Edward Gibbon.

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

. (page 43 of 49)
Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 43 of 49)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the effect of their fear; but Justinian, who possessed some vigor
of character, enjoyed the sufferings, and braved the revenge, of his
subjects, about ten years, till the measure was full, of his crimes and
of their patience. In a dark dungeon, Leontius, a general of reputation,
had groaned above three years, with some of the noblest and most
deserving of the patricians: he was suddenly drawn forth to assume the
government of Greece; and this promotion of an injured man was a mark
of the contempt rather than of the confidence of his prince. As he
was followed to the port by the kind offices of his friends, Leontius
observed, with a sigh, that he was a victim adorned for sacrifice,
and that inevitable death would pursue his footsteps. They ventured
to reply, that glory and empire might be the recompense of a generous
resolution; that every order of men abhorred the reign of a monster; and
that the hands of two hundred thousand patriots expected only the voice
of a leader. The night was chosen for their deliverance; and in the
first effort of the conspirators, the præfect was slain, and the prisons
were forced open: the emissaries of Leontius proclaimed in every street,
"Christians, to St. Sophia!" and the seasonable text of the patriarch,
"This is the day of the Lord!" was the prelude of an inflammatory
sermon. From the church the people adjourned to the hippodrome:
Justinian, in whose cause not a sword had been drawn, was dragged before
these tumultuary judges, and their clamors demanded the instant death of
the tyrant. But Leontius, who was already clothed with the purple, cast
an eye of pity on the prostrate son of his own benefactor and of so many
emperors. The life of Justinian was spared; the amputation of his nose,
perhaps of his tongue, was imperfectly performed: the happy flexibility
of the Greek language could impose the name of Rhinotmetus; and the
mutilated tyrant was banished to Chersonæ in Crim-Tartary, a lonely
settlement, where corn, wine, and oil, were imported as foreign

On the edge of the Scythian wilderness, Justinian still cherished the
pride of his birth, and the hope of his restoration. After three years'
exile, he received the pleasing intelligence that his injury was avenged
by a second revolution, and that Leontius in his turn had been dethroned
and mutilated by the rebel Apsimar, who assumed the more respectable
name of Tiberius. But the claim of lineal succession was still
formidable to a plebeian usurper; and his jealousy was stimulated by the
complaints and charges of the Chersonites, who beheld the vices of the
tyrant in the spirit of the exile. With a band of followers, attached
to his person by common hope or common despair, Justinian fled from the
inhospitable shore to the horde of the Chozars, who pitched their tents
between the Tanais and Borysthenes. The khan entertained with pity and
respect the royal suppliant: Phanagoria, once an opulent city, on the
Asiatic side of the lake Motis, was assigned for his residence; and
every Roman prejudice was stifled in his marriage with the sister of
the Barbarian, who seems, however, from the name of Theodora, to have
received the sacrament of baptism. But the faithless Chozar was soon
tempted by the gold of Constantinople: and had not the design been
revealed by the conjugal love of Theodora, her husband must have
been assassinated or betrayed into the power of his enemies. After
strangling, with his own hands, the two emissaries of the khan,
Justinian sent back his wife to her brother, and embarked on the Euxine
in search of new and more faithful allies. His vessel was assaulted by a
violent tempest; and one of his pious companions advised him to deserve
the mercy of God by a vow of general forgiveness, if he should be
restored to the throne. "Of forgiveness?" replied the intrepid tyrant:
"may I perish this instant - may the Almighty whelm me in the waves - if I
consent to spare a single head of my enemies!" He survived this impious
menace, sailed into the mouth of the Danube, trusted his person in the
royal village of the Bulgarians, and purchased the aid of Terbelis, a
pagan conqueror, by the promise of his daughter and a fair partition
of the treasures of the empire. The Bulgarian kingdom extended to the
confines of Thrace; and the two princes besieged Constantinople at the
head of fifteen thousand horse. Apsimar was dismayed by the sudden and
hostile apparition of his rival whose head had been promised by the
Chozar, and of whose evasion he was yet ignorant. After an absence of
ten years, the crimes of Justinian were faintly remembered, and the
birth and misfortunes of their hereditary sovereign excited the pity
of the multitude, ever discontented with the ruling powers; and by the
active diligence of his adherents, he was introduced into the city and
palace of Constantine.

