Chapter 6 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3

How the Romans Conquered all Nations

September 30, 2021

DURING the course of so mighty a prosperity, in which it is usual for mankind to forget themselves, the senate continued to act with the same depth of judgment; and whilst their armies were spreading an universal terror, they would not suffer those to rise who were once depressed.

A tribunal arose which judged all nations= At the close of every war they determined the rewards or punishments which every one had merited= They took away from the vanquished people, part of their lands, and gave them to their allies, in which they did two things; they engaged, in the interests of Rome, princes from whom they had little to fear, and much to hope; and they weakened others from whom they had nothing to hope, and every thing to fear.

In warring with an enemy they made use of their allies, but immediately extirpated the destroyers. Philip was overcome by the assistance of the Ætolians, who were destroyed presently after, for having joined themselves to Antiochus. This king was overcome by the assistance of the Rhodians; but after the most conspicuous rewards had been bestowed upon them, they were depressed for ever, upon pretence that they had demanded to have a peace concluded with Perseus.

When the Romans were opposed by several enemies at the same time, they granted a truce to the weakest, who thought themselves happy in obtaining it; considering it as a great advantage, that their ruin had been suspended.

When they were engaged in a mighty war, the senate winked at wrongs of every kind, and silently waited the season proper for chastisement= If at any time a people sent them the offenders, they refused to punish them, chusing rather to consider the whole nation as guilty, and reserve to themselves a useful vengeance.

As they made their enemies suffer inexpressible evils, very few leagues were formed against them; for he who was at the greatest distance from the danger, did not care to come near it.

For this reason war was seldom denounced against them, but themselves always made it at a season, in the manner, and with a people, as best suited their interest; and, among the great number of nations they invaded, there were very few but would have submitted to injuries of every kind, provided they could but be suffered to live in peace.

As it was usual for them to deliver themselves always in a magisterial way, such ambassadors as they sent to nations who had not yet felt the weight of their power, were sure to meet with ill-treatment, which furnished them with a sure * pretence to engage in a new war.

As they never concluded a peace with sincerity and integrity, and intended a general invasion, their treaties were properly only so many suspensiens from war; they inserted such conditions in them, as always paved the way to the ruin of those states which accepted them= They used to send the garrisons out of the strong holds= they regulated the number of the land forces, or had the horses and elephants delivered up to them; and in case this people were powerful at sea, they obliged them to burn their ships, and sometimes to remove higher up in the country.

After having destroyed the armies of a prince, they drained his treasury, by imposing a heavy tribute, or taxing him immoderately, under colour of making him defray the expence of the war= a new species of tyranny, [42] which obliged him to oppress his subjects, and thereby lose their affection.

Whenever they granted a peace to some prince, they used to take one of his brothers or children by way of hostage, which gave them an opportunity of raising, at pleasure, commotions in his kingdom= When they had the next heir among them, it was their custom to intimidate the possessor= Had they only a prince of a remote degree, they made use of him to foment the insurrections of the populace.

Whenever any prince or people withdrew their allegiance from their sovereign, they immediately indulged them with the title of * ally to the Romans; by which means they became sacred and inviolable; so that there was no monarch, how formidable soever, who could rely one moment upon his subjects, or even upon his own family.

Although the title of their ally was a kind of servitude † , yet was it very much sought after; for these who enjoyed it were sure to receive no injuries but from them, and had reason to flatter themselves such would be less grievous. Hence nations and kings were ready to undertake any kind of services, and submitted to the meanest and most abject acts, merely for the sake of obtaining it.

They had various kinds of allies; some were united to them by privileges and participation in their grandeur, as the Latins and the Hernici; others by their very settlements, as their colonies; some by good offices, as Masinissa, Eumenes, and Attalus, who were obliged to them for their kingdoms or their exaltation; others by free and unconstrained treaties, and these, by the long continuation of the alliance, became subjects, as the kings of Egypt, Bithynia, Capadocia, and most [43] of the Grecian cities; in fine, many by forced and involuntary treaties, and by the law of their subjection, as Philip and Antiochus; for every peace the Romans granted an enemy, included also an alliance with him; or, in other words, they made every nation subdued by them, contribute to the depression of others.

When they permitted any cities the enjoyment of their liberties, they immediately raised two * factions in them, one of which defended the laws and liberties of the country, whilst the other asserted, that the will of the Romans was the only law; and as the latter faction was always the most powerful, it is plain such a liberty could be but a mere name.

They sometimes possessed themselves of a country upon a pretence of being heirs to it= They entered Asia, Bithynia, and Lybia by the last wills of Attalus, of Nicomedes † , and of Appion; and Egypt was enslaved by that of the king of Cyrene.

To keep great princes for ever in a weak condition, they would not suffer them to conclude an alliance with those nations to whom they had granted theirs ‡ ; and as they did not resuse it to any people who bordered upon a powerful prince, this condition inserted in a treaty of peace, deprived him of all his allies.

