Revolutions of Rome

Patrick Andrivet

1Vertot, in his Histoire des révolutions arrivées dans le gouvernement de la République romaine (1719) called any change, important or not, in the political history of that state a “revolution”. Montesquieu’s use of the term is more economical: “Periods of institutional change (passage from monarchy to republic in 509, from republic to empire with Augustus), note Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger in an article, are designated by the term “revolution” only in three passages of Romans. The troubled times (beginnings of the Republic, tribunate of the Grachii), though qualified as “revolutions” by Rollini or Vertot, are never so named by Montesquieu.

2Let us examine the terms which the author of Romans uses to speak of the events that, according to tradition, caused Rome to change from a monarchy to a republic at the end of the 6th century BCE. In an addition we read in the edition of 1748, Montesquieu writes: “Tarquin [the Proud] took the crown, without being elected by the Senate or by the people. The power became hereditary: he made it absolute. These two revolutions were soon followed by a third. His son Sextus, by raping Lucretia […] [here back to the text of 1734] did something that has almost always caused tyrants to be thrown out of the cities where they commanded” (ch. 1). A little farther on we read: “It is however true that the death of Lucretia was just the occasion for the revolution that came”.

3Montesquieu thus sees in what unleashed the troubles that led to the fall of the early monarchy and the exile of the Tarquins a succession of two events: the conditions of Tarquin’s advent twenty-five years earlier, and the transformation of a regime both “monarchical, aristocratic, and popular” into a tyranny: “he exterminated most of the senators, no longer consulted those who remained, and did not even call them to his judgments […]. He usurped the people’s power; he made laws without them; he even made some against them” (EL, XI, 12). That was a failure to realize the people were “proud, active, bold and closed within the walls, [which] necessarily had to shrug off the yoke, or moderate its mores” (Romans, I): it was the first that happened. To be sure, Montesquieu notes in L’Esprit des lois: “The Roman people more than any other were moved by spectacles. The spectacle of Lucretia’s bloody body put an end to royalty” (EL, XI, 15), but the causes of the change of government preceded that and were the true revolution that was going to lead to the Republic. The genuine revolutions of Rome were thus to be found, in Romains, elsewhere than at the precise moment when the institutions changed. Chapter 9 (“Two reasons for the fall of Rome”) is very instructive on this point. There Montesquieu deals first with the opposition between the campaigns waged in Italy by the legions, more or less from the origins to the Punic Wars, and those that were then waged outside Italy, beginning in the early 2nd century BCE. Of these, he writes: “when the legions passed the Alps and the sea, the men of war that they were obliged to leave during several campaigns in the country that was being subjected, gradually lost the spirit of citizens, and the generals who disposed of the armies and kingdoms felt their strength, and could no longer obey”. There we see the slow revolution working in the minds: “The soldiers thus began to recognize only their general, to base all their hopes on him, and to see the City from afar; they were no longer the soldiers of the Republic, but of Sulla, of Marius, Pompey and Caesar”. It was the conquest of the entire circumference of the Mediterranean that became an essential factor of Rome’s “fall”, meaning the fall of the republican regime. There was a second cause, closer to that sad climax: the completion of the Social War, in other words the war waged against Rome, at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, by the different peoples of Italy to obtain the same rights as Roman citizens. Defeated, they nevertheless won. All Italians of free birth could then come to Rome to participate in public affairs. The result was catastrophic: “every city brought its genius, its particular interests, and its dependence on some great protector, the City torn apart no longer made up a whole”. What could become of the institutions which had not been affected? The ambitious brought cities and entire nations to Rome to disrupt the voting, or obtain it for themselves”. Montesquieu rightly concludes: “the laws of Rome became impotent to govern the Republic”.

4One may be surprised that the Gracchi crisis is not even mentioned by Montesquieu in Romans. The name of the two brothers is not even to be found therein. Yet one does find, in L’Esprit des lois, a reflection on the agrarian laws in which Montesquieu points out at the same time their utility and their harmfulness: “The laws on the new division of fields, demanded so insistently in some republics, were salutary by their nature”. But, he adds, “they are dangerous only as sudden action”. Here we find again the usual meaning of the word “revolution” in the vocabulary of the time. “By taking away the wealth of some all at once, and likewise increasing that of others, they make a revolution in every family, and must produce a general one in the state” (EL, VII, 2). Montesquieu, admiring Cicero, notes in the same work: “Cicero maintained that the agrarian laws were baneful, because the City was only established so that each person could preserve his property” (XXVI, 15). Thus if the policy enforced by Tiberius and Caius Gracchus was revolutionary, it was an unfortunate policy. The two brothers were all the worse inspired in that they were acting during a period when corruption had already begun to wreak its damage in Rome. But the essential seems to reside in the judiciary domain: “The judges were taken from the ranks of the senators until the time of time of the Gracchi. Tiberius [in fact, Caius] Gracchus had the order given that they be taken from the ranks of the knights: such a great change that the tribune prided himself in having by a single rogatio cut the nerves of the order of senators.” (“Les juges furent pris dans l’ordre des sénateurs jusqu’au temps des Gracques. Tiberius [en fait, Caius] Gracchus fit ordonner qu’on les prendrait dans celui des chevaliers : changement si considérable que le tribun se vanta d’avoir, par une seule rogation, coupé les nerfs de l’ordre des sénateurs. ”, EL, XI, 18; on the importance of this passage, lengthily reworked, see the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. III, p. 246 and 264, and the introduction p. 224).

5Let us come to the passage from republic to empire. Basing himself on Cicero’s correspondence, Montesquieu speaks of the “despair of the first men of the Republic at this sudden revolution that deprived them of their honors and even their occupations” (Romains, XI). Further on, in an addition of 1748, he writes: “The soldiers had been attached to Caesar’s family, which was that garrantor of all the advantages that the revolution would have [1758 edition: had] procured for them” (XV). “It is all the more remarkable,” says Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger in their article already cited, that the author “does not use the word in L’Esprit des lois, despite so many passages where he shows the evolution of the institutions and advance of the empire”. It is clear that Montesquieu, who likes neither Caesar nor Augustus, taking the word “revolution” in the sense it then had, reserves it for Caesar, for it is Caesar who rather roughly and quickly, from the moment he crossed the Rubicon and set off the civil war, radically modified the political game; such was not the case with Augustus. Montesquieu still could have used the word “revolution” in the sense he had given it when he was evoking the end of the royal period: the one of 509 indeed was no more than the culmination of a process that began with the unusual conditions of the advent of the last Tarquin. Similarly, in chapter XI, devoted to Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, Montesquieu, evoking the proscriptions “invented” by Sulla, notes that “from then on it was impossible to become further attached to the Republic”, then, a little further on: “Since the Republic had necessarily to end, it was no longer a question of knowing how, and by whom it was to be brought down”. But a half-century was to pass between the Sullian dictatorship and the firm establishment of the Augustian monarchy. We see that the revolutions of Rome which Montesquieu discusses are not exactly what the traditional historians and his contemporaries classified under that term. He did not attach to the revolution of 509, generally judged “fortunate”, the character of genuine change, since the reform of Servius had already made it possible to tip the Constitution toward the Republic. As Caesar’s revolution – which he judges unfortunate – orienting Rome definitively toward imperial despotism, was already germinating, both in the excess of the conquests and in the incapacity of a constitution, made by a city, to rule a state of modern dimensions. It remains that the Roman Republic lived for a half-millennium between two “revolutions”. Montesquieu was aware of this longevity, but was able to see the factors that were to lead to its end.


Claude Nicolet, Les Gracques: crise agraire et révolution à Rome, Paris: Julliard, 1967.

Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Théorie des révolutions dans le rapport qu’elles ont avec les divers gouvernements”, Dix-Huitième siècle 21 (1989),

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

Bibliographical reference

Andrivet Patrick , « Revolutions of Rome », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :