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The Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization online

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marked the early successors of Mohammed. But before he could carry his
victorious arms across the Tigris, he suddenly died in his tent, struck,
as some think, by lightning. His son Carinus was unworthy of the throne
to which he succeeded, and his reign is chiefly memorable for the
magnificence of his games and festivals. His reign, and that of his
brother Numerian, was however short, and a still greater man than any
who had mounted the throne of the Caesars since Augustus, took the helm
at the most critical period of Roman history, A.D. 285.

[Sidenote: Diocletian.]

This man was Diocletian, rendered infamous in ecclesiastical history, as
the most bitter persecutor the Christians ever had; a man of obscure
birth, yet of most distinguished abilities, and virtually the founder of
a new empire. He found it impossible to sustain the public burdens in an
age so disordered and disorganized, when every province was menaced by
the barbarians, and he associated with himself three colleagues who had
won fame in the wars of Aurelian and Carus, and all of whom had rendered
substantial services - Galerius, Maximian, and Constantius. These four
Caesars, alive to the danger which menaced the empire, took up their
residence in the distant provinces. They were all great generals; and
they won great victories on the banks of the Rhine and the Danube, in
Africa and Egypt, in Persia and Armenia. Their lives were spent in the
camp; but care, vexation, and discontent pursued them. The barbarians
were continually beaten, but they continually advanced. Their progress
reminds one of the rising tide on a stormy and surging beach. Wave after
wave breaks upon the shore, recedes, returns, and nothing can stop the
gradual advance of the waters. So in the hundred years after Gallienus,
wave after wave of barbaric invasion constantly appeared, receded,
returned, with added strength. The heroic emperors were uniformly
victors; but their victories were in vain. They were perpetually
reconquering rebellious provinces, or putting down usurpers, or
punishing the barbarians, who acquired strength after every defeat, and
were more and more insatiable in their demands, and unrelenting in their
wills. They were determined to conquer, and the greatest generals of the
Roman empire during four hundred years could not subdue them, although
they could beat them.

[Sidenote: Constantine.]

The empire is again united under Constantine, after bloody civil wars,
A.D. 324, thirty-four years after Diocletian had divided his power and
provinces with his associates. He renews the war against the Goths and
Sarmatians, severely chastises them as well as other enemies of Rome,
and dies leaving the empire to his son, unequal to the task imposed upon
him. The inglorious reigns of Constantius and Gallus only enabled the
barbarians to renew their strength. They are signally defeated by the
Emperor Julian, A.D. 360, who alone survives of all the heirs of
Constantius Chlorus. The studious Julian, who was supposed to be a mere
philosopher, proves himself to be one of the most warlike of all the
emperors. He repulses the Alemanni, defeats the Franks, delivers Gaul,
and carries the Roman eagles triumphantly beyond the Rhine. His
victories delay the ruin of the empire; they do not result in the
conquest of Germany, and he dies, mortally wounded, not by a German
spear, but by the javelin of a Persian horseman, beyond the Tigris, in
an unsuccessful enterprise against Sapor, A.D. 363.

[Sidenote: New invasions of barbarians.]

After his death the ravages of the barbarians became still more fearful.
The Alemanni invade Gaul, A.D. 365, the Persians recover Armenia, the
Burgundians appear upon the Rhine, the Saxons attack Britain, and spread
themselves from the Wall of Antoninus to the shores of Kent, the Goths
prepare for another invasion; in Africa there is a great revolt under
Firmus. The empire is shaken to its centre.

Valentinian, a soldier of fortune, and an able general, now wears the
imperial purple. Like Diocletian, he finds himself unable to bear the
burdens of his throne. He elects an associate, divides the empire, and
gives to Valens the eastern provinces. All idea of reigning in peace,
and giving the reins to pleasure, has vanished from the imperial mind.
The office of emperor demands the severest virtues and the sternest
qualities and the most incessant labors. "Uneasy sits the head that
wears a crown," can now be said of all the later emperors. The day is
past for enjoyment or for pomp. The emperor's presence is required here
and there. Valentinian rules with vigor, and gains successes over the
barbarians. He is one of the great men of the day. He reserves to
himself the western provinces, and fixes his seat at Milan, but cannot
preserve tranquillity, and dies in a storm of wrath, by the bursting of
a blood-vessel, while reviling the ambassadors of the Quadi, A.D. 375,
at the age of fifty-four.

[Sidenote: Disasters of Valens.]

