Edward Gibbon.

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

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fury, their own dignity, and that of their prince; their baggage was
plundered, and their lives were only saved by the promise of a richer
present and a more respectful address. But _his_ sacred ambassadors
enjoyed and abused an unbounded license in the midst of Constantinople:
they urged, with importunate clamors, the increase of tribute, or the
restitution of captives and deserters: and the majesty of the empire
was almost equally degraded by a base compliance, or by the false and
fearful excuses with which they eluded such insolent demands. The
chagan had never seen an elephant; and his curiosity was excited by the
strange, and perhaps fabulous, portrait of that wonderful animal. At
his command, one of the largest elephants of the Imperial stables was
equipped with stately caparisons, and conducted by a numerous train to
the royal village in the plains of Hungary. He surveyed the enormous
beast with surprise, with disgust, and possibly with terror; and smiled
at the vain industry of the Romans, who, in search of such useless
rarities, could explore the limits of the land and sea. He wished, at
the expense of the emperor, to repose in a golden bed. The wealth of
Constantinople, and the skilful diligence of her artists, were instantly
devoted to the gratification of his caprice; but when the work was
finished, he rejected with scorn a present so unworthy the majesty of a
great king. These were the casual sallies of his pride; but the avarice
of the chagan was a more steady and tractable passion: a rich and
regular supply of silk apparel, furniture, and plate, introduced the
rudiments of art and luxury among the tents of the Scythians; their
appetite was stimulated by the pepper and cinnamon of India; the annual
subsidy or tribute was raised from fourscore to one hundred and twenty
thousand pieces of gold; and after each hostile interruption, the
payment of the arrears, with exorbitant interest, was always made the
first condition of the new treaty. In the language of a Barbarian,
without guile, the prince of the Avars affected to complain of the
insincerity of the Greeks; yet he was not inferior to the most civilized
nations in the refinement of dissimulation and perfidy. As the successor
of the Lombards, the chagan asserted his claim to the important city of
Sirmium, the ancient bulwark of the Illyrian provinces. The plains of
the Lower Hungary were covered with the Avar horse and a fleet of large
boats was built in the Hercynian wood, to descend the Danube, and to
transport into the Save the materials of a bridge. But as the strong
garrison of Singidunum, which commanded the conflux of the two rivers,
might have stopped their passage and baffled his designs, he dispelled
their apprehensions by a solemn oath that his views were not hostile to
the empire. He swore by his sword, the symbol of the god of war, that he
did not, as the enemy of Rome, construct a bridge upon the Save. "If
I violate my oath," pursued the intrepid Baian, "may I myself, and the
last of my nation, perish by the sword! May the heavens, and fire, the
deity of the heavens, fall upon our heads! May the forests and mountains
bury us in their ruins! and the Save returning, against the laws of
nature, to his source, overwhelm us in his angry waters!" After this
barbarous imprecation, he calmly inquired, what oath was most sacred
and venerable among the Christians, what guilt or perjury it was most
dangerous to incur. The bishop of Singidunum presented the gospel, which
the chagan received with devout reverence. "I swear," said he, "by the
God who has spoken in this holy book, that I have neither falsehood
on my tongue, nor treachery in my heart." As soon as he rose from his
knees, he accelerated the labor of the bridge, and despatched an envoy
to proclaim what he no longer wished to conceal. "Inform the emperor,"
said the perfidious Baian, "that Sirmium is invested on every side.
Advise his prudence to withdraw the citizens and their effects, and to
resign a city which it is now impossible to relieve or defend." Without
the hope of relief, the defence of Sirmium was prolonged above three
years: the walls were still untouched; but famine was enclosed within
the walls, till a merciful capitulation allowed the escape of the naked
and hungry inhabitants. Singidunum, at the distance of fifty miles,
experienced a more cruel fate: the buildings were razed, and the
vanquished people was condemned to servitude and exile. Yet the ruins of
Sirmium are no longer visible; the advantageous situation of Singidunum
soon attracted a new colony of Sclavonians, and the conflux of the Save
and Danube is still guarded by the fortifications of Belgrade, or the
_White City_, so often and so obstinately disputed by the Christian and
Turkish arms. From Belgrade to the walls of Constantinople a line may be
measured of six hundred miles: that line was marked with flames and with
blood; the horses of the Avars were alternately bathed in the Euxine and
the Adriatic; and the Roman pontiff, alarmed by the approach of a more
savage enemy, was reduced to cherish the Lombards, as the protectors
of Italy. The despair of a captive, whom his country refused to ransom,
disclosed to the Avars the invention and practice of military engines.
