Edward Gibbon.

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

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them intrepid; they seized the emperor on the Asiatic shore, and he was
transported to the porphyry apartment of the palace, where he had
first seen the light. In the mind of Irene, ambition had stifled every
sentiment of humanity and nature; and it was decreed in her bloody
council, that Constantine should be rendered incapable of the throne:
her emissaries assaulted the sleeping prince, and stabbed their daggers
with such violence and precipitation into his eyes as if they meant to
execute a mortal sentence. An ambiguous passage of Theophanes persuaded
the annalist of the church that death was the immediate consequence of
this barbarous execution. The Catholics have been deceived or subdued by
the authority of Baronius; and Protestant zeal has reëchoed the words
of a cardinal, desirous, as it should seem, to favor the patroness of
images. Yet the blind son of Irene survived many years, oppressed by
the court and forgotten by the world; the Isaurian dynasty was silently
extinguished; and the memory of Constantine was recalled only by the
nuptials of his daughter Euphrosyne with the emperor Michael the Second.

The most bigoted orthodoxy has justly execrated the unnatural mother,
who may not easily be paralleled in the history of crimes. To her bloody
deed superstition has attributed a subsequent darkness of seventeen
days; during which many vessels in midday were driven from their course,
as if the sun, a globe of fire so vast and so remote, could sympathize
with the atoms of a revolving planet. On earth, the crime of Irene
was left five years unpunished; her reign was crowned with external
splendor; and if she could silence the voice of conscience, she neither
heard nor regarded the reproaches of mankind. The Roman world bowed
to the government of a female; and as she moved through the streets of
Constantinople, the reins of four milk-white steeds were held by as
many patricians, who marched on foot before the golden chariot of their
queen. But these patricians were for the most part eunuchs; and their
black ingratitude justified, on this occasion, the popular hatred and
contempt. Raised, enriched, intrusted with the first dignities of the
empire, they basely conspired against their benefactress; the great
treasurer Nicephorus was secretly invested with the purple; her
successor was introduced into the palace, and crowned at St. Sophia by
the venal patriarch. In their first interview, she recapitulated with
dignity the revolutions of her life, gently accused the perfidy of
Nicephorus, insinuated that he owed his life to her unsuspicious
clemency, and for the throne and treasures which she resigned, solicited
a decent and honorable retreat. His avarice refused this modest
compensation; and, in her exile of the Isle of Lesbos, the empress
earned a scanty subsistence by the labors of her distaff.

Many tyrants have reigned undoubtedly more criminal than Nicephorus, but
none perhaps have more deeply incurred the universal abhorrence of
their people. His character was stained with the three odious vices of
hypocrisy, ingratitude, and avarice: his want of virtue was not redeemed
by any superior talents, nor his want of talents by any pleasing
qualifications. Unskilful and unfortunate in war, Nicephorus was
vanquished by the Saracens, and slain by the Bulgarians; and the
advantage of his death overbalanced, in the public opinion, the
destruction of a Roman army. His son and heir Stauracius escaped from
the field with a mortal wound; yet six months of an expiring life were
sufficient to refute his indecent, though popular declaration, that
he would in all things avoid the example of his father. On the near
prospect of his decease, Michael, the great master of the palace, and
the husband of his sister Procopia, was named by every person of the
palace and city, except by his envious brother. Tenacious of a sceptre
now falling from his hand, he conspired against the life of his
successor, and cherished the idea of changing to a democracy the Roman
empire. But these rash projects served only to inflame the zeal of the
people and to remove the scruples of the candidate: Michael the First
accepted the purple, and before he sunk into the grave the son of
Nicephorus implored the clemency of his new sovereign. Had Michael in
an age of peace ascended an hereditary throne, he might have reigned and
died the father of his people: but his mild virtues were adapted to the
shade of private life, nor was he capable of controlling the ambition of
his equals, or of resisting the arms of the victorious Bulgarians.
While his want of ability and success exposed him to the contempt of
the soldiers, the masculine spirit of his wife Procopia awakened their
indignation. Even the Greeks of the ninth century were provoked by the
insolence of a female, who, in the front of the standards, presumed to
direct their discipline and animate their valor; and their licentious
clamors advised the new Semiramis to reverence the majesty of a Roman
camp. After an unsuccessful campaign, the emperor left, in their
winter-quarters of Thrace, a disaffected army under the command of his
enemies; and their artful eloquence persuaded the soldiers to break
the dominion of the eunuchs, to degrade the husband of Procopia, and
to assert the right of a military election. They marched towards the
capital: yet the clergy, the senate, and the people of Constantinople,
adhered to the cause of Michael; and the troops and treasures of Asia
might have protracted the mischiefs of civil war. But his humanity (by
the ambitious it will be termed his weakness) protested that not a drop
of Christian blood should be shed in his quarrel, and his messengers
presented the conquerors with the keys of the city and the palace. They
were disarmed by his innocence and submission; his life and his eyes
were spared; and the Imperial monk enjoyed the comforts of solitude and
religion above thirty-two years after he had been stripped of the purple
and separated from his wife.

