Patrick Andrivet


1Even before he had in mind to write his “considerations” on the Romans, Montesquieu never lost his interest for Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), Rome’s greatest orator, one of her most important political men, a philosopher who counted, even if he did not shine by his originality. We have by him a Discourse on Cicero, a work of his youth (about 1717), in which he asserts peremptorily: “Cicero is, of all the Ancients, the one who had the greatest personal merit, and whom I would most like to resemble” (“Cicéron est, de tous les anciens, celui qui a eu le plus de mérite personnel, et à qui j’aimerais mieux ressembler”). Later, it is true, he will nuance this admiration, regretting that his Discourse is too much like a panegyric.

2If he speaks hardly at all of the orator, it is the political struggles that interest the author of the Discours, struggles for which Cicero incarnates better than any other the spirit of the regime that was about to sink: “All the enemies of the Republic were his own: the likes of Verres, Clodius, Cataline, Cæsar, Mark Anthony, indeed all the scoundrels of Rome declared war on him” (“Tous les ennemis de la République furent les siens : les Verrès, les Clodius, les Catilinas, les Césars, les Antoines, enfin tous les scélérats de Rome lui déclarèrent la guerre”). Here again the amalgams can be surprising: the Montesquieu of the Romans will be more temperate.

3There is at least one position on which Montesquieu will not vary: he is, so to speak, in Cicero’s camp, which is to say of those who, despite his flaws, wished to defend the Roman Constitution, such as five centuries of republican regime had made it, against its “enemies”, whether corrupt ones like Verres, subversive ones like Clodius or Cataline, factious ones ready to use the legions against the established order, like Cæsar or Anthony. But Montesquieu, while defending those who, like Cicero, Cato, or Brutus, struggled to preserve or reëstablish the Republic, was fully aware that it was a hopeless combat: “the Republic had necessarily to perish, it was only a question now of how, and by whom it would be overthrown” (“la République devant nécessairement périr, il n’était plus question que de savoir comment, et par qui elle devait être abattue”).

4In Romans (1734) the portrait that Montesquieu draws of Cicero is not that of the homo novus, the young and brilliant lawyer who was to run flawlessly the course of honors up to the supreme rank of consul; he takes him when the die is about to be cast, and there will be nothing left to do but “weep for the deplorable remnants of a dying freedom” (Discourse on Cicero). When arms alone speak, Cicero is absent from the text; we know he is in Pharsalus at Pompey’s side, but suspect that the aging orator plays no role there; pardoned by the victor, he returns to Rome. Montesquieu then notes, in him who was the hero of youth, the state of mind that comes through in his correspondence: “one can see in the letters of a few great men of that time, which have been ascribed to Cicero, because most are his, the discouragement and despair of the first men of the Republic at this sudden revolution, which stripped them of their honors and even their occupations” (“on peut voir dans les lettres de quelques grands hommes de ce temps-là, qu’on a mises sous le nom de Cicéron, parce que la plupart sont de lui, l’abattement et le désespoir des premiers hommes de la République à cette révolution subite, qui les priva de leurs honneurs et de leurs occupations mêmes”). A cruel change: “the influence they had had over the whole world, they could no longer expect except in a single man’s study” (“ce crédit qu’ils avaient eu par toute la terre, ils ne purent plus l’espérer que dans le cabinet d’un seul”).

5Although he does not figure among the conspirators of the Ides of March, Cicero was again to play a role. Montesquieu however fails to specify that it was he who proposed, two days after Cæsar’s death, “amnesty to the conspirators”; he only deals with what Cicero did after evoking the conduct of Mark Anthony, whose skill in this circumstance rendered vain the efforts of the republicans. It must be said that the Senate had an ambivalent attitude at that time because, amnestying Cæsar’s murders, it also approved, “without restriction”, the acts of the late dictator. For Montesquieu, the responsibility of Cicero was clearly engaged, for it was he “who governed the Senate in this whole business”. For not having immediately exploited the success of the conspiracy, the republicans (as Cicero himself recognized) left Cæsar’s friends to retake the initiative and make the return to freedom illusory.

