Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XI.: Of Sylla, Pompey, and Cæsar. - Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
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CHAP. XI.: Of Sylla, Pompey, and Cæsar. - 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 Sylla, Pompey, and Cæsar.
I INTREAT the reader’s permission to turn my eyes from the horrors of the wars between Marius and Sylla; Appian has collected all the dreadful particulars into this history: besides the jealousy, ambition, and barbarity of the two chiefs, each particular Roman was infatuated with fury; the new citizens ‡ , and the ancient, no longer considered each other as members of the same republic, but gave a loose to a series of hostilities, so peculiar in their nature, as to comprehend all the miseries of a civil and foreign war.
Sylla made several good laws, and reduced the power of the tribunes; to which we may add, that the moderation or caprice which induced him to resign the dictatorship, re-established the senate, for some time; but in the fury of his success, he suffered himself to be hurried into actions, which in their consequences, made it impossible for Rome to preserve her liberty.
In his Asian expedition, he wholly destroyed the military discipline; he accustomed his army to rapine * , and taught them wants to which before they were absolute strangers: he first corrupted the soldiers, who afterwards corrupted their leaders.
He entered Rome with an armed force, and taught the Roman generals to violate the asylum of liberty † .
He distributed ‡ the lands of the citizens among his soldiers, and, by that proceeding, corrupted them for ever; because, from that moment, there was not one of the military profession who did not wait for an opportunity of seizing the effects of his fellow-citizens.
He was likewise the inventor of proscriptions, and set a price on the head of every man who had not embraced his party. From that time, it became impossible for any one to be devoted to the republic; for whilst two ambitious men were contending for superiority, those who observed a neutrality, or were attached to the cause of liberty, were sure to be proscribed by either of the competitors who should prove victorious; it therefore became prudent to engage in one of the two parties.
He was succeeded, says Cicero § , by a man, who in an impious cause, and a victory still more infamous, not only confiscated the effects of individuals, but involved entire provinces in the same calamity.
Sylla, when he abdicated the dictatatorship, pretended, that he was unwilling to live in any other manner than under the protection of his own laws; but that action, which indicated so much moderation, was itself a consequence of his violences. He had given lands to forty-seven legions, in different parts of Italy. These forces, says Appian, regarding their fortune as attached to his life, gave the greatest attention to his safety, and were always ready either to succour or avenge him * .
As the republic was fated to destruction, the only material question was, who should have the credit of overwhelming it?
Two men equally ambitious, with this exception, that the one knew how to proceed directly to his purpose better than the other, eclipsed, by their reputation, their exploits, and their virtues, all the rest of the citizens. Pompey made the first appearance in the scene of action, and Cæsar immediately followed him.
Pompey, to render himself popular, had disannulled the law of Sylla, which limited the power of the people, and when he had sacrificed the most salutary laws of his country to his particular ambition, he obtained all he desired, and the rash indiscretion of the populace was altogether unbounded in his favour.
The Roman laws had wisely parcelled out the public power into several magistracies, which mutually supported as well as restrained and tempered each other; and as the power of all, who enjoyed those promotions, was confined to a proper extent, every citizen was qualified for a station of that nature; and the people, seeing numbers of such persons passing away in succession, were not habituated to any particular magistrate among them. But, in the times we are now describing the plan of government was changed; the most potent competitors obtained extraordinary commissions from the people, which annihilated the authority of the magistrates, and drew all the great affairs into the hands of one man, or a few.
Was war to be proclaimed against Sertorius? Pompey was nominated to command the army. Were the Romans to march against Mithridates? Every voice called aloud for Pompey. Did it become necessary to transinit corn to Rome? The people would have given it over for lost, had not Pompey been entrusted with the importation. Were the pirates to be destroyed? Who so proper for that expedition as Pompey? And when Cæsar himself threatened Rome with an invasion, the senators cried out, in their turn, and placed all their confidence in Pompey.
I am willing to believe (said Marcus * to the people) that this Pompey, who is so much caressed by the nobility, is more inclinable to secure your liberty, than he is to countenance their authority over you: but there was a time, when each individual among you was protected by several, and not the whole body of the people by one person; and when it was never known, that a single man either gave or took away things of so much consequence.
As Rome was formed for grandeur, it became necessary to unite the honours and power in the same persons, which in unquiet times would six the admiration of the people on one particular citizen.
When honours are granted, the givers know exactly what they bestow; but when power is added to the donation, they can never be certain how far it will be extended.
Immoderate preferences given to a citizen, in a republic, are always productive of necessary effects; they either raise envy in the people, or make their affection overflow all bounds.
