Chapter 18 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3

Some new maxims received by the Romans

September 30, 2021

SOMETIMES the pusillanimous spirit of the emperors † , and frequently the defenceless state of the empire made the people employ their money to appease the nations that threatened to invade them; but the desired peace could never be effectually purchased, because those who sold it could, whenever they pleased, oblige the Romans to buy it again.

It is much better to hazard an unsuccessful war, than to part with great sums for a precarious peace; for a prince is always suspected when it is known he will make a long resistance before he can be vanquished.

Besides, such gratifications as these were changed into tribute at last, and though they were free at the beginning, they became necessary in the event, and passed for an acquired property= for which reason, when an emperor refused them to some particular people, or was not disposed to give them so much as they demanded, they immediately declared themselves his mortal enemies.

To produce an instance or two, from a thousand= the army which Julian led against the Persians, was pursued, in his retreat from the east, by the Arabians, to whom the customary tribute had been refused=

A short time afterwards, in the reign of Valentinian, the Germans, who had been offered more inconsiderable presents than usual, grew exasperated at that disobliging frugality, and these northern people being already influenced by a point of honour, avenged themselves of this pretended insult by a cruel war.

All those nations that surrounded the empire in Europe and Asia, exhausted it by degrees of its riches= and as the Romans derived their grandeur and power from the gold and silver which flowed into the empire from the coffers of so many kings; they now grew weak and despicable, ‡ because the same gold and silver was drained from them by other nations.

The misconduct of politicians is not always voluntary, but happens frequently to be the unavoidable consequence of their particular situation; and therefore one inconvenience is generally the offspring of another.

The army, as we have already declared, became very expensive to the state, and the soldiers had three [134] sorts of advantages; their ordinary pay, donations of recompence after their services, and accidental liberalities, which were often claimed as stated properties by a body of men who had both princes and people in their power.

The inability of the people to furnish these expences obliged them to employ a less chargeable soldiery, and treaties were struck up with barbarous nations, who had neither the luxury of the Roman army, nor the same spirit and pretensions.

There was another advantage besides this; for as the Barbarians poured their troops into a country with the greatest precipitation, the Romans being unprovided for their reception, and finding it sometimes difficult to raise levies in the provinces, were obliged to hire another party of Barbarians, who were always mercenary, and eager for battle and plunder. This expedient had its use in the present emergency; but when that was over, the Romans found it as difficult to rid themselves of their new allies, as of their enemies themselves.

The ancient Romans never suffered the auxiliary troops to outnumber their own, in their armies * ; and though their allies might properly be reputed their subjects, yet they had no inclination to let those subjects be better warriors than themselves.

But in the latter times, this proportion of the auxiliaries was not only disregarded, but even the national troops were composed of Barbarian soldiers.

Thus were customs established, quite opposite to those which had rendered the Romans masters of the world; and as the genius of their former politics always prompted them to reserve the military art to themselves, and exclude their neighbours from any participation of its principles, they now extinguished [135] it in their own people, and established it among foreigners.

Take this compendium of the Roman history= They subdued all nations by their maxims, but when they had so far succeeded, their republic could not subsist any longer; the plan of their government must be changed, and maxims contrary to the first, being then introduced, they were divested of all their grandeur.

Fortune never interposes in the government of this world; and we may be convinced of this truth by the Romans, who enjoyed a continual series of prosperity when they regulated their conduct by one invariable plan, but suffered an uninterrupted train of calamities when they acted upon different principles. There are a set of general causes, either moral or physical, which operate in every monarchy, and either raise and maintain it, or else involve it in ruin. All accidental conjunctures are subordinate to these causes; and if the hazard of a battle, which, in other words, is no more than a particular cause, has been destructive of a state, some general cause presided, and made a single battle be the inevitable ruin of that state. In a word, the tendency of the main principle draws after it all the particular incidents.

We are sensible that for two centuries past, the Danish troops have been generally defeated by the Swedes; we may therefore conclude, that, independent of the bravery of the two nations, and the chance of war, either their civil or military government is disconcerted by some secret flaw which produces this effect, and I am of opinion it may easily be discovered.

In a word, the Romans lost their military discipline, and even neglected it in their very arms= Vegetius * acquaints us, that the soldiers finding them too ponderous, obtained the emperor Gratian’s permission to quit their coats of mail, and soon after their helmets; [136] and when their bodies were thus defenceless, they grew attentive to nothing but flight.

The same author adds, they had lost the art of fortifying their camps, and that by this negligence they were easily overwhelmed by the Barbarian horse.

The cavalry of the first Romans was not numerous, it was but the eleventh part of the legion, and often less, and what is extraordinary, was made less use of by them than by us who are obliged to carry on so many sieges, where cavalry is of little service. When the Roman empire was in its decay, their forces consisted of little else but cavalry. I imagine, as a nation improves in the knowledge of the military art, it trusts the more to its intantry; and as that science decreases, it increases its cavalry in proportion= the reason is, because the infantry, whether light or heavy, is nothing without discipline, whereas, the cavalry is always of use, even in its disorder * . The action of the latter consists chiefly in its impetuosity and sudden shock; that of the former in its resistance and impenetrable firmness, which is not so much action as re-action. Lastly, the force of the cavalry is momentaneous; that of the infantry of longer duration; now there is need of discipline to continue it in a persevering state.

The Romans arrived at universal monarchy not only by the arts of war, but likewise by their wisdom, their perseverance, their passion for glory, and their heroic love for their country= and when even these virtues disappeared under the emperors, and they had only the art military among them, yet this alone, notwithstanding the weakness and tyranny of their princes, enabled them to preserve their former acquisitions. But when corruption had at last insinuated itself among the soldiery, they became the prey of every nation.

An empire founded by arms, must likewise have arms for its support. But as a people, when their [137] state is in confusion, are at a loss how to rectify their civil disorders; in the same manner, when they enjoy a profound peace, and are respected for their power, they never imagine this calm scene may change, and consequently neglect their military force, from whence as they have nothing more to hope, so they fancy they have all things to fear, and sometimes proceed so far as to weaken that basis of their welfare.

It was an inviolable law among the Romans, that whoever abandoned his post or quitted his arms in the combat, should be punished with death. Julian and Valentinian, had reinforced the ancient penalties in this particular; but the Barbarians who were taken into the Roman pay * , and were accustomed to make war in the manner now practised by the Tartars, who fly in order to rally, and are more solicitous for plunder than martial reputation, were incapable of conforming to such severe regulations.

The discipline of the ancient Romans was so strict that they have had generals who sentenced their own children to die, for gaining a battle without their orders= but when they were intermixed with the Barbarians, they contracted, from that association, the same spirit of independence which marks out the character of those nations; and such as read the wars of Belifarius with the Goths, will see a general very frequently disobeyed by his officers.

Sylla and Sertorius amidst the fury of civil wars would rather die than connive at any thing from whence Mithridates might derive the least advantage; but in the succeeding times, when a minister † or any grandee [138] imagined it would be favourable to his avarice, his revenge, or ambition, to admit the Barbarians into the empire, he immediately permitted them to give a loose to their depredations.

No states are more necessitated for tributes than those which are weak, because this circumstance obliges them to augment their charges in proportion to the people’s inability to defray them; and therefore the tributes in the Roman provinces became insupportable.

It would not be improper to read Salvian’s * account of the horrible exactions that were made upon the people. The citizens were so harrassed by the farmers of the revenue, that they were obliged either to seek refuge among the Barbarians, or surrender their liberty to the first of their insatiable countrymen who would accept of such a present.

This may account for the relations we find in our French history, of the patience with which the Gauls supported a revolution calculated to establish that shocking distinction between a gallant nation, and a community of servile wretches; I say, between a nation who retained their liberty and military privileges, and an ignoble body of people. The Barbarians, in making so many citizens slaves to till the earth, that is, the country to which they were attached, introduced no services which were not more cruelly exacted before † .


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