Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and of their decadence

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger

1This work, an anonymous octavo published by Jacques Desbordes in Amsterdam in the spring of 1734, was prepared at the return from his travels (therefore after 1731), when Montesquieu had lost all hope of a diplomatic career (see particularly our introduction, 2008); the theme was no doubt inspired by his sojourn in England (1729-1731): as we shall see, through the privileged example of the Romans, it is in fact a political reflection of great scope on freedom which he is undertaking, as is shown also by the work which he writes in the continuity of Romains, his Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle (this is explained in the joint publication of the two works in the edition of the Œuvres complètes, t. II, 2000). Moreover, he would take care to orchestrate the dissemination of the work among his English friends.

2There subsists no manuscript which antedates the publication, with exception of an ultimately rejected preface, held by the collection of La Brède (transferred to the Bibliothèque Municipale de Bordeaux in 1994); but we have in fact no certainty about the date of its composition. On the other hand, we have a very important notebook of corrections, prepared, it would seem, right after the first publication, which was used in the edition of 1748, largely revised, and which benefits from research on L’Esprit des lois.

3“At first I had thought only of writing a few pages on the establishment of the monarchy among the Romans, but the size of the subject absorbed me and I went back imperceptibly to the very beginnings of the republic and came down to the decadence of the empire” (“Je n’avais d’abord pensé qu’à écrire quelques pages sur l’établissement de la monarchie chez les Romains mais la grandeur du sujet m’a gagné, j’ai remonté insensiblement aux premiers temps de la République et j’ai descendu jusqu’à la décadence de l’Empire”): this is how Montesquieu’s preface project had intended to introduce the work. The pivot, or central point, the one that elicited his interest and justified his approach, was the process by which Rome willingly sacrificed its freedom, while retaining the same institutions. From this the order of composition can be deduced: he began by chapters XI, XII and XIII, in other words a century of events corresponding to the civil wars completed by Augustus, whereas the twenty other chapters cover twenty-one centuries, from ~753 BCE, traditional date of the founding of Rome, to 1453, the fall of Constantinople – the Eastern Empire being the extension of the Roman Empire which was brought down in the West in the fifth century. The history of this century of upheavals tends generally to emphasize the role of exceptional men, and first of all Cæsar and Augustus. Montesquieu shows on the contrary how, beginning at the time when Roman domination began to be extended, decadence was introduced (I-IX): by the very power which it conferred on its victorious generals (notably Sulla), by growing it became weaker. But everything comes from the fact that it lost the values which had been its strength, which derive from the civic virtue of the Romans, all of whose efforts were for the purpose of assuring their freedom. Once this ideal was abdicated in the times of Cæsar and then Augustus, it was a decline slowed by periods of remission, due to great emperors (Titus, Trajan, Antoninus, Julian the Apostate) (XIV-XIX), and characterized by the prince’s abuse of power, in the name of the law of lese-majesty (XIV-XV). The worst period was that which opened with the translation of the Empire to Constantinople (XX-XXIII). Not only was the world totally unbalanced by it, for Italy was abandoned to the Barbarians, but the Empire, now Christian, multiplied contradictions: dominated by a religion that worms its way into everything, absurdly pursuing its past grandeur, struggling without glory against the Barbarians, it ended miserably by falling into Muslim hands.

