John Lord.

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

. (page 40 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 40 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

would have remained ruined and desolate, had not her great bishop,
rising with the greatness of the crisis, and inspired with the old
imperishable idea of national unity, which had for three hundred years
sustained the crumbling empire, exclaimed to the rude spoliators, now
converted to his faith, while all around him were desolation and ruin,
weeping widows, ashes, groans, lamentations, bitter sorrows - nothing
left but recollections, nothing to be seen but the desolation spoken of
by Jeremy the prophet, as well as the Cumean Sybil; all central power
subverted, law and justice by-words, literature and art crushed, vice
rampant multiplying itself, the contemplative hiding in cells, the rich
made slaves, women shrieking in terror, bishops praying in despair, the
heart of the world bleeding, barbarians everywhere triumphant - in this
mournful crisis, did Leo, the intrepid Pontiff, alone and undismayed,
and concentrating within himself all that survived of the ambition and
haughty will of the ancient capital, exclaim to the superstitious
victors, in the spirit if not in the words of Hildebrand, "Beware, I am
the successor of St. Peter, to whom God has given the keys of the
kingdom of heaven, and against whose church the gates of hell cannot
prevail; I am the living representative of divine power upon the earth;
I am Caesar, a Christian Caesar, ruling in love, to whom all Christians
owe allegiance; I hold in my hands the curses of hell, and the
benedictions of heaven; I absolve all subjects from allegiance to kings;
I give and take away, by divine right, all thrones and principalities of
Christendom - beware how you desecrate the patrimony given me by your
invisible king, yea, bow down your necks to me, and pray that the anger
of God may be averted." And the superstitious conquerors wept, and bowed
their faces to the dust, in reverence and in awe, and Rome again arose
from her desolation - the seat of a new despotism more terrible than the
centralized power of the emperors, controlling the wills of kings,
priests, and people, and growing more majestic with the progress of
ages; a vital and mysterious power which even the Reformation could not
break, and which even now gives no signs of decay, and boldly defies, in
the plenitude of spiritual power, a greater prince than he who stood in
the winter time three days and nights before the gates of the castle of
Canossa, bareheaded and barefooted, in abject submission to Gregory VII.

[Sidenote: Renewed invasion of barbarians.]

[Sidenote: The Huns.]

While the Vandals were thus plundering Rome, a still fiercer race of
barbarians were trampling beneath their feet the deserted sanctuaries of
the empire. The Huns, a Slavonic race, most hideous and revolting
savages, Tartar hordes, with swarthy faces, sunken eyes, flat noses,
square bodies, big heads, broad shoulders, low stature, without pity, or
fear, or mercy - equally the enemies of the Romans and the Germans - races
thus far incapable of civilization, now spread themselves from the Volga
to the Danube, from the shores of the Caspian to the Hadriatic. They
were a nomadic people, with flocks and herds, planting no seed, reaping
no harvest, wandering about in quest of a living, yet powerful with
their horses and darts. For fifty years after they had invaded Southern
Europe, their aid was sought and secured by the rash court of
Constantinople, as a counterpoise to the power of the Goths and other
Germanic tribes. They were obstinate pagans, and had an invincible
hatred of civilization. They had various fortunes in their migrations
and wars, and experienced some terrible defeats. But they had their eyes
open to the spoil of the crumbling empire - "ripe fruit" for them to
pluck, as well as for the Goths and Vandals.

[Sidenote: Attila.]

