4. Jewish History, Tacitus
A Vindication by Edward Gibbon

The nature of my subject had led me to mention, not the real origin of the Jews, but their first appearance to the eyes of other nations; and I cannot avoid transcribing the short passage in which I had introduced them.

"The Jews, who under the Assyrian and Persian monarchies had languished for many ages the most despised portion of their slaves, emerged from their obscurity under the successors of Alexander. And as they multiplied to a surprising degree in the East, and afterwards in the West, they soon excited the curiosity and wonder of other nations." (14)

This simple abridgment seems in its turn to have excited the wonder of Mr Davis, whose surprise almost renders him eloquent.

"What a strange assemblage," says he, "is here? It is like Milton's Chaos, without bound, without dimension, where time and place are lost. In short, what does this display afford us, but a deal of boyish colouring to the prejudice of much good history?" (15)

If I rightly understand Mr Davis's language, he censures, as a piece of confused declamation, the passage which he has produced from my History; and if I collect the angry criticisms which he has scattered over twenty pages of controversy, (16) I think I can discover that there is hardly a period, or even a word, in this unfortunate passage, which has obtained the approbation of the Examiner.

As nothing can escape his vigilance, he censures me for including the twelve tribes of Israel under the common appellation of JEWS, (17) and for extending the name of As SYRIANS to the subjects of the Kings of Babylon; (18) and again censures me, because some facts which are affirmed or insinuated in my text, do not agree with the strict and proper limits which he has assigned to those national denominations. The name of Jews has indeed been established by the scepter of the tribe of Judah , and, in the times which precede the captivity, it is used in the more general sense with some sort of impropriety; but surely I am not peculiarly charged with a fault which has been consecrated by the consent of twenty centuries, the practice of the best writers, ancient as well as modern (See Josephus and Prideaux, even in the titles of their respective works), and by the usage of modern languages, of the Latin, the Greek, and, if I may credit Reland, of the Hebrew itself (See Palestin. 1. i. c. 6.). With regard to the other word, that of Assyrians, most assuredly I will not lose myself in the labyrinth of the Asiatic monarchies before the age of Cyrus; nor indeed is any more required for my justification, than to prove that Babylon was considered as the capital and royal seat of Assyria. If Mr Davis were a man of learning, I might be morose enough to censure his ignorance of ancient geography, and to overwhelm him under a load of quotations, which might be collected and transcribed with very little trouble: But as I must suppose that he has received a classical education, I might have expected him to have read the first book of Herodotus, where that historian describes, in the clearest and most elegant terms, the situation and greatness of Babylon:

Ancient Greek quote by Clio

(Clio, c. 178.)

I may be surprised that he should be so little conversant with the Cyropoedia of Xenophon, in the whole course of which the King of Babylon, the adversary of the Medes and Persians, is repeatedly mentioned by the style and tide of THE ASSYRIAN,

Ancient Greek quote from the Cyropoedia of Xenophon

(I. ii. p. 102, 103, Edit. Hutchinson.)

But there remains something more: and Mr Davis must apply the same reproaches of inaccuracy, if not ignorance, to the Prophet Isaiah, who, in the name of Jehovah, announcing the downfall of Babylon and the deliverance of Israel, declares with an oath;

"And as I have purposed the thing shall stand: to crush the ASSYRIAN in my land, and to trample him on my mountains. Then shall his yoke depart from off them; and his burthen shall be removed from off their shoulders." (Isaiah, xiv. 24, 25. Lowth's new translation. See likewise the Bishop's note, p. 98.)

Our old translation expresses, with less elegance, the same meaning; but I mention with pleasure the labours of a respectable Prelate, who in this, as well as in a former work, has very happily united the most critical judgment, with the taste and spirit of poetry.

