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

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holy,) "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!" is supposed, by the
Greeks, to be the identical hymn which the angels and cherubim eternally
repeat before the throne of God, and which, about the middle of
the fifth century, was miraculously revealed to the church of
Constantinople. The devotion of Antioch soon added, "who was crucified
for us!" and this grateful address, either to Christ alone, or to the
whole Trinity, may be justified by the rules of theology, and has been
gradually adopted by the Catholics of the East and West. But it had
been imagined by a Monophysite bishop; the gift of an enemy was at first
rejected as a dire and dangerous blasphemy, and the rash innovation had
nearly cost the emperor Anastasius his throne and his life. The people
of Constantinople was devoid of any rational principles of freedom; but
they held, as a lawful cause of rebellion, the color of a livery in the
races, or the color of a mystery in the schools. The Trisagion, with
and without this obnoxious addition, was chanted in the cathedral by two
adverse choirs, and when their lungs were exhausted, they had recourse
to the more solid arguments of sticks and stones; the aggressors were
punished by the emperor, and defended by the patriarch; and the crown
and mitre were staked on the event of this momentous quarrel. The
streets were instantly crowded with innumerable swarms of men, women,
and children; the legions of monks, in regular array, marched, and
shouted, and fought at their head, "Christians! this is the day of
martyrdom: let us not desert our spiritual father; anathema to the
Manichæan tyrant! he is unworthy to reign." Such was the Catholic cry;
and the galleys of Anastasius lay upon their oars before the palace,
till the patriarch had pardoned his penitent, and hushed the waves
of the troubled multitude. The triumph of Macedonius was checked by a
speedy exile; but the zeal of his flock was again exasperated by the
same question, "Whether one of the Trinity had been crucified?" On
this momentous occasion, the blue and green factions of Constantinople
suspended their discord, and the civil and military powers were
annihilated in their presence. The keys of the city, and the standards
of the guards, were deposited in the forum of Constantine, the principal
station and camp of the faithful. Day and night they were incessantly
busied either in singing hymns to the honor of their God, or in
pillaging and murdering the servants of their prince. The head of his
favorite monk, the friend, as they styled him, of the enemy of the Holy
Trinity, was borne aloft on a spear; and the firebrands, which had
been darted against heretical structures, diffused the undistinguishing
flames over the most orthodox buildings. The statues of the emperor were
broken, and his person was concealed in a suburb, till, at the end of
three days, he dared to implore the mercy of his subjects. Without his
diadem, and in the posture of a suppliant, Anastasius appeared on the
throne of the circus. The Catholics, before his face, rehearsed their
genuine Trisagion; they exulted in the offer, which he proclaimed by
the voice of a herald, of abdicating the purple; they listened to the
admonition, that, since _all_ could not reign, they should previously
agree in the choice of a sovereign; and they accepted the blood of two
unpopular ministers, whom their master, without hesitation, condemned to
the lions. These furious but transient seditions were encouraged by the
success of Vitalian, who, with an army of Huns and Bulgarians, for
the most part idolaters, declared himself the champion of the Catholic
faith. In this pious rebellion he depopulated Thrace, besieged
Constantinople, exterminated sixty-five thousand of his
fellow-Christians, till he obtained the recall of the bishops, the
satisfaction of the pope, and the establishment of the council
of Chalcedon, an orthodox treaty, reluctantly signed by the dying
Anastasius, and more faithfully performed by the uncle of Justinian. And
such was the event of the _first_ of the religious wars which have been
waged in the name and by the disciples, of the God of peace.

Chapter XLVII: Ecclesiastical Discord. - Part IV.