The leader of the Huns at this period was Attila - a man of great
astuteness and military genius, who succeeded in conquering, one after
another, every existing tribe of barbarians beyond the Danube and the
Rhine, and then turned his arms against the eastern empire. This was in
the year 441. They ravaged Pannonia, routed two Roman armies, laid
Thessaly in waste, and threatened Constantinople. The Emperor
Theodosius, A.D. 446, purchased peace by an ignominious tribute, so
great as to reduce many leading families to poverty. "The scourge of God"
then turned his steps to the more exhausted fields of the western
provinces, and invaded Gaul. The Visigoths had there established a
kingdom, hostile to the Vandal power. The Huns and the Vandals united,
with all the savage legions which could be collected from Lapland to the
Indus, against the Goths and imperial forces under the command of Aetius.
"Never," says Thierry, [Footnote: _Histoire d'Attilla_, vol. i.
p. 141] "since the days of Xerxes, was there such a gathering of nations
as now followed the standard of Attila, some five hundred thousand
warriors - Huns, Alans, Gepidae, Neuvi, Geloni, Bastarnae, Heruli,
Lombards, Belloniti, Rugi, some German but chiefly Asiatic tribes, with
their long quivers and ponderous lances, and cuirasses of plaited hair,
and scythes, and round bucklers, and short swords." This heterogeneous
host, from the Sarmatian plains, and the banks of the Vistula and
Niemen, extended from Basle to the mouth of the Rhine. Attila directed
it against Orleans, on the Loire, an important strategic position. Aetius
went to meet him, bringing all the barbaric auxiliaries he could
collect - Britons, Franks, Burgundians, Sueves, Saxons, Visigoths. It was
not so much Roman against barbarian, as Europe against Asia, which was
now arrayed upon the plains of Champagne, for Orleans had fallen into
the hands of the Huns. There, at Chalons, was fought the most decisive
and bloody battle of that dreadful age, by which Europe was delivered
from Asia, even as at a later day the Saracens were shut out of France
by Charles Martel. "_Bellum atrox, multiplex, immane, pertinax, cui
simile nulla usquam narrat antiquitas._" [Footnote: Jordanes.] Attila
began the fight; on his left were the Ostrogoths under Vladimir, on his
right were the Gepidae, while in the centre were stationed the Huns, with
their irresistible cavalry. Aetius stationed the Franks and Burgundians,
whose loyalty he doubted, in the centre, while he strengthened his
wings, and assumed the command of his own left. The Huns, as expected,
made their impetuous charge; the Roman army was cut in two; but the
wings of Aetius overlapped the cavalry of Attila, and drove back his
wings. Attila was beaten, and Gaul was saved from the Slavonic invaders.
It is computed that three hundred thousand barbarians, on both sides,
were slain - the most fearful slaughter recorded in the whole annals of
war. The discomfited king of the Huns led back his forces to the Rhine,
ravaging the cities and villages through which he passed, and collected
a new army. The following year he invaded Italy.

[Sidenote: The Roman general Aetius.]

[Sidenote: Retreat of Attila.]

Aetius alone remained to stem the barbaric hosts. He had won one of the
greatest victories of ancient times, and sought for a reward. And
considering the brilliancy of his victory, and the greatness of his
services, the marriage of his son with the princess Eudoxia was not an
unreasonable object of ambition. But his greatness made him unpopular
with the debauched court at Ravenna, and he was left without a
sufficient force to stem the invasion of the Huns. Aquileia, the most
important and strongly fortified city of Northern Italy, for a time
stood out against the attack of the barbarians, but ultimately yielded.
Fugitives from the Venetian territory sought a refuge among the islands
which skirt the northern coast of the Adriatic - the haunts of fishermen
and sea-birds. There Venice was born, which should revive the glory of
the West, and write her history upon the waves for a thousand years.
Attila had spent the spring in his attack on Aquileia, and the summer
heats were unfavorable for further operations, and his soldiers clamored
for repose; but, undaunted by the ravages which sickness produced in his
army, he resolved to cross the Apennines and give a last blow to Rome.
Leo again sought the barbarians' camp, and met with more success than he
did with the Vandals. Attila consented to leave Italy in consideration
of an annual tribute, and the promise of the hand of the princess
Honoria, sister of the Emperor Valentinian, who, years before, in a fit
of female spitefulness for having been banished to Constantinople, had
sent her ring as a _gage d'amour_ to the repulsive barbarian. He
then retired to the Danube by the passes of the Alps, where he spent the
winter in bacchanalian orgies and preparations for an invasion of the
eastern provinces. But his career was suddenly cut off by the avenging
poniard of Ildigo, a Bactrian or Burgundian princess, whom he had taken
for one of his numerous wives, and whose relations he had slain.

[Sidenote: Disasters of the Huns.]

On his death, the German tribes refused longer to serve under the
divided rule of his sons, and after a severe contest with the more
barbarous Huns, the empire of Attila disappeared as one of the great
powers of the world, and Italy was delivered forever from this plague of
locusts. The battle of Netad, in which they suffered a disastrous
defeat, was perhaps as decisive as the battle of Chalons. They returned
to Asia, or else were gradually worn out in unavailing struggles with
the Goths.

[Sidenote: The Avars.]

The Avars, a tribe of the great Turanian race, and kindred to the Huns,
a few years after their retreat, crossed the Danube, established
themselves between that river and the Save, invaded the Greek empire,
and ravaged the provinces almost to the walls of Constantinople. It
would seem from Sheppard that the Avars had migrated from the very
centre of Asia, two thousand miles from the Caspian Sea, fleeing from
the Turks who had reduced them to their sway. [Footnote: Sheppard, Lect.
iv.] In their migration to the West, they overturned every thing in
their way, and spread great alarm at Constantinople. Justinian, then an
old man, A.D. 567, purchased their peace by an annual tribute and the
grant of lands. In 582, the Avar empire was firmly established on the
Danube, and in the valleys of the Balkan. But it was more hostile to the
Slavic tribes, than to the Byzantine Greeks, who then occupied the
centre and southeast of Europe, and who were reduced to miserable
slavery. With the Franks, the Avars also came in conflict, and, after
various fortunes, were subdued by Charlemagne. Their subsequent history
cannot here be pursued, until they were swept away from the roll of the
European nations. Moreover, it was not until _after_ the fall of
Rome, that they were formidable.

[Sidenote: Final disasters of the empire.]

[Sidenote: Imbecile emperors.]

The real drama of the fall of Rome closes with the second sack of the
city by the Vandals, since the imperial power was nearly prostrated in
the West, and shut up within the walls of Ravenna. But Italy was the
scene of great disasters for twenty years after, until the last of the
emperors - Augustulus Romulus; what a name with which to close the series
of Roman emperors! - was dethroned by Odoacer, chief of the Heruli, a
Scythian tribe, and Rome was again stormed and sacked, A.D. 476. During
these twenty years, the East and the West were finally severed, and
Italy was ruled by barbaric chieftains, and their domination permanently
secured. Valentinian, the last emperor of the race of Theodosius, was
assassinated in the year 455 (at the instigation of the Senator Maximus,
of the celebrated Anician family, whose wife he had violated), a man who
had inherited all the weaknesses of his imperial house, without its
virtues, and under whose detestable reign the people were so oppressed
with taxes and bound down by inquisitions that they preferred the
barbarians to the empire. The successive reigns of Maximus, Avitus,
Majorian, Severus, Anthemius, Olybrius, Glycerius, Nepos, and
Augustulus, nine emperors in twenty - one years, suggests nothing but
disorder and revolution. The murderer of Valentinian reigned but three
months, during which Rome was sacked by the Vandals. Avitus was raised
to his vacant throne by the support of the Visigoths of Gaul, then ruled
by Theodoric, a majestic barbarian, and the most enlightened and
civilized of all the leaders of the Gothic hosts who had yet appeared.
He fought and vanquished the Suevi, who had established themselves in
Spain, in the name of the emperor whom he had placed upon the throne,
but he really ruled on both sides of the Alps, and Avitus was merely his
puppet, and distinguished only for his infamous pleasures, although, as
a general, he had once saved the empire from the Huns.

[Sidenote: Last days of Rome.]

