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

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achieve with swords and spears the destruction of the enemy. Buccelin,
and the greatest part of his army, perished on the field of battle, in
the waters of the Vulturnus, or by the hands of the enraged peasants:
but it may seem incredible, that a victory, which no more than five of
the Alamanni survived, could be purchased with the loss of fourscore
Romans. Seven thousand Goths, the relics of the war, defended the
fortress of Campsa till the ensuing spring; and every messenger of
Narses announced the reduction of the Italian cities, whose names were
corrupted by the ignorance or vanity of the Greeks. After the battle
of Casilinum, Narses entered the capital; the arms and treasures of the
Goths, the Franks, and the Alamanni, were displayed; his soldiers, with
garlands in their hands, chanted the praises of the conqueror; and Rome,
for the last time, beheld the semblance of a triumph.

After a reign of sixty years, the throne of the Gothic kings was filled
by the exarchs of Ravenna, the representatives in peace and war of the
emperor of the Romans. Their jurisdiction was soon reduced to the limits
of a narrow province: but Narses himself, the first and most powerful
of the exarchs, administered above fifteen years the entire kingdom of
Italy. Like Belisarius, he had deserved the honors of envy, calumny,
and disgrace: but the favorite eunuch still enjoyed the confidence of
Justinian; or the leader of a victorious army awed and repressed the
ingratitude of a timid court. Yet it was not by weak and mischievous
indulgence that Narses secured the attachment of his troops. Forgetful
of the past, and regardless of the future, they abused the present hour
of prosperity and peace. The cities of Italy resounded with the noise
of drinking and dancing; the spoils of victory were wasted in sensual
pleasures; and nothing (says Agathias) remained unless to exchange their
shields and helmets for the soft lute and the capacious hogshead. In a
manly oration, not unworthy of a Roman censor, the eunuch reproved these
disorderly vices, which sullied their fame, and endangered their
safety. The soldiers blushed and obeyed; discipline was confirmed; the
fortifications were restored; a _duke_ was stationed for the defence and
military command of each of the principal cities; and the eye of Narses
pervaded the ample prospect from Calabria to the Alps. The remains of
the Gothic nation evacuated the country, or mingled with the people; the
Franks, instead of revenging the death of Buccelin, abandoned, without
a struggle, their Italian conquests; and the rebellious Sinbal, chief
of the Heruli, was subdued, taken and hung on a lofty gallows by the
inflexible justice of the exarch. The civil state of Italy, after the
agitation of a long tempest, was fixed by a pragmatic sanction, which
the emperor promulgated at the request of the pope. Justinian introduced
his own jurisprudence into the schools and tribunals of the West; he
ratified the acts of Theodoric and his immediate successors, but every
deed was rescinded and abolished which force had extorted, or fear had
subscribed, under the usurpation of Totila. A moderate theory was framed
to reconcile the rights of property with the safety of prescription, the
claims of the state with the poverty of the people, and the pardon of
offences with the interest of virtue and order of society. Under the
exarchs of Ravenna, Rome was degraded to the second rank. Yet the
senators were gratified by the permission of visiting their estates
in Italy, and of approaching, without obstacle, the throne of
Constantinople: the regulation of weights and measures was delegated
to the pope and senate; and the salaries of lawyers and physicians, of
orators and grammarians, were destined to preserve, or rekindle,
the light of science in the ancient capital. Justinian might dictate
benevolent edicts, and Narses might second his wishes by the restoration
of cities, and more especially of churches. But the power of kings is
most effectual to destroy; and the twenty years of the Gothic war had
consummated the distress and depopulation of Italy. As early as the
fourth campaign, under the discipline of Belisarius himself, fifty
thousand laborers died of hunger in the narrow region of Picenum; and a
strict interpretation of the evidence of Procopius would swell the loss
of Italy above the total sum of her present inhabitants.

