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Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu

Considerations on the Causes of
the Greatness of the Romans
and their Decline

(abridged)

1734

Abridged and formatted by Neil Jumonville, 2006

 

TRANSLATED, WITH NOTES AND AN INTRODUCTION,

by David Lowenthal

THE FREE PRESS, NEW YORK
COLLIER-MACMILLAN LIMITED, LONDON

EDITOR'S NOTE

With this new translation of Montesquieu's Considerations on the Greatness and Decline of the Romans the Agora Editions makes available another capital text in political philosophy, a text which is important not only on historical grounds but because of the relevance of its thought to modern problems. The work has fallen into undue neglect: Napoleon admired it and recognized its Machiavellian roots. Through it can be seen the way in which the new political doctrines were transmitted from their origins and transformed on their way to the American founders and the French revolutionaries.

We continue our policy of publishing useful works not adequately presented in English, in a format which makes it most possible to penetrate the spirit of the source.

Allan Bloom
General Editor, Agora Editions


CONTENTS

TRANSLATOR'S PREFACE vii

INTRODUCTION 1

I BEGINNINGS OF ROME; ITS WARS 23

II THE ART OF WAR AMONG THE ROMANS 33

III HOW THE ROMANS WERE ABLE TO EXPAND 39

IV THE GAULS; PYRRHUS; COMPARISON OF CARTHAGE AND ROME; HANNIBAL'S WAR 43

V THE CONDITION OF GREECE, MACEDONIA, SYRIA, AND EGYPT AFTER THE REDUCTION OF THE CARTHAGINIANS 55

VI THE CONDUCT THE ROMANS PURSUED TO SUBJUGATE ALL PEOPLES 67

VII HOW MITHRIDATES WAS ABLE TO RESIST THEM 79

VIII THE DISSENSIONS THAT ALWAYS EXISTED IN THE CITY 83

IX TWO CAUSES OF ROME'S RUIN 91

X THE CORRUPTION OF THE ROMANS 97

XI SULLA; POMPEY AND CAESAR 101

XII THE CONDITION OF ROME AFTER CAESAR'S DEATH 113

XIII AUGUSTUS 119

XIV TIBERIUS 129

XV THE EMPERORS FROM CAIUS CALIGULA TO ANTONINUS 135

XVI THE CONDITION OF THE EMPIRE, FROM ANTONINUS TO PROBUS 145

XVII CHANGE IN THE STATE 157

XVIII NEW MAXIMS ADOPTED BY THE ROMANS 167

XIX ATTILA'S GREATNESS; CAUSE OF THE SETTLEMENT OF THE BARBARIANS; REASONS WHY THE WESTERN EMPIRE WAS THE FIRST TO FALL 175

XX JUSTINIAN'S CONQUEST; HIS GOVERNMENT 185

XXI DISORDERS OF THE EASTERN EMPIRE 195

XXII WEAKNESS OF THE EASTERN EMPIRE 201

XXIII REASON FOR THE DURATION OF THE EASTERN EMPIRE; ITS DESTRUCTION 213

INDEX 221

 


CHAPTER VIII

THE DISSENSIONS THAT ALWAYS
EXISTED IN THE CITY

 

While Rome conquered the world, a secret war was going on within its walls. Its fires were like those of volcanoes which burst forth whenever some matter comes along to increase their activity.

After the expulsion of the kings, the government had become aristocratic. The patrician families alone 1 obtained all the magistracies, all the dignities, and consequently all military and civil honors.2

To prevent the return of the kings, the patricians sought to intensify the feelings existing in the minds of the people. But they did more than they intended: by imbuing the people with hatred for kings, they gave them an immoderate desire for liberty. Since royal authority had passed entirely into the hands of the consuls, the people felt they lacked the liberty they were being asked to love. They therefore sought to reduce the consulate, to get plebeian magistrates, and to share the curule magistracies a with the nobles. The patricians were forced to grant everything they demanded, for in a city where poverty was public virtue, and where riches — the secret road

a Curule magistracies: those conferring the right of using the sella curulis or chair of state — namely, those of the dictator, consuls, praetors, censors, and curule aediles.

to the acquisition of power — were scorned, birth and dignities could not confer great advantages. Thus, power had to return to the greatest number, and gradually the aristocracy had to change into a popular state.

Those who obey a king are less tormented by envy and jealousy than those who live under an hereditary aristocracy. The prince is so distant from his subjects that he is almost unseen by them. And he is so far above them that they can conceive of no relationship on his part capable of shocking them. But the nobles who govern are visible to all, and are not so elevated that odious comparisons are not constantly made. Therefore it has at all times been seen, and is still seen, that the people detest senators. Those republics where birth confers no part in the government are in this respect the most fortunate, for the people are less likely to envy an authority they give to whomever they wish and take back whenever they fancy.