His brother, Valens, Emperor of the East, had neither his talents nor
energy; and it was his fate to see the first great successful inroads of
the Goths. For thirty years the Romans had secured their frontiers, and
the Goths had extended their dominions. Hermanric, the first historic
name of note among them, ruled over the entire nation, and had won a
series of brilliant victories over other tribes of barbarians after he
was eighty years of age. His dominions extended from the Danube to the
Baltic, including the greater part of Germany and Scythia. In the year
366 his subjects, tempted by the civil discords which Procopius
occasioned, invaded Thrace, but were resisted by the generals of Valens.
The aged Hermanric was exasperated by the misfortune, and made
preparations for a general war, while the emperor himself invaded the
Gothic territories. For three years the war continued, with various
success, on the banks of the Danube. Hermanric intrusted the defense of
his country to Athanaric, who was defeated in a bloody battle, and a
hollow peace was made with Victor and Arintheus, the generals of Valens.
The Goths remained in tranquillity for six years, until, driven by the
Scythians, who emerged in vast numbers from the frozen regions of the
north, they once more advanced to the Danube and implored the aid of
Valens. [Footnote: See Ammianus Marcellinus, b. xxi., from which Gibbon
has chiefly drawn his narratives.] The prayers of the Goths were
answered, and they were transported across the Danube - a suicidal act of
the emperor, which imported two hundred thousand warriors, with their
wives and children, into the Roman territories. The Goths retained their
arms and their greed, and pretended to settle peaceably in the province
of Mosia. But they were restless and undisciplined barbarians, and it
required the greatest adroitness to manage them in their new abodes.
They were insolent and unreasonable in their demands and expectations,
while the ministers of the emperor were oppressive and venal.
Difficulties soon arose, and, too late, it was seen by the emperor that
he had introduced most dangerous enemies into the heart of the empire.

[Sidenote: Fritigern, leader of the Goths.]

[Sidenote: Death of the Emperor Valens.]

The great leader of these Goths was Fritigern, who soon kindled the
flames of war. He united under his standard all the various tribes of
his nation, increased their animosities, and led them to the mouth of
the Danube. There they were attacked by the lieutenants of Valens, and a
battle was fought without other result than that of checking for a time
the Gothic progress. But only for a time. The various tribes of
barbarians, under the able generalship of Fritigern, whose cunning was
equal to his bravery, advanced to the suburbs of Hadrianople. Under the
walls of that city was fought the most disastrous battle, A.D. 378, to
the imperial cause which is recorded in the annals of Roman history. The
emperor himself was slain with two thirds of his whole army, while the
remainder fled in consternation. Sixty thousand infantry and six
thousand cavalry were stretched in death upon the bloody field - one
third more than at the fatal battle of Cannae. The most celebrated orator
of the day, though a Pagan, [Footnote: Libanius of Antioch.] pronounced
a funeral oration on the vanquished army, and attributed the
catastrophe, not to the cowardice of the legions, but the anger of the
gods. "The fury of the Goths," says St. Jerome, "extended to all
creatures possessed of life: the beasts of the field, the fowls of the
air, and the fishes of the sea." The victors, intoxicated with their
first great success, invested Hadrianople, where were deposited enormous
riches. But they were unequal to the task of taking so strong a city;
and when the inhabitants aroused themselves in a paroxysm of despair,
they raised the siege and departed to ravage the more unprotected West.
Laden with spoils, they retired to the western boundaries of Thrace, and
thence scattered their forces to the confines of Italy. From the shores
of the Bosphorus to the Julian Alps nothing was to be seen but
conflagration and murders and devastations. Churches were turned into
stables, palaces were burned, works of priceless value were destroyed,
the relics of martyrs were desecrated, the most fruitful provinces were
overrun, the population was decimated, the land was overgrown with
forests, cultivation was suspended, and despair and fear seized the
minds of all classes. So great was the misfortune of the Illyrian
provinces that they never afterward recovered, and for ten centuries
only supplied materials for roving robbers. The empire never had seen
such a day of calamity.

[Sidenote: Desperate condition of the Romans.]

This melancholy state of affairs, so desperate and so general, demanded
a deliverer and a hero; but where was a hero to be found? Nothing but
transcendent ability could now arrest the overthrow. Who should succeed
to the vacant throne of Valens?

[Sidenote: Theodosius.]

[Sidenote: His character and illustrious deeds.]

The Emperor Gratian, who wielded the sceptre of Valentinian in the West,
in this alarming crisis, cast his eyes upon an exile, whose father had
unjustly suffered death under his own sanction three years before. This
man was Theodosius, then living in modest retirement on his farm in
Spain, near Valladolid, as unambitious as David among his sheep, as
contented as Cincinnatus at the plough. Great deliverers are frequently
selected from the most humble positions; but no world hero, in ancient
or modern times, is more illustrious than Theodosius for modesty and
magnanimity united with great abilities. No man is dearer to the Church
than he, both for his services and his virtues. The eloquent Flechier
has emblazoned his fame, as Bossuet has painted the Prince of Conde.
Even Gibbon lays aside his sneers to praise this great Christian
Emperor, although his character was not free from stains. He modestly
but readily accepted the vacant sceptre and the conduct of the Gothic
war. He was thirty-three years of age, in the pride of his strength, and
well instructed in liberal pursuits. No better choice could have been
made by Gratian. He was as prudent as Fabius, as magnanimous as Richard,
as persevering as Alfred, as comprehensive as Charlemagne, as beneficent
as Henry IV., as full of resources as Frederic II. One of the greatest
of all the emperors, and the last great man who swayed the sceptre of
Trajan his ancestor, his reign cannot but be too highly commended,
living in such an age, exposed to so many dangers, invested with so many
difficulties. He was the last flickering light of the expiring monarchy,
beloved and revered by all classes of his subjects. "The vulgar gazed
with admiration on the manly beauty of his face and the graceful majesty
of his person, which they were pleased to compare with the pictures and
medals of the Emperor Trajan; while intelligent observers discovered, in
the qualities of the heart and understanding, a more important
resemblance to the best and greatest of the Roman emperors." [Footnote:
Gibbon, chap. xxvi.]

Mr. Long, of Oxford, in a fine notice of Theodosius, thinks that the
praises of Gibbon are extravagant, and that the emperor was probably a
voluptuary and a persecutor. But Gibbon is not apt to praise the
favorites of the Church. Tillemont presents him in the same light as
Gibbon. [Footnote: Tillemont, _Hist, des Emp._ vol. v.] A man who
could have submitted to such a penance as Ambrose imposed for the
slaughter of Thessalonica, could not have been cast in a different mould
from old David himself. For my part I admire his character and his

[Sidenote: Defeat of the Goths.]

Soon as he was invested with the purple, he gave his undivided energies
to the great task intrusted to him; but he never succeeded in fully
revenging the battle of Hadrianople, which was one of the decisive
battles of the world in its ultimate effects. He had the talents and the
energy and the prudence, but he was beset with impossibilities. Still,
he staved off ruin for a time. The death of Fritigern unchained the
passions of the barbarians, and they would have been led to fresh
revolts had they not submitted to the authority of Athanaric, whom the
emperor invited to his capital and feasted at his table, and astonished
by his riches and glory. The Visigoths, won by the policy or courtesy of
Theodosius, became subjects of the empire. The Ostrogoths, who had
retired from the provinces of the Danube four years before, returned
recruited with a body of Huns, and crossed the Danube to assail the
Roman army, but were defeated by Theodosius; and a treaty was made with
them, by which they were settled in Phrygia and Lydia. Forty thousand of
them were kept in the service of the emperor; but they were doubtful
allies, as subsequent events proved, even in the lifetime of the
magnanimous emperor. [Footnote: Zosimus, i. 4.]

[Sidenote: Honorius and Arcadius.]

Theodosius died at Milan in the arms of Ambrose, A.D. 395, and with his
death the real drama of the fall of Rome begins. His empire was divided
between his two sons, Honorius and Arcadius, who were unworthy or
unequal to maintain their great inheritance. The barbarians, released
from the restraint which the fear of Theodosius imposed, recommenced
their combinations and their ravages, while the soldiers of the empire
were dispirited and enervated. About this time they threw away their
defensive armor, not able to bear the weight of the cuirass and the
helmet; and even the heavy weapons of their ancestors, the short sword
and the pilum, were supplanted by the bow, - a most remarkable retrograde
in military art. Without defensive armor, not even the shield, they were
exposed to the deadly missiles of their foes, and fled at the first
serious attacks, especially of cavalry, in which the Goths and Huns

[Sidenote: Alaric, king of the Visigoths.]

