Latin Writers

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger

1Montesquieu bathes in Latinity, at least after his passage at the collège of Juilly. Like many of his contemporaries, he was able to quote Horace, Vergil, Ovid, Lucretius from memory, as he does going down the catalogue of his library, to designate for example abbé Desfontaines and his Dictionnaire néologique (Egit amor dapis et pugnæ, “He was motivated by the love of good food and combat”: Horace, Odes, IV, 4, 12: Catalogue, no. [‣]); irony also passes by way of misapplication of a quotation, since the Latin poet was thus designating a valiant Roman general… A wink essentially to himself, for the catalogue was not destined for any other reader (except perhaps his secretaries). On the other hand, when he plans a series of inscriptions for his château at La Brède (a manuscript preserved at Bordeaux, published in vol. IX of the Œuvres complètes, p. 537-542), they allow Vergil, Horace, Catullus to greet the visitor, celebrating the joys of the bucolic life, but also the bitterness of age and past loves. No attempt at originality in this choice, but of simplicity: to evoke the countryside, it suffices to say O rus, and the visitor will himself complete it, following Horace, with quando te aspiciam? (“O my country home, when shall I see thee again?”). Montesquieu is equally attuned to the musicality of the Latin language, as witness his academic discourses, and not only in the Discours sur la cause de l’écho (1718 ; OC, t. VIII, p. 147-154): the Latin poets are among his favorite readings (Volpilhac-Auger, 1999).

2If he evokes love, that instinct that leads beings to join together, he cites Lucretius’s “Invocation to Venus”, at the beginning of Book XXIII of L’Esprit des lois – which is also a means of ennobling a delicate subject. Likewise, in the Essai sur le goût his pen alludes to authors’ names that are less well known today, but very much read at the time, like Florus, who constitutes the base of the schoolmaster’s compendium that is the Historia Romana, given as an example of his “great thought”, who in saying one thing “makes you see many others”: “Florus represents for us all of Annibal’s flaws in few words: ‘When he could’, he says, ‘make use of victory, he preferred to enjoy it’: cum victoria posset uti, frui maluit.” (“Florus nous représente en peu de paroles toutes les fautes d’Annibal: ‘Lorsqu’il pouvait, dit-il, se servir de la victoire, il aima mieux en jouir’: cum victoria posset uti, frui maluitOC, t. IX, p. 492). Thus for him the historian Florus has an almost poetic status, and in this way joins with Ovid and Vergil.

3Ovid, of whom Montesquieu had made a collection of extracts (lost : mentioned in Pensées, no. 2180), had the honor of opening L’Esprit des lois, to which he supplies the epigraph : Prolem sine creatam (“a child born without a mother”), which one could gloss forever; but he is also lengthily commented upon in the Pensées (no. 1680, developing no. 1474, and repeated in no. 2180), for two lines of the Festivals (II, 827-828), which he deemed unjustly criticized: “and I say that these two lines are admirable and perhaps the two most beautiful that Ovid ever wrote” (“et moi je dis que ce deux vers sont admirables et peut-être les deux plus beaux qu’Ovide ait faits”); the second might even be “the loveliest verse in the world” (“le plus beau vers du monde”). The subject is to describe Lucretia’s emotion after the rape to which she was subjected: Cætera restabant ; voluit cum dicere flevit /Et matronales erubuere genae, which he translates as follows: “[when she tried to speak], she blushed”; he devotes a long development to explaining the psychological and esthetic reasons for this quasi-perfection of expression; he defends Ovid against the accusation of being inchoate (“[…] I see nothing dispensable in Ovid”, Pensées, no. 2180), and he is never “too witty”, but always “he assumed the character appropriate to each subject” (ibid.). He even appears as the true master in the art of loving, the eminent social function of which L’Esprit des lois moreover recognizes when it evokes “the general desire of pleasing” which “produces gallantry, which is not love, but the delicat, the lighthearted, the perpetual lie of love” (XXVIII, 22). Indeed, “as he was the man who knew best in all the world how to love, and who loved the worst, he so humanized virtue that chastity found itself in agreement with gallantry” (“comme c’était l’homme du monde qui savait le mieux aimer et qui aimait le plus mal, il a si bien humanisé la vertu que la pudeur s’est trouvée d’accord avec la galanterie”, Spicilège, no. 223). But aside from the two lines thrice studied in the Pensées, Montesquieu hardly delved into the whole of the work. And elsewhere he critizes the weekness of Ovid’s character, unable to bear his exile (Pensées, no. 1202). His Metamorphoses are nothing more that a collection of the fables of his time, of which he “made an ensemble” (Pensées, no. 1337) – a mitigated compliment, even if one recognizes how important the composition of an ensemble is in Montesquieu.