A rebel, in the time of Nicephorus, the famous and unfortunate Bardanes,
had once the curiosity to consult an Asiatic prophet, who, after
prognosticating his fall, announced the fortunes of his three principal
officers, Leo the Armenian, Michael the Phrygian, and Thomas the
Cappadocian, the successive reigns of the two former, the fruitless and
fatal enterprise of the third. This prediction was verified, or rather
was produced, by the event. Ten years afterwards, when the Thracian camp
rejected the husband of Procopia, the crown was presented to the same
Leo, the first in military rank and the secret author of the mutiny. As
he affected to hesitate, "With this sword," said his companion Michael,
"I will open the gates of Constantinople to your Imperial sway; or
instantly plunge it into your bosom, if you obstinately resist the just
desires of your fellow-soldiers." The compliance of the Armenian was
rewarded with the empire, and he reigned seven years and a half under
the name of Leo the Fifth. Educated in a camp, and ignorant both of laws
and letters, he introduced into his civil government the rigor and
even cruelty of military discipline; but if his severity was sometimes
dangerous to the innocent, it was always formidable to the guilty. His
religious inconstancy was taxed by the epithet of Chameleon, but the
Catholics have acknowledged by the voice of a saint and confessors, that
the life of the Iconoclast was useful to the republic. The zeal of his
companion Michael was repaid with riches, honors, and military command;
and his subordinate talents were beneficially employed in the public
service. Yet the Phrygian was dissatisfied at receiving as a favor a
scanty portion of the Imperial prize which he had bestowed on his equal;
and his discontent, which sometimes evaporated in hasty discourse, at
length assumed a more threatening and hostile aspect against a prince
whom he represented as a cruel tyrant. That tyrant, however, repeatedly
detected, warned, and dismissed the old companion of his arms, till fear
and resentment prevailed over gratitude; and Michael, after a scrutiny
into his actions and designs, was convicted of treason, and sentenced to
be burnt alive in the furnace of the private baths. The devout humanity
of the empress Theophano was fatal to her husband and family. A solemn
day, the twenty-fifth of December, had been fixed for the execution: she
urged, that the anniversary of the Savior's birth would be profaned by
this inhuman spectacle, and Leo consented with reluctance to a decent
respite. But on the vigil of the feast his sleepless anxiety prompted
him to visit at the dead of night the chamber in which his enemy was
confined: he beheld him released from his chain, and stretched on his
jailer's bed in a profound slumber. Leo was alarmed at these signs of
security and intelligence; but though he retired with silent steps, his
entrance and departure were noticed by a slave who lay concealed in a
corner of the prison. Under the pretence of requesting the spiritual
aid of a confessor, Michael informed the conspirators, that their lives
depended on his discretion, and that a few hours were left to assure
their own safety, by the deliverance of their friend and country. On the
great festivals, a chosen band of priests and chanters was admitted into
the palace by a private gate to sing matins in the chapel; and Leo, who
regulated with the same strictness the discipline of the choir and
of the camp, was seldom absent from these early devotions. In the
ecclesiastical habit, but with their swords under their robes, the
conspirators mingled with the procession, lurked in the angles of the
chapel, and expected, as the signal of murder, the intonation of
the first psalm by the emperor himself. The imperfect light, and the
uniformity of dress, might have favored his escape, whilst their assault
was pointed against a harmless priest; but they soon discovered their
mistake, and encompassed on all sides the royal victim. Without a weapon
and without a friend, he grasped a weighty cross, and stood at bay
against the hunters of his life; but as he asked for mercy, "This is
the hour, not of mercy, but of vengeance," was the inexorable reply. The
stroke of a well-aimed sword separated from his body the right arm and
the cross, and Leo the Armenian was slain at the foot of the altar.

A memorable reverse of fortune was displayed in Michael the Second, who
from a defect in his speech was surnamed the Stammerer. He was snatched
from the fiery furnace to the sovereignty of an empire; and as in the
tumult a smith could not readily be found, the fetters remained on his
legs several hours after he was seated on the throne of the Cæsars. The
royal blood which had been the price of his elevation, was unprofitably
spent: in the purple he retained the ignoble vices of his origin; and
Michael lost his provinces with as supine indifference as if they had
been the inheritance of his fathers. His title was disputed by Thomas,
the last of the military triumvirate, who transported into Europe
fourscore thousand Barbarians from the banks of the Tigris and the
shores of the Caspian. He formed the siege of Constantinople; but the
capital was defended with spiritual and carnal weapons; a Bulgarian king
assaulted the camp of the Orientals, and Thomas had the misfortune, or
the weakness, to fall alive into the power of the conqueror. The hands
and feet of the rebel were amputated; he was placed on an ass, and,
amidst the insults of the people, was led through the streets, which he
sprinkled with his blood. The depravation of manners, as savage as they
were corrupt, is marked by the presence of the emperor himself. Deaf
to the lamentation of a fellow-soldier, he incessantly pressed the
discovery of more accomplices, till his curiosity was checked by the
question of an honest or guilty minister: "Would you give credit to an
enemy against the most faithful of your friends?" After the death of
his first wife, the emperor, at the request of the senate, drew from her
monastery Euphrosyne, the daughter of Constantine the Sixth. Her august
birth might justify a stipulation in the marriage-contract, that her
children should equally share the empire with their elder brother. But
the nuptials of Michael and Euphrosyne were barren; and she was content
with the title of mother of Theophilus, his son and successor.

The character of Theophilus is a rare example in which religious zeal
has allowed, and perhaps magnified, the virtues of a heretic and a
persecutor. His valor was often felt by the enemies, and his justice by
the subjects, of the monarchy; but the valor of Theophilus was rash and
fruitless, and his justice arbitrary and cruel. He displayed the
banner of the cross against the Saracens; but his five expeditions
were concluded by a signal overthrow: Amorium, the native city of his
ancestors, was levelled with the ground and from his military toils he
derived only the surname of the Unfortunate. The wisdom of a sovereign
is comprised in the institution of laws and the choice of magistrates,
and while he seems without action, his civil government revolves round
his centre with the silence and order of the planetary system. But
the justice of Theophilus was fashioned on the model of the Oriental
despots, who, in personal and irregular acts of authority, consult the
reason or passion of the moment, without measuring the sentence by the
law, or the penalty by the offense. A poor woman threw herself at the
emperor's feet to complain of a powerful neighbor, the brother of the
empress, who had raised his palace-wall to such an inconvenient height,
that her humble dwelling was excluded from light and air! On the proof
of the fact, instead of granting, like an ordinary judge, sufficient or
ample damages to the plaintiff, the sovereign adjudged to her use and
benefit the palace and the ground. Nor was Theophilus content with this
extravagant satisfaction: his zeal converted a civil trespass into a
criminal act; and the unfortunate patrician was stripped and scourged
in the public place of Constantinople. For some venial offenses, some
defect of equity or vigilance, the principal ministers, a præfect, a
quæstor, a captain of the guards, were banished or mutilated, or scalded
with boiling pitch, or burnt alive in the hippodrome; and as these
dreadful examples might be the effects of error or caprice, they must
have alienated from his service the best and wisest of the citizens. But
the pride of the monarch was flattered in the exercise of power, or,
as he thought, of virtue; and the people, safe in their obscurity,
applauded the danger and debasement of their superiors. This
extraordinary rigor was justified, in some measure, by its salutary
consequences; since, after a scrutiny of seventeen days, not a complaint
or abuse could be found in the court or city; and it might be alleged
that the Greeks could be ruled only with a rod of iron, and that the
public interest is the motive and law of the supreme judge. Yet in the
crime, or the suspicion, of treason, that judge is of all others the
most credulous and partial. Theophilus might inflict a tardy vengeance
on the assassins of Leo and the saviors of his father; but he enjoyed
the fruits of their crime; and his jealous tyranny sacrificed a brother
and a prince to the future safety of his life. A Persian of the race of
the Sassanides died in poverty and exile at Constantinople, leaving an
only son, the issue of a plebeian marriage. At the age of twelve years,
the royal birth of Theophobus was revealed, and his merit was not
unworthy of his birth. He was educated in the Byzantine palace, a
Christian and a soldier; advanced with rapid steps in the career of
fortune and glory; received the hand of the emperor's sister; and was
promoted to the command of thirty thousand Persians, who, like his
father, had fled from the Mahometan conquerors. These troops, doubly
infected with mercenary and fanatic vices, were desirous of revolting
against their benefactor, and erecting the standard of their native
king but the loyal Theophobus rejected their offers, disconcerted their
schemes, and escaped from their hands to the camp or palace of his royal
brother. A generous confidence might have secured a faithful and able
guardian for his wife and his infant son, to whom Theophilus, in the
flower of his age, was compelled to leave the inheritance of the empire.
But his jealousy was exasperated by envy and disease; he feared the
dangerous virtues which might either support or oppress their infancy
and weakness; and the dying emperor demanded the head of the Persian
prince. With savage delight he recognized the familiar features of his
brother: "Thou art no longer Theophobus," he said; and, sinking on his
couch, he added, with a faltering voice, "Soon, too soon, I shall be no
more Theophilus!"

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

The Russians, who have borrowed from the Greeks the greatest part of
their civil and ecclesiastical policy, preserved, till the last century,
a singular institution in the marriage of the Czar. They collected, not
the virgins of every rank and of every province, a vain and romantic
idea, but the daughters of the principal nobles, who awaited in the
palace the choice of their sovereign. It is affirmed, that a similar
method was adopted in the nuptials of Theophilus. With a golden apple in
his hand, he slowly walked between two lines of contending beauties: his
eye was detained by the charms of Icasia, and in the awkwardness of a
first declaration, the prince could only observe, that, in this world,
women had been the cause of much evil; "And surely, sir," she pertly
replied, "they have likewise been the occasion of much good." This
affectation of unseasonable wit displeased the Imperial lover: he turned
aside in disgust; Icasia concealed her mortification in a convent; and
the modest silence of Theodora was rewarded with the golden apple. She
deserved the love, but did not escape the severity, of her lord. From
the palace garden he beheld a vessel deeply laden, and steering into the
port: on the discovery that the precious cargo of Syrian luxury was the
property of his wife, he condemned the ship to the flames, with a sharp
reproach, that her avarice had degraded the character of an empress
into that of a merchant. Yet his last choice intrusted her with the
guardianship of the empire and her son Michael, who was left an orphan
in the fifth year of his age. The restoration of images, and the final
extirpation of the Iconoclasts, has endeared her name to the devotion of
the Greeks; but in the fervor of religious zeal, Theodora entertained
a grateful regard for the memory and salvation of her husband. After
thirteen years of a prudent and frugal administration, she perceived the
decline of her influence; but the second Irene imitated only the virtues
of her predecessor. Instead of conspiring against the life or government
of her son, she retired, without a struggle, though not without a
murmur, to the solitude of private life, deploring the ingratitude, the
vices, and the inevitable ruin, of the worthless youth.

Among the successors of Nero and Elagabalus, we have not hitherto
found the imitation of their vices, the character of a Roman prince who
considered pleasure as the object of life, and virtue as the enemy of
pleasure. Whatever might have been the maternal care of Theodora in the
education of Michael the Third, her unfortunate son was a king before
he was a man. If the ambitious mother labored to check the progress of
reason, she could not cool the ebullition of passion; and her selfish
policy was justly repaid by the contempt and ingratitude of the
headstrong youth. At the age of eighteen, he rejected her authority,
without feeling his own incapacity to govern the empire and himself.
With Theodora, all gravity and wisdom retired from the court; their
place was supplied by the alternate dominion of vice and folly; and
it was impossible, without forfeiting the public esteem, to acquire or
preserve the favor of the emperor. The millions of gold and silver which
had been accumulated for the service of the state, were lavished on the
vilest of men, who flattered his passions and shared his pleasures; and
in a reign of thirteen years, the richest of sovereigns was compelled
to strip the palace and the churches of their precious furniture. Like
Nero, he delighted in the amusements of the theatre, and sighed to be
surpassed in the accomplishments in which he should have blushed
to excel. Yet the studies of Nero in music and poetry betrayed some
symptoms of a liberal taste; the more ignoble arts of the son of
Theophilus were confined to the chariot-race of the hippodrome. The four
factions which had agitated the peace, still amused the idleness, of
the capital: for himself, the emperor assumed the blue livery; the three
rival colors were distributed to his favorites, and in the vile though
eager contention he forgot the dignity of his person and the safety of
his dominions. He silenced the messenger of an invasion, who presumed to
divert his attention in the most critical moment of the race; and by his
command, the importunate beacons were extinguished, that too frequently
spread the alarm from Tarsus to Constantinople. The most skilful
charioteers obtained the first place in his confidence and esteem; their
merit was profusely rewarded the emperor feasted in their houses, and
presented their children at the baptismal font; and while he applauded
his own popularity, he affected to blame the cold and stately reserve
of his predecessors. The unnatural lusts which had degraded even the
manhood of Nero, were banished from the world; yet the strength of
Michael was consumed by the indulgence of love and intemperance. In
his midnight revels, when his passions were inflamed by wine, he was
provoked to issue the most sanguinary commands; and if any feelings of
humanity were left, he was reduced, with the return of sense, to approve
the salutary disobedience of his servants. But the most extraordinary
feature in the character of Michael, is the profane mockery of the
religion of his country. The superstition of the Greeks might indeed
excite the smile of a philosopher; but his smile would have been
rational and temperate, and he must have condemned the ignorant folly of
a youth who insulted the objects of public veneration. A buffoon of
the court was invested in the robes of the patriarch: his twelve
metropolitans, among whom the emperor was ranked, assumed their
ecclesiastical garments: they used or abused the sacred vessels of
the altar; and in their bacchanalian feasts, the holy communion was
administered in a nauseous compound of vinegar and mustard. Nor were
these impious spectacles concealed from the eyes of the city. On the day
of a solemn festival, the emperor, with his bishops or buffoons, rode on
asses through the streets, encountered the true patriarch at the head
of his clergy; and by their licentious shouts and obscene gestures,
disordered the gravity of the Christian procession. The devotion of
Michael appeared only in some offence to reason or piety: he received
his theatrical crowns from the statue of the Virgin; and an Imperial
tomb was violated for the sake of burning the bones of Constantine the
Iconoclast. By this extravagant conduct, the son of Theophilus became
as contemptible as he was odious: every citizen was impatient for the
deliverance of his country; and even the favorites of the moment
were apprehensive that a caprice might snatch away what a caprice
had bestowed. In the thirtieth year of his age, and in the hour of
intoxication and sleep, Michael the Third was murdered in his chamber by
the founder of a new dynasty, whom the emperor had raised to an equality
of rank and power.

The genealogy of Basil the Macedonian (if it be not the spurious
offspring of pride and flattery) exhibits a genuine picture of the
revolution of the most illustrious families. The Arsacides, the rivals
of Rome, possessed the sceptre of the East near four hundred years: a
younger branch of these Parthian kings continued to reign in Armenia;
and their royal descendants survived the partition and servitude of
that ancient monarchy. Two of these, Artabanus and Chlienes, escaped or
retired to the court of Leo the First: his bounty seated them in a safe
and hospitable exile, in the province of Macedonia: Adrianople was their
final settlement. During several generations they maintained the dignity
of their birth; and their Roman patriotism rejected the tempting offers

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 44 of 49)