A series of historical gems from Jacob Abbott (1803 – 1879) at the massive Project Gutenberg e-library, who tells compelling stories of famous personages from the pages of history from Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, King Xerxes of Persia of antiquity to medieval greats like William the Conqueror to modern rulers like the Russian Czar Peter The Great.
By providing a concise view of important points in the life of these rulers of states and nations, Jason Abbott manages to turn oft-bland biographies of these distinguished historical figures by highlighting their strengths and weaknesses through a series of anecdotes of their actions and behaviour in both state and personal lives.
Some of my favourite passages from three of Jacob Abbott’s books:
The death of Julius Caesar from History of Julius Caesar:
There were left only three of Caesar’s slaves, who gathered around the body to look at the wounds. They counted them, and found the number twenty-three. It shows, however, how strikingly, and with what reluctance, the actors in this tragedy came up to their work at last, that of all these twenty-three wounds only one was a mortal one. In fact, it is probable that, while all of the conspirators struck the victim in their turn, to fulfill the pledge which they had given to one another that they would every one inflict a wound, each one hoped that the fatal blow would be given, after all, by some other hand than his own.
The king was not unwilling, too, to take, himself, such jests as he gave. One day, in conversation with a dissolute member of the court, after they had been joking each other for some time, he said, “Ah! Shaftesbury, I verily believe you are the wickedest dog in my dominions.”
“Yes,” replied Shaftesbury, “for a subject, I think I am.”
The vengeful and arrogant nature of King Xerxes is clearly illustrated in Xerxes after his first attempt to bridge the Hellespont and subjugate the Greeks failed.
A violent storm arose while he was at Sardis, and broke up the bridge which he had built across the Hellespont. When the tidings of this disaster were brought to Xerxes at his winter quarters, he was very much enraged. He was angry both with the sea for having destroyed the structure, and with the architects who had built it for not having made it strong enough to stand against its fury. He determined to punish both the waves and the workmen. He ordered the sea to be scourged with a monstrous whip, and directed that heavy chains should be thrown into it, as symbols of his defiance of its power, and of his determination to subject it to his control. The men who administered this senseless discipline cried out to the sea, as they did it, in the following words, which Xerxes had dictated to them: “Miserable monster! this is the punishment which Xerxes your master inflicts upon you, on account of the unprovoked and wanton injury you have done him. Be assured that he will pass over you, whether you will or no. He hates and defies you, object as you are, through your insatiable cruelty, and the nauseous bitterness of your waters, of the common abomination of mankind.”
As for the men who had built the bridge, which had been found thus inadequate to withstand the force of a wintery tempest, he ordered every one of them to be beheaded.
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