Chapter 5 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3

The State of Greece, of Macedonia, of Syria, and of Egypt, after the Depression of Carthage

September 30, 2021

I IMAGINE Hannibal did not abound in witticisms, especially in favour of Fabius and Marcellus against himself. I am sorry to see Livy strew his flowers on these enormous colossuses of antiquity= I wish he had done like Homer, who neglects embellishing them, and knew so well how to put them in motion.

Besides, what Hannibal is made to speak, ought to have common sense= but if, on hearing the defeat of his brother, he said publicly, that it was the prelude of the ruin of Carthage; could any thing have a greater tendency to drive to despair a people, who had placed their confidence in him, and to discourage an army which expected such high recompences after the war?

As the Carthaginians lost every battle they fought, either in Spain, in Sicily, or in Sardinia; Hannibal, whose enemies were fortifying themselves incessantly, whilst very inconsiderable reinforcements were sent him, was reduced to the necessity of engaging in a defensive war= This suggested to the Romans the design of making Africa the seat of war= Accordingly Scipio [30] went into that part of the world, and so great was his success, that the Carthaginians were forced to recal from Italy, Hannibal, who wept for grief at his surrendering to the Romans those very plains, in which he had so often triumphed over them.

Whatever is in the power of a great general and a great soldier to perform, all this Hannibal did to save his country= Having fruitlessly endeavoured to bring Scipio to pacific terms, he fought a battle, in which fortune seemed to delight in confounding his ability, his experience and good sense.

Carthage received the conditions of peace, not from an enemy, but from a sovereign; the citizens of it obliged themselves to pay ten thousand talents in fifty years to give hostages to deliver up their ships and elephants, and not to engage in any war without the consent of the Romans; and in order that this republic might always continue in a dejected state, the victors heightened the power of Masinissa, its irreconcileable enemy.

After the depression of Carthage, the Romans were scarce engaged but in petty wars, and obtained mighty victories; whereas before they had obtained but petty victories, and been engaged in mighty wars.

There were in those times two worlds, as it were, separate from each other; in one, the Carthaginians and Romans fought, and the other was shaken by the feuds and divisions which had subsisted ever since the death of Alexander= In the latter, no regard was had * to the transactions of the western world= For though Philip, king of Macedon, had concluded a treaty with Hannibal, yet very little resulted from it; and this monarch, who gave the Carthaginians but very inconsiderable succours, just shewed the Romans that he bore them a fruitless ill will.

When two mighty people are seen to wage a long and obstinate war, it is often ill policy to imagine that it is safe for the rest of the world to continue as so many idle spectators, for whichsoever of the two people triumphs over the other, engages immediately in new wars; and a nation of soldiers marches and invades nations who are but so many citizens.

This was very manifest in those ages; for scarce had the Romans subjected the Carthaginians, but they immediately invaded other nations, and appeared in all parts of the earth, carrying on an universal invasion.

There were at that time in the east but four powers capable of making head against the Romans; Greece, the kingdoms of Macedonia, Syria and Egypt= we must take a view of the condition, at that time, of the two first of those powers; because the Romans began by subjecting them.

There were three considerable people in Greece, the Ætolians, the Achaians, and the Bœotians; these were so many associations formed by free cities, which had their general assemblies and magistrates in common. The Ætolians were martial, bold, rash; greedy of gain, very lavish of their promises and oaths; in fine, a people who warred on land in the same manner as pirates do at sea. The Achaians were incommoded perpetually by troublesome neighbours or defenders. The Bœotians, who were the most heavy people of all Greece, but at the same time the wisest, lived generally in peace; guided entirely by a sensation of happiness and misery, they had not genius enough to be either roused or misguided by orators. What is most extraordinary, their republic subsisted even in the midst of anarchy * .

Lacedæmon had preserved its power, by which I mean that warlike spirit which the institutions of Lycurgus inspired. The Thessalians were, in some measure, enslaved by the Macedonians. The Illyrian kings had already been very much depressed by the Romans. The Acarnanians and Athamanes had been cruelly infested by the troops of Macedon and Ætolia successively. The Athenians * , weak in themselves and unsupported by † allies, no longer astonished the world, except by the slatteries they lavished on kings; and the orators no more ascended the rostra where Demosthenes had harangued, unless to propose the basest and most scandalous decrees.

Besides, Greece was formidable from its situation, its strength, the multitude of its cities, the great number of its soldiers, its polity, manners and laws; the Greeks delighted in war; they knew the whole art of it; and, had they united, would have been invincible.

They indeed have been terrified by the first Philip, by Alexander, and by Antipater, but not subdued; and the Kings of Macedon, who could not prevail with themselves to lay aside their pretensions and their hopes, made the most obstinate attempts to enslave them.

The greatest part of Macedonia was surrounded with inaccessible mountains; the inhabitants of it were formed by nature for war; courageous, obedient, industrious, and indefatigable; and these qualities must necessarily have been owing to the climate, since the natives of it are, to this day, the best soldiers in the Turkish empire.