When Pompey returned twice to Rome, in a condition to enslave the republic, he had the moderation to disband his armies, before he entered the city; and then he made his appearance with the air of a common citizen: these instances of a disinterested behaviour, which completed all his glory, did not fail, in their consequences, to make the senate always declare in his favour, whenever he attempted any thing prejudicial to the laws.
The ambition of Pompey was more unactive and gentle than that of Cæsar. This warrior resolved, like Sylla, to open himself a passage to sovereign power by arms, but Pompey grew displeased at such a method of oppression; he aspired, indeed, to the dictatorship, but was willing to owe it to the suffrages of the people; he could not resolve to usurp power, but would have been glad to have had it tendered to him as a gift.
As the favour of the people is always in a fluctuating state, there were some seasons, wherein Pompey beheld his reputation in a declining condition * ; and it affected him in the most tender part, to see the very persons he despised, make advances in popularity, and then employ it against him.
This led him into three actions equally fatal; he corrupted the people with money, and fixed a price, in the elections, on the suffrage of each citizen.
He employed the vilest of the populace to incommode the magistrates in the exercise of their functions, in hopes, that wise people growing weary of living in a state of anarchy, would be urged by despair to create him dictator.
In a word, he united his interests with those of Cæsar and Crassus: Cato said, their union and not their enmity destroyed the republic; and in reality, it was then reduced to such an unhappy state, that it received less injury from civil wars than by a peace, which, as it united the views and interests of the leading men, so it naturally introduced tyranny in the government.
Pompey did not properly lend his reputation to Cæsar, but sacrificed it to his cause, without knowing what he did; and Cæsar, in return, employed all the power he had received from Pompey to the prejudice of the donor, and even played off his own artifices against him he raised troubles in the city by his emissaries; he made himself master of all elections; and consuls, prætors, and tribunes purchased their promotions at their own price.
The senate, who easily penetrated into Cæsar’s designs, had recourse to Pompey, and intreated him to undertake the defence of the republic, if that name might properly be given to a government which implored protection of one of its citizens.
I am of opinion, that what contributed most to Pompey’s destruction, was the shame that affected him, when he grew sensible, that by raising Cæsar as he had done, he had committed a satal oversight; but he suffered this consideration to prevail as late as possible, and did not prepare for his defence, lest he should be obliged to acknowledge himself in danger. He asserted before the senate that Cæsar durst not engage in a war; and because he had made such a declaration several times, he always persisted in repeating it.
One circumstance seems to have capacitated Cæsar for any undertaking, and that was the unhappy conformity of names; the senate had added to his government of the Cisalpine Gaul, all that part of Gaul which was distinguished by the name of Transalpine.
As the politics of those times did not permit armies to be stationed near Rome, so neither would they suffer Italy to be entirely destitute of troops; for which reason, considerable forces were quartered in Cisalpine Gaul, a country which extends from the Rubicon, a little river in Romania, to the Alps: but, in order to secure the city of Rome against those troops, the senate passed that famous edict, which is still to be seen engraven in the road near Rimini, by which they solemnly devoted to the infernal gods, and branded with sacrilege and parricide, any person whatever, who should presume to pass the Rubicon, with an army, a legion, or a single cohort.
To a government of that importance as to keep the city in awe, another was added which proved still more considerable, and that was all the Transalpine Gaul, which comprehended the southern parts of France, where Cæsar had for several years an opportunity of prosecuting war against as many nations as he pleased; by which means his soldiers advanced in years as well as himself, and were conquered by him, in their turn, as well as the Barbarians. Had Cæsar not been entrusted with the government of Transalpine Gaul, he could not have corrupted his troops, nor rendered his name venerable to them by so many victories; and had he not enjoyed Cisalpine Gaul, Pompey might have stopped him at the pass of the Alps, whereas he was compelled to retire from Italy, when the war began, which made him lose among his own party that reputation which, in civil wars, is the very soul of power.
The same consternation, which Hannibal diffused through Rome, after the battle of Cannæ, was spread by Cæsar over all that city, when he had passed the Rubicon. Pompey was so confounded, that he became incapable, even in the first moments of the war, of forming any design but such as is usually suggested in the most desperate conjunctures. He could only retire, and trust to flight. Accordingly he lest Rome and the public treasure; and as he was in no condition to retard the conqueror, he forsook part of his troops, abandoned all Italy, and crossed the sea.
Cæsar’s fortune has been greatly celebrated; but this extraordinary man enjoyed to many great qualities, without the intermixture of a defect, though he had several vicious inclinations, that he would have been victorious at the head of any army he had commanded, and would have governed in any republic that had given him birth.
When he had deseated Pompey’s lieutenants in Spain, he passed into Greece to seek Pompey himself; and this general, who had possessed himself of the seacoasts, and was master of a superior force, was on the point of beholding Cæsar’s army destroyed by misery and famine. But as the desire of approbation was his predominant frailty, he could not forbear giving attention to some vain speeches * of those about him, who were perpetually blaming his conduct, and mortifying him with their jests. This general, says one, would perpetuate his command, and be a new king of kings, like Agamemnon: I assure you, replies another, we shall not eat any Tusculum figs this year. A few encounters in which he had succeeded, quite intoxicated the heads of this senatorial host; and Pompey, to avoid censure, gave into an indiscretion which posterity will ever blame; he resolved to sacrifice all the advantages he had then obtained, and marched at the head of undisciplined troops to engage an army that had been so frequently victorious.
When the shattered remains of Pharsalia were withdrawn into Africa, Scipio, who then commanded them, resused to follow Cato’s advice for protracting the war. He grew elated with a few instances of success; he risked all, and immediately lost all he had risked; and when Brutus and Cassius re-established that party, the same precipitation destroyed the republic a third time † .
It is observable, that in the long course of these civil wars, the power of Rome was continually extending in foreign parts, under Marius, Sylla, Pompey, Cæsar, Antony, and Augustus; and that mighty city, growing daily more formidable, completed the destruction of all the kings who presumed to resist her.
No state threatens its neighbours with conquest so much as that which is involved in the horrors of civil war: in such a season, the nobility, the citizens, the artizans, the peasants, and, in short, the whole body of the people become soldiers; and when peace has united all the contending parties, this state enjoys great advantages over others, whose subjects are generally citizens. Besides, civil wars always produce great men, because in the universal confusion which then reigns, those who are distinguished by any particular merit, have a favourable opportunity of making themselves conspicuous: each of these persons ranges himself in a suitable situation; whereas, in times of peace, they are stationed by others, and generally very injudiciously. We shall pass from the Romans, and inquire for instances of this truth, in nations that are more modern; and among these, France was never so formidable abroad, as after the contentions between the houses of Burgundy and Orleans, after the troubles of the league, after the civil wars in the minority of Lewis the Thirteenth, and after the national dissentions in the nonage of Lewis the Fourteenth. England was never so much respected as in the time of Cromwell, after the wars of the long parliament. The Germans did not gain their superiority over the Turks, till after the civil wars of the empire. The Spaniards, under Philip the fifth, and immediately after the civil wars that were kindled by the succession, invaded Sicily with such a force as astonished all Europe; and we now see the Persians rising from the ashes of a civil war, and humbling the Ottoman power.
In a word, the republic was at last enslaved, and we are not to charge that calamity on the ambition of particular persons, but should rather impute it to the disposition of man in general, whose cravings after power are always most insatiable, when he enjoys the greatest share, and who only desires the whole, because he possesses a large part.
If the sentiments of Cæsar and Pompey had resembled those of Cato, others would have had the same ambitious thoughts as Pompey and Cæsar discovered; and since the republic was fated to fall, it would have been dragged to the precipice by some other hand.
Cæsar pardoned every mortal; but the moderation people discover when they have usurped all, seems to be no extraordinary accomplishment.
Though he has been much commended for being indefatigable, after the battle of Pharsalia, yet Cicero, very justly, accuses him of remissness. He tells Cassius * they never could have imagined Pompey’s party would have revived so considerably in Spain and Africa; and that if they could have foreseen that Cæsar would have amused himself in his Alexandrian war, they would not have made their peace with him as they did, but would have followed Scipio and Cato into Africa. And thus a weak passion for a woman made him engage in four wars, and by not foreseeing the two last, he hazarded all he had gained at Pharsalia.
Cæsar governed at first under the usual titles of magistracy, for nothing affects mankind more than names; and as the Asiatics abhorred those of consul and proconsul, the Europeans detested that of king; so that those titles constituted at that time, the happiness or despair of all the earth. He made some overtures to have the diadem placed on his head; but when he grew sensible that the people discontinued their acclamations, he thought fit to reject it. He likewise made other attempts * , and it is not to be comprehended, how he could believe that the Romans, in order to suffer him to be a tyrant, should for that reason be in love with tyranny, or could even give credit to what they themselves had done.
One day, when the senate tendered him some particular honours, he neglected to rise from his seat, and from that moment, the gravest members of that body lost all patience.
Mankind are always most offended at any trespass on the ceremonials and punctilios they expect. If you endeavour to oppress them, it sometimes passes for a proof of the esteem you entertain for them, but a violation of their decorums is always an instance of contempt.
Cæsar, who was a constant enemy to the senate, could not conceal the mean opinion he entertained of that body, who had almost rendered themselves ridiculous, when they were no longer in possession of power: for which reason even his clemency was an insult, and it became evident that he only pardoned because he scorned to punish.
