Persian Letters/Letter 131
1 Rhedi to Rica, at Paris
Nothing has interested me more since my arrival in Europe than the history and origin of republics. You know that most Asiatics have not only no notion of this form of government, but that their imagination is unable to conceive the possibility of there being any other in the world than despotism.
The first governments of which we know anything were monarchical; it was only by chance, and in the course of ages, that republics were formed.
Greece, having been destroyed by a flood, new inhabitants came to people it; it drew almost all its colonies from Egypt and the neighbouring countries of Asia; and as these countries were governed by kings, the races which came from them were governed in the same way. But the tyranny of these princes becoming intolerable, they threw off the yoke, and from the ruins of so many kingdoms sprang those republics which made Greece so prosperous, and the only cultured nation among a crowd of barbarians.
Love of liberty, and hatred of kings, preserved the independence of Greece for a long time, and extended far and wide the republican form of government. The Greek cities found allies in Asia Minor; they sent thither colonies as free as themselves, which served them as a rampart against the attacks of the kings of Persia. This is not all: Greece peopled Italy; and Italy, Spain, and perhaps Gaul. Every one knows that the wonderful Hesperia, so famous among the ancients, was at first Greece, regarded by its neighbours as an abode of bliss. The Greeks, who failed to find at home that happy country, went to Italy in search of it; the inhabitants of Italy, to Spain; and those of Spain, to Bettica or Portugal; so that all these countries bore the name of Hesperia among the ancients. These Greek colonies brought with them a spirit of liberty derived from that delightful land. It is on this account that we hardly ever hear of a monarchy in Italy, Spain, or Gaul in these remote times. It will shortly appear that the peoples of the north and of Germany were not less free; and if traces of kingly government are found among them, it is because the chiefs of armies or republics have been mistaken for monarchs.
All this took place in Europe, for Asia and Africa have always been oppressed by despots, with the exception of some cities in Asia Minor already mentioned, and the Carthagenian republic in Africa.
The world was divided between two powerful republics: that of Rome and that of Carthage. Nothing is better known than the beginnings of the Roman republic, and there is nothing of which we have less knowledge than the origin of that of Carthage. Of the African princes who succeeded Dido, and how they lost their power, we know absolutely nothing. The wonderful rise of the Roman republic would have been of immense benefit to the world, if there had not existed an unjust distinction between the Roman citizens and the conquered nations; if the governors of provinces had received less power; if the righteous laws enacted to prevent their tyranny had been observed, and if, to render these laws of no effect, the governors had not employed the very wealth amassed by their injustice.
Liberty would seem to have been intended for the genius of the European races, and slavery for that of the Asiatics. In vain the Romans offered that priceless treasure to the Cappadocians. That mean-spirited nation refused it, and rushed into slavery with the same eagerness with which other races fly to liberty.
Caesar destroyed the Roman republic, and subjected it to arbitrary power.
For a long time Europe groaned under the violence of a military government, and the gentle Roman sway was changed into cruel oppression.
Meantime an immense number of unknown races came out of the north, and poured like torrents into the Roman provinces: finding it as easy to conquer as to rob, they dismembered the empire, and founded kingdoms. These peoples were free, and they put such restrictions on the authority of their kings, that they were properly only chiefs or generals. Thus these kingdoms, although founded by force, never endured the yoke of the conqueror. When the peoples of Asia, such as the Turks and the Tartars, made conquests, being subject to the will of one person, they thought only of providing him with new subjects and of establishing by force of arms his reign of might; but the peoples of the north, free in their own countries, having seized the Roman provinces, did not give their chiefs much power. Some of these races, indeed, like the Vandals in Africa, and the Goths in Spain, deposed their kings when they ceased to please them; and, amongst others, the power of the prince was limited in a thousand different ways; a great number of lords partook it with him; a war was never undertaken without their consent; the spoils were divided between the chief and the soldiers; and the laws were made in national assemblies. Here you have the fundamental principles of all those states which were formed from the ruins of the Roman Empire.
Venice, the 20th of the moon of Rhegeb, 1719.