"She was not a guilty woman, neither was she a saint; she was an upright, charming woman, a little frivolous, somewhat impulsive, but always pure; she was a queen, at times ardent in her fancies for her favourites and thoughtless in her policy, but proud and full of energy; a thorough woman in her winsome ways and tenderness of heart, until she became a martyr."
"We have followed the history of Marie Antoinette with the greatest diligence and scrupulosity. We have lived in those times. We have talked with some of her friends and some of her enemies; we have read, certainly not all, but hundreds of the libels written against her; and we have, in short, examined her life with– if we may be allowed to say so of ourselves– something of the accuracy of contemporaries, the diligence of inquirers, and the impartiality of historians, all combined; and we feel it our duty to declare, in as a solemn a manner as literature admits of, our well-matured opinion that every reproach against the morals of the queen was a gross calumny– that she was, as we have said, one of the purest of human beings."
"It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely there never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like a morning star full of life and splendor and joy. Oh, what a revolution....Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fall upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look which threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded...."
~Edmund Burke, October 1790
A Note on Reviews
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When I was a boy, my upbringing as a Christian was forever being
weathered by the gale force of my enthusiasms. First, there were
dinosaurs. I vividly remember my shock when, at Sunday school one day, I
opened a children’s Bible and found an illustration on its first page
of Adam and Eve with a brachiosaur. Six years old I may have been, but
of one thing – to my regret – I was rock-solid certain: no human being
had ever seen a sauropod. That the teacher seemed not to care about this
error only compounded my sense of outrage and bewilderment. A faint
shadow of doubt, for the first time, had been brought to darken my
With time, it darkened further still. My obsession with dinosaurs –
glamorous, ferocious, extinct – evolved seamlessly into an obsession
with ancient empires. When I read the Bible, the focus of my fascination
was less the children of Israel or Jesus and his disciples than their
adversaries: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Romans. In a similar
manner, although I vaguely continued to believe in God, I found Him
infinitely less charismatic than my favourite Olympians: Apollo, Athena,
Dionysus. Rather than lay down laws and condemn other deities as
demons, they preferred to enjoy themselves. And if they were vain,
selfish and cruel, that only served to endow them with the allure of
By the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and the other great writers of
the Enlightenment, I was more than ready to accept their interpretation
of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an “age of
superstition and credulity”, and that modernity was founded on the
dusting down of long-forgotten classical values. My childhood instinct
to think of the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun
was rationalised. The defeat of paganism had ushered in the reign of
Nobodaddy, and of all the crusaders, inquisitors and black-hatted
puritans who had served as his acolytes. Colour and excitement had been
drained from the world. “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean,”
Swinburne wrote, echoing the apocryphal lament of Julian the Apostate,
the last pagan emperor of Rome. “The world has grown grey from thy
breath.” Instinctively, I agreed.
So, perhaps it was no surprise that I should have continued to cherish
classical antiquity as the period that most stirred and inspired me.
When I came to write my first work of history, Rubicon, I chose a subject that had been particularly close to the hearts of the philosophes: the age of Cicero. The theme of my second, Persian Fire,
was one that even in the 21st century was serving Hollywood, as it had
served Montaigne and Byron, as an archetype of the triumph of liberty
over despotism: the Persian invasions of Greece.
The years I spent writing these studies of the classical world – living
intimately in the company of Leonidas and of Julius Caesar, of the
hoplites who had died at Thermopylae and of the legionaries who had
triumphed at Alesia – only confirmed me in my fascination: for Sparta
and Rome, even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, did
not cease to seem possessed of the qualities of an apex predator. They
continued to stalk my imaginings as they had always done – like a
Yet giant carnivores, however wondrous, are by their nature terrifying.
The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the
more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas,
whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and
trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were
nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was
reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It
was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking,
but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any
intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment –
that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest
figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.
“Every sensible man,” Voltaire wrote, “every honourable man, must hold
the Christian sect in horror.” Rather than acknowledge that his ethical
principles might owe anything to Christianity, he preferred to derive
them from a range of other sources – not just classical literature, but
Chinese philosophy and his own powers of reason. Yet Voltaire, in his
concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the
stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit. His defiance of the
Christian God, in a paradox that was certainly not unique to him, drew
on motivations that were, in part at least, recognisably Christian. (Read more.)
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