Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. IX.: Two Causes which destroyed Rome. - Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
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CHAP. IX.: Two Causes which destroyed Rome. - Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters) 
The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 3.
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Two Causes which destroyed Rome.
WHILST the sovereignty of Rome was confined to Italy, it was easy for the commonwealth to subsist: every soldier was at the same time a citizen; every consul raised an army, and other citizens marched into the field under his successor: as their forces were not very numerous, such * persons only were received among the troops, as had possessions considerable enough to make them interested in the preservation of the city; the senate kept a watchful eye over the conduct of the generals, and did not give them an opportunity of machinating any thing to the prejudice of their country.
But after the legions had passed the Alps and crossed the sea, the soldiers, whom the Romans had been obliged to leave during several campaigns in the countries they were subduing, lost insensibly that genius and turn of mind which characterized a Roman citizen; and the generals, having armies and kingdoms at their disposal, were sensible of their own strength, and could no longer obey.
The soldiers therefore began to acknowledge no superior but their general; to found their hopes on him only, and to view the city as from a great distance: they were no longer the soldiers of the republic, but of Sylla, of Marius, of Pompey, and of Cæsar. The Romans could no longer tell, whether the person who headed an army in a province was their general or their enemy.
So long as the people of Rome were corrupted by their tribunes only, on whom they could bestow nothing but their power, the senate could easily defend themselves, because they acted consistently and with one regular tenor; whereas the common people were continually shifting from the extremes of fury to the extremes of cowardice; but when they were enabled to invest their favourites with a formidable exterior authority, the whole wisdom of the senate was baffled, and the commonwealth was undone.
The reason why free states are not so permanent as other forms of government, is, because the misfortunes and successes which happen to them, generally occasion the loss of liberty; whereas the successes and misfortunes of an arbitrary government, contribute equally to the enslaving of the people. A wise republic ought not to run any hazard which may expose it to good or ill fortune; the only happiness the several individuals of it should aspire after, is, to give perpetuity to their state.
If the unbounded extent of the Roman empire proved the ruin of the republic, the vast compass of the city was no less fatal to it.
The Romans had subdued the whole universe by the assistance of the nations of Italy, on whom they had bestowed various privileges at different times; most of those nations did not, at first, set any great value on the freedom of the city of Rome, and some * chose rather to preserve their ancient usages; but when this privilege became that of universal sovereignty; when a man, who was not a Roman citizen, was considered as nothing, and, with this title, was all things, the people of Italy resolved either to be Romans, or die; not being able to obtain this by cabals and intreaties they had recourse to arms; and * rising in all that part of Italy opposite to the Ionian sea, the rest of the allies were going to follow their example: Rome being now forced to combat against those who were, if I may be allowed the figure, the hands with which they shackled the universe, was upon the brink of ruin: the Romans were going to be confined merely to their walls; they therefore granted this so much wished-for † privilege, to allies, who had not yet been wanting in fidelity; and they indulged it, by insensible degrees, to all other nations.
But now Rome was no longer that city, the inhabitants of which had breathed one and the same spirit, the same love for liberty, the same hatred of tyranny; a city in which a jealousy of the power of the senate and of the prerogatives of the great (ever accompanied with respect) was only a love of equality. The nations of Italy ‡ being made citizens of Rome, every city brought thither its genius, its particular interests, and its dependance on some mighty protector: Rome being now rent and divided, no longer formed one entire body, and men were no longer citizens of it, but in a kind of fictitious way; as there were no longer the same magistrates, the same walls, the same gods, the same temples, the same burying places; Rome was no longer beheld with the same eyes; the citizens were no longer fired with the same love for their country, and the Roman sentiments were obliterated.
Cities and nations were now invited to Rome by the ambitious, to disconcert the suffrages, or influence them in their own favour; the public assemblies were so many conspiracies against the state, and a tumultuous croud of seditious wretches were dignified with the title of Comitia * . The authority of the people and their laws, nay that people themselves, were more than so many chimæras, and so universal was the anarchy of those times, that it was not possible to determine whether the people had made a law or not.
Authors enlarge very copiously on the divisions which proved the destruction of Rome; but their readers seldom discover those divisions to have been always necessary and inevitable. The grandeur of the republic was the only source of that calamity, and exasperated popular tumults into civil wars. Dissentions were not to be prevented, and those martial spirits, which were so fierce and formidable abroad, could not be habituated to any considerable moderation at home. Those who expect in a free state, to see the people undaunted in war and pusillanimous in peace, are certainly desirous of impossibilities; and it may be advanced as a general rule, that whenever a perfect calm is visible, in a state that calls itself a republic, the spirit of liberty no longer subsists.
Union, in a body politic, is a very equivocal term: true union is such a harmony as makes all the particular parts, as opposite as they may seem to us, concur to the general welfare of the society, in the same manner as discords in music contribute to the general melody of sound. Union may prevail in a state full of seeming commotions; or, in other words, there may be an harmony from whence results prosperity, which alone is true peace, and may be considered in the same view, as the various parts of this universe, which are eternally connected by the action of some and the reaction of others.
In a despotic state indeed, which is every government where the power is immoderately exerted, a real division is perpetually kindled. The peasant, the soldier, the merchant, the magistrate, and the grandee have no other conjunction than what arises from the ability of the one to oppress the other, without resistance; and if at any time a union happens to be introduced, citizens are not then united, but dead bodies are laid in the grave contiguous to each other.
It must be acknowledged that the Roman laws were too weak to govern the republic: but experience has proved it to be an invariable fact, that good laws, which raise the reputation and power of a small republic, become incommodious to it, when once its grandeur is established, because it was their natural effect to make a great people, but not to govern them.
The difference is very considerable between good laws, and those which may be called convenient; between such laws as give a people dominion over others, and such as continue them in the possession of power, when they have once acquired it.
There is at this time a republic * in the world, of which sew persons have any knowledge, and which, by plans accomplished in silence and secrecy, is daily enlarging its power. And certain it is, that if it ever rises to that height of grandeur for which it seems preordained by its wisdom, it must inevitably change its laws, and the necessary innovations will not be effected by any legislator, but must spring from corruption itself.
Rome was founded for grandeur, and its laws * had an admirable tendency to bestow it; for which reason, in all the variations of her government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or popular, she constantly engaged in enterprizes which required conduct to accomplish them, and always succeeded. The experience of a day did not furnish her with more wisdom than all other nations, but she obtained it by a long succession of events. She sustained a small, a moderate, and an immense fortune with the same superiority, derived true welfare from the whole train of her prosperities, and refined every instance of calamity into beneficial instructions.
She lost her liberty, because she compleated her work too soon.
[* ]The freedmen, and such as were called capite censi, (because, being possessed of little or nothing, they were subject to the poll-tax only) were not at first enrolled among the land forces, except in cases of urgent necessity: Servius Tullius had ranked them in the sixth class, and soldiers were levied out of the five first only. But when Marius set out against Jugurtha, he enlisted all without distinction. Milites scribere. says Sallust, non modo majorum neque ex classibus, sed, uti cujusque libido erat, capite censos plerosque.—De Bello Jugurthin.
[* ]The Æqui said in their assemblies, Those in whose power it was to chuse, have preferred their own laws to the freedom of the city of Rome, which was a necessary penalty upon such as could not refuse it. Liv. lib. ix.
[* ]The Asculani, the Marsi, the Vestini, the Marrucini, the Frentani, the Hirpini, the Pompeians, the Venusini, the Iapyges, the Lucani, the Samnites and other nations. Appian, de Bello civil. lib. i.
[† ]The Tuscans, the Umbri, the Latins. This prompted some nations to submit themselves; and as these were also made citizens, others likewise laid down their arms, so that at last there remained only the Samnites, who were extirpated.
[‡ ]Let the reader figure to himself this monstrous head, formed of all the nations of Italy, which by the suffrage of every individual, governed the rest of the world.
[* ][It is an essential point to fix the number of citizens that are to form the public assemblies; otherwise it might be uncertain whether the whole body or only a part of the people have voted. At Sparta, the number was fixed to ten thousand. But at Rome, a city designed by providence to rise from the weakest beginning to the highest pitch of grandeur; Rome, a city fated to experience all vicissitudes of fortune; Rome, that had sometimes all its inhabitants without its walls, and sometimes all Italy, and a great part of the world within them; at Rome, I say, this number was never fixed, which was one of the principal causes of its ruin. L’Esprit des Loix, book ii. ch. 2. Our author observes from Cicero, de Leg. lib. i. and iii. that another cause of its ruin was, in making, towards the close of the republic, the suffrages secret. The people in a democracy ought always to be public, who are to be directed by those of higher rank. But when the body of the nobles are to vote in an aristocracy, or in a democracy the senate, as the business in then only to prevent intrigues, the suffrages cannot be too secret. L’Esprit des Loix, ibid]
[* ]The canton of Bern.
[* ]The Roman government has been thought defective by some, because it was an intermixture of monarchy, aristrocracy, and popular authority. But the perfection of a government does not consist in its conformity to any particular plan to be sound in the writings of politicians: but in its correspondence to the views every legislator ought to entertain for the grandeur and felicity of a people. Was not the government of Sparta composed of three branches?