Jean Terrel


1In the relations between peoples, necessarily different “on such a large planet”, war and conquest are necessary facts. “The object of war is victory; that of victory, conquest” (EL, I, 3): one must therefore not too quickly assimilate criticism of the passion for conquest with a unilateral denunciation of conquerors and their right to conquer.

2The attitude of a people towards its neighbors depends on many factors: courage or languidness depending on living in the North or South (EL, XVII, 2); difference between the mountain (which favors defense) and the plain open to invasions (EL, XVIII, 2); difference between those who cultivate fertile land, inclined to submission (EL, XVIII, 1), and those who live by hunting or shepherding, combative and jealous of their freedom (EL, XVIII, 12, 14); difference between warlike nations that are further hardened when they are resisted and those which too easy a conquest has led to languidness and servility (EL, XVII, 3-5). Using original pathways, he joins the banal and ancient opposition between two temperaments, one that inclines toward freedom and domination, the other to servitude in all its forms.

3We understand better that past conquests could have had such opposite styles and effects. The barbarians of the North of Europe are “these valiant nations that leave their land to destroy tyrants and slaves”, “that break the chains forged in the south” and thus teach men natural equality, in contrast to the Tartar people, “the natural conqueror of Asia” which has “become itself a slave” (EL, XVII, 5): on one hand a difficult conquest that produces strength and freedom in Europe (EL, XI, 8); on the other, in Asia, warlike peoples won over to servility by contact with peoples too effeminate to resist their enterprise for long. In between, the Romans, strong and free as long as they affronted free, warlike peoples, gradually won over by corruption and servility insofar as their conquests succeeded too quickly and too well: grandeur of a republic in which conquering force was taking root, as in Machiavelli’s analyses, in political freedom and in true union, the kind that results in a free state from the good use of civil dissensions (Romans, IX), decadence of a despotic regime in which the army made and unmade emperors. The Roman case keeps the reader from resting on a separation between a good and bad side. The republican regime permitted the conquest that then led to its destruction. They could not for very long separate the outside from the inside, respect their compatriots and exercise over the conquered a despotic and destructive law of nations (droit des gens), without the mores born of conquest invading the interior space; “the citizens were treated as they themselves had treated the vanquished enemies and were governed on the same level: Sulla entering Rome was not a different man from Sulla entering Athens, he exercised the same common law” (“[…] les citoyens furent traités comme ils avoient traité eux-mêmes les ennemis vaincus et furent gouvernés sur le même plan : Sylla entrant dans Rome ne fut pas un autre homme que Sylla entrant dans Athènes, il exerça le même droit des gens”, Romans, XV, OC, t. II, p. 200).

4 Romans places the accent in a similarly balanced manner on the two aspects (grandeur and decadence) of Roman conquest. In L’Esprit des lois, the references to the intelligence and constancy of the conquering republic are rarer – one of the examples is sovereignty, in other words citizenship, granted to conquered peoples “as the Romans established it at the beginning” (EL, X, 6); the accent is placed on the reverse side of the decor: the destruction of conquered peoples and its effects in turn (corruption, servitude and decadence) on the Romans. At the same time, Montesquieu tends to leave in the shadow what he earlier criticized in Alexander’s conquest. He compares it to that of the northern barbarians who brought freedom to Europe: in both cases the point is to underscore the advantages that conquest can sometimes obtain for the conquered peoples, and which can in part repair the evils caused by the conqueror (EL, X, 4). If one adopts this criterion (what is advantageous to the conquered people), the comparison between the Romans and Alexander now turns to the advantage of the latter. From a completely different point of view (the conquest itself and not the policy adopted toward the vanquished), an (unused) preface project for Romans reached an entirely different conclusion, “for if one compared Alexander’s empire and the Romans’, it would be comparing one day’s work to the work of several centuries and the play of fortune to the masterpiece of wisdom and conduct” (“car si on comparoit l’empire d’Alexandre et celui des Romains ce serait comparer l’ouvrage d’un jour à celui de plusieurs siècles, le jeu de fortune au chef-d’œuvre de la sagesse et de la conduite”, OC, t. II, p. 315).

5Even forgetting the final decadence, Roman policy cannot serve as a model for modern European states. Since the fall of Rome, the successive attempts to establish in Europe the constant superiority of one people over all the others, in the form of an empire (the universal monarchy stricto sensu) or a simple hegemony (the real threat hidden behind the term) had failed. If we limit ourselves to the relations between the different peoples who make of Europe “a single nation composed of several” (Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle en Europe, XVIII; OC, t. II, p. 360), the era of conquest and empire is over for geopolitical reasons already active in Roman times (the climate and nature of the soils which favored resistance to any attempt at conquest) and also for reasons proper to the present state of Europe: trade and wealth make power, with continual variations that rule out the durable superiority of a single state (Monarchie universelle, II); because of the development of communications, “each one sees right away whatever moves in the world, and the minute one people shows some ambition, it immediately frightens all the others” (Romans, I, OC, t. II, p. 95). By maintaining only this last feature, one could be tempted to oppose to the spirit of conquest only the equilibrium of strengths which had not been realized in Roman times because the peoples had resisted Rome in dispersed order. In fact, Montesquieu criticizes this policy of balance or equilibrium: each one augments its military strengths to respond to the other which does the same; what is called peace is rather Hobbes’s state of war, a “state of effort of all against all” (Monarchie universelle, XXIV) which leads to common ruin. Through this criticism formulated in 1734 another possible alternative takes shape which becomes explicit in L’Esprit des lois, that of trade and conquest, in a logic where the opulence of a state does not have as condition the weakness of its partners: on one side the desire for conquest that inclines to war and favors, it seems, fierce mores, and on the other a spirit that unites nations because the natural effect of trade is to mellow mores and incline to peace (EL, XX, 1-2). However these two spirits are not always and everywhere mutually exclusive: the example of the Romans disinclined to trade by their genius, glory and military education (EL, XXI, 14) is not generalizable. Carthage “increased its power with wealth, and then its wealth with power” (EL, XXI, 11). The compatibility of the two expansions (military and commercial) is however compromised beginning with the moment when a power established by trade ceases to be mediocre, becomes visible and therefore threatening for the other candidates to hegemony (Romans, IV, OC, t. II, p. 114), in such a way that the logic of the relation of military forces reclaims its rights: “It was as a rival nation, and not as a trading nation, that [the Romans] attacked Carthage” (EL, XXI, 10 [14]). Finally we are back, it seems, to a simple alternative: to be a conquering people (the Romans) or a trading nation (Carthage): the war between Rome and Carthage therefore does not oppose two qualitatively different powers. The example of Alexander is more confusing: “The Romans conquered everything to destroy everything; he tried to conquer everything to preserve everything” (EL, X, 13 [14]). The Romans favored Marseille and its trade because that city accepted their hegemony (EL, XXI, 8 [11]); they unhesitatingly destroyed any trading nation or city (Carthage, Corinth, Delos) that abetted, directly or indirectly, military resistance to their conquering enterprise (EL, XXI, [12]: chapter added in 1757-1758). They were even “destroyers, so as not to appear as conquerors” (ibid.): rather than appear as conquerors by governing the conquered country, which would suppose at least its partial preservation (you can’t govern what no longer exists), they preferred to destroy what they could not preserve without compromise. Alexander dared to appear as a conqueror and accepted the risks of preservation, so that his conquest is an essential chapter in the history of commerce (EL, XXI, 7 [8)]. Conquest opens new commercial paths and establishes new relations between peoples. Similarly, in modern times, “while the Spanish were discovering and conquering to the West, the Portuguese were pressing their conquests and discoveries to the Orient” (EL, XXI, 17 [21]). But what Alexander achieved – a conquest which, in the middle term, ceased to subjugate and destroy, the Spanish failed to do, powerless to preserve otherwise than by destroying and even by following the Roman plan, this slow manner of conquering which at first is content to weaken, the better to subjugate later (Romans, VI, OC, t. II, p. 141). Other “more refined” European peoples had colonial policies closer to Alexander’s: instead of looking first, like the Spaniards, at discovered lands as objects of conquest, “they found that they were objects of commerce” (EL, XXI, 17 [21]). The point was not to choose starkly between conquest and commerce, but rather to prioritize them: England, for example, was not (forgetting Ireland) a conquering nation because its colonial policy was geared rather to trade than to domination (EL, XIX, 27).

6To explain and evaluate the various manners of conquering in the modern era, it is thus necessary to take into account the nature of each regime and the situation of the various states in the world: the incompatibility of the republican regime and conquests, because the Roman example shows that they end up destroying the republican liberty which might at the beginning have been the condition for it; the necessity for monarchies to limit their conquests if they wish to remain moderate and avoid despotism; the vanity, within Europe, of seeking hegemony or a purely military equilibrium of forces; the necessity for European states of favoring commercial relations amongst themselves and aiming elsewhere at commercial rather than conquering expansion. With such a balance sheet we can understand the reasons that led Montesquieu, at the beginning of Book X of L’Esprit des lois, to discuss systematically the right of conquest. In 1721, “the right of conquest is not a right. A society can only be founded on the will of associates” (Lettres persanes, 92, first edition). This is almost Locke’s point of view, except that Montesquieu already appears to refuse (this will be explicit in 1748) to legitimate the conquest when it is exercised on individuals whose crimes would have deprived of their right of voluntary association. In 1748, Montesquieu had reached different conclusions: if “conquest gives no right in itself” (1758 version of the preceding letter, my italics), there is indeed a right of the conqueror to deduce from the natural right to self-defense and law of nations (droit des gens) founded on true principles. One must begin with the right to use offensive force to defend oneself, which justifies a preventive attack when there is no other means of avoiding destruction, and excludes war motivated by the ruler’s glory, “a passion and not a legitimate right” (EL, X, 2). By starting with the end of war (victory), one attains two new goals, conquest, the object of victory, and preservation, the object of conquest: if conquest is to be a right, it must be connected, above, to the necessity of natural defense and, below, to the preservation that allows the victor no longer to consider exclusively his own advantage, but to repair the unfortunate damage caused to the vanquished. The reference to necessity makes it possible to contest the victor’s right to kill and subjugate when it is no longer necessary: the critic has in mind here the Roman common law (EL, XV, 2) and “the authors of our public law” (EL, X, 3), no doubt Grotius and Pufendorf; the reference to preservation as a “token of peace and the reparation for harm” (LP, 92 – [95]) shows that Montesquieu refuses (against Grotius and Locke) all punitive justification of the misfortunes of the conquered: the damages done may be inevitable and not contrary to law in the case of the justified use of offensive force; they ought still to be repaired once that is compatible with the conqueror’s security.


Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Montesquieu et l’impérialisme grec: Alexandre ou l’art de la conquête”, Montesquieu and the spirit of modernity, David Carrithers and Patrick Coleman dir., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2002, p. 49-60.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Montesquieu et l’Empire”, Revue Montesquieu 8 (2005-2006), p. 5-185.

Jean Terrel, “Sur le livre X de L’Esprit des lois: le problème de la conquête”, Séminaire (Re)Lire L’Esprit des lois, Luigi Delia et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., in press.

Bibliographical reference

Terrel Jean , « Conquest », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :