the eighteenth century, and to the Alexander of the Enlightenment. In fact, the history of Alexander is undergoing a profound crisis, disguised and at the same time revealed by a proliferation of publications. Is it not paradoxical that not a single synthetic work on the historiography of Alexander has ever been published [3]?
In this same inaugural lecture, Momigliano evoked in a cursory way the historiography of the Hellenistic period. He stressed that, despite a generally accepted idea (and accepted by himself, as well), the publication of the Geschichte Alexanders des Grossen in 1833 did not qualify the Prussian historian Johann Gustav Droysen as the creater ex nihilo of the Hellenistic period (Momigliano 1952: 4-7): the debate had actually been under way since the eighteenth century. Elias Bikerman had already remarked on this in 1944, in a review-article on the monumental work of Michael Rostovtzeff (Bikerman 1944-45: 381-382) [4].
To be sure, the observations of these two great historians, Bikerman and Momigliano, had been made more in an intuitive form than in a fully argued and documented form. Nevertheless, it is a pity that they were subsequently all but forgotten. Without wishing in the least to deny Droysen’s talent and originality, one should observe that no-one sought to understand and explain in detail the extent to which his theses and interpretations of Alexander and of Hellenismus also represented the legacy of discussions that had actually developed throughout the eighteenth century in Europe, particularly in England and Scotland, in France, and in Germany [5]. This is just what I would like to attempt today, if only in a partial and preliminary form, by way of the reflections on this subject made by William Robertson.
Robertson was born in 1721, and in a recent work devoted to him, Stewart J. Brown introduced him in this way:

Scottish historian, clergyman, Church leader, and University Principal, [he] presided over the unique flowering of intellectual culture in the second half of the eighteenth century that has become known as the Scottish Enlightenment. He was one of the most respected historians of the eighteenth century, a man whose works were translated into several languages and extensively republished, and who stood alongside Edward Gibbon, David Hume and Voltaire in European reputation (Brown 1997:7)

Among the high offices with which he was invested is that of Historiographer Royal for Scotland, a title that he held from 1763 until his death in 1793. Another celebrated Scottish historian succeeded him, John Gillies, who, as Momigliano recalled in his Inaugural Lecture, played a notable role in the historiography of the Hellenistic period.
My decision to approach the Alexander of the Enlightenment from the work of Robertson is a bit paradoxical, for our historian cannot be considered a specialist on Alexander. Robertson is best known for his History of Scotland of 1759, his History of the Reign of Charles the Fifth of 1769, and his History of America of 1777. If he showed any interest in the history of Alexander, it is because he included certain aspects of the Macedonian conquest in his reflections on the history of imperial conquests, and especially on the British Empire, at that time under construction and under debate [6]. Indeed, it was the matter of India that led him in 1788 to set out on the preparation and writing of his final work, Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge Which the Ancients Had of India. One of the most recent commentators, Geoffrey Carnall, could say of this work and its author: “It was a splendid way to finish.” (1997: 210) This phrase represents a sort of rehabilitation of a work that has too often been underestimated, if not forgotten, by specialists in Robertsonian studies [7] (not to speak of specialists of Alexander’s historiography).

2. Even if today it is never cited in works devoted to Alexander, not even by allusion in a historiographic survey, the Disquisition did attract the attention of its contemporaries who had worked on Alexander and India. For example, in his Voyage of Nearchus (1797), William Vincent did not fail to commend the pages dedicated by Robertson to the commercial advantages that could be drawn from commerce with India [8]. The book soon became an inescapable reference to those interested in the history of commerce between Egypt and India, including at the time and in the context of the conquest of Egypt by Bonaparte [9].
It also happened that some of the Scottish historian’s views were vigorously attacked by one or another historian of Alexander. For example, he had incisive exchanges with the Baron de Sainte-Croix, who had published in 1775 a work on the sources of the history of Alexander, that he revised and enlarged in 1804 [10]. To be sure, Sainte-Croix, a typical example of an “antiquarian”, was positioned in diametric opposition to the philosophical history of the Enlightenment savants[11].
The first part of the Disquisition is devoted to the contacts between India and Europe since antiquity, and the second, much longer, part is devoted to an analysis of the social, political, and religious systems of India in the author’s own time. The subtitle reveals the interpretation given to the work: Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge Which the Ancients Had of India and the progress of trade with the country prior to the discovery of the passage by the Cape of Good Hope. The almost immediate translations into German (1791b) and French (1792b) show how much interest the questions treated by Robertson excited, and it is equally clear that the interest was not merely of a scientific order. It was the same for Robertson himself, who, while underscoring the admirable durability of Indian customs, also sought to suggest that the European conquest should not be accompanied by the brutal destruction of “indigenous” society: it should rather find support sort in the traditions of India. As a follower of the ideas of Adam Smith, firmly convinced of the joint role of Progress and Providence, Robertson judged that the European expansion should favor the development of communications, of commerce, and thus of the prosperity of nations. It is here that the history of Alexander and his own reflections on the contemporary world nourished each other.
Robertson had already treated the history of exploration at the beginning of his History of America in 1777, for the grand stages in the discovery of the world by the Europeans have ever formed the basis for reflection on European conquests, colonization, and the expansion of commerce [12]. When Robertson revisited the subject in 1791, it was, he said (p. III), because of the recent publication of a memoir on the geography of Hindustan in 1783 [13], from the pen of the already celebrated James Rennel, formerly “Surveyor General of the East India Company’s Dominions in Bengal”, who was also a close friend of John Gillies and William Vincent [14]. Nor did Rennel himself hesitate to refer several times to the narratives of the conquests of Alexander (Rennel 1792: XXII-XXXI; 121sq.). Robertson saw in Rennel’s essay “one of the most valuable geographical treatises that has appeared in any age or country” (p. 1)[15]. It is interesting to observe that at the same time, the Göttingen historian Arnold Heeren published (in Latin) his studies on the commerce of ancient India, including a review (in German) of the work of Robertson (Heeren 1792; see also 1793b: 91-92). Heeren, too, emphasized the importance of Rennel’s book for those who were interested in geography, the opening of new overland and maritime routes, and the expansion of commerce (Heeren 1791: 121-122) [16].
The Disquisition studies the history of European relations with India in three chapters, arranged chronologically: from the beginning to the Roman conquest of Egypt; then, up to the Arab conquest of Egypt; and finally, up to the discovery of the route around the Cape of Good Hope. In the first part, he recapitulates the already venerable controversies over King Solomon’s shipping and navigation, and over the relations between Egypt and India in Pharaonic times [17]. All these topics had already been treated in detail by many of his predecessors, for histories of commerce flourished throughout the eighteenth century [18], including the chapters devoted to the topics by Montesquieu in The spirit of the Laws XXI (see below).
Like all of his predecessors [19], Robertson did not fail to recall that under Darius I (522-486 B.C.), Scylax of Caryanda had been commissioned to lead an expedition by river and sea between the Indus and Egypt, and he was astonished that all recollection of it had apparently been lost. He supposed that this could be explained by the lack of interest in barbarian peoples generally shown by the Greeks, qualified as “the only enlightened people at that time in Europe.” Be that as it may, the result is clear: “Neither this voyage of Scylax, nor the conquests of Darius, to which it gave rise, spread any general knowledge of India” (p. 12; cf. p. 197-200).

3. It is therefore only with Alexander, according to Robertson, that detailed accounts of commerce with India begin to be available: “In this manner did Alexander first open the knowledge of India to the people of Europe, and an extensive district of it was surveyed with greater accuracy than could have been expected from the short time he remained in that country” (p. 20). Robertson was quick to draw from this an argument on which to base the thesis of the continuity of the customs of India, which he was to develop throughout the second part of his Disquisition: “It is wonderful how exactly the descriptions given by Alexander’s officers delineate what we now behold in India, at a distance of two thousand years ... [The inhabitants] perfectly resemble the modern Hindoos” (p. 22).
Throughout the pages that he devotes to the Macedonian expedition in the Persian Empire and in India, Robertson insists specifically on the precision and the constancy of Alexander’s plans for navigation and commerce. According to him, it was very early on that Alexander conceived the plans that would lead him to the Indus Valley and the Persian Gulf: “He seems, soon after his first successes in Asia, to have formed the idea of establishing an universal monarchy, and aspired to the domination of the sea, as well as of the land” (p. 13). It was thinking about the example of Tyre that made him decide on the foundation of Alexandria:

With a view to secure this commerce, and to establish a station for it, preferable in many respects to that of Tyre, as soon as he completed the conquest of Egypt, he founded a city near one of the mouths of the Nile, which he honoured with his own name; and with such admirable discernment was the situation of it chosen, that Alexandria soon became the greatest trading city of the ancient world, and ... continued, during eighteen centuries, to be the chief seat of commerce with India. At the same time ... the desire of acquiring the lucrative commerce which the Tyrians had carried on with India, was not relinquished (pp. 13-14).

