1Is Historia romana properly speaking a “work” of Montesquieu? In fact it is a school notebook, and thus the first known evidence of Montesquieu’s “work”, or rather the first written trace from his hand: a course of 78 pages in small format dictated by the regent in charge of Roman history at the Collège de Juilly, in the fourth form which the young “Labrède” joined in August 1700 – he plays only the role of transcriber in this alternation of questions and answers (the usual form of courses), which begins with Romulus and ends with the rise to power of Augustus. It thus constitutes rather evidence of the (elementary) teaching of Roman history at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries (the course is constituted by an anthology of quotations, essentially from Florus), or an indication of his first contacts with the Oratorian college, than an introduction to the knowledge or ideas of Montesquieu. At the most one might take note that the young schoolboy had difficulty following the dictation, that he confused certain words with others, and that he manifestly never reread it for information: would he not have corrected these mistakes? Once he took flight intellectually, he was in direct contact with the ancient texts, reread and delved into them, sifted them, in order to get quickly beyond the traditional vision of history, presented here in its most superficial and rapid aspect.
2The interest of this opus is thus more biographical or anecdotal than scientific. It was nevertheless kept in the corpus of his complete works (the current Œuvres complètes): indeed, Montesquieu had kept this school notebook in his library (Catalogue, no. [‣]), under the title corresponding to the notebook’s first words: Origo urbis Romae; given to and by persons we cannot identify nor when, it turned up in 1865 at the Techener bookseller’s, where a descendant of Montesquieu purchased it. It thus returned to the family library until the donation of 1994, when the Comtesse de Chabannes turned all the manuscripts and documents preserved at La Brède to the Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux. In the meantime, Roger Caillois was allowed to provide some extracts of it in his edition of the Montesquieu’s Œuvres complètes in the Gallimard “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade” (1949-1951) – whereas he was refused access to all the other manuscripts. And this explains how a really undeserving opuscule found its way into the corpus of Montesquieu’s works (Volpilhac-Auger 2011, p. 331, 372-375).
Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux, fonds de La Brède, Ms https://selene.bordeaux.fr/in/imageReader.xhtml?id=BordeauxS_B330636101_Ms_2508&pageIndex=1&mode=simple&highlight=montesquieu%20historia&selectedTab=thumbnail.
Historia romana : cahier de collège de la main de Montesquieu, Louvain-Paris: Peeters, 1996 (ed. Maurice Mendel).
Historia romana, OC, t. VIII, 2003, p. 1-41 (ed. Catherine Volpilhac-Auger).
Samy Ben Messaoud, “La formation intellectuelle de Montesquieu: l’enseignement des Oratoriens”, in Montesquieu: les années de formation (1689-1720), Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 5, Naples: Liguori, 1999, p. 31-53.
Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Un auteur en quête d’éditeurs? Histoire éditoriale de l’œuvre de Montesquieu (1748-1964), Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2011, with the collaboration of Gabriel Sabbagh and Françoise Weil.