Chapter XLVIII: Succession And Characters Of The Greek Emperors. - Part II.

In rewarding his allies, and recalling his wife, Justinian displayed
some sense of honor and gratitude; and Terbelis retired, after
sweeping away a heap of gold coin, which he measured with his Scythian
whip. But never was vow more religiously performed than the sacred oath
of revenge which he had sworn amidst the storms of the Euxine. The two
usurpers (for I must reserve the name of tyrant for the conqueror) were
dragged into the hippodrome, the one from his prison, the other from his
palace. Before their execution, Leontius and Apsimar were cast prostrate
in chains beneath the throne of the emperor; and Justinian, planting
a foot on each of their necks, contemplated above an hour the
chariot-race, while the inconstant people shouted, in the words of the
Psalmist, "Thou shalt trample on the asp and basilisk, and on the lion
and dragon shalt thou set thy foot!" The universal defection which he
had once experienced might provoke him to repeat the wish of Caligula,
that the Roman people had but one head. Yet I shall presume to observe,
that such a wish is unworthy of an ingenious tyrant, since his revenge
and cruelty would have been extinguished by a single blow, instead of
the slow variety of tortures which Justinian inflicted on the victims of
his anger. His pleasures were inexhaustible: neither private virtue
nor public service could expiate the guilt of active, or even passive,
obedience to an established government; and, during the six years of his
new reign, he considered the axe, the cord, and the rack, as the only
instruments of royalty. But his most implacable hatred was pointed
against the Chersonites, who had insulted his exile and violated the
laws of hospitality. Their remote situation afforded some means of
defence, or at least of escape; and a grievous tax was imposed on
Constantinople, to supply the preparations of a fleet and army. "All
are guilty, and all must perish," was the mandate of Justinian; and
the bloody execution was intrusted to his favorite Stephen, who was
recommended by the epithet of the savage. Yet even the savage Stephen
imperfectly accomplished the intentions of his sovereign. The slowness
of his attack allowed the greater part of the inhabitants to withdraw
into the country; and the minister of vengeance contented himself with
reducing the youth of both sexes to a state of servitude, with roasting
alive seven of the principal citizens, with drowning twenty in the sea,
and with reserving forty-two in chains to receive their doom from the
mouth of the emperor. In their return, the fleet was driven on the rocky
shores of Anatolia; and Justinian applauded the obedience of the Euxine,
which had involved so many thousands of his subjects and enemies in a
common shipwreck: but the tyrant was still insatiate of blood; and
a second expedition was commanded to extirpate the remains of the
proscribed colony. In the short interval, the Chersonites had returned
to their city, and were prepared to die in arms; the khan of the Chozars
had renounced the cause of his odious brother; the exiles of every
province were assembled in Tauris; and Bardanes, under the name
of Philippicus, was invested with the purple. The Imperial troops,
unwilling and unable to perpetrate the revenge of Justinian, escaped
his displeasure by abjuring his allegiance: the fleet, under their
new sovereign, steered back a more auspicious course to the harbors of
Sinope and Constantinople; and every tongue was prompt to pronounce,
every hand to execute, the death of the tyrant. Destitute of friends, he
was deserted by his Barbarian guards; and the stroke of the assassin was
praised as an act of patriotism and Roman virtue. His son Tiberius had
taken refuge in a church; his aged grandmother guarded the door; and the
innocent youth, suspending round his neck the most formidable relics,
embraced with one hand the altar, with the other the wood of the true
cross. But the popular fury that dares to trample on superstition,
is deaf to the cries of humanity; and the race of Heraclius was
extinguished after a reign of one hundred years.

Between the fall of the Heraclian and the rise of the Isaurian dynasty,
a short interval of six years is divided into three reigns. Bardanes,
or Philippicus, was hailed at Constantinople as a hero who had delivered
his country from a tyrant; and he might taste some moments of happiness
in the first transports of sincere and universal joy. Justinian had left
behind him an ample treasure, the fruit of cruelty and rapine: but
this useful fund was soon and idly dissipated by his successor. On the
festival of his birthday, Philippicus entertained the multitude with the
games of the hippodrome; from thence he paraded through the streets with
a thousand banners and a thousand trumpets; refreshed himself in the
baths of Zeuxippus, and returning to the palace, entertained his nobles
with a sumptuous banquet. At the meridian hour he withdrew to his
chamber, intoxicated with flattery and wine, and forgetful that his
example had made every subject ambitious, and that every ambitious
subject was his secret enemy. Some bold conspirators introduced
themselves in the disorder of the feast; and the slumbering monarch was
surprised, bound, blinded, and deposed, before he was sensible of his
danger. Yet the traitors were deprived of their reward; and the free
voice of the senate and people promoted Artemius from the office of
secretary to that of emperor: he assumed the title of Anastasius the
Second, and displayed in a short and troubled reign the virtues both of
peace and war. But after the extinction of the Imperial line, the rule
of obedience was violated, and every change diffused the seeds of new
revolutions. In a mutiny of the fleet, an obscure and reluctant officer
of the revenue was forcibly invested with the purple: after some months
of a naval war, Anastasius resigned the sceptre; and the conqueror,
Theodosius the Third, submitted in his turn to the superior ascendant
of Leo, the general and emperor of the Oriental troops. His two
predecessors were permitted to embrace the ecclesiastical profession:
the restless impatience of Anastasius tempted him to risk and to lose
his life in a treasonable enterprise; but the last days of Theodosius
were honorable and secure. The single sublime word, "health," which
he inscribed on his tomb, expresses the confidence of philosophy or
religion; and the fame of his miracles was long preserved among the
people of Ephesus. This convenient shelter of the church might sometimes
impose a lesson of clemency; but it may be questioned whether it is for
the public interest to diminish the perils of unsuccessful ambition.

I have dwelt on the fall of a tyrant; I shall briefly represent the
founder of a new dynasty, who is known to posterity by the invectives
of his enemies, and whose public and private life is involved in the
ecclesiastical story of the Iconoclasts. Yet in spite of the clamors
of superstition, a favorable prejudice for the character of Leo the
Isaurian may be reasonably drawn from the obscurity of his birth, and
the duration of his reign. - I. In an age of manly spirit, the prospect
of an Imperial reward would have kindled every energy of the mind, and
produced a crowd of competitors as deserving as they were desirous to
reign. Even in the corruption and debility of the modern Greeks, the
elevation of a plebeian from the last to the first rank of society,
supposes some qualifications above the level of the multitude. He would
probably be ignorant and disdainful of speculative science; and, in the
pursuit of fortune, he might absolve himself from the obligations of
benevolence and justice; but to his character we may ascribe the useful
virtues of prudence and fortitude, the knowledge of mankind, and the
important art of gaining their confidence and directing their passions.
It is agreed that Leo was a native of Isauria, and that Conon was his
primitive name. The writers, whose awkward satire is praise, describe
him as an itinerant pedler, who drove an ass with some paltry
merchandise to the country fairs; and foolishly relate that he met on
the road some Jewish fortune-tellers, who promised him the Roman
empire, on condition that he should abolish the worship of idols. A more
probable account relates the migration of his father from Asia Minor to
Thrace, where he exercised the lucrative trade of a grazier; and he must
have acquired considerable wealth, since the first introduction of his
son was procured by a supply of five hundred sheep to the Imperial
camp. His first service was in the guards of Justinian, where he soon
attracted the notice, and by degrees the jealousy, of the tyrant.
His valor and dexterity were conspicuous in the Colchian war: from
Anastasius he received the command of the Anatolian legions, and by the
suffrage of the soldiers he was raised to the empire with the general
applause of the Roman world. - II. In this dangerous elevation, Leo the
Third supported himself against the envy of his equals, the discontent
of a powerful faction, and the assaults of his foreign and domestic
enemies. The Catholics, who accuse his religious innovations, are
obliged to confess that they were undertaken with temper and conducted
with firmness. Their silence respects the wisdom of his administration
and the purity of his manners. After a reign of twenty-four years, he
peaceably expired in the palace of Constantinople; and the purple which
he had acquired was transmitted by the right of inheritance to the third

In a long reign of thirty-four years, the son and successor of Leo,
Constantine the Fifth, surnamed Copronymus, attacked with less temperate
zeal the images or idols of the church. Their votaries have exhausted
the bitterness of religious gall, in their portrait of this spotted
panther, this antichrist, this flying dragon of the serpent's seed,
who surpassed the vices of Elagabalus and Nero. His reign was a long
butchery of whatever was most noble, or holy, or innocent, in his
empire. In person, the emperor assisted at the execution of his victims,
surveyed their agonies, listened to their groans, and indulged, without
satiating, his appetite for blood: a plate of noses was accepted as a
grateful offering, and his domestics were often scourged or mutilated
by the royal hand. His surname was derived from his pollution of his
baptismal font. The infant might be excused; but the manly pleasures of
Copronymus degraded him below the level of a brute; his lust confounded
the eternal distinctions of sex and species, and he seemed to extract
some unnatural delight from the objects most offensive to human sense.
In his religion the Iconoclast was a Heretic, a Jew, a Mahometan, a
Pagan, and an Atheist; and his belief of an invisible power could
be discovered only in his magic rites, human victims, and nocturnal
sacrifices to Venus and the dæmons of antiquity. His life was stained
with the most opposite vices, and the ulcers which covered his body,
anticipated before his death the sentiment of hell-tortures. Of these
accusations, which I have so patiently copied, a part is refuted by its
own absurdity; and in the private anecdotes of the life of the princes,
the lie is more easy as the detection is more difficult. Without
adopting the pernicious maxim, that where much is alleged, something
must be true, I can however discern, that Constantine the Fifth was
dissolute and cruel. Calumny is more prone to exaggerate than to invent;
and her licentious tongue is checked in some measure by the experience
of the age and country to which she appeals. Of the bishops and monks,
the generals and magistrates, who are said to have suffered under
his reign, the numbers are recorded, the names were conspicuous, the
execution was public, the mutilation visible and permanent. The
Catholics hated the person and government of Copronymus; but even their
hatred is a proof of their oppression. They dissembled the provocations
which might excuse or justify his rigor, but even these provocations
must gradually inflame his resentment and harden his temper in the use
or the abuse of despotism. Yet the character of the fifth Constantine
was not devoid of merit, nor did his government always deserve the
curses or the contempt of the Greeks. From the confession of his
enemies, I am informed of the restoration of an ancient aqueduct, of the
redemption of two thousand five hundred captives, of the uncommon
plenty of the times, and of the new colonies with which he repeopled
Constantinople and the Thracian cities. They reluctantly praise his
activity and courage; he was on horseback in the field at the head
of his legions; and, although the fortune of his arms was various, he
triumphed by sea and land, on the Euphrates and the Danube, in civil
and Barbarian war. Heretical praise must be cast into the scale to
counterbalance the weight of orthodox invective. The Iconoclasts revered
the virtues of the prince: forty years after his death they still prayed
before the tomb of the saint. A miraculous vision was propagated by
fanaticism or fraud: and the Christian hero appeared on a milk-white
steed, brandishing his lance against the Pagans of Bulgaria: "An absurd
fable," says the Catholic historian, "since Copronymus is chained with
the dæmons in the abyss of hell."

