Edward Gibbon.

History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 online

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Produced by David Reed and Dale R. Fredrickson


Edward Gibbon

With notes by the Rev. H. H. Milman

Vol. 4

1782 (Written), 1845 (Revised)

Chapter XXXIX: Gothic Kingdom Of Italy. - Part I.

Zeno And Anastasius, Emperors Of The East. - Birth,
Education, And First Exploits Of Theodoric The Ostrogoth. -
His Invasion And Conquest Of Italy. - The Gothic Kingdom Of
Italy. - State Of The West. - Military And Civil Government. -
The Senator Boethius. - Last Acts And Death Of Theodoric.

After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, an interval of fifty
years, till the memorable reign of Justinian, is faintly marked by the
obscure names and imperfect annals of Zeno, Anastasius, and Justin, who
successively ascended to the throne of Constantinople. During the same
period, Italy revived and flourished under the government of a Gothic
king, who might have deserved a statue among the best and bravest of the
ancient Romans.

Theodoric the Ostrogoth, the fourteenth in lineal descent of the royal
line of the Amali, was born in the neighborhood of Vienna two
years after the death of Attila. A recent victory had restored the
independence of the Ostrogoths; and the three brothers, Walamir,
Theodemir, and Widimir, who ruled that warlike nation with united
counsels, had separately pitched their habitations in the fertile though
desolate province of Pannonia. The Huns still threatened their revolted
subjects, but their hasty attack was repelled by the single forces of
Walamir, and the news of his victory reached the distant camp of his
brother in the same auspicious moment that the favorite concubine of
Theodemir was delivered of a son and heir. In the eighth year of his
age, Theodoric was reluctantly yielded by his father to the public
interest, as the pledge of an alliance which Leo, emperor of the East,
had consented to purchase by an annual subsidy of three hundred pounds
of gold. The royal hostage was educated at Constantinople with care and
tenderness. His body was formed to all the exercises of war, his mind
was expanded by the habits of liberal conversation; he frequented the
schools of the most skilful masters; but he disdained or neglected
the arts of Greece, and so ignorant did he always remain of the first
elements of science, that a rude mark was contrived to represent the
signature of the illiterate king of Italy. As soon as he had attained
the age of eighteen, he was restored to the wishes of the Ostrogoths,
whom the emperor aspired to gain by liberality and confidence. Walamir
had fallen in battle; the youngest of the brothers, Widimir, had led
away into Italy and Gaul an army of Barbarians, and the whole nation
acknowledged for their king the father of Theodoric. His ferocious
subjects admired the strength and stature of their young prince; and he
soon convinced them that he had not degenerated from the valor of his
ancestors. At the head of six thousand volunteers, he secretly left the
camp in quest of adventures, descended the Danube as far as Singidunum,
or Belgrade, and soon returned to his father with the spoils of a
Sarmatian king whom he had vanquished and slain. Such triumphs, however,
were productive only of fame, and the invincible Ostrogoths were reduced
to extreme distress by the want of clothing and food. They unanimously
resolved to desert their Pannonian encampments, and boldly to advance
into the warm and wealthy neighborhood of the Byzantine court, which
already maintained in pride and luxury so many bands of confederate
Goths. After proving, by some acts of hostility, that they could be
dangerous, or at least troublesome, enemies, the Ostrogoths sold at a
high price their reconciliation and fidelity, accepted a donative
of lands and money, and were intrusted with the defence of the Lower
Danube, under the command of Theodoric, who succeeded after his father's
death to the hereditary throne of the Amali.

A hero, descended from a race of kings, must have despised the base
Isaurian who was invested with the Roman purple, without any endowment
of mind or body, without any advantages of royal birth, or superior
qualifications. After the failure of the Theodosian life, the choice of
Pulcheria and of the senate might be justified in some measure by the
characters of Martin and Leo, but the latter of these princes confirmed
and dishonored his reign by the perfidious murder of Aspar and his sons,
who too rigorously exacted the debt of gratitude and obedience. The
inheritance of Leo and of the East was peaceably devolved on his infant
grandson, the son of his daughter Ariadne; and her Isaurian husband, the
fortunate Trascalisseus, exchanged that barbarous sound for the Grecian
appellation of Zeno. After the decease of the elder Leo, he approached
with unnatural respect the throne of his son, humbly received, as
a gift, the second rank in the empire, and soon excited the public
suspicion on the sudden and premature death of his young colleague,
whose life could no longer promote the success of his ambition. But the
palace of Constantinople was ruled by female influence, and agitated by
female passions: and Verina, the widow of Leo, claiming his empire as
her own, pronounced a sentence of deposition against the worthless and
ungrateful servant on whom she alone had bestowed the sceptre of the
East. As soon as she sounded a revolt in the ears of Zeno, he fled with
precipitation into the mountains of Isauria, and her brother Basiliscus,
already infamous by his African expedition, was unanimously proclaimed
by the servile senate. But the reign of the usurper was short and
turbulent. Basiliscus presumed to assassinate the lover of his sister;
he dared to offend the lover of his wife, the vain and insolent
Harmatius, who, in the midst of Asiatic luxury, affected the dress,
the demeanor, and the surname of Achilles. By the conspiracy of the
malecontents, Zeno was recalled from exile; the armies, the capital, the
person, of Basiliscus, were betrayed; and his whole family was condemned
to the long agony of cold and hunger by the inhuman conqueror, who
wanted courage to encounter or to forgive his enemies. The haughty
spirit of Verina was still incapable of submission or repose. She
provoked the enmity of a favorite general, embraced his cause as soon as
he was disgraced, created a new emperor in Syria and Egypt, raised an
army of seventy thousand men, and persisted to the last moment of her
life in a fruitless rebellion, which, according to the fashion of the
age, had been predicted by Christian hermits and Pagan magicians. While
the East was afflicted by the passions of Verina, her daughter Ariadne
was distinguished by the female virtues of mildness and fidelity;
she followed her husband in his exile, and after his restoration, she
implored his clemency in favor of her mother. On the decease of Zeno,
Ariadne, the daughter, the mother, and the widow of an emperor, gave
her hand and the Imperial title to Anastasius, an aged domestic of the
palace, who survived his elevation above twenty-seven years, and whose
character is attested by the acclamation of the people, "Reign as you
have lived!"

Whatever fear of affection could bestow, was profusely lavished by Zeno
on the king of the Ostrogoths; the rank of patrician and consul, the
command of the Palatine troops, an equestrian statue, a treasure in gold
and silver of many thousand pounds, the name of son, and the promise of
a rich and honorable wife. As long as Theodoric condescended to serve,
he supported with courage and fidelity the cause of his benefactor; his
rapid march contributed to the restoration of Zeno; and in the second
revolt, the _Walamirs_, as they were called, pursued and pressed the
Asiatic rebels, till they left an easy victory to the Imperial troops.
But the faithful servant was suddenly converted into a formidable enemy,
who spread the flames of war from Constantinople to the Adriatic; many
flourishing cities were reduced to ashes, and the agriculture of Thrace
was almost extirpated by the wanton cruelty of the Goths, who deprived
their captive peasants of the right hand that guided the plough. On
such occasions, Theodoric sustained the loud and specious reproach of
disloyalty, of ingratitude, and of insatiate avarice, which could be
only excused by the hard necessity of his situation. He reigned, not as
the monarch, but as the minister of a ferocious people, whose spirit was
unbroken by slavery, and impatient of real or imaginary insults. Their
poverty was incurable; since the most liberal donatives were soon
dissipated in wasteful luxury, and the most fertile estates became
barren in their hands; they despised, but they envied, the laborious
provincials; and when their subsistence had failed, the Ostrogoths
embraced the familiar resources of war and rapine. It had been the wish
of Theodoric (such at least was his declaration) to lead a peaceful,
obscure, obedient life on the confines of Scythia, till the Byzantine
court, by splendid and fallacious promises, seduced him to attack
a confederate tribe of Goths, who had been engaged in the party
of Basiliscus. He marched from his station in Mæsia, on the solemn
assurance that before he reached Adrianople, he should meet a plentiful
convoy of provisions, and a reënforcement of eight thousand horse
and thirty thousand foot, while the legions of Asia were encamped at
Heraclea to second his operations. These measures were disappointed by
mutual jealousy. As he advanced into Thrace, the son of Theodemir found
an inhospitable solitude, and his Gothic followers, with a heavy train
of horses, of mules, and of wagons, were betrayed by their guides among
the rocks and precipices of Mount Sondis, where he was assaulted by the
arms and invectives of Theodoric the son of Triarius. From a neighboring
height, his artful rival harangued the camp of the _Walamirs_, and
branded their leader with the opprobrious names of child, of madman, of
perjured traitor, the enemy of his blood and nation. "Are you ignorant,"
exclaimed the son of Triarius, "that it is the constant policy of the
Romans to destroy the Goths by each other's swords? Are you insensible
that the victor in this unnatural contest will be exposed, and justly
exposed, to their implacable revenge? Where are those warriors, my
kinsmen and thy own, whose widows now lament that their lives were
sacrificed to thy rash ambition? Where is the wealth which thy soldiers
possessed when they were first allured from their native homes to
enlist under thy standard? Each of them was then master of three or four
horses; they now follow thee on foot, like slaves, through the deserts
of Thrace; those men who were tempted by the hope of measuring gold with
a bushel, those brave men who are as free and as noble as thyself." A
language so well suited to the temper of the Goths excited clamor and
discontent; and the son of Theodemir, apprehensive of being left alone,
was compelled to embrace his brethren, and to imitate the example of
Roman perfidy.

