History is the recital of facts given as true, in contradistinction to the fable, which is the recital of facts given as false.
There is the history of opinions which is hardly anything but a collection of human errors.
The history of the arts can be the most useful of all when it joins to the knowledge of the invention and the progress of the arts the description of their mechanism.
Natural history, improperly called history, is an essential part of natural philosophy. The history of events has been divided into sacred history and profane history; sacred history is a series of divine and miraculous operations whereby it pleased God once on a time to lead the Jewish nation, and to-day to exercise our faith.
The first foundations of all history are the recitals of the fathers to the children, transmitted afterward from one generation to another; at their origin they are at the very most probable, when they do not shock common sense, and they lose one degree of probability in each generation. With time the fable grows and the truth grows less; from this it comes that all the origins of peoples are absurd. Thus the Egyptians had been governed by the gods for many centuries; then they had been governed by demi-gods; finally they had had kings for eleven thousand three hundred and forty years; and in that space of time the sun had changed four times from east to west.
The Phœnicians of Alexander's time claimed to have been established in their country for thirty thousand years; and these thirty thousand years were filled with as many prodigies as the Egyptian chronology. I avow that physically it is very possible that Phœnicia has existed not merely thirty thousand years, but thirty thousand milliards of centuries, and that it experienced like the rest of the world thirty million revolutions. But we have no knowledge of it.
One knows what a ridiculously marvellous state of affairs ruled in the ancient history of the Greeks.
The Romans, for all that they were serious, did not any the less envelop the history of their early centuries in fables. This nation, so recent compared with the Asiatic peoples, was five hundred years without historians. It is not surprising, therefore, that Romulus was the son of Mars, that a she-wolf was his foster mother, that he marched with a thousand men of his village of Rome against twenty-five thousand combatants of the village of the Sabines: that later he became a god; that Tarquin, the ancient, cut a stone with a razor, and that a vestal drew a ship to land with her girdle, etc.
The early annals of all our modern nations are no less fabulous; the prodigious and improbable things must sometimes be reported, but as proofs of human credulity: they enter the history of opinions and foolishnesses; but the field is too vast.
In order to know with a little certainty something of ancient history, there is only one means, it is to see if any incontestable records remain. We have only three in writing: the first is the collection of astronomical observations made for nineteen hundred consecutive years at Babylon, sent by Alexander to Greece. This series of observations, which goes back to two thousand two hundred and thirty-four years before our era, proves invincibly that the Babylonians existed as a body of people several centuries before; for the arts are only the work of time, and men's natural laziness leaves them for some thousands of years without other knowledge and without other talents than those of feeding themselves, of defending themselves against the injuries of the air, and of slaughtering each other. Let us judge by the Germans and by the English in Cæsar's time, by the Tartars to-day, by the two-thirds of Africa, and by all the peoples we have found in America, excepting in some respects the kingdoms of Peru and of Mexico, and the republic of Tlascala. Let us remember that in the whole of this new world nobody knew how to read or write.
The second record is the central eclipse of the sun, calculated in China two thousand one hundred and fifty-five years before our era, and recognized true by our astronomers. Of the Chinese the same thing must be said as of the peoples of Babylon; they already comprised a vast civilized empire without a doubt. But what puts the Chinese above all the peoples of the earth is that neither their laws, nor their customs, nor the language spoken among them by their lettered mandarins has changed for about four thousand years. Nevertheless, this nation and the nation of India, the most ancient of all those that exist to-day, which possess the vastest and the most beautiful country, which invented almost all the arts before we had learned any of them, have always been omitted right to our days in all so-called universal histories. And when a Spaniard and a Frenchman took a census of the nations, neither one nor the other failed to call his country the first monarchy in the world, and his king the greatest king in the world, flattering himself that his king would give him a pension as soon as he had read his book.
The third record, very inferior to the two others, exists in the Arundel marbles: the chronicle of Athens is graved there two hundred and sixty-three years before our era; but it goes back only to Cecrops, thirteen hundred and nineteen years beyond the time when it was engraved. In the history of antiquity those are the sole incontestable epochs that we have.