6Cicero was not better inspired when, “to destroy Mark Anthony”, he contributed “to the elevation of Octavian”. He should never, since it was Cæsar’s hier, his son by adoption, have put him “before the eyes” of the people, thus giving “to the Republic an enemy more dangerous because his name was dearer, and his rights in appearance more legitimate”. Montesquieu insists on this error of Cicero, which he attributes moreover as much to the deftness of Octavian as to the “vanity” of the old orator.

7Indeed, the future Augustus “flattered [Cicero], praised him, consulted him, and employed all these artifices of which vanity is never suspicious”. What good did all the experience of a seasoned politician do if a very young man (Octavian was not yet twenty!) can fool him so? But Cicero was of those who “besides his principal achievement, still seek certain little, specific successes that flatter their pride, and make them even more content with themselves” (“outre la réussite principale, cherchent encore de certains petits succès particuliers qui flattent leur amour propre, et les rendent contents d’eux”). We are at that point far from the unstinting admiration which the young Montesquieu showed for Cicero. Here Cato occupies, in the esteem of the author of Romains, the first rank. Tracing in a few lines a parallel between the two men, Montesquieu shows himself to be particularly incisive in his criticism of Cicero’s character: “he had a fine genius, but an often common soul; what was accessory to Cicero was virtue, to Cato it was glory; Cicero always saw himself as first, Cato always forgot about himself; the latter wanted to save the Republic for itself, the former in order to boast of it” (“il avait un beau génie, mais une âme souvent commune; l’accessoire chez Cicéron c’était la vertu, chez Caton c’était la gloire; Cicéron se voyait toujours le premier, Caton s’oubliait toujours; celui-ci voulait sauver la République pour elle-même, celui-là pour s’en vanter”).

8But most fortunately Cicero is not only a politician: he was also an irreplaceable witness for his time, and Montesquieu, as we have seen, used his correspondence to illuminate the period, both consternating and fascinating, of the agony of the republican regime. Before the Republic succumbed, it had reached an appalling level of corruption, which Cicero details in a letter to Atticus of which Montesquieu reproduces a fragment (Romains, X).

9In order to show the scorn that Cæsar felt, once at the height of his power, for the senateurs, “that body which had become almost ridiculous”, Montesquieu quotes another letter of Cicero’s in which humor does not exclude sorrow: “I sometimes learn that a senatus consultum passed on my advice has been carried to Syria and Armenia before I have learned that it was done […] and several princes have written me letters of thanks for having been in favor of giving them the title of king, when not only did I not know they were kings, I did not even know of their existence” (“J’apprends quelquefois qu’un sénatus-consulte passé à mon avis a été porté en Syrie et en Arménie avant que j’aie su qu’il ait été fait [...] et plusieurs princes m’ont écrit des lettres de remerciement sur ce que j’avais été d’avis qu’on leur donnât le titre de Rois, que non seulement je ne savais pas être Rois, mais même qu’ils fussent au monde”, Romans, I, note). For the dictator himself was signing bills “with the names of the first senators that came to mind”.

10Montesquieu, this time in his great work, still used Cicero as a witness, but also as a political writer: the author specifies one of the changes, and not the least important ones, that led to the ruin of the Republic: “It is a great question whether ballots should be public or secret. Cicero writes that the laws that made them secret, in the last days of the Roman Republic, were one of the causes of its fall” (“C’est une grande question, si les suffrages doivent être publics ou secrets. Cicéron écrit que les lois qui les rendirent secrets, dans les derniers temps de la République romaine, furent une des grandes causes de sa chute”). Montesquieu explains: “The little people have to be enlightened by the principals, and contained by the gravity of certain personages. thus, in the Roman Republic, by making the ballots secret, they destroyed everything; it was no longer possible to enlighten a populace that was losing its way” (“Il faut que le petit peuple soit éclairé par les principaux, et contenu par la gravité de certains personnages. Ainsi, dans la République romaine, en rendant les suffrages secrets, on détruisit tout; il ne fut plus possible d’éclairer une populace qui se perdait”, EL, II, 2).

