Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION 12: The Glory, Virtue, and Power of the Romans began and ended with their Liberty. - Discourses Concerning Government
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SECTION 12: The Glory, Virtue, and Power of the Romans began and ended with their Liberty. - Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government 
Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996).
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The Glory, Virtue, and Power of the Romans began and ended with their Liberty.
Among many fine things proposed by our author, I see none more to be admired, or that better declares the soundness of his judgment, than that he is only pleased with the beginning and end of the Roman empire; and says, that their time of liberty (between those two extremes) had nothing of good in it, but that it was of short continuance:1 whereas I dare affirm that all that was ever desirable, or worthy of praise and imitation in Rome, did proceed from its liberty, grow up and perish with it: which I think will not be contradicted by any, but those who prefer the most sordid vices before the most eminent virtues; who believe the people to have been more worthily employ’d by the Tarquins in cleaning jakes and common shores, than in acquiring the dominion of the best part of mankind; and account it better for a people to be oppressed with hard labour under a proud master in a sterile, unhealthy ten-mile territory, than to command all the countries that lie between the Euphrates and Britain. Such opinions will hardly find any better patrons than Filmer and his disciples, nor the matters of fact, as they are represented, be denied by any that know the histories of those times. Many Romans may have had seeds of virtue in them, whilst in the infancy of that city they lived under kings; but they brought forth little fruit. Tarquin, surnamed the Proud, being a Grecian by extraction, had perhaps observed that the virtue of that nation had rendered them averse to the divine government he desir’d to set up; and having by his well-natur’d Tullia poison’d his own brother her husband, and his own wife her sister, married her, killed her father, and spared none that he thought able to oppose his designs, to finish the work, he butcher’d the senate, with such as seemed most eminent among the people, and like a most pious father endeavour’d to render the city desolate: during that time they who would not be made instruments of those villainies were obliged for their own safety to conceal their virtues; but he being removed, they shined in their glory. Whilst he reign’d, Brutus, Valerius, Horatius, Herminius, Larcius, and Coriolanus, lay hid and unregarded; but when they came to fight for themselves, and to employ their valour for the good of their country, they gave such testimonies of bravery, as have been admired by all succeeding ages, and settled such a discipline, as produced others like to them, or more excellent than they, as long as their liberty lasted. In two hundred and sixty years that they remained under the government of kings, tho all of them, the last only excepted, were chosen by the senate and people, and did as much to advance the publick service as could reasonably be expected from them, their dominion hardly extended so far as from London to Hownslow: But in little more than three hundred years after they recovered their liberty, they had subdued all the warlike nations of Italy, destroy’d vast armies of the Gauls, Cimbri, and Germans, overthrown the formidable power of Carthage, conquer’d the Cisalpine and Transalpine Gauls, with all the nations of Spain, notwithstanding the ferocity of the one, and the more constant valour of the other, and the prodigious multitudes of both: They had brought all Greece into subjection, and by the conquest of Macedon the spoils of the world to adorn their city; and found so little difficulty in all the wars that happened between them and the greatest king after the death of Alexander of Epirus and Pyrrhus, that the defeats of Syphax, Perseus, Antiochus, Prusias, Tigranes, Ptolemy, and many others, did hardly deserve to be numbered amongst their victories.
It were ridiculous to impute this to chance, or to think that fortune, which of all things is the most variable, could for so many ages continue the same course, unless supported by virtue; or to suppose that all these monarchies which are so much extoll’d, could have been destroyed by that commonwealth, if it had wanted strength, stability, virtue, or good order. The secret counsels of God are impenetrable; but the ways by which he accomplishes his designs are often evident: When he intends to exalt a people, he fills both them and their leaders with the virtues suitable to the accomplishment of his end; and takes away all wisdom and virtue from those he resolves to destroy. The pride of the Babylonians and Assyrians fell through the baseness of Sardanapalus; and the great city was taken while Belshazzar lay drunk amongst his whores: The empire was transported to the Persians and Grecians by the valor of Cyrus, Alexander, and the brave armies that follow’d them. Histories furnish us with innumerable examples of this kind: But I think none can be found of a cowardly, weak, effeminate, foolish, ill disciplin’d people, that have ever subdued such as were eminent in strength, wisdom, valor, and good discipline; or that these qualities have been found or subsisted anywhere, unless they were cultivated and nourished by a well order’d government. If this therefore was found among the Romans, and not in the kingdoms they overthrew, they had the order and stability which the monarchies had not; and the strength and virtue by which they obtained such success was the product of them. But if this virtue and the glorious effects of it did begin with liberty, it did also expire with the same. The best men that had not fallen in battle were gleaned up by the proscriptions, or circumvented for the most part by false and frivolous accusations. Mankind is inclin’d to vice, and the way to virtue is so hard, that it wants encouragement; but when all honours, advantages and preferments are given to vice, and despised virtue finds no other reward than hatred, persecution, and death, there are few who will follow it. Tacitus well describes the state of the empire, when the power was absolutely fallen into the hands of one: Italia novis cladibus, vel post longam seculorum seriem repetitis, afflicta; urbs incendiis vastata, consumptis antiquissimis delubris, ipso Capitolio civium manibus incenso; pollutae ceremoniae; magna adulteria; plenum exciliis mare; infecti caedibus scopuli; atrocius in urbe saevitum; nobilitas, opes, omissi vel gesti honores pro crimine, & ob virtutes certissimum exitium.2 His following words shew, that the rewards of these abominations were not less odious than the things themselves: The highest dignities were bestowed upon the delatores, who were a kind of rogues like to our Irish witnesses, or those that by a new coin’d word we call trepanners. This is not a picture drawn by a vulgar hand, but by one of the best painters in the world; and being a model that so much pleases our author, ’tis good to see what it produced. The first fruit was such an entire degeneracy from all good, that Rome may be justly said never to have produced a brave man since the first age of her slavery. Germanicus and Corbulo were born expirante libertate;3 and the recompence they received did so little encourage others to follow their example, that none have been found in any degree like to them; and those of the most noble families applied themselves to sleep, laziness, and luxury, that they might not be suspected to be better than their masters. Thrasea, Soranus, and Helvidius were worthy men, who resolved to persist in their integrity, tho they should die for it; but that was the only thing that made them eminent; for they were of unknown families, not Romans by birth, nor ever employ’d in war: And those emperors who did arrive to any degree of virtue, were Spaniards, Gauls, Africans, Thracians, and of all nations, except Romans. The patrician and plebeian families, which for many ages had fill’d the world with great commanders, and such as excelled in all virtues, being thus extinguished or corrupted, the common people fell into the lowest degree of baseness: Plebs sordida circo & theatris sueta.4 That people which in magnanimity surpassed all that have been known in the world; who never found any enterprize above their spirit to undertake, and power to accomplish, with their liberty lost all their vigour and virtue. They who by their votes had disposed of kingdoms and provinces, fell to desire nothing but to live and see plays.
Whether their emperors were good or bad, they usually rejoic’d at their death, in hopes of getting a little money or victuals from the successor. Tho the empire was by this means grown weak and bloodless, yet it could not fall on a sudden: So vast a body could not die in a moment: All the neighbouring nations had been so much broken by their power, that none was able to take advantage of their weakness; and life was preserved by the strength of hungry barbarians, allured by the greatness of the pay they received to defend those, who had no power left to defend themselves. This precarious and accidental help could not be durable. They who for a while had been contented with their wages, soon began to think it fit for them rather to fight for themselves, than for their weak masters; and thereupon fell to set up emperors depending on themselves, or to seize upon the naked provinces, where they found no other difficulty than to contend with other strangers, who might have the like design upon the same. Thus did the armies of the East and West set up emperors at their pleasure; and tho the Goths, Vandals, Huns, Sueves, Alans, and others had cruel wars among themselves, yet they feared and suffered little or nothing from the Romans. This state of things was so soon observed, that in the beginning of Tiberius his reign they who endeavoured to excite the Gauls to take arms, used no other arguments than such as were drawn from the extreme weakness of the Romans, Quam inops Italia, plebs urbana imbellis, nihil in exercitibus validum praeter externum.6 It was evident that after the battles of Philippi and Actium, the strength of the Roman armies consisted of strangers; and even the victories that went under their name were gained by those nations which in the time of their liberty they had subdued. They had nothing left but riches gather’d out of their vast dominions; and they learnt by their ruin, that an empire acquir’d by virtue could not long be supported by money. They who by their valour had arrived at such a height of glory, power, greatness, and happiness as was never equalled, and who in all appearance had nothing to fear from any foreign power, could never have fallen, unless their virtue and discipline had decay’d, and the corruption of their manners had excited them to turn their victorious swords into their own bowels. Whilst they were in that flourishing condition, they thought they had nothing more to desire than continuance: but if our author’s judgment is to be followed, there was nothing of good in it, except the shortness of its continuance; they were beholden to those who wrought the change, they were the better for the battles of Pharsalia, Philippi, Munda, and Actium; the destruction of two thirds of the people, with the slaughter of all the most eminent men among them was for their advantage: The proscriptions were wholesome remedies: Tacitus did not understand the state of his own country, when he seems to be ashamed to write the history of it, Nobis in arcto & inglorius labor;7 when instead of such glorious things as had been achieved by the Romans, whilst either the senate, or the common people prevailed, he had nothing left to relate, but saeva jussa, continuas accusationes, fallaces amicitias, perniciem innocentium.8 They enjoy’d nothing that was good from the expulsion of the Tarquins to the reestablishment of divine absolute monarchy in the persons of those pious fathers of the people, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, &c. There was no virtue in the Junii, Horatii, Cornelii, Quintii, Decii, Manlii; but the generous and tender-hearted princes before-mentioned were perfect examples of it: Whilst annual magistrates governed, there was no stability; Sejanus, Macro, and Tigellinus introduced good order: Virtue was not esteemed by the ancient senate and people; Messalina, Agrippina, Poppaea, Narcissus, Pallas, Vinius, and Laco knew how to put a just value upon it: The irregularities of popular assemblies, and want of prudence in the senate, was repaired by the temperate proceedings of the German, Pannonian and Eastern armies, or the modest discretion of the Praetorian bands: The city was delivered by them from the burden of governing the world, and for its own good frequently plunder’d, fired; and at last, with the rest of desolated Italy, and the noblest provinces of Europe, Asia, and Africa, brought under the yoke of the most barbarous and cruel nations. By the same light we may see that those who endeavour’d to perpetuate the misery of liberty to Rome, or lost their lives in the defence of it, were the worst, or the most foolish of men, and that they were the best who did overthrow it. This rectifies all our errors; and if the highest praises are due to him that did the work, the next are well deserved by those who perished in attempting it: and if the sons of Brutus, with their companions the Vitellii and Aquilii; Claudius Appius the decemvir; those that would have betrayed the city to Porsenna; Spurius Maelius, Spur. Cassius, Manlius Capitolinus, Saturninus, Catiline, Cethegus, Lentulus, had been as fortunate as Julius Caesar, they might as well have deserved an apotheosis. But if all this be false, absurd, bestial, and abominable, the principles that necessarily lead us to such conclusions are so also; which is enough to shew, that the strength, virtue, glory, wealth, power, and happiness of Rome proceeding from liberty, did rise, grow, and perish with it.
[Patriarcha, ch. 16 (“Imperfections of Democracies. Rome Began Her Empire under Kings and Perfected It under Emperors. The People of Rome in Danger Oft Fled to Monarchy”), p. 87.]
C. Tacit. Hist. l. 1. [“Italy was afflicted with new disasters or ones that recurred after a long series of ages; the city was devastated by conflagrations, in which her most ancient shrines were consumed and the very Capitol fired by citizens’ hands; the rites were polluted, there were great adulteries; the sea was filled with exiles, the cliffs stained with their blood; in the city there was more awful savagery; nobility, wealth, the refusal or acceptance of office, were grounds for accusations, and virtues ensured ruin.” Tacitus, Histories, bk. 1, ch. 2.]
[“When liberty was dying.”]
C. Tacit. [“The degraded common people frequented the circus and theaters.” Tacitus, Histories, bk. 1, ch. 4.]
Juven. Sat. [“Anxiously the people desire only two things, bread and circuses.” Juvenal, Satire 10, li. 80.]
C. Tacit. An. l. 3. [“How weak is Italy, how unwarlike the common people of the city; there is no strength in the armies except the foreign element.” Tacitus, Annals, bk. 3, ch. 4.]
Annal. l. 4. [“My labor is restricted and inglorious.” Ibid., bk. 4, ch. 32.]
[“Savage commands, endless accusations, false friendships, destruction of the innocent.” Ibid., ch. 33.]