Cæsar formed the edicts of the senate himself, and subscribed them with the names of the first senators he happened to think on. Cicero, in the ninth book of his familiar letters, writes to this effect: “I have been sometimes informed, that an edict of the senate passed by my consent, has been transmitted to Syria and Armenia, before I had any knowledge that it was made; and several princes have sent me letters of acknowledgment for my consent, to allow them the title of kings, when, at the same time, I was so far from knowing them to be kings till that moment, that I even had not heard there were any such persons in the world.”
We may see, in the letters * of some great men of that time, though they passed under. Cicero’s name, because most of them were written by himself, into what dejection and despair persons of the first rank in the republic were sunk by this sudden revolution, which divested them of their honours, and even their employments; when the senate, having no longer any functions to perform, that reputation they had acquired through all the world, was now to be dispensed from the cabinet of one man. This state of affairs appears in a much better light in those letters, than in any relations of historians; and they are the most masterly representation of the ingenuous turn of mind of a set of people united by a common affliction, and give us a complete portrait of an age wherein a false politeness had not infected all society with insincerity and untruth. In a word, they are not written like out modern letters, with a view to deceive, but are the faithful intercourse of friends, who communicated all they knew.
It was hardly possible for Cæsar, in his situation, to preserve his life: the generality of the conspirators against him, were of his party † , or had received many great obligations from him, and the reason of their intention to assassinate him, is very natural; they had gained signal advantages by his conquest, but the more their fortune improved, the greater was their share of the common calamity, and to those who have not any thing they can properly call their own, it seems, in some particulars, to be of little consequence under what government they live.
Besides, there was a certain law of nations, or a settled opinion which prevailed in all the republics of Greece and Italy, and ascribed the character of a virtuous man to the person who should assassinate any one who had usurped the sovereign power. Rome had been extremely fond of this notion, ever since the expulsion of her kings: the law was very express; the examples had a general approbation; the republic put a sword into the hand of every citizen, constituted him their magistrate for a few moments, and acknowledged him for their defender.
Brutus * was bold enough to tell his friends, that, should his own father return from the grave, he would sacrifice him to the public good, with as little remorse as he stabbed Cæsar; and though, by the continuance of tyranny, this surprising spirit of liberty had gradually lost its vigour, yet the conspiracies, at the beginning of Augustus’s reign, were perpetually reviving.
The ancient Romans were animated by a predominant love for their country, which, acting by a variation from the common ideas of crimes and virtues, was only attentive to its own dictates, and in the fervors of its operation entirely disregarded friends and citizens, fathers and benefactors. Virtue seemed to have forgotten her own precepts, with a resolution to surpass herself, and when an action seemed too severe to be immediately considered with approbation, she soon caused it to be admired as divine.
In a word, did not the guilt of Cæsar, who lived in a free government, consist in placing himself out of the reach of all punishments but an assassination? And when we ask why he was not opposed by open force, or the power of the laws, do we not at the same time demand satisfaction for his crimes?
[‡ ]Marius in order to obtain a commission for carrying on the war against Mithridates, in prejudice of Sylla’s pretensions, had, by the concurrence of Sulpicius the tribune, incorporated the eight new tribes of the people of Italy, into the ancient, which rendered the Italians masters of the suffrages; and the generality of that people espoused the party of Marius, whilst the senate and the ancient citizens engaged in the interest of Sylla.
[* ]See in Catiline’s conspiracy, the description of Sallust has given us of that army.
[† ]Fugatis Marii copiis, primus urbem Romam cum armis ingressus est. A fragment of John of Antioch, in his extract of the virtues and vices.
[‡ ]At the beginning of the wars, the lands of the vanquished enemies were parcelled among the army; but Sylla made the same division of those which belonged to the citizens.
[§ ]Offices, lib. ii. c. 8.
[* ]Agreeably to what happened after the death of Cæsar.
[* ]Fragment of Sallust.
[* ]See Plutarch.
[* ]See Plutarch’s life of Pompey.
[† ]This is well cleared up in Appian’s history of the civil war, lib. iv. The army of Octavius and Antony would have perished by sam ne, if their enemies had not given them battle.
[* ]Familiar letters, lib. xv.
[* ]He abolished the office of tribunes of the people.
[* ]See the letters of Cicero and Servius Sulpicus.
[† ]Decanus, Brutus, Caius Casca, Trebonius, Tullius Cimber, Minutius, Basilius, were Cæsar’s friends. Appian. De bello civili, lib. ii.
[* ]See the letter of Brutus, in the collection of Cicero’s letters.