Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 9

Two Causes which destroyed Rome

by Montesquieu Icon
7 minutes  • 1354 words

While the sovereignty of Rome was confined to Italy, it was easy for the commonwealth to subsist.

Every soldier was also a citizen. Every consul raised an army, and other citizens marched into the field under his successor.

Their forces were not very numerous, such persons only were received among the troops, as had possessions considerable enough to make them interested in the preservation of the city.

The senate:

  • kept a watchful eye over the conduct of the generals
  • did not give them an opportunity of machinating any thing to the prejudice of their country.

During several campaigns, the Romans were supposed to leave their soldiers in the countries they were subduing.

But after the legions had passed the Alps and crossed the sea, those soldiers insensibly lost that Roman genius and turn of mind.

The generals had armies and kingdoms at their disposal.

  • They knew their own strength, and could no longer obey.

The soldiers therefore began to follow only their general.

  • They were no longer the soldiers of the republic, but of Sylla, Marius, Pompey, and Cæsar.

The Romans could no longer tell, whether the person who headed an army in a province was their general or their enemy.

So long as the people of Rome were corrupted by their tribunes only, on whom they could bestow nothing but their power, the senate could easily defend themselves, because they acted consistently and with one regular tenor.

Whereas the common people were continually shifting from the extremes of fury to the extremes of cowardice; but when they were enabled to invest their favourites with a formidable exterior authority, the whole wisdom of the senate was baffled, and the commonwealth was undone.

Free states are not so permanent as other forms of government because the misfortunes and successes which happen to them, generally occasion the loss of liberty.

Whereas the successes and misfortunes of an arbitrary government, contribute equally to the enslaving of the people. A wise republic should not run any hazard which may expose it to good or ill fortune; the only happiness the several individuals of it should aspire after, is, to give perpetuity to their state.

If the unbounded extent of the Roman empire proved the ruin of the republic, the vast compass of the city was no less fatal to it.

The Romans had subdued the world with the help of the Italian nations, on whom they had bestowed various privileges at different times.

Some nations chose to preserve their ancient usages and not assist Rome.

But when this privilege became that of universal sovereignty; when a man, who was not a Roman citizen, was considered as nothing, and, with this title, was all things, the people of Italy resolved either to be Romans, or die; not being able to obtain this by cabals and intreaties they had recourse to arms; and * rising in all that part of Italy opposite to the Ionian sea, the rest of the allies were going to follow their example= Rome being now forced to combat against those who were, if I may be allowed the figure, the hands with which they shackled the universe, was upon the brink of ruin= the Romans were going to be confined merely to their walls.

They therefore granted this so much wished-for† privilege, to allies, who had not yet been wanting in fidelity.

They gave it, by insensible degrees, to all other nations.

But now, Rome was no longer that city, the inhabitants of which had breathed one and the same spirit, the same love for liberty, the same hatred of tyranny; a city in which a jealousy of the power of the senate and of the prerogatives of the great (ever accompanied with respect) was only a love of equality.

The nations of Italy were made citizens of Rome.

Every city brought thither its genius, its particular interests, and its dependance on some mighty protector.

Rome was now divided, no longer formed one entire body. Men were no longer citizens of it, but in a kind of fictitious way. There were no longer the same magistrates, the same walls, the same gods, the same temples, the same burying places.

The citizens were no longer fired with the same love for their country. The Roman sentiments were obliterated.

Cities and nations were now invited to Rome by the ambitious, to disconcert the suffrages, or influence them in their own favour; the public assemblies were so many conspiracies against the state, and a tumultuous croud of seditious wretches were dignified with the title of Comitia*.

The authority of the people and their laws, nay that people themselves, were more than so many chimæras, and so universal was the anarchy of those times, that it was not possible to determine whether the people had made a law or not.

Authors enlarge very copiously on the divisions which proved the destruction of Rome; but their readers seldom discover those divisions to have been always necessary and inevitable.

The grandeur of the republic was the only source of that calamity, and exasperated popular tumults into civil wars. Dissentions were not to be prevented, and those martial spirits, which were so fierce and formidable abroad, could not be habituated to any considerable moderation at home. Those who expect in a free state, to see the people undaunted in war and pusillanimous in peace, are certainly desirous of impossibilities; and it may be advanced as a general rule, that whenever a perfect calm is visible, in a state that calls itself a republic, the spirit of liberty no longer subsists.

Union, in a body politic, is a very equivocal term.

True union is such a harmony as makes all the particular parts, as opposite as they may seem to us, concur to the general welfare of the society, in the same manner as discords in music contribute to the general melody of sound.

Union may prevail in a state full of seeming commotions; or, in other words, there may be an harmony from whence results prosperity, which alone is true peace, and may be considered in the same view, as the various parts of this universe, which are eternally connected by the action of some and the reaction of others.

In a despotic state, a real division is perpetually kindled. The peasant, the soldier, the merchant, the magistrate, and the grandee have no other conjunction than what arises from the ability of the one to oppress the other, without resistance. If at any time a union happens to be introduced, citizens are not then united, but dead bodies are laid in the grave contiguous to each other.

The Roman laws were too weak to govern the republic. But experience proved that good laws which raise a small republic’s power become incommodious after its grandeur is established. This is because those laws aimed to make a great people, but not to govern them.

The difference is very considerable between good laws, and those which may be called convenient; between such laws as give a people dominion over others, and such as continue them in the possession of power, when they have once acquired it.

There is at this time a republic in the world, of which sew persons have any knowledge, and which by plans accomplished in silence and secrecy, is daily enlarging its power. And certain it is, that if it ever rises to that height of grandeur for which it seems preordained by its wisdom, it must inevitably change its laws, and the necessary innovations will not be effected by any legislator, but must spring from corruption itself.

Rome was founded for grandeur. Its laws had an admirable tendency to bestow it. This is why in the changes of her government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or popular, she always succeeded.

The gained experience by a long succession of events. She sustained her fortune, whether small or immense, with the same superiority and derived true welfare from the whole train of her prosperities. She refined every instance of calamity into beneficial instructions.

She lost her liberty, because she completed her work too soon.

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