Leo the Fourth, the son of the fifth and the father of the sixth
Constantine, was of a feeble constitution both of mind and body, and
the principal care of his reign was the settlement of the succession.
The association of the young Constantine was urged by the officious
zeal of his subjects; and the emperor, conscious of his decay, complied,
after a prudent hesitation, with their unanimous wishes. The royal
infant, at the age of five years, was crowned with his mother Irene;
and the national consent was ratified by every circumstance of pomp
and solemnity, that could dazzle the eyes or bind the conscience of the
Greeks. An oath of fidelity was administered in the palace, the church,
and the hippodrome, to the several orders of the state, who adjured the
holy names of the Son, and mother of God. "Be witness, O Christ! that
we will watch over the safety of Constantine the son of Leo, expose
our lives in his service, and bear true allegiance to his person and
posterity." They pledged their faith on the wood of the true cross, and
the act of their engagement was deposited on the altar of St. Sophia.
The first to swear, and the first to violate their oath, were the five
sons of Copronymus by a second marriage; and the story of these princes
is singular and tragic. The right of primogeniture excluded them from
the throne; the injustice of their elder brother defrauded them of a
legacy of about two millions sterling; some vain titles were not deemed
a sufficient compensation for wealth and power; and they repeatedly
conspired against their nephew, before and after the death of his
father. Their first attempt was pardoned; for the second offence they
were condemned to the ecclesiastical state; and for the third treason,
Nicephorus, the eldest and most guilty, was deprived of his eyes, and
his four brothers, Christopher, Nicetas, Anthemeus, and Eudoxas, were
punished, as a milder sentence, by the amputation of their tongues.
After five years' confinement, they escaped to the church of St. Sophia,
and displayed a pathetic spectacle to the people. "Countrymen and
Christians," cried Nicephorus for himself and his mute brethren, "behold
the sons of your emperor, if you can still recognize our features in
this miserable state. A life, an imperfect life, is all that the malice
of our enemies has spared. It is now threatened, and we now throw
ourselves on your compassion." The rising murmur might have produced a
revolution, had it not been checked by the presence of a minister, who
soothed the unhappy princes with flattery and hope, and gently drew
them from the sanctuary to the palace. They were speedily embarked for
Greece, and Athens was allotted for the place of their exile. In this
calm retreat, and in their helpless condition, Nicephorus and his
brothers were tormented by the thirst of power, and tempted by a
Sclavonian chief, who offered to break their prison, and to lead them
in arms, and in the purple, to the gates of Constantinople. But the
Athenian people, ever zealous in the cause of Irene, prevented her
justice or cruelty; and the five sons of Copronymus were plunged in
eternal darkness and oblivion.

For himself, that emperor had chosen a Barbarian wife, the daughter of
the khan of the Chozars; but in the marriage of his heir, he preferred
an Athenian virgin, an orphan, seventeen years old, whose sole fortune
must have consisted in her personal accomplishments. The nuptials of Leo
and Irene were celebrated with royal pomp; she soon acquired the love
and confidence of a feeble husband, and in his testament he declared the
empress guardian of the Roman world, and of their son Constantine the
Sixth, who was no more than ten years of age. During his childhood,
Irene most ably and assiduously discharged, in her public
administration, the duties of a faithful mother; and her zeal in the
restoration of images has deserved the name and honors of a saint, which
she still occupies in the Greek calendar. But the emperor attained
the maturity of youth; the maternal yoke became more grievous; and he
listened to the favorites of his own age, who shared his pleasures, and
were ambitious of sharing his power. Their reasons convinced him of
his right, their praises of his ability, to reign; and he consented to
reward the services of Irene by a perpetual banishment to the Isle of
Sicily. But her vigilance and penetration easily disconcerted their
rash projects: a similar, or more severe, punishment was retaliated on
themselves and their advisers; and Irene inflicted on the ungrateful
prince the chastisement of a boy. After this contest, the mother and
the son were at the head of two domestic factions; and instead of mild
influence and voluntary obedience, she held in chains a captive and an
enemy. The empress was overthrown by the abuse of victory; the oath
of fidelity, which she exacted to herself alone, was pronounced
with reluctant murmurs; and the bold refusal of the Armenian guards
encouraged a free and general declaration, that Constantine the Sixth
was the lawful emperor of the Romans. In this character he ascended his
hereditary throne, and dismissed Irene to a life of solitude and repose.
But her haughty spirit condescended to the arts of dissimulation: she
flattered the bishops and eunuchs, revived the filial tenderness of
the prince, regained his confidence, and betrayed his credulity. The
character of Constantine was not destitute of sense or spirit; but
his education had been studiously neglected; and the ambitious mother
exposed to the public censure the vices which she had nourished, and the
actions which she had secretly advised: his divorce and second marriage
offended the prejudices of the clergy, and by his imprudent rigor he
forfeited the attachment of the Armenian guards. A powerful conspiracy
was formed for the restoration of Irene; and the secret, though widely
diffused, was faithfully kept above eight months, till the emperor,
suspicious of his danger, escaped from Constantinople, with the design
of appealing to the provinces and armies. By this hasty flight, the
empress was left on the brink of the precipice; yet before she implored
the mercy of her son, Irene addressed a private epistle to the friends
whom she had placed about his person, with a menace, that unless _they_
accomplished, _she_ would reveal, their treason. Their fear rendered

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 43 of 49)