The expedition to India was therefore not simply an expedition of conquest and plunder: “[Alexander] never lost sight of his pacific and commercial schemes.” In his History of America, Robertson likewise wrote that “Alexander discovered the country more than he conquered it.” This explains the mission entrusted to Nearchus, appointed admiral of the fleet: “The destination of this fleet was to sail down the Indus to the Ocean, and from its mouth to proceed to the Persian Gulf, that a communication by sea might be opened with India and the centre of his dominions” (p. 18). It is clear that his first objective was “to keep open a communication with India, not only by land, but by sea” (p. 27). This is what explains navigation he undertook, starting from Susa, along the Euphrates and the Tigris: “He gave directions to remove the cataracts, or dams, with which the ancient monarchs of Persia... had constructed near the mouths of these rivers... By opening the navigation in this manner, he proposed that the valuable commodities of India should be conveyed from the Persian Gulf into the interior parts of his Asiatic dominions, while by the Arabic Gulf they should be carried to Alexandria, and distributed to the rest of the world” (p. 28).
The mention of the cataracts also allows Robertson to contrast the enlightened policy of Alexander with that of his Persian predecessors. When they had built barrages across the rivers, it was because “[they were] induced by a peculiar precept of their religion, which enjoined them to guard with the utmost care against defiling any of the elements”; the result was that “they shut out their subject[s] from any access to the ocean” (p. 28). Robertson later returned to this subject, to explain why the Ptolemies could keep a virtual monopoly on commerce with India: “No commercial intercourse seems ever to have been carried on by sea between Persia and India. The Persians had such an insuperable aversion to that element, or were so much afraid of foreign invasion, that their monarchs (as I have already observed) obstructed the navigation of the great rivers, which gave access to the interior part of the country, by artificial works” (pp. 41-42). One can recognized, then, that Robertson connected to the religious explanation a political explanation that was especially scornful of the Great Kings (the fear of invasion): such was already the reason advanced in antiquity by Arrian [20].

4. Now that Robertson’s views on Alexander have been described, if only in a summary and preliminary form, it will be useful to look into the manner in which the Scottish historian worked, from whom he borrowed, what model he followed, and in what context he worked out his interpretation.
Although he was, in fact, an expert in Greek and Latin, he was no expert in the history of Antiquity [21]. As a way of opening discussion on this essential point, I would like to cite first a passage from the Disquisition. In a similar way to Volney’s in his work Les Ruines (1791; Eng. tr. 1792, London), Robertson meditates as a philosopher and as a historian on the disappearance of the great ancient commercial city of Palmyra:

It is a cruel mortification, in searching for what is instructive in the history of past times, to find that the exploits of conquerors who have desolated the earth, and the freaks of tyrants who have rendered nations unhappy, are recorded with minute and often disgusting accuracy, while the discovery of useful arts, and the progress of the most beneficial branches of commerce, are passed over in silence, and suffered to sink in oblivion (pp. 50-51).

In this, Robertson is in complete agreement with the opinion upheld by a majority of the historians and philosophers of his time. Among the historians, we may select two examples, one from Germany, the other from Scotland. In 1793, at Göttingen, Arnold Heeren, himself also an admirer of the progressive measures initiated by Alexander, took issue with the idea that history could be reduced to wars and destructions:

We are told of wars and movements of peoples; but only rarely does anyone expound for us the ideas that made them act, and the aim that they wished to attain; and still more rarely the means that put them in a position to carry out their plans ... Let the warrior peoples who occupy the stage [of universal history] withdraw, to make place for those who stand, more modestly, at a remove. Let the march of peaceful caravans hide from us the spectacle of devastating armies, and let the rising walls of new colonies shield us from the sorry sight of pillaged cities” (1800: 3, 7).

Coming back now to Scotland, in 1786 John Gillies had published his History of Greece. He too insisted on the wisdom of Alexander’s political and commercial choices:

[He was] continually occupied with the thoughts, not only of extending, but of improving, his conquest ... In his extensive dominions, he built, or founded, not less than seventy cities, the situation of which being chosen with consummate wisdom, tended to facilitate communication, to promote commerce, and to diffuse civility through the greatest nations of the earth ... He attempted to enlighten barbarism, to soften servitude, and to transplant the improvements of Greece into an African and Asiatic soil, which have never been known to flourish” (ed. 1831, pp. 414, 434).

Among all the progressive measures credited to Alexander, he did not fail to refer to the

Removing [of] the weirs or dams, by which the timid ignorance of the Assyrian and Persian kings had obstructed the navigation of these great rivers, [the Euphrates and the Tigris] (p. 430).