Greece maintained itself by a kind of balance= the Lacedæmonians were generally in alliance with the Ætolians, and the Macedonians with the Achaians; but the arrival of the Romans quite destroyed the equilibrium.

As the kings of Macedonia were not able to maintain a large body of troops, the least loss was of consequence to them; besides, it was difficult for these monarchs to aggrandize themselves; because, as their ambitious views were not unknown, other nations kept a watchful eye over every step they took; and the successes they obtained in the wars undertaken for the sake of their allies, was an evil which these very allies endeavoured immediately to remedy.

But the kings of Macedonia generally possessed great talents; their monarchy was not like those which proceed for ever in the same steps that were taken at the foundation of them; instructed perpetually by dangers and experience, involved in all the disputes of Greece, it was necessary for them either to bribe the principal magistrates of cities, to raise a mist before the eyes of nations, or to divide or unite their interests; in a word, they were obliged to expose, every moment, their persons to the greatest dangers.

Philip, who in the beginning of his reign had won the love and confidence of the Greeks by his moderation, changed on a sudden; he became * a cruel tyrant, at a time when he ought to have behaved with justice, both from policy and ambition= he saw though at a distance, the Romans possessed of numberless forces; he had concluded the war to the advantage of his alhes, and was reconciled to the Ætolians= it was natural he should now endeavour to unite all the Greeks with himself, in order to prevent the Romans from fettling in their country; but so far from this, he exasperated them by petty usurpations; and trifled away [34] his time in examining affairs of little or no consequence, at a time when his very existence was endangered= by the commission of three or four evil actions, he made himself odious and detestable to all Greece.

The Ætolians were most exasperated, and the Romans snatching the opportunity of their resentment, or rather of their folly, made an alliance with them, entered Greece and armed it against Philip. This prince was defeated at the battle of Cynocephalæ, and the victory was partly gained by the valour of the Ætolians= so much was he intimidated upon this, that he concluded a treaty, which was not so properly a peace, as the renouncing his own strength; for he evacuated his garrisons in all Greece, delivered up his ships, and bound himself under an obligation of paying a thousands talents in ten years.

Polybius compares, with his usual good sense, the disposition of the Roman armies with that of the Macedonians, which was observed by all the kings who succeeded Alexander= he points out the conveniencies, as well as inconveniencies, of the phalanx and of the legion= he prefers the disposition used by the Romans, in which he very probably was right, since all the battles fought at that time shew it to have been preferable.

A circumstance which had contributed very much to the danger to which the Romans were exposed in the second Punic war, was Hannibal’s presently arming his soldiers after the Roman manner; but the Greeks did not change either their arms or their way of fighting; and could not prevail with themselves to lay aside customs, by the observance of which they had performed such mighty things.

The success which the Romans obtained over Philip, was the greatest step they ever took towards a general conquest= to make sure of Greece, they employed all methods possible to depress the Ætolians, by whose assistance they had been victorious= they ordained, [35] moreover, that every city of Greece which had been subject to Philip, or any other sovereign prince, should from that time be governed by its own laws.

It is very evident, that these petty commonwealths must necessarily be dependent= the Greeks abandoned themselves to a stupid joy, and fondly imagined they were really free, because the Romans had declared them to be so.

The Ætolians, who had imagined they should bear sway in Greece, finding they had only brought themselves under subjection, were seized with the deepest grief; and as they had always formed desperate resolutions, they invited, in order to correct one extravagance by another, Antiochus king of Syria into Greece, in the same manner as they had before invited the Romans.

The kings of Syria were the most powerful of all Alexander’s successors, they being possessed of almost all the dominions of Darius, Egypt excepted; but by the concurrence of several circumstances, their power had been much weakened. Seleucus, who founded the Syrian empire, had destroyed, towards the latter end of his life, the kingdom of Lysamachus. During the feuds and distractions, several provinces took up arms; the kingdom of Pergamus, of Capadocia, and of Bithynia started up; but these petty, fearful states, always considered the depression of their former masters as the making of their own fortune.

As the kings of Syria always beheld, with a most invidious eye, the felicity of the kingdom of Egypt, they bent their whole thoughts to the conquest of that country; by this means, neglecting the east, they were dispossessed of several provinces there, and but indifferently obeyed in the rest.

In fine, the kings of Syria possessed upper and lower Asia; but experience has shewn, that in this case, when the capital city and the chief forces are in the lower provinces of Asia, there is no possibility of maintaining [36] the upper ones; and on the contrary, when the seat of the empire is in the upper provinces, the monarch weakens himself by maintaining the lower ones. Neither the Persian nor Syrian empires were ever so powerful as that of the Parthians, though these reigned over but part of the provinces which formed the dominions of those two powers. Had Cyrus not conquered the kingdom of Lydia, had Seleucus continued in Babylon, and let the successors of Antigonus possess the maritime provinces, the Greeks would never have conquered the Persian empire, nor the Romans that of Seleucus. Nature has prescribed certain limits to states, purposely to mortify the ambition of mortals= When the Romans stepped beyond those limits, the greatest part of them were destroyed by the Parthians * ; when the Parthians presumed to pass them, they were forced immediately to retire back; And in our days, such Turks as advanced beyond those boundaries, were obliged to return whence they came.

The kings of Syria and Egypt had, in their respective dominions, two kinds of subjects, victorious nations, and nations vanquished; the former still puffed up with the idea of their origin, were ruled with very great difficulty= They were not fired with that spirit of independence, which animates us to shake off the yoke, but with that impatience which makes us wish to change our sovereign.

But the chief weakness of the kingdom of Syria sprung from that of the court, where such monarchs presided as were successors to Darius, not to Alexander. Luxury, vanity, and effeminacy, which had prevailed through all ages in the Asiatic courts, triumphed more particularly in that of Syria= The evil infected the common people and the soldiers, and catched the very Romans themselves; since the war in which they [37] engaged against Antiochus, is the true æra of their corruption.

Such was the condition of the kingdom of Syria, when Antiochus, who had performed such mighty things, declared war against the Romans; but he did not conduct himself in it with the wisdom which is even employed in common affairs= Hannibal requested either to have the war revived in Italy, and Philip bribed; or else, that he might be prevailed upon to stand neuter. Antiochus did not follow any part of this advice= He appeared in Greece with only a small part of his forces; and as though he were come merely to see the war, not to carry it on, he followed nothing but his pleasures, by which means he was defeated, and fled out of Asia, terrified rather than conquered.

Philip, who was dragged to this war by the Romans, as though a flood had swept him along, employed his whole power in their service, and became the instrument of their victories= The pleasure of taking vengeance of, and laying waste Ætolia; the promise made him of lessening the tribute he paid, and of leaving him the possession of certain cities; some personal jealousy of Antiochus; in a word, a few inconsiderable motives swayed his resolutions; and not daring so much as to think of shaking off the yoke, he only considered how he might best lighten it.

Antiochus formed so wrong a judgment of things, as to fancy that the Romans would not molest him in Asia; however, they followed him thither; he was again overcome, and, in his consternation, consented to the most infamous treaty that ever was concluded by so mighty a prince.

I cannot recollect any thing so magnanimous, as a resolution taken by a monarch in our days * , to bury himself under the ruins of the throne, rather than accept of terms unworthy of a king= So haughty was his soul, that he could not stoop lower than his misfortunes [38] had thrown him; and he was very sensible, that courage may, but infamy never can, give fresh strength to the regal diadem.

We often meet with princes who have skill enough to fight a battle, but with very few that have the talents requisite for carrying on a war; who are equally capable of making a proper use of fortune, and of waiting for her; and who join to a frame of mind, which raises suspicions before it executes, such a disposition as makes them fearless after they have once executed.

After the depression of Antiochus, only some inconsiderable powers remained, if we except Egypt, which, from the advantage of its situation, its fertility, its commerce, the great number of its inhabitants, its naval and land forces, might have been formidable; but the cruelty of its kings, their cowardice, their avarice, their imbecillity, and their enormous sensualities, made them so odious to their subjects, that they supported themselves, for the most part, by the protection of the Romans.

It was a kind of fundamental law, with regard to the crown of Egypt, that the sisters should succeed with the brothers; and in order to preserve unity in the government, the brother was married to the sister. Now, it is scarce possible to figure any thing more pernicious in politics than such an order of succession; for as all the little domestic feuds rose so high as to disorder the state, whichsoever of the two parties had the least discontent, immediately excited against the other the inhabitants of Alexandria, a numberless multitude, always prepared to join with the first of their kings who should rouse them; so that there were for ever princes who actually reigned, and pretenders to the crown. And as the kingdoms of Cyrene and Cyprus were generally possessed by other princes of that house, who laid their respective claims to the whole; by that means, the throne of these princes was ever [39] tottering; and being indifferently settled at home, they had no power abroad.

The forces of the kings of Egypt, like those of the Asiatic monarchs, were composed of auxiliary Greeks. Besides the spirit of liberty, of honour, and of glory, which animated the latter people, they were incessantly employed in bodily exercises of every kind. In all their chief cities games were instituted, wherein the victors were crowned in the presence of all Greece, which raised a general emulation= Now, in an age when combatants fought with arms, the success of which depended upon their strength and dexterity, it is natural to suppose that men thus exercised, must have had a great advantage over a crowd of barbarians, who were enlisted at random, and dragged indiscriminately into the field, as was evident from the armies of Darius.

The Romans, in order to deprive the kings of such a body of soldiery, and to bereave them, but in an easy, silent manner, of their principal forces, observed two things= First, they established, by insensible degrees, as a maxim, with respect to all the cities of Greece, that they should not conclude any alliance, give any succour, or make war against any nation whatsoever, without their consent= Secondly, in their treaties with kings * , they forbad them to levy any forces from among the allies of the Romans, by which means, those monarchs were reduced to employ their national troops only.


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