1The whole dialogue hinges on the motives that led Sulla to usurp the supreme power, shedding the blood of his compatriots by proscriptions and crimes, and to leave that same power despite the danger that this bold decision caused him to incur. So Sulla explains. What is revealed in all his acts is “love of glory”, a “great soul” who, after exhausting the “great things”, can no longer adapt to the ordinary pace of government, and aspires again to outdo himself by abandoning everything; it is also “scorn” for men, of which Sulla makes the “principle” of his conduct, the infinite pride of himself and of his name: “I have a name; and it suffices for my security […]. I have astonished men; and that is a great deal […] I have taken everything from this principle […] it has been the soul of my every act.” (“J’ai un nom ; et il me suffit pour ma sûreté […] J’ai étonné les hommes ; et c’est beaucoup […] j’ai tout tiré de ce principe […] il a été l’âme de toutes mes actions.”)
2The “greatness” “astonishes” by its very savagery. To be sure Sulla justifies himself: he wanted to make the Romans free despite themselves, he “reestablished the government of our fathers”. But one senses in him a violence that is all in itself, beneath and above all justification. Eucrates is there to state the peril of glory, the frightful price that humanity pays for it, and to announce the baleful consequences of the example thus given. At the end Sulla, after a moment of silence, yields to emotion, and foresees the arrival of Cæsar.
3“A few scenes of Corneille gave me the idea of this dialogue (of Sulla). I was young, and one has to be very young to be prompted to write by reading the great Corneille.” (“Quelques scènes de Corneille me donnèrent l’idée de ce dialogue (de Sylla). J’étais jeune, et il fallait être bien jeune pour être excité à écrire par la lecture du grand Corneille”) This admission in the Pensées (no. 1948) designates both an inspiration, which the text makes evident, and a moment, that of a “youth” understood in the broadest sense, since friends of Montesquieu allude to the work in 1724 and 1726; one witness suggests that it was read at the Club de l’Entresol in 1727 or early in 1728; it would not be published until 1745 in the Mercure de France.
4Thus we can see it as a sort of free reverie around a personage whom the historical tradition had represented with uniformly black features. In 1734, Romans, without insistence, does not really contradict the Dialogue: “Angy Sulla leads the Romans violently to freedom” (chapter XIII).
5Almost inseparable from Romans since the edition of 1748, the work is considered and proposed in the 19th century as a model of eloquence: it could indeed rightly pas, by its extreme tension and dramatic scansion, for a perfect stylistic expression of “Roman” force.
6Michelet, in his Notes d’histoire religieuse (unpublished), sees in it an example of what he calls the “tyrant style”, illustrated according to him by Thucydides, Tacitus, Saint-Just and Napoleon in the bulletins of the army in Italy. Among recent commentators, the Sulla thus recreated, by his violence beyond good and evil, provokes an unease and a fascination in conformity with philosophies that were in fashion. In any case he manifests in a particularly evident way what is paradoxical, impulsive, and extreme in Montesquieu’s imagination.
OC, t. VIII, p. 307-322.
On the Sulla of historical tradition, Patrick Andrivet, Représentations politiques de l’ancienne Rome en France des débuts de l’âge classique à la Révolution, Lille: ANRT, 1994.
For a “ demiurgic” Sulla, C. Rosso, “Demiurgia e parabola delle élites nelle Considérations”, Storia e ragione, Naples, 1987, p. 181-206 (p. 198-199).
On the writing of the work, Stéphane Pujol, “Montesquieu et la question du dialogue”, Du goût à l’esthétique: Montesquieu, ed. Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Bordeaux: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007, p. 147-174.