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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Many 18th century authors were drawn to the historical example of the fall of the Roman Empire: Montesquieu, Gibbon, Gordon, and others. They saw in the high taxes, standing army, military conquest, and political corruption a strong parallel with the present. Many of the American Founding Fathers were avid readers of Roman history, especially Tacitus, and hoped to design a new republic’s constitution in order avoid Rome’s fate.

Other quotes about Presidents, Kings, Tyrants, & Despots:

2 May, 2005

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Montesquieu states that the Roman Empire fell because the costs of its military expansion introduced corruption and the loyalty of its soldiers was transferred from the City to its generals (1734)

Read the full quote in context here.

Montesquieu argues that the military expansion of Rome led to its inevitable decline by introducing corruption and the transfering of the loyalty of its citizen soldiers from the city of Rome to their generals:

The reason why free states are not so permanent as other forms of government, is, because the misfortunes and successes which happen to them, generally occasion the loss of liberty; whereas the successes and misfortunes of an arbitrary government, contribute equally to the enslaving of the people. A wise republic ought not to run any hazard which may expose it to good or ill fortune; the only happiness the several individuals of it should aspire after, is, to give perpetuity to their state.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

Chap. IX. Two Causes which destroyed Rome.

WHILST the sovereignty of Rome was confined to Italy, it was easy for the commonwealth to subsist: every soldier was at the same time a citizen; every consul raised an army, and other citizens marched into the field under his successor: as their forces were not very numerous, such persons only were received among the troops, as had possessions considerable enough to make them interested in the preservation of the city; the senate kept a watchful eye over the conduct of the generals, and did not give them an opportunity of machinating any thing to the prejudice of their country.

But after the legions had passed the Alps and crossed the sea, the soldiers, whom the Romans had been obliged to leave during several campaigns in the countries they were subduing, lost insensibly that genius and turn of mind which characterized a Roman citizen; and the generals, having armies and kingdoms at their disposal, were sensible of their own strength, and could no longer obey.

The soldiers therefore began to acknowledge no superior but their general; to found their hopes on him only, and to view the city as from a great distance: they were no longer the soldiers of the republic, but of Sylla, of Marius, of Pompey, and of Cæsar. The Romans could no longer tell, whether the person who headed an army in a province was their general or their enemy.

So long as the people of Rome were corrupted by their tribunes only, on whom they could bestow nothing but their power, the senate could easily defend themselves, because they acted consistently and with one regular tenor; whereas the common people were continually shifting from the extremes of fury to the extremes of cowardice; but when they were enabled to invest their favourites with a formidable exterior authority, the whole wisdom of the senate was baffled, and the commonwealth was undone.

The reason why free states are not so permanent as other forms of government, is, because the misfortunes and successes which happen to them, generally occasion the loss of liberty; whereas the successes and misfortunes of an arbitrary government, contribute equally to the enslaving of the people. A wise republic ought not to run any hazard which may expose it to good or ill fortune; the only happiness the several individuals of it should aspire after, is, to give perpetuity to their state.

If the unbounded extent of the Roman empire proved the ruin of the republic, the vast compass of the city was no less fatal to it.

[More works by Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689 – 1755)]