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

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arrived, and the vilest domestics of the king and satraps were enrolled
for the last defence of the throne. It was still in the power of
Chosroes to obtain a reasonable peace; and he was repeatedly pressed by
the messengers of Heraclius to spare the blood of his subjects, and to
relieve a humane conqueror from the painful duty of carrying fire
and sword through the fairest countries of Asia. But the pride of the
Persian had not yet sunk to the level of his fortune; he derived a
momentary confidence from the retreat of the emperor; he wept with
impotent rage over the ruins of his Assyrian palaces, and disregarded
too long the rising murmurs of the nation, who complained that their
lives and fortunes were sacrificed to the obstinacy of an old man. That
unhappy old man was himself tortured with the sharpest pains both of
mind and body; and, in the consciousness of his approaching end, he
resolved to fix the tiara on the head of Merdaza, the most favored of
his sons. But the will of Chosroes was no longer revered, and Siroes,
who gloried in the rank and merit of his mother Sira, had conspired with
the malecontents to assert and anticipate the rights of primogeniture.
Twenty-two satraps (they styled themselves patriots) were tempted by the
wealth and honors of a new reign: to the soldiers, the heir of Chosroes
promised an increase of pay; to the Christians, the free exercise of
their religion; to the captives, liberty and rewards; and to the nation,
instant peace and the reduction of taxes. It was determined by the
conspirators, that Siroes, with the ensigns of royalty, should appear in
the camp; and if the enterprise should fail, his escape was contrived
to the Imperial court. But the new monarch was saluted with unanimous
acclamations; the flight of Chosroes (yet where could he have fled?) was
rudely arrested, eighteen sons were massacred before his face, and he
was thrown into a dungeon, where he expired on the fifth day. The Greeks
and modern Persians minutely describe how Chosroes was insulted, and
famished, and tortured, by the command of an inhuman son, who so far
surpassed the example of his father: but at the time of his death, what
tongue would relate the story of the parricide? what eye could penetrate
into the _tower of darkness?_ According to the faith and mercy of his
Christian enemies, he sunk without hope into a still deeper abyss; and
it will not be denied, that tyrants of every age and sect are the best
entitled to such infernal abodes. The glory of the house of Sassan ended
with the life of Chosroes: his unnatural son enjoyed only eight months
the fruit of his crimes: and in the space of four years, the regal title
was assumed by nine candidates, who disputed, with the sword or dagger,
the fragments of an exhausted monarchy. Every province, and each city of
Persia, was the scene of independence, of discord, and of blood; and the
state of anarchy prevailed about eight years longer, till the factions
were silenced and united under the common yoke of the Arabian caliphs.

As soon as the mountains became passable, the emperor received the
welcome news of the success of the conspiracy, the death of Chosroes,
and the elevation of his eldest son to the throne of Persia. The authors
of the revolution, eager to display their merits in the court or camp of
Tauris, preceded the ambassadors of Siroes, who delivered the letters of
their master to his _brother_ the emperor of the Romans. In the language
of the usurpers of every age, he imputes his own crimes to the Deity,
and, without degrading his equal majesty, he offers to reconcile the
long discord of the two nations, by a treaty of peace and alliance more
durable than brass or iron. The conditions of the treaty were easily
defined and faithfully executed. In the recovery of the standards and
prisoners which had fallen into the hands of the Persians, the emperor
imitated the example of Augustus: their care of the national dignity
was celebrated by the poets of the times, but the decay of genius may
be measured by the distance between Horace and George of Pisidia: the
subjects and brethren of Heraclius were redeemed from persecution,
slavery, and exile; but, instead of the Roman eagles, the true wood of
the holy cross was restored to the importunate demands of the successor
of Constantine. The victor was not ambitious of enlarging the weakness
of the empire; the son of Chosroes abandoned without regret the
conquests of his father; the Persians who evacuated the cities of Syria
and Egypt were honorably conducted to the frontier, and a war which had
wounded the vitals of the two monarchies, produced no change in their
external and relative situation. The return of Heraclius from Tauris to
Constantinople was a perpetual triumph; and after the exploits of six
glorious campaigns, he peaceably enjoyed the Sabbath of his toils. After
a long impatience, the senate, the clergy, and the people, went forth
to meet their hero, with tears and acclamations, with olive branches
and innumerable lamps; he entered the capital in a chariot drawn by four
elephants; and as soon as the emperor could disengage himself from
the tumult of public joy, he tasted more genuine satisfaction in the
embraces of his mother and his son.

