Front Page Titles (by Subject) DISCOURSE X.: Of Armies and Conquest. - The Works of Tacitus, vol. 1 - Gordon's Discourses, Annals (Books 1-3)
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DISCOURSE X.: Of Armies and Conquest. - Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Works of Tacitus, vol. 1 - Gordon’s Discourses, Annals (Books 1-3) [120 AD]
The Works of Tacitus. In Four Volumes. To which are prefixed, Political Discourses upon that Author by Thomas Gordon. The Second Edition, corrected. (London: T. Woodward and J. Peele, 1737). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Works of Tacitus, 4 vols.
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Of Armies and Conquest.
The Burden and Danger of maintaining great Armies.
TOO many Princes are infatuated with false notions of Glory, and thence delight in War. Without doubt it is true Glory to excel in war, where war is necessary; but in the whole course of History, where one has been so, twenty have been otherwise; and to engage in it from the wantonness of ambition, or for the sake of Laurel, or through peevishness and humour, is to risque the blood, and treasure, and people, and being of a State, for the foppery of false Heroism: or to sacrifice the same to the selfish and inglorious view of making a Country (either that which conquers, or that which is conquered, or both) the prey of the Hero. For such has been generally the logic of the Sword, that because it has saved, it may therefore oppress and enthral, and for defending a part, take the whole. Wars beget great Armies; Armies beget great Taxes; heavy Taxes waste and impoverish the Country, even where Armies commit no violences; a case seldom to be supposed, bebause it has seldom happened. But where great Armies are, they must be employed, and do mischief abroad, to keep them from doing it at home; so that the people must be exhausted and oppressed to keep the men of the sword in exercise.
The great Turk, to keep the swords of the Janizaries from his own throat, is forced to plague his neighbours, even where he earns nothing but blows and disgrace; and thence increases the danger which he would avert; for, as by his Armies he makes all men slaves, he himself is a slave to his Armies, and often their victim; or, to escape himself, is frequently forced to satiate their fury by the blood of his bravest Officers, and best Counsellors. If it be the Glory of his Monarchy, that he can put the greatest men and all men to death, without reason, or form, or process; he is subject in his own person to the same lawless and expeditious butchery, from his own outrageous slaves, who being not accustomed to receive any Law from him, give him none, whenever he is in their power, which is as often as they think fit; and he who is a Prince of slaves, is adjudged by slaves, and dies like the meanest slave. What is there to save him? His people who are oppressed, want the inclination, and being unarmed, the power. So that he lives in personal servitude to those who are the instruments of public Servitude; and as others must die to please him, so must he to please them. It is the Law of retaliation, and operates as often as its causes operate, namely, caprice, or rage, or fear. This is the blessing of being absolute, and unfettered by human constitutions; the same sword which is lifted up for you at the command of whim or passion, is with the like wantonness lifted up against you; and if you reign in blood, you must not think it strange to die in it.
Great Armies the best disciplined, whether thence the less formidable to a Country. Their Temper and Views.
IN regard to public Liberty, Armies the best disciplined are not less to be dreaded than the worst, but I think, more; since their relaxation of discipline takes away from their union and sufficiency; it renders them weaker and less equal to mighty mischief; but where they are strict and united, the highest iniquities are not too big for them. Disorderly Troops may rob particulars, ravage towns, and harass a Country; but if you would subdue Nations, commit universal spoil, and enslave Empires, your forces must be under the best regulations. It was with an Army victorious and brave, and consequently well disciplined, that Agathocles slaughtered all the Nobles of Syracuse, and brought that illustrious State (the noblest of all the Greek Cities) under bondage. Cromwell’s conquest of his Country was made by Troops the most sober and best disciplined that this, or perhaps any other nation, had ever seen. And it was with the best of all the Roman Armies, that Cæsar established himself Tyrant of Rome.
Soldiers know little else but booty, and blind obedience; whatever their interest, or rapacity dictates, they generally will do; and whatever their officers command, they must do. It is their profession to dispute by force, and the sword; they too soon learn their own power, and where it is an overbalance for the Civil Power, it will always controul the Civil Power, and all things a . They find readily somewhat to say; the strongest is ever the best disputant, when he carries his reasons upon the point of his sword b . They have done great services, they have suffered great wrongs, and will therefore reward and redress themselves. It is the reasoning of Cæsarc . It is nothing to the purpose to say, that an Army listed amongst the natives, especially the officers being natives, and many of them men of fortune, will never hurt or oppress their Country; for such were Cromwell’s Army, such were Cæsar’s, and many other enslaving Armies; besides Armies are soon modelled, and Officers who are obnoxious, are soon changed.
No Government can subsist but by force, and where-ever that force lies, there it is that Government is or soon will be. Free States therefore have preserved themselves, and their Liberties, by arming all their people, because all the people are interested in preserving those Liberties; by drawing out numbers of them thus armed, to serve their Country occasionally, and by dissolving them (when that occasion was over) into the mass of the people again; by often changing the chief Officers, or, if they continued the same, by letting their commissions be temporary, and always subject to the controul of the supreme Power, often to that of other co-ordinate Power, as the Dutch Generals are to the Deputies. It is indeed but rare, that States who have not taken such precaution, have not lost their Liberties; their Generals have set up for themselves, and turned the Arms put into their hands against their Masters. This did Marius, Sylla, Cæsar, Dionysius, Agathocles, Charles Martel, Oliver Cromwell, and many others; and this they all did by the same means: it is still frequently done in the Eastern Monarchies; and by the same means all the Christian Princes of Europe, who were arbitrary, became so. For as the experience of all ages shews us, that all men’s views are to attain dominion and riches, it is ridiculous to hope, that they will not use the means in their power to attain them, and madness to trust them with those means. They will never want pretences, either from their own fafety, or the public Good, to justify the measures which have succeeded; and they know well, that the success will always justify itself; that great numbers will be found to sanctify their power; most of the rest will submit to it, and in time will think it just and necessary; perhaps at last believe it to be obtained miraculously, and to have been the immediate act of Heaven.
Princes ruling by military Power, ever at the Mercy of military Men.
AS by these means private men often come at Sovereign Power; so limited Princes often become arbitrary; but one mischief is inseparable from this sort of Government; they generally lose their Authority by the same method they get it. For, having attained it by violence, they are obliged to keep it by violence; and that cannot be done but by engaging in the interest of their Oppression a body of men, strong enough to maintain it; and it will for the most part happen, that as these men have no interest but their own in serving a Tyrant, so when that interest ceases, and they can serve themselves better in destroying him, they seldom fail of doing it. In fact we find, that in all the great despotic Governments in the world the Monarchs are slaves to their soldiery, and they murder and depose their Princes just according to their caprices. The General sets up any of the Princes of the blood, whom he thinks most for his interest, and often-times upon the death of the Possessor they are all set up, by one part of the Army or other, (if one cannot get all the rest into his power, and murder them) and the Civil War continues, till one has slaughtered all his rivals.
If this is not done in the modern absolute Governments of Europe, it is because despotic Power is not so thoroughly established there, and the people have yet some share of Property, and consequently of Power; but still they do it as much as they dare; in some instances they have set up themselves, and in almost all have been the principal engines and instruments in working about Revolutions, according to their own inclinations and disgusts. Of this we had many instances in our own Country, within the compass of not many years.
How much easier is it to corrupt a few leading Officers, often necessitous, generally ambitious, than to persuade a whole Kingdom, if they are well governed, to destroy themselves? Some will be disobliged, because not preferred to their wishes, or because others are preferred before them; they will differ according to their countries or their interests about the person to be their General, and to have the power of preferring or recommending Officers; and that part which is disappointed shall be a faction against that which succeeds. Where-ever Commissions are venal, there will be no difficulty of buying those, who are disaffected, into them, if they can disguise their disaffection till a proper opportunity. In a Country where factions abound, and those at the helm can find any account in keeping measures with a contrary faction, Officers will be put in to oblige that faction, sometimes to gratify friends or favourites; at different times, others will be discarded, to oblige one party, or to mortify the other. New men, by private recommendation or money, shall supercede old Officers; this will create new dissatisfactions and disgusts, as soon as they dare shew them. When the Administration is changed, and another party gets uppermost, all those things shall be done over again; so that at last an Army shall be a medley of all the factions of a Kingdom; and all their preferments and expectations depending upon the success of those factions; each individual will take every safe opportunity to advance his own; and for the most part one or other of these factions, sometimes all, are ready to join in shuffling the cards anew; the sure prelude of a Civil War.
This is and ever must be the case of all Countries which subsist by standing Armies. For there are few instances in History, to be given of Armies who did not play their own game, in times of distress; few instances of disobliged or unpreferred Officers, who did not change sides; too many have made their peace by some remarkable act of treachery; very often they have done it only from the motives of ambition and avarice. I wish that we never had had instances amongst ourselves of any who have done the same; or even of Generals who played a double game. What Oliver Cromwell, Monk, and very many both of the King’s and of the Parliament Officers did in the Civil War, we all know, as well as what King James’s Army did more lately: I wish we equally knew what intrigues of this kind have been carrying on since. In Civil Wars amongst men of the same Country, the communication is so easy between friends, relations and former acquaintance, that there is a very ready transition from one side to another; and a little success, small intrigues, and a few advantages generally make that transition.
Instances of the Boldness and Fury of the Roman Soldiery.
IT is astonishing from what light and wanton motives, by what vile and contemptible instruments, Armies are often instigated to violence and ravages. The sedition of that in Pannonia, after the death of Augustus, was raised by one common soldier, inflamed by another; rapine and massacres were committed or defended by almost all; they murdered their Officers; even their General had like to have been murdered, upon the credit of an impudent lie told by one of these vile incendiaries, who yet could scarce alledge any other grievance than that they had not too much pay, and too little discipline. Nor was the insurrection, excited by these two fellows, restrained to the Pannonian Legions only, but extended to those in Germany, who waxed into fury rather greater, and outraged all things human and divine.
It was one common soldier who gave the Empire to Claudius, by saluting him Emperor, while the poor dastardly wretch was lurking in a corner, and expecting death instead of Sovereignty. Under Galba two private Centinels undertook to transfer the Empire to another, and actually transferred it. It is shocking to reflect with what eagerness these blood-thirsty assassins hastened to murder that good old Prince, for no charge of misgovernment, nor for defrauding them of their pay; but because he would not exhaust the Public to glut them with bounties. They were such abandoned Russians, that they sought to kill Marius Celsus, purely because as he was an able and virtuous man, they judged him an enemy to themselves who delighted only in blood, and wickedness, and spoil. It would require a volume to recount the behaviour, the treacherous and inhuman exploits of these sons of violence thenceforward; their murdering and promoting of Emperors, sometimes two or three, sometimes more, once thirty at a time; their selling the Empire for money; their besieging and threatning to massacre the Senate; their burning the Capitol, setting fire to the Imperial City, pillaging and butchering its inhabitants, and using them like slaves and captives; with other instances of their insolence, barbarity, and misrule. In the third and fourth Volumes of this Work much of this will be seen, recounted by Tacitus.
The Gothic Governments were military in their first settlement; the General was King, the Officers were the Nobles, and the Soldiers their Tenants; but by the nature of the settlement, out of an Army a Country Militia was produced. The Prince had many occasional troops, but no standing troops; hence he grew not absolute, like the Great Turk; who having cantoned out the conquered Countries amongst his horsemen, must by doing it have lost his arbitrary Power, but that he kept a large body of men in arms, called the Janizaries.
Great Britain has preserved its Liberties so long, because it has preserved itself from great standing Armies; which, where-ever they are strong enough to master their Country, will certainly first or last master it. Some troops we must have for guards and garisons, enough to prevent sudden Insurrections, and sudden Revolutions. What numbers are sufficient for this, the experience of past times, and the sense of our Parliaments, have shewn.
The Humour of conquering, how injudicious, vain, and destructive.
THE Athenians began the ruin of their State, by a mad and expensive War upon Sicily; and from an ambition of conquering a people who had never offended them, exposed themselves to the attacks of the Lacedemonians, to the revolt of their own subjects, to domestic disorders, and the change of their Government. And though upon the recalling of Alcibiades, they won some victories, and for a while made some figure; they were at last conquered intirely by Lysander, their walls thrown down, the States subject to them set at liberty, and they themselves subjected to the domination of thirty Tyrants. They never after recovered their former Glory. The Lacedemonians fell afterwards into the same warlike folly, and their folly had the same fate. By lording over Greece they drew upon themselves a combination of Greek Cities, which together (especially the Thebans under the famous Epaminondas) despoiled them of their Authority, soon after their triumph over Athens. The Thebans too abused their good fortune; they were equally fond of fighting and conquest, and by it drew another confederacy against them. In truth, everyone of these States had been so long weakening themselves, and one another, by their propensity to War, that at last they fell under servitude to the Kings of Macedon, a Country formerly depending upon, or rather under vassalage to Athens and Sparta.
These States acted like some of the Princes of our time; by trusting to their own superior Prowess, they invaded their neighbours, and taught them Art enough to beat themselves. Thus the Muscovite, by falling upon the late King of Sweden, yet in his minority, roused a tempest that had well nigh overturned his Throne; and thus that King, by refusing the most honourable conditions of peace, and by urging his fate and revenge too far, taught the Russians that bravery and discipline which nothing could ever teach them before; saw his own brave Army utterly routed by forces that he despised; himself driven from his dominions, and a fugitive in a Country of Infidels; and his Provinces cantoned out amongst enemies, who, before he had tempted his good fortune to leave him, would have been glad to have compounded with him for a moiety of their own dominions.
Charles Duke of Burgundy had his head so turned with gaining the battel of Montl’hery, that he never listened afterwards to any counsel, but that of his own headstrong humour; nor ceased plunging himself into Wars, till in that against the Switzers, who had given him no just provocation, he lost his Army, his dominions, and his life. If Philip the second had kept his oath with the Low Countries, he might have preserved his Authority over them all. But nothing less would humour his pride than the subduing of their Liberties and Conscience; and in defence of their Conscience and Property, he drove them to the use of Arms, which a people employed in trade and manufacture, as they were, had no list to, nor skill in. Every body knows the issue; he lost the seven Provinces and their Revenue for ever, with many millions of money, and almost half a million of lives thrown away to recover them. By his mighty and boasted Armada designed to conquer England, what else did he conquer but his own Power at sea? He had prepared, he had been for some years preparing, a naval force mighty as his own arrogance; but it all proved to be only measures taken for baffling his arrogance, and for destroying the maritime force of Spain; and all the while that he was vainly meditating the destruction of England, he was in reality taking the part of England against himself, and, with all his might, weakening its greatest enemy. Had he husbanded that mighty strength; had he employed it at times, and in parcels, against these dominions, he might have had some success; but he combined against his own hopes.
How foolish is the reasoning of passion! It leads men to throw away strength to gain weakness. Even where these sons of violence succeed, they may be justly said to acquire nothing, beyond the praise of mischief. What is the occupation and end of Princes and Governors, but to rule men for their good, and to keep them from hurting one another? Now what Conqueror is there who mends the condition of the conquered? Alexander the Great, though he well knew the difference between a limited and a lawless Monarchy, did not pretend, that his invasion of Persia was to mend the condition of the Persians. It was a pure struggle for dominion; when he had gained it, he assumed the Throne upon the same arbitrary terms upon which their own Monarchs had held it, nor knew any Law but his will. The subject only felt the violence of the change, without any benefit or relaxation from slavery. His Glory therefore is all false and deceitful, as is all Glory which is gained by the blood of men, without mending the state of mankind. This spirit of fighting and conquering continued in his Successors, who plagued the earth as he had done, and weltered in the blood of one another, till they were almost all destroyed by the sword or poison, with the whole family of Alexander. It was no part of the dispute amongst them, which of them could bestow most happiness upon the afflicted world, about which they strove, but who should best exalt himself, and enslave all.
The State of Carthage after many Countries conquered, but not bettered by her Arms, was almost dissolved by her own barbarous Mercenaries, and at last conquered and destroyed by the Romans; who were in truth the most generous conquerors that the world has known: and most Countries found the Roman Government better than their own. This continued for some time, till their Provincial Magistrates grew rapacious, and turned the Provinces into spoil. Rome itself perished by her conquests, which being made by great Armies, occasioned such power and insolence in their Commanders, and set some Citizens so high above the rest, an inequality pernicious to free States, that she was enslaved by ingrates whom she had employed to defend her. Rome vanquished foreign nations; foreign luxury debauched Rome, and traiterous Citizens seized upon their mother with all her acquisitions. All her great blaze and grandeur, served only to make her wretchedness more conspicious, and her chains more intensely felt. Upon her thraldom there ensued such a series of Tyranny and misery, treachery, oppression, cruelty, death and affliction, in all shapes; that her agonies were scarce ever suspended till she finally expired. When her own Tyrants, become through Tyranny impotent, could no longer afflict her, for protection was none of their business; a host of Barbarians, only known for ravages, and acts of inhumanity, finished the work of desolation, and closed her civil doom. She has been since racked under a Tyranny more painful, as it is more slow; and more base, as it is scarce a domination of men; I mean her vassalage to a sort of beings of all others the most merciless and contemptible, Monks and Spectres.
The Folly of conquering further urged and exemplified.
THE Turks, like other Conquerors, know not when to leave off. They sacrifice the people to gain more territories; and the more they conquer, the greater is their loss. They lavish men and treasure, to gain waste ground. What is the use of earth and water, where there are no Inhabitants for these elements to support? The strength of a Government consists in numerous subjects industrious and happy; not in extent of territory desolate or ill peopled, or peopled with inhabitants poor and idle. It is incredible what a profusion of wealth and lives their attempts upon Persia have cost them, always with fatal success, even under their wisest and most warlike Princes; and at a time when their Empire flourished most. Yet these attempts are continued, at a season when their Affairs are at the lowest; their Provinces exhausted, their people and revenue decayed, their soldiery disorderly, and all things conspiring to the final dissolution of their Empire.
Those who will be continually exerting their whole strength, whether they be societies or particular men, will at last have none to exert. The Turks have been for ages wasting their vitals to widen their extremities, and to extend their limbs; which, by being unnaturally stretched, are quite disjointed and benumbed for want of nourishment from the seat of life; and must therefore, like mortified members, soon drop off; they have been long spinning out their own vitals. Now if they had conquered Persia, what benefit would the conquest have derived to the Persians? None at all; but on the contrary, fresh oppression, and probably persecution; since the Turks deem them Heretics for the colour of their caps, and for their obstinate refusal to change one name for another in the list of Mahomet’s Successors.
Thus these Barbarians destroy themselves to destroy others; and Christian Princes imitate these Barbarians. The Spaniard, to secure to himself the possession of America, destroyed more lives than he had subjects in Europe; and his mighty Empire there, with his mountains of treasure, bears indeed an awful sound; yet it is allowed that he has lost much more than he got, besides the crying guilt of murdering a large part of the globe. His conquests there, together with his expulsion of the Moors at home, have dispeopled Spain; and the inhabitants who remain trusting to their American wealth, are too proud and lazy to be industrious; so that most of their gold goes to other nations for the manufactures wanted in the Spanish West-Indies. Hence multitudes and diligence (and diligence often creates multitudes, as by multitudes diligence is created) are better than mountains of gold, and will certainly attract such mountains; though others have the name and first property. Had he kept the industrious Moors, and expelled the barbarous Inquisitors; encouraged Liberty and Trade, and consequently Liberty of Conscience, Spain would have been a more powerful nation, and he consequently a greater King, than all his wide and guilty conquests have made him. Sir Walter Raleigh says, that the Low Countries alone did, for revenue, equal his West-Indies. Notwithstanding his many Kingdoms, his Empire in both Hemispheres, and that the sun never sets upon all his dominions at once, the small Republic of Holland, small in compass of territory, has been an overmatch for him.
A late neighbouring Prince was a busy Conqueror. But did his People and Country gain by his conquests? He drained them of men and money by millions, only to add to their poverty servitude and wretchedness, and from their chains and misery derived his own Glory. Nor do I know any reason why a Prince, who reduces his People, his Nobles, and all degrees of men in his Dominions, to poverty and littleness, should have the title of Great, unless for the greatness of the evils which he brought upon his own Kingdom and all Europe. Let the late and present condition of that Monarchy declare, what advantages that noble Country owes to his Glory and Victories. Had it not been for his wanton Wars and oppressive Taxes, there is no pitch of felicity which the goodness of their soil and climate, the number and industry of the natives, their many manufactures, and the advantage of their situation, might not have raised them to. But all was sacrificed to the Ambition and Bigotry of one. How many resources that Kingdom has within itself; and to what happiness it is capable of rising under a just and gentle Administration, is manifest from the suddenness with which it recovered itself under the good Government of Henry the fourth; how many millions it paid, how many put into the Exchequer; and what a flourishing condition it was arrived to, after so fierce, so long, and so consuming a Civil War, and after two such profuse and profligate Reigns, as that of Charles the Ninth, and that of Henry the Third. But what avails all this, when one short Edict, and the maggot of a minute, can dissipate all its wealth and all its happiness?
I might here display what ridiculous causes do often pique and awaken the vanity and ambition of Princes, and prompt them to lavish lives and treasure, and utterly undo those whom they should tenderly protect. For a beast of burden, or even for the tooth of a beast; for a mistress, for a river, for a senseless word hastily spoken, for words that had a foolish meaning, or no meaning at all; for an empty sepulchre or an empty title; to dry the tears of a coquette, to comply with the whims of a pedant, or to execute the curses of a bigot; important Wars have sometimes been waged, and nations animated to destroy one another; nor is there any security against such destructive follies, where the sense of every man must acquiesce in the wild passion of one; and where the interest and peace, and preservation of a State, are found too light to ballance his rage or caprice. Hence the policy of the Romans to tame a people not easy to be subdued; they committed such to the domination of Tyrants. Thus they did in Armenia, and thus in Britain e . And these instruments did not only enslave their subjects, but by continual fighting with one another, consume them.
Necessary Wars are accompanied with evils more than enough; and who can bear or forgive calamities courted and sought? The Roman State owed her greatness in a good measure to a misfortune; it was founded in War, and nourished by it. The same may be said of the Turkish Monarchy. But States formed for peace, though they do not arrive to such immensity and grandeur, are more lasting and secure; witness Sparta and Venice. The former lasted eight hundred years, and the other has lasted twelve hundred, without any Revolution; what errors they both committed, were owing to their attempts to conquer, for which they were not formed; though the Spartans were exceeding brave and victorious; but they wanted the Plebs ingenua, which formed the strength of the Roman Armies; as the Janizaries, a militia formerly excellently trained and disciplined, formed those of the Turk. With the latter, fighting and extending their dominions, is an article of their Religion, as false and barbarous in this as in many of its other principles, and as little calculated for the good of men.
THE ANNALS OF TACITUS.
[a ]Suâ in manu sitam rem Romanam; suis victoriis augeri Rempublicam.
[b ]Preces erant, sed quibus contradici non posset.
[c ]Hæc voluerunt: tantis rebus gestic, C. Cæsar condemnatus essem, nisi ab exercitu auxilium petissem.
[e ]Quædam civitates regi Cogiduno donatæ; vetere ac jampridem recepta populi Romani consuetudine, ut haberet instrumenta servitutis & reges.