Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XVII.: Changes in the STATE. - Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
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CHAP. XVII.: Changes in the STATE. - 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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Changes in the STATE.
THE emperors, to prevent the continual treasons of the army, associated into the government proper persons in whom they might confide; and Dioclesian, under pretext of the weight and multiplicity of the public affairs, established a law, that there should always be two Emperors and as many Cæsars. He judged, that, by this proceeding, the four principal armies being possessed by the partners in the empire, would naturally intimidate one another, and that the inferior armies being too weak to have any thoughts of raising their chiefs to the imperial dignity, their custom of election would be gradually discontinued, and entirely abolished at last. Besides, the dignity of the Cæsars being always subordinate, that power, which, for the security of the government, was in the participation of four, would be exercised in its full extent by no more than two.
The soldiers were likewise restrained from their exorbitances by considering, that as the riches of particular persons as well as the public treasure were considerably diminished, the emperors were in no condition to offer them such large donations as formerly, and consequently the gratuities would be no longer proportionable to the danger of a new election.
We may add to this, that the prefects of the prætorian bands, whose power and employments rendered them the grand visirs of those times, and frequently tempted them to murder their emperors, in order to raise themselves to the throne, were greatly reduced by Constantine, who divested them of all but their civil functions, and augmented their number to four instead of two.
The lives of the emperors began now to be in greater security, and they might reasonably expect to die peaceably in their beds. This circumstance seems in some measure to have softened their dispositions, and they no longer shed human blood with the barbarous prodigality of their predecessors. But as the immense power they still possessed must needs have some particular tendency, it began to manifest itself in a species of tyranny less glaring than the former. The subjects were no longer affrighted with inhuman massacres, but then they were harassed by unjust sentences and forms of judicature, which seemed to defer death only to render life itself uncomfortable. The court governed, and was likewise swayed in its turn, by a greater variety of artifices and a more exquisite train of political resinements, which were conducted with greater silence than usual. In a word, instead of an unterrisied disposition to form a bad action, and a cruel precipitation to commit it, those gigantic iniquities shrunk into the vices of weak minds, and could only be called languid crimes.
A new train of corruption was now introduced, the first emperors pursued pleasures, but these sunk into softness. They shewed themselves with less frequency to the soldiers, were more indolent and fonder of their domestics, more devoted to the palace, and more abstracted from the empire.
The poison of the court grew more malignant in proportion to the disguise it assumed. All direct terms were disused in discourse, and distant insinuations became the dialect of the palace. Every shining reputation was sullied, and the ministers as well as the officers of the army were perpetually left to the discretion of that sort of people, who, as they cannot be useful to the state themselves, suffer none to serve it with reputation and glory.
In a word, that affability of the first emporors, which alone qualified them for an insight into their affairs, was now entirely discarded. The prince had no informations, but what were conveyed to him by the canal of a few favourites, who acted always in concert together, and even when they seemed to disagree in their opinions, were only in the province of a single person to their sovereign.
The residence of several emperors in Asia, and their perpetual competition with the kings of Persia, made them form a resolution to be adorned like those monarchs; and Dioclesian, though others say Gallerius, published an edict to that effect.
This pompous imitation of the Asiatic pride being once established, the people were soon habituated to such a spectacle, and when Julian would have regulated his conduct by a modest simplicity of manners, that proceeding which was no more than a renovation of the ancient behaviour, was imputed to him as a reproachful inattention to his dignity.
Though several emperors had reigned after Marcus Aurelius, yet the empire was undivided; and as the authority of those princes was acknowledged in all the provinces, it was but one power though exercised by many persons.
But Galerius * and Constantius Chlorus, being at variance with each other, divided the empire in reality; and this example, which was afterwards followed by Constantine, who pursuing the plan of Galerius and not that of Dioclesian, introduced a custom which might be called a revolution rather than a change.
We may likewise add, that the strong desire of Constantine to be the founder of a new city, and an impulse of vanity to distinguish it by his own name, determined him to transfer the seat of empire to the east. Though Rome was far from being so spacious within the walls as it is at present, yet the suburbs were prodigiously extensive † : Italy was filled with seats of pleasure, and might properly be called the garden of Rome. The husbandmen were in Cicily, Africa, and Egypt ‡ ; but the gardeners lived altogether in Italy. The lands were generally cultivated by the slaves of the Roman citizens, but when the seat of empire was established in the east, all Rome was in a manner transplanted to that situation. Thither did the Grandees send their slaves, or, in other words, the greatest part of the people, and Italy was almost exhausted of its inhabitants.
It was Constantine’s intention that the new city should not be inferior in any particular to the old one; and therefore he took care to have it sufficiently supplied with corn, commanding all the harvest of Egypt to be sent to Constantinople, and consigning that of Africa to Rome, which does not seem to have been a very judicious proceeding.