History has taken but little notice of the leaders of the various tribes
of barbarians until Alaric appeared, the able successor of Fritigern. He
belonged to the second noblest family of his nation, and first appears
in history as a general of the Gothic auxiliaries in the war of
Theodosius against Eugenius, A.D. 394. In 396, stimulated by anger or
ambition, or the instigation of Rufinus, [Footnote: Socrates, _Eccles.
Hist._, vii. 10.] he invaded Greece at the head of a powerful body,
and devastated the country. He descended from the plains of Macedonia
and Thessaly, and entered the classic land, which for a long time had
escaped the ravages of war, through the pass of Thermopylae. Degenerate
soldiers, half armed, now defended the narrow passage where three
hundred heroes had once arrested the march of the Persian hosts. But
Greece was no longer Greece. The soldiers fled as Alaric advanced, and
the fertile fields of Phocis and Boeotia were at once covered with
hostile and cruel barbarians, who massacred the men and ravished the
women in all the villages through which they passed. Athens purchased
her preservation by an enormous ransom. Corinth, Argos, Sparta, yielded
without a blow, but did not escape the fate of vanquished cities. Their
palaces were burned, their works of art destroyed, their women subjected
to indignities which were worse than death, and their families were
enslaved. [Footnote: Gibbon, chap. xxx.]

[Sidenote: Succeses of the Goths.]

Only one hope remained to the feeble and intimidated Arcadius, and that
was the skill and courage of Stilicho, by birth a Vandal, but who had
risen in the imperial service until he was virtually intrusted by
Theodosius with the guardianship of his sons and of the empire. He was
the lieutenant of Honorius, who had espoused his daughter, but summoned
by the dangers of Arcadius, he advanced to repulse the invaders of
Greece, who had not met with any resistance from Thermopylae to Corinth.
A desperate campaign followed in the woody country where Pan and the
Dryads were fabled to reside in the olden times. The Romans prevailed,
and Alaric was in imminent peril of annihilation, but was saved by the
too confident spirit of Stilicho, and his indulgence in the pleasures of
the degenerate Greeks. He effected his release by piercing the lines of
his besiegers and performing a rapid march to the Gulf of Corinth, where
he embarked his soldiers, his captives, and his spoil, and reached
Epirus in safety, from which he effected a treaty with the ministers of
Arcadius, which he never intended to keep, and was even made master-
general of Eastern Illyricum. Successful war brings irresistible
_eclat_ equally among barbarians and civilized nations. There is no
fame like the glory of a warrior. Poets and philosophers drop their
heads in the presence of great military chieftains; and those people who
rest their claims to the gratitude or the admiration of the world on
their intellectual and moral superiority, are among the first to yield
precedence to conquering generals, whether they are ignorant, or
unscrupulous, or haughty, or ambitious. The names of warriors descend
from generation to generation, while the benefactors of mind are
forgotten or depreciated. Who can wonder at military ambition when
success in war has been uniformly attended with such magnificent
rewards, from the times of Pompey and Caesar to those of Marlborough and

The Gothic robber and murderer was rewarded by his nation with all the
power and glory it could bestow. He was made a king, and was assured of
unlimited support in all his future enterprises.

[Sidenote: Danger of Italy.]

He cast his eyes on Italy, for many generations undefiled by the
presence of a foreign enemy, and enriched with the spoils of three
hundred triumphs. He marched from Thessalonica, through Pannonia to the
Julian Alps; passed through the defiles of those guarded mountains, and
appeared before the walls of Aquileia, one of the most important cities
of Northern Italy, enriched by the gold mines of the neighboring Alps,
and a prosperous trade with the Illyrians and Pannonians. Here the great
Julius had made his head-quarters when he made war upon Illyria, and
here the younger Constantine was slain. It was the capital of Venetia,
and had the privilege of a mint. It was the ninth city of the whole
empire, inferior in Italy to Rome, Milan, and Capua alone. It was
situated on a plain, and was strongly fortified with walls and towers.
And it seems to have resisted the attacks of Alaric, who retired to the
Danube for reinforcements for a new campaign.

[Sidenote: Stilicho commands the Romans.]