He was in turn deposed by Count Ricimer, a Sueve, and generalissimo of
the Roman armies, and Majorian, whom Ricimer thought to make a tool, was
placed in his stead. But he was an able and good man, and attempted to
revive the traditions of the empire, and met the fate of all reformers
in a hopeless age, doubtless under the influence of Ricimer, who
substituted Severus, a Lucanian, who perished by poison after a reign of
four years, so soon as he became distasteful to the military
subordinate, who was all-powerful at Rome, and who ruled Italy for six
years without an emperor with despotic authority. During these six years
Italy was perpetually ravaged by the Vandals, who landed and pillaged
the coast, and then retired with their booty. Ricimer, without ships,
invoked the aid of the court of Constantinople, who imposed a Greek upon
the throne of Italy. Though a man of great ability, Anthemius, the new
emperor, was unpopular with the Italians and the barbarians, and he,
again, was deposed by Ricimer, and Olybrius, a senator of the Anician
house, reigned in his stead, A.D. 472. It was then that Rome for the
third time was sacked by one of her own generals. Olybrius reigned but a
few months, and Glycerius, captain of his guard, was selected as his
successor - an appointment disagreeable to the Greek Emperor Leo, who
opposed to him Julius Nepos - a distinguished general, who succeeded in
ejecting Glycerius. The Visigoths, offended, made war upon Roman Gaul.
Julius sent against them Orestes, a Pannonian, called the Patrician, who
turned a traitor, and, on the assassination of Julius, entered Ravenna
in triumph. His son, christened Romulus, the soldiers elevated upon a
shield and saluted Augustus; but as he was too small to wear the purple
robe, they called him Augustulus - a bitter mockery, recalling the battle
of Actium, and the foundation of Rome. He was the last of the Caesars. It
was easier to make an emperor than keep him in his place. The bands of
Orestes clamored for lands equal to a third of Italy. Orestes hesitated,
and refused the demand. The soldiers were united under Odoacer - chief of
the Heruli, a general in the service of the Patrician - one of the
boldest and most unscrupulous of those mercenaries who lent their arms
in the service of the government of Ravenna. The. standard of revolt was
raised, and the barbarian army marched against their former master.
Leaving his son in Ravenna, Orestes, himself an able general trained in
the service of Attila, went forth to meet his enemy on the Lombard
plains. Unable to make a stand, he shut himself up in Pavia, which was
taken and sacked, and Orestes put to death. The barbarians then marched
to Ravenna, which they took, with the boy who wore the purple, who was
not slain as his father was, but pensioned with six thousand crowns, and
sent to a Campanian villa, which once belonged to Sulla and Lucullus.
The throne of the Caesars was hopelessly subverted, and Odoacer was king
of Italy, and portioned out its lands to his greedy followers, A.D. 476.
He was not unworthy of his high position, but his kingdom was in a sad
state of desolation, and after a reign of fourteen years he was in turn
supplanted by the superior genius of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths,
under whom a new era dawned upon Italy and the West, A.D. 490.

[Sidenote: Dismemberment of the empire.]

The Roman empire was now dismembered, and the various tribes of
barbarians, after a contest of two hundred years were fairly settled in
its provinces.

[Sidenote: The settlement of the Ostrogoths in Italy.]

In Italy we find the Ostrogoths as a dominant power, who, migrating from
the mouth of the Danube, with all the barbarians they could enlist under
the standard of Theodoric, prevailed over Odoacer, and settled in Italy.
The Gothic kingdom was assailed afterward by Belisarius and Narses, the
great generals of Justinian, also by the Lombards under Alboin, who
maintained themselves in the north of Italy.

[Sidenote: The settlement of the franks in Gaul.]

Gaul was divided among the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Visigoths,
whose perpetual wars, and whose infant kingdom, it is not my object to

[Sidenote: The settlement of the Saxons in Britain.]

Britain was possessed by the Saxons, Spain by the Vandals, Suevi, and
Visigoths, and Africa by the Vandals, while the whole eastern empire
fell into the hands of the Saracens, except Constantinople, which
preserved the treasures of Greek and Roman civilization, until the
barbarians, elevated by the Christian religion, were prepared to ingraft
it upon their own rude laws and customs.

It would be interesting to trace the various fortunes of these Teutonic
tribes in the devastated provinces which they possessed by conquest. But
this would lead us into a boundless field, foreign to our inquiry. It is
the fall of Rome, not the reconstruction by the new races, which I seek
to present. It would also be interesting to survey the old capital of
the world in the hands of her various masters, pillaged and sacked by
all in turn; but her doom was sealed when Alaric entered the gates which
had been closed for six hundred years to a foreign enemy, and the empire
fell, virtually, when the haughty city, so long a queen among the
nations, yielded up her palaces as spoil. The eastern empire had a
longer life, but it was inglorious when Rome was no longer the superior

[Sidenote: Reflections on the fall of the empire.]

The story of the fall of the grandest empire ever erected on our earth
is simple and impressive. Genius, energy, and patience led to vast
possessions, which were retained by a uniform policy which nothing could
turn aside. Prosperity and success led to boundless self-exaggeration
and a depreciation of enemies, while the vices of self-interest
undermined gradually all real strength. Society became utterly
demoralized and weakened, and there were no conservative forces
sufficiently, strong to hold it together. Vitality was destroyed by
disproportionate fortunes, by slavery, by the extinction of the middle
classes, by the degradation of woman, by demoralizing excitements, by
factitious life, by imperial misrule, by proconsular tyranny, by
enervating vices, by the absence of elevated sentiments, by an all-
engrossing abandonment to money-making and the pleasures it procured, so
that no lofty appeal could be made to which the degenerate people would
listen, or which they could understand. The empire was rotten to the
core - was steeped in selfishness, sensuality, and frivolity, and the
poison pervaded all classes and orders, and descended to the extremities
of the social system. What could be done? There was no help from man.
The empire was on the verge of dissolution when the barbarians came.
They only gave a shock and hastened the fall. The empire was ripe fruit,
to be plucked by the strongest hand.

