Chapter 10 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3

The Corruption of the Romans

September 30, 2021

I think that the sect of Epicurus, which began to be propagated at Rome, towards the close of the republic, was very prejudicial to the minds and genius of the people.

The Greeks had been infatuated with its doctrines long before. Consequently, they were corrupted much earlier than the Romans. Polybius says that oaths, in his time, could not induce any person to place confidence in a Greek, whereas they were considered by a Roman as inviolable obligations upon his conscience.

One of Cicero’s letters to Atticus writes how much the Romans had degenerated in this since the time of Polybius.

What an admirable set of people we discover in a single contract!

As religion always furnishes the best security for the rectitude of human actions, so there was this peculiarity [68] among the Romans, that the love they expressed for their country, was blended with some particular sentiment of devotion. That mighty city, founded in the most auspicious period; the great Romulus, at once their monarch and their god; the capitol, esteemed as eternal as the city; and the city, reputed as eternal as its founder, had anciently struck such impressions on the minds of the Romans, as might well be wished to have been constantly retained.

The grandeur of the state, in general, constituted the greatness of its particular members; but as affluence consists in conduct, and not in riches; that wealth of the Romans, which had certain limitations, introduced a luxury and profusion which had no bounds.

Those who had been at first corrupted by their opulence, received the same taint in their poverty, by aspiring after acquisitions, that no way comported with private life; it was difficult to be a good citizen, under the influence of strong desires and the regret of a large fortune that had been lost= people, in this situation, were prepared for any desperate attempt; as Sallust says, there was, at that time, a generation of men, who, as they had no patrimony of their own, could not endure to see others less necessitous than themselves.

But as great soever as the corruption of Rome might then be, all its calamitous effects were not introduced among the people, for the efficacy of those institutions, by which they were originally established, was so extraordinary, that they always preserved an heroic fortitude, and devoted themselves, with the greatest application to war, amidst all the softenings of luxury and pleasure; which seems to me, to be a circumstance, in which they were never imitated by any nation in the world.

The Romans were not solicitous to improve commerce, or cultivate the sciences, but ranked them among the attentions proper for slaves; we may except, indeed, some particular persons, who had received their freedom, and persisted in their former industry. But their knowledge, in general, was confined to the art of war, which was the only track by which they could arrive at promotions in the magistracy, and other stations of honour; for which reason, their military virtues subsisted after all the rest were extinguished.

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