But in the first attempts they were rudely framed, and awkwardly
managed; and the resistance of Diocletianopolis and Beræa, of
Philippopolis and Adrianople, soon exhausted the skill and patience of
the besiegers. The warfare of Baian was that of a Tartar; yet his mind
was susceptible of a humane and generous sentiment: he spared Anchialus,
whose salutary waters had restored the health of the best beloved of his
wives; and the Romans confessed, that their starving army was fed and
dismissed by the liberality of a foe. His empire extended over Hungary,
Poland, and Prussia, from the mouth of the Danube to that of the Oder;
and his new subjects were divided and transplanted by the jealous policy
of the conqueror. The eastern regions of Germany, which had been
left vacant by the emigration of the Vandals, were replenished with
Sclavonian colonists; the same tribes are discovered in the neighborhood
of the Adriatic and of the Baltic, and with the name of Baian himself,
the Illyrian cities of Neyss and Lissa are again found in the heart of
Silesia. In the disposition both of his troops and provinces the chagan
exposed the vassals, whose lives he disregarded, to the first assault;
and the swords of the enemy were blunted before they encountered the
native valor of the Avars.

The Persian alliance restored the troops of the East to the defence of
Europe: and Maurice, who had supported ten years the insolence of
the chagan, declared his resolution to march in person against the
Barbarians. In the space of two centuries, none of the successors of
Theodosius had appeared in the field: their lives were supinely spent in
the palace of Constantinople; and the Greeks could no longer understand,
that the name of _emperor_, in its primitive sense, denoted the chief of
the armies of the republic. The martial ardor of Maurice was opposed
by the grave flattery of the senate, the timid superstition of the
patriarch, and the tears of the empress Constantina; and they all
conjured him to devolve on some meaner general the fatigues and perils
of a Scythian campaign. Deaf to their advice and entreaty, the emperor
boldly advanced seven miles from the capital; the sacred ensign of the
cross was displayed in the front; and Maurice reviewed, with conscious
pride, the arms and numbers of the veterans who had fought and conquered
beyond the Tigris. Anchialus was the last term of his progress by sea
and land; he solicited, without success, a miraculous answer to his
nocturnal prayers; his mind was confounded by the death of a favorite
horse, the encounter of a wild boar, a storm of wind and rain, and the
birth of a monstrous child; and he forgot that the best of omens is to
unsheathe our sword in the defence of our country. Under the pretence
of receiving the ambassadors of Persia, the emperor returned to
Constantinople, exchanged the thoughts of war for those of devotion,
and disappointed the public hope by his absence and the choice of his
lieutenants. The blind partiality of fraternal love might excuse the
promotion of his brother Peter, who fled with equal disgrace from the
Barbarians, from his own soldiers and from the inhabitants of a Roman
city. That city, if we may credit the resemblance of name and character,
was the famous Azimuntium, which had alone repelled the tempest of
Attila. The example of her warlike youth was propagated to succeeding
generations; and they obtained, from the first or the second Justin, an
honorable privilege, that their valor should be always reserved for the
defence of their native country. The brother of Maurice attempted
to violate this privilege, and to mingle a patriot band with the
mercenaries of his camp; they retired to the church, he was not awed
by the sanctity of the place; the people rose in their cause, the gates
were shut, the ramparts were manned; and the cowardice of Peter was
found equal to his arrogance and injustice. The military fame of
Commentiolus is the object of satire or comedy rather than of
serious history, since he was even deficient in the vile and vulgar
qualification of personal courage. His solemn councils, strange
evolutions, and secret orders, always supplied an apology for flight or
delay. If he marched against the enemy, the pleasant valleys of Mount
Hæmus opposed an insuperable barrier; but in his retreat, he explored,
with fearless curiosity, the most difficult and obsolete paths, which
had almost escaped the memory of the oldest native. The only blood which
he lost was drawn, in a real or affected malady, by the lancet of a
surgeon; and his health, which felt with exquisite sensibility the
approach of the Barbarians, was uniformly restored by the repose and
safety of the winter season. A prince who could promote and support this
unworthy favorite must derive no glory from the accidental merit of his
colleague Priscus. In five successive battles, which seem to have been
conducted with skill and resolution, seventeen thousand two hundred
Barbarians were made prisoners: near sixty thousand, with four sons of
the chagan, were slain: the Roman general surprised a peaceful district
of the Gepidæ, who slept under the protection of the Avars; and his last
trophies were erected on the banks of the Danube and the Teyss. Since
the death of Trajan the arms of the empire had not penetrated so deeply
into the old Dacia: yet the success of Priscus was transient and barren;
and he was soon recalled by the apprehension that Baian, with dauntless
spirit and recruited forces, was preparing to avenge his defeat under
the walls of Constantinople.

The theory of war was not more familiar to the camps of Cæsar and
Trajan, than to those of Justinian and Maurice. The iron of Tuscany or
Pontus still received the keenest temper from the skill of the Byzantine
workmen. The magazines were plentifully stored with every species of
offensive and defensive arms. In the construction and use of ships,
engines, and fortifications, the Barbarians admired the superior
ingenuity of a people whom they had so often vanquished in the field.
The science of tactics, the order, evolutions, and stratagems of
antiquity, was transcribed and studied in the books of the Greeks and
Romans. But the solitude or degeneracy of the provinces could no longer
supply a race of men to handle those weapons, to guard those walls,
to navigate those ships, and to reduce the theory of war into bold and
successful practice. The genius of Belisarius and Narses had been formed
without a master, and expired without a disciple Neither honor, nor
patriotism, nor generous superstition, could animate the lifeless bodies
of slaves and strangers, who had succeeded to the honors of the legions:
it was in the camp alone that the emperor should have exercised a
despotic command; it was only in the camps that his authority was
disobeyed and insulted: he appeased and inflamed with gold the
licentiousness of the troops; but their vices were inherent, their
victories were accidental, and their costly maintenance exhausted the
substance of a state which they were unable to defend. After a long and
pernicious indulgence, the cure of this inveterate evil was undertaken
by Maurice; but the rash attempt, which drew destruction on his own
head, tended only to aggravate the disease. A reformer should be exempt
from the suspicion of interest, and he must possess the confidence and
esteem of those whom he proposes to reclaim. The troops of Maurice
might listen to the voice of a victorious leader; they disdained the
admonitions of statesmen and sophists; and, when they received an edict
which deducted from their pay the price of their arms and clothing, they
execrated the avarice of a prince insensible of the dangers and fatigues
from which he had escaped. The camps both of Asia and Europe were
agitated with frequent and furious seditions; the enraged soldiers
of Edessa pursued with reproaches, with threats, with wounds, their
trembling generals; they overturned the statues of the emperor, cast
stones against the miraculous image of Christ, and either rejected the
yoke of all civil and military laws, or instituted a dangerous model of
voluntary subordination. The monarch, always distant and often deceived,
was incapable of yielding or persisting, according to the exigence of
the moment. But the fear of a general revolt induced him too readily to
accept any act of valor, or any expression of loyalty, as an atonement
for the popular offence; the new reform was abolished as hastily as it
had been announced, and the troops, instead of punishment and restraint,
were agreeably surprised by a gracious proclamation of immunities and
rewards. But the soldiers accepted without gratitude the tardy and
reluctant gifts of the emperor: their insolence was elated by the
discovery of his weakness and their own strength; and their mutual
hatred was inflamed beyond the desire of forgiveness or the hope of
reconciliation. The historians of the times adopt the vulgar suspicion,
that Maurice conspired to destroy the troops whom he had labored to
reform; the misconduct and favor of Commentiolus are imputed to this
malevolent design; and every age must condemn the inhumanity of avarice
of a prince, who, by the trifling ransom of six thousand pieces of gold,
might have prevented the massacre of twelve thousand prisoners in the
hands of the chagan. In the just fervor of indignation, an order
was signified to the army of the Danube, that they should spare the
magazines of the province, and establish their winter quarters in the
hostile country of the Avars. The measure of their grievances was full:
they pronounced Maurice unworthy to reign, expelled or slaughtered
his faithful adherents, and, under the command of Phocas, a
simple centurion, returned by hasty marches to the neighborhood of
Constantinople. After a long series of legal succession, the military
disorders of the third century were again revived; yet such was the
novelty of the enterprise, that the insurgents were awed by their
own rashness. They hesitated to invest their favorite with the vacant
purple; and, while they rejected all treaty with Maurice himself,
they held a friendly correspondence with his son Theodosius, and with
Germanus, the father-in-law of the royal youth. So obscure had been the
former condition of Phocas, that the emperor was ignorant of the
name and character of his rival; but as soon as he learned, that the
centurion, though bold in sedition, was timid in the face of danger,
"Alas!" cried the desponding prince, "if he is a coward, he will surely
be a murderer."