11Cicero himself, as we have seen, did not avoid vanity, shared by numerous Romans. But Montesquieu, so hard on Cicero in his parallel with Cato, does make a distinction between his times and those of the ancient Romans: “We can see that a certain vanity among the Romans was not as ridiculous as among us. We can see it in that fury they had of asking their friends to praise them, to put them in their histories, and in their dedications. The particular fact of the death of Cæsar appeared so beautiful that people who were not involved boasted of it” (“On voit qu’une certaine vanité chez les Romains n’était pas si ridicule que parmi nous. On le voit dans cette fureur qu’ils ont de demander à leurs amis qu’ils les louent, qu’ils les mettent dans leurs histoires, leurs dédicaces. Le fait particulier de la mort de César paraissait si beau que des gens qui n’y avaient pas trempé s’en vantèrent”). These lines are taken from Pensées (no. 962) which includes this addition: “Cicero, who begged to be put in Roman history, and even that people lie for him. This immoderate love of being famous came from the education of those times” (“Cicéron, qui prie qu’on le mette dans l’histoire romaine, et qu’on mente même pour lui. Cet amour immodéré pour être célébré vient de l’éducation de ce temps-là”).

12Montesquieu, who had various opinions about the politician, and about Cicero’s character, is more constant in his very favorable opinion he holds for his relation to religion. In a Dissertation sur la politique des Romains dans la religion which he read to the Bordeaux Academy in 1716, he noted that if Roman public-spiritedness, in the early period, did not separate the religious from the political, and if, at the end of the republican era, Cicero could still “speak in public, with extraordinary zeal, against Verres’s impiety”, the same man was not nervous about making frequent “confession of disbelief”, “in private and among his friends” (“parler en public, avec un zèle extraordinaire, contre l’impiété de Verrès», le même homme ne se gênait pas pour faire fréquemment «confession d’incrédulité», «en particulier et parmi ses amis”). Montesquieu appreciated the duality that was expressed in Cicero, concerned both for the preservation of traditional religious beliefs and for the exercise, in a limited circle, of freedom of conscience. Yet the philosopher, as student of the Greeks, was to deny all validity of those beliefs which Montesquieu praised: “Cicero who first put into his language the dogmas of Greek philosophy, [and thus] delivered a fatal blow to the religion of Rome” (Pensées, no. 969).

13More generally, Montesquieu is very much in agreement with Cicero the political writer. When, in L’Esprit des lois, he refers to Cicero, it is approvingly. Thus, with respect to “those laws made in Rome against individual citizens, which were called privileges”, “Cicero would have them abolished, because the force of the law consists only in that its statutes apply to everyong” (“Cicéron veut qu’on les abolisse, parce que la force de la loi ne consiste qu’en ce qu’elle statue sur tout le monde”, EL, XII, 19). It is perhaps less convincing when he pleads with Cicero against agrarians, in other words against the usurpations which the nobilitas had made of ager publicus, since such laws contradict the raison d’être of the state: “Cicero maintained that agrarian laws were damaging, because the city was established only so that each person would preserve his property” (“Cicéron soutenait que les lois agraires étaient funestes, parce que la Cité n’était établie que pour que chacun conservât ses biens”, EL, XXVI, 15). Finally, it is surprising that on the problem of war and peace, is should be without commentary that Montesquieu, in Spicilège (no. 694), reproduces Cicero’s “idealist” position, who wished “that no war be undertaken which has not peace for its object”. The history of the Roman conquest ought to have led him to specify “peace, by crushing the opponent”. The author of Romans would still know, in chapter VI, how to compose an implacable accusation against “the conduct which the Romans employed to subject all peoples”.

