Chapter 13 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3


September 30, 2021

Sextus Pompeius possessed Sicily and Sardinia, was master at sea, and saw himself at the head of a great multitude of fugitives, and persons devoted to death by proscriptions, whose last hopes depended on their valour. Octavius contended with him, in two very laborious wars; and after a variety of ill success, vanquished him by the abilities of Agrippa.

Most of the conspirators ended their lives in a miserable manner; and it was natural that persons who headed a party, so frequently harrassed by wars, in [88] which no quarter was afforded, should die a violent death. That event was, however, interpreted into a consequence of divine vengeance, which punished the murderers of Cæsar, and in its turn proscribed their cause.

Octavius gained over the soldiers of Lepidus to his own interest, and divested him of his power in the triumvirate; he even envied him the consolation of passing the remainder of his days in obseurity, and compelled him to appear as a private man in the assemblies of the people.

It is impossible for any one to be displeased at the humiliation of this Lepidus; he was the most depraved citizen in all the republic, a constant promoter of disturbances, and one who perpetually formed fatal schemes, wherein he was obliged to associate with people of more ability than himself. A modern author * has thought fit to be large in his commendation, and cites Antony, who, in one of his letters, represents him as an honest man. But he, who had that character from Antony, could not have much title to it from other persons.

I believe Octavius is the only man of all the Roman generals, who ever gained the affections of the soldiers by giving them perpetual instances of a natural timidity of spirit. The soldiers, at that time, were more affected with the liberality of their commanders than their valour; perhaps it was even fortunate for him that he was not master of any qualities which could procure him the empire, and that his very incapacity should be the cause of his promotion to it, since it made him the less dreaded. It is not impossible that the defects which threw the greatest dishonour on his character, were the most propitious to his fortune. If he had discovered, at first, any traces of an exalted soul, all mankind would have been jealous of his abilities; and if he had been spirited by any true bravery, [89] he would not have given Antony time to launch into all the extravagances which proved his ruin.

When Antony was preparing to march against Octavius, he assured his soldiers, by a solemn oath, that he would restore the republic; which makes it evident, that even they were jealous of the liberty of their country, though they were the perpetual instruments of its destruction; for an army is the blindest and most inconsiderate set of people in the world.

The battle of Actium was fought, Cleopatra fled, and drew Antony after her. It evidently appeared by the circumstances of her future conduct, that she afterwards betrayed him * ; perhaps that incomprehensible spirit of coquetry so predominant in her sex, tempted her to practise all her arts to lay a third sovereign of the world at her feet.

A woman, to whom Antony had sacrificed the whole world, betrayed him; many captains and kings, whom he had raised or made, failed him; and, as if generosity were connected with servitude, a company of gladiators remained heroically faithful to him. Load a man with benefits, the first idea you inspire him with, is to find ways to preserve them; they are new interests which you give him to defend.

The most surprising circumstance in those wars is, that one battle should generally decide the difference, and that one defeat should be irreparable.

The Roman soldiers were not, properly, under the prevalence of any party spirit; they did not fight for any particular acquisition, but for some particular person; they only knew their commander, who engaged their service by prodigious hopes; but when he was once defeated and consequently no longer in a condition to accomplish his promises, they immediately revolted to the other side. The provinces did not embark in the quarrel with any greater sincerity, [90] for it was of little consequence to them, whether the senate or the people prevailed; and therefore, when one of the generals lost the day, they declared for the other; for every city was obliged to justify itself before the conqueror, who having engaged himself to the soldiery by immense promises, was constrained to sacrifice to their avidity those countries which were most obnoxious.

We have been afflicted, in France, with two sorts of civil war; one had religion for its pretext, and was of long duration, because the motive which first inflamed it, continued to subsist after victory; the other could not properly be said to have any motive, but was rather kindled by the caprice or ambition of some great men, and was soon extinguished.

Augustus (for that was the name offered by flattery to Octavius) was careful to establish order, or rather a durable servitude; for when once the sovereignty has been usurped in a free state, every transaction on which an unlimited authority can be founded, is called a regulation; and all instances of disorder, commotion, and bad government, are represented as the only expedients to preserve the just liberty of the subject.

All the Roman citizens who were ever actuated by ambitious views, have attempted to introduce a kind of anarchy in the republic; and Pompey, Crassus, and Cesar, succeeded to a miracle; they authorized an impunity for all public crimes, and abolished every institution calculated to prevent the corruption of manners, and every regulation accommodated to the best politics; and as good legislators endeavour to improve their fellow citizens, these, on the contrary, were indefatigable to lead them into a degeneracy from every virtue. With this view they gave a sanction to the pernicious custom of corrupting the people by money, and when any persons were accused of undue practices for obtaining place of trust, the delinquents corrupted the judges who were to decide the cause. They interrupted [91] the elections by every violent proceeding, and even intimidated the tribunal itself. The authority of the people was reduced to annihilation, witness Gabanius * , who, after he had re-instated Ptolemy, by force of arms, on his throne, contrary to the inclinations of the people, very boldly demanded a triumph.

These leading men in the republic endeavoured to make the people disgusted at their own power, and to become necessary themselves, by rendering the inconveniences of the republican government as disagreeable as possible. But when Augustus had established himself in the supremacy, his politics were employed to restore order, that the people might be sensible of the happiness of being ruled by one man.

When Augustus was at the head of an armed power, he dreaded the revolt of his soldiers, and not the conspiracies of the citizens; for which reason he lavished all his caresses on the former, and was altogether inhuman to the latter= but when his arms had accomplished a peace, he was apprehensive of conspiracies, and the idea of Cæsar’s untimely death being always present to his remembrance, he resolved to vary from his conduct that he might avoid his fate. We shall now give the reader a complete key to the whole life of Augustus= he wore a coat of mail, under his robe, in the senate house; he refused the title of dictator= and whereas Cæsar insolently affirmed the republic to be nothing, and that his words alone were the laws, Augustus was perpetually expatiating on the dignity of the senate and his veneration for the republic. He was solicitous therefore to establish such a form of government as should be most satisfactory, without incommoding his particular interest, and changing it into an aristocracy with relation to the civil, and into a monarchy with respect to the military administration; [92] rendering it by these means an ambiguous system of government, which, being unsupported by its own power, could subsist no longer than the sovereign pleased; and consequently was a monarchy in all its circumstances.

A question has been started, whether Augustus had a real inclination to divest himself of the empire. But is it not apparent, that, had he been in earnest, he might easily have effected his design? But his whole proceeding, in that affair, was a mere artifice; because, though he expressed a desire every ten years, to be eased of the mighty load that encumbered him, yet he always thought fit to bear it. These were little refinements of low cunning, calculated to induce the people to give him what, in his opinion, he had not sufficiently acquired. I form my thoughts in this particular, by the whole life of Augustus; and though mankind are frequently fanciful and inconsistent, they are seldom known to renounce, in one moment, any enjoyment that has engaged the attention of all their life. Every action of Augustus, and each of his various regulations, visibly tended to the establishment of monarchy. Sylla resigned the dictatorship= but, amidst all his violent proceedings, a republican spirit is apparent in every part of his conduct; all his regulations, though executed with a tyrannical air, had an aspect to some certain form of a commonwealth. Sylla, who was a man of an impetuous temper, precipitated the Romans into liberty. Augustus, who was a smooth and subtile tyrant * , led them gently into slavery. When the republic regained its power, under Sylla, all the people exclaimed against tyranny; and whilst this became fortified, under Augustus, liberty was the general boast.

[93] The custom of triumphs, which had so much contributed to the greatness of Rome, was abolished by Augustus, or, more properly, this honour became the prerogative of sovereignty * . The greatest part of those customs which prevailed under the emperors, derived their origin from the republic † ; and it will be proper to bring them together, that the similitude may be more apparent. That person alone under whose auspices a war had been conducted, was intitled to demand a triumph ‡ = now wars were always carried on under the auspices of a generalissimo, and consequently of the emperor, who was the generalissimo of all the forces.

As constant war was the reigning principle of the republic, the maxim under the emperors was altogether pacific. Victories were considered as so many opportunities of introducing disorder by armies, who might fix too great a valuation on their services.

Those who were advanced to any command, were apprehensive of engaging in enterprises of too great importance; they found it necessary to aim at glory with moderation, and were to engage the emperor’s notice, and not raise his jealousy; in a word, they were not to appear before him with a lustre which his eyes could not bear.

Augustus was very cautious § of investing any one with the rights of a Roman citizen; he made laws ∥ [94] to prevent the enfranchisement of too many slaves * , and by his will recommended the observation of these two maxims, with a dissuasive against extending the empire by new wars.

These three particulars were very well connected; for when all war was discontinued, there was no need either of new citizens or enfranchisements.

When Rome was in a constant state of war, she was under a perpetual necessity of recruiting her inhabitants. At the beginning, part of the people were transplanted thither from the conquered cities, and in process of time several citizens of the neighbouring towns came to Rome to obtain a share in the rights of suffrage, and established themselves there in such numbers, that, upon the complaints of the allies, the Romans were obliged to remand them back. Multitudes at last arrived from the provinces; the laws favoured marriages, and even rendered them necessary. Rome, in all her wars, gained a prodigious number of slaves, and when the riches of the citizens became immense, they bought these unhappy people from all parts, and, from a principle of generosity, avarice, or ambition, enfranchised them without number † . Some intended by this proceeding to reward the fidelity of their slaves= others had a view by it to receive, in their name, the corn which the republic distributed among the poor citizens. In a word, others desired to have their funeral solemnity graced with a long train of attendance crowned with flowers. The people were generally composed of persons ‡ who had received their freedom, so that the lords of the universe, not only in their original, but through the greatest part of succeeding times, were of servile extraction.

The number of the populace being chiefly collected out of slaves who had been enfranchised, or the [95] sons of such, became very incommodious, and were therefore transplanted into colonies; by which means the state effectually secured the obedience of the provinces. There was a general circulation of mankind through the world. Rome received them in the state of slaves, and sent them away Romans.

Augustus, under the pretence of some tumults in the elections, placed a garrison and a governor in the city, made the legions perpetual, stationed them upon the frontiers, and established particular funds for their pay. To which we may add, that he gave orders for veterans to receive their donations in money * , and not in lands.

Many unhappy consequences resulted from the distribution of land after the time of Sylla. The citizens property in their estates grew precarious, and if all the soldiers of one cohort were not settled in the same place, they became dissatisfied with their allotments, neglected the cultivation of their lands, and degenerated into dangerous citizens † . But if they were distributed in entire legions, the ambitious could raise armies against the republic in a moment.

Augustus likewise established fixed provisions for the naval power, which was never done before his time; for as the Romans were masters of the Mediterranean, and as all navigation was then confined to that sea, they had not any enemy to fear.

Dion observes, very judiciously, that after the emperors had assumed the sovereign power, it became very difficult to write the history of those times. All transactions were industriously concealed, the dispatches from the provinces were transmitted to the cabinets of the emperors, and we know little more than what [96] either the folly or rashness of tyrants divulged, or such events as fall within the conjectures of historians.


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