Chapter 8 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3

The Divisions which always subsisted in the City

September 30, 2021

WHILST Rome was conquering the world, a hidden war was carrying on within its walls= these fires were like those of volcanos, which break out the instant they were sed by some combustible substance.

After the expulsion of the kings, the government became aristocratical= the patrician families only, obtained all the employments and dignities in the * state, and consequently all † honours civil and military.

The patricians being determined to prevent, if possible, the return of the kings, endeavoured to soment the restless principles which now prevailed in the minds of the people; but they did more than they would willingly have done= by attempting to inspire them with a hatred for kings, they fired them with an inordinate thirst for liberty. As the royal authority had devolved entirely upon the consuls, the people sound they were far from possessing that liberty they were taught to idolize= they therefore sought for methods by which they might depress the consulate; procure plebeian magistrates; and share the curule, or greater employments with the nobles. The patricians were forced to comply with all the demands of the people; for in a city where poverty was the public virtue, where wealth, that clandestine path to power, was despised, neither birth nor dignities could bestow any great advantages= it was therefore necessary for power to fall into the hands of the greater number, and for aristocracy to change, by insensible degrees, into a popular state.

Those who are subordinate to a king, are less tortured with envy and jealousy, than such as live under an hereditary aristocracy= the prince is at so great a distance from his subjects, that he is scarce seen by them; and is raised so far above them, that they cannot conceive any relation capable of giving them disgust. But when the nobles preside in a state, they are exposed to the eyes of all men, and are not seated so high as to prevent odious comparisons from being made perpetually; and, indeed, the people have detested senators, in this and in all ages. Such commonwealths in which birth does not bestow any share in the legislature, are the happiest in this respect; for it is natural that the people should not bear so much envy to an authority, which they bestow on whom they think proper, and resume at will.

The people being disgusted at the patricians, withdrew to the Sacred Hill (Mons Sacra) whither deputies being sent, they were appeased= and as they all made a promise to assist one another, in case the patricians should not perform their * engagement, which would have created seditions every moment, and disturbed all the magistrates in the exercise of their functions; it was judged better to create an officer † , who might protect the people against any injustice that should be done them= but by a malady for ever incident to man, the plebeians, who had obtained tribunes merely for their own defence, employed those very magistrates to annoy others= so that they stript, by insensible degrees, the patricians of all their privileges. This gave rise to everlasting contests= the people were supported, or rather animated, by their tribunes; and the patricians were defended by the senate, the greatest part of which consisted of patricians, who were more inclined to favour the ancient maxims, and afraid that the populace would raise some tribune to arbitrary power.

[56] The people employed, in the defence of this magistrate, their own strength, and the superiority they had in the suffrages, their refusal to march into the field, their threats to go quite away, the partiality of the laws, in fine, their judiciary sentences against those who had opposed them too vigorously= the senate defended themselves by their wisdom, their justice, and the love they inspired into all for their country; by their beneficence, and the prudent distribution of the commonwealth; by the veneration which the people had for the glory of the principal * families, and the virtue of illustrious personages; by religion itself, the ancient institutions, and the prohibition of days of public meeting, upon pretence that the auspices had not been favourable; by their clients; by the opposition of one tribune to another; by the creation of a † dictator, the occupations of a new war, or the misfortunes and calamities which united all parties; in a word, by a paternal condescension, in granting the people part of their demands, purposely to make them relinquish the rest; and by that stedfast maxim, of preferring the safety of the republic to the prerogatives of any order or public employment whatsoever.

[57] In process of time, when the plebians had depressed the patricians to such a degree, that this * distinction of families was empty and fruitless, and that both were indiscriminately raised to honours, new contests arose between the populace, whom their tribunes spirited up, and the chief families, whether patricians or such plebians as were styled noble, and were favoured by the senate that was composed of them= but, as the ancient manners subsisted no more= as particular persons were possessed of immense wealth, and that it is impossible but wealth must give power; these nobles made a stronger resistance than the patricians had done, which occasioned the death of the Gracchi, and of † several persons who followed their plan ‡ .

I must take notice of an office which contributed greatly to the happy polity of Rome; it was that of the censors. These numbered or surveyed the § people; farther, as the strength of the commonwealth consisted in the strictness of discipline, in the severity of manners, and the uninterrupted observation of certain customs; they corrected such errors and abuses as the legislative power had not foreseen, or the ordinary [58] magistrate * could not punish. Some bad examples are worse than crimes, and a violation of manners has destroyed more states, than the infraction of laws= in Rome, whatever might tend to introduce dangerous novelties, to create a change in the minds or affections of the citizens, and prevent, if I may use the expression, the perpetuity of it; all disorders and tumults, whether public or private, were reformed by the censors; these had authority to expel whomsoever they pleased; the senate could take from a knight the horse maintained for him at the public expence; or degrade a citizen to the rank of such as contributed to the maintenance of the magistrates of the city, without enjoying the privileges of it; in a word, the censors took a view of the actual situation of the republic, and distributed the people † among their various tribes in such a manner, as to prevent the tribunes and persons [59] of an aspiring temper from engrossing the suffrages, or the people from abusing their power.

M. Livius * degraded the people themselves, and reduced thirty-four tribes out of thirty-five, to the rank of those who had no share in the privileges of the city= for, said this Roman, you first condemned me, and afterwards raised me to the consulate and the censorship; you therefore must either have prevaricated once in punishing me, or twice in creating me consul and afterwards censor.

M. Duronius † , tribune of the people, was expelled the senate by the censors, for having annulled, when in office, the law which limits the expences of feasts.

The following institution was a very wise one; no magistrate ‡ could be turned out of his employment, because that would have disturbed the exercise of the public power; but they divested such a man of his order and rank, and deprived, as it were, a citizen of his particular nobility.

Servius Tullius had made the famous division by centuries, which Livy ∥ and Dionysius Halicarnasseus § have so well explained. He had divided one hundred and ninety-three centuries into six classes, and in the last century, which of itself formed the sixth class, he placed all the commonalty. This disposition evidently excluded the commonalty from voting; not of right, but in fact. Afterwards it was determined, that, some particular cases excepted, the division of tribes should be followed in voting. There were thirty-five of these tribes, each having their respective vote, four belonging to the city, and thirty-one to the country. The principal citizens, who were all farmers, naturally belonged to the country-tribes, and those of the city [60] admitted the commonalty * , though these had very little influence in affairs= this was considered as the safety of the republic. And when Fabius replaced in the four city-tribes, the commonalty, whom Appius Claudius had dispersed through them all, he acquired by that action the title of Maximus † . The censors every five years surveyed the state of the republic, and distributed the people in their several tribes in such a manner, that the tribunes and ambitious might not engross the votes, nor the people abuse their power.

The government of Rome was wonderful in this respect; ever since the foundation of that city, its constitution was such, either from the genius of the people, the strength of the senate, or the authority of certain magistrates, that every abuse of power might always be reformed in it.

Carthage was destroyed, because, when abuses were to be retrenched, the citizens could not bear the hand even of their Hannibal. Athens fell, because the errors of the people appeared so lovely in their own eyes, that they would not be cured of them= and among us, those Italian republics which boast the perpetuity of their government, ought to boast of nothing but the perpetuity of their abuses; nor indeed, do they enjoy greater liberty ‡ than Rome did under the Decemviri.

The British government is one of the wisest in Europe, because there is a body which examines it perpetually, and is perpetually examining itself; and its errors are of such a nature, as never to be lasting, and are frequently useful by rouzing the attention of the nation.

In a word, a free government, that is to say, one for ever in motion, cannot support itself, unless its own laws are capable of correcting the disorders of it.


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