Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XXIII.: The Duration of the Eastern Empire accounted for. Its Destruction. - Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
Return to Title Page for Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAP. XXIII.: The Duration of the Eastern Empire accounted for. Its Destruction. - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Duration of the Eastern Empire accounted for. Its Destruction.
AFTER this account of the Grecian empire, it seems natural to enquire how it could possibly subsist so long, and I believe sufficient reasons may be assigned for that duration.
The Arabians having invaded the empire and conquered several provinces, their chiefs became competitors for the Khalisat, and the flame of their first zeal only burst out in civil dissensions.
The same people having conquered Persia, and afterwards divided and weakened themselves in that country, the Greeks were no longer obliged to keep the principal forces of the empire stationed on the banks of the Euphrates.
Callinicus, an architect, who came from Syria to Constantinople, invented an artificial flame, which was easily ventilated into a point by means of a tube, and was of such a peculiar nature, that water and every other substance which extinguish common fire did but increase the violence of this. The Greeks were in possession of it for several years, and managed it in such a manner as made it capable of firing their enemies ships, particularly the Arabian fleet which sailed from Africa or the Syrian coasts to invade them even in Constantinople.
This flame was ranked among the secrets of state, and Constantine Porphyrogenitus in his treatise on the administration of the empire, and which he dedicated to his son Romanus, advises him to tell the Barbarians, when they should desire him to give them any of the Grecian fire, that he was not permitted to part with it, because an angel, who presented it the emperor Constantine, commanded to refuse it to all other nations, and that those who had disobeyed that injunction were consumed by a fire from heaven the moment they entered the church.
Constantinople was the greatest, and almost the only city of commerce in the world; for the Goths on the one side, and the Arabians on the other, had ruined all manner of traffic and industry in every other part. The silken manufactures were brought thither from Persia, and were even neglected in that country since the Arabian invasion. We may add to this that the Greeks were masters at sea, which opened an immense flow of riches into the state, and proved an inexhaustible source of relief in all its emergencies; and if at any time there seemed to be any declension of the public affluence, it was immediately recruited by a new accession.
We shall justify this observation by a remarkable instance: the elder Andronicus Comnenus, though he was the Nero of the Greeks, yet amidst all his vices he was indefatigable in the suppression of injustice and vexations in the grandees, and it is a known fact, that during the three years of his reign, he restored several provinces to their ancient splendor.
In fine, the Barbarians having once fixed their settlement on the banks of the Danube, were no longer so formidable to the empire as before, but rather became useful to it as a barrier against other barbarous nations. And thus whilst the empire was harassed by any bad government, some particular incidents were always in reserve for its relief. Thus we see Spain and Portugal in a condition, amidst all their weakness, to support themselves with the treasures of the Indies: the temporal dominions of the Pope owe their safety to the respect paid to their sovereign, and the rovers of Barbary derive their security from the obstructions they fasten upon the commerce of lesser * nations, and the very piracies of these people on inferior states, make them serviceable in their turn to the greater.
The Turkish empire is at present in the same state of declension to which that of the Greeks was formerly † sunk, but in all probability it will still subsist a long time; for should any prince endanger it by pursuing his conquests to an immoderate extent, it will always be desended by the three trading powers of Europe, who are too sensible of their own interests ever to be unconcerned spectators of its fall.
It is happy for these trading powers, that God has permitted Turks and Spaniards to be in the world, for of all nations they are the most proper to enjoy a great empire with insignificance.
In the time of Basilius Porphyrogenitus, the Arabian power came to its period in Persia. Mohammed the son of Sambreal, who was then sovereign of that empire, invited four thousand Turks from the North, in the quality of auxiliaries; but upon a sudden dissatisfaction conceived by this prince, he sent an army against them, which was soon put to flight by the Turks. Mohammed, in the height of his indignation against his pusillanimous soldiers, gave orders, that they should pass before him habited like women; but they disappointed his anger and joined the Turks: upon which the united army immediately dislodged a garrison which was stationed to guard a bridge over the Araxes, and opened a free passage to a vast body of their countrymen.
When they had extended their conquests through Persia, they spread themselves from east to west over the territories of the empire, and Romanus Diogenes, who endeavoured to oppose their progress, became their prisoner; after which they subdued all the Asiatic dominions of the Greeks down to the Bosphorus.
Some time after this event the Latins invaded the western regions in the reign of Alexis Commenus. An unhappy schism had for a long time infused an implacable hatred between the nations of two different communions, and would have produced fatal effects much sooner, had not the Italians been more attentive to check the German emperors whom they feared, than they were to distress the Greek emperors whom they only hated.
Affairs were in this situation, when all Europe imbibed a religious belief that the place where Jesus Christ was born, as well as that where he accomplished his passion, being profaned by the infidels, the surest atonement they could make for their own sins, would be to dispossess those Barbarians of their acquisitions by force of arms. Europe at that time swarmed with people who were fond of war, and had many crimes to expiate, and as it was proposed to them to obtain their remission by indulging their prevailing passion, every man armed himself for the crusade.
When this consecrated army arrived in the east, they besieged and made themselves masters of Nice, which they restored to the Greeks; and, whilst the infidels were seized with a general consternation, Alexis and John Commenus chaced the Turks to the banks of Euphrates.
But as advantageous as these crusades might be to the Greeks, the emperors trembled to see such a succession of fierce heroes and formidable armies marching through the heart of their dominions.
This induced them to leave nothing unattempted that might create a dissatisfaction in Europe at these expeditions; and the votaries to the cross were continually ensnared by every instance of treachery that could possibly be expected from a timorous enemy.
It must be acknowledged that the French, who promoted these expeditions, had not practised any conduct that could render their presence very supportable; and we may judge by the invectives of Anna Comnena against our nation, that we act without much precaution in foreign countries, and were at that time chargeable with the same exceptionable freedoms we are reproached for at this day.
A French nobleman was going to seat himself upon the emperor’s throne, but earl Baldwin caught him by the arm: “You ought to know, said he, that when we are in any country whatever, it is proper to comply with the customs that prevail there.” “What a clown is He, replied the other, to sit whilst so many captains are standing?”
The Germans, who came after the French, and were the most civil and undesigning people in the world * , suffered very severely for our follies, and were continually embarassed with a set of dispositions that had been sufficiently irritated by our countrymen against all foreigners.
In fine, the aversion of those eastern people was worked up to the highest extreme; and this, with some incivilities offered to the Venetian merchants, operating upon the ambition, avarice, and false zeal of that nation as well as the French, determined them to form a crusade against the Greeks.
The united army of these two European nations found their enemies altogether as pusillanimous and unwarlike as the Chinese appeared to the Tartars in our time. The Frenchmen ridiculed their effeminate habit † , and walked through the streets of Constantinople dressed in flowered mantles, and carrying pens and paper in their hands, in derision of that nation, who had degenerated from all military discipline; and when the war was over, they refused to admit any Greeks into their troops.
The Venetians and French soon after declared for the western empire, and transferred the imperial throne to the earl of Flanders, whose dominions being very distant, could not create any jealousy in the Italians. The Greeks still supported themselves in the east, being separated from the Turks by a chain of mountains, and divided from the Italians by the sea.
The Latins, who found no obstacles in their conquests, met with many in their settlement. The Greeks returned from Asia into Europe, retook Constantinople, and seized the greatest part of the east.
This new empire, however, was but a feint shadow of the former, and had no solid power for its basis.
It comprehended few territories in Asia, besides the provinces on this side the Meander and Sangar, and most of those in Europe were parcelled out into small sovereignties.
We may add to this, that during the sixty years the Latins were possessed of Constantinople, the conquered people being dispersed, and the victors engaged in war, all commerce was transferred to the cities in Italy, and Constantinople became divested of its riches.
The commerce even of the inland countries was carried on by the Latins. The Greeks * , who were but newly re-established, and were likewise alarmed with innumerable apprehensions, became desirous to ingratiate themselves with the Genoese, by granting them a permission to traffic without paying any duties; and as they were unwilling to irritate the Venetians, who had not accepted of peace, but only consented to a truce, these were likewise discharged from the same payments.
Though Manuel Comnenus had suffered the navigation of the empire to decline before Constantinople was taken, yet it could be easily re-established, since commerce still subsisted; but when all maritime affairs became entirely neglected under the new empire, the mischief grew remediless, because the power of the empire was daily declining.