4Much more important appears Vergil, who is also the subject of extracts, preserved in the Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux (Ms. 2526/2; OC, t. XVII): but only six pages on the Æneid and Georgics, which does not necessarily indicate an ambition of exhaustiveness, or even the complete reading of an author in order to constitute an “extract”. Comparing Vergil and Lucretius, “it would be difficult to say which of the two poets outdid himself […]. Lucretius came first rather than Vergil imitated him. They both imitated nature; and it was perhaps more difficult for Vergil to make his description after that of Lucretius without copying him” (“il serait difficile de dire lequel des deux poètes s’est surpassé […] Lucrèce l’a devancé, plutôt que Virgile ne l’a imité. Ils ont tous deux imité la nature; et il était, peut-être, plus difficile à Virgile de faire sa description après celle de Lucrèce sans le copier […]”). But Vergil appears “extremely well educated in the science of agriculture” (“extrêmement instruit de la science de l’agriculture”) while being conscious of the fact that he must “distract the reader from the boredom of rustic details” (“délasser le lecteur de l’ennui des détails rustiques”). In this extract copied and no doubt written fairly late (between 1751 and 1754), few properly esthetic analyses, few judgments other than laudatory (“admirable”, “beautiful” – but without much in the way of justification). As for Ovid, Montesquieu wants to justify him against certain reproaches, and this explains his reading: “They say that Vergil’s charm is in the expression. That is because the expressions are images, but it is not true that it is only in the expression: it is in a certain appropriateness that one feels everywhere.” (“On dit que le charme de Virgile est dans l’expression. C’est que des expressions sont des images, mais il n’est pas vrai qu’il ne soit que dans l’expression: c’est dans un certain à-propos qui se fait partout sentir.”) And especially, even in the Georgics, one feels “an admirable art of making small things grand” (“un art admirable pour rendre grandes les petites choses”), which is much more difficult than in the epic. Speaking of this “grandeur” is a way of paying homage to that supreme art which is defined as a capacity for speaking of any subject at all while engaging the reader. Montesquieu was more precise, and more critical, in the Pensées (no. 1110) ; it was moreover probably in writing this passage that he got the idea of making an extract of it : “It seems to me there are many reflections to make about Vergil, while leaving him all the merit he has, and which has so justly been attributed to him” (“Il y a me semble bien des réflexions à faire sur Virgile, en lui laissant tout le mérite qu’il a, et qu’on lui a si justement donné”). Elsewhere he judges the last six books of the Æneid inferior to the first six, because they are too long : “they could have been covered in just one” (“il fallait expédier cela en un”); like Ænaeus, Montesquieu exclaims Italiam, Italiam… at the end of L’Esprit des lois ; once the Promised Land is in sight, one must not tire the reader with it. That does not keep the Romans from making the poet into their great man (Pensées, no. 724): an interesting case of a poet who becomes an oracle for his people. And moreover does Montesquieu not himself quote him at the beginning of book XXX of L’Esprit des lois, for the sole pleasure of the image of an “antique oak” which he applies to feudal laws, of which the lines of Vergil alone seem to him able to express the breadth (lines borrowed from the Georgics and the Æneid)?

5But it is particularly the prose writers we find in Montesquieu, and first of all the historians; those from which collected extracts, all lost today, but mentioned in the Pensées, Ammianus Marcellinus (Pensées, no. 716) and Justinus (Pensées, no. 41), or in the Voyages, like Cassiodorus (OC, t. X, p. 487); to these one can add Aulus Gellius, who compiled in his Noctes Atticae a very large number of anecdotes or curious facts, most useful to those who attempt to reconstitute the immense puzzle of ancient history of which so many pieces are missing (extract mentioned in Essai sur les causes, OC, t. IX, p. 243); Montesquieu was to find their greatest use in the notes to L’Esprit des lois, and the Pensées show that he could make further use of them yet (no. 2196). Similarly, Montesquieu knew all the profit he could draw from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which he utilizes in Romans, and of which the extracts are extant (according to the very scholarly edition of Father Hardouin, Ad usum Delphini, 1723: Ms. Bordeaux, 2526/16 ; OC, t. XVII, in press). The Spicilège shows him attentive for the same reasons to the Satiricon of Petronius, even if most of the references (nos. 99-102, 107-111, 113-115, 117-120) belong to the “Desmolets collection” which he had mainly copied; another (no. 206) seems to indicate that he had made an extract (according to Salvatore Rotta, OC, t. XIII, p. 226, Montesquieu used a Pithou edition). Everything shows in any case that in this prose writer decried for the immorality of his writings, Montesquieu is not stopped by a moral prejudice, for he seeks anything that relates to the history of mores, which we might in some ways today call the history of mentalities (see also Pensées, no. 1801). But he seems not to have made much use of it, except for his own reflection: Petronius is not a source one can readily point to.

6Other authors may have been used, but with a very critical eye: thus Quintus Curtius Rufus in “Alexander”, “rhetorician […] with no knowledge or judgment, [who] takes Alexander on terrain he does not know […] and who wrote without knowing a single one of the sources he should have used” (“rhéteur […] sans savoir et sans jugement, [qui] promène Alexandre sur une terre qu’il ne connaît pas […] et qui a écrit sans connaître une seule des sources où il devait puiser”, Pensées, no. 2178; see also no. 2204). Others were used on specific points; in which case we can wonder whether he read and annotated them, or simply noted the reference after finding it in some historian or scholar; thus of Velleius Paterculus, he retains essentially nothing but the means of better knowing a law on usury (Bordeaux, Ms. 2506/4, published in Atelier, p. 184-185, republished in OC, t. VII, p. 333 et 365); he might be a faithful reader of another minor historian, Valerius Maximus, whom he cites for example on the Roman sumptuary laws (EL, VII, 14), but that cannot be guaranteed. One must not take it for granted because of the multiplicity of references in certain of his youthful works, such as Éloge de la sincérité (about 1717; OC, t. VIII, p. 133-145): Montesquieu made generous use of the compiler Stobée (Catalogue, no. [‣]), author of an anthology of poetry (Florilège) that supplied the amateur with harmonious and useful quotations with which to adorn his discourse. On the other hand, it is certain that he must have known Sallust well, the author of the History of the Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Cataline (quoted in Romans, X), whose work was moreover part of the classic “canon”, and whose evocation of the Republic in full decadence could only strike him – even if his very conception of history prevented Montesquieu from seeing in a man, however exceptional, the cause of great and irreversible changes: thus Cataline has little attraction for him.

7Much more interesting to his eyes (and ours) were the historians of the Late Empire, like “the Goth Jordanes”, for this was an irreplaceable source, much utilized especially in Romans (XVII, XIX, XX), as Cassiodorus could be in L’Esprit des lois, indeed far from holding them in the scorn that enveloped late Latinity, generally conceived as an era of decadence and “barbarization” of the mind, he was extremely curious about whatever could provide information on a period of transition and profound renewal, and especially about the period that included the foundation of the great realms of modern Europe. The notes to the last chapters of L’Esprit des lois show what he owes to this curiosity.

8But his principal sources, at least the ones he used the most to understand Rome and enter into the detail of the historical facts he wished to distill, in Romans as well as in L’Esprit des lois, are Titus Livius, and even more Caesar and Tacitus (we obviously exclude here all the Greek authors which he used for Roman history, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Dio Cassius, as well as Roman law). The status of the first of these is nevertheless ambiguous: Montesquieu prefers Dionysius of Halicarnassus to him for the early centuries of Rome, in the premiers chapters of Romans, and Polybius for the Punic Wars; sometimes he even criticizes a certain rhetoric, as in this addition to chapter V of Romans, dating from the 1748 edition: “It sorrows me to see Livy casting flowers on these enormous colossi of Antiquity; I would rather he had done like Homer, who neglects adorning them, and is so able to make them act.” (“J’ai du regret de voir Tite-Live jeter ses fleurs sur ces énormes colosses de l’Antiquité; je voudrais qu’il eût fait comme Homère, qui néglige de les parer et sait si bien les faire mouvoir.”) In the Pensées (no. 1475), he judges him “a bit declamatory”, but curiously enough “he is not in his best harangues” (“il ne l’est pas dans ses belles harangues”), a form in which the whole rhetorical art, sometimes a bit gratuitous, of the historian is deployed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

9He nonetheless did an extract of Livy, mentioned in the Pensées (no. 1809) in the “bulletins” (cards) that constitute his documentation for the finally rejected chapters of L’Esprit des lois (OC, t. IV, p. 773-774) and the critical edition of Romans well shows that Montesquieu was indeed an attentive reader of his. He is particularly useful for the description of Roman institutiosn – for if, as for the events themselves, other historians, particularly Greek ones, can be less systematically favorable to the Romans, none better knows the detail of ancient history: thus, for censure (Romans, VIII) or the division by centuries (addition of 1748, Romans, viii; OC, t. II, p. 151), the ancient Latin colonies (Pensées, no. 706), the particular status of Roman allies (dossier on L’Esprit des lois, OC, t. IV, p. 773), or the exact price of usury (dossier on L’Esprit des lois, OC, OC t. VII, p. 359-361). But each time these are isolated, timely remarks, which testify to a careful reading, but never to full and complete adhesion to an author’s thought – and this at a time when Livy is considered the historian par excellence, unequaled or even unsurpassable (see Father Rapin’s Réflexions sur l’histoire,1670).

10Far more interesting is his relation with Tacitus: Montesquieu finds in him a mind worthy of his own, and it is not by chance that criticism has often compared them. Indeed Montesquieu literally rediscovered Tacitus, at a time when that author was severely criticized as obscure, awkward, systematically pessimistic, and when the only merit found in him was to have been the spokesman, or rather director, of an Augustus or a Tiberius, partisans of the raison d’État the better to stabilize their domination. Montesquieu shows that on the contrary Tacitus analyzed the Roman system perfectly well, such as it subtly evolved when it went from republic to monarchy, and that far from singing the praise of the sovereign authority that was being quietly put into place, he denounced every loss of freedom, notably through the use which the first Roman emperors made of the lèse-majesté law. The major part of the analysis is in place in 1734: it is even his interest in such a process (the passage from liberty to voluntary servitude) that is at the origin of his writing of Romans, as the finally rejected preface states (published in the critical edition of that work: OC, t. II, p. 315-317); it is confirmed and amplified in L’Esprit des lois (as books VII and XII particularly evidence), which we see in the second edition of Romans, where Montesquieu multiplies the new references to Tacitus and the notes that are based on his works or reproduce passages from them. It is in Tacitus that Montesquieu finds the most virulent denunciation of the Romans’ manner of abdicating their liberty, the tortuous processes by which Tiberius turns aside laws to subjugate bodies and minds.

11If Montesquieu quotes him so often, that is because he is particularly attuned to the elegance of Tacitus’s concise, meaningful sentence, that it is enough to utter it for it to produce its effect on the reader. But above all, it is obviously because of the extraordinary perceptiveness of the historian and particularly of the observer of the Germans that he makes much of him: “Tacitus devotes a separate work to German mores. This work is brief, but it is the work of Tacitus, who abbreviated everything, because he could see everything” (“Tacite fait un ouvrage exprès sur les mœurs des Germains. Il est court, cet ouvrage; mais c’est l’ouvrage de Tacite, qui abrégeait tout parce qu’il voyait tout”, EL, XXX, 2). Indeed the Roman of the second century CE had the inestimable merit of describing Germanic society, not to make of it the exact reverse of his Roman contemporaries, as Voltaire asserts, but to define its essential features; now these same Germains invaded the Roman empire in the fifth century, and imposed their institutions – in the eyes of eighteenth-century readers, and of Montesquieu in particular, Tacitus thus furnished the means of analyzing the foundations of the French monarchy initiated by Clovis. And that is why Montesquieu reads into the Burgundians, the Franks and the Visigoths the spirit of freedom which Tacitus had evoked in Germania, and that he could, in books XVIII, XXX and XXXI of L’Esprit des lois, elaborate a new theory beginning with that of Boulainvilliers. Caesar, whom Montesquieu utilizes sparingly elsewhere (he is moreover only the author of Commentarii, which is to say of “memoirs”, and not a true historian – and the gravedigger of Roman freedom, evoked in chapters X-XII of Romans, crushes the author), plays the same role, even to a reduced degree: “A few pages of Caesar’s on this matter speak volumes” (“Quelques pages de César sur cette matière sont des volumes”, EL, XXX, 2).

12But the author whom Montesquieu reveres throughout his life is Cicero; as there is an article devoted to him elsewhere, we shall mention only his influence as author. He is first a witness to his time, as the rejected preface to Romans, already mentioned, states: “We have sought the history of the Romans in their laws, in their customs […], in individuals’ letters” (“On a cherché l’histoire des Romains dans leurs lois, dans leurs coutumes […] dans les lettres des particuliers”); but the letters are mostly Cicero’s, in which Cicero appears as a “upright man” (honnête homme) deploring in “familiar letters” the reduction of the republic and the Senate: Montesquieu is a great reader of these “familiar letters”, which might have served as a model – he whose “familiar letters to his friends in Italy” will precisely be printed after his death. He holds him a philosopher of the greatest importance, “one of the great minds there ever has been: his soul ever in the right place, if it was not weak” (“un des grands esprits qui ait jamais été: l’âme toujours belle, quand elle n’était pas faible”, Pensées, no. 773). But this philosophy has a particular turn to it: “Cicero, who first put into his language the dogmas of the Greek philosophers, delivered a fatal blow to Rome’s religion” (“Cicéron qui, le premier, mit dans sa langue les dogmes de la philosophie des Grecs, porta un coup mortel à la religion de Rome”), which finally allowed Christianity to spread through the Empire (Pensées, no. 969). It is also to return to one of the first witnesses we have on the philosophical readings of Montesquieu, “reading notes” in the margins of works of Cicero, essentially De natura deorum (the copy in which they figured is lost), where he dismisses all together the Epicurean, Stoic, academic “sects”. The preamble is enlightening: “Certainly I cannot admire too greatly the depth of his reasoning; at a time when the wise, all equally foolish, no longer distinguished themselves except by the strangeness of their clothing, it is a shame that this great master was preceded by such pitiful reasoners […]. It is an admirable thing to see him in his book on the nature of the gods make sport of philosophy itself and make his champions fight amongst themselves so that they destroy each other […]. All the systems disappear in the face of each other and all that remains in the reader’s mind is scorn for the philosopher and admiration for the critic.” (“Certainement je ne puis assez admirer la profondeur de ses raisonnements; dans un temps où les sages tous également fous ne se distinguaient plus que par la bizarrerie de leurs vêtements, il est dommage que ce grand maître ait été précédé par de si pitoyables raisonneurs […] C’est une chose admirable de le voir dans son livre de la nature des dieux se jouer de la philosophie même et faire combattre ses champions entre eux de manière qu’ils se détruisent les uns les autres […] Tous les systèmes s’évanouissent les uns devant les autres et il ne reste dans l’esprit du lecteur que du mépris pour le philosophe et de l’admiration pour le critique.”, OC, t. XVII, in preparation.) This passage, later repeated in the Discours sur Cicéron (~1717), shows clearly what he owes to him: a true access to freedom of mind. If he subsequently had the opportunity to find more intellectual ambition in other philosophers, he was to remain no less faithful to the one who gave him the keys to it.



Extracts from Vergil, Masson, t. III, p. 708-711; ed. Christophe Martin, OC, t. XVII, 2017.

Historia romana, ed. Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, OC, t. VIII, p. 1-42.

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

Notes [unpublished] in the margins of Cicero, ed. Pierre Rétat, OC, t. XVII, in preparation.

“Au château de La Brède”, ed. Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, OC, t. IX, p. 537-540.


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

Dominique Morineau, “La réception des historiens anciens dans l’historiographie française, fin XVIIe-début XVIIIe siècle”, thesis Université de Paris IV, 1988.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Tacite en France de Montesquieu à Chateaubriand, SVEC 313 (1993, reissue 2008).

Patrice Andrivet, “Montesquieu et Cicéron: de l’enthousiasme à la sagesse”, Éclectisme et cohérences des Lumières, Paris: Nizet, 1992.

L’Autorité de Cicéron à l’âge des Lumières, J.-P. Néraudau dir., Caen: Paradigme, 1993.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “La référence antique dans les œuvres de Montesquieu: de la rhétorique à l’histoire des idées”, in Montesquieu, les années de formation (1689-1720), Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 5, 1999, Napoli: Liguori, p. 79-88.

Catherine Larrère, “Le stoïcisme dans les œuvres de jeunesse”, in Montesquieu, les années de formation (1689-1720), Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 5, 1999, Napoli: Liguori, p. 163-183.

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

— “La parole et ses représentations dans le récit historique à l’âge classique”, dans Des voix dans l’histoire, Laurence Guellec et C. Volpilhac-Auger dir., La Licorne, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 11-32.

—, “Parler au peuple, parler au roi: la question des harangues (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles)”, in Des voix dans l’histoire, Laurence Guellec et C. Volpilhac-Auger dir., La Licorne, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 57-74.