Whilst the republic subsisted, the people of Rome, who were then the sovereigns of all other nations, became naturally entitled to a proportion of the tribute: this circumstance induced the senate to sell them corn, at first, for a low price, and afterwards to make a gratuitous distribution of it among them; and when monarchy itself was introduced, this latter custom was still continued, though entirely opposite to the principles of that form of government. It is true, the abuse remained unrectified through an apprehension of the inconveniences that would have risen from its discontinuance; but when Constantine founded a new city, he established the same custom without the least appearance of reason.
When Augustus had conquered Egypt, he conveyed the treasure of the Ptolomies to Rome; and this proceeding occasioned much the same revolution which the discovery of the Indies afterwards effected in Europe, and which some ridiculous schemes have since accomplished in our time. The revenue was doubled at Rome * , and as that city continued to absorb all the riches of Alexandria, which was itself the repository of the treasures of Africa and the East; gold and silver by these means became very common in Europe, and the people were able to pay very considerable taxations even in money.
But when the empire was afterwards divided, all these riches flowed in a full tide to Constantinople; and we may add to this unhappy circumstance, that the mines in Germany † had not then been opened: that those of Italy * and Gaul were very few and inconsiderable; and that the mines of Spain † had not been worked since the Carthaginians lost that country, or at least they were not so productive as formerly; Italy itself was now a continued waste of forsaken gardens, and consequently could not be in any condition to draw money from the East, whilst the West at the same time was drained of all its wealth, by the oriental merchants who supplied the inhabitants with their necessary commodities. Gold and Silver, by these means became extremely scarce in Europe; and yet the emperors extorted the same pecuniary tributes as formerly, which completed the general destruction.
When a government has been established in one certain form, and its political circumstances are adjusted to a particular situation, it is generally prudent to leave them in that condition; for the same causes which have enabled such a state to subsist, though they may frequently be complicated and unknown, will still continue to support it; but when the whole system is changed, remedies can only be accommodated to the inconveniences visible in the theory, whilst others, which nothing but experience can point out, are lurking without opposition in the new plan.
For these reasons, though the empire grew already too great, yet it was effectually ruined by the divisions into which it was parcelled, because all the parts of this vast body, had, for a long series of time, been arranged so as to become settled and steady, and were compacted by a mutual dependency through the whole.
Constantine ‡ , after he had weakened the capital, proceeded to impair the frontiers by drawing off those legions which were stationed on the banks of great rivers, and distributing them into the provinces. This innovation was extremely prejudicial in more instances than one; for as the barrier which comprehended so many nations was now removed; so the soldiers * passed all their time, and grew effeminate in the Circus and the theatres † .
When Julian was sent by Constantius into Gaul, he found that fifty towns on the Rhine ‡ had been taken by the Barbarians, and that the provinces were all plundered, and that there was now no more than the shadow of a Roman army, which fled at the very mention of the enemies name.
This prince by his wisdom ∥ , and preservance, joined with œconomy, conduct, and valour, and prospered by a noble series of heroic actions, chaced the Barbarians out of their new settlements, and his name became a terror to them as long as he lived § .
The shortness of the reigns, the various political parties, the different religions, and the particular sects of these religions, have greatly disfigured the characters of the emperors; I shall give only two examples: that Alexander, who is a coward in Herodian, is a hero in Lampridius; that Gratian, so highly celebrated by the Orthodox, is compared to Nero by Philostorgius.
No prince saw the necessity of restoring the ancient plan, more than Valentinian. His whole life was employed in fortifying the banks of the Rhine, making levies, raising castles, placing troops in proper stations, and furnishing them with subsistence on those frontiers; but an event that afterwards happened, determined his brother Valents to open the Danube, and that proceeding was attended with very dreadful consequences.
That track of land which lies between the Palus Mæotis, the mountains of Caucasus and the Caspian sea, was inhabited by a numerous people who composed great part of the nation of the Huns, or that of the Alans. The soil was exceedingly fertile; the inhabitants were fond of wars and robberies; and were always either on horseback or in their chariots, and wandered about the country wherein they were inclosed: they sometimes made depredations on the frontiers of Persia and Armenia; but the ports of the Caspian sea were easily guarded, and it was difficult for them to penetrate into Persia by any other avenues; and as they imagined it impracticable to cross the Palus Mæotis, they were altogether unacquainted with the Romans; so that whilst other nations of Barbarians ravaged the empire, these confined themselves within the limits which their ignorance had drawn around them.