4What were the “causes” of this extraordinary trajectory? Since the founding of the city, the Romans’ principal merit consisted in their capacity for adaptation and their aptitude for taking advantage of the time and occasion. It was often a question of their “divisions” (VIII, “Of the divisions that were always in the City”), and notably of the opposition between people and Senate, which many historians considered as a weakness; but for Montesquieu, and this is his great originality, they were the best sign of Roman vitality, and especially the best guarantee of a vital liberty (I, “Beginnings of Rome. Its wars”). The vision of a harmonious Empire, unified in the hand of a single chief (a vision perfectly congruous with deep convictions of the subjects of a state that cannot think of itself as other than monarchical, like the France of the early 18th century, is therefore fallacious): by inaugurating this “durable servitude” (XIII), Augustus was imperceptibly undermining the foundations of Rome, which were soon to depend on the armies, as is seen beginning with the emperor Claudius (XV, “On emperors, from Caius Caligula to Antoninus”), but as that appeared already when a policy of conquests had conceded to them an excessive role; by habituating the Romans to the abuses of power of the victorious generals become its heroes, like Marius, Sulla, Pompey, this success turned against Rome. The Romans’ “universal monarchy” is therefore far from being worthy of praise, given that the consequences of this domination were immense, notably with the disappearance of entire nations, massacred or persecuted.

5Much is therefore at stake in the Considérations sur les […] Romains; it opens the way to L’Esprit des lois, in that it leads Montesquieu to study the vicissitudes of this idea of liberty, and thereby to envisage the means of guaranteeing its preservation against the very persons who think they are defending it or prefer to it civil peace. For that, Montesquieu’s method is new, and it provoked much criticism in his time: the brevity of his work (less than two hundred pages in modern editions) and even more the refusal of a narrative (which traditionally confers its own grandeur on history, and made of it in the 18th century a noble genre) to the benefit of “considerations” designed to incite the reader to reflect rather than captivate him/her by the charm of a narrative; the refusal of the traditional image of heroes (beginning with Romulus, founder of Rome, and Brutus, founder of the Republic), the constancy with which Montesquieu denounces the false values of the Romans to cast doubt on their superiority, so generally conceded, all this make for a disconcerting work for the 18th-century public. The historical causality which Montesquieu seeks to reconstitute is not based on what, until the 19th century, constituted its sinew, that is to say the psychology of the greats of this world and, more summarily, of the peoples they direct. To be sure, he deals with Cæsar’s “mad love” (fol amour) for Cleopatra who “put him through four wars” (“lui fit essuyer quatre guerres”, XI); but that is in no case a constant of the conqueror’s comportment: it is rather the proof of what this supposedly great man, “without a single flaw” (“sans pas un défaut”), is not for that exempt from human weaknesses, which the events were moreover to prove – for he was unable to foresee the Romans’ reactions to the avowed ambition of a man who thought he could get by with anything.

6The true causes must be sought first in material factors; for example the Romans’ aptitude for utilizing their enemies’ weapons when they were superior to their own (II, “On the Romans’ art of war”), which is a commonplace of ancient history. But there are others, like the invention of Greek fire, which put off the collapse of Constantinople for several centuries (XXII, “Reason for the duration of the Eastern Empire. Its destruction”). Other material factors determine a state of mind: the equal division of land (III, “How the Romans were able to grow”) interests each Roman in the country’s survival, and each citizen is a soldier. After the phase during which Rome struggled for its survival, the extension and domination of other peoples took different forms: here is where the Romans’ bad faith intervenes, their art of dividing and weakening their enemies, their cruelty and their determination to reduce the adversary to nothing (VI, “On the conduct the Romans adopted to submit all other peoples”). One must also take the measure of deep movements, like the “bigotry” that defined the Eastern Roman empire, and the incessant interferences of the spiritual power and the temporal power of which an emperor as manipulative as Justinian was guilty. This is what Montesquieu already was calling a “general spirit”, a notion destined to become central in L’Esprit des lois, notably in Book XIX, here invoked in chapters XVI, XXI and XXII. This composite of the history and what we would call the “culture” of a nation, the resultant of its religion, institutions, mores, and a spirit that can radically transform all that or on the contrary assure its cohesion and stability, that is precisely what enables us to understand the Romans’ aptitude for freedom, and the manner in which it disappeared in a few generation, at the end of the first century BCE.