Discontented with the patricians, the people withdrew to Mons Sacer.b Deputies were sent to appease them, and since they all promised to help each other in case the patricians did not keep their pledge 3 — which would have caused constant seditions and disturbed all the operations of the magistrates — it was judged better to create a magistracy that could prevent injustices from being done to plebeians.4 But, due to a malady eternal in man, the plebeians, who had obtained tribunes to defend themselves, used them for attacking. Little by little they removed the prerogatives of the patricians — which produced continual contention. The people were supported, or rather, animated by their tribunes; and the patricians were defended by the senate, which was almost completely composed of them, was more inclined to the old maxims, and

b Mons Sacer: a low range of hills about three miles from Rome, consecrated by the people to Jupiter after their secession.

was fearful that the populace would elevate some tribune to tyranny.

In their own behalf the people employed their strength and their voting superiority, their refusal to go to war, their threats to withdraw, the partiality of their laws, and, finally, their judgments against those who resisted them too staunchly. The senate defended itself by means of its wisdom, its justice, and the love of country it inspired; by its benefactions and a wise use of the republic's treasury; by the respect the people had for the glory of the leading families and the virtue of illustrious men;5 by religion itself, the old institutions, and the skipping of assembly days on the pretext that the auspices had not been favorable; by clients; by the opposition of one tribune to another; by the creation of a dictator,6 the occupations of a new war, or misfortunes which united all interests; finally, by a paternal condescension in granting the people a part of their demands in order to make them abandon the rest, and by the constant maxim of preferring the preservation of the republic to the prerogatives of any order or of any magistracy whatsoever.

With the passage of time, the plebeians had so reduced the patricians that this distinction7 among families became empty and all were elevated to honors indifferently. Then there arose new disputes between the common people, agitated by their tribunes, and the leading families, whether patrician or plebeian, who were called nobles and who had on their side the senate, which was composed of them. But since the old morals no longer existed, since individuals had immense riches, and since riches necessarily confer power, the nobles resisted with more force than had the patricians, and this was the cause of the death of the Gracchi and of several who worked for their scheme.8

I must mention a magistracy that greatly contributed to upholding Rome's government — that of the censors. They

took the census of the people, and, what is more, since the strength of the republic consisted in discipline, austerity of morals, and the constant observance of certain customs, they corrected the abuses that the law had not foreseen, or that the ordinary magistrate could not punish.9 There are bad examples which are worse than crimes, and more states have perished by the violation of their moral customs than by the violation of their laws. In Rome, everything that could introduce dangerous novelties, change the heart or mind of the citizen, and deprive the state — if I dare use the term — of perpetuity, all disorders, domestic or public, were reformed by the censors. They could evict from the senate whomever they wished, strip a knight of the horse the public maintained for him, and put a citizen in another tribe and even among those who supported the burdens of the city without participating in its privileges.10

M. Livius stigmatized the people itself, and, of the thirty-five tribes, he placed thirty-four in the ranks of those who had no part in the privileges of the city.11 "For," he said, "after condemning me you made me consul and censor. You must therefore have betrayed your trust either once, by inflicting a penalty on me, or twice, by making me consul and then censor."

M. Duronius, a tribune of the people, was driven from the senate by the censors because, during his magistracy, he had abrogated the law limiting expenses at banquets.12

The censorship was a very wise institution. The censors could not take a magistracy from anyone, because that would have disturbed the exercise of public power,13 but they imposed the loss of order and rank, and deprived a citizen, so to speak, of his personal worth.

Servius Tullius had created the famous division by centuries, as Livy14 and Dionysius of Halicarnassus 15 have so well explained to us. He had distributed one hundred and ninety-three centuries into six classes, and put the whole of

the common people into the last century, which alone formed the sixth class. One sees that this disposition excluded the common people from the suffrage, not by right but in fact. Later it was ruled that the division by tribes would be followed in voting, except in certain cases. There were thirty-five tribes, each with a voice — four in the city and thirty-one in the countryside. The leading citizens, all farmers, naturally entered the tribes of the countryside. Those of the city received the common people,16 which, enclosed there, had very little influence on affairs, and this was regarded as the salvation of the republic. And when Fabius relocated among the four city tribes the lower classes whom Appius Claudius had spread among all the tribes, he acquired the surname of Very Great.17,c Every five years the censors took a look at the actual situation of the republic, and distributed the people among the different tribes in such a manner that the tribunes and the ambitious could not gain control of the voting, and the people themselves could not abuse their power.

The government of Rome was admirable. From its birth, abuses of power could always be corrected by its constitution, whether by means of the spirit of the people, the strength of the senate, or the authority of certain magistrates.

Carthage perished because it could not even endure the hand of its own Hannibal when abuses had to be cut away. Athens fell because its errors seemed so sweet to it that it did not wish to recover from them. And, among us, the republics of Italy, which boast of the perpetuity of their government, ought only to boast of the perpetuity of their abuses. Thus, they have no more liberty than Rome had in the time of the decemvirs.18

The government of England is wiser, because a body d

c In Latin, Maximus.

d For Montesquieu's analysis of the English Parliament, see The Spirit of the Laws, XI, 6.

there continually examines it and continually examines itself. And such are its errors that they never last long and are often useful for the spirit of watchfulness they give the nation. In a word, a free government — that is, a government constantly subject to agitation — cannot last if it is not capable of being corrected by its own laws.

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NOTES

1. The patricians even had something of a sacred quality: they alone could take the auspices. See Appius Claudius' harangue in Livy, VI (40, 41).

2. For example, they alone could have a triumph, since only they could be consuls and command the armies.

3. Zonaras, II (VII, 15).

4. Origin of the tribunes of the people.

5. Loving glory and composed of men who had spent their lives at war, the people could not refuse their votes to a great man under whom they had fought. They obtained the right to elect plebeians, and elected patricians. They were forced to tie their own hands in establishing the rule that there would always be one plebeian consul. Thus, the plebeian families which first held office were then continually returned to it, and when the people elevated to honors some nobody like Varro or Marius, it was a kind of victory they won over themselves.

6. To defend themselves, the patricians were in the habit of creating a dictator — which succeeded admirably well for them. But once the plebeians had obtained the power of being elected consuls, they could also be elected dictators — which disconcerted the patricians. See in Livy, VIII (12), how Publius Philo reduced them during his dictatorship; he made three laws which were very prejudicial to them.

7. The patricians retained only some sacerdotal offices and the right to create a magistrate called interrex.

8. Like Saturninus and Glaucia.

9. We can see how they degraded those who had favored abandoning Italy after the battle of Cannae, those who had surrendered to Hannibal, and those who — by a mischievous interpretation — had broken their word to him. (Livy, XXIV, 18).

10. This was called: Aerarium aliquem facere, aut in Caeritum tabulas referre (to make someone a citizen of the lowest class, or to place him on the list of the [voteless] inhabitants of Caere). He was expelled from his century and no longer had the right to vote.

11. Livy, XXIX (37).

12. Valerius Maximus, II (9).

13. The dignity of senator was not a magistracy.

14. I (42, 43).

15. IV, art. 15 ff.

16. Called turba forensis (the rabble of the forum).

17. See Livy, IX (46).

18. Nor even more power.


CHAPTER IX
TWO CAUSES OF ROME'S RUIN

 

When the domination of Rome was limited to Italy, the republic could easily maintain itself. A soldier was equally a citizen. Every consul raised an army, and other citizens went to war in their turn under his successor. Since the number of troops was not excessive, care was taken to admit into the militia only people who had enough property to have an interest in preserving the city.1 Finally, the senate was able to observe the conduct of the generals and removed any thought they might have of violating their duty.

But when the legions crossed the Alps and the sea, the warriors, who had to be left in the countries they were subjugating for the duration of several campaigns, gradually lost their citizen spirit. And the generals, who disposed of armies and kingdoms, sensed their own strength and could obey no longer.

The soldiers then began to recognize no one but their general, to base all their hopes on him, and to feel more remote from the city. They were no longer the soldiers of the republic but those of Sulla, Marius, Pompey, and Caesar. Rome could no longer know if the man at the head of an army in a province was its general or its enemy.

As long as the people of Rome were corrupted only by their tribunes, to whom they could grant only their own power, the senate could easily defend itself because it acted with constancy, whereas the populace always went from

extreme ardor to extreme weakness. But, when the people could give their favorites a formidable authority abroad, all the wisdom of the senate became useless, and the republic was lost.

What makes free states last a shorter time than others is that both the misfortunes and the successes they encounter almost always cause them to lose their freedom. In a state where the people are held in subjection, however, successes and misfortunes alike confirm their servitude. A wise republic should hazard nothing that exposes it to either good or bad fortune. The only good to which it should aspire is the perpetuation of its condition.

If the greatness of the empire ruined the republic, the greatness of the city ruined it no less.

Rome had subjugated the whole world with the help of the peoples of Italy, to whom it had at different times given various privileges.2;a At first most of these peoples did not care very much about the right of Roman citizenship, and some preferred to keep their customs.3 But when this right meant universal sovereignty, and a man was nothing in the world if he was not a Roman citizen and everything if he was, the peoples of Italy resolved to perish or become Romans. Unable to succeed by their intrigues and entreaties, they took the path of arms. They revolted all along the coast of the Ionian sea; the other allies started to follow them.4 Forced to fight against those who were, so to speak, the hands with which it enslaved the world, Rome was lost. It was going to be reduced to its walls; it therefore accorded the coveted right of citizenship to the allies who had not yet ceased being loyal,5 and gradually to all.

After this, Rome was no longer a city whose people had but a single spirit, a single love of liberty, a single hatred

a In extent and importance, Latin rights were between Roman and Italian rights.

of tyranny — a city where the jealousy of the senate's power and the prerogatives of the great, always mixed with respect, was only a love of equality. Once the peoples of Italy became its citizens, each city brought to Rome its genius, its particular interests, and its dependence on some great protector.6 The distracted city no longer formed a complete whole. And since citizens were such only by a kind of fiction, since they no longer had the same magistrates, the same walls, the same gods, the same temples, and the same graves, they no longer saw Rome with the same eyes, no longer had the same love of country, and Roman sentiments were no more.

The ambitious brought entire cities and nations to Rome to disturb the voting or get themselves elected. The assemblies were veritable conspiracies; a band of seditious men was called a comitia.b The people's authority, their laws and even the people themselves became chimerical things, and the anarchy was such that it was no longer possible to know whether the people had or had not adopted an ordinance.7

We hear in the authors only of the dissensions that ruined Rome, without seeing that these dissensions were necessary to it, that they had always been there and always had to be. It was the greatness of the republic that caused all the trouble and changed popular tumults into civil wars. There had to be dissensions in Rome, for warriors who were so proud, so audacious, so terrible abroad could not be very moderate at home. To ask for men in a free state who are bold in war and timid in peace is to wish the impossible. And, as a general rule, whenever we see everyone tranquil in a state that calls itself a republic, we can be sure that liberty does not exist there.

What is called union in a body politic is a very equivocal thing. The true kind is a union of harmony, whereby all the

b These were the assemblies into which the Roman people were organized for electoral purposes.

parts, however opposed they may appear, cooperate for the general good of society — as dissonances in music cooperate in producing overall concord. In a state where we seem to see nothing but commotion there can be union — that is, a harmony resulting in happiness, which alone is true peace. It is as with the parts of the universe, eternally linked together by the action of some and the reaction of others.

But, in the concord of Asiatic despotism — that is, of all government which is not moderate — there is always real dissension. The worker, the soldier, the lawyer, the magistrate, the noble are joined only inasmuch as some oppress the others without resistance. And, if we see any union there, it is not citizens who are united but dead bodies buried one next to the other.

It is true that the laws of Rome became powerless to govern the republic. But it is a matter of common observation that good laws, which have made a small republic grow large, become a burden to it when it is enlarged. For they were such that their natural effect was to create a great people, not to govern it.

There is a considerable difference between good laws and expedient laws — between those that enable a people to make itself master of others, and those that maintain its power once it is acquired.

There exists in the world at this moment a republic that hardly anyone knows about,8 and that — in secrecy and silence — increases its strength every day. Certainly, if it ever attains the greatness for which its wisdom destines it, it will necessarily change its laws. And this will not be the work of a legislator but of corruption itself.

Rome was made for expansion, and its laws were admirable for this purpose. Thus, whatever its government had been — whether the power of kings, aristocracy, or a popular state — it never ceased undertaking enterprises that made demands on its conduct, and succeeded in them. It did not

prove wiser than all the other states on earth for a day, but continually. It. sustained meager, moderate and great prosperity with the same superiority, and had neither successes from which it did not profit, nor misfortunes of which it made no use.

It lost its liberty because it completed the work it wrought too soon.

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NOTES

1. The freedmen, and those called capite censi (because they had very little property and were only taxed by head) at first were not enrolled in the army except in pressing cases. Servius Tullius had put them into the sixth class, and soldiers were only taken from the first five. But Marius, setting out against Jugurtha, enrolled everyone indifferently: Milites scribere non more majorum neque, ex classibus, sed uti cujusque libido erat, capite censos plerosque (He himself, in the meantime, proceeded to enlist soldiers not in the old way, or from the classes, but taking all who were willing to join him, and most of them from the capite censi). Sallust, The Jugurthine War, LXXXVI. Notice that in the division by tribes, those in the four tribes of the city were almost the same as those who were in the sixth class in the division by centuries.

2. Latin rights, Italian rights.

3. The Aequians said in their assemblies: "Those able to choose have preferred their own laws to the law of the city of Rome, which has been a necessary penalty for those who could not defend themselves against it." Livy, IX (45).

4. The Asculans, Marsians, Vestinians, Marrucinians, Ferentinians, Hirpinians, Pompeianians, Venusinians, Iapygians, Lucanians, Samnites and others. Appian, The Civil War, I (39).

5. The Tuscans, Umbrians, and Latins. This led some peoples to submit; and, since they too were made citizens, still others

laid down their arms; and finally there remained only the Samnites, who were exterminated.

6. Just imagine this monstrous head of the peoples of Italy which, by the suffrage of every man, directed the rest of the world.

7. See the Letters of Cicero to Atticus, IV, letter 18.

8. The canton of Bern.