The succeeding year was illustrated by a triumph of a very different
kind, the restitution of the true cross to the holy sepulchre. Heraclius
performed in person the pilgrimage of Jerusalem, the identity of the
relic was verified by the discreet patriarch, and this august ceremony
has been commemorated by the annual festival of the exaltation of the
cross. Before the emperor presumed to tread the consecrated ground, he
was instructed to strip himself of the diadem and purple, the pomp and
vanity of the world: but in the judgment of his clergy, the persecution
of the Jews was more easily reconciled with the precepts of the gospel.
* He again ascended his throne to receive the congratulations of the
ambassadors of France and India: and the fame of Moses, Alexander, and
Hercules, was eclipsed in the popular estimation, by the superior merit
and glory of the great Heraclius. Yet the deliverer of the East was
indigent and feeble. Of the Persian spoils, the most valuable portion
had been expended in the war, distributed to the soldiers, or buried,
by an unlucky tempest, in the waves of the Euxine. The conscience of the
emperor was oppressed by the obligation of restoring the wealth of the
clergy, which he had borrowed for their own defence: a perpetual fund
was required to satisfy these inexorable creditors; the provinces,
already wasted by the arms and avarice of the Persians, were compelled
to a second payment of the same taxes; and the arrears of a simple
citizen, the treasurer of Damascus, were commuted to a fine of one
hundred thousand pieces of gold. The loss of two hundred thousand
soldiers who had fallen by the sword, was of less fatal importance
than the decay of arts, agriculture, and population, in this long and
destructive war: and although a victorious army had been formed
under the standard of Heraclius, the unnatural effort appears to have
exhausted rather than exercised their strength. While the emperor
triumphed at Constantinople or Jerusalem, an obscure town on the
confines of Syria was pillaged by the Saracens, and they cut in pieces
some troops who advanced to its relief; an ordinary and trifling
occurrence, had it not been the prelude of a mighty revolution. These
robbers were the apostles of Mahomet; their fanatic valor had emerged
from the desert; and in the last eight years of his reign, Heraclius
lost to the Arabs the same provinces which he had rescued from the

Chapter XLVII: Ecclesiastical Discord. - Part I.

Theological History Of The Doctrine Of The Incarnation. - The
Human And Divine Nature Of Christ. - Enmity Of The Patriarchs
Of Alexandria And Constantinople. - St. Cyril And Nestorius. -
Third General Council Of Ephesus. - Heresy Of Eutyches. -
Fourth General Council Of Chalcedon. - Civil And
Ecclesiastical Discord. - Intolerance Of Justinian. - The
Three Chapters. - The Monothelite Controversy. - State Of The
Oriental Sects: - I. The Nestorians. - II. The Jacobites. -
III. The Maronites. - IV. The Armenians. - V. The Copts And

After the extinction of paganism, the Christians in peace and piety
might have enjoyed their solitary triumph. But the principle of discord
was alive in their bosom, and they were more solicitous to explore the
nature, than to practice the laws, of their founder. I have already
observed, that the disputes of the Trinity were succeeded by those of
the Incarnation; alike scandalous to the church, alike pernicious to the
state, still more minute in their origin, still more durable in their
effects. It is my design to comprise in the present chapter a religious
war of two hundred and fifty years, to represent the ecclesiastical and
political schism of the Oriental sects, and to introduce their clamorous
or sanguinary contests, by a modest inquiry into the doctrines of the
primitive church.

I. A laudable regard for the honor of the first proselyte has
countenanced the belief, the hope, the wish, that the Ebionites, or
at least the Nazarenes, were distinguished only by their obstinate
perseverance in the practice of the Mosaic rites. Their churches have
disappeared, their books are obliterated: their obscure freedom might
allow a latitude of faith, and the softness of their infant creed would
be variously moulded by the zeal or prudence of three hundred years. Yet
the most charitable criticism must refuse these sectaries any knowledge
of the pure and proper divinity of Christ. Educated in the school of
Jewish prophecy and prejudice, they had never been taught to elevate
their hopes above a human and temporal Messiah. If they had courage
to hail their king when he appeared in a plebeian garb, their grosser
apprehensions were incapable of discerning their God, who had studiously
disguised his celestial character under the name and person of a mortal.
The familiar companions of Jesus of Nazareth conversed with their friend
and countryman, who, in all the actions of rational and animal life,
appeared of the same species with themselves. His progress from infancy
to youth and manhood was marked by a regular increase in stature and
wisdom; and after a painful agony of mind and body, he expired on the
cross. He lived and died for the service of mankind: but the life and
death of Socrates had likewise been devoted to the cause of religion
and justice; and although the stoic or the hero may disdain the humble
virtues of Jesus, the tears which he shed over his friend and country
may be esteemed the purest evidence of his humanity. The miracles of the
gospel could not astonish a people who held with intrepid faith the more
splendid prodigies of the Mosaic law. The prophets of ancient days had
cured diseases, raised the dead, divided the sea, stopped the sun, and
ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. And the metaphorical style of the
Hebrews might ascribe to a saint and martyr the adoptive title of Son of

Yet in the insufficient creed of the Nazarenes and the Ebionites, a
distinction is faintly noticed between the heretics, who confounded the
generation of Christ in the common order of nature, and the less guilty
schismatics, who revered the virginity of his mother, and excluded the
aid of an earthly father. The incredulity of the former was countenanced
by the visible circumstances of his birth, the legal marriage of the
reputed parents, Joseph and Mary, and his lineal claim to the kingdom of
David and the inheritance of Judah. But the secret and authentic history
has been recorded in several copies of the Gospel according to St.
Matthew, which these sectaries long preserved in the original Hebrew, as
the sole evidence of their faith. The natural suspicions of the husband,
conscious of his own chastity, were dispelled by the assurance (in a
dream) that his wife was pregnant of the Holy Ghost: and as this distant
and domestic prodigy could not fall under the personal observation of
the historian, he must have listened to the same voice which dictated to
Isaiah the future conception of a virgin. The son of a virgin, generated
by the ineffable operation of the Holy Spirit, was a creature without
example or resemblance, superior in every attribute of mind and body to
the children of Adam. Since the introduction of the Greek or Chaldean
philosophy, the Jews were persuaded of the preexistence, transmigration,
and immortality of souls; and providence was justified by a supposition,
that they were confined in their earthly prisons to expiate the stains
which they had contracted in a former state. But the degrees of purity
and corruption are almost immeasurable. It might be fairly presumed,
that the most sublime and virtuous of human spirits was infused into the
offspring of Mary and the Holy Ghost; that his abasement was the result
of his voluntary choice; and that the object of his mission was, to
purify, not his own, but the sins of the world. On his return to his
native skies, he received the immense reward of his obedience; the
everlasting kingdom of the Messiah, which had been darkly foretold by
the prophets, under the carnal images of peace, of conquest, and of
dominion. Omnipotence could enlarge the human faculties of Christ to the
extend of is celestial office. In the language of antiquity, the title
of God has not been severely confined to the first parent, and his
incomparable minister, his only-begotten son, might claim, without
presumption, the religious, though secondary, worship of a subject of a
subject world.