Let us give serious attention to these marbles brought back from Greece by Lord Arundel. Their chronicle begins fifteen hundred and eighty-two years before our era. That is to-day (1771) an antiquity of 3,353 years, and you do not see there a single fact touching on the miraculous, on the prodigious. It is the same with the Olympiads; it is not there that one should say Græcia mendax, lying Greece. The Greeks knew very well how to distinguish between history and fable, between real facts and the tales of Herodotus: just as in their serious affairs their orators borrowed nothing from the speeches of the sophists or from the images of the poets.
The date of the taking of Troy is specified in these marbles; but no mention is made of Apollo's arrows, or of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, or of the ridiculous combats of the gods. The date of the inventions of Triptolemy and Ceres is found there; but Ceres is not called goddess. Mention is made of a poem on the abduction of Prosperine; it is not said that she is the daughter of Jupiter and a goddess, and that she is wife of the god of the infernal regions.
Hercules is initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis; but not a word on his twelve labours, nor on his passage into Africa in his cup, nor on his divinity, nor on the big fish by which he was swallowed, and which kept him in its belly three days and three nights, according to Lycophron.
Among us, on the contrary, a standard is brought from heaven by an angel to the monks of Saint-Denis; a pigeon brings a bottle of oil to a church in Rheims; two armies of snakes give themselves over to a pitched battle in Germany; an archbishop of Mayence is besieged and eaten by rats; and, to crown everything, great care has been taken to mark the year of these adventures.
All history is recent. It is not astonishing that we have no ancient profane history beyond about four thousand years. The revolutions of this globe, the long and universal ignorance of that art which transmits facts by writing are the cause of it. This art was common only among a very small number of civilized nations; and was in very few hands even. Nothing rarer among the French and the Germans than to know how to write; up to the fourteenth century of our era nearly all deeds were only attested by witnesses. It was, in France, only under Charles VII., in 1454, that one started to draft in writing some of the customs of France. The art of writing was still rarer among the Spanish, and from that it results that their history is so dry and so uncertain, up to the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. One sees by that to what extent the very small number of men who knew how to write could deceive, and how easy it was to make us believe the most enormous absurdities.
There are nations which have subjugated a part of the world without having the usage of characters. We know that Gengis-khan conquered a part of Asia at the beginning of the thirteenth century, but it is not through either him or the Tartars that we know it. Their history, written by the Chinese and translated by Father Gaubil, states that these Tartars had not at that time the art of writing.
This art cannot have been less unknown to the Scythian Oguskan, named Madies by the Persians and the Greeks, who conquered a part of Europe and Asia so long before the reign of Cyrus. It is almost certain that at that time of a hundred nations there were hardly two or three who used characters. It is possible that in an ancient world destroyed, men knew writing and the other arts; but in ours they are all very recent.
There remain records of another kind, which serve to establish merely the remote antiquity of certain peoples, and which precede all the known epochs, and all the books; these are the prodigies of architecture, like the pyramids and the palaces of Egypt, which have resisted time. Herodotus, who lived two thousand two hundred years ago, and who had seen them, was not able to learn from the Egyptian priests at what time they had been erected.
It is difficult to give to the most ancient of the pyramids less than four thousand years of antiquity; but one must consider that these efforts of the ostentation of the kings could only have been commenced long after the establishment of the towns. But to build towns in a land inundated every year, let us always remark that it was first necessary to raise the land of the towns on piles in this land of mud, and to render them inaccessible to the flood; it was essential, before taking this necessary course, and before being in a state to attempt these great works, for the people to have practised retreating during the rising of the Nile, amid the rocks which form two chains right and left of this river. It was necessary for these mustered peoples to have the instruments for tilling, those of architecture, a knowledge of surveying, with laws and a police. All this necessarily requires a prodigious space of time. We see by the long details which face every day the most necessary and the smallest of our undertakings, how difficult it is to do great things, and it needs not only indefatigable stubbornness, but several generations animated with this stubbornness.
However, whether it be Menes, Thaut or Cheops, or Rameses who erected one or two of these prodigious masses, we shall not be the more instructed of the history of ancient Egypt: the language of this people is lost. We therefore know nothing but that before the most ancient historians there was matter for making an ancient history.