Edward Gibbon.

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

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of the Persian and Arabian powers, who recalled them to their native
country. But their splendor was insensibly clouded by time and poverty;
and the father of Basil was reduced to a small farm, which he cultivated
with his own hands: yet he scorned to disgrace the blood of the
Arsacides by a plebeian alliance: his wife, a widow of Adrianople, was
pleased to count among her ancestors the great Constantine; and their
royal infant was connected by some dark affinity of lineage or country
with the Macedonian Alexander. No sooner was he born, than the cradle of
Basil, his family, and his city, were swept away by an inundation of
the Bulgarians: he was educated a slave in a foreign land; and in this
severe discipline, he acquired the hardiness of body and flexibility of
mind which promoted his future elevation. In the age of youth or manhood
he shared the deliverance of the Roman captives, who generously broke
their fetters, marched through Bulgaria to the shores of the Euxine,
defeated two armies of Barbarians, embarked in the ships which had been
stationed for their reception, and returned to Constantinople, from
whence they were distributed to their respective homes. But the freedom
of Basil was naked and destitute: his farm was ruined by the calamities
of war: after his father's death, his manual labor, or service, could
no longer support a family of orphans and he resolved to seek a more
conspicuous theatre, in which every virtue and every vice may lead
to the paths of greatness. The first night of his arrival at
Constantinople, without friends or money, the weary pilgrim slept on the
steps of the church of St. Diomede: he was fed by the casual hospitality
of a monk; and was introduced to the service of a cousin and namesake of
the emperor Theophilus; who, though himself of a diminutive person,
was always followed by a train of tall and handsome domestics. Basil
attended his patron to the government of Peloponnesus; eclipsed, by his
personal merit the birth and dignity of Theophilus, and formed a useful
connection with a wealthy and charitable matron of Patras. Her spiritual
or carnal love embraced the young adventurer, whom she adopted as her
son. Danielis presented him with thirty slaves; and the produce of her
bounty was expended in the support of his brothers, and the purchase
of some large estates in Macedonia. His gratitude or ambition still
attached him to the service of Theophilus; and a lucky accident
recommended him to the notice of the court. A famous wrestler, in the
train of the Bulgarian ambassadors, had defied, at the royal banquet,
the boldest and most robust of the Greeks. The strength of Basil was
praised; he accepted the challenge; and the Barbarian champion was
overthrown at the first onset. A beautiful but vicious horse was
condemned to be hamstrung: it was subdued by the dexterity and courage
of the servant of Theophilus; and his conqueror was promoted to an
honorable rank in the Imperial stables. But it was impossible to obtain
the confidence of Michael, without complying with his vices; and his new
favorite, the great chamberlain of the palace, was raised and supported
by a disgraceful marriage with a royal concubine, and the dishonor of
his sister, who succeeded to her place. The public administration had
been abandoned to the Cæsar Bardas, the brother and enemy of Theodora;
but the arts of female influence persuaded Michael to hate and to fear
his uncle: he was drawn from Constantinople, under the pretence of a
Cretan expedition, and stabbed in the tent of audience, by the sword of
the chamberlain, and in the presence of the emperor. About a month after
this execution, Basil was invested with the title of Augustus and the
government of the empire. He supported this unequal association till his
influence was fortified by popular esteem. His life was endangered by
the caprice of the emperor; and his dignity was profaned by a second
colleague, who had rowed in the galleys. Yet the murder of his
benefactor must be condemned as an act of ingratitude and treason; and
the churches which he dedicated to the name of St. Michael were a poor
and puerile expiation of his guilt.

