Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republics

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by Edward Wortley Montagu
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   The ubiquitous influence of ancient republics on the formation of the United States government cannot be questioned. Foundational documents such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution are replete with references and allusions to states of antiquity.  However, the interpretation and application of this information was not gleaned from the writings of classicists and professional historians but rather from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century politicians who sought to garner instruction from ancient republics and apply those lessons to contemporary society.

   Perhaps the most didactic and influential analysis came from Englishman Edward Wortley Montagu’s Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republics, which scrutinizes five free states of antiquity: Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Carthage, and Rome. Although first published in 1759, subsequent editions immediately followed, and by 1796, four English and two French editions had been printed for publishers such as A. Millar, T. Cadell, and W. Fox. Recognition by educational publishers J. Rivington and Sons and T. Longman validated the academic authority Montagu’s conclusions, and Reflections became a requisite read for any serious student of classical history.

   Born in 1713 to Edward Wortley Montagu, businessman and diplomat, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, author and traveler, Montagu attended Westminster School but reportedly ran away on several occasions. Through the course of his education, and his parents’ desperate attempts to instill discipline and financial responsibility in their son, Montagu journeyed to Constantinople, the West Indies, Italy, the Netherlands, France, and Greece. After briefly serving in the English army, Montagu pursued a diplomatic career, serving as a member of Parliament. His final years were spent abroad, touring ancient sites and publishing his research. 

   Montagu suggests that liberty and public virtue are essential to a state’s continued existence. Harmony and union “can alone preserve and perpetuate the duration” of a state’s constitution. Montagu recognizes the importance of education, military, and commerce but warns against corruption and pubic diversions. “Of all the human passions ambition may prove the most useful, or the most destructive to a people.” Thus, to Montagu, a disinterested patriot would serve as the most effective government official because such a leader could represent a united voice of the citizens yet would not be influenced by considerations of personal gain.

   In the final chapters of his book, Montagu provides the reader with a juxtaposition of these ancient states and eighteenth-century Britain. Montagu cites to Polybius in support of his solution to withstanding the poison of corruption: a mixed government comprised of a monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The basis of such a government “must absolutely depend upon the just equilibrium preserved between these three powers.” Montagu explains that a balanced system is one wherein any two of the “powers might be able to jointly give a check to the other, but not to destroy it.” Such a system contains within itself a “resource within itself against all those political evils to which it is liable.”

   Montagu summarizes his analysis and foretells Britain’s future in his final words of Reflections:

“Greece, once the nurse of arts and sciences, the fruitful mother of philosophers, law-givers and heroes, now lies prostrate under the iron yoke of ignorance and barbarism.  Carthage, once the mighty sovereign of the ocean, and the centre of universal commerce… now puzzles the inquisitive traveler… And Rome, the mistress of the universe, which contained whatever was esteemed great or brilliant in human nature, is now sunk into the ignoble seat of whatever is esteemed mean and infamous. Should faction again predominate and succeed in its destructive views, and the dastardly maxim of luxury and effeminacy universally prevail amongst us—such too will soon be the fate of Britain.”

 

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