5. Gillies positioned himself in diametric opposition to the Baron de Sainte-Croix, who repeatedly opposed Montesquieu and, in contrast to Robertson and others, denied that the conqueror had any policy of urbanization and colonization, and rejected the idea, deemed by him “delirious,” of transforming Alexander into a “chief of trading factories” (1804: 415) [22]! Altogether to the contrary, Gillies’s admiration for Alexander is such that he refused to take any account of the only reservations expressed by Montesquieu, aroused by the destruction of Persepolis and the murder of Cleitus (p. 435 n. 7).
We can see, then, that the ideal is no longer that of the conqueror full of his own glory and necessarily a bearer of misfortunes; the dominant model is that of the civilizer and the legislator. A conqueror can only be ranked among the heroes of history if the war that he conducts spreads civilization: it is to be understood that this means in particular the opening of new routes and the expansion of commerce and changes in the scale of the world. Such is Voltaire’s Peter the Great [23]. Such is also Robertson’s Peter the Great, as in the image of him that he developed in a review article in the Edinburgh Review of 1755: Peter is

A benefactor to mankind ... [He] is the first man who, unenlightened by science, and uninstructed by example, conceived the vast design of civilizing sixteen millions of savages, and who, by operations the most amazing and adventurous, introduced armies and fleets, commerce and science, into an Empire where they were all unknown [24].

Robertson even went on to write, with reference to the Czar’s vices and violence:

Perhaps even these defects contributed towards the success of his undertaking; and with less impetuosity, and greater gentleness of disposition, with more refinement, and a nicer sense of decorum, he might have left his grand enterprise at a farther distance from perfection.

In a letter to Frederick of Prussia from January 1738, Voltaire defended the civilizing character of Peter the Great’s actions. In order to better overcome Prince Frederick’s considerable reticence, he made a comparison with Alexander, described as “founder of cities which have become the centers of commerce of the world.” It is perfectly clear that Robertson himself drew the outlines of the moral and political portrait of Alexander on this model of the civilizing conqueror, in which the recollections of the vices and benefactions of the Czar of Russia and the King of Macedonia merged. He knew Alexander’s shortcomings and excesses, but they carried little weight in comparison to his civilizing work:

The wild sallies of passion, the indecent excesses of intemperance, and the ostentatious display of vanity too frequent in the conduct of this extraordinary man, have so degraded his character, that the preeminence of his merit, either as a conqueror, a politician or a legislator, has seldom been justly estimated (p. 13).

6. In Alexander, the passion of conquest always stood aside before his commercial and political plans (p. 14). And in order to show his readers “the original genius and extent of political wisdom which distinguished this illustrious man” (p. 24), Robertson undertook to expound with admiration the policy that Alexander defined in the conquered lands. Instead of following the teaching of Aristotle, who proposed to treat the barbarians as slaves, “assiduously he labored to unite his European and Asiatic subjects by the most indissoluble ties.” Robertson refers explicitly to the famous marriages at Susa, between Macedonian nobles and Iranian princesses. This policy, Robertson continues, also reveals a profound political sensibility:

He early perceived that ... he could not hope to retain in subjection territories so extensive and populous; that to render his authority secure and permanent, it must be established in the affection of the nations which he had subdued, and maintained by their arms; and that, in order to acquire this advantage, all distinctions between the victors and vanquished must be abolished, and his European and Asiatic subjects must be incorporated, and become one people, by obeying the same laws, and by adopting the same manners, institutions and discipline (p. 24).

Nothing is more difficult, as we know, than discovering the sources used by an author, especially when the explanatory notes offer only the most lacunose bibliographical information. Such is the case with the Disquisition. We can postulate that Robertson knew Gillies’s History of Greece, but the image of Alexander which he defended in his last book goes back well before the publication of Gillies’s manual. In fact, it is already presented in 1777, in the History of America. To be convinced of this, it is enough to cite passages from the first part, where Robertson promotes the idea that the development of communication and the extension of commerce go hand in hand:

The expedition of Alexander in the East appreciably enlarged for the Greeks the sphere of navigation and of geographical science. This extraordinary man ... was capable of conceiving these bold political plans which give a new form to human concerns ... He formed the plan of a new empire which would be the center of commerce as well as the seat of power ... He resolved to examine the route of navigation from the mouth of the Indus to the head of the Persian Gulf, and, if possible, to establish regular communication between these two points. To this end, he decided to destroy the cataracts with which the Persians, out of envy and hatred of foreigners, had blocked the entrance of the Euphrates, and to bring up along this river and the Tigris the merchandise of the East and the interior of his Asiatic territories” (translated from Buchon II, pp. 428-29).

We know what a profound influence the works of Montesquieu, which were spread immediately in French and in English, had in Scotland [25]. For Robertson, the Spirit of the Laws, in 1748, was a kind of revelation. To adopt an expression of Nicholas Philippson in a recent article, it was “his first introduction to history in a radically different sort” (1997: 58). Proceeding from the spirit of the History of America and the History of the Reign of Charles V, the same author characterizes Robertson as “the most Montesquieuian of Scottish historians” (1997: 61). It is easy to extend this characterization to the last book of Robertson, even if he never cites Montesquieu in his treatments of Alexander and Indian commerce [26], and even if he is concerned to stress the originality of his judgement of Alexander: as a matter of fact, according to him, “the preeminence of Alexander’s merit has seldom been justly estimated” (Disquisition, p.13).

