Chapter 17 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3

Changes in the State

September 30, 2021

To prevent the continual treasons of the army=

  • the Roman emperors associated into the government proper persons in whom they might confide.
  • Dioclesian, under pretext of the weight and multiplicity of the public affairs, established a law, that there should always be two Emperors and as many Cæsars.

He judged that this would make the four main armies being possessed by the partners in the empire, would naturally intimidate one another, and that the inferior armies being too weak to have any thoughts of raising [124] their chiefs to the imperial dignity, their custom of election would be gradually discontinued, and entirely abolished at last. Besides, the dignity of the Cæsars being always subordinate, that power, which, for the security of the government, was in the participation of four, would be exercised in its full extent by no more than two.

The soldiers were likewise restrained from their exorbitances by considering, that as the riches of particular persons as well as the public treasure were considerably diminished, the emperors were in no condition to offer them such large donations as formerly, and consequently the gratuities would be no longer proportionable to the danger of a new election.

The prefects of

The power of the prætorian guard=

  • made them the grand visirs of those times
  • frequently tempted them to murder their emperors in order to raise themselves to the throne.

This power was greatly reduced by Constantine by=

  • divesting them of all but their civil functions
  • increasing them to four instead of two.

The made the lives of the emperors more secure. But this security softened their dispositions. They no longer shed much human blood like their predecessors.

But as the immense power they still possessed must needs have some particular tendency, it began to manifest itself in a species of tyranny less glaring than the former. The subjects no longer had the fear of inhuman massacres. Instead, they were harassed by unjust sentences and forms of judicature, which deferred death only to render life itself uncomfortable.

The court governed, and was likewise swayed in its turn, by a greater variety of artifices and a more exquisite train of political resinements, which were conducted with greater silence than [125] usual.

In a word, instead of an unterrisied disposition to form a bad action, and a cruel precipitation to commit it, those gigantic iniquities shrunk into the vices of weak minds, and could only be called languid crimes.

A new train of corruption was thus introduced. The first emperors pursued pleasures, but these sunk into softness.

They shewed themselves with less frequency to the soldiers, were more indolent and fonder of their domestics, more devoted to the palace, and more abstracted from the empire.

The poison of the court grew more malignant in proportion to the disguise it assumed. All direct terms were disused in discourse, and distant insinuations became the dialect of the palace. Every shining reputation was sullied, and the ministers as well as the officers of the army were perpetually left to the discretion of that sort of people, who, as they cannot be useful to the state themselves, suffer none to serve it with reputation and glory.

That affability of the first emporors, which alone qualified them for an insight into their affairs, was now entirely discarded. The prince had no informations, but what were conveyed to him by the canal of a few favourites, who acted always in concert together, and even when they seemed to disagree in their opinions, were only in the province of a single person to their sovereign.

The residence of several emperors in Asia, and their perpetual competition with the kings of Persia, made them form a resolution to be adorned like those monarchs; and Dioclesian, though others say Gallerius, published an edict to that effect.

This pompous imitation of the Asiatic pride being once established, the people were soon habituated to such a spectacle, and when Julian would have regulated his conduct by a modest simplicity of manners, that proceeding which was no more than a renovation [126] of the ancient behaviour, was imputed to him as a reproachful inattention to his dignity.

Though several emperors had reigned after Marcus Aurelius, yet the empire was undivided; and as the authority of those princes was acknowledged in all the provinces, it was but one power though exercised by many persons.

But Galerius * and Constantius Chlorus, being at variance with each other, divided the empire in reality; and this example, which was afterwards followed by Constantine, who pursuing the plan of Galerius and not that of Dioclesian, introduced a custom which might be called a revolution rather than a change.

Constantine transferred the seat of empire to the east because of his strong desire to found a new city in his own name.

Rome was far from being so spacious within the walls as it is at present, yet the suburbs were prodigiously extensive † = Italy was filled with seats of pleasure, and might properly be called the garden of Rome.

The husbandmen were in Cicily, Africa, and Egypt ‡ ; but the gardeners lived altogether in Italy. The lands were generally cultivated by the slaves of the Roman citizens, but when the seat of empire was established in the east, all Rome was in a manner transplanted to that situation. Thither did the Grandees send their slaves, or, in other words, the greatest part of the people, and Italy was almost exhausted of its inhabitants.

Constantine intented for the new city to be not inferior to Rome. So he had it supplied with wheat, commanding all the harvest of Egypt [127] to be sent to Constantinople, while sending Africa’s wheat to Rome. This was not very wise.

Whilst the republic subsisted, the people of Rome, who were then the sovereigns of all other nations, became naturally entitled to a proportion of the tribute=

this circumstance induced the senate to sell them wheat at a low price initially. Afterwards to make a gratuitous distribution of it among them; and when monarchy itself was introduced, this latter custom was still continued, though entirely opposite to the principles of that form of government. The abuse remained unrectified through an apprehension of the inconveniences that would have risen from its discontinuance. But when Constantine founded a new city, he established the same custom without the least appearance of reason.

When Augustus had conquered Egypt, he sent the treasure of the Ptolomies to Rome. This proceeding occasioned much the same revolution which the discovery of the Indies afterwards effected in Europe, and which some ridiculous schemes have since accomplished in our time.

Rome’s revenue doubled. Alexandria was the repository of the treasures of Africa and the East. Rome absorbed all the riches of Alexandria, increasing the gold and silver in Europe, making them very common. The people were able to pay very considerable taxations even in money.

But when the empire was divided, all these riches flowed in a full tide to Constantinople. The mines in Germany had not yet been opened. [128] The mines of Italy and Gaul were very few and inconsiderable. The mines of Spain had not been worked since the Carthaginians lost Spain.

Italy itself was now a continued waste of forsaken gardens, and consequently could not be in any condition to draw money from the East, whilst the West at the same time was drained of all its wealth, by the oriental merchants who supplied the inhabitants with their necessary commodities.

Gold and Silver, by these means became extremely scarce in Europe; and yet the emperors extorted the same pecuniary tributes as formerly, which completed the general destruction.

When a government has been established in one certain form, and its political circumstances are adjusted to a particular situation, it is generally prudent to leave them in that condition; for the same causes which have enabled such a state to subsist, though they may frequently be complicated and unknown, will still continue to support it; but when the whole system is changed, remedies can only be accommodated to the inconveniences visible in the theory, whilst others, which nothing but experience can point out, are lurking without opposition in the new plan.

For these reasons, though the empire grew already too great, yet it was effectually ruined by the divisions into which it was parcelled, because all the parts of this vast body, had, for a long series of time, been arranged so as to become settled and steady, and were compacted by a mutual dependency through the whole.

After he had weakened the capital, Constantine weakened [129] the frontiers by transferring the legions from the banks of great rivers onto the the interior provinces. This made the soldiers effeminate in the Circus and the theatres.

When Julian was sent by Constantius into Gaul, he found that=

  • 50 towns on the Rhine had been taken by the Barbarians
  • the provinces were all plundered
  • the Roman army was gone, fleeing at the very mention of the enemies’ name.

By his wisdom, preservance, economy, conduct, and valour, he led a series of heroic actions and chased the Barbarians away.

The characters of the emperors were greatly disfigured by=

  • the shortness of the reigns
  • the various political parties, the different religions and their sects have

Examples are=

  • Alexander is a coward in Herodian but is a hero in Lampridius
  • Gratian is so highly celebrated [130] by the Orthodox but is compared to Nero by Philostorgius

Valentinian saw the necessity of restoring the ancient plan. He spent his whole life fortifying the banks of the Rhine, making levies, raising castles, placing troops in proper stations, and furnishing them with subsistence on those frontiers.

but an event that afterwards happened, determined his brother Valents to open the Danube, and that proceeding was attended with very dreadful consequences.

That track of land which lies between the Palus Mæotis, the mountains of Caucasus and the Caspian sea, was inhabited by the Huns or the the Alans.

The soil was exceedingly fertile. They were fond of wars and robberies and were always either on horseback or in their chariots, and wandered about the country wherein they were inclosed.

They sometimes made depredations on the frontiers of Persia and Armenia. But the ports of the Caspian sea were easily guarded, and it was difficult for them to penetrate into Persia.

Some people think that the slime which was rolled down by the current of the Tanais had by degrees formed a kind of incrustation on the surface of the Cimmerian Bosphorus, over which these people are supposed to have passed.

Others think that two young Scythians being in full pursuit of a hind, the terrified creature swam over that arm of the sea, upon which the youths immediately followed her in the same track, were exceedingly astonished to find [131] themselves in a new world; and, at their return to the old one, they gave their countrymen * a particular account of the strange hands, and if I may be indulged the expression, in inviting Indies they had lately discovered.

Upon this information, an innumerable body of Huns immediately passed those streights; and, meeting first with the Goths, made that people fly before them. It should seem as if these mighty countries poured their nations out precipitately upon one another, and that Asia had acquired a new weight to make it ponderate equal to the European power.

The Goths in consternation presented themselves on the banks of the Danube, and with a suppliant air intreated the Romans to allow them a place of refuge. The flatterers † of Valens improved this conjecture, and represented it as a fortunate conquest of a new people, who, by the accession of their numbers, would defend and enrich the empire.

Valens ordered them to be admitted into his territories upon delivering up their arms; but his officers suffered them to re-purchase with their money as many as they pleased=

They were afterwards distributed into several allotments of land; but the Goths, ∥ contrary to the custom of the Huns, did not cultivate the portions of ground assigned them. They were even left destitute of the promised supplies of corn, and were [132] ready to perish amidst a land of plenty; they were armed for war, and yet unjustly insulted. In consequence of these provocations, they ravaged all the country from the Danube to the Bosphorus; they destroyed Valens and all his army, and repassed the Danube only to quit the hideous solitude they had effected by their devastations * .


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