Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. X.: Of the Corruption of the Romans. - Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
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CHAP. X.: Of the Corruption of the Romans. - 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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Of the Corruption of the Romans.
I AM of opinion that the sect of Epicurus, which began to be propagated at Rome, towards the close of the republic, was very prejudicial to the minds and genius of the people † . The Greeks had been infatuated with its doctrines long before, and consequently, were corrupted much earlier than the Romans. We are assured by Polybius * , that oaths, in his time, could not induce any person to place confidence in a Greek, whereas they were considered by a Roman as inviolable obligations upon his conscience.
There is a passage in one of Cicero’s letters to † Atticus, which manifestly discovers how much the Romans had degenerated in this particular, since the time of Polybius.
“Memmius,” says he, “imparted to the senate the agreement he and his fellow candidate had made with the consuls, by which the latter stipulated to favour them in their solicitations for the consulship the ensuing year; and they obliged themselves to pay four hundred thousand sesterces to the consuls, if they did not furnish them with three augurs, who should declare they themselves were present when the people made the Curiatian law ‡ , though in reality it had not been enacted; and two former consuls, who should affirm they had assisted at signing the edict of the senate which regulated the state of the provinces assigned to the present consuls, notwithstanding no such edict was in being.” What an admirable set of people we discover in a single contract!
As religion always furnishes the best security for the rectitude of human actions, so there was this peculiarity among the Romans, that the love they expressed for their country, was blended with some particular sentiment of devotion. That mighty city, founded in the most auspicious period; the great Romulus, at once their monarch and their god; the capitol, esteemed as eternal as the city; and the city, reputed as eternal as its founder, had anciently struck such impressions on the minds of the Romans, as might well be wished to have been constantly retained.
The grandeur of the state, in general, constituted the greatness of its particular members; but as affluence consists in conduct, and not in riches; that wealth of the Romans, which had certain limitations, introduced a luxury and profusion which had no bounds. Those who had been at first corrupted by their opulence, received the same taint in their poverty, by aspiring after acquisitions, that no way comported with private life; it was difficult to be a good citizen, under the influence of strong desires and the regret of a large fortune that had been lost: people, in this situation, were prepared for any desperate attempt; and, as Sallust * says, there was, at that time, a generation of men, who, as they had no patrimony of their own, could not endure to see others less necessitous than themselves.
But as great soever as the corruption of Rome might then be, all its calamitous effects were not introduced among the people, for the efficacy of those institutions, by which they were originally established, was so extraordinary, that they always preserved an heroic fortitude, and devoted themselves, with the greatest application to war, amidst all the softenings of luxury and pleasure; which seems to me, to be a circumstance, in which they were never imitated by any nation in the world.
The Romans were not solicitous to improve commerce, or cultivate the sciences, but ranked them among the attentions proper for slaves * ; we may except, indeed, some particular persons, who had received their freedom, and persisted in their former industry. But their knowledge, in general, was confined to the art of war, which was the only track † by which they could arrive at promotions in the magistracy, and other stations of honour; for which reason, their military virtues subsisted after all the rest were extinguished.
[† ]Cyneas having discoursed of the doctrines of this sect, at the table of Pyrrhus, Fabricius said, He wished the enemies of Rome would all embrace such kind of principles. Life of Pyrrhus.
[* ]If you lend a talent to a Greek, and bind him to the repayment, by ten engagements, with as many securities, and witnesses to the loan, it is impossible to make them regard their word; whereas, among the Romans, whether it be owing to their obligation of accounting for the public and private money, they are always punctual to the oaths they have taken. For which reason, the apprehensions of infernal torments were wisely established, and it is altogether irrational that they now oppose them. Polyb. lib. vi.
[† ]Polyb. lib. iv. let. 18.
[‡ ]The Curiatian law disposed of the military power, and the edict of the senate regulated the troops, the money, and officers that were to be allotted to the governors: now the consuls, in order to accomplish these particulars, to their own satisfaction, contrived a false law and a false edict of the senate.
[* ]Ut merito dicatur genitos esse, qui nec ipsi habere possent vos familiares, nec alios pati. Fragment of Sallust [Editor: illegible word?] cited by Augustin, in his book of the City of God, lib. ii. c. 18.
[* ]Cic. Offic. lib. i. c. 42. Illiberales & sordidi quæstus mercenariorum omnium, quorum operæ, non quorum artes emuntur: est enim illis ipsa merces auctoramentum servitutis. The merchants, adds that author, raise no profit unless they falsity their word. Agriculture is the noblest of all arts, and most worthy of a man in a state of freedom.
[† ]They were obliged to serve ten years, between the age of sixteen years and forty-seven. Polyb. lib. vi.