Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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Cupidity had nevertheless excited among men a constant and universal conflict, which incessantly prompting individuals and societies to reciprocal invasions, occasioned successive revolutions, and returning agitations.

And first, in the savage and barbarous state of the first men, this audacious and fierce cupidity produced rapine, violence, and murder, and retarded for a long time the progress of civilization.

When afterwards societies began to be formed, the effect of bad habits, communicated to laws and governments, corrupted their institutions and objects, and established arbitrary and factitious rights, which depraved the ideas of justice, and the morality of the people.

Thus one man being stronger than another, their inequality--an accident of nature--was taken for her law;* and the strong being able to take the life of the weak, and yet sparing him, arrogated over his person an abusive right of property; and the slavery of individuals prepared the way for the slavery of nations.

*Almost all the ancient philosophers and politicians have laid it down as a principle that men are born unequal, that nature his created some to be free, and others to be slaves. Expressions of this kind are to be found in Aristotle, and even in Plato, called the divine, doubtless in the same sense as the mythological reveries which he promulgated. With all the people of antiquity, the Gauls, the Romans, the Athenians, the right of the strongest was the right of nations; and from the same principle are derived all the political disorders and public national crimes that at present exist.

Because the head of a family could be absolute in his house, he made his own affections and desires the rule of his conduct; he gave or resumed his goods without equality, without justice; and paternal despotism laid the foundation of despotism in government.*

  • Upon this single expression it would be easy to write a long and important chapter. We might prove in it, beyond contradiction, that all the abuses of national governments, have sprung from those of domestic government, from that government called patriarchal, which superficial minds have extolled without having analyzed it. Numberless facts demonstrate, that with every infant people, in every savage and barbarous state, the father, the chief of the family, is a despot, and a cruel and insolent despot. The wife is his slave, the children his servants. This king sleeps or smokes his pipe, while his wife and daughters perform all the drudgery of the house, and even that of tillage and cultivation, as far as occupations of this nature are practised in such societies; and no sooner have the boys acquired strength then they are allowed to beat the females and make them serve and wait upon them as they do upon their fathers. Similar to this is the state of our own uncivilized peasants. In proportion as civilization spreads, the manners become milder, and the condition of the women improves, till, by a contrary excess, they arrive at dominion, and then a nation becomes effeminate and corrupt. It is remarkable that parental authority is great in proportion as the government is despotic. China, India, and Turkey are striking examples of this. One would suppose that tyrants gave themselves accomplices and interested subaltern despots to maintain their authority. In opposition to this the Romans will be cited, but it remains to be proved that the Romans were men truly free and their quick passage from their republican despotism to their abject servility under the emperors, gives room at least for considerable doubt as to that freedom.

In societies formed on such foundations, when time and labor had developed riches, cupidity restrained by the laws, became more artful, but not less active. Under the mask of union and civil peace, it fomented in the bosom of every state an intestine war, in which the citizens, divided into contending corps of orders, classes, families, unremittingly struggled to appropriate to themselves, under the name of supreme power, the ability to plunder every thing, and render every thing subservient to the dictates of their passions; and this spirit of encroachment, disguised under all possible forms, but always the same in its object and motives, has never ceased to torment the nations.

Sometimes, opposing itself to all social compact, or breaking that which already existed, it committed the inhabitants of a country to the tumultuous shock of all their discords; and states thus dissolved, and reduced to the condition of anarchy, were tormented by the passions of all their members.

Sometimes a nation, jealous of its liberty, having appointed agents to administer its government, these agents appropriated the powers of which they had only the guardianship: they employed the public treasures in corrupting elections, gaining partisans, in dividing the people among themselves. By these means, from being temporary they became perpetual; from elective, hereditary; and the state, agitated by the intrigues of the ambitious, by largesses from the rich and factious, by the venality of the poor and idle, by the influence of orators, by the boldness of the wicked, and the weakness of the virtuous, was convulsed with all the inconveniences of democracy.

The chiefs of some countries, equal in strength and mutually fearing each other, formed impious pacts, nefarious associations; and, apportioning among themselves all power, rank, and honor, unjustly arrogated privileges and immunities; erected themselves into separate orders and distinct classes; reduced the people to their control; and, under the name of aristocracy, the state was tormented by the passions of the wealthy and the great.

Sacred impostors, in other countries, tending by other means to the same object, abused the credulity of the ignorant. In the gloom of their temples, behind the curtain of the altar, they made their gods act and speak; gave forth oracles, worked miracles, ordered sacrifices, levied offerings, prescribed endowments; and, under the names of theocracy and of religion, the state became tormented by the passions of the priests.

Sometimes a nation, weary of its dissensions or of its tyrants, to lessen the sources of evil, submitted to a single master; but if it limited his powers, his sole aim was to enlarge them; if it left them indefinite, he abused the trust confided to him; and, under the name of monarchy, the state was tormented by the passions of kings and princes.

Then the factions, availing themselves of the general discontent, flattered the people with the hope of a better master; dealt out gifts and promises, deposed the despot to take his place; and their contests for the succession, or its partition, tormented the state with the disorders and devastations of civil war.

In fine, among these rivals, one more adroit, or more fortunate, gained the ascendency, and concentrated all power within himself. By a strange phenomenon, a single individual mastered millions of his equals, against their will and without their consent; and the art of tyranny sprung also from cupidity.

In fact, observing the spirit of egotism which incessantly divides mankind, the ambitious man fomented it with dexterity, flattered the vanity of one, excited the jealousy of another, favored the avarice of this, inflamed the resentment of that, and irritated the passions of all; then, placing in opposition their interests and prejudices, he sowed divisions and hatreds, promised to the poor the spoils of the rich, to the rich the subjection of the poor; threatened one man by another, this class by that; and insulating all by distrust, created his strength out of their weakness, and imposed the yoke of opinion, which they mutually riveted on each other. With the army he levied contributions, and with contributions he disposed of the army: dealing out wealth and office on these principles, he enchained a whole people in indissoluble bonds, and they languished under the slow consumption of despotism.

Thus the same principle, varying its action under every possible form, was forever attenuating the consistence of states, and an eternal circle of vicissitudes flowed from an eternal circle of passions.

And this spirit of egotism and usurpation produced two effects equally operative and fatal: the one a division and subdivision of societies into their smallest fractions, inducing a debility which facilitated their dissolution; the other, a preserving tendency to concentrate power in a single hand,* which, engulfing successively societies and states, was fatal to their peace and social existence.

  • It is remarkable that this has in all instances been the constant progress of societies; beginning with a state of anarchy or democracy, that is, with a great division of power they have passed to aristocracy, and from aristocracy to monarchy. Does it not hence follow that those who constitute states under the democratic form, destine them to undergo all the intervening troubles between that and monarchy; but it should at the same time be proved that social experience is already exhausted for the human race, and that this spontaneous movement is not solely the effect of ignorance.

Thus, as in a state, a party absorbed the nation, a family the party, and an individual the family; so a movement of absorption took place between state and state, and exhibited on a larger scale in the political order, all the particular evils of the civil order. Thus a state having subdued a state, held it in subjection in the form of a province; and two provinces being joined together formed a kingdom; two kingdoms being united by conquest, gave birth to empires of gigantic size; and in this conglomeration, the internal strength of states, instead of increasing, diminished; and the condition of the people, instead of ameliorating, became daily more abject and wretched, for causes derived from the nature of things.

Because, in proportion as states increased in extent, their administration becoming more difficult and complicated, greater energies of power were necessary to move such masses; and there was no longer any proportion between the duties of sovereigns and their ability to perform their duties:

Because despots, feeling their weakness, feared whatever might develop the strength of nations, and studied only how to enfeeble them:

Because nations, divided by the prejudices of ignorance and hatred, seconded the wickedness of their governments; and availing themselves reciprocally of subordinate agents, aggravated their mutual slavery:

Because, the balance between states being destroyed, the strong more easily oppressed the weak.

Finally, because in proportion as states were concentrated, the people, despoiled of their laws, of their usages, and of the government of their choice, lost that spirit of personal identification with their government, which had caused their energy.

And despots, considering empires as their private domains and the people as their property, gave themselves up to depredations, and to all the licentiousness of the most arbitrary authority.

And all the strength and wealth of nations were diverted to private expense and personal caprice; and kings, fatigued with gratification, abandoned themselves to all the extravagancies of factitious and depraved taste.* They must have gardens mounted on arcades, rivers raised over mountains, fertile fields converted into haunts for wild beasts; lakes scooped in dry lands, rocks erected in lakes, palaces built of marble and porphyry, furniture of gold and diamonds. Under the cloak of religion, their pride founded temples, endowed indolent priests, built, for vain skeletons, extravagant tombs, mausoleums and pyramids; millions of hands were employed in sterile labors; and the luxury of princes, imitated by their parasites, and transmitted from grade to grade to the lowest ranks, became a general source of corruption and impoverishment.

  • It is equally worthy of remark, that the conduct and manners of princes and kings of every country and every age, are found to be precisely the same at similar periods, whether of the formation or dissolution of empires. History every where presents the same pictures of luxury and folly; of parks, gardens, lakes, rocks, palaces, furniture, excess of the table, wine, women, concluding with brutality.

The absurd rock in the garden of Versailles has alone cost three millions. I have sometimes calculated what might have been done with the expense of the three pyramids of Gizah, and I have found that it would easily have constructed from the Red Sea to Alexandria, a canal one hundred and fifty feet wide and thirty deep, completely covered in with cut stones and a parapet, together with a fortified and commercial town, consisting of four hundred houses, furnished with cisterns. What a difference in point of utility between such a canal and these pyramids!

The learned Dupuis could not be persuaded that the pyramids were tombs; but besides the positive testimony of historians, read what Diodorus says of the religious and superstitious importance every Egyptian attached to building his dwelling eternal, b. 1.

During twenty years, says Herodotus, a hundred thousand men labored every day to build the pyramid of the Egyptian Cheops. Supposing only three hundred days a year, on account of the sabbath, there will be 30 millions of days' work in a year, and 600 millions in twenty years; at 15 sous a day, this makes 450 millions of francs lost, without any further benefit. With this sum, if the king had shut the isthmus of Suez by a strong wall, like that of China, the destinies of Egypt might have been entirely changed. Foreign invasions would have been prevented, and the Arabs of the desert would neither have conquered nor harassed that country. Sterile labors! how many millions lost in putting one stone upon another, under the forms of temples and churches! Alchymists convert stones into gold; but architects change gold into stone. Woe to the kings (as well as subjects) who trust their purse to these two classes of empirics!

And in the insatiable thirst of enjoyment, the ordinary revenues no longer sufficing, they were augmented; the cultivator, seeing his labors increase without compensation, lost all courage; the merchant, despoiled, was disgusted with industry; the multitude, condemned to perpetual poverty, restrained their labor to simple necessaries; and all productive industry vanished.

The surcharge of taxes rendering lands a burdensome possession, the poor proprietor abandoned his field, or sold it to the powerful; and fortune became concentrated in a few hands. All the laws and institutions favoring this accumulation, the nation became divided into a group of wealthy drones, and a multitude of mercenary poor; the people were degraded with indigence, the great with satiety, and the number of those interested in the preservation of the state decreasing, its strength and existence became proportionally precarious.

On the other hand, emulation finding no object, science no encouragement, the mind sunk into profound ignorance.

The administration being secret and mysterious, there existed no means of reform or amelioration. The chiefs governing by force or fraud, the people viewed them as a faction of public enemies; and all harmony ceased between the governors and governed.