Three centuries earlier a brave resistance would have been' made, and
the barbarians would have been overthrown and annihilated or sold as
slaves. But they were now the stronger, even with their rude weapons,
and without the arts of war which the Romans had been learning for a
thousand years. Yet they suffered prodigious losses before they became
ultimately victorious. But they persevered, driven by necessity as well
as the love of adventure and rapine. Wave after wave was rolled back by
desperate generals; but the tide returned, and swept all away.

Fortunately, they reconstructed after they had once destroyed. They were
converts of Christianity, and had sympathy with many elements of
civilization. "Some solitary sparks fell from the beautiful world that
was passed upon the night of their labors." These kindled a fire which
has never been extinguished. They had, with all their barbarism, some
great elements of character, and in all the solid qualities of the
heart, were superior to the races they subdued. They brought their fresh
blood into the body politic, and were alive to sentiments of religion,
patriotism, and love. They were enthusiastic, hopeful, generous, and
uncontaminated by those subtle vices which ever lead to ruin. They made
innumerable mistakes, and committed inexcusable follies. But, after a
long pilgrimage, and severely disciplined by misfortunes, they erected a
new fabric, established by the beautiful union of German strength and
Roman art, on the more solid foundations of Christian truth.

* * * * *

The authorities for this chapter are not numerous. They are the
historians of the empire in its decline and miseries. Gibbon's history
is doubtless the best in English. He may be compared with Tillemont's
Hist, des Emperors. Sheppard has written an interesting and instructing
book on this period, but it pertains especially to the rise of the new
barbaric states. Tacitus' chapter on the Manners of the Germans should
be read in connection with the wars. Gibbon quotes largely from Ammianus
Marcellinus, who is the best Latin historian of the last days of Rome.
Zosimus is an authority, but he is brief. Procopius wrote a history of
the Vandal wars. Gregory of Tours describes the desolations in Gaul, as
well as Journandes. The writings of Jerome, Augustine, and other
fathers, allude somewhat to the miseries and wickedness of the times.
But of all the writers on this dark and gloomy period, Gibbon is the
most satisfactory and exhaustive; nor is it probable he will soon be
supplanted in a field so dreary and sad.



[Sidenote: Nothing conservative in mere human creation.]

It is a most interesting inquiry why art, literature, science,
philosophy, and political organizations, and other trophies of the
unaided reason of man, did not prevent so mournful an eclipse of human
glory as took place upon the fall of the majestic empire of the Romans.
There can be no question that civilization achieved most splendid
triumphs, even under the influence of pagan institutions. But it was not
paganism which achieved these victories; it was the will and the reason
of a noble race, in spite of its withering effects. It was the proud
reason of man which soared to such lofty heights, and attempted to
secure happiness and prosperity. These great ends were measurably
attained, and a self-sufficient philosopher might have pointed to these
victories as both glorious and permanent. When the eyes of
contemporaries rested on the beautiful and cultivated face of nature, on
commerce and ships, on military successes and triumphs, on the glories
of heroes and generals, on a subdued world, on a complicated mechanism
of social life, on the blazing wonders of art, on the sculptures and
pictures, the temples and monuments which ornamented every part of the
empire, when they reflected on the bright theories which philosophy
proposed, on the truths which were incorporated with the system of
jurisprudence, on the wondrous constitution which the experience of ages
had framed, on the genius of poets and historians, on the whole system
of social life, adorned with polished manners and the graces of genial
intercourse - when they saw that all these triumphs had been won over
barbarism, and had been constantly progressing with succeeding
generations, it seemed that the reign of peace and prosperity would be
perpetual. It is nothing to the point whether the civilization of which
all people boasted, and in which they trusted, was superior or inferior
to that which has subsequently been achieved by the Gothic races. The
question is, _Did_ these arts and sciences produce an influence
sufficiently strong to conserve society? That they polished and adorned

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 40 of 50)