This state, which extended its dominion over many islands, and was intersected by the sea, which likewise surrounded several of its territories, was entirely unprovided of ships. The former communication no longer subsisted between the provinces: the inhabitants * were obliged to shelter themselves in the inland parts from pirates; and when they thought themselves safe in such a sanctuary, they soon found it necessary to retire into the fortresses, to preserve themselves from the hostilities of the Turks.
These barbarous people were at that time engaged in a peculiar war against the Greeks, and might properly be called hunters of men. They sometimes marched two hundred leagues into a country to accomplish their depredations; and as they were in subjection to several sultans † , it was impossible to purchase a peace from every tribe; and to procure it from any particular parties was altogether insignificant. These Barbarians had embraced Mohammedism, and their zeal for that religion strangely prompted them to ravage the Christian territories: besides, as they were the most unamiable people on earth ‡ , and married to wives as disagreeable as themselves, the moment they were acquainted with the Grecian women, all the rest of that sex became insupportable to them; and those beauteous females were continually exposed to the brutal passion of these Barbarians ∥ . In fine, they had been always accustomed to invade the properties of other people, and were the same Huns who had formerly involved the Roman empire in so many calamities.
The Turks broke in, like a deluge, upon the shattered remains of the Grecian empire in Asia; and those of the inhabitants who were happy enough to escape their fury, fled before them to the Bosphorus, from whence such as could accommodate themselves with ships, sailed to those parts of the empire that were situated in Europe, which occasioned a considerable addition to the number of the inhabitants, though they were diminished in a short period of time: for civil wars began to rage with so much fatality, that the two factions invited several Turkish sultans to their assistance * , with this extravagant and inhuman stipulation, that all the people of the country, who were made captives from the opposite party, should be carried into slavery; by which means each of those factions concurred in the destructions of their own country with a view of ruining their adversaries.
Bajazet having conquered all the other sultans, the Turks would then have acted agreeably to their future Behaviour in the reign of Mahommed II. had not they been in danger of extermination by the Tartars.
I am now afraid to describe the miseries which resulted from these revolutions; and shall only intimate, that the empire under its last monarchs, being contracted within the suburbs of Constantinople, finished its progress like the Rhine, which shrinks into a rivulet before it loses itself in the ocean.
A DIALOGUE BETWEEN SYLLA AND EUCRATES.
SOME days after Sylla had resigned the dictatorship, I was told the reputation I had among the philosophers made him desirous of seeing me. He was at his house on the Tiber, enjoying the first peaceful moments he had ever known. On coming before him, I felt nothing of that confusion which the presence of great men generally occasions in us. And when we were alone, Syila, said I to him, you have then voluntarily reduced yourself to that middle condition of life, which to most men is an affliction. You have resigned that command which your glory and your virtues gave you over all men. Fortune seems to be vexed, that she could not raise you to higher honours.
Eucrates, said he, if the eyes of the whole universe are no longer fixed on me, it is the fault of human things, which have their prescribed limits, and not owing to me. I imagined I had fulfilled my destiny, when I no longer had great things to achieve. I was not made for governing in quiet an enslaved people. I love to obtain victories, to found or overturn states, make alliances, punish usurpers: but as to the little subordinate branches of government, wherein middling geniuses shew themselves to so much advantage, the slow execution of the laws, the discipline of a tame militia, my soul could not employ itself in them.
It is very singular, said I, that you should have mixed so much delicacy with your ambition. We have seen many great men unaffected with the vain pomp and splendor which wait on rulers; but there have been very few insensible of the pleasure of governing, and of having that respect, which is due only to the laws, paid to their humour.
And I, Eucrates was never less satisfied, than when I saw myself absolute master in Rome; when I looked round me, and found neither rival nor enemy. I thought it would be one day said, that I had only chastised slaves. Would you, said I to myself, have no more men in your country capable of being affected with your glory? And since you establish despotism, do not you clearly see, that no prince can come after you so cowardly and despicable, whom flattery will not equal to you, and adorn with your name, your titles, and even your virtues?
My Lord, you have quite changed the idea I had formed of your conduct. I thought you had ambition, but not a love of glory: I saw very well that you had a high spirit, but I did not suspect that you had a great soul: your whole life seemed to discover you to be one preyed on by lust of power, and who, full of the most destructive passions chearfully loaded himself with the shame, the remorse, and even the meanness attached to despotism. For, after all, you sacrificed every thing to your power; you were feared by all the Romans; you discharged, without pity, the functions of the most terrible magistracy that ever subsisted. The senate looked with dread on a defender so relentless. Some one said to you, Sylla, how much Roman blood will you shed; do you want to command bare walls? You then published those tables by which the life and death of every citizen were determined.
And it is the shedding so much blood that has enabled me to do the greatest action of my whole life. Had I ruled the Romans with gentleness, what wonder, that weariness, disgust or caprice should make me resign the government? But I laid down the dictatorship at a time when every one thought I entirely owed my safety to my being invested with it. I appeared before the Romans a citizen in the midst of my citizens, and had the boldness to say to them, I am ready to give account of all the blood which I have shed for the republic; I will answer all who shall come to demand of me their fathers, their sons, or their brothers. Every Roman was silent before me.
This great action which you speak of, appears to me very imprudent. The astonishment, indeed, into which you had just thrown the Romans, was of service to you: but how could you dare to talk of vindicating yourself, and taking for judges persons who had so much to revenge on you? supposing your actions had been only severities while you were in power, they became frightful crimes the moment you were out of power.
Do you call crimes, said he, what saved the republic? Would you have had me quietly see senators betray the senate, for that people, who, imagining that liberty ought to be as extreme as slavery can be, wanted to abolish all authority? The people, kept under by the laws and the weight of the senate, have always endeavoured to overturn both. But he who is so ambitious as to serve them against the senate and the laws, has always ambition enough to become their master. It is thus we have seen an end put to so many republics of Greece and Italy.
To prevent a like evil the senate hath always been obliged to employ this untractable people in war. It has been forced, against its inclination, to ravage the earth, and reduce so many nations, whose subjection is a burden to us. At present, when the universe can furnish no more enemies against us, what would be the fate of the republic? And, without me, would the senate have been able to prevent the people, in their blind fury for liberty, from delivering themselves up to Marius, or to the first tyrant who should have given them hopes of independence?
The gods, who have given to most men a cowardly ambition, have attached to Liberty almost as many evils as to Slavery. But whatever may be the price of this noble liberty, the gods must be paid it.
The sea swallows up vessels, and lays under water whole countries; yet it is useful to man.
Posterity will decide of what Rome has not as yet ventured to examine: it will find, perhaps, that I have not shed blood enough, and that all the partizans of Marius have not been proscribed.
I must own, Sylla, you astonish me; How! was it to serve your country, that you spilled so much blood? and had you no attachment but to her?
Eucrates, said he to me, I had never that predominant love for my country, of which we find so many examples in the first ages of the republic: and I love Coriolanus, who carried fire and sword to the very walls of his ungrateful city, and made every citizen repent the affront which every citizen had given him, as much as I do him who drove the Gauls from the capitol. I never piqued myself on being the slave, or the worshipper of a society of my equals: and this so much boasted love is a passion too popular for such a high spirit as mine. All my actions proceeded from reflexion, and principally from the contempt which I entertained for men. You may judge by the manner in which I treated the only great people in the world, how high my contempt was of all others.
I thought that while I was on the earth, I ought to be free. Had I been born among Barbarians, I should have sought to usurp the throne less to obtain command than to avoid obedience. Born in a republic, I have acquired the glory of a conqueror, in seeking only that of a free man.
When I entered Rome with my troops, I breathed neither rage nor revenge. I passed sentence without hatred, but also without pity, on astonished Romans. You were free, said I; and you want to live slaves. No. Die; and you will have the advantage of dying citizens of a free city.
To deprive of its liberty a city of which I was a citizen, I looked on as the greatest of crimes. I punished that crime; and was little concerned whether I should be the good or the evil genius of the Republic. However, the government of our ancestors has been re-established; the people have expiated all the indignities they put on the nobles; fear has suspended animosities, and Rome never enjoyed such perfect tranquility.
This it was which determined me to all the bloody tragedies you have seen. Had I lived in those happy days of the Republic, when the citizens, quiet in their houses, presented to the Gods a free soul, you would have seen me pass my whole life in this retreat, which has cost me so much blood and toil.
My lord, said I to him, it is well for mankind, that Heaven has been sparing in the number of such men as you. Born for a middling station, we are over-powered by sublime geniuses. One man’s being raised above humanity, costs all the rest too dear.