It has been the opinion of some, * that the slime which was rolled down by the current of the Tanais had by degrees formed a kind of incrustation on the surface of the Cimmerian Bosphorus, over which these people are supposed to have passed. Others † inform us, that two young Scythians being in full pursuit of a hind, the terrified creature swam over that arm of the sea, upon which the youths immediately followed her in the same track, were exceedingly astonished to find themselves in a new world; and, at their return to the old one, they gave their countrymen * a particular account of the strange hands, and if I may be indulged the expression, in inviting Indies they had lately discovered.
Upon this information, an innumerable body of Huns immediately passed those streights; and, meeting first with the Goths, made that people fly before them. It should seem as if these mighty countries poured their nations out precipitately upon one another, and that Asia had acquired a new weight to make it ponderate equal to the European power.
The Goths in consternation presented themselves on the banks of the Danube, and with a suppliant air intreated the Romans to allow them a place of refuge. The flatterers † of Valens improved this conjecture, and represented it as a fortunate conquest of a new people, who, by the accession of their numbers, would defend and enrich the empire.
Valens ordered ‡ them to be admitted into his territories upon delivering up their arms; but his officers suffered them to re-purchase with their money as many as they pleased: they were afterwards distributed into several allotments of land; but the Goths, ∥ contrary to the custom of the Huns, did not cultivate the portions of ground assigned them. They were even left destitute of the promised supplies of corn, and were ready to perish amidst a land of plenty; they were armed for war, and yet unjustly insulted. In consequence of these provocations, they ravaged all the country from the Danube to the Bosphorus; they destroyed Valens and all his army, and repassed the Danube only to quit the hideous solitude they had effected by their devastations * .
[* ]See Orosius, lib. vii. and Aurelius Victor.
[† ]Expatiantia tecta multos addidere urbes, says Plin. Nat. Hist. lib. iii.
[‡ ]Coin, says Tacitus, was formerly exported from Italy to the distant provinces, and it is not a barren land now; but we cultivate Africa and Egypt, and choose to expose the lives of the Roman people to danger.
[* ]Seuton. in August. Oros. lib. vi. Rome often met with these revolutions. I have before observed, that the treasures brought hither from Macedonia, su erseded all farther tribute. Cicero in his Offices, lib. ii.
[† ]Tacitus, De moribus Germanorum, declares this in express terms. Besides, We know pretry nearly the time in which most of the mines of Germany were opened. See Thomas Sesreiberus of the origin of the mines of the Harts. Those of Saxony are thought to be less ancient.
[* ]See Pliny Nat. Hist. xxxvii. 77.
[† ]The Carthaginians, says Diodorus, understood very well the art of making an advantage of them; and the Romans that of hindering others from making such advantage.
[‡ ]This account of Constantine’s proceedings no ways contradicts the ecclesiastical writers, who declare they confine themselves to those actions of this prince which had any relation to religion, without concerning themselves with the political transactions in that reign. Euseb. Life of Constantine, lib i. c. 9. Socrates, lib. 1. c. 1.
[* ]Zozimus, lib. ii.
[† ]After the establishment of Christianity, the combats of gladiators were very seldom exhibited, and Constantine prohibited them by his authority; but this barbarous custom was not entirely abolished till the time of Honorius. The Romans retained nothing of their ancient shews, but what tended to emascolate their minds, and allure them to pleasure. In former times, the soldiers before they took the field, were entertained with a combat of gladiators, to familiarise them to the fight of blood and weapons of war, and to inspire them with intrepidity when they engaged the enemy. Jul. Capit. Life of Maximus and Balbinus.
[‡ ]Ammian. Marcellin. lib. xvi. xvii. and xviii.
[∥ ]Ammian. Marcellin. ibid.
[§ ]See the noble panegyric made by Ammianus Marcellinus on this prince, lib. xxv.
[* ]Zozimus, lib. iv.
[† ]Jornandes de rebus Geticis. The Miscellaneous Hist. of Procopius.
[* ]Vide Sozomen, lib. vi.
[† ]Ammian. Marcellin. lib. xxix.
[‡ ]Several of those who had received these orders abandoned themselves to a brutal passion for some of the male refugees; others were ensnared by the beauty of the young barbarians of the other sex, and became the captives of their female slaves; a third sort were corrupted by presents in money, linen habits, and fringed mantles; and all their thoughts only tended to enrich their houses with slaves, and to stock their farms with cattle. Hist. of Dexippus.
[∥ ]See the Gothic history by Priscus, who has set this difference of customs in a clear light. It may be asked perhaps, how it was possible for nations who never cultivated their lands, to be so powerful, when those of America are so very weak: it is because people who follow a pastoral life are furnished with a better subsistence than those who live by the chace.
[* ]See Zozimus, lib. iv. Se also Dexippus’s Extract of the Embassies of Constantine Porphyrogenitus.