I desire to believe, but I dare not affirm, that Belisarius sincerely
rejoiced in the triumph of Narses. Yet the consciousness of his own
exploits might teach him to esteem without jealousy the merit of a
rival; and the repose of the aged warrior was crowned by a last victory,
which saved the emperor and the capital. The Barbarians, who annually
visited the provinces of Europe, were less discouraged by some
accidental defeats, than they were excited by the double hope of spoil
and of subsidy. In the thirty-second winter of Justinian's reign, the
Danube was deeply frozen: Zabergan led the cavalry of the Bulgarians,
and his standard was followed by a promiscuous multitude of Sclavonians.
* The savage chief passed, without opposition, the river and the
mountains, spread his troops over Macedonia and Thrace, and advanced
with no more than seven thousand horse to the long wall, which should
have defended the territory of Constantinople. But the works of man are
impotent against the assaults of nature: a recent earthquake had shaken
the foundations of the wall; and the forces of the empire were employed
on the distant frontiers of Italy, Africa, and Persia. The seven
_schools_, or companies of the guards or domestic troops, had been
augmented to the number of five thousand five hundred men, whose
ordinary station was in the peaceful cities of Asia. But the places
of the brave Armenians were insensibly supplied by lazy citizens, who
purchased an exemption from the duties of civil life, without being
exposed to the dangers of military service. Of such soldiers, few could
be tempted to sally from the gates; and none could be persuaded to
remain in the field, unless they wanted strength and speed to escape
from the Bulgarians. The report of the fugitives exaggerated the numbers
and fierceness of an enemy, who had polluted holy virgins, and abandoned
new-born infants to the dogs and vultures; a crowd of rustics, imploring
food and protection, increased the consternation of the city, and the
tents of Zabergan were pitched at the distance of twenty miles, on the
banks of a small river, which encircles Melanthias, and afterwards falls
into the Propontis. Justinian trembled: and those who had only seen the
emperor in his old age, were pleased to suppose, that he had _lost_ the
alacrity and vigor of his youth. By his command the vessels of gold and
silver were removed from the churches in the neighborhood, and even
the suburbs, of Constantinople; the ramparts were lined with trembling
spectators; the golden gate was crowded with useless generals and
tribunes, and the senate shared the fatigues and the apprehensions of
the populace.

But the eyes of the prince and people were directed to a feeble veteran,
who was compelled by the public danger to resume the armor in which he
had entered Carthage and defended Rome. The horses of the royal stables,
of private citizens, and even of the circus, were hastily collected; the
emulation of the old and young was roused by the name of Belisarius,
and his first encampment was in the presence of a victorious enemy. His
prudence, and the labor of the friendly peasants, secured, with a ditch
and rampart, the repose of the night; innumerable fires, and clouds of
dust, were artfully contrived to magnify the opinion of his strength;
his soldiers suddenly passed from despondency to presumption; and,
while ten thousand voices demanded the battle, Belisarius dissembled his
knowledge, that in the hour of trial he must depend on the firmness of
three hundred veterans. The next morning the Bulgarian cavalry advanced
to the charge. But they heard the shouts of multitudes, they beheld the
arms and discipline of the front; they were assaulted on the flanks by
two ambuscades which rose from the woods; their foremost warriors fell
by the hand of the aged hero and his guards; and the swiftness of their
evolutions was rendered useless by the close attack and rapid pursuit of
the Romans. In this action (so speedy was their flight) the Bulgarians
lost only four hundred horse; but Constantinople was saved; and
Zabergan, who felt the hand of a master, withdrew to a respectful
distance. But his friends were numerous in the councils of the
emperor, and Belisarius obeyed with reluctance the commands of envy and
Justinian, which forbade him to achieve the deliverance of his country.
On his return to the city, the people, still conscious of their danger,
accompanied his triumph with acclamations of joy and gratitude, which
were imputed as a crime to the victorious general. But when he entered
the palace, the courtiers were silent, and the emperor, after a cold and
thankless embrace, dismissed him to mingle with the train of slaves.
Yet so deep was the impression of his glory on the minds of men, that
Justinian, in the seventy-seventh year of his age, was encouraged to
advance near forty miles from the capital, and to inspect in person the
restoration of the long wall. The Bulgarians wasted the summer in the
plains of Thrace; but they were inclined to peace by the failure of
their rash attempts on Greece and the Chersonesus. A menace of killing
their prisoners quickened the payment of heavy ransoms; and the
departure of Zabergan was hastened by the report, that double-prowed
vessels were built on the Danube to intercept his passage. The danger
was soon forgotten; and a vain question, whether their sovereign had
shown more wisdom or weakness, amused the idleness of the city.