You looked on the ambition of heroes as a common passion; and made no account of any but a reasoning ambition. The insatiable desire of ruling, which you found in the hearts of some citizens, made you resolve to be an extraordinary man: love of liberty determined you to be terrible and cruel. Who would have thought, that a heroism founded on principle would be more destructive than a heroism founded on fury and impetuosity? The Roman people, you say, beheld you unarmed, and made no attempt on your life. You have escaped one danger; a greater may await you. A grand offender may one day take advantage of your moderation, and confound you in the crowd of a subjected people.
I have acquired a name, said he, which suffices for my safety and the safety of the Roman people. That name prevents all attempts; there is no ambition which does not stand in awe of it. Sylla lives; and his genius is more powerful than that of all the Romans. Sylla is surrounded by Chæronea, Orchomenus, and Signion: Sylla hath given every family in Rome a terrible example within itself: Every Roman will have me always before him, and even in his sleep I shall appear to him covered with blood; he will imagine he sees the fatal tables, and reads his name at the head of the proscribed. My laws are murmured at in secret; they can never be effaced but by floods of Roman blood. Am not I in the midst of Rome? You will still find with me the javelin I had at Orchomenus, and the buckler I wore on the walls of Athens. Because I have no lictors, am I the less Sylla? I have the senate, justice, and the laws for me; my genius, fortune, and glory are for the senate.
I own, said I, that when a person has once made any one tremble, he almost always retains something of the advantage he had over him.
Undoubtedly, said he, I struck men with astonishment, and that was a great deal. Review in your mind the story of my life: you will see that I have drawn all from that principle; and that it has been the soul of all my actions. Call to mind my quarrel with Marius: I was stung with indignation to see a man of no name, proud of the meanness of his birth, attempt to pull down the first families in Rome, and confound them with Plebeians; and at this time I bore all the weight of a great soul. I was young, and I resolved to put myself in a condition to call Marius to account for his insults. For this end, I fought him with his own weapons, that is to say, by victories over the enemies of the Republic.
When I was forced, by the caprice of chance, to leave Rome, I pursued the same plan: I went to make war on Mithridates; and laboured to destroy Marius by vanquishing the enemy of Marius. While I left that Roman to enjoy his power over the populace, I multiplied his mortifications, and forced him to go every day to the Capitol to return thanks to the Gods for successes which drove him to destraction. I waged a war of reputation against him, a hundred times more cruel than what my legions made on the Barbarian king. Every word I spoke shewed my daringness, and my most inconsiderable actions, always full of haughtiness, were fatal presages for Marius. At last Mithridates sued for peace; the terms were reasonable; and had Rome been in quiet, and my fortune not still wavering, I would have accepted them. But the bad state of my affairs obliged me to make the terms still harder. I demanded that he should destroy the fleet, and restore to the kings his neighbours the territories he had taken from them. I leave to you, said I, the kingdom of your ancestors; to you, who ought to thank me that I leave you the hand with which you signed an order for the execution of 100,000 Romans in one day. Mithridates was struck motionless, and Marius trembled in the midst of Rome.
This boldness, which was of such service to me against Mithridates, against Marius, against his son, against Thelisinus, against the people, which supported my dictatorship, also protected my life the day I resigned the dictatorship; and that day insures my liberty for ever.
My lord, said I, Marius reasoned in the same manner, when, covered with the blood of his enemies and of the Romans, he gave proofs of that boldness which you have punished. You have, it is true, a few more victories, and greater excesses on your side. But, in assuming the dictatorship, you set an example of the crime which you punished. This is the example which will be followed, and not that of your moderation which will only be admitted.
When the Gods suffered Sylla with impunity to make himself Dictator at Rome, they proscribed Liberty from it for ever. They must work too many miracles now to root out of the heart of every Roman leader the ambition of reigning. You have taught them, that there is a much surer way to arrive at despotism, and to maintain it without danger. You have divulged the fatal secret, and removed what alone makes good citizens in a republic too rich and too great, to despair of being able to oppress it.
He changed colour, and was silent for a moment. I am only afraid, said he, with emotion, of one man, in whom I think I see many Marius’s. Chance, or perhaps a more powerful destiny, made me spare him. My eyes are ever on him, I study his soul, where he hides deep purposes. But if he dares to form the design of commanding men whom I have made my equals, I swear by the Gods, I will punish his insolence.