Besides, when they had overcome any considerable prince, one of the articles of the treaty was, that he should not make war, upon account of any feuds of his own, with the allies of the Romans (that is to say, generally with all his neighbours;) but should submit them to arbitration; which deprived him of a military power for time to come.

And in order to keep the sole possession of it in their own hands, they bereaved their very allies of this force; the instant these had the least contest, they sent ambassadors, who obliged them to conclude a peace= [44] we need but consider the manner in which they terminated the wars of Attalus and Prusias.

When any prince had gained such a conquest as often had exhausted him, immediately a Roman ambassador came and wrested it out of his hands= among a multitude of examples, we may remember how they, with a single word, drove Antiochus out of Egypt.

Fully sensible how well the European nations were turned for war, they established as a law, that no * Asiatic monarch should be suffered to come into Europe, and there invade any people whatsoever. The chief motive of their declaring war against Mithridates † was, for his having subdued some barbarians contrary to his prohibition.

When they saw two nations engaged in war, although they were not in alliance, nor had any contest with either of them, they nevertheless appeared upon the stage of action, and, like our knight-errants, always sided with the weakest= it was an ‡ ancient custom, says Dionysius Halicarnasseus, for the Romans to grant succour to all who came to implore it.

These customs of the Romans were not certain particular incidents, which happened by chance, but were so many invariable principles; and this is easy to perceive, for the maxims they put in practice against the greatest monarchs were exactly the same with those they had employed, in their infant state, against the little cities which stood round them.

They made Eumenes and Masinissa contribute to the subjection of Philip and Antiochus, as they had before employed the Latins and the Hernici to subdue the Volscians and the Tuscans= they obliged the Carthaginians and the kings of Asia to surrender their fleets to [45] them, in like manner as they had forced the citizens of Antium to give up their little vessels.

When any state composed too formidable a body from its situation or union, they never failed to divide it. The republic of Achaia was formed by an association of free cities; the senate declared, that every city should from that time be governed by its own laws, independent on the general authority.

The commonwealth of Bœoria rose likewise from a league made between several cities= but, as in the war of Perseus, one city declared for that prince, and others for the Romans, the latter received them into favour, when the common alliance was dissolved.

Macedonia was surrounded by inaccessible mountains= the senate divided it into four parts; declared those free; prohibited them every kind of alliance among themselves by marriage; carried off all the nobles into Italy, and by that means reduced this power to nothing.

Had a great monarch, who reigned in our time, followed these maxims, when he saw a neighbouring prince dethroned, he would have employed a stronger force in his support, and have confined him to the island which continued faithful to him. By dividing the only power that could have opposed his designs, he would have drawn infinite advantages even from the misfortunes of his ally.

Whenever there happened any feud in a state, they immediately made themselves judges of it; and thereby were sure of having that party only, whom they condemned, for their enemy. If princes of the same blood were at variance for the crown, they sometimes declared them both kings, and by this means crushed the power of both= if one of them was * a minor, [46] they declared in his favour, and made themselves his guardians in quality of protectors of the world; for they had carried matters to so high a pitch, that nations and kings were there subjects, without knowing directly upon what right or title; it being a maxim, that the bare hearing of their names, was sufficient for a people to acknowledge them their sovereigns.

The Romans never engaged in far distant wars, till they had first made an alliance with some power contiguous to the enemy they invaded, who might unite his troops to the army they sent; and as this was never considerable with regard to numbers, they always had * another in that province which lay nearest the enemy, and a third in Rome, ever ready to march at a moment’s warning. In this manner they never hazarded but a small part of their forces, whilst their enemy ventured all his.

They sometimes insidiously perverted the subtilty of the terms of their language= they destroyed Carthage, upon pretence that they had promised to preserve the Civitas not the Urbs † . It is well known in what manner the Ætolians, who had abandoned themselves to their faith, were imposed upon; the Romans pretended, that the signification of these words, abandon one’s self to the faith of an enemy, implied, the loss of all things, of persons, lands, cities, temples, and even of burial-places.

The Romans would even go so far, as to give arbitrary explanations to treaties= thus, when they were resolved to depress the Rhodians, they declared, that they had formerly given them Lycia, not by way of present, but as a friend and ally.

When one of their generals concluded a peace, merely to preserve his army, which was just upon the point of being cut to pieces, the senate, who did not [47] ratify it, took advantage of this peace and continued the war. Thus when Jugurtha had surrounded an army of Romans, and permitted them to march away unmolested, upon the faith of a treaty, these very troops he had saved were employed against him= and when the Numantians had reduced twenty thousand Romans, just perishing with hunger, to the necessity of suing for peace; this peace, which had saved the lives of so many thousand citizens, was broke at Rome, and the public faith was eluded by * sending back the consul who had signed it.

They sometimes would conclude a peace with a monarch upon reasonable conditions, and the instant he had signed them, they added others of so injurious a nature, that he was forced to renew the war. Thus, when they had forced Jugurtha to † deliver up his elephants, his horses, his treasures, and his deserters, they required him to surrender up his person, which being the greatest calamity that can befal a prince, cannot for that reason be ever made an article of peace.

In fine, they set up a tribunal over kings, whom they judged for their particular vices and crimes= they heard the complaints of all persons who had any dispute with Philip= they sent deputies with them by way of safeguard, and obliged Perseus to appear before these, to answer for certain murthers and certain quarrels he had with some inhabitants of the confederate cities.

As men judged of the glory of a general by the quantity of the gold and silver carried in his triumph, the Romans stripped the vanquished enemy of all [48] things. Rome was for ever enriching itself; and every war they engaged in, enabled them to undertake a new one.

All the nations who were either friends or confederates, quite * ruined themselves by the immensely rich presents they made, in order to procure the continuance of the favours already bestowed upon them, or to obtain greater; and half the monies which used to be sent upon these occasions to the Romans, would have sufficed to conquer them.

Being masters of the universe, they arrogated to themselves all the treasures of it; and were less unjust robbers, considered as conquerors, than considered as legislators. Hearing that Ptolemy king of Cyprus was possessed of immense wealth, they † enacted a law, proposed by a tribune, by which they gave to themselves the inheritance of a man still living, and confiscated to their own use the estates of a confederate prince.

In a little time, the greediness of particular persons quite devoured whatever had escaped the public avarice; magistrates and governors used to sell their injustice to kings= two competitors would ruin one another, for the sake of purchasing an ever-dubious protection against a rival who was not quite undone; for the Romans had not even the justice of robbers, who preserve a certain probity in the exercise of guilt. In fine, as rights, whether lawful or usurped, were maintained by money only; princes, to obtain it, despoiled temples, and confiscated the possessions of the wealthiest citizens; a thousand crimes were committed, purely for the sake of giving to the Romans all the money in the universe.

[49] But nothing was of greater advantage to this people than the awe with which they struck the whole earth= in an instant, kings were put to silence, and seemed as though they were stupid; no regard was had to their eminence, but their very persons were attacked; to hazard a war, was to expose themselves to captivity, to death, to the infamy of a triumph. Thus kings, who lived in the midst of pomps and pleasures, did not dare to fix their eyes stedfastly on the Roman people; and their courage failing them, they hoped to suspend a little the miseries with which they were threatened, by their patience and submissive actions.

Observe, I intreat you, the conduct of the Romans. After the defeat of Antiochus they were possessed of Africa, Asia, and Greece, without having scarce a single city in these countries that were immediately their own. They seemed to conquer with no other view but to bestow; but then they obtained so complete a sovereignty, that whenever they engaged in war with any prince, they oppressed him, as it were, with the weight of the whole universe.

The time proper for seizing upon the conquered countries was not yet come= had the Romans kept the cities they took from Philip, the Greeks would have seen at once into their designs= had they, after the second Punic war, or that with Antiochus, possessed themselves of lands in * Africa and in Asia, they could never have preserved conquests so slightly established.

It was the interest of the Romans to wait till all nations were accustomed to obey, as free and as confederate, before they should attempt to command over them as subjects; and to let them blend and lose themselves, as it were, by little and little, in the Roman commonwealth.

[50] See the treaty which they made with the Latins after the victory at the lake of Legilus * . This was one of the principal foundations of their power, yet not a single word occurs in it, which can give the least suspicion that they aimed at empire.

This was a slow way of conquering; after overcoming a nation, they contented themselves with weakening it; they imposed such conditions as consumed it insensibly= if it recovered, they depressed it still more, and it became subject, without a possibility of dating the first æra of its subjection.

Thus Rome was not properly either a monarchy or a commonwealth, but the head of a body composed of all the nations in the universe.

Had the Spaniards, after the conquest of Mexico and Peru, followed this plan, they would not have been obliged to destroy all, for the sake of preserving all.

It is a folly in conquerors to force their own laws and customs on all nations; such a conduct is of very ill consequence, for men are capable of obeying under all kinds of government.

But as Rome did not impose any general laws, the nations did not form any dangerous associations; they formed one body no otherwise than by a common obedience; and were all Romans without being countrymen.

https= // It perhaps will be objected, that no empires founded on the laws of fiefs were ever durable or powerful. But nothing could be so contradictory as the plan of the Romans and that of the Goths= and just to mention these plans, the former was a work of strength, the latter of weakness= in the one, subjection was extreme; in the other, independence; in the Gothic states, power was lodged in the vassals, and the right of judging [51] only in the prince; whereas it was the reverse in the Roman government.


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