In every state of his fortune, the prudence and firmness of Theodoric
were equally conspicuous; whether he threatened Constantinople at the
head of the confederate Goths, or retreated with a faithful band to the
mountains and sea-coast of Epirus. At length the accidental death of
the son of Triarius destroyed the balance which the Romans had been so
anxious to preserve, the whole nation acknowledged the supremacy of the
Amali, and the Byzantine court subscribed an ignominious and oppressive
treaty. The senate had already declared, that it was necessary to choose
a party among the Goths, since the public was unequal to the support of
their united forces; a subsidy of two thousand pounds of gold, with
the ample pay of thirteen thousand men, were required for the least
considerable of their armies; and the Isaurians, who guarded not the
empire but the emperor, enjoyed, besides the privilege of rapine, an
annual pension of five thousand pounds. The sagacious mind of Theodoric
soon perceived that he was odious to the Romans, and suspected by the
Barbarians: he understood the popular murmur, that his subjects were
exposed in their frozen huts to intolerable hardships, while their king
was dissolved in the luxury of Greece, and he prevented the painful
alternative of encountering the Goths, as the champion, or of leading
them to the field, as the enemy, of Zeno. Embracing an enterprise worthy
of his courage and ambition, Theodoric addressed the emperor in the
following words: "Although your servant is maintained in affluence by
your liberality, graciously listen to the wishes of my heart! Italy, the
inheritance of your predecessors, and Rome itself, the head and mistress
of the world, now fluctuate under the violence and oppression of Odoacer
the mercenary. Direct me, with my national troops, to march against
the tyrant. If I fall, you will be relieved from an expensive and
troublesome friend: if, with the divine permission, I succeed, I shall
govern in your name, and to your glory, the Roman senate, and the part
of the republic delivered from slavery by my victorious arms." The
proposal of Theodoric was accepted, and perhaps had been suggested, by
the Byzantine court. But the forms of the commission, or grant,
appear to have been expressed with a prudent ambiguity, which might be
explained by the event; and it was left doubtful, whether the conqueror
of Italy should reign as the lieutenant, the vassal, or the ally, of the
emperor of the East.

The reputation both of the leader and of the war diffused a universal
ardor; the _Walamirs_ were multiplied by the Gothic swarms already
engaged in the service, or seated in the provinces, of the empire; and
each bold Barbarian, who had heard of the wealth and beauty of Italy,
was impatient to seek, through the most perilous adventures, the
possession of such enchanting objects. The march of Theodoric must be
considered as the emigration of an entire people; the wives and children
of the Goths, their aged parents, and most precious effects, were
carefully transported; and some idea may be formed of the heavy baggage
that now followed the camp, by the loss of two thousand wagons, which
had been sustained in a single action in the war of Epirus. For their
subsistence, the Goths depended on the magazines of corn which was
ground in portable mills by the hands of their women; on the milk and
flesh of their flocks and herds; on the casual produce of the chase, and
upon the contributions which they might impose on all who should
presume to dispute the passage, or to refuse their friendly assistance.
Notwithstanding these precautions, they were exposed to the danger, and
almost to the distress, of famine, in a march of seven hundred miles,
which had been undertaken in the depth of a rigorous winter. Since the
fall of the Roman power, Dacia and Pannonia no longer exhibited the
rich prospect of populous cities, well-cultivated fields, and convenient
highways: the reign of barbarism and desolation was restored, and the
tribes of Bulgarians, Gepidæ, and Sarmatians, who had occupied the
vacant province, were prompted by their native fierceness, or the
solicitations of Odoacer, to resist the progress of his enemy. In many
obscure though bloody battles, Theodoric fought and vanquished; till at
length, surmounting every obstacle by skilful conduct and persevering
courage, he descended from the Julian Alps, and displayed his invincible
banners on the confines of Italy.

Odoacer, a rival not unworthy of his arms, had already occupied the
advantageous and well-known post of the River Sontius, near the ruins of
Aquileia, at the head of a powerful host, whose independent _kings_
or leaders disdained the duties of subordination and the prudence of
delays. No sooner had Theodoric gained a short repose and refreshment to
his wearied cavalry, than he boldly attacked the fortifications of the
enemy; the Ostrogoths showed more ardor to acquire, than the mercenaries
to defend, the lands of Italy; and the reward of the first victory was
the possession of the Venetian province as far as the walls of Verona.
In the neighborhood of that city, on the steep banks of the rapid
Adige, he was opposed by a new army, reënforced in its numbers, and not
impaired in its courage: the contest was more obstinate, but the event
was still more decisive; Odoacer fled to Ravenna, Theodoric advanced
to Milan, and the vanquished troops saluted their conqueror with loud
acclamations of respect and fidelity. But their want either of constancy
or of faith soon exposed him to the most imminent danger; his vanguard,
with several Gothic counts, which had been rashly intrusted to
a deserter, was betrayed and destroyed near Faenza by his double
treachery; Odoacer again appeared master of the field, and the invader,
strongly intrenched in his camp of Pavia, was reduced to solicit the
aid of a kindred nation, the Visigoths of Gaul. In the course of
this History, the most voracious appetite for war will be abundantly
satiated; nor can I much lament that our dark and imperfect materials do
not afford a more ample narrative of the distress of Italy, and of the
fierce conflict, which was finally decided by the abilities, experience,
and valor of the Gothic king. Immediately before the battle of Verona,
he visited the tent of his mother and sister, and requested, that on
a day, the most illustrious festival of his life, they would adorn him
with the rich garments which they had worked with their own hands. "Our
glory," said he, "is mutual and inseparable. You are known to the world
as the mother of Theodoric; and it becomes me to prove, that I am the
genuine offspring of those heroes from whom I claim my descent." The
wife or concubine of Theodemir was inspired with the spirit of the
German matrons, who esteemed their sons' honor far above their safety;
and it is reported, that in a desperate action, when Theodoric himself
was hurried along by the torrent of a flying crowd, she boldly met them
at the entrance of the camp, and, by her generous reproaches, drove them
back on the swords of the enemy.

From the Alps to the extremity of Calabria, Theodoric reigned by the
right of conquest; the Vandal ambassadors surrendered the Island of
Sicily, as a lawful appendage of his kingdom; and he was accepted as
the deliverer of Rome by the senate and people, who had shut their gates
against the flying usurper. Ravenna alone, secure in the fortifications
of art and nature, still sustained a siege of almost three years; and
the daring sallies of Odoacer carried slaughter and dismay into the
Gothic camp. At length, destitute of provisions and hopeless of relief,
that unfortunate monarch yielded to the groans of his subjects and the
clamors of his soldiers. A treaty of peace was negotiated by the bishop
of Ravenna; the Ostrogoths were admitted into the city, and the hostile
kings consented, under the sanction of an oath, to rule with equal
and undivided authority the provinces of Italy. The event of such an
agreement may be easily foreseen. After some days had been devoted to
the semblance of joy and friendship, Odoacer, in the midst of a solemn
banquet, was stabbed by the hand, or at least by the command, of his
rival. Secret and effectual orders had been previously despatched; the
faithless and rapacious mercenaries, at the same moment, and without
resistance, were universally massacred; and the royalty of Theodoric was
proclaimed by the Goths, with the tardy, reluctant, ambiguous consent
of the emperor of the East. The design of a conspiracy was imputed,
according to the usual forms, to the prostrate tyrant; but his
innocence, and the guilt of his conqueror, are sufficiently proved by
the advantageous treaty which _force_ would not sincerely have granted,
nor _weakness_ have rashly infringed. The jealousy of power, and the
mischiefs of discord, may suggest a more decent apology, and a sentence
less rigorous may be pronounced against a crime which was necessary to
introduce into Italy a generation of public felicity. The living author
of this felicity was audaciously praised in his own presence by
sacred and profane orators; but history (in his time she was mute and
inglorious) has not left any just representation of the events which
displayed, or of the defects which clouded, the virtues of Theodoric.
One record of his fame, the volume of public epistles composed by
Cassiodorus in the royal name, is still extant, and has obtained more
implicit credit than it seems to deserve. They exhibit the forms, rather
than the substance, of his government; and we should vainly search
for the pure and spontaneous sentiments of the Barbarian amidst the
declamation and learning of a sophist, the wishes of a Roman senator,
the precedents of office, and the vague professions, which, in
every court, and on every occasion, compose the language of discreet
ministers. The reputation of Theodoric may repose with more confidence
on the visible peace and prosperity of a reign of thirty-three years;
the unanimous esteem of his own times, and the memory of his wisdom and
courage, his justice and humanity, which was deeply impressed on the
minds of the Goths and Italians.

The partition of the lands of Italy, of which Theodoric assigned
the third part to his soldiers, is _honorably_ arraigned as the sole
injustice of his life. And even this act may be fairly justified by
the example of Odoacer, the rights of conquest, the true interest of the
Italians, and the sacred duty of subsisting a whole people, who, on the
faith of his promises, had transported themselves into a distant land.
Under the reign of Theodoric, and in the happy climate of Italy, the
Goths soon multiplied to a formidable host of two hundred thousand men,
and the whole amount of their families may be computed by the ordinary
addition of women and children. Their invasion of property, a part of
which must have been already vacant, was disguised by the generous but
improper name of _hospitality_; these unwelcome guests were irregularly
dispersed over the face of Italy, and the lot of each Barbarian was
adequate to his birth and office, the number of his followers, and the
rustic wealth which he possessed in slaves and cattle. The distinction
of noble and plebeian were acknowledged; but the lands of every freeman
were exempt from taxes, and he enjoyed the inestimable privilege
of being subject only to the laws of his country. Fashion, and even
convenience, soon persuaded the conquerors to assume the more elegant
dress of the natives, but they still persisted in the use of their
mother-tongue; and their contempt for the Latin schools was applauded
by Theodoric himself, who gratified their prejudices, or his own, by
declaring, that the child who had trembled at a rod, would never dare to
look upon a sword. Distress might sometimes provoke the indigent Roman
to assume the ferocious manners which were insensibly relinquished by
the rich and luxurious Barbarian; but these mutual conversions were not
encouraged by the policy of a monarch who perpetuated the separation of
the Italians and Goths; reserving the former for the arts of peace, and
the latter for the service of war. To accomplish this design, he studied
to protect his industrious subjects, and to moderate the violence,
without enervating the valor, of his soldiers, who were maintained for
the public defence. They held their lands and benefices as a military
stipend: at the sound of the trumpet, they were prepared to march under
the conduct of their provincial officers; and the whole extent of Italy
was distributed into the several quarters of a well-regulated camp. The
service of the palace and of the frontiers was performed by choice or by
rotation; and each extraordinary fatigue was recompensed by an increase
of pay and occasional donatives. Theodoric had convinced his brave
companions, that empire must be acquired and defended by the same arts.
After his example, they strove to excel in the use, not only of the
lance and sword, the instruments of their victories, but of the missile
weapons, which they were too much inclined to neglect; and the lively
image of war was displayed in the daily exercise and annual reviews of
the Gothic cavalry. A firm though gentle discipline imposed the habits
of modesty, obedience, and temperance; and the Goths were instructed
to spare the people, to reverence the laws, to understand the duties of
civil society, and to disclaim the barbarous license of judicial combat
and private revenge.

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 1 of 49)