14On Cicero the philosopher, Montesquieu is both laudatory and critical. Denouncing Cicero as the destroyer of “all systems”, the young author of the Discourse on Cicero nevertheless finds an excuse: his times. It is paradoxical to read that he regretted that Cicero “did not come in a more enlightened era and was not able to use in the discovery of truths those happy talents that only served him to destroy errors” (“fût pas venu dans un siècle plus éclairé et qu’il [n’] eût pu employer à découvrir des vérités, ces heureux talents qui ne lui ont servi qu’à détruire des erreurs”), as if Cicero’s time was not also that of Cæsar (the writer), Sallust and Lucrecius, and especially as if the destruction of errors could not, as well as the discovery of truths, define an “enlightened” era. But this little work also testifies to the interest, not to say the enthusiasm for the philosopher, which is evident in the recently-discovered Notes on Cicero: in the margins of an edition of Cicero, in particular De natura deorum and De divinatione, Montesquieu, strongly inspired by Bayle, subjects the different ancient and modern “sects” and religions (Epicureans, Stoics, etc.) to the test of rationality. Difficult to date, this ensemble is largely prior to Persian Letters, no doubt also to the Discourse on Cicero, which repeats several of its elements (these notes will appear in t. XVII of the Œuvres complètes: for a general presentation, see the article by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger).

15Montesquieu is again laudatory when we know that he was contemplating, in imitation of the author of De officiis, a Traité des devoirs [‘Treatise on duties’], the manuscript of which has unfortunately been lost. The project was not carried very far: the Modern felt much too inferior to the Ancient, as he confessed long afterwards in a letter dated 8 October 1750, to Monsignor Fitz-James: “About thirty years ago I conceived the project of a work on duty. Cicero’s Traité des offices [De officiis] had charmed me and I took him for my model. […] Later, I found it would be very difficult for me to write a good book on duty, that Cicero’s division, which is that of the Stoics, was too vague; above all I feared such a rival in Cicero; and it seemed to me that my mind was not equal to his” (“[…] il y a environ trente ans que je formai le projet de faire un ouvrage sur les devoirs. Le Traité des offices de Cicéron m’avait enchanté et je le prenais pour mon modèle [...] Dans la suite, je trouvai qu’il me serait très difficile de faire un bon ouvrage sur les devoirs, que la division de Cicéron, qui est celle des stoïciens, était trop vague, et surtout je craignis un rival tel que Cicéron; et il me semblait que mon esprit tombait devant le sien […]”).

16With respect to Cicero’s “Stoicism”, Catherine Larrère notes however that he owes to him “the discovery of an invariant in all the religions that found the thesis of social utility” (“la découverte d’un invariant de toutes les religions qui fonde la thèse de l’utilité sociale”). “From his earlier writings”, she adds, “Montesquieu, through Cicero, makes positive and detailed references to Stoic themes: sociability, natural religion” (“Dès ses premiers écrits, […] Montesquieu, à travers Cicéron, fait des références positives et détaillées à des thèmes stoïciens: la sociabilité, la religion naturelle”, p. 172-173). Thus, in many domains such as politics, history, law, and philosophy, Montesquieu, if he no longer feels in his maturity the enthusiasm that Cicero raised in him when he was young, still considers the great Roman orator as one of his privileged interlocutors. It is essentially through him that he sees the Rome of the end of the Republic. The philosophy bequeathed to us by Antiquity seemed to him to be admirably expressed in his writings; his weaknesses were those of his time; his death was, all told, that of a martyr, in the etymological sense of a witness, because it tragically illustrated the change of regime of a republic which, as Claude Nicolet has shown, exalted the status of citizen, in a rigorous and bloody despotism.


Discours sur Cicéron: Pierre Rétat ed., OC, t. VIII, 2003, p. 117-132.

Notes sur Cicéron: Pierre Rétat ed., to appear in OC, t. XVII, 2014.

Patrick Andrivet, “Montesquieu et Cicéron: de l’enthousiasme à la sagesse”, Mélanges offerts à Jean Ehrard, Paris: Nizet, 1992, p. 25-34.

Catherine Larrère, “Le stoïcisme dans les œuvres de jeunesse de Montesquieu”, in Montesquieu. Les années de formation (1700-1720), C. Volpilhac-Auger dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 5 (1999), p. 163-183.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “La tentation du secret? La part de l’inédit dans l’œuvre de Montesquieu”, La Lettre clandestine n° 11 (2003), p. 47-58.

Patrick Andrivet, “Rome enfin que je hais…” ? Une étude sur les différentes vues de Montesquieu concernant les anciens Romains, Orléans: Paradigme, 2012.