Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
Letter CXIII
Rhedi to Usbek, at Paris
DURING my stay in Europe, I read the ancient and modern historians: I compare all times; I please myself with watching them pass before me as it were; above all, my thoughts are fixed upon those great changes which have made the ages so different from each other, and the earth so unlike itself.  1
  You have perhaps given some attention to a matter which continually occasions my surprise. How is the world so thinly peopled in comparison with what it was once? 1 How has nature lost the wonderful fruitfulness of the first ages? Can it be that she is already old and fallen into decline?  2
  I dwelt for more than a year in Italy, where I saw nothing but the ruins of that ancient Italy, so famous in former times. Although all the people live in the towns, they are quite deserted and empty: they seem to exist only to indicate the places where those powerful cities stood of which history says so much.  3
  Some people here pretend that the city of Rome alone contained formerly more people than one of the great kingdoms of Europe does to-day. There were Roman citizens who had ten, and even twenty thousand slaves, without counting those employed in their country houses; and as it is calculated that there were four or five hundred thousand citizens, the imagination rebels at any attempt to fix the number of the inhabitants.  4
  In Sicily, there were formerly powerful and densely peopled kingdoms, which have since disappeared: that island has nothing more notable now than volcanoes.  5
  Greece is so deserted that it does not contain a hundredth part of its ancient inhabitants.  6
  Spain, once so crowded, can now show only uninhabited lands; and France is nothing compared with that ancient Gaul of which Cæsar speaks. 2  7
  The countries of the north are sadly thinned; and the people no longer require, as formerly, to divide themselves, and set out in swarms, in colonies, in whole nations, to seek for new abodes.  8
  Poland and Turkey in Europe have almost no inhabitants.  9
  We cannot find in America the fiftieth part of the men who formed the great empires there.  10
  Asia is hardly in a better state. Asia Minor, which contained so many powerful monarchies, and such an immense number of great cities, has now no more than two or three. As regards the greater Asia, that part which is under the Turk is not more populous; and if that part of it which is under the dominion of our kings be compared with the prosperous state in which it once was, it will be found to contain a very small part of the innumerable inhabitants which it possessed in the times of Xerxes and Darius.  11
  As for the petty states which border these great empires, they are really deserts, such as the kingdoms of Irimetta, Circassia, and Guriel. These princes with vast territories, rule over a bare fifty thousand subjects.  12
  Egypt is not less deficient than the other countries.  13
  In short, I have reviewed the whole world, and found nothing but decay: I think I see the earth emerging from the ravages of pestilence and famine.  14
  Africa has always been so little known, that one cannot speak of it so precisely as of the other parts of the world; but, dealing only with the Mediterranean shores, which have always been known, it is plain that it has fallen away sadly from what it was under the Carthaginians and the Romans. To-day, its princes are so weak that they are the most inconsiderable potentates in the world.  15
  After a calculation as exact as may be in the circumstances, I have found that there are upon the earth hardly one-tenth part of the people which there were in ancient times. And the astonishing thing is, that the depopulation goes on daily: if it continues, in ten centuries the earth will be a desert.  16
  Here, my dear Usbek, you have the most terrible calamity that can ever happen in the world. But we have scarcely perceived it, because it has stolen upon us gradually in the course of a great many centuries, which denotes an inward defect, a secret and hidden poison, a malady of declining, afflicting human nature.

  VENICE, the 10th of the moon of Rhegeb, 1718.
Note 1. Some countries were, in Montesquieu’s time, and are now, less populous than in their earlier history; but that the modern world contains fewer people than the antique one, is an assertion for which there is no proof. [back]
Note 2. In one sense true, as Cæsar’s Gaul was covered with forests. [back]

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