Justinian has been already seen in the various lights of a prince, a
conqueror, and a lawgiver: the theologian still remains, and it affords
an unfavorable prejudice, that his theology should form a very prominent
feature of his portrait. The sovereign sympathized with his subjects in
their superstitious reverence for living and departed saints: his Code,
and more especially his Novels, confirm and enlarge the privileges
of the clergy; and in every dispute between a monk and a layman, the
partial judge was inclined to pronounce, that truth, and innocence,
and justice, were always on the side of the church. In his public and
private devotions, the emperor was assiduous and exemplary; his prayers,
vigils, and fasts, displayed the austere penance of a monk; his fancy
was amused by the hope, or belief, of personal inspiration; he had
secured the patronage of the Virgin and St. Michael the archangel; and
his recovery from a dangerous disease was ascribed to the miraculous
succor of the holy martyrs Cosmas and Damian. The capital and the
provinces of the East were decorated with the monuments of his religion;
and though the far greater part of these costly structures may be
attributed to his taste or ostentation, the zeal of the royal architect
was probably quickened by a genuine sense of love and gratitude towards
his invisible benefactors. Among the titles of Imperial greatness, the
name of _Pious_ was most pleasing to his ear; to promote the temporal
and spiritual interest of the church was the serious business of his
life; and the duty of father of his country was often sacrificed to that
of defender of the faith. The controversies of the times were congenial
to his temper and understanding and the theological professors must
inwardly deride the diligence of a stranger, who cultivated their art
and neglected his own. "What can ye fear," said a bold conspirator to
his associates, "from your bigoted tyrant? Sleepless and unarmed, he
sits whole nights in his closet, debating with reverend graybeards, and
turning over the pages of ecclesiastical volumes." The fruits of these
lucubrations were displayed in many a conference, where Justinian might
shine as the loudest and most subtile of the disputants; in many a
sermon, which, under the name of edicts and epistles, proclaimed to the
empire the theology of their master. While the Barbarians invaded the
provinces, while the victorious legion marched under the banners of
Belisarius and Narses, the successor of Trajan, unknown to the camp,
was content to vanquish at the head of a synod. Had he invited to these
synods a disinterested and rational spectator, Justinian might have
learned, "_that_ religious controversy is the offspring of arrogance
and folly; _that_ true piety is most laudably expressed by silence and
submission; _that_ man, ignorant of his own nature, should not presume
to scrutinize the nature of his God; and _that_ it is sufficient for us
to know, that power and benevolence are the perfect attributes of the

Toleration was not the virtue of the times, and indulgence to rebels has
seldom been the virtue of princes. But when the prince descends to the
narrow and peevish character of a disputant, he is easily provoked to
supply the defect of argument by the plenitude of power, and to chastise
without mercy the perverse blindness of those who wilfully shut their
eyes against the light of demonstration. The reign of Justinian was
a uniform yet various scene of persecution; and he appears to have
surpassed his indolent predecessors, both in the contrivance of his laws
and the rigor of their execution. The insufficient term of three months
was assigned for the conversion or exile of all heretics; and if he
still connived at their precarious stay, they were deprived, under
his iron yoke, not only of the benefits of society, but of the common
birth-right of men and Christians. At the end of four hundred years, the
Montanists of Phrygia still breathed the wild enthusiasm of perfection
and prophecy which they had imbibed from their male and female apostles,
the special organs of the Paraclete. On the approach of the Catholic
priests and soldiers, they grasped with alacrity the crown of martyrdom
the conventicle and the congregation perished in the flames, but these
primitive fanatics were not extinguished three hundred years after
the death of their tyrant. Under the protection of their Gothic
confederates, the church of the Arians at Constantinople had braved the
severity of the laws: their clergy equalled the wealth and magnificence
of the senate; and the gold and silver which were seized by the
rapacious hand of Justinian might perhaps be claimed as the spoils of
the provinces, and the trophies of the Barbarians. A secret remnant of
Pagans, who still lurked in the most refined and most rustic conditions
of mankind, excited the indignation of the Christians, who were perhaps
unwilling that any strangers should be the witnesses of their intestine
quarrels. A bishop was named as the inquisitor of the faith, and his
diligence soon discovered, in the court and city, the magistrates,
lawyers, physicians, and sophists, who still cherished the superstition
of the Greeks. They were sternly informed that they must choose without
delay between the displeasure of Jupiter or Justinian, and that their
aversion to the gospel could no longer be distinguished under the
scandalous mask of indifference or impiety. The patrician Photius,
perhaps, alone was resolved to live and to die like his ancestors: he
enfranchised himself with the stroke of a dagger, and left his tyrant
the poor consolation of exposing with ignominy the lifeless corpse of
the fugitive. His weaker brethren submitted to their earthly monarch,
underwent the ceremony of baptism, and labored, by their extraordinary
zeal, to erase the suspicion, or to expiate the guilt, of idolatry.
The native country of Homer, and the theatre of the Trojan war, still
retained the last sparks of his mythology: by the care of the same
bishop, seventy thousand Pagans were detected and converted in Asia,
Phrygia, Lydia, and Caria; ninety-six churches were built for the new
proselytes; and linen vestments, Bibles, and liturgies, and vases of
gold and silver, were supplied by the pious munificence of Justinian.
The Jews, who had been gradually stripped of their immunities, were
oppressed by a vexatious law, which compelled them to observe the
festival of Easter the same day on which it was celebrated by the
Christians. And they might complain with the more reason, since the
Catholics themselves did not agree with the astronomical calculations of
their sovereign: the people of Constantinople delayed the beginning of
their Lent a whole week after it had been ordained by authority; and
they had the pleasure of fasting seven days, while meat was exposed for
sale by the command of the emperor. The Samaritans of Palestine were a
motley race, an ambiguous sect, rejected as Jews by the Pagans, by the
Jews as schismatics, and by the Christians as idolaters. The abomination
of the cross had already been planted on their holy mount of Garizim,
but the persecution of Justinian offered only the alternative of baptism
or rebellion. They chose the latter: under the standard of a desperate
leader, they rose in arms, and retaliated their wrongs on the lives, the
property, and the temples, of a defenceless people. The Samaritans were
finally subdued by the regular forces of the East: twenty thousand were
slain, twenty thousand were sold by the Arabs to the infidels of Persia
and India, and the remains of that unhappy nation atoned for the crime
of treason by the sin of hypocrisy. It has been computed that one
hundred thousand Roman subjects were extirpated in the Samaritan war,
which converted the once fruitful province into a desolate and smoking
wilderness. But in the creed of Justinian, the guilt of murder could not
be applied to the slaughter of unbelievers; and he piously labored to
establish with fire and sword the unity of the Christian faith.

