The Rise of the Romans v. the Decline of the Carthaginians: Thoughts by Montesquieu.

The Rise of the Romans v. the Decline of the Carthaginians: Thoughts by Montesquieu.
Photo by Mauro Grazzi / Unsplash

In his work, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, Montesquieu had some interesting thoughts about the elements that make a people either powerful or weak.

From Montesquieu's analysis, one can ferret out some timeless considerations on the strengths and weaknesses of society, causes thereof, wealth, corruption, and the marshal values of a people.


August Glen-James, editor

The advantage of a free state is that there are no favorites in it. But when that is not the case—when it is necessary to line the pockets of the friends and relatives, not of a prince, but of all those who participate in the government—all is lost.

Having become rich sooner than Rome, Carthage had also been corrupted sooner. In Rome, public office could be obtained only through virtue, and brought with it no benefit other than honor and being preferred for further toils, while in Carthage everything the public could give to individuals was for sale, and all service rendered by individuals was paid for by the public.

The tyranny of a prince does no more to ruin a state than does indifference to the common good to ruin a republic. The advantage of a free state is that revenues are better administered in it. But what if they are more poorly administered? The advantage of a free state is that there are no favorites in it. But when that is not the case—when it is necessary to line the pockets of the friends and relatives, not of a prince, but of all those who participate in the government—all is lost. There is greater danger in. the laws being evaded in a free state than in their being violated by a prince, for a prince is always the foremost citizen of his state, and has more interest in preserving it than anyone else.

The old morals, a certain custom favoring poverty, made fortunes at Rome nearly equal, but at Carthage individuals had the riches of kings.

Of the two factions that ruled in Carthage, one always wanted peace, the other war, so that it was impossible there to enjoy the former or do well at the latter.

While war at once united all interests in Rome, it separated them still further in Carthage.

In states governed by a prince, dissensions are easily pacified because he has in his hands a coercive power that brings the two parties together. But in a republic they are more durable, because the evil usually attacks the very power that could cure it.

In Rome, governed by laws, the people allowed the senate to direct public affairs. In Carthage, governed by abuses, the people wanted to do everything themselves.

Carthage, which made war against Roman poverty with its opulence, was at a disadvantage by that very fact. Gold and silver are exhausted, but virtue, constancy, strength and poverty never are.

The Romans were ambitious from pride, the Carthaginians from avarice; the Romans wanted to command, the Carthaginians to acquire. Constantly calculating receipts and expenses, the latter always made war without loving it.

Lost battles, the decrease in population, the enfeeblement of commerce, the exhaustion of the public treasury, the revolt of neighboring nations could make Carthage accept the most severe conditions of peace. But Rome was not guided by experiences of goods and evils. Only its glory determined its actions, and since it could not imagine itself existing without commanding, no hope or fear could induce it to make a peace it did not impose.

There is nothing so powerful as a republic in which the laws are observed not through fear, not through reason, but through passion—which was the case with Rome and Lacedaemon. For then all the strength a faction could have is joined to the wisdom of a good government.

The Carthaginians used foreign troops, and the Romans employed their own. Since the latter never regarded the vanquished as anything but instruments for further triumphs, they made soldiers of all the peoples they had overcome, and the more trouble they had in conquering them, the more they judged them suitable for incorporation into their republic. Thus we see the Samnites, who were subjugated only after twenty-four triumphs, become the auxiliaries of the Romans. And some time before the Second Punic War they drew from them and their allies—that is, from a country scarcely larger than the states of the pope and of Naples—seven hundred thousand infantry and seventy thousand cavalry to oppose the Gauls.

Carthage employed greater forces for attacking, Rome for defending itself. . . . Carthage’s situation at home was less secure than Rome’s. Rome had thirty colonies around it, which were like ramparts. . . . Since most of the cities of Africa were lightly fortified, they surrendered at once to whoever came to take them.

The ills which befell the Carthaginians throughout the war waged against them by the first Scipio can only be attributed to a bad government. Their city and even their armies were starving, while the Romans had an abundance of all things.

Among the Carthaginians, armies which had been defeated became more insolent. Sometimes they crucified their generals, and punished them for their own cowardice. Among the Romans, the consul decimated the troops that had fled, and led them back against the enemy.

The rule of the Carthaginians was very harsh. So severely had they tormented the peoples of Spain that when the Romans arrived there they were regarded as liberators. And, if we bear in mind the immense sums it cost them to support a war in which they were defeated, we plainly see that injustice is a bad manager, and that it does not even accomplish its own ends.

The Second Punic War is so famous that everybody knows it. When we carefully examine the multitude of obstacles confronting Hannibal, all of which this extraordinary man surmounted, we have before us the finest spectacle presented by antiquity.

Rome was a marvel of constancy. After the battles of Ticinus, Trebia, and Lake Trasimene, after Cannae more dismal still, abandoned by almost all the peoples of Italy, it did not sue for peace. The reason is that the senate never departed from its old maxims. It dealt with Hannibal as it had previously dealt with Pyrrhus, with whom it had refused to make any accommodation so long as he remained in Italy. And . . . at the time of negotiation with Coriolanus, the senate declared that it would not violate its old practices, that the Roman people could not make peace while enemies were on its soil, but that, if the Volscians withdrew, their just demands would be met.

Rome was saved by the strength of its institutions. After the battle of Cannae not even the women were permitted to shed tears. The senate refused to ransom the prisoners, and sent the miserable remains of the army to make war in Sicily, without pay or any military honor, until such time as Hannibal was expelled from Italy.

Usually it is not the real loss sustained in battle (such as that of several thousands of men) which proves fatal to a state, but the imagined loss and the discouragement, which deprive it of the very strength fortune had left it.

There are things that everybody says because they were once said. People believe that Hannibal made a signal error in not having laid siege to Rome after the battle of Cannae. It is true that at first the terror in Rome was extreme, but the consternation of a warlike people, which almost always turns into courage, is different from that of a vile populace, which senses only its weakness. A proof that Hannibal would not have succeeded is that the Romans were still able to send assistance everywhere.

People say further that Hannibal made a great mistake in leading his army to Capua, where it grew soft. But they fail to see that they stop short of the true cause. Would not the soldiers of this army have found Capua everywhere, having become rich after so many victories? On a similar occasion, Alexander, who was commanding his own subjects, made use of an expedient that Hannibal, who had only mercenary troops, could not use. He had the baggage of his soldiers set on fire, and burned all their riches and his too.

It was Hannibal’s conquests themselves that began to change the fortunes of this war. He had not been sent to Italy by the magistrates of Carthage; he received very little help, whether because of the jealousy of one party or the overconfidence of the other. While he retained his whole army, he defeated the Romans. But when he had to put garrisons in the cities, defend his allies, besiege strongholds or prevent them from being besieged, his forces were found to be too small, and he lost a large part of his army piecemeal. Conquests are easy to make, because they are made with all one’s force; they are difficult to preserve because they are defended with only a part of one’s forces.