The different ages of Basil the First may be compared with those of
Augustus. The situation of the Greek did not allow him in his earliest
youth to lead an army against his country; or to proscribe the nobles
of her sons; but his aspiring genius stooped to the arts of a slave;
he dissembled his ambition and even his virtues, and grasped, with the
bloody hand of an assassin, the empire which he ruled with the wisdom
and tenderness of a parent. A private citizen may feel his interest
repugnant to his duty; but it must be from a deficiency of sense or
courage, that an absolute monarch can separate his happiness from his
glory, or his glory from the public welfare. The life or panegyric of
Basil has indeed been composed and published under the long reign of
his descendants; but even their stability on the throne may be justly
ascribed to the superior merit of their ancestor. In his character,
his grandson Constantine has attempted to delineate a perfect image
of royalty: but that feeble prince, unless he had copied a real model,
could not easily have soared so high above the level of his own conduct
or conceptions. But the most solid praise of Basil is drawn from the
comparison of a ruined and a flourishing monarchy, that which he
wrested from the dissolute Michael, and that which he bequeathed to
the Mecedonian dynasty. The evils which had been sanctified by time and
example, were corrected by his master-hand; and he revived, if not the
national spirit, at least the order and majesty of the Roman empire.
His application was indefatigable, his temper cool, his understanding
vigorous and decisive; and in his practice he observed that rare and
salutary moderation, which pursues each virtue, at an equal distance
between the opposite vices. His military service had been confined to
the palace: nor was the emperor endowed with the spirit or the talents
of a warrior. Yet under his reign the Roman arms were again formidable
to the Barbarians. As soon as he had formed a new army by discipline and
exercise, he appeared in person on the banks of the Euphrates, curbed
the pride of the Saracens, and suppressed the dangerous though just
revolt of the Manichæans. His indignation against a rebel who had long
eluded his pursuit, provoked him to wish and to pray, that, by the grace
of God, he might drive three arrows into the head of Chrysochir. That
odious head, which had been obtained by treason rather than by valor,
was suspended from a tree, and thrice exposed to the dexterity of the
Imperial archer; a base revenge against the dead, more worthy of the
times than of the character of Basil. But his principal merit was in the
civil administration of the finances and of the laws. To replenish and
exhausted treasury, it was proposed to resume the lavish and ill-placed
gifts of his predecessor: his prudence abated one moiety of the
restitution; and a sum of twelve hundred thousand pounds was instantly
procured to answer the most pressing demands, and to allow some space
for the mature operations of economy. Among the various schemes for the
improvement of the revenue, a new mode was suggested of capitation, or
tribute, which would have too much depended on the arbitrary discretion
of the assessors. A sufficient list of honest and able agents was
instantly produced by the minister; but on the more careful scrutiny of
Basil himself, only two could be found, who might be safely intrusted
with such dangerous powers; but they justified his esteem by declining
his confidence. But the serious and successful diligence of the emperor
established by degrees the equitable balance of property and payment,
of receipt and expenditure; a peculiar fund was appropriated to each
service; and a public method secured the interest of the prince and
the property of the people. After reforming the luxury, he assigned two
patrimonial estates to supply the decent plenty, of the Imperial table:
the contributions of the subject were reserved for his defence; and the
residue was employed in the embellishment of the capital and provinces.
A taste for building, however costly, may deserve some praise and much
excuse: from thence industry is fed, art is encouraged, and some object
is attained of public emolument or pleasure: the use of a road, an
aqueduct, or a hospital, is obvious and solid; and the hundred churches
that arose by the command of Basil were consecrated to the devotion of
the age. In the character of a judge he was assiduous and impartial;
desirous to save, but not afraid to strike: the oppressors of the people
were severely chastised; but his personal foes, whom it might be unsafe
to pardon, were condemned, after the loss of their eyes, to a life of
solitude and repentance. The change of language and manners demanded a
revision of the obsolete jurisprudence of Justinian: the voluminous body
of his Institutes, Pandects, Code, and Novels, was digested under forty
titles, in the Greek idiom; and the Basilics, which were improved and
completed by his son and grandson, must be referred to the original
genius of the founder of their race. This glorious reign was terminated
by an accident in the chase. A furious stag entangled his horns in
the belt of Basil, and raised him from his horse: he was rescued by an
attendant, who cut the belt and slew the animal; but the fall, or the
fever, exhausted the strength of the aged monarch, and he expired in the
palace amidst the tears of his family and people. If he struck off the
head of the faithful servant for presuming to draw his sword against his
sovereign, the pride of despotism, which had lain dormant in his life,
revived in the last moments of despair, when he no longer wanted or
valued the opinion of mankind.