With these sentiments, it was incumbent on him, at least, to be always
in the right. In the first years of his administration, he signalized
his zeal as the disciple and patron of orthodoxy: the reconciliation of
the Greeks and Latins established the _tome_ of St. Leo as the creed of
the emperor and the empire; the Nestorians and Eutychians were exposed.
on either side, to the double edge of persecution; and the four synods
of Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus, and _Chalcedon_, were ratified by the
code of a Catholic lawgiver. But while Justinian strove to maintain the
uniformity of faith and worship, his wife Theodora, whose vices were not
incompatible with devotion, had listened to the Monophysite teachers;
and the open or clandestine enemies of the church revived and multiplied
at the smile of their gracious patroness. The capital, the palace, the
nuptial bed, were torn by spiritual discord; yet so doubtful was the
sincerity of the royal consorts, that their seeming disagreement was
imputed by many to a secret and mischievous confederacy against the
religion and happiness of their people. The famous dispute of the Three
Chapters, which has filled more volumes than it deserves lines, is
deeply marked with this subtile and disingenuous spirit. It was now
three hundred years since the body of Origen had been eaten by the
worms: his soul, of which he held the preexistence, was in the hands
of its Creator; but his writings were eagerly perused by the monks of
Palestine. In these writings, the piercing eye of Justinian descried
more than ten metaphysical errors; and the primitive doctor, in the
company of Pythagoras and Plato, was devoted by the clergy to the
_eternity_ of hell-fire, which he had presumed to deny. Under the
cover of this precedent, a treacherous blow was aimed at the council of
Chalcedon. The fathers had listened without impatience to the praise
of Theodore of Mopsuestia; and their justice or indulgence had restored
both Theodore of Cyrrhus, and Ibas of Edessa, to the communion of the
church. But the characters of these Oriental bishops were tainted with
the reproach of heresy; the first had been the master, the two others
were the friends, of Nestorius; their most suspicious passages were
accused under the title of the _three chapters_; and the condemnation
of their memory must involve the honor of a synod, whose name was
pronounced with sincere or affected reverence by the Catholic world. If
these bishops, whether innocent or guilty, were annihilated in the sleep
of death, they would not probably be awakened by the clamor which, after
the a hundred years, was raised over their grave. If they were already
in the fangs of the dæmon, their torments could neither be aggravated
nor assuaged by human industry. If in the company of saints and angels
they enjoyed the rewards of piety, they must have smiled at the idle
fury of the theological insects who still crawled on the surface of the
earth. The foremost of these insects, the emperor of the Romans, darted
his sting, and distilled his venom, perhaps without discerning the true
motives of Theodora and her ecclesiastical faction. The victims were no
longer subject to his power, and the vehement style of his edicts could
only proclaim their damnation, and invite the clergy of the East to
join in a full chorus of curses and anathemas. The East, with some
hesitation, consented to the voice of her sovereign: the fifth general
council, of three patriarchs and one hundred and sixty-five bishops, was
held at Constantinople; and the authors, as well as the defenders, of
the three chapters were separated from the communion of the saints, and
solemnly delivered to the prince of darkness. But the Latin churches
were more jealous of the honor of Leo and the synod of Chalcedon: and
if they had fought as they usually did under the standard of Rome, they
might have prevailed in the cause of reason and humanity. But their
chief was a prisoner in the hands of the enemy; the throne of St. Peter,
which had been disgraced by the simony, was betrayed by the cowardice,
of Vigilius, who yielded, after a long and inconsistent struggle, to
the despotism of Justinian and the sophistry of the Greeks. His apostasy
provoked the indignation of the Latins, and no more than two bishops
could be found who would impose their hands on his deacon and successor
Pelagius. Yet the perseverance of the popes insensibly transferred to
their adversaries the appellation of schismatics; the Illyrian, African,
and Italian churches were oppressed by the civil and ecclesiastical
powers, not without some effort of military force; the distant
Barbarians transcribed the creed of the Vatican, and, in the period of a
century, the schism of the three chapters expired in an obscure angle of
the Venetian province. But the religious discontent of the Italians
had already promoted the conquests of the Lombards, and the Romans
themselves were accustomed to suspect the faith and to detest the
government of their Byzantine tyrant.