The Emperor Honorius, weak, timid, and defenseless at Milan, was
overwhelmed with fear, and implored the immediate assistance of his only
reliable general. Stilicho responded to the appeal, and appreciated the
danger. He summoned from every quarter the subjects or the allies of the
emperor. The fortresses of the Rhine were abandoned; the legions were
withdrawn from Britain; the Alani were enlisted as auxiliaries, and
Stilicho advanced to the relief of his fugitive sovereign, who had fled
from Milan to a town in Piedmont, just in time to rescue him from the
grasp of Alaric, who, in his turn, became besieged by the troops which
issued from all the passes of the Alps. The Goths were attacked in their
intrenchments at Pollentia, and were obliged to retreat, leaving the
spoils of Corinth and Argos, and even the wife of Alaric. The poet
Claudian celebrated the victory as greater than even that achieved by
Marius over the Cimbri and Teutones. The defeated Goth, however, rose
superior to misfortune and danger. He escaped with the main body of his
cavalry, broke through the passes of the Apennines, and spread
devastation on the fruitful fields of Tuscany, and was resolved to risk
another battle for the great prize which he coveted - the possession of
Rome itself. He was, however, foiled by Stilicho, who _purchased_
the retreat of the enemy for forty thousand pounds of gold. But the
Goths respected no treaties. Scarcely had they crossed the Po, before
their leader resolved to seize Verona, which commanded the passes of the
Rhaetian Alps. Here he was again attacked by Stilicho, and suffered
losses equal to those incurred at Pollentia, and was obliged to retreat
from Italy, A.D. 404.

[Sidenote: Infatuation of the Romans.]

The conqueror was hailed with joy and gratitude; too soon succeeded by
envy and calumny, as is usual with benefactors in corrupt times. The
retreat of Alaric was regarded as a complete deliverance; and the Roman
people abandoned themselves to absurd rejoicings, gladiatorial shows,
and triumphant processions. In the royal chariots, side by side with the
emperor, Stilicho was seated, and the procession passed under a
triumphal arch which commemorated the complete destruction of the Goths.
For the last time, the amphitheatre of Rome was polluted with the blood
of gladiators, for Honorius, exhorted by the poet Claudian, abolished
forever the inhuman sacrifices.

[Sidenote: New hordes of barbarians.]

[Sidenote: Devastation of Gaul.]

Yet scarcely was Italy delivered from the Goths, before an irruption of
Vandals, Suevi, and Burgundians, under Rodogast or Rhadagast, two
hundred thousand in number of fighting men, beside an equal number of
women and children, issued from the coast of the Baltic. One third of
these crossed the Alps, the Po, and the Apennines, ravaged the cities of
Northern Italy, and laid siege to Florence, which was reduced to its
last necessity, when the victor of Pollentia appeared beneath its walls,
with the _last_ army which the empire could furnish, and introduced
supplies. Moreover, he surrounded the enemy in turn with strong
intrenchments, and the barbaric host was obliged to yield. The leader
Rodogast was beheaded, and the captives were sold as slaves. Stilicho, a
second time, had delivered Italy; but one hundred thousand barbarians
still remained in arms between the Alps and the Apennines. Shut out of
Italy, they invaded Gaul, and never afterward retreated beyond the Alps.
Gaul was then one of the most cultivated of the Roman provinces; the
banks of the Rhine were covered with farms and villas, and peace and
plenty had long accustomed the people to luxury and ease. But all was
suddenly changed, and changed for generations. The rich corn-fields and
fruitful vineyards became a desert. Mentz was destroyed and burned.
Worms fell after an obstinate siege, and experienced the same fate.
Strasburg, Spires, Rheims, Tournay, Arras, Amiens, passed under the
German yoke, and the flames of war spread over the seventeen provinces
of Gaul. The country was completely devastated, and all classes
experienced a remorseless rigor. Bishops, senators, and virgins were
alike enslaved. No retreat was respected, and no sex or condition was
spared. Gaul ceased to exist as a Roman province.

[Sidenote: Assassination of Stilicho.]

Italy, however, had been for a time delivered, and by the only man of
ability who remained in the service of the emperor. He might possibly
have checked the further progress of the Goths, had the weak emperor
intrusted himself to his guidance. But imperial jealousy, and the voice
of faction, removed forever this last hope of Rome. The frivolous Senate
which he had saved, and the timid emperor whom he had guarded, were
alike demented. The savior of Italy was an object of fear and hatred,
and the assassin's dagger, which cut short his days, inflicted a fatal
and suicidal blow upon Rome herself.

[Sidenote: Alaric ravages Italy.]

[Sidenote: Rome without defenders.]

The Gothic king, in his distant camp on the confines of Italy, beheld

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 38 of 50)