7. But in the end, Robertson was certainly not unaware that it was Montesquieu who introduced the new concept. Did his contemporary John Gillies not say, in 1786, that “he was (Voltaire only excepted) the most distinguished modern apologist of Alexander” (ed. 1831, p. 435 n. 7)? It will suffice, at this point, to review the main assertions and arguments found in Chapters XIII-XIV of Book X, and in Chapter VII of Book XXI (1748 ed., or chapters VII-IX of the 1757 edition). In the course of Book X, devoted to conquest (On Laws in their Relation with Offensive Force), Montesquieu contrasts Alexander with Charles XII of Sweden, the adversary of Peter the Great, and a conscious imitator of Alexander, whom he considered a model of the heroic king. Notwithstanding censure of the burning of Persepolis and the murder of Cleitus, Montesquieu, against a main tendency of his epoch, highlights the acute political sense of the Macedonian king:

Alexander’s project succeeded only because it was sensible ... Not only was this project wise, but it was wisely executed. Alexander, in the rapidity of his actions, even in the heat of his passions, was led by a vein of reason, if I dare use the term ... Let us see how he preserved his conquests. He resisted those who wanted him to treat the Greeks as masters and the Persians as slaves; he thought only of uniting two nations and wiping out the distinctions between the conquerors and the vanquished ... Nothing strengthens a conquest more than unions by marriage between two peoples ... Alexander, who sought to unite the two peoples, thought of making a large number of Greek colonies in Persia ... He left the vanquished peoples not only their mores but also their civil laws and often even their kings and governors he found there. He put the Macedonians at the head of the troops and people from the invaded country at the head of the government, preferring to run the risk of the unfaithfulness of some individuals (which occurred a few times) to a general rebellion ... It seemed that he had conquered only to be the monarch of each nation and the first citizen of each town (X.13-14) [27].

It is scarcely necessary to comment on the correspondence between the models of the civilizing conqueror in Montesquieu and in Robertson, and on the emphasis placed by both of them on the rational character of the Macedonian king’s plans and activities [28]. There is no less correspondence in the observations on commerce with India, which Montesquieu expounded in Book XXI (On Laws in their Relation to Commerce, Considered in the Revolutions it has had in the World). Chapter VIII is specifically entitled: On Alexander. His Conquests. From the beginning of the exposition, the emphasis is on the new things brought about in this domain by the Macedonian conquest:

Four events occurred under Alexander that produced a great revolution in commerce: the capture of Tyre, the conquest of Egypt, that of the Indies, and the discovery of the sea to the south of that country ... At the time [of the conquest], he formed the design of uniting the Indies with the west by a maritime commerce, as he had united them by the colonies he had established on the land (XXI.8).

Then, after describing the return voyage of Nearchus from the mouth of the Indus, Montesquieu concludes thus: “One cannot doubt that his design was to engage in commerce with the Indies through Babylon and the Persian Gulf”.
At the same time, he contemplates the reasons for which commerce with India was not developed at the time of the Persians. He is aware of the exploratory voyage that began at the Indus in the time of Darius the Great, but he produces a negative comment, implicitly contrasting it with the enterprises of Alexander: “The voyage ... was the fancy of a prince who wants to show his power [Darius] rather than the orderly project of a monarch who wants to use it [Alexander]. This had no consequences, either for commerce, or for navigation, and if one departed from ignorance it was only to return to it shortly” (XXI.8). Indeed, continues Montesquieu, “The Persians had no shipping of any sort ... [There was] an unconquerable aversion among the Persians for seafaring”. Hence the project carried out by Alexander on the lower course of the Babylonian rivers: “He removed the cataracts the Persians had put in these rivers”. And, as Robertson would do somewhat later, in a footnote Montesquieu invokes religious reasons to explain this surprising aversion of the Persians to the maritime environment, and, just as Robertson was to do later, he refers to the work on Persian religion which the savant Hyde had published in 1700 at Oxford [29].

8. The problem is obviously not to conclude that Robertson copied Montesquieu, but, speaking of the conquests of Alexander and of the history of commerce, we can assume that he was strongly influenced by him [30]. After all, Montesquieu himself, in his discussions of Alexander and of Hellenistic Egypt, made much use of the work of Huet on the history of the navigation and commerce of the Ancients, without citing it in footnotes [31]: this is known thanks to the study (still under way) of the archives at the chateau de la Brède, where one can find summaries of readings of which Montesquieu himself or his secretaries made note [32]. As for the historiography of the cataracts of the Tigris and Euphrates, one can go at least as far back as another study by Bishop Huet devoted to the location of the earthly paradise (1691: 79-88). And yet, except for a brief allusion by Sainte-Croix (1804: 857), this book was never cited later in the context of Alexander’s policy in Babylonia. In historical works of the eighteenth century it was not customary to cite systematically the bibliography that the author used [33].
In any case, Robertson’s intellectual and political ambition was not to pose as a rival of Montesquieu, nor to appear as a specialist on Alexander or on Antiquity. As I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, his preoccupations were much more with the challenges of contemporary politics. When he threw himself into the preparation of the Disquisition, the problems of British domination in India were burning questions. The impeachment-trial of the governor Warren Hastings began in 1788, with revelations about the abuses of power perpetrated by the British East India Company. The work that Robertson published in 1791 was the vehicle for a political and moral message: the millennial civilization of India is altogether worthy of respect, and it should be recognized as such by Europeans. Thus the Disquisition “closed with a moving appeal to the European powers then present in India to avoid the abuses of power that so darkened European expansion in the Americas and to show respect for the rich and ancient cultural heritage of India” (Brown 1997:34).
The tolerant vision that Robertson promulgated was opposed to the policy of those in England or in Scotland who thought that the Hindus were a degenerate people who needed to be awakened from their ancestral torpor by European missionaries and colonists. The followers of the so-called Evangelical revival, the “born-again,” considered that the western spirit in its entirety needed to be introduced to India, in order to restore a land and a people crushed under despotism and superstition [34]. We need only cite the report written by Charles Grant on his return from India in 1797 and deposited with the Court of Directors of the East India Company, under the title Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, particularly with respect to Morals, and on the Means of Improving it. Here is a short but meaningful extract:

We might diffuse, among the inhabitants, long sunk in darkness, vice and misery, the light and benign influence of the truth, the blessing of a well-regulated society, the improvements and comforts of active industry ... In every progressive step of this work, we shall also serve the original design with which we visited India, that design still so important to this country —the extension of our commerce (cited by Stokes 1959:34).

A little later, in 1811, Book II of the History of British India by James Mill amounts to an orderly demolition of Robertson’s theses. Although Mill himself was a child of the Scottish Enlightenment, his concepts of Indian society and British power were utterly divergent from those of Robertson, and opposed to all those who, like Voltaire, were suspected by Mill of nourishing “a silly sentimental admiration of oriental despotism” (Stokes 1959:53). For Mill, India was characterized by “a hideous state of society.” [35]

9. This is not to say that Robertson was a naïf and a dreamer. He denounces the genocides committed by the Spanish in America, “but, in the end, he placed greater emphasis on the benefits which European empire brought to the New World, in the form of improved agriculture, commerce and communications” (Brown 1997:29). In the same way he knows, like Alexander, that prudence requires positions of military authority to be kept firmly in the hands of the conquerors: it is for this reason that he draws a comparison with the analogous measures taken by

the European powers in their Indian territories ... Probably without knowing it, they have modeled their battalions of Seapoys upon the same principles as Alexander did his phalanx of Persians (Disquisition, p. 27).

All things considered, if Robertson adhered to the interpretation given by Montesquieu, it is, I think, because Montesquieu’s Alexander, that is, the Alexander of the philosophes and Lumières, represented at once a precedent and a hope. Going against Aristotle, Robertson chose the generous and “enlightened” Alexander of Plutarch, one who would offer collaboration to the people he conquered and whose cultures he respected, and one who, by opening routes of navigation and expanding maritime commerce, would also bring them progress and prosperity. At once a “conqueror, politician and legislator,” to repeat Robertson’s expression, in this dialogue between past and present, Alexander embodied an ideal form of the Enlightenment’s Philosopher King.

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Note

[1] Enlarged text of a Stubbs Lecture delivered at the University of Toronto on the 15th of October 2005. I would like to express my warmest thanks to my friend Matt Stolper (Oriental Institute, Chicago) for the translation into English (apart from the text of the footnotes: translation mine). Written by a specialist in Ancient History and not a specialist in the XVIIIth Century, this article is a piece of a larger project devoted to analyzing the modern historiography of Alexander the Great, particularly through the historical and philosophical literature of the Age of the Enlightenment and of the XIXth century: see Briant 2003a (particularly p. 85-130, 565-569), 2003b, 2005a-b-c.

[2] Professor at the Collège de France, « Chaire d’histoire et civilisation du monde achéménide et de l’empire d’Alexandre » : pierre.briant@college-de-france.fr

[3] There is a very large number of studies devoted to the issue of the reception of Antiquity during the XVIIIth Century (for France cf. status questionis in Grell 1995; for England, see Clarke 1945 : 102-109, and Demetriou 1999 : 33-46; for Germany, the first chapters of Bravo 1968 are very rich and suggestive; for the whole Europe see the very well-informed pages of Ampolo 1997: 23-78); one may observe a striking contrast with the lack of interest for studying the historiography of Alexander in the same period, by specialists of the XVIIIth Cent. (apart from recent articles by K. E. Christodolou 1997 and by C. Volpilhac-Auger 2002), and by specialists of the history of Alexander (see Briant 2003b) ; the part devoted to the XVIIIth Cent. in the book of Ch.Grell and Ch. Michel (1988 : 81-95) is quite limited.

[4] The preparation and publication of Bikerman’s study must be set back in a very peculiar political and ideological context, including author’s judgement upon Droysen’s work : cf. Briant 2005a : 42-49.

[5] In a preliminary form, see the summary of my 2005-lectures at the Collège de France (Briant 2005c) ; these lectures will be continued in 2006.

[6] On W. Robertson and the theme of imperial expansion, I made good use of the studies recently gathered and introduced by S.G. Brown (éd.) 1997 (with the review by Francesconi 1998) ; see also the very rich paper by Francesconi 1999, and the specialized chapter of K. O’Brien 1997 : 129-165 (« Robertson on the triumph of Europe and its empires »).

[7] See Smitten’s remarks (1997: 50-53).

[8] Vincent 1807, I : 9 : « The advantages derived to every country which has participated in the commerce of the East Indies, have been so fully displayed by Dr.Robertson, that there is no pretence for encroaching on his province... “; cf. also the French translation (Vincent 1800: 9).

[9] See for example Girard 1798-99: 87, n. 1, where Robertson’s Disquisition (in its original version) is clearly considered as an authority on this issue, alongside with Bishop Huet’s Histoire du commerce... and Abbé Raynal’s Histoire philosophique....

[10]Sainte-Croix (1804 : 402-403) lead a vigorous counter-attack against the thesis expounded by Robertson upon Alexander’s policy of colonisation and urbanisation (Disquisition, p. 27-29, quoted by Sainte-Croix according to the anonymous French translation of 1792, p. 40, which was republished in 1837 by Buchon, I, p. 515-516). Curiously enough, Sainte-Croix fails to mention that meanwhile Robertson had himself questioned the views presented by de Sainte-Croix in the first edition of the Examen critique, 1775, p. 96 : cf. Robertson, Disquisition, 1792a : 202-203, quoting « the ingenious and learned Critique des Historiens d’Alexandre ».

[11] See particularly the very sharp criticism of Sainte-Croix himself, denouncing « most of the modern scholars, [who] are eager to shake off the yoke of the authority », and pretending to defend the « erudites » against « the philosophers and the beaux-esprits »; for him, Bossuet is still a model (1804: V-VII) ; on the notion of “antiquarian” and the related polemics during the XVIIIth Cent., see Momigliano 1950, with Bravo's remarks (1968: 30 sq.).

[12] See already the book of Ramusio, who devoted interesting pages to the voyage of Nearchus (1563: 268-274) with a translation di Lingua Greca nella Toscana; Ramusio’s book is quoted several times by Robertson, and by others historians and geographers of his time.

[13] The « memoir » was published for the first time in 1782, then in 1785 (translated into French in 1788 in Bernouilli), and in a new version in 1791 (= Rennel 1792); a new French translation was published in 1800 by Boucheseiche (Rennel 1800).

[14] On Rennel, one can see the old-fashioned but still useful biography by Markham 1901; on the relation between Rennel and Robertson, see Carnall 1997: 211, 228-229.

[15] D. Stewart (1801: 275-7) quotes a letter of July 2, 1791, sent by Rennel to Robertson to congratulate him for the Disquisition : “It gives me unseigned pleasure to have been the instrument of suggesting such a task to you”; Rennel also has an interesting reflection about the relations between history and geography: “You, in your place, in the great road of History, whilst I keep the side-path of Geography... The best historian is the best geographer...”.

[16] On the joint importance of history and geography in Heeren’s methodology, see Becker-Schaum 1983 : 87-99.

[17] Cf. also Rennel 1792: XXIII-XXIV.

[18] See particularly Huet 1716 ; Schlözer 1761 ; Ameilhon 1766 ; Essich 1775 ; Berghaus 1797.

[19] See for example the opposite theories developed by Huet 1716 : 46-47, and Ameilhon 1766 : 43-44, or by Montesquieu (Spirit XXI.8 ; see below).

[20] Anabasis Alexandrou VII.7.6-7. Cf. Briant 1986, 1999 and 2002: 720-721, 1019-1020. I will come back elsewhere in detail on this issue (Briant 2006).

[21] In his general bibliography, Berghaus 1797 quotes three books of Robertson, which were available in German at this time; in addition to the Geschichte d. Amerika (German translation 1779) and the Disquisition (German translation 1791 = Robertson 1791b), Berghaus mentions the following book: Geschichte von Alt-Griechenland, aus d. Eng., Leipzig, 1779. In fact, this Robertson is not our historian, and he his not the author of such a book; he is the Scottish translator of the French manual of P.A. Alletz (Abrégé de l’histoire grecque, Paris, 1764): the English version was published in 1776 at Edinburgh (The history of Ancient Greece from the earliest times till it became a Roman province) ; the 1779 German translation (as quoted by Berghaus) was made from the second English edition. The translator was an almost contemporary homonym (1704-1803) of the famous William Robertson (1721-1793). It is surprising to observe that the Italian editions (Firenze 1822; Milano 1831) also credit William Robertson for the book (the great Scottish historian according to Ampolo 1997: 35-36, 59, 67, erroneously in my view). Well known as a tireless compiler, P-A. Alletz, the name of the French author of this mediocre handbook written for the young boys, seems to have vanished out during the process of translations, retranslations and republications (it is not mentioned in the detailed index of Ampolo's book, p. 157-162, nor even in the index of Grell's book, II, p. 1299-1335). One may wonder if European publishers did not try to make use (in a tricky way) of the fame of the Scottish historian?

[22] On his opposition to Robertson’s views concerning the commerce, see particularly 1804, p. 414, n.2-3; see also above note 10.

[23] See for example Iverson 1997 (p. 1419-1420 on Peter and Alexander); on this theme, see also Minuti 1994: 17-61.

[24] Quoted by Francesconi 1999.

[25] Cf. e.g. Sher 1994 (p. 370-371 about the French and English versions of Montesquieu’s works as published at Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh from 1721 onwards).

[26] The only explicit reference is at page 40 and n. 62: Robertson expresses some doubts about the localization of a city in Ancient India as proposed by Rennel and by Montesquieu (Spirit of the Laws XXI.7).

[27] English translations of the Spirit of the Laws are quoted from Cohler-Miller-Stone edition (1989).

[28] The common thesis of Montesquieu and Robertson was to be endorsed enthusiastically by Raoul-Rochette 1815 : 105 et n. 2.

[29] Spirit of the Laws XXI.8 note d: “In order not to defile the elements, they did not navigate on the rivers. M.Hyde, Religion des Perses [Hidde in the 1748 edition]. Still to-day they have no maritime commerce and they call those who sail the seas atheists”; Robertson, Disquisition, p. 28: The Persian Kings “[were] induced by a peculiar precept of their religion, which enjoined them to guard with the utmost care against defiling any of the elements”, with Note IX (p. 201-202): “The religious scruples... prevented the Persians from making any voyage by sea”: explicitly Robertson refers there to Hyde’s book; on the very large influence of Hyde in the XVIIIth Cent. see conveniently Williams 2004.

[30] He was certainly also influenced by the image of Alexander as expounded here and there by Voltaire (cf. Christodolou 1997). But, concerning the analytical description and the global overview of the commercial policy of Alexander, it is undeniable (in my view) that Montesquieu’s influence has been decisive.

[31] Huet is quoted in Pensées 78 [“the Bishop of Avranches”] and 1745 [discussion about Huet’s thesis in Histoire du commerce, including a reference to Alexander].

[32] I warmly thank my colleague Catherine Volpilhac-Auger (ENS-L Lyon) for letting me know about these archives and their contents: see C. Volpilhac-Auger 2002: 60, and Larrère 2002: 321-322, and mainly Volpilhac-Auger 2001.

[33] But one must add that one can also refer to a number of books which give a bibliography: In his History of America, Robertson himself gives a list of two hundred and twenty-four sources, both printed and in manuscript, that he had consulted; one could also cite the book by Berghaus in 1797, which offers a very long and detailed alphabetical bibliography (II, p. 137-186: Literatur oder alphabetisches Verzeichnis der meisten Schrifsteller nebst ihren Ausgaben, welche in diesem Werke gebrauch und angeführt sind). On this issue, cf. the famous book by A. Grafton 1998, specially p. 78-100.

[34] See Brown 1997: 34-35; Carnall 1997: 211-225; also, in a detailed way, Stokes 1959: 1-80.

[35] About Mill’s History of British India, see also Majeed 1992.



DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13128/Cromohs-15605



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