Justinian was neither steady nor consistent in the nice process of
fixing his volatile opinions and those of his subjects. In his youth he
was, offended by the slightest deviation from the orthodox line; in
his old age he transgressed the measure of temperate heresy, and
the Jacobites, not less than the Catholics, were scandalized by his
declaration, that the body of Christ was incorruptible, and that his
manhood was never subject to any wants and infirmities, the inheritance
of our mortal flesh. This _fantastic_ opinion was announced in the last
edicts of Justinian; and at the moment of his seasonable departure, the
clergy had refused to subscribe, the prince was prepared to persecute,
and the people were resolved to suffer or resist. A bishop of Treves,
secure beyond the limits of his power, addressed the monarch of the East
in the language of authority and affection. "Most gracious Justinian,
remember your baptism and your creed. Let not your gray hairs be defiled
with heresy. Recall your fathers from exile, and your followers from
perdition. You cannot be ignorant, that Italy and Gaul, Spain and
Africa, already deplore your fall, and anathematize your name. Unless,
without delay, you destroy what you have taught; unless you exclaim
with a loud voice, I have erred, I have sinned, anathema to Nestorius,
anathema to Eutyches, you deliver your soul to the same flames in
which _they_ will eternally burn." He died and made no sign. His death
restored in some degree the peace of the church, and the reigns of his
four successors, Justin Tiberius, Maurice, and Phocas, are distinguished
by a rare, though fortunate, vacancy in the ecclesiastical history of
the East.

The faculties of sense and reason are least capable of acting on
themselves; the eye is most inaccessible to the sight, the soul to the
thought; yet we think, and even feel, that _one will_, a sole principle
of action, is essential to a rational and conscious being. When
Heraclius returned from the Persian war, the orthodox hero consulted his
bishops, whether the Christ whom he adored, of one person, but of two
natures, was actuated by a single or a double will. They replied in the
singular, and the emperor was encouraged to hope that the Jacobites of
Egypt and Syria might be reconciled by the profession of a doctrine,
most certainly harmless, and most probably true, since it was taught
even by the Nestorians themselves. The experiment was tried without
effect, and the timid or vehement Catholics condemned even the semblance
of a retreat in the presence of a subtle and audacious enemy. The
orthodox (the prevailing) party devised new modes of speech, and
argument, and interpretation: to either nature of Christ they speciously
applied a proper and distinct energy; but the difference was no longer
visible when they allowed that the human and the divine will were
invariably the same. The disease was attended with the customary
symptoms: but the Greek clergy, as if satiated with the endless
controversy of the incarnation, instilled a healing counsel into the
ear of the prince and people. They declared themselves monothelites,
(asserters of the unity of will,) but they treated the words as new,
the questions as superfluous; and recommended a religious silence as the
most agreeable to the prudence and charity of the gospel. This law of
silence was successively imposed by the _ecthesis_ or exposition
of Heraclius, the _type_ or model of his grandson Constans; and the
Imperial edicts were subscribed with alacrity or reluctance by the four
patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. But the
bishop and monks of Jerusalem sounded the alarm: in the language, or
even in the silence, of the Greeks, the Latin churches detected a
latent heresy: and the obedience of Pope Honorius to the commands of
his sovereign was retracted and censured by the bolder ignorance of his
successors. They condemned the execrable and abominable heresy of the
Monothelites, who revived the errors of Manes, Apollinaris, Eutyches,
&c.; they signed the sentence of excommunication on the tomb of St.
Peter; the ink was mingled with the sacramental wine, the blood of
Christ; and no ceremony was omitted that could fill the superstitious
mind with horror and affright. As the representative of the Western
church, Pope Martin and his Lateran synod anathematized the perfidious
and guilty silence of the Greeks: one hundred and five bishops of Italy,
for the most part the subjects of Constans, presumed to reprobate his
wicked _type_, and the impious _ecthesis_ of his grandfather; and to
confound the authors and their adherents with the twenty-one notorious
heretics, the apostates from the church, and the organs of the devil.
Such an insult under the tamest reign could not pass with impunity.
Pope Martin ended his days on the inhospitable shore of the Tauric
Chersonesus, and his oracle, the abbot Maximus, was inhumanly chastised
by the amputation of his tongue and his right hand. But the same
invincible spirit survived in their successors; and the triumph of the
Latins avenged their recent defeat, and obliterated the disgrace of the
three chapters. The synods of Rome were confirmed by the sixth general
council of Constantinople, in the palace and the presence of a new
Constantine, a descendant of Heraclius. The royal convert converted the
Byzantine pontiff and a majority of the bishops; the dissenters, with
their chief, Macarius of Antioch, were condemned to the spiritual and
temporal pains of heresy; the East condescended to accept the lessons of
the West; and the creed was finally settled, which teaches the Catholics
of every age, that two wills or energies are harmonized in the person of
Christ. The majesty of the pope and the Roman synod was represented by
two priests, one deacon, and three bishops; but these obscure Latins
had neither arms to compel, nor treasures to bribe, nor language to
persuade; and I am ignorant by what arts they could determine the lofty
emperor of the Greeks to abjure the catechism of his infancy, and to
persecute the religion of his fathers. Perhaps the monks and people of
Constantinople were favorable to the Lateran creed, which is indeed the
least reasonable of the two: and the suspicion is countenanced by the
unnatural moderation of the Greek clergy, who appear in this quarrel
to be conscious of their weakness. While the synod debated, a fanatic
proposed a more summary decision, by raising a dead man to life: the
prelates assisted at the trial; but the acknowledged failure may serve
to indicate, that the passions and prejudices of the multitude were not
enlisted on the side of the Monothelites. In the next generation,
when the son of Constantine was deposed and slain by the disciple of
Macarius, they tasted the feast of revenge and dominion: the image or
monument of the sixth council was defaced, and the original acts were
committed to the flames. But in the second year, their patron was cast
headlong from the throne, the bishops of the East were released from
their occasional conformity, the Roman faith was more firmly replanted
by the orthodox successors of Bardanes, and the fine problems of the
incarnation were forgotten in the more popular and visible quarrel of
the worship of images.

Before the end of the seventh century, the creed of the incarnation,
which had been defined at Rome and Constantinople, was uniformly

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 39 of 49)