Of the four sons of the emperor, Constantine died before his father,
whose grief and credulity were amused by a flattering impostor and a
vain apparition. Stephen, the youngest, was content with the honors of
a patriarch and a saint; both Leo and Alexander were alike invested with
the purple, but the powers of government were solely exercised by the
elder brother. The name of Leo the Sixth has been dignified with the
title of _philosopher_; and the union of the prince and the sage, of the
active and speculative virtues, would indeed constitute the perfection
of human nature. But the claims of Leo are far short of this ideal
excellence. Did he reduce his passions and appetites under the dominion
of reason? His life was spent in the pomp of the palace, in the society
of his wives and concubines; and even the clemency which he showed, and
the peace which he strove to preserve, must be imputed to the softness
and indolence of his character. Did he subdue his prejudices, and those
of his subjects? His mind was tinged with the most puerile superstition;
the influence of the clergy, and the errors of the people, were
consecrated by his laws; and the oracles of Leo, which reveal, in
prophetic style, the fates of the empire, are founded on the arts of
astrology and divination. If we still inquire the reason of his sage
appellation, it can only be replied, that the son of Basil was less
ignorant than the greater part of his contemporaries in church and
state; that his education had been directed by the learned Photius; and
that several books of profane and ecclesiastical science were composed
by the pen, or in the name, of the Imperial _philosopher_. But the
reputation of his philosophy and religion was overthrown by a domestic
vice, the repetition of his nuptials. The primitive ideas of the merit
and holiness of celibacy were preached by the monks and entertained
by the Greeks. Marriage was allowed as a necessary means for the
propagation of mankind; after the death of either party, the survivor
might satisfy, by a _second_ union, the weakness or the strength of
the flesh: but a _third_ marriage was censured as a state of legal
fornication; and a _fourth_ was a sin or scandal as yet unknown to the
Christians of the East. In the beginning of his reign, Leo himself had
abolished the state of concubines, and condemned, without annulling,
third marriages: but his patriotism and love soon compelled him to
violate his own laws, and to incur the penance, which in a similar
case he had imposed on his subjects. In his three first alliances, his
nuptial bed was unfruitful; the emperor required a female companion, and
the empire a legitimate heir. The beautiful Zoe was introduced into the
palace as a concubine; and after a trial of her fecundity, and the birth
of Constantine, her lover declared his intention of legitimating the
mother and the child, by the celebration of his fourth nuptials. But
the patriarch Nicholas refused his blessing: the Imperial baptism of
the young prince was obtained by a promise of separation; and the
contumacious husband of Zoe was excluded from the communion of the
faithful. Neither the fear of exile, nor the desertion of his brethren,
nor the authority of the Latin church, nor the danger of failure or
doubt in the succession to the empire, could bend the spirit of the
inflexible monk. After the death of Leo, he was recalled from exile
to the civil and ecclesiastical administration; and the edict of union
which was promulgated in the name of Constantine, condemned the future
scandal of fourth marriages, and left a tacit imputation on his own

In the Greek language, _purple_ and _porphyry_ are the same word: and as
the colors of nature are invariable, we may learn, that a dark deep
red was the Tyrian dye which stained the purple of the ancients. An
apartment of the Byzantine palace was lined with porphyry: it was
reserved for the use of the pregnant empresses; and the royal birth of
their children was expressed by the appellation of _porphyrogenite_, or
born in the purple. Several of the Roman princes had been blessed with
an heir; but this peculiar surname was first applied to Constantine
the Seventh. His life and titular reign were of equal duration; but of
fifty-four years, six had elapsed before his father's death; and the
son of Leo was ever the voluntary or reluctant subject of those who
oppressed his weakness or abused his confidence. His uncle Alexander,
who had long been invested with the title of Augustus, was the first
colleague and governor of the young prince: but in a rapid career of
vice and folly, the brother of Leo already emulated the reputation of
Michael; and when he was extinguished by a timely death, he entertained
a project of castrating his nephew, and leaving the empire to a
worthless favorite. The succeeding years of the minority of Constantine
were occupied by his mother Zoe, and a succession or council of seven
regents, who pursued their interest, gratified their passions, abandoned
the republic, supplanted each other, and finally vanished in the
presence of a soldier. From an obscure origin, Romanus Lecapenus had
raised himself to the command of the naval armies; and in the anarchy of
the times, had deserved, or at least had obtained, the national esteem.
With a victorious and affectionate fleet, he sailed from the mouth of
the Danube into the harbor of Constantinople, and was hailed as the
deliverer of the people, and the guardian of the prince. His supreme
office was at first defined by the new appellation of father of
the emperor; but Romanus soon disdained the subordinate powers of a
minister, and assumed with the titles of Cæsar and Augustus, the full
independence of royalty, which he held near five-and-twenty years. His
three sons, Christopher, Stephen, and Constantine were successively
adorned with the same honors, and the lawful emperor was degraded from
the first to the fifth rank in this college of princes. Yet, in the
preservation of his life and crown, he might still applaud his own
fortune and the clemency of the usurper. The examples of ancient and
modern history would have excused the ambition of Romanus: the powers
and the laws of the empire were in his hand; the spurious birth of
Constantine would have justified his exclusion; and the grave or the
monastery was open to receive the son of the concubine. But Lecapenus
does not appear to have possessed either the virtues or the vices of a
tyrant. The spirit and activity of his private life dissolved away in
the sunshine of the throne; and in his licentious pleasures, he forgot
the safety both of the republic and of his family. Of a mild and
religious character, he respected the sanctity of oaths, the innocence
of the youth, the memory of his parents, and the attