Charles-Louis Montesquieu and Social Anthropology #5


Continuation of the previous part…

The path that led the Romans to the greatness has originated from the very common state of the emerging societies, Montesquieu claims in Considerations. It was the egalitarian state of the bands of brigands who lived from pillage:

To obtain citizens, wives and lands, Romulus and his successors were almost always at war with their neighbors. Amid great rejoicing they returned to the city with spoils of grain and flocks from the conquered peoples. Thus originated the triumphs, which subsequently were the main cause of the greatness this city attained.

This state we can observe in the societies appearing in the void of the law and order, which are not established yet, or deteriorated already, by the more mature states in times of historical transitions and turbulence. Such as the state of “Barbaric” tribes in the Late Antiquity, Cossack (the term itself stems from the Turkic root meaning “people without a boss”) settlements at the ridges of the Moscow principality or Russian Empire, or the pirate associations in the Age of Great Discoveries, or the outlaw communities of all times.

Such associations are frequently ephemeral and rarely get transformed into real states due to competition from their bigger and older neighbors. And if they do mature, they quickly lose their initial egalitarian spirit, unless the special historical, cultural and geographical circumstances occur.

The Romans were lucky that the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, institutionalized very early the original, yet fresh in memory of the citizens, egalitarian habits of the Romulus’ fellow brigands, Lupercy (wolf pups): “…Romulus founded the city in a material sense, whereas Numa was responsible only for its institutions,… for the creation of the religious or social institutions that ancient thought and experience found to be so primary and germinal to the existence of the city”, repeats after Montesquieu Georges Dumézil (Dumézil 1988 47). If the growth of the Rome and its power and wealth were faster, and the appearance of the institutions were postponed, the egalitarianism of the Roman constitutions would be lost:

Numa’s long and peaceful reign was ideal for keeping Rome in the state of mediocrity, and if it had then a less limited territory and greater power, its fate would probably have been decided once and for all.

One of the causes of its success was that kings were all great men. Nowhere else in history can you find an uninterrupted succession of such statesmen and captains.

At the birth of societies, the leaders of republics create the institutions; thereafter, it is the institutions that form the leaders of republics…

If they had rapidly conquered all the neighboring cities, they would have been in decline at the arrival of Pyrrhus, the Gauls, and Hsnnibal. And following the fate of nearly all the states in the world, they would have passed too quickly from poverty to riches, and from riches to corruption.

The customs of the peoples of Italy, isolated from the rest of the world, encouraged the constant wars. And the initial technical underdevelopment led the military campaigns to be only about a moderate booty, not about a political dominance resulting into the constant source of the wealth sucked from the conquered, and not about the huge on-time pillages. These wars kept the Romans poor and equal:

In those days in the republics of Italy it was thought that the treaties they made with a king did not bind them toward his successor… Thus, whoever had fallen under the domination of one Roman king claimed to be free under another, and wars constantly engendered wars…

The peoples of Italy made no use of machines for carrying on sieges. I addition, since the soldiers fought without pay, they could not be retained for long before any one place. Thus, few of their wars were decisive. They fought to pillage the enemy’s camp or his lands – after which the victor and vanquished each withdrew to his own city… This is what gave the Romans victories which did not corrupt them, and which let them remain poor.

This every-day reliance on the war as a source of income made kings vulnerable. It was just a matter of time when one of them would make a mistake of insulting the warlike populace and get expelled. The resulting republic, with even more unstable status of the magistrates, made them want to occupy people constantly with their primary specialization – the pillaging wars; making a feedback loop between the war and egalitarian customs.

In violating Lucretia, his son Sextus did the sort of thing that has almost always caused tyrants to be expelled from the city they ruled… It is true, however, that the death of Lucretia was only the occasion of the revolution which occurred. For a proud, enterprising and bold people, confined within walls, must necessarily either shake off its yoke or become gentler in its ways…

Having ousted the kings, Rome established annual consuls, and this too helped it reach its high degree of power. During their lifetime, princes go through periods of ambition, followed by other passions and by idleness itself. But, with the republic having leaders who changed every year and who sought to signalize their magistracy so that they might obtain new ones, ambition did not lose even a moment. They induced the senate to propose war to the people, and showed it new enemies every day.

This body was already rather inclined that way itself. Wearied incessantly by the complaints and demands of the people, it sought to distract them from their unrest by occupying them abroad.

Now war was almost always agreeable to the people, because, by the wise distribution of booty, the means had been found of making it useful to them…

The booty was assembled and then distributed to the soldiers. None was ever lost, for prior to setting out each man had sworn not to take any for himself. And the Romans were the most religious people in the world (thanks to the religious institutions established by king Numa – Sielicki) when it came to an oath – which always formed the nerve of their military discipline.

Finally, the citizens who remained in the city also enjoyed the fruits of victory. Part of the land of the conquered people was confiscated and divided into two parts. One was sold for public profit, the other distributed to poor citizens…

Answering the question why it happened that the Romans, but not any other warlike tribes such as Sabines, Latins or Hernicians, who were equal to the Romans in resilience, discipline and military skill, were able to establish their dominance, Montesquieu states plainly it was that egalitarian spirit that institutionalized the equal land partition which made the Romans leaders of the world:

The founders of the ancient republics had made an equal partition of the lands. This alone produced a powerful people, that is, a well-regulated society. It also produced a good army, everyone having an equal, and very great, interest in defending his country.

When the laws were no longer stringently observed, a situation just like the one we are in (Europe in eighteen century – Sielicki) came about. The avarice of some individuals and the prodigality of others caused landed property to pass into the hands of few, and the arts were at once introduced for the mutual needs of rich and poor. As a result, almost no citizens or soldiers were left.

The Carthaginians, who were corrupted by riches much sooner than Romans, experienced themselves how the power of the commerce was inferior to the power of the old Roman maxims. One of those maxims, which saved the Romans in the Second Punic war, was originated from the very view on a war as the way of life and the source of riches:

Another consequence of the principle of continual war was that the Romans never made peace except as victors. In effect, why make a shameful peace with one people to begin attacking another?

While Carthage, when it made war against Rome, despite (or rather because) its countless riches, was doomed from the first day of the war. Carthage was ready to surrender at any (unfortunate) moment because it was driven by considerations of profits; while Rome, due to the strength of its institutions established at its founding, even at the most gloomy times was not ready to give up:

Constantly calculating receipts and expenses, the latter [Carthaginians] always made war without loving it.

Lost battles, the decrease in population, the enfeeblement of commerce, the exhaustion of the public treasury, the revolt of neighboring nations could make Carthage accept the most severe conditions of peace…

Rome was a marvel of constancy. After the battles of Ticinus, Trebia, and Lake Trasimene, after Cannae more dismal still, abandoned by almost all the peoples of Italy, it did not sue for peace. The reason is that the senate never departed from its old maxims. It dealt with Hannibal as it had previously dealt with Pyrrhus, with whom it had refused to make any accommodation so long as he remained in Italy.

Montesquieu criticizes empty speculations on the Hannibal’s mistakes, without viewing them in the cultural context. There were really no alternative way for Hannibal to win the Second Punic war even he would follow advises of the “wise” historians of the later times:

People believe that Hannibal made a signal error in not having laid siege to Rome after the battle of Cannae. It is true that at first the terror in Rome was extreme, but the consternation of a warlike people, which always turns into courage, is different from that of a vile populace, which senses only its weakness. A proof that Hannibal would not have succeeded is that the Romans were still able to send assistance everywhere.

People say further that Hannibal made a great mistake in leading his army to Capua, where it grew soft. But they fail to see that they stop short of the true cause. Would not the soldiers of his army have found Capua everywhere, having become rich after so many victories?  On a similar occasion, Alexander, who was commanding his own subjects, made use of an expedient that Hannibal, who had only mercenary troops, could not use. He had the baggage of his soldiers set on fire, and burned all their riches and his too.

To preserve the cultural integrity and continuity of the Roman society, a special institution was created by Numa Pompillius. The institution Montesquieu was fond of from the beginning of his scientific career. The institution of the civic religion that oversaw the public morals, not just formal laws which were mere reflection of those morals; the reflections which could be imperfect, short-sighted and eventually could be outmaneuvered, outsmarted or plainly bought or sold. But while the public morals are intact and healthy, such imperfections of the laws represent no much problem because they always could be corrected in the right way:

I must mention a magistracy that greatly contributed to upholding Rome’s government —that of the censors. They took the census of the people, and, what is more, since the strength of the republic consisted in discipline, austerity of morals, and the constant observance of certain customs, they corrected the abuses that the law had not foreseen, or that the ordinary magistrate could not punish. There are bad examples which are worse than crimes, and more states have perished by the violation of their moral customs than by the violation of their laws. In Rome, everything that could introduce dangerous novelties, change of heart or mind of the citizen, and deprive the state… of perpetuity, all disorders, domestic or public, were reformed by censors.

However, when the cultural integrity of the Romans was first shaken and then shattered by the expansion of the republic beyond Italy. When representatives of the alien to the Roman spirit cultures became citizens, then senators, and eventually Emperors of Rome, the original Roman morals became diluted, corrupted and finally forgotten, the destiny of Rome was sealed.

As often that happens in history, old customs gave their way to the new ones not because of the conquest or successful insurrection or a creeping economic rise of the alien minority culture. People belonged to the original culture saw the threat to their way of life from the carriers of the alien ways, but for the “homeland security” reasons they borrowed the worst customs of their rivals to stop influence of newcomers, and that was the beginning of the original world:

I beg permission to avert my eyes from the horrors of the wars of Marius and Sulla… New citizens and old no longer regarded each other as members of the same republic, and they fought a war which… was civil and foreign at the same time…

So that he himself rather than Sulla would receive the commission for the war against Mithridates, Marius, with the help of the tribune, Sulpicius, had spread the eight new tribes of the peoples of Italy among old tribes. This gave the Italians control over the voting, and they, for the most part, were in Marius’ party, while the senate and the old citizens were in Sulla’s.

Sulla enacted laws well-designed to remove the cause of the existing disorders. They increased the authority of the senate, tempered the power of the people, and regulated that of the tribunes. The whim that made him give up the dictatorship seemed to restore life to the republic. But in the frenzy of his successes, he had done things that made it impossible for Rome to preserve its liberty.

In his Asian expedition he ruined all military discipline. He accustomed his army to rapine, and gave it needs it never had before. He corrupted for the first time the soldiers who were later to corrupt their captains.

He entered Rome arms in hand, and taught Roman generals to violate the asylum of liberty.

He gave the lands of citizens to the soldiers, and made them forever greedy; from this moment onward, every warrior awaited an occasion that could place in his hands the property of the fellow citizens.

Pompey, who followed Sulla, didn’t like to be an usurper, but he liked the people would put the dictatorship powers in his hand voluntary. He rolled back Sulla’s laws that were limiting the power of people; when returning to Rome he was discharged his armies; but seeking the populace popularity he introduced into Rome exactly those vices that destroyed Carthage over century ago:

In Rome, public office could be obtained only through virtue, and brought with it no benefit other than honor and being preferred for further toils, while in Carthage everything the republic could give to individuals was paid for by the public…

In Rome, governed by laws, the people allowed the senate to direct public affairs. In Carthage, governed by abuses, the people wanted to do everything themselves.

But it was then; now Pompey introduced the worst Carthaginian, Asiatic style practices into the political life of Rome; and the legions, corrupted by Sulla, no longer serving the republic, but only their leaders, who promised them more and more, readily supported destroyers of the republic:

He corrupted the people with money, and in elections put a price on the vote of every citizen.

In addition, he used the vilest mobs to disturb the magistrates in their functions, hoping that sober men, tired of living in anarchy, would make him dictator out of despair.

Finally, the republic was crushed. And we must not blame it on the ambition of certain individuals… If Caesar and Pompey had thought like Cato, others would have thought like Caesar and Pompey; and the republic, destined to perish, would have been dragged to the precipice by another hand.

More on that, even Pompey and Caesar didn’t want to crush the republic, but reanimate its obviously decaying body. Pompey wanted to bribe and intimidate the Republic from its pitiful condition of decline.  Julius Caesar and Mark Antony wanted to rejuvenate the Republic by the power of the violent legacy of its foundation: “…it was during the Lupercalia (festivities in honor of the young men who had gathered around Romulus and Remus), during the race itself, that Julius Caesar and Mark Antony planned to restore the monarchy” (Dumezil 1988 27, 35). After Caesar’s death, Antony promised his soldiers that he would reinstate the republic on the second month of his victory. Octavian, after accepting title of the Emperor and his new name Augustus, and remembering how Caesar’s bashing of the impotent, but still dangerous, senate has ended was more cautious – he wore a breast plate all the time during his visits of the senate, and always spoke about the senate respectfully.  He was asking the senate to relive him from the burden of being an Emperor every ten years. Setting aside the question how much in these pleas were of the theatrical acting, and how much of the genuine intentions, these attempts, if they were genuine, to restore the republic were anyway doomed. The customs, which brought the republic to life, were abandoned and the republic had no causes and reasons to exist:

The custom of triumphs, which had contributed so much to Rome’s greatness, disappeared under Augustus; or, rather. This honor became a privilege of sovereignty…

In the days of the republic, the principle was to make war continually; under the emperors, the maxim was to maintain peace. Victories were regarded as occasions for worry, involving armies that could set too high a price on their services.

Those in positions of command feared undertaking things that were too great. One’s glory had to be kept moderate in order to arouse the attention but not the jealousy of the prince…

When Rome was constantly engaged in war, it had to replenish its inhabitants continually… In all its wars Rome also took a prodigious number of slaves, and when its citizens were loaded with wealth, they bought slaves everywhere. But slaveowners were moved by generosity, avarice and weakness of character to free countless numbers of them… This made for a circulation of the men in all nations: Rome received them as slaves and sent them out as Romans.

Augustus was quite cautious in granting the right of Roman citizenship, he made laws to prevent the excessive manumission of slaves. In his will he recommended that these two polices be adhered to, and that no attempt be made to extend the empire by new wars.

These three things were clearly linked together: once there were no more wars, new citizens and manumission were no longer necessary.

The last formal opportunity to reinstate the Republic occurred after the death of Caligula. However, there was no surprise that the force which brought down the Republic, the legions which have forgotten to be citizens and now driven only by the greed, derailed that opportunity, and the Emperor who got the throne this time wrecked the last reminders of the checks and balances of the power remained from the Republic times:

After Caligula had been killed, the senate assembled to establish a form of government. While it as deliberating, some soldiers entered the palace to pillage it. In an obscure place they found a man trembling with fear. It was Claudius: they acclaimed him emperor.

Claudius completed the ruin of the old orders by giving his officers the right to dispense justice. The wars of Marius and Sulla were principally waged to determine just who would have this right, the senators or the knights. An imbecile’s fancy took it away from both – strange outcome of a dispute that had set the whole world aflame!

The very size and cultural variety of the Empire was the same way destructive for it as it was for the Republic. The vastness of the Empire dictated the need to have multiple armies, which rival each other in the privilege of making Emperors, and constantly causing civil wars. Emperors themselves, for reasons of self-preservation, had to corrupt soldiers more and more, until praetorian guards simply started to put the Empire on auction after massacring those candidates to the Imperial throne who can’t pay what they wanted.

Legions, which were bringing Emperors to the power, were consisted from barbarians more and more, not only abandoning Roman customs and practices, but started to destroy Roman culture itself, placing barbarians on the throne who didn’t shy away from pushing their own culture in place of the good old proven customs:

Since the emperors were usually drawn from the army, they were nearly all foreigners and sometimes barbarians. Rome was no longer master of the world, but it received laws from the entire world.

Each emperor brought to it something from his country, whether by way of manners, morals, public order, or religion. And Heliogabalus went so far as to want to destroy all of Rome’s objects of veneration and remove all the gods from their temples in order to replace his own there.

Montesquieu also makes a note of the results of the involuntary experiment in social anthropology which Augustus conducted by starting drawing soldiers not only from Italy, but from provinces, too:

In this series of civil wars which arose continually, it is remarkable that those who had the support of the European legions almost always vanquished those supported by the Asian legions…

This difference was evident ever since troop levies were begun in the provinces; and it existed among legions as among peoples themselves, who, by nature and education, are unequally suited for war.

To put to an end the growing chaos and volatility caused by the “military republic”, as Montesquieu calls that period, when the army was electing and massacring emperors (sometimes number of them in a year), Diocletian and Constantine utilized some of the old political principles the Republic was used on international arena, but now they were applied to the “enemy within”.

Diocletian “multiplied” Emperors, giving them safety in numbers by dividing a single Emperor position in two, and giving them also two “vice-emperors” or Caesars, who had comparable power, but a formally subordinated position. Now four main armies were under command of their own Emperor or Caesar, making it harder to revolt and depose one of the rulers without consequences from the other three.

Constantine limited power of the praetorian prefects, the makers of the new Emperors in previous days, by leaving them only civil functions, and increasing their numbers also from two to four, making them harder to coordinate their actions.

These measures had proven to be successful, now allowing Emperors to die in their beds from natural causes, however, that Empire split had far-reaching consequences. That was not only the split of power, but also the split of finances and distribution of wealth:

So that the new city [Constantinople] would in no way be inferior to the old, Constantine wanted grain to be distributed there too and ordered the grain from Egypt sent to Constantinople and the grain from Africa sent to Rome…

When Augustus had conquered Egypt, he carried the treasure of the Ptolemies to Rome… And since Rome continue to attract the riches of Alexandria, which itself received those of Africa and the Orient, gold and silver became very common in Europe…

But, with the empire divided, these riches went to Constantinople… Italy, with nothing but its abandoned gardens, had no means of attracting the East’s money, while the West, to get commodities from the East, sent its money there. Thus, gold and silver became extremely rare in Europe; but the emperors wanted to extract the same tributes as ever, which ruined everything.

Peter Brown, a history professor at Princeton University, reminds that Roman Empire was culturally divided from the inside long before the formal geographical split:

So the Roman empire always consisted of two, overlapping worlds. Up to AD 700, great towns by the sea remained close to each other: twenty days of clear sailing would take the traveller from one end of the Mediterranean, the core of the Roman world, to the other. Inland, however, Roman life had always tended to coagulate in little oases, like drops of water on a drying surface The Romans are renowned for the roads that ran through their empire: but the roads passed through towns where the inhabitants gained all they ate, and most of what they used, from within a radius of only thirty miles…

By 200, the empire was ruled by an aristocracy of amazingly uniform culture, taste and language. In the West, the senatorial class had remained a tenacious and absorptive elite that dominated Italy, Africa, the Midi of France and the valleys of the Ebro and the Guadalquivir; in the East, all culture and all local power had remained concentrated in the hands of the proud oligarchies of the Greek cities. Throughout the Greek world no difference in vocabulary or pronunciation would betry the birthplace of any well-educated speaker. In the West, bilingual aristocrats passed unselfconsciously from Latin to Greek; an African landowner, for instance, found himself quite at home in a literary salon of well-to-do Greeks in Smyrna…

Like many cosmopolitan aristocracies.. men of the same class and culture, in any part of the Roman world, found themselves far closer to each other than to the vast majority of their neighbors, the ‘underdeveloped’ peasantry on their doorstep. The existence of the ‘barbarian’ exerted a silent, unremitting pressure on the culture of the Roman empire. The ‘barbarian’ was not only the primitive warrior from across the frontier: by 200, this ‘barbarian’ had been joined by the nonparticipant within the empire itself.

The “real” Romans, the culturally homogeneous elite was as well very mobile, and when the wealth distribution was dramatically changed, there was no reason for the elites stay in the Western part, how Montesquieu points out:

…Constantine’s desire to found a new city and his vanity in wanting to give it his name, made him carry the seat of empire to the East… Italy, full of country houses, was nothing but the garden of Rome. The famers were in Sicily, Africa and Egypt, and the gardeners in Italy… But, when the seat of empire was established in the East, almost the whole of Rome went over, the great took their slaves there – which is to say nearly all the people – and Italy was deprived of its inhabitants.

The internal “barbarisation” of the West completed a century before the formal on of the Western Empire fall. When elites were gone from the West, they took with them not only arts of engineering, politics and philosophy, but also the art of war, the cornerstone of the Roman civilization, and when the last pillar fell, there left no reasons for the Western Empire to stand:

The lack of funds… made it necessary to find a cheaper army. Treaties were made with barbarian nations, who had neither the luxury of the Roman soldiers, nor the same spirit, nor the same pretensions…

Finally, the Romans lost their military discipline and went so far as to abandon their own arms. Vegetius says that when the soldiers found them too heavy, they obtained permission from the emperor Gratian to leave off the cuirass and then the helmet. And thus defenselessly exposed to the blows of the enemy, they no longer thought of anything but flight.

He adds that they had lost the habit of fortifying their camp, and that, through this neglect, their armies were captured by the barbarian cavalry.

The cavalry of the early Romans was quite small. When the Romans were in decline, they had almost nothing but cavalry… The reason is that heavy or light infantry without discipline is worthless…

The Romans succeeded in commanding all peoples not only by means of the art of war but also by their prudence, wisdom and constancy, and their love of glory and country. When all these virtues vanished under the emperors, the military art remained, and by it they kept what they had acquired in spite of the weakness and tyranny of their princes. But when corruption entered the military itself, the Romans became the prey of all peoples.

The Eastern Empire didn’t lose old military principles completely, and when they were reinstated time to time, it had periods of the great revival:

Belisarius took Carthage, Rome, and Ravenna, and sent the kings of the Goths and the Vandals as captives to Constantinople, where, after so long a time, the old triumphs were renewed.

The main reasons for his success can be found in the qualities of this great man. With a general who followed all the maxims of the early Romans, an army much like the old Roman armies was formed.

Among all factors contributed to the greatness and decline of Romans (including Eastern Empire), what Montesquieu does not mention, it is Christianity, even when he discusses Emperors Diocletian, Constantine and Julian. Shackleton refers to the Pensées, where Montesquieu clarifies reasons of such a silence, saying that many took too literally what Father of the Church have said that the main preoccupation of the Emperors was extermination of Christianity. Quite the opposite, “it was the least of their affairs” (Shackleton 1961 161).

When Montesquieu does speak about Christianity in the time of its domination, it is done to illustrate its impotence, on the backdrop of the arrogance, or negative effects on wellbeing of the society and the state:

But when, in the decline of the empire, the monks were the only clergy, these men – destined by by more particular vows to flee and fear worldly affairs – seized every occasion to take part in them. They never stopped making a stir everywhere and agitating the world they had quitted…

The evil this caused would pass belief. They enfeebled the mind of princes, and made them do even good things imprudently…

Raging disputes became so natural a condition to the Greeks that when Cantacuzene took Constantinople he found the emperor John and the empress Ann preoccupied with a council against some enemies of the monks.

While talking about Emperors who belonged to the Stoic sect, Montesquieu does that with the most respect and admiration. By their pure personal traits these Emperors neutralized (for their lifetime, though) the factors which were destroying Rome:

At the time the Stoic sect was expanding and gaining favor in the empire. It seemed that human nature had made an effort to produce this admirable sect out of itself – like those plants the earth brings forth in places the heavens have never seen.

The Romans owed their best emperors to it. Nothing can make us forget the first Antoninus except the man he adopted – Marcus Aurelius. We feel a secret pleasure within ourselves in speaking of this emperor; we cannot read his life without experiencing a kind of tenderness. Such is the effect it produces that we have a better opinion of ourselves because we have a better opinion of men.

The wisdom of Nerva, the glory of Trajan, the valor of Hadrian, and the virtue of the two Antonines commanded the respect of the soldiers.

These two assessments of the Stoics, as the best way of approaching both, the personal greatness of the soul, and making great rulers; and the Christianity, as the source of the most ineffective and unnatural governing system, the Despotism were carried by Montesquieu into The Spirit of the Laws where they were extended and researched more thoroughly.

To be continued…

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