Chapter XLIII: Last Victory And Death Of Belisarius, Death Of Justinian. - Part IV.

About two years after the last victory of Belisarius, the emperor
returned from a Thracian journey of health, or business, or devotion.
Justinian was afflicted by a pain in his head; and his private entry
countenanced the rumor of his death. Before the third hour of the day,
the bakers' shops were plundered of their bread, the houses were shut,
and every citizen, with hope or terror, prepared for the impending
tumult. The senators themselves, fearful and suspicious, were convened
at the ninth hour; and the præfect received their commands to visit
every quarter of the city, and proclaim a general illumination for
the recovery of the emperor's health. The ferment subsided; but every
accident betrayed the impotence of the government, and the factious
temper of the people: the guards were disposed to mutiny as often as
their quarters were changed, or their pay was withheld: the frequent
calamities of fires and earthquakes afforded the opportunities of
disorder; the disputes of the blues and greens, of the orthodox and
heretics, degenerated into bloody battles; and, in the presence of the
Persian ambassador, Justinian blushed for himself and for his subjects.
Capricious pardon and arbitrary punishment imbittered the irksomeness
and discontent of a long reign: a conspiracy was formed in the palace;
and, unless we are deceived by the names of Marcellus and Sergius, the
most virtuous and the most profligate of the courtiers were associated
in the same designs. They had fixed the time of the execution; their
rank gave them access to the royal banquet; and their black slaves were
stationed in the vestibule and porticos, to announce the death of the
tyrant, and to excite a sedition in the capital. But the indiscretion
of an accomplice saved the poor remnant of the days of Justinian. The
conspirators were detected and seized, with daggers hidden under their
garments: Marcellus died by his own hand, and Sergius was dragged from
the sanctuary. Pressed by remorse, or tempted by the hopes of safety, he
accused two officers of the household of Belisarius; and torture forced
them to declare that they had acted according to the secret instructions
of their patron. Posterity will not hastily believe that a hero who,
in the vigor of life, had disdained the fairest offers of ambition and
revenge, should stoop to the murder of his prince, whom he could not
long expect to survive. His followers were impatient to fly; but flight
must have been supported by rebellion, and he had lived enough for
nature and for glory. Belisarius appeared before the council with less
fear than indignation: after forty years' service, the emperor had
prejudged his guilt; and injustice was sanctified by the presence
and authority of the patriarch. The life of Belisarius was graciously
spared; but his fortunes were sequestered, and, from December to July,
he was guarded as a prisoner in his own palace. At length his innocence
was acknowledged; his freedom and honor were restored; and death, which
might be hastened by resentment and grief, removed him from the world
in about eight months after his deliverance. The name of Belisarius can
never die but instead of the funeral, the monuments, the statues, so
justly due to his memory, I only read, that his treasures, the spoil of
the Goths and Vandals, were immediately confiscated by the emperor. Some
decent portion was reserved, however for the use of his widow: and as
Antonina had much to repent, she devoted the last remains of her life
and fortune to the foundation of a convent. Such is the simple and
genuine narrative of the fall of Belisarius and the ingratitude of
Justinian. That he was deprived of his eyes, and reduced by envy to beg
his bread, "Give a penny to Belisarius the general!" is a fiction of
later times, which has obtained credit, or rather favor, as a strange
example of the vicissitudes of fortune.

If the emperor could rejoice in the death of Belisarius, he enjoyed
the base satisfaction only eight months, the last period of a reign
of thirty-eight years, and a life of eighty-three years. It would
be difficult to trace the character of a prince who is not the most
conspicuous object of his own times: but the confessions of an enemy may
be received as the safest evidence of his virtues. The resemblance
of Justinian to the bust of Domitian, is maliciously urged; with
the acknowledgment, however, of a well-proportioned figure, a ruddy
complexion, and a pleasing countenance. The emperor was easy of access,
patient of hearing, courteous and affable in discourse, and a master
of the angry passions which rage with such destructive violence in the
breast of a despot. Procopius praises his temper, to reproach him with
calm and deliberate cruelty: but in the conspiracies which attacked his
authority and person, a more candid judge will approve the justice, or
admire the clemency, of Justinian. He excelled in the private virtues
of chastity and temperance: but the impartial love of beauty would have
been less mischievous than his conjugal tenderness for Theodora; and his
abstemious diet was regulated, not by the prudence of a philosopher, but
the superstition of a monk. His repasts were short and frugal: on solemn
fasts, he contented himself with water and vegetables; and such was his
strength, as well as fervor, that he frequently passed two days, and as
many nights, without tasting any food. The measure of his sleep was not
less rigorous: after the repose of a single hour, the body was awakened
by the soul, and, to the astonishment of his chamberlain, Justinian
walked or studied till the morning light. Such restless application
prolonged his time for the acquisition of knowledge and the despatch of
business; and he might seriously deserve the reproach of confounding,
by minute and preposterous diligence, the general order of his
administration. The emperor professed himself a musician and architect,
a poet and philosopher, a lawyer and theologian; and if he failed in the
enterprise of reconciling the Christian sects, the review of the Roman
jurisprudence is a noble monument of his spirit and industry. In the
government of the empire, he was less wise, or less successful: the age
was unfortunate; the people was oppressed and discontented; Theodora
abused her power; a succession of bad ministers disgraced his judgment;
and Justinian was neither beloved in his life, nor regretted at his
death. The love of fame was deeply implanted in his breast, but he
condescended to the poor ambition of titles, honors, and contemporary
praise; and while he labored to fix the admiration, he forfeited the
esteem and affection, of the Romans. The design of the African and
Italian wars was boldly conceived and executed; and his penetration
discovered the talents of Belisarius in the camp, of Narses in the
palace. But the name of the emperor is eclipsed by the names of his
victorious generals; and Belisarius still lives, to upbraid the envy and
ingratitude of his sovereign. The partial favor of mankind applauds
the genius of a conqueror, who leads and directs his subjects in the
exercise of arms. The characters of Philip the Second and of Justinian
are distinguished by the cold ambition which delights in war, and
declines the dangers of the field. Yet a colossal statue of bronze
represented the emperor on horseback, preparing to march against the
Persians in the habit and armor of Achilles. In the great square before
the church of St. Sophia, this monument was raised on a brass column
and a stone pedestal of seven steps; and the pillar of Theodosius, which
weighed seven thousand four hundred pounds of silver, was removed from
the same place by the avarice and vanity of Justinian. Future princes
were more just or indulgent to _his_ memory; the elder Andronicus, in
the beginning of the fourteenth century, repaired and beautified his
equestrian statue: since the fall of the empire it has been melted into
cannon by the victorious Turks.

I shall conclude this chapter with the comets, the earthquakes, and the
plague, which astonished or afflicted the age of Justinian.

I. In the fifth year of his reign, and in the month of September, a
comet was seen during twenty days in the western quarter of the heavens,
and which shot its rays into the north. Eight years afterwards, while
the sun was in Capricorn, another comet appeared to follow in the
Sagittary; the size was gradually increasing; the head was in the east,
the tail in the west, and it remained visible above forty days. The
nations, who gazed with astonishment, expected wars and calamities
from their baleful influence; and these expectations were abundantly
fulfilled. The astronomers dissembled their ignorance of the nature of
these blazing stars, which they affected to represent as the floating
meteors of the air; and few among them embraced the simple notion of
Seneca and the Chaldeans, that they are only planets of a longer
period and more eccentric motion. Time and science have justified the
conjectures and predictions of the Roman sage: the telescope has opened
new worlds to the eyes of astronomers; and, in the narrow space of
history and fable, one and the same comet is already found to have
revisited the earth in _seven_ equal revolutions of five hundred and
seventy-five years. The _first_, which ascends beyond the Christian æra
one thousand seven hundred and sixty-seven years, is coeval with Ogyges,
the father of Grecian antiquity. And this appearance explains the
tradition which Varro has preserved, that under his reign the planet
Venus changed her color, size, figure, and course; a prodigy without
example either in past or succeeding ages. The _second_ visit, in the
year eleven hundred and ninety-three, is darkly implied in the fable of
Electra, the seventh of the Pleiads, who have been reduced to six since
the time of the Trojan war. That nymph, the wife of Dardanus, was unable
to support the ruin of her country: she abandoned the dances of her
sister orbs, fled from the zodiac to the north pole, and obtained,
from her dishevelled locks, the name of the _comet_. The _third_ period
expires in the year six hundred and eighteen, a date that exactly agrees
with the tremendous comet of the Sibyl, and perhaps of Pliny, which
arose in the West two generations before the reign of Cyrus. The
_fourth_ apparition, forty-four years before the birth of Christ, is of
all others the most splendid and important. After the death of Cæsar, a
long-haired star was conspicuous to Rome and to the nations, during the
games which were exhibited by young Octavian in honor of Venus and his
uncle. The vulgar opinion, that it conveyed to heaven the divine soul of
the dictator, was cherished and consecrated by the piety of a statesman;
while his secret superstition referred the comet to the glory of his own
times. The _fifth_ visit has been already ascribed to the fifth year of
Justinian, which coincides with the five hundred and thirty-first of
the Christian æra. And it may deserve notice, that in this, as in the
preceding instance, the comet was followed, though at a longer interval,
by a remarkable paleness of the sun. The _sixth_ return, in the year
eleven hundred and six, is recorded by the chronicles of Europe and
China: and in the first fervor of the crusades, the Christians and
the Mahometans might surmise, with equal reason, that it portended the
destruction of the Infidels. The _seventh_ phenomenon, of one thousand
six hundred and eighty, was presented to the eyes of an enlightened age.
The philosophy of Bayle dispelled a prejudice which Milton's muse had
so recently adorned, that the comet, "from its horrid hair shakes
pestilence and war." Its road in the heavens was observed with exquisite
skill by Flamstead and Cassini: and the mathematical science of
Bernoulli, Newton, and Halley, investigated the laws of its
revolutions. At the _eighth_ period, in the year two thousand three
hundred and fifty-five, their calculations may perhaps be verified
by the astronomers of some future capital in the Siberian or American

II. The near approach of a comet may injure or destroy the globe which
we inhabit; but the changes on its surface have been hitherto produced
by the action of volcanoes and earthquakes. The nature of the soil may
indicate the countries most exposed to these formidable concussions,
since they are caused by subterraneous fires, and such fires are kindled
by the union and fermentation of iron and sulphur. But their times
and effects appear to lie beyond the reach of human curiosity; and the
philosopher will discreetly abstain from the prediction of earthquakes,
till he has counted the drops of water that silently filtrate on
the inflammable mineral, and measured the caverns which increase by
resistance the explosion of the imprisoned air. Without assigning the
cause, history will distinguish the periods in which these calamitous
events have been rare or frequent, and will observe, that this fever of
the earth raged with uncommon violence during the reign of Justinian.
Each year is marked by the repetition of earthquakes, of such duration,
that Constantinople has been shaken above forty days; of such extent,
that the shock has been communicated to the whole surface of the globe,
or at least of the Roman empire. An impulsive or vibratory motion was
felt: enormous chasms were opened, huge and heavy bodies were discharged
into the air, the sea alternately advanced and retreated beyond its
ordinary bounds, and a mountain was torn from Libanus, and cast into
the waves, where it protected, as a mole, the new harbor of Botrys
in Phnicia. The stroke that agitates an ant-hill may crush the
insect-myriads in the dust; yet truth must extort confession that man
has industriously labored for his own destruction. The institution of
great cities, which include a nation within the limits of a wall, almost
realizes the wish of Caligula, that the Roman people had but one neck.
Two hundred and fifty thousand persons are said to have perished in the
earthquake of Antioch, whose domestic multitudes were swelled by the
conflux of strangers to the festival of the Ascension. The loss of
Berytus was of smaller account, but of much greater value. That city,
on the coast of Phnicia, was illustrated by the study of the civil
law, which opened the surest road to wealth and dignity: the schools of
Berytus were filled with the rising spirits of the age, and many a youth
was lost in the earthquake, who might have lived to be the scourge or
the guardian of his country. In these disasters, the architect becomes
the enemy of mankind. The hut of a savage, or the tent of an Arab, may
be thrown down without injury to the inhabitant; and the Peruvians had

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 22 of 49)