Yet if Constantinople had been firm and faithful, the murderer might
have spent his fury against the walls; and the rebel army would have
been gradually consumed or reconciled by the prudence of the emperor.
In the games of the Circus, which he repeated with unusual pomp,
Maurice disguised, with smiles of confidence, the anxiety of his heart,
condescended to solicit the applause of the _factions_, and flattered
their pride by accepting from their respective tribunes a list of nine
hundred _blues_ and fifteen hundred _greens_, whom he affected to esteem
as the solid pillars of his throne Their treacherous or languid support
betrayed his weakness and hastened his fall: the green faction were the
secret accomplices of the rebels, and the blues recommended lenity
and moderation in a contest with their Roman brethren The rigid and
parsimonious virtues of Maurice had long since alienated the hearts of
his subjects: as he walked barefoot in a religious procession, he was
rudely assaulted with stones, and his guards were compelled to present
their iron maces in the defence of his person. A fanatic monk ran
through the streets with a drawn sword, denouncing against him the
wrath and the sentence of God; and a vile plebeian, who represented
his countenance and apparel, was seated on an ass, and pursued by the
imprecations of the multitude. The emperor suspected the popularity of
Germanus with the soldiers and citizens: he feared, he threatened, but
he delayed to strike; the patrician fled to the sanctuary of the church;
the people rose in his defence, the walls were deserted by the guards,
and the lawless city was abandoned to the flames and rapine of a
nocturnal tumult. In a small bark, the unfortunate Maurice, with his
wife and nine children, escaped to the Asiatic shore; but the violence
of the wind compelled him to land at the church of St. Autonomus, near
Chalcedon, from whence he despatched Theodosius, he eldest son, to
implore the gratitude and friendship of the Persian monarch. For
himself, he refused to fly: his body was tortured with sciatic pains,
his mind was enfeebled by superstition; he patiently awaited the event
of the revolution, and addressed a fervent and public prayer to the
Almighty, that the punishment of his sins might be inflicted in this
world rather than in a future life. After the abdication of Maurice, the
two factions disputed the choice of an emperor; but the favorite of the
blues was rejected by the jealousy of their antagonists, and Germanus
himself was hurried along by the crowds who rushed to the palace of
Hebdomon, seven miles from the city, to adore the majesty of Phocas the
centurion. A modest wish of resigning the purple to the rank and merit
of Germanus was opposed by _his_ resolution, more obstinate and equally
sincere; the senate and clergy obeyed his summons; and, as soon as
the patriarch was assured of his orthodox belief, he consecrated the
successful usurper in the church of St. John the Baptist. On the third
day, amidst the acclamations of a thoughtless people, Phocas made his
public entry in a chariot drawn by four white horses: the revolt of the
troops was rewarded by a lavish donative; and the new sovereign, after
visiting the palace, beheld from his throne the games of the hippodrome.
In a dispute of precedency between the two factions, his partial
judgment inclined in favor of the greens. "Remember that Maurice is
still alive," resounded from the opposite side; and the indiscreet
clamor of the blues admonished and stimulated the cruelty of the tyrant.
The ministers of death were despatched to Chalcedon: they dragged
the emperor from his sanctuary; and the five sons of Maurice were
successively murdered before the eyes of their agonizing parent. At
each stroke, which he felt in his heart, he found strength to rehearse
a pious ejaculation: "Thou art just, O Lord! and thy judgments are
righteous." And such, in the last moments, was his rigid attachment to
truth and justice, that he revealed to the soldiers the pious falsehood
of a nurse who presented her own child in the place of a royal infant.
