XII.18 How dangerous it is in republics to punish excessively the crime of lese-majesty

When a repu­blic has suc­cee­ded in des­troying those who tried to over­turn it, one must qui­ckly put an end to acts of ven­geance, punish­ments, and even to rewards.

It is not pos­si­ble to create great punish­ments, and conse­quently great chan­ges, without pla­cing great power in the hands of some citi­zens. It is the­re­fore bet­ter in this situa­tion to par­don much than to punish much, to exile few rather than to exile many ; to leave pro­perty alone rather than mul­ti­ply confis­ca­tions. Under pre­text of the repu­blic’s ven­geance, one would esta­blish the tyranny of the aven­gers. The pur­pose is to des­troy not the domi­na­tor, but the domi­na­tion. The objec­tive is to revert as qui­ckly as pos­si­ble to the ordi­nary course of govern­ment where the laws pro­tect eve­ryone and tar­get no one.

We find in Appian the edict and the for­mula of pros­crip­tions.1 You would say that the only object is the good of the repu­blic, so dis­pas­sio­nate is the lan­guage, so many advan­ta­ges are shown, so pre­fe­ra­ble to others are the means adop­ted, so secure will the weal­thy be and so tran­quil the popu­lace, so great is the fear of put­ting the life of citi­zens in dan­ger, so great is the desire to appease the sol­diers : a hor­ri­ble exam­ple, which illus­tra­tes how close great punish­ments are to tyranny.

The Greeks pla­ced no limits on the repri­sals they exer­ci­sed against tyrants or those they sus­pect of being tyrants : they put the chil­dren to death,2 and some­ti­mes five of the clo­sest rela­ti­ves.3 They drove out huge num­bers of fami­lies. Their repu­blics were sha­ken by it ; exile or the return of the exi­led were always events that mar­ked change in the cons­ti­tu­tion.

The Romans were wiser. When Cassius was condem­ned for aspi­ring to tyranny, they deba­ted whe­ther they would put his chil­dren to death : they were sen­ten­ced to no punish­ment. “Those who wan­ted to change this law,” says Dionysius of Halicarnassus, “at the end of the war with the Marsi and the civil war, and exclude from office the chil­dren of those pros­crip­ted by Sulla, are surely cri­mi­nals.”4

Civil Wars, book IV.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book VIII.

Tyranno occiso quinque ejus proximos cognatione magistratus necato [‘After a tyrant’s death, the magistrate shall have his five closest relatives put to death’] (Cicero, De inventione, book II).

Book VIII, p. 547. [The edition of 1758 adds Annex 4 here.]