Edward Gibbon.

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

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the term of my labors, the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. Should
I persevere in the same course, should I observe the same measure, a
prolix and slender thread would be spun through many a volume, nor would
the patient reader find an adequate reward of instruction or amusement.
At every step, as we sink deeper in the decline and fall of the
Eastern empire, the annals of each succeeding reign would impose a more
ungrateful and melancholy task. These annals must continue to repeat a
tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery; the natural connection
of causes and events would be broken by frequent and hasty transitions,
and a minute accumulation of circumstances must destroy the light and
effect of those general pictures which compose the use and ornament of
a remote history. From the time of Heraclius, the Byzantine theatre is
contracted and darkened: the line of empire, which had been defined by
the laws of Justinian and the arms of Belisarius, recedes on all sides
from our view; the Roman name, the proper subject of our inquiries,
is reduced to a narrow corner of Europe, to the lonely suburbs of
Constantinople; and the fate of the Greek empire has been compared to
that of the Rhine, which loses itself in the sands, before its waters
can mingle with the ocean. The scale of dominion is diminished to our
view by the distance of time and place; nor is the loss of external
splendor compensated by the nobler gifts of virtue and genius. In the
last moments of her decay, Constantinople was doubtless more opulent and
populous than Athens at her most flourishing æra, when a scanty sum of
six thousand talents, or twelve hundred thousand pounds sterling was
possessed by twenty-one thousand male citizens of an adult age. But each
of these citizens was a freeman, who dared to assert the liberty of his
thoughts, words, and actions, whose person and property were guarded by
equal law; and who exercised his independent vote in the government
of the republic. Their numbers seem to be multiplied by the strong and
various discriminations of character; under the shield of freedom, on
the wings of emulation and vanity, each Athenian aspired to the level of
the national dignity; from this commanding eminence, some chosen spirits
soared beyond the reach of a vulgar eye; and the chances of superior
merit in a great and populous kingdom, as they are proved by experience,
would excuse the computation of imaginary millions. The territories of
Athens, Sparta, and their allies, do not exceed a moderate province of
France or England; but after the trophies of Salamis and Platea,
they expand in our fancy to the gigantic size of Asia, which had been
trampled under the feet of the victorious Greeks. But the subjects of
the Byzantine empire, who assume and dishonor the names both of Greeks
and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither
softened by the weakness of humanity, nor animated by the vigor of
memorable crimes. The freemen of antiquity might repeat with generous
enthusiasm the sentence of Homer, "that on the first day of his
servitude, the captive is deprived of one half of his manly virtue."
But the poet had only seen the effects of civil or domestic slavery, nor
could he foretell that the second moiety of manhood must be annihilated
by the spiritual despotism which shackles not only the actions, but even
the thoughts, of the prostrate votary. By this double yoke, the Greeks
were oppressed under the successors of Heraclius; the tyrant, a law of
eternal justice, was degraded by the vices of his subjects; and on the
throne, in the camp, in the schools, we search, perhaps with fruitless
diligence, the names and characters that may deserve to be rescued from
oblivion. Nor are the defects of the subject compensated by the skill
and variety of the painters. Of a space of eight hundred years, the four
first centuries are overspread with a cloud interrupted by some faint
and broken rays of historic light: in the lives of the emperors, from
Maurice to Alexius, Basil the Macedonian has alone been the theme of a
separate work; and the absence, or loss, or imperfection of contemporary
evidence, must be poorly supplied by the doubtful authority of more
recent compilers. The four last centuries are exempt from the reproach
of penury; and with the Comnenian family, the historic muse of
Constantinople again revives, but her apparel is gaudy, her motions are
without elegance or grace. A succession of priests, or courtiers,
treads in each other's footsteps in the same path of servitude and
superstition: their views are narrow, their judgment is feeble or
corrupt; and we close the volume of copious barrenness, still ignorant
of the causes of events, the characters of the actors, and the manners
of the times which they celebrate or deplore. The observation which
has been applied to a man, may be extended to a whole people, that the
energy of the sword is communicated to the pen; and it will be found by
experience, that the tone of history will rise or fall with the spirit
of the age.

From these considerations, I should have abandoned without regret the
Greek slaves and their servile historians, had I not reflected that the
fate of the Byzantine monarchy is _passively_ connected with the most
splendid and important revolutions which have changed the state of the
world. The space of the lost provinces was immediately replenished with
new colonies and rising kingdoms: the active virtues of peace and war
deserted from the vanquished to the victorious nations; and it is in
their origin and conquests, in their religion and government, that
we must explore the causes and effects of the decline and fall of the
Eastern empire. Nor will this scope of narrative, the riches and
variety of these materials, be incompatible with the unity of design
and composition. As, in his daily prayers, the Mussulman of Fez or Delhi
still turns his face towards the temple of Mecca, the historian's eye
shall be always fixed on the city of Constantinople. The excursive line
may embrace the wilds of Arabia and Tartary, but the circle will be
ultimately reduced to the decreasing limit of the Roman monarchy.

On this principle I shall now establish the plan of the last two volumes
of the present work. The first chapter will contain, in a regular
series, the emperors who reigned at Constantinople during a period of
six hundred years, from the days of Heraclius to the Latin conquest;
a rapid abstract, which may be supported by a _general_ appeal to the
order and text of the original historians. In this introduction, I
shall confine myself to the revolutions of the throne, the succession
of families, the personal characters of the Greek princes, the mode
of their life and death, the maxims and influence of their domestic
government, and the tendency of their reign to accelerate or suspend the
downfall of the Eastern empire. Such a chronological review will serve
to illustrate the various argument of the subsequent chapters; and each
circumstance of the eventful story of the Barbarians will adapt itself
in a proper place to the Byzantine annals. The internal state of the
empire, and the dangerous heresy of the Paulicians, which shook the East
and enlightened the West, will be the subject of two separate chapters;
but these inquiries must be postponed till our further progress shall
have opened the view of the world in the ninth and tenth centuries of
the Christian area. After this foundation of Byzantine history, the
following nations will pass before our eyes, and each will occupy the
space to which it may be entitled by greatness or merit, or the degree
of connection with the Roman world and the present age. I. The Franks; a
general appellation which includes all the Barbarians of France, Italy,
and Germany, who were united by the sword and sceptre of Charlemagne.
The persecution of images and their votaries separated Rome and Italy
from the Byzantine throne, and prepared the restoration of the Roman
empire in the West. II. The Arabs or Saracens. Three ample chapters will
be devoted to this curious and interesting object. In the first, after
a picture of the country and its inhabitants, I shall investigate
the character of Mahomet; the character, religion, and success of the
prophet. In the second, I shall lead the Arabs to the conquest of Syria,
Egypt, and Africa, the provinces of the Roman empire; nor can I check
their victorious career till they have overthrown the monarchies of
Persia and Spain. In the third, I shall inquire how Constantinople and
Europe were saved by the luxury and arts, the division and decay, of
the empire of the caliphs. A single chapter will include, III. The
Bulgarians, IV. Hungarians, and, V. Russians, who assaulted by sea or by
land the provinces and the capital; but the last of these, so important
in their present greatness, will excite some curiosity in their origin
and infancy. VI. The Normans; or rather the private adventurers of that
warlike people, who founded a powerful kingdom in Apulia and Sicily,
shook the throne of Constantinople, displayed the trophies of chivalry,
and almost realized the wonders of romance. VII. The Latins; the
subjects of the pope, the nations of the West, who enlisted under the
banner of the cross for the recovery or relief of the holy sepulchre.
The Greek emperors were terrified and preserved by the myriads of
pilgrims who marched to Jerusalem with Godfrey of Bouillon and the peers
of Christendom. The second and third crusades trod in the footsteps of
the first: Asia and Europe were mingled in a sacred war of two hundred
years; and the Christian powers were bravely resisted, and finally
expelled by Saladin and the Mamelukes of Egypt. In these memorable
crusades, a fleet and army of French and Venetians were diverted from
Syria to the Thracian Bosphorus: they assaulted the capital, they
subverted the Greek monarchy: and a dynasty of Latin princes was seated
near threescore years on the throne of Constantine. VIII. The Greeks
themselves, during this period of captivity and exile, must be
considered as a foreign nation; the enemies, and again the sovereigns of
Constantinople. Misfortune had rekindled a spark of national virtue;
and the Imperial series may be continued with some dignity from their
restoration to the Turkish conquest. IX. The Moguls and Tartars. By the
arms of Zingis and his descendants, the globe was shaken from China to
Poland and Greece: the sultans were overthrown: the caliphs fell, and
the Cæsars trembled on their throne. The victories of Timour suspended
above fifty years the final ruin of the Byzantine empire. X. I have
already noticed the first appearance of the Turks; and the names of
the fathers, of _Seljuk_ and _Othman_, discriminate the two successive
dynasties of the nation, which emerged in the eleventh century from
the Scythian wilderness. The former established a splendid and potent
kingdom from the banks of the Oxus to Antioch and Nice; and the first
crusade was provoked by the violation of Jerusalem and the danger of
Constantinople. From an humble origin, the _Ottomans_ arose, the scourge
and terror of Christendom. Constantinople was besieged and taken by
Mahomet II., and his triumph annihilates the remnant, the image, the
title, of the Roman empire in the East. The schism of the Greeks will be
connected with their last calamities, and the restoration of learning in
the Western world. I shall return from the captivity of the new, to the
ruins of ancient Rome; and the venerable name, the interesting theme,
will shed a ray of glory on the conclusion of my labors.

The emperor Heraclius had punished a tyrant and ascended his throne; and
the memory of his reign is perpetuated by the transient conquest, and
irreparable loss, of the Eastern provinces. After the death of Eudocia,
his first wife, he disobeyed the patriarch, and violated the laws, by
his second marriage with his niece Martina; and the superstition of the
Greeks beheld the judgment of Heaven in the diseases of the father and
the deformity of his offspring. But the opinion of an illegitimate birth
is sufficient to distract the choice, and loosen the obedience, of the
people: the ambition of Martina was quickened by maternal love, and
perhaps by the envy of a step-mother; and the aged husband was too
feeble to withstand the arts of conjugal allurements. Constantine,
his eldest son, enjoyed in a mature age the title of Augustus; but the
weakness of his constitution required a colleague and a guardian, and
he yielded with secret reluctance to the partition of the empire. The
senate was summoned to the palace to ratify or attest the association
of Heracleonas, the son of Martina: the imposition of the diadem was
consecrated by the prayer and blessing of the patriarch; the senators
and patricians adored the majesty of the great emperor and the partners
of his reign; and as soon as the doors were thrown open, they were
hailed by the tumultuary but important voice of the soldiers. After an
interval of five months, the pompous ceremonies which formed the
essence of the Byzantine state were celebrated in the cathedral and the
hippodrome; the concord of the royal brothers was affectedly displayed
by the younger leaning on the arm of the elder; and the name of Martina
was mingled in the reluctant or venal acclamations of the people.
Heraclius survived this association about two years: his last testimony
declared his two sons the equal heirs of the Eastern empire, and
commanded them to honor his widow Martina as their mother and their

When Martina first appeared on the throne with the name and attributes
of royalty, she was checked by a firm, though respectful, opposition;
and the dying embers of freedom were kindled by the breath of
superstitious prejudice. "We reverence," exclaimed the voice of a
citizen, "we reverence the mother of our princes; but to those princes
alone our obedience is due; and Constantine, the elder emperor, is of an
age to sustain, in his own hands, the weight of the sceptre. Your sex is
excluded by nature from the toils of government. How could you combat,
how could you answer, the Barbarians, who, with hostile or friendly
intentions, may approach the royal city? May Heaven avert from the Roman
republic this national disgrace, which would provoke the patience of the
slaves of Persia!" Martina descended from the throne with indignation,
and sought a refuge in the female apartment of the palace. The reign of
Constantine the Third lasted only one hundred and three days: he expired
in the thirtieth year of his age, and, although his life had been a long
malady, a belief was entertained that poison had been the means, and
his cruel step-mother the author, of his untimely fate. Martina reaped
indeed the harvest of his death, and assumed the government in the name
of the surviving emperor; but the incestuous widow of Heraclius was
universally abhorred; the jealousy of the people was awakened, and the
two orphans whom Constantine had left became the objects of the public
care. It was in vain that the son of Martina, who was no more than
fifteen years of age, was taught to declare himself the guardian of his
nephews, one of whom he had presented at the baptismal font: it was in
vain that he swore on the wood of the true cross, to defend them against
all their enemies. On his death-bed, the late emperor had despatched
a trusty servant to arm the troops and provinces of the East in the
defence of his helpless children: the eloquence and liberality of
Valentin had been successful, and from his camp of Chalcedon, he boldly
demanded the punishment of the assassins, and the restoration of the
lawful heir. The license of the soldiers, who devoured the grapes and
drank the wine of their Asiatic vineyards, provoked the citizens of
Constantinople against the domestic authors of their calamities, and the
dome of St. Sophia reëchoed, not with prayers and hymns, but with the
clamors and imprecations of an enraged multitude. At their imperious
command, Heracleonas appeared in the pulpit with the eldest of the royal
orphans; Constans alone was saluted as emperor of the Romans, and a
crown of gold, which had been taken from the tomb of Heraclius, was
placed on his head, with the solemn benediction of the patriarch. But
in the tumult of joy and indignation, the church was pillaged, the
sanctuary was polluted by a promiscuous crowd of Jews and Barbarians;
and the Monothelite Pyrrhus, a creature of the empress, after dropping a
protestation on the altar, escaped by a prudent flight from the zeal
of the Catholics. A more serious and bloody task was reserved for
the senate, who derived a temporary strength from the consent of the
soldiers and people. The spirit of Roman freedom revived the ancient
and awful examples of the judgment of tyrants, and the Imperial culprits
were deposed and condemned as the authors of the death of Constantine.
But the severity of the conscript fathers was stained by the
indiscriminate punishment of the innocent and the guilty: Martina and
Heracleonas were sentenced to the amputation, the former of her tongue,
the latter of his nose; and after this cruel execution, they consumed
the remainder of their days in exile and oblivion. The Greeks who were
capable of reflection might find some consolation for their servitude,
by observing the abuse of power when it was lodged for a moment in the
hands of an aristocracy.

We shall imagine ourselves transported five hundred years backwards to
the age of the Antonines, if we listen to the oration which Constans II.
pronounced in the twelfth year of his age before the Byzantine senate.
After returning his thanks for the just punishment of the assassins, who
had intercepted the fairest hopes of his father's reign, "By the divine
Providence," said the young emperor, "and by your righteous decree,
Martina and her incestuous progeny have been cast headlong from the
throne. Your majesty and wisdom have prevented the Roman state from
degenerating into lawless tyranny. I therefore exhort and beseech you
to stand forth as the counsellors and judges of the common safety." The
senators were gratified by the respectful address and liberal donative
of their sovereign; but these servile Greeks were unworthy and
regardless of freedom; and in his mind, the lesson of an hour was
quickly erased by the prejudices of the age and the habits of despotism.
He retained only a jealous fear lest the senate or people should one day
invade the right of primogeniture, and seat his brother Theodosius on
an equal throne. By the imposition of holy orders, the grandson of
Heraclius was disqualified for the purple; but this ceremony, which
seemed to profane the sacraments of the church, was insufficient to
appease the suspicions of the tyrant, and the death of the deacon
Theodosius could alone expiate the crime of his royal birth. His
murder was avenged by the imprecations of the people, and the assassin,
in the fullness of power, was driven from his capital into voluntary
and perpetual exile. Constans embarked for Greece and, as if he meant
to retort the abhorrence which he deserved he is said, from the Imperial
galley, to have spit against the walls of his native city. After passing
the winter at Athens, he sailed to Tarentum in Italy, visited Rome,
and concluded a long pilgrimage of disgrace and sacrilegious rapine,
by fixing his residence at Syracuse. But if Constans could fly from his
people, he could not fly from himself. The remorse of his conscience
created a phantom who pursued him by land and sea, by day and by night;
and the visionary Theodosius, presenting to his lips a cup of blood,
said, or seemed to say, "Drink, brother, drink;" a sure emblem of the
aggravation of his guilt, since he had received from the hands of the
deacon the mystic cup of the blood of Christ. Odious to himself and to
mankind, Constans perished by domestic, perhaps by episcopal, treason,
in the capital of Sicily. A servant who waited in the bath, after
pouring warm water on his head, struck him violently with the vase.
He fell, stunned by the blow, and suffocated by the water; and his
attendants, who wondered at the tedious delay, beheld with indifference
the corpse of their lifeless emperor. The troops of Sicily invested
with the purple an obscure youth, whose inimitable beauty eluded, and it
might easily elude, the declining art of the painters and sculptors of
the age.

Constans had left in the Byzantine palace three sons, the eldest of
whom had been clothed in his infancy with the purple. When the father
summoned them to attend his person in Sicily, these precious hostages
were detained by the Greeks, and a firm refusal informed him that they
were the children of the state. The news of his murder was conveyed
with almost supernatural speed from Syracuse to Constantinople; and
Constantine, the eldest of his sons, inherited his throne without being
the heir of the public hatred. His subjects contributed, with zeal and
alacrity, to chastise the guilt and presumption of a province which had
usurped the rights of the senate and people; the young emperor sailed
from the Hellespont with a powerful fleet; and the legions of Rome and
Carthage were assembled under his standard in the harbor of Syracuse.
The defeat of the Sicilian tyrant was easy, his punishment just, and his
beauteous head was exposed in the hippodrome: but I cannot applaud the
clemency of a prince, who, among a crowd of victims, condemned the son
of a patrician, for deploring with some bitterness the execution of a
virtuous father. The youth was castrated: he survived the operation,
and the memory of this indecent cruelty is preserved by the elevation of
Germanus to the rank of a patriarch and saint. After pouring this bloody
libation on his father's tomb, Constantine returned to his capital; and
the growth of his young beard during the Sicilian voyage was announced,
by the familiar surname of Pogonatus, to the Grecian world. But his
reign, like that of his predecessor, was stained with fraternal discord.
On his two brothers, Heraclius and Tiberius, he had bestowed the title
of Augustus; an empty title, for they continued to languish, without
trust or power, in the solitude of the palace. At their secret
instigation, the troops of the Anatolian _theme_ or province approached
the city on the Asiatic side, demanded for the royal brothers the
partition or exercise of sovereignty, and supported their seditious
claim by a theological argument. They were Christians, (they cried,)
and orthodox Catholics; the sincere votaries of the holy and undivided
Trinity. Since there are three equal persons in heaven, it is reasonable
there should be three equal persons upon earth. The emperor invited
these learned divines to a friendly conference, in which they might
propose their arguments to the senate: they obeyed the summons, but the
prospect of their bodies hanging on the gibbet in the suburb of Galata
reconciled their companions to the unity of the reign of Constantine.
He pardoned his brothers, and their names were still pronounced in the
public acclamations: but on the repetition or suspicion of a similar
offence, the obnoxious princes were deprived of their titles and
noses, in the presence of the Catholic bishops who were assembled at
Constantinople in the sixth general synod. In the close of his life,
Pogonatus was anxious only to establish the right of primogeniture: the
heir of his two sons, Justinian and Heraclius, was offered on the shrine
of St. Peter, as a symbol of their spiritual adoption by the pope; but
the elder was alone exalted to the rank of Augustus, and the assurance
of the empire.

After the decease of his father, the inheritance of the Roman world
devolved to Justinian II.; and the name of a triumphant lawgiver was
dishonored by the vices of a boy, who imitated his namesake only in
the expensive luxury of building. His passions were strong; his
understanding was feeble; and he was intoxicated with a foolish pride,
that his birth had given him the command of millions, of whom the
smallest community would not have chosen him for their local magistrate.
His favorite ministers were two beings the least susceptible of human
sympathy, a eunuch and a monk: to the one he abandoned the palace, to
the other the finances; the former corrected the emperor's mother with
a scourge, the latter suspended the insolvent tributaries, with their
heads downwards, over a slow and smoky fire. Since the days of Commodus
and Caracalla, the cruelty of the Roman princes had most commonly been

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 42 of 49)