The tragic scene was finally closed by the execution of the emperor
himself, in the twentieth year of his reign, and the sixty-third of his
age. The bodies of the father and his five sons were cast into the sea;
their heads were exposed at Constantinople to the insults or pity of the
multitude; and it was not till some signs of putrefaction had appeared,
that Phocas connived at the private burial of these venerable remains.
In that grave, the faults and errors of Maurice were kindly interred.
His fate alone was remembered; and at the end of twenty years, in the
recital of the history of Theophylact, the mournful tale was interrupted
by the tears of the audience.

Such tears must have flowed in secret, and such compassion would have
been criminal, under the reign of Phocas, who was peaceably acknowledged
in the provinces of the East and West. The images of the emperor and his
wife Leontia were exposed in the Lateran to the veneration of the
clergy and senate of Rome, and afterwards deposited in the palace of the
Cæsars, between those of Constantine and Theodosius. As a subject and
a Christian, it was the duty of Gregory to acquiesce in the established
government; but the joyful applause with which he salutes the fortune of
the assassin, has sullied, with indelible disgrace, the character of the
saint. The successor of the apostles might have inculcated with decent
firmness the guilt of blood, and the necessity of repentance; he is
content to celebrate the deliverance of the people and the fall of the
oppressor; to rejoice that the piety and benignity of Phocas have been
raised by Providence to the Imperial throne; to pray that his hands may
be strengthened against all his enemies; and to express a wish,
perhaps a prophecy, that, after a long and triumphant reign, he may be
transferred from a temporal to an everlasting kingdom. I have already
traced the steps of a revolution so pleasing, in Gregory's opinion,
both to heaven and earth; and Phocas does not appear less hateful in
the exercise than in the acquisition of power The pencil of an impartial
historian has delineated the portrait of a monster: his diminutive and
deformed person, the closeness of his shaggy eyebrows, his red hair, his
beardless chin, and his cheek disfigured and discolored by a formidable
scar. Ignorant of letters, of laws, and even of arms, he indulged in
the supreme rank a more ample privilege of lust and drunkenness; and his
brutal pleasures were either injurious to his subjects or disgraceful
to himself. Without assuming the office of a prince, he renounced the
profession of a soldier; and the reign of Phocas afflicted Europe with
ignominious peace, and Asia with desolating war. His savage temper was
inflamed by passion, hardened by fear, and exasperated by resistance
of reproach. The flight of Theodosius to the Persian court had been
intercepted by a rapid pursuit, or a deceitful message: he was beheaded
at Nice, and the last hours of the young prince were soothed by the
comforts of religion and the consciousness of innocence. Yet his phantom
disturbed the repose of the usurper: a whisper was circulated through
the East, that the son of Maurice was still alive: the people expected
their avenger, and the widow and daughters of the late emperor would
have adopted as their son and brother the vilest of mankind. In the
massacre of the Imperial family, the mercy, or rather the discretion, of
Phocas had spared these unhappy females, and they were decently confined
to a private house. But the spirit of the empress Constantina, still
mindful of her father, her husband, and her sons, aspired to freedom
and revenge. At the dead of night, she escaped to the sanctuary of St.
Sophia; but her tears, and the gold of her associate Germanus, were
insufficient to provoke an insurrection. Her life was forfeited to
revenge, and even to justice: but the patriarch obtained and pledged an
oath for her safety: a monastery was allotted for her prison, and the
widow of Maurice accepted and abused the lenity of his assassin.
The discovery or the suspicion of a second conspiracy, dissolved the
engagements, and rekindled the fury, of Phocas. A matron who commanded
the respect and pity of mankind, the daughter, wife, and mother of
emperors, was tortured like the vilest malefactor, to force a confession
of her designs and associates; and the empress Constantina, with her
three innocent daughters, was beheaded at Chalcedon, on the same ground
which had been stained with the blood of her husband and five sons.
After such an example, it would be superfluous to enumerate the names
and sufferings of meaner victims. Their condemnation was seldom preceded
by the forms of trial, and their punishment was embittered by the

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 33 of 49)