And these vices having enervated the states of the wealthy part of Asia, the vagrant and indigent people of the adjacent deserts and mountains coveted the enjoyments of the fertile plains; and, urged by a cupidity common to all, attacked the polished empires, and overturned the thrones of their despots. These revolutions were rapid and easy; because the policy of tyrants had enfeebled the subjects, razed the fortresses, destroyed the warriors; and because the oppressed subjects remained without personal interest, and the mercenary soldiers without courage.

And hordes of barbarians having reduced entire nations to slavery, the empires, formed of conquerors and conquered, united in their bosom two classes essentially opposite and hostile. All the principles of society were dissolved: there was no longer any common interest, no longer any public spirit; and there arose a distinction of casts and races, which reduced to a regular system the maintenance of disorder; and he who was born of this or that blood, was born a slave or a tyrant--property or proprietor.

The oppressors being less numerous than the oppressed it was necessary to perfect the science of oppression, in order to support this false equilibrium. The art of governing became the art of subjecting the many to the few. To enforce an obedience so contrary to instinct, the severest punishments were established, and the cruelty of the laws rendered manners atrocious. The distinction of persons establishing in the state two codes, two orders of criminal justice, two sets of laws, the people, placed between the propensities of the heart and the oath uttered from the mouth, had two consciences in contradiction with each other; and the ideas of justice and injustice had no longer any foundation in the understanding.

Under such a system, the people fell into dejection and despair; and the accidents of nature were added to the other evils which assailed them. Prostrated by so many calamities, they attributed their causes to superior and hidden powers; and, because they had tyrants on earth, they fancied others in heaven; and superstition aggravated the misfortunes of nations.

Fatal doctrines and gloomy and misanthropic systems of religion arose, which painted their gods, like their despots, wicked and envious. To appease them, man offered up the sacrifice of all his enjoyments. He environed himself in privations, and reversed the order of nature. Conceiving his pleasures to be crimes, his sufferings expiations, he endeavored to love pain, and to abjure the love of self. He persecuted his senses, hated his life; and a self-denying and anti-social morality plunged nations into the apathy of death.

But provident nature having endowed the heart of man with hope inexhaustible, when his desires of happiness were baffled on this earth, he pursued it into another world. By a sweet illusion he created for himself another country--an asylum where, far from tyrants, he should recover the rights of nature, and thence resulted new disorders. Smitten with an imaginary world, man despised that of nature. For chimerical hopes, he neglected realities. His life began to appear a troublesome journey--a painful dream; his body a prison, the obstacle to his felicity; and the earth, a place of exile and of pilgrimage, not worthy of culture. Then a holy indolence spread over the political world; the fields were deserted, empires depopulated, monuments neglected and deserts multiplied; ignorance, superstition and fanaticism, combining their operations, overwhelmed the earth with devastation and ruin.

Thus agitated by their own passions, men, whether collectively or individually taken, always greedy and improvident, passing from slavery to tyranny, from pride to baseness, from presumption to despondency, have made themselves the perpetual instruments of their own misfortunes.

These, then, are the principles, simple and natural, which regulated the destiny of ancient states. By this regular and connected series of causes and effects, they rose or fell, in proportion as the physical laws of the human heart were respected or violated; and in the course of their successive changes, a hundred different nations, a hundred different empires, by turns humbled, elevated, conquered, overthrown, have repeated for the earth their instructive lessons. Yet these lessons were lost for the generations which have followed! The disorders in times past have reappeared in the present age! The chiefs of the nations have continued to walk in the paths of falsehood and tyranny!--the people to wander in the darkness of superstition and ignorance!

Since then, continued the Genius, with renewed energy, since the experience of past ages is lost for the living--since the errors of progenitors have not instructed their descendants, the ancient examples are about to reappear; the earth will see renewed the tremendous scenes it has forgotten. New revolutions will agitate nations and empires; powerful thrones will again be overturned, and terrible catastrophes will again teach mankind that the laws of nature and the precepts of wisdom and truth cannot be infringed with impunity.

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