II. The seeds of the faith, which had slowly arisen in the rocky and
ungrateful soil of Judea, were transplanted, in full maturity, to the
happier climes of the Gentiles; and the strangers of Rome or Asia, who
never beheld the manhood, were the more readily disposed to embrace the
divinity, of Christ. The polytheist and the philosopher, the Greek and
the Barbarian, were alike accustomed to conceive a long succession, an
infinite chain of angels or dæmons, or deities, or æons, or emanations,
issuing from the throne of light. Nor could it seem strange or
incredible, that the first of these æons, the _Logos_, or Word of God,
of the same substance with the Father, should descend upon earth, to
deliver the human race from vice and error, and to conduct them in
the paths of life and immortality. But the prevailing doctrine of the
eternity and inherent pravity of matter infected the primitive churches
of the East. Many among the Gentile proselytes refused to believe that
a celestial spirit, an undivided portion of the first essence, had been
personally united with a mass of impure and contaminated flesh; and,
in their zeal for the divinity, they piously abjured the humanity,
of Christ. While his blood was still recent on Mount Calvary, the
_Docetes_, a numerous and learned sect of Asiatics, invented the
_phantastic_ system, which was afterwards propagated by the Marcionites,
the Manichæans, and the various names of the Gnostic heresy. They denied
the truth and authenticity of the Gospels, as far as they relate the
conception of Mary, the birth of Christ, and the thirty years that
preceded the exercise of his ministry. He first appeared on the banks of
the Jordan in the form of perfect manhood; but it was a form only, and
not a substance; a human figure created by the hand of Omnipotence to
imitate the faculties and actions of a man, and to impose a perpetual
illusion on the senses of his friends and enemies. Articulate sounds
vibrated on the ears of the disciples; but the image which was impressed
on their optic nerve eluded the more stubborn evidence of the touch; and
they enjoyed the spiritual, not the corporeal, presence of the Son of
God. The rage of the Jews was idly wasted against an impassive phantom;
and the mystic scenes of the passion and death, the resurrection and
ascension, of Christ were represented on the theatre of Jerusalem for
the benefit of mankind. If it were urged, that such ideal mimicry,
such incessant deception, was unworthy of the God of truth, the Docetes
agreed with too many of their orthodox brethren in the justification of
pious falsehood. In the system of the Gnostics, the Jehovah of Israel,
the Creator of this lower world, was a rebellious, or at least an
ignorant, spirit. The Son of God descended upon earth to abolish his
temple and his law; and, for the accomplishment of this salutary end, he
dexterously transferred to his own person the hope and prediction of a
temporal Messiah.

One of the most subtile disputants of the Manichæan school has pressed
the danger and indecency of supposing, that the God of the Christians,
in the state of a human ftus, emerged at the end of nine months from
a female womb. The pious horror of his antagonists provoked them to
disclaim all sensual circumstances of conception and delivery; to
maintain that the divinity passed through Mary like a sunbeam through a
plate of glass; and to assert, that the seal of her virginity remained
unbroken even at the moment when she became the mother of Christ. But
the rashness of these concessions has encouraged a milder sentiment of
those of the Docetes, who taught, not that Christ was a phantom, but
that he was clothed with an impassible and incorruptible body.
Such, indeed, in the more orthodox system, he has acquired since his
resurrection, and such he must have always possessed, if it were capable
of pervading, without resistance or injury, the density of intermediate
matter. Devoid of its most essential properties, it might be exempt from
the attributes and infirmities of the flesh. A ftus that could increase
from an invisible point to its full maturity; a child that could attain
the stature of perfect manhood without deriving any nourishment from
the ordinary sources, might continue to exist without repairing a
daily waste by a daily supply of external matter. Jesus might share the
repasts of his disciples without being subject to the calls of thirst
or hunger; and his virgin purity was never sullied by the involuntary
stains of sensual concupiscence. Of a body thus singularly constituted,
a question would arise, by what means, and of what materials, it was
originally framed; and our sounder theology is startled by an answer
which was not peculiar to the Gnostics, that both the form and the
substance proceeded from the divine essence. The idea of pure and
absolute spirit is a refinement of modern philosophy: the incorporeal
essence, ascribed by the ancients to human souls, celestial beings, and
even the Deity himself, does not exclude the notion of extended space;
and their imagination was satisfied with a subtile nature of air, or
fire, or æther, incomparably more perfect than the grossness of the
material world. If we define the place, we must describe the figure, of
the Deity. Our experience, perhaps our vanity, represents the powers of
reason and virtue under a human form. The Anthropomorphites, who swarmed
among the monks of Egypt and the Catholics of Africa, could produce the
express declaration of Scripture, that man was made after the image of
his Creator. The venerable Serapion, one of the saints of the Nitrian
deserts, relinquished, with many a tear, his darling prejudice; and
bewailed, like an infant, his unlucky conversion, which had stolen
away his God, and left his mind without any visible object of faith or

III. Such were the fleeting shadows of the Docetes. A more substantial,
though less simple, hypothesis, was contrived by Cerinthus of Asia, who
dared to oppose the last of the apostles. Placed on the confines of the
Jewish and Gentile world, he labored to reconcile the Gnostic with the
Ebionite, by confessing in the same Messiah the supernatural union of a
man and a God; and this mystic doctrine was adopted with many fanciful
improvements by Carpocrates, Basilides, and Valentine, the heretics of
the Egyptian school. In their eyes, Jesus of Nazareth was a mere mortal,
the legitimate son of Joseph and Mary: but he was the best and wisest of
the human race, selected as the worthy instrument to restore upon earth
the worship of the true and supreme Deity. When he was baptized in
the Jordan, the Christ, the first of the æons, the Son of God himself,
descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, to inhabit his mind, and
direct his actions during the allotted period of his ministry. When
the Messiah was delivered into the hands of the Jews, the Christ, an
immortal and impassible being, forsook his earthly tabernacle, flew back
to the _pleroma_ or world of spirits, and left the solitary Jesus to
suffer, to complain, and to expire. But the justice and generosity of
such a desertion are strongly questionable; and the fate of an innocent
martyr, at first impelled, and at length abandoned, by his divine
companion, might provoke the pity and indignation of the profane.
Their murmurs were variously silenced by the sectaries who espoused and
modified the double system of Cerinthus. It was alleged, that when Jesus
was nailed to the cross, he was endowed with a miraculous apathy of mind
and body, which rendered him insensible of his apparent sufferings.
It was affirmed, that these momentary, though real, pangs would be
abundantly repaid by the temporal reign of a thousand years reserved for
the Messiah in his kingdom of the new Jerusalem. It was insinuated,
that if he suffered, he deserved to suffer; that human nature is never
absolutely perfect; and that the cross and passion might serve to
expiate the venial transgressions of the son of Joseph, before his
mysterious union with the Son of God.

IV. All those who believe the immateriality of the soul, a specious
and noble tenet, must confess, from their present experience, the
incomprehensible union of mind and matter. A similar union is not
inconsistent with a much higher, or even with the highest, degree of
mental faculties; and the incarnation of an æon or archangel, the most
perfect of created spirits, does not involve any positive contradiction
or absurdity. In the age of religious freedom, which was determined
by the council of Nice, the dignity of Christ was measured by private
judgment according to the indefinite rule of Scripture, or reason, or
tradition. But when his pure and proper divinity had been established on
the ruins of Arianism, the faith of the Catholics trembled on the edge
of a precipice where it was impossible to recede, dangerous to stand,
dreadful to fall and the manifold inconveniences of their creed were
aggravated by the sublime character of their theology. They hesitated
to pronounce; _that_ God himself, the second person of an equal and
consubstantial trinity, was manifested in the flesh; _that_ a being who
pervades the universe, had been confined in the womb of Mary; _that_ his
eternal duration had been marked by the days, and months, and years of
human existence; _that_ the Almighty had been scourged and crucified;
_that_ his impassible essence had felt pain and anguish; _that_ his
omniscience was not exempt from ignorance; and that the source of life
and immortality expired on Mount Calvary. These alarming consequences
were affirmed with unblushing simplicity by Apollinaris, bishop of
Laodicea, and one of the luminaries of the church. The son of a learned
grammarian, he was skilled in all the sciences of Greece; eloquence,
erudition, and philosophy, conspicuous in the volumes of Apollinaris,
were humbly devoted to the service of religion. The worthy friend of
Athanasius, the worthy antagonist of Julian, he bravely wrestled
with the Arians and Polytheists, and though he affected the rigor of
geometrical demonstration, his commentaries revealed the literal and
allegorical sense of the Scriptures. A mystery, which had long floated
in the looseness of popular belief, was defined by his perverse
diligence in a technical form; and he first proclaimed the memorable
words, "One incarnate nature of Christ," which are still reëchoed with
hostile clamors in the churches of Asia, Egypt, and Æthiopia. He taught
that the Godhead was united or mingled with the body of a man; and that
the _Logos_, the eternal wisdom, supplied in the flesh the place and
office of a human soul. Yet as the profound doctor had been terrified at
his own rashness, Apollinaris was heard to mutter some faint accents
of excuse and explanation. He acquiesced in the old distinction of the
Greek philosophers between the rational and sensitive soul of man; that

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 36 of 49)