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Significant Scots
John Gillies


GILLIES, JOHN, LL.D., F.R.S., F.A.S., member of many foreign societies, and historiographer to his Majesty for Scotland. The many literary titles of this erudite and once popular historian, evince the high estimation in which he was held by the learned men of his day. He was born at Brechin, in the county of Forfar, on the 18th of January, 1747. Although of a family belonging to the middling classes, he was not its only distinguished member, as one of his younger brothers became an eminent lawyer at the Scottish bar, and finally attained the rank of Lord of Session. John Gillies was educated at the University of Glasgow, and there he so highly distinguished himself by his classical attainments, that, before he was of age, he was appointed to teach the classes of the Greek professor, who had been laid aside by old age and infirmity. Instead of waiting, however, for those turns of fortune that might have elevated him to the chair which he had filled as deputy, he repaired to London, for the purpose of devoting himself to authorship. Before he settled down in the metropolis, he resolved still further to qualify himself for his future occupation by the study of the living languages; and for this purpose he took up his residence for some time on the Continent. Upon his return he was engaged by the Earl of Hopetoun to accompany his second son as travelling tutor; and as it was necessary that he should relinquish certain profitable literary engagements into which he had already entered, before he set out with his pupil, he was remunerated for the sacrifice by the Earl in 1777, who settled upon him a pension for life. But in the year previous his young charge died abroad; and a few years afterwards he was induced to undertake the charge of two other sons of the Earl, who were about to travel on the Continent—one of them being John, afterwards Sir John Hope, and finally Earl of Hopetoun, distinguished by his military achievements—the other, Alexander, afterwards Sir Alexander Hope, lieutenant-governor of Chelsea Hospital. During the interval that elapsed between his first and second tutorship, and when no such interruption was anticipated, he had commenced the purposed business of his life in earnest, by publishing his first work. This was the "Orations of Lysias and Socrates, translated from the Greek, with some account of their Lives; and a Discourse on the History, Manners, and Character of the Greeks, from the conclusion of the Peloponnessian War to the Battle of Chaeronea," 1778, 4to. About the same time he received the diploma of LL.D., the first of his literary distinctions.

On returning from the Continent, when his office of travelling-tutor had ended, which it did in 1784, Dr. Gillies resumed those labours which were so congenial to his tastes and habits, and which were now continued to the end of a very long life. His previous duties had not only furnished him with such a competence as to make him independent of the many painful contingencies to which authorship as a profession is subject, but had closely connected him with the Hopetoun family, to whose early patronage and continuing kindness he was wont to attribute much of the happiness by which his tranquil course was enlivened. Two years after his return to England, he published the first portion of the work by which he is best known, entitled the "History of Ancient Greece, its Colonies and Conquests, from the earliest accounts till the Division of the Macedonian Empire in the East; including the History of Literature, Philosophy, and the Fine Arts," 2 vols. 4to, 1786. This work, which was continued in a second part, was so acceptable to the scholars of Germany, that a translation of it into German was published at Vienna in 1825, while at home it was so popular that it went through several editions. Time, however, which has so much diminished the lustre that invested the literature and science of the last century, has not spared his history any more than it has done the more distinguished productions of Hume and Gibbon; and Gillies, the once distinguished historian of Greece, is now subjected to an ordeal through which few of his contemporaries have passed unscathed. Newer and juster views, the fruit of a more ample experience and sounder philosophy; a more extensive knowledge of Grecian history and antiquity, and a more rigid and severe taste in historical writing, by which the present day is in the habit of judging the labours of the past, will no longer be satisfied with any history of ancient Greece that has as yet been produced. But, notwithstanding the faults that have been objected to the work of Gillies under this new and improved school of criticism, it was certainly a most useful production in its day, and well worthy of the approval with which it was welcomed by the learned; so that, notwithstanding the complaints that have been made of the dulness of his dissertations, the pomposity of his style, and the occasional unfaithfulness of his translations, we have still to wait for a better history of Greece. By a curious coincidence, the first part of the work, and the first volume of "Mitford’s History of Greece"—two rival publications upon a common subject—were published during the same year.

The rest of the life of Dr. Gillies presents few incidents for the biographer. In 1793 he succeeded Dr. Robertson as historiographer royal for Scotland, a sinecure office, to which a salary of 200 per annum is attached. He was also elected a member of several societies in our own country, as also a corresponding member of the French Institute and of the Royal Society of Gottingen. In 1794 he married. His various publications continued to appear at distant intervals, until the debility of old age compelled him to lay aside his pen; and, having done enough for fame and fortune, he retired in 1830 to Clapham, near London, where the rest of his life was passed in tranquil enjoyment, until he died, at the age of ninety, without disease and without pain. This event occurred on the 15th of February, 1836.

Besides his writings which we have already specified, Dr. Gillies published:—

1. "View of the Reign of Frederic II. of Prussia, with a Parallel between that Prince and Philip II. of Macedon," 1789, 8vo.

2. "Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, comprising his Practical Philosophy, translated from the Greek; illustrated by Introductions and Notes, the Critical History of his Life, and a New Analysis of his Speculative Works," 1797, 2 vols. 4to.

3. "Supplement to the Analysis of Aristotle’s Speculative Works, containing an account of the Interpreters and Corrupters of Aristotle’s Philosophy, in connection with the times in which they respectively flourished," 1804, 4to.

4. "The History of the Ancient World, from the Dominion of Alexander to that of Augustus, with a Preliminary Survey of Preceding Periods," 1807-10, 2 vols. 4to. This was afterwards reprinted in 4 vols. 8vo, as the "History of Ancient Greece, its Colonies and Conquests, Part II.," 1820.

5. "A New Translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, with an Introduction and Appendix, explaining its relation to his Exact Philosophy, and vindicating that Philosophy by proofs that all departures from it have been deviations into Error," 1823, 8vo.


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