Chapter 14


by Montesquieu Icon

A river sometimes, slowly and silently, undermines the banks that restrain its current. When it succeeds, it floods the fields they formerly preserved.

In the same way, the supreme authority, which gained an insensible growth under Augustus, bore down all before it in the succeeding reign of Tiberius.

A law at that time subsisted, which made it treason to form any injurious attempt against the majesty of the people= Tiberius assumed to himself the interpretation and enforcement of this law, and extended it not only to the cases for which it was originally calculated, but to every conjuncture that could possibly be favourable to his hatred or suspicions.

Now, not only actions, but words and signs, and even thoughts were adjudged by this standard= for those expressions which drop from the overflowing of the heart, in the conversation of intimate friends, are always supposed to be their real sentiments. All freedom was therefore banished from their feasts, diffidence reigned among relations, there was no fidelity among the slaves= the gloomy disposition and insincerity of the prince were diffused through all ranks of men; friendship had the disrepute of a dangerous quicksand; a fine genius passed for a shining indiscretion, and virtue itself was only considered as an affectation, which officiously reminded the people of their lost happiness.

No tyranny can have a severer effect than that which is exercised under the appearance of laws, and [97] with the plausible colours of justice; when the executors of cruel power would, if we may use the expression, drown the unhappy wretches on the very plank that before saved them amidst the troubled waves.

As a tyrant is never destitute of instruments to accomplish his designs, so Tiberius always found the senate tractable enough to condemn * as many persons as he could possibly suspect; and this venerable body sunk at last into a degeneracy too low to be described. The senators even courted servitude, to gain the favour of Sejanus; and the most illustrious among them abandoned themselves to the dishonourable profession of informers.

It seems easy to discover several causes of that flavish disposition, which then prevailed in the senate. When Cæsar had entirely crushed the party who declared for the republic, all the friends as well as enemies he then had in the senate, concurred with equal unanimity, to remove the bounds with which the laws had limited his power, and at the same time they agreed to render him unparalleled honours; some came into these compliances with a view to please him, others intended by such means to make him odious. Dion informs us, that some even proposed that he might have the liberty to enjoy as many women as he should desire. This obsequious conduct freed him from all suspicions of the senate, and consequently was the cause of his assassination; but then it prevented in the succeeding reigns, all flattery from rising to such wild and unexampled heights as might have created disaffection in the minds of the people.

Before Rome submitted to the dominion of one man, the riches of the nobility, in what manner soever acquired, were certainly immense, but those grandees were divested of the greatest part of their treasures by [98] the emperors.
The senators were no longer resorted to by those great and wealthy clients, who were the sources of their patrons affluence. The provinces produced nothing considerable, except for Cæsar; and especially when they were under the government of his præfects, whose office had some resemblance to that of the intendants in France. However, though the fountain from whence all this opulence flowed was at last exhausted; the expences were continued in their former profusion, and the track being once marked out, the men of rank could only pursue it now, by the emperor’s favour.

Augustus had deprived the people of their legislative capacity, and abolished all their jurisdiction with respect to public offences. But he still left them the power of electing magistrates. Tiberius, who dreaded the assemblies of a people so numerous, divested them even of this privilege, and transferred it to the senate, or rather to himself.

Now it is impossible to conceive the abject lowness to which the declension of the people’s power sunk the spirits of the grandees= when dignities were in the disposal of the populace, the magistrates, who solicited their interest, practised a number of mean condescensions; but these were intermixed with a certain magnificence that in some measure concealed them= for instance, they exhibited pompous games and recreations, they distributed sums of money, and quantities of corn among the people, and sometimes regaled them with splendid feasts. But though the motive was low, the manner seemed august, because it always comports with a great man to obtain the favour of the people by liberality; but when that people had nothing to bestow, and the prince, in the name of the senate, disposed of all employments, they [99] were desired as well as obtained in a dishonourable manner, and could only be compassed by adulation, infamy, and a hateful train of crimes, that were made necessary arts by the iniquity of the age.

It does not indeed appear that Tiberius had any intention to make the senate contemptible; and he complained of nothing so much as the propensity of that body to slavery.

His life was filled with dissatisfactions on that account.

But he resembled the generality of mankind, and was fond of contradictory enjoyments.

His general politics were inconsistent with his particular passions; he would willingly have seen a free senate, who, by their conduct, might have created a veneration for his government; but then he was also desirous of a senate that would every moment be tractable to his fears, his jealousies, and his aversions. In a word, the politician was perpetually subordinate to the man.

The people had formerly obtained from the patricians the privilege of electing, from their own body, a set of magistrates, who were to protect them from the insults and injustice that might be intended against them.

To capacitate those magistrates for the exercise of such a power, their persons were declared sacred and inviolable. Whoever should presume to treat a tribune injuriously, either by actions or language, was condemned by the law to suffer death on the spot.

When the emperors were invested with the tribunitial power, they obtained the same prerogatives.

It was upon this principle that such a number of people were deprived of their lives= from this source flowed the impunity with which informers flourished in their profession and hence it was, that the accusation of treason, that crime, says Pliny, which was charged on those to whom no real offence could be imputed, was at last extended to any one to whom the wantonness of tyranny pointed out.

I believe that some of those titles of accusation were not so ridiculous as they appear at present.

I can never be persuaded=

  • that Tiberius would have caused a man to be accused for selling to one who bought his house, a statue of the emperor
  • that Domitian should condemn a woman to die for undressing herself before his image; or
  • that he should proceed with the same severity against a citizen of Rome

For causing a description of all the earth to be delineated on the walls of his apartment; if such actions as these had not called up an idea in the minds of the Romans very different from that they now excite in us.

I think that as Rome had changed the form of its government, those actions which now appear inconsiderable to us, might, when they were committed, have a very different aspect;

I judge in this manner, from my reflection on what is now customary in a nation which cannot with any justice be suspected of tyranny, and yet it is a capital crime there to drink to the health of a certain person.

I cannot omit any circumstance which tends to give a clear representation of the Roman genius.

The Romans were=

  • so habituated to obedience, and
  • so constantly placed their happiness in homaging their masters.

After the death of Germanicus, they were affected with such inconsolable sorrow and despair, as never appears in our contemporaries.

The descriptions given by historians * of a desolation, so public, so universal and immoderate, deserve a reader’s curiosity;

This scene of grief was not affected, since a whole people are never known to practise so much flattery and dissimulation.

The Romans, who had now no longer any share in the government, and were chiefly composed of persons who had received their freedom, or such indolent and unindustrious people who lived at the expence of the public treasure.

They were now sensible of nothing but their imbecility, and afflicted themselves like children or women, who, from a principle of weakness, abandon themselves to sorrow.

These people were politically indisposed, they placed all their fears and hopes in the person of Germanicus, and when he was snatched from them by an untimely death, they sunk into despair.

No people are so apprehensive of calamity as those whom the misery of their condition should rather discharge from all fear, and who ought to say with Andromache, Would to heaven I had any enjoyment I could dread to lose!

There are at this day, in Naples, 50,000 men who only=

  • eat herbs and
  • wear only a few miserable rags

Yet they, the most wretched creatures on earth, discover a dreadful consternation at the least irruption of Vesuvius, and are so infatuated as to fear they shall be miserable.


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