The jealousy which Mr Davis affects for the honour of the Jewish people, will not suffer him to allow that they were slaves to the conquerors of the East; and while he acknowledges that they were tributary and dependent, he seems desirous of introducing, or even inventing, some milder expression of the state of vassalage and subservience; (19) from whence Tacitus assumed the words of despectissima pars servientium. Has Mr Davis never heard of the distinction of civil and political slavery? Is he ignorant that even the natural and victorious subjects of an Asiatic despot have been deservedly marked with the opprobrious epithet of slaves by every writer acquainted with the name and advantage of freedom? Does he not know that, under such a governments the yoke is imposed with double weight on the necks of the vanquished, as the rigour of tyranny is aggravated by the abuse of conquest. From the first invasion of Judea by the arms of the Assyrians, to the subversion of the Persian monarchy by Alexander, there elapsed a period of above four hundred years, which included about twelve ages or generations of the human race. As long as the Jews asserted their independence, they repeatedly suffered every calamity which the rage and insolence of a victorious enemy could inflict; the throne of David was overturned, the temple and city were reduced to ashes, and the whole land, a circumstance perhaps unparalleled in history, remained three-score and ten years without inhabitants, and without cultivation. (2 Chronicles, xxxvi. 21.) According to an institution which has long prevailed in Asia, and particularly in the Turkish government, the most beautiful and ingenious youths were carefully educated in the palace, where superior merit sometimes introduced these fortunate slaves to the favour of the conqueror, and to the honours of the state. (See the book and example of Daniel.) The rest of the unhappy Jews experienced the hardships of captivity and exile in distant lands, and while individuals were oppressed, the nation seemed to be dissolved or annihilated. The gracious edict of Cyrus was offered to all those who worshipped the God of Israel in the temple of Jerusalem; but it was accepted by no more than forty-two thousand persons of either sex and of every age, and of these about thirty thousand derived their origin from the Tribes of Judah, of Benjamin, and of Levi. (See Ezra, i. Nehemiah, vii. and Prideaux's Connections, vol. i. p. 107. fol. Edit. London, 1718.) The inconsiderable band of exiles, who returned to inhabit the land of their fathers, cannot be computed as the hundred and fiftieth part of the mighty people that had been numbered by the impious rashness of David. After a survey, which did not comprehend the Tribes of Levi and Benjamin, the monarch was assured that he reigned over one million five hundred and seventy thousand men that drew sword (I Chronicles, xxi. I-6), and the country of Judaea must have contained near seven millions of free inhabitants. The progress of restoration is always less rapid than that of destruction; Jerusalem, which had been ruined in a few months, was rebuilt by the slow and interrupted labours of a whole century; and the Jews, who gradually multiplied in their native seats, enjoyed a servile and precarious existence, which depended on the capricious will of their master. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah do not afford a very pleasing view of their situation under the Persian Empire; and the book of Esther exhibits a most extraordinary instance of the degree of estimation in which they were held at the Court of Susa. A Minister addressed his King in the following words, which may be considered as a Commentary on the despectissima pars servientium of the Roman historian:

"And Haman said to King Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad, and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people, neither keep they the King's laws; therefore it is not for the King's profit to suffer them. If it please the King, let it be written that they may be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it to the King's treasuries. And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it to Haman, the son of Hammedatlia the Agagite, the Jews' enemy. And the king said unto Haman, The silver is given unto thee; the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee." (Esther, iii. 8-11.)

This trifling favour was asked by the Minister, and granted by the Monarch, with an easy indifference, which expressed their contempt for the lives and fortunes of the Jews; the business passed without difficulty through the forms of office; and had Esther been less lovely, or less beloved, a single day would have consummated the universal slaughter of a submissive people, to whom no legal defence was allowed, and from whom no resistance seems to have been dreaded. I am a stranger to Mr Davis's political principles; but I should think that the epithet of slaves, and of despised slaves, may, without injustice, be applied to a captive nation, over whose head the sword of tyranny was suspended by so slender a thread.

The policy of the Macedonians was very different from that of the Persians; and yet Mr Davis, who reluctantly confesses that the Jews were oppressed by the former, does not understand how long they were favoured and protected by the latter. (20) In the shock of those revolutions which divided the empire of Alexander, Judaea, like the other provinces, experienced the transient ravages of an advancing or retreating enemy, who led away a multitude of captives. But, in the age of Josephus, the Jews still enjoyed the privileges granted by the Kings of Asia and Egypt, who had fixed numerous colonies of that nation in the new cities of Alexandria, Antioch, etc. and placed them in the same honourable condition Ancient Greek quote as the Greeks and Macedonians themselves. (Joseph. Antiquitat. 1. xii. c. 5. 3. p. 596. Vol. i. edit. Havercamp.) Had they been treated with less indulgence, their settlement in those celebrated cities, the seats of commerce and learning, was enough to introduce them to the knowledge of the world, and to justify my absurd proposition, that they emerged from obscurity under the successors of Alexander.

The Jews remained and flourished under the mild dominion of the Macedonian Princes, till they were compelled to assert their civil and religious rights against Antiochus Epiphanes, who had adopted new maxims of tyranny; and the age of the Maccabees is perhaps the most glorious period of the Hebrew annals. Mr Davis, who on this occasion is bewildered by the subtlety of Tacitus, does not comprehend why the historian should ascribe the independence of the Jews to three negative causes, "Macedonibus invalidis, Parthis nondum adultis, et Romani procul aberant." To the understanding of the critic, Tacitus might as well have observed, that the Jews were not destroyed by a plague, a famine, or an earthquake; and Mr Davis cannot see, for his own part, any reason why they might not have elected Kings of their own two or three hundred years before. (21) Such indeed was not the reason of Tacitus: he probably considered that every nation, depressed by the weight of a foreign power, naturally rises towards the surface, as soon as the pressure is removed; and he might think that, in a short and rapid history of the independence of the Jews, it was sufficient for him to shew that the obstacles did not exist, which, in an earlier or in a later period, would have checked their efforts. The curious reader, who has leisure to study the Jewish and Syrian history, will discover, that the throne of the Asmonaean Princes was confirmed by the two great victories of the Parthians over Demetrius Nicator, and Antiochus Sidetes (See Joseph. Antiquitat. Jud. 1. xiil. c. 5, 6. 8, 9, Justin, xxxvi. I. xxxviii. 10. with Usher and Prideaux, before Christ 141 and 130); and the expression of Tacitus, the more closely it is examined, will be the more rationally admired.

My Quotations (22) are the object of Mr Davis's criticism, (23) as well as the Text of this short, but obnoxious passage. He corrects the error of my memory, which had suggested servitutis instead of servientium; and so natural is the alliance between truth and moderation, that on this occasion he forgets his character, and candidly acquits me of any malicious design to misrepresent the words of Tacitus. The other references, which are contained in the first and second Notes of my Fifteenth Chapter, are connected with each other, and can only be mistaken after they have been forcibly separated. The silence of Herodotus is a fair evidence of the obscurity of the Jews, who had escaped the eyes of so curious a traveller. The Jews are first mentioned by Justin, when he relates the siege of Jerusalem by Antiochus Sidetes; and the conquest of Judaea, by the arms of Pompey, engaged Diodorus and Dion to introduce that singular nation to the acquaintance of their readers. These epochs, which are within seventy years of each other, mark the age in which the Jewish people, emerging from their obscurity, began to act a part in the society of nations, and to excite the curiosity of the Greek and Roman historians. For that purpose only, I had appealed to the authority of Diodorus Siculus, of Justin, or rather of Trogus Pompeius, and of Dion Cassius. If I had designed to investigate the Jewish Antiquities, reason, as well as faith, must have directed my inquiries to the Sacred Books, which, even as human productions, would deserve to be studied as one of the most curious and original monuments of the East.

I stand accused, though not indeed by Mr Davis, for profanely depreciating the promised Land, as well as the chosen People. The Gentleman without a name has placed this charge in the front of his battle, (24) and if my memory does not deceive me, it is one of the few remarks in Mr Apthorpe's book, which have any immediate relation to my History They seem to consider in the light of a reproach, and of an unjust reproach, the idea which I had given of Palestine, as of a territory scarcely superior to Wales in extent and fertility; (25) and they strangely convert a geographical observation into a theological error. When I recollect that the imputation of a similar error was employed by the implacable Calvin, to precipitate and to justify the execution of Servetus, I must applaud the felicity of this country, and of this age, which has disarmed, if it could not mollify, the fierceness of ecclesiastical criticism (see Dictionaire Critique de Chaffeupié, tom. iv. p. 223).

As I had compared the narrow extent of Phoenicia and Palestine with the important blessings which those celebrated countries had diffused over the rest of the earth, their minute size became an object not of censure but of praise.

Ingentes animos angusto in pectore versant.

The precise measure of Palestine was taken from Templeman's Survey of the Globe: he allows to Wales 7011 square English miles, to the Morea, or Peloponnesus, 7220, to the Seven United Provinces 7546, and to Judaea or Palestine 7600. The difference is not very considerable, and if any of these countries has been magnified beyond its real size, Asia is more liable than Europe to have been affected by the inaccuracy of Mr Templeman's maps. To the authority of this modern survey, I shall only add the ancient and weighty testimony of Jerom, who passed in Palestine above thirty years of his life. From Dan to Bershebah, the two fixed and proverbial boundaries of the Holy Land, he reckons no more than one hundred and sixty miles (Hieronym. ad Dardanum, tom. iii. p. 66), and the breadth of Palestine cannot by any expedient be stretched to one half of its length (see Reland, Palestin. 1. ii. c. 5. p. 425).

The degrees and limits of fertility cannot be ascertained with the strict simplicity of geographical measures. Whenever we speak of the productions of the earth, in different climates, our ideas must be relative, our expressions vague and doubtful; nor can we always distinguish between the gifts of Nature and the rewards of Industry. The Emperor Frederick II., the enemy and the victim of the Clergy, is accused of saying, after his return from his Crusade, that the God of the Jews would have despised his promised land, if he had once seen the fruitful realms of Sicily and Naples (See Giannone Istoria Civile del Regno di Napoli, tom. ii. p. 245). This raillery, which malice has perhaps falsely imputed to Frederick, is inconsistent with truth and piety; yet it must be confessed, that the soil of Palestine does not contain that inexhaustible, and as it were spontaneous, principle of fecundity, which, under the most unfavourable circumstance, has covered with rich harvests the banks of the Nile, the fields of Sicily, or the plains of Poland. The Jordan is the only navigable river of Palestine: a considerable part of the narrow space is occupied, or rather lost, in the Dead Sea, whose horrid aspect inspires every sensation of disgust, and countenances every tale of horror. The districts which border on Arabia partake of the sandy quality of the adjacent desert. The face of the country, except the sea-coast and the valley of the Jordan, is covered with mountains, which appear for the most part as naked and barren rocks; and in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem there is a real scarcity of the two elements of earth and water (See Maundrel's Travels, p. 65, and Reland Palestin. tom. i. p. 238-395). These disadvantages, which now operate in their fullest extent, were formerly corrected by the labours of a numerous people, and the active protection of a wise government. The hills were clothed with rich beds of artificial mould, the rain was collected in vast cisterns, a supply of fresh water was conveyed by pipes and aqueducts to the dry lands, the breed of cattle was encouraged in those parts which were not adapted for tillage, and almost every spot was compelled to yield some production for the use of the inhabitants. (See the same testimonies and observations of Maundrel and Reland.)

__Pater ipse colendi
Haud facilem esse viam voluit, primusque per artem
Movit agros; curi acuens mortalia corda
Nec torpere gravi passus SUA REGNA veterno.

Such are the useful victories which have been achieved by MAN on the lofty mountains of Switzerland, along the rocky coast of Genoa, and upon the barren hills of Palestine; and since Wales has flourished under the influence of English freedom, that rugged country has surely acquired some share of the same industrious merit and the same artificial fertility. Those Critics who interpret the comparison of Palestine and Wales as a tacit libel on the former, are themselves guilty of an unjust satire against the latter, of those countries. Such is the injustice of Mr Apthorpe and of the anonymous Gentleman: but if Mr Davis (as we may suspect from his name) is himself of Cambrian origin, his patriotism on this occasion has protected me from his zeal.

« NEXT » « A Vindication » « Decline & Fall » « Library »