7The best-known events, those that serve traditionally as divides or that aid in the periodization of history, are ignored, like the founding of Rome, obviously too sullied with the supernatural. Others are treated as anecdotal or replaced in another order of causality. Thus Lucrecia’s suicide which marks the end of the monarchy under Tarquin the Proud is only the “occasion” of the revolution (I); this Montesquieu was not the first to say; what interests him is not like his predecessors and contemporaries the noble attitude of a patrician who arouses the crowds and incites his parents and allies to revolt, in other words the extraordinary event that unleashes an irresistible and even more extraordinary movement, but the reduction of that fact to a general law: it is the mores, the honor of the Roman people who had been shocked by the rape of Lucretia; a “proud, industrious, bold” people, as shown by its early wars, could not tolerate such an affront: “One of two things had to happen: either Rome would change government, or it would remain a small and poor monarchy” (“Il devait arriver de deux choses l’un : ou que Rome changerait son gouvernement, ou qu’elle resterait une petite et pauvre monarchie.”, ibid.). Another “occasion” (he does not say “pretext” nor “fortuitous event”) could not have the same effect. The occasion is not only a cause, but also telling. As for battles, if they are decisive, that is because they themselves result from a much earlier relation of forces, of which are ultimately but the translation. “In a word, the principal impetus brings with it all the individual accidents” (“En un mot l’allure principale entraîne avec elle tous les accidents particuliers”, XVIII, “New maxims adopted by the Romans”).

8A most original aspect of Montesquieu is his interest in the “images” or impressions that are engraved in the mind of peoples: he knows that one governs by them, for they permit the passions to crystallize; again, he thereby makes allowance for human weakness, not to deplore it (he is not a moralist, and his purpose is not to say what men should do or think), but because man is also made of imagination and sensitivity – which Anthony had very well understood when he waved “Cæsar’s bloody toga” (XII, “On the state of Rome after Cæsar’s death”). But what do means and agents matter, in other words, what constituted the framework of the traditional narrative? “If Cæsar and Pompey had thought like Cato, others would have thought as did Cæsar and Pompey” (“Si César et Pompée avaient pensé comme Caton, d’autres auraient pensé comme firent César et Pompée”, XI). How a generation comes to think “as did Cæsar and Pompey”, that is the core of history.

9The historian, it is generally said, must be passion-free – a fortiori the philosophe Montesquieu is in this work. To say that he does not share the admiration of his time (or the whole modern era) for the Romans is an understatement: he writes against the Romans, or more exactly against all those who praise the Romans, but also against all those who since Antiquity and even in Rome repeat too glibly the refrain about their invincible superiority. He knows too well that the point of view of historians is always that of the victors: the proof lies in Tarquin’s somber reputation (I) or the admiration devoted to Augustus, pacifier, organizer, founder of the Empire, and genuine tyrant (XIII). Similarly, the Christians had always been inclined to exalt the Christian emperors (Constantine, Justinian), whereas others, rather unsavory (Trajan the drunk, Julian called the Apostate), governed infinitely better. Sometimes the emperors themselves dictated history, as did Justinian with Procopius, reduced to writing a Secret History or Anekdota (XX) to denounce the turpitude of an emperor whom he celebrates in all his other works. So another point of view is needed.

10The early period of their ascension deserves respect, even a certain form of admiration, which Montesquieu always shows for the perfect functioning of well-built machines or organisms: the Roman legion was indeed a perfect war machine; war was “the only art” (in the classic sense of technique) practiced by the Romans, of whom he would say in L’Esprit des lois to what point they scorned trade. They had no moral qualities, but a fearsome efficaciousness, and notably a surprising pragmatism. Their love of liberty is that of a “well-regulated society” in which everyone has a share of the land and defends the common good: that is the virtue of the poor. The Punic wars evoked in chapter IV constituted a real turning point: in rivalry with Carthage, they carried war to Africa, but were threatened by Hannibal on their own territory; the war of conquest becomes defensive and manifests the “force of the institution”. Against Hannibal, forgetting their differences, they were admirable in adversity, a veritable “prodigy of constancy” (IV): Montesquieu can appear then to recognize their superiority. But who then furnished “the finest spectacle in Antiquity”? Their unhappy enemy, Hannibal, as later the only king able to resist them, Mithridates (VII). Against these exceptional rulers and generals, Rome held out by its consuls and generals, whose name is not worth citing because all they did was perpetuate the Roman tradition; it is Rome, and not the Romans, that is admirable – and even more its enemies; the balance was not equal. But once the movement of indefinite expansion that took hold of the Romans, they merited nothing but pity: everything to them was a pretext for perfidy and cruelty, their word was nothing but lies; and if the military superiority is incontestable, it was only one element of a more vast apparatus that constituted a veritable negation of common law [droit des gens]: “Masters of the universe, they appropriated all its treasures: less unjust as plunderers in their capacity as conquerors than as legislators.” (“Maîtres de l’univers, ils s’en attribuèrent tous les trésors: ravisseurs moins injustes en qualité de conquérants qu’en qualité de législateurs.”) The “cupidity of individuals” adds to “public avarice” (VI). Remarkable by their success, the Romans elicit no enthusiasm from Montesquieu, but rather fear and reservations. The most remarkable point of view is that of the historian who takes account of the effect of their domination over the world over the long term, notably in demographic terms. At the time of the Persian Letters (1721), the Romans seemed to him less dangerous than other peoples, notably because they were gentle with their slaves (Letter [‣]); at the time of Romains Montesquieu no longer sees them except as destroyers attentive to their own immediate interests.

11Historian-philosopher, could Montesquieu believe himself thereby exempted from a true historical method, and first of all from the verification and cross-checking of his sources? To formulate the question in this manner is to make a serious mistake about the status of the historian in the 18th century, which must not be confused the critic or scholar: others establish texts and facts, the historian interprets them – except in the case of genuine historiographical problems which only a political analysis could help resolve, as was the case for Procopius (XX), mentioned earlier. Montesquieu is far from using outdated or dubious documentation; when he follows a single source, it is for example, for the earliest centuries of Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who would only be really contested several years later. Montesquieu knows how to renew the approach to history by coming at it from another angle, as declared the rejected Preface: “We have searched for the history of the Romans in their laws, their customs, their policy, in private letters, in their treaties with their neighbors, in the mores of peoples with whom they had dealings, in the form of the ancient republics, in the situation of the world before certain discoveries made since […]” (“On a cherché l’histoire des Romains dans leurs lois, dans leurs coutumes, dans leur police, dans les lettres des particuliers, dans leurs traités avec leurs voisins, dans les mœurs des peuples avec qui ils ont eu à faire, dans la forme des anciennes républiques, dans la situation où était le monde avant de certaines découvertes faites depuis […]”); in fact he comes close to the history of mentalities, as when he mentions the dignity of “physical exercise” among the Romans (II).

12So many reasons that have made of this little work which Voltaire found emaciated, but which inspired the greatest admiration in Gibbon: one of the first manifestations of the philosophical spirit in history, and the first essay of political philosophy published by Montesquieu.



Rejected Preface, Bordeaux, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. (La Brède), 1 folded sheet; Cahier de corrections, Fondation Bodmer, Coligny (Suisse), 1 vol. de 225 p. (87 pages utilized), with numerous autograph pages.

One sheet of corrections, Bordeaux, Bibliothèque municipale, ms 2506/6 (La Brède), f. 25.


“Jacques Desbordes”, Amsterdam, 1734, in-8°, 278 p.;

Paris: Huart et Moreau fils, 1748, in-12, “ nouvelle édition, revue, corrigée et augmentée par l’auteur, avec privilège”, 299 p.;

ed. Camille Jullian, Paris, 1896 (textbook edition; numerous reprintings and re-editions); the text reproduced is that of the edition of 1748.

— ed. Henri Barckhausen, Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1900 (critical edition; the text reproduced is that of the edition of 1748, with the variants of 1734)

ed. Jean Ehrard, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1968; the text reproduced is that of the edition of 1748.

ed. Françoise Weil et Cecil P. Courtney, introd. and commentary by Patrick Andrivet and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, OC, t. II, 2000; critical edition; the text reproduced is that of the edition of 1734, with the variants of 1748.

ed. Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Gallimard, « FolioClassique », 2008; the text reproduced is that of the edition of 1734 (with a selection of variants of 1748), as with the previous edition.


Montesquieu: mémoire de la critique, ed. Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Paris: Presses de l’université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003, p. 17-20, 71-89 and 97-102 (reviews of Considérations in 1734 et 1748).

Critical bibliography

Jean Ehrard, Préface to Considérations sur les […] Romains, Paris: Grnier-Flammarion, 1968.

Georges Benrekassa, La Politique et sa mémoire: le politique et l’historique dans la pensée des Lumières, Paris: Payot, 1983.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Tacite et Montesquieu, SVEC 232, 1985.

Storia e ragione, ed. Alberto Postigliola, Naples: Liguori, 1986 (a colloquium entirely devoted to Considérations sur les Romains: see particularly Jean Ehrard, “Rome enfin que je hais…?”, p. 23-32, and Pierre Rétat, “Images et expression du merveilleux dans les Considérations”, p. 207-218).

Patrick Andrivet, “‘Rome enfin que je hais…’: représentations politiques de l’ancienne Rome en France des débuts de l’âge classique à la Révolution”, thèse d’État, University of Clermont-Ferrand II, 1993.

Simone Goyard-Fabre, Montesquieu : la nature, les lois, la liberté, Paris: PUF, 1993 – Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “La biche des Palus-Méotides ou l’invention de l’Europe chez Montesquieu”, Montesquieu et l’Europe, ed. Alberto Postigliola et M.-G. Bottaro-Palumbo, Cahiers Montesquieu 2, 1995, p. 17-28; Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Éditer les Romains”, Éditer Montesquieu/Pubblicare Montesquieu, ed. Alberto Postigliola, Studi Settecentesci, 1998, p. 19-39.

Olga Penke, “La représentation de l’énonciateur et du destinataire dans le discours historique”, Dix-Huitième Siècle 32 (2000), p. 503-519.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Pénélope devant la Toile: les Considérations sur les Romains de Montesquieu lues par l’Encyclopédie, puis par l’Encyclopédie électronique”, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’“Encyclopédie” 31-32 (April 2002),

Vanessa de Senarclens, Montesquieu historien de Rome: un tournant pour la réflexion sur le statut de l’histoire au xviiie siècle, Genève: Droz, 2003.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Ex oriente nox? Le paradoxe byzantin chez Montesquieu”, Dix-Huitième Siècle 35 (2003),;

Olga Penke, “De l’usage de l’histoire” [chez Voltaire et Montesquieu], in Montesquieu en 2005, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 2005:05, p. 287-309.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Montesquieu et l’histoire: une occasion manquée ?”, in Montesquieu zwischen den Disziplinen. Einzel- und kulturwissenschaftliche Zugriffe, Edgar Mass dir., Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 2010, p. 135-145 (repris dans C. Volpilhac-Auger, Montesquieu : une histoire de temps, Lyon, ENS Éditions, 2017 []).

Christoph Strosetzki, “Die ‘Dekadenz’ Roms, ihre Usrachen und ihre Dialektik bei Montesquieu”, in Montesquieu zwischen den Disziplinen. Einzel- und kulturwissenschaftliche Zugriffe, Edgar Mass dir., Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 2010, p. 71-88.

Vanessa de Senarclens, “Montesquieus historische Herangehensweise am Beispiel Roms”, in Montesquieu zwischen den Disziplinen. Einzel- und kulturwissenschaftliche Zugriffe, Edgar Mass dir., Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 2010, p. 125-133.