Montesquieu

Rhedi to Rica in Paris


One of the things that has most exer­ci­sed my curio­sity on arri­val to Europe is the his­tory and ori­gin of repu­blics. You know that most Asians have not even a notion of this sort of govern­ment, and that ima­gi­na­tion has not ser­ved them to the point of let­ting them unders­tand that there can be any other kind of govern­ment on earth than des­po­tic.

The first govern­ments of the world were monar­chi­cal ; it was only by chance, and by the suc­ces­sion of cen­tu­ries, that repu­blics were for­med.

Greece having been wre­cked by a flood, other inha­bi­tants came to peo­ple it ; it attrac­ted almost all its colo­nies from Egypt and the nea­rest regions of Asia ; and as these coun­tries were gover­ned by kings, the peo­ples who came from them were gover­ned like­wise. But as the tyranny of these prin­ces became too heavy, they shook off the yoke, and from the debris of so many king­doms rose up those repu­blics that brought such flo­we­ring to Greece, alone civi­li­zed among bar­ba­rians.

The love of free­dom and the hatred of kings long pre­ser­ved Greek inde­pen­dence, and exten­ded repu­bli­can govern­ment afar. The Greek cities found allies in Asia Minor ; they sent there colo­nies as free as they were, which ser­ved them as ram­parts against the enter­pri­ses of the kings of Persia. That is not all : Greece peo­pled Italy ; Italy, Spain, and per­haps the Gauls. We know that that great Hesperia so famous among the ancients was at the begin­ning Greece, which its neigh­bors regar­ded as an abode of bliss ; the Greeks who did not find that happy coun­try at home went to seek it in Italy ; those of Italy, in Spain ; those of Spain, in Baetica1 or Portugal, and so it was that all these regions bore that name among the ancients. These Greek colo­nies brought with them a spi­rit of free­dom which they had taken from that fair land. Thus in those dis­tant times we see hardly any monar­chies in Italy, Spain, or the Gauls. We shall soon see that the peo­ples of the North and Germany were not less free, and that if we find ves­ti­ges of some royalty among them, it is because we have mis­ta­ken for kings the chiefs of armies or repu­blics.

All this was taking place in Europe ; for where Asia and Africa are concer­ned, they have always been weigh­ted down by des­po­tism, if you except some cities of Asia Minor of which we have spo­ken, and the repu­blic of Carthage in Africa.

The world was divi­ded bet­ween two power­ful repu­blics : that of Rome and that of Carthage. Nothing is so well known as the begin­nings of the Roman repu­blic, and nothing so lit­tle known as the ori­gin of that of Carthage. We know abso­lu­tely nothing about the suc­ces­sion of African prin­ces since Dido,2 and how they lost their power. The pro­di­gious growth of the Roman repu­blic would have been a very good thing for the world if there had not been that unjust dif­fe­rence bet­ween Roman citi­zens and the conque­red peo­ples ; if the gover­nors of the pro­vin­ces had been given less broad autho­rity ; if those laws so sacred for pre­ven­ting their tyranny had been obser­ved ; and if they had not, in order to silence them, made use of the same trea­su­res that their injus­tice had amas­sed.

It seems that liberty is made for the genius of the peo­ples of Europe, and ser­vi­tude for the genius of the peo­ples of Asia. The Romans offe­red that pre­cious trea­sure to the Cappadocians, to no avail : that cowardly nation refu­sed it, and rushed as eagerly into ser­vi­tude as other peo­ples rushed to free­dom.

Caesar oppres­sed the Roman repu­blic and sub­jec­ted it to arbi­trary power.

Europe long suf­fe­red under a vio­lent mili­tary govern­ment, and Roman leniency was chan­ged into cruel oppres­sion.

Meanwhile count­less unk­nown nations came out of the North, spread like tor­rents into the Roman pro­vin­ces ; and fin­ding it as easy to make conquests as to prac­tice their pira­cies, they dis­mem­be­red them and tur­ned them into king­doms. These peo­ples were free, and so strictly limi­ted the autho­rity of their kings that they were pro­perly only chiefs or gene­rals. Thus these king­doms, although foun­ded by force, did not feel at all the vic­tor’s yoke. When the peo­ples of Asia, like the Turks and Tartars, made conquests, obe­dient to the will of a sin­gle man, they thought only of giving him new sub­jects and esta­bli­shing his vio­lent autho­rity by force of arms ; but the peo­ples of the North, free in their coun­try, taking over the Roman pro­vin­ces, did not give their chiefs great autho­rity. Some of these peo­ples, like the Vandals in Africa and the Goths in Spain, even depo­sed their kings as soon as they were dis­sa­tis­fied with them ; and among the others the prince’s autho­rity was limi­ted in a thou­sand dif­fe­rent ways : a great num­ber of lords sha­red it with him ; wars were under­ta­ken only with their consent ; the spoils were divi­ded bet­ween the chief and his sol­diers ; no tax for the bene­fit of the prince ; the laws were made in the assem­blies of the nation. That is the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of all these sta­tes that were crea­ted from the debris of the Roman empire.

Venice this 20th day of the moon of Regeb 1719

Andalusia.

An allusion to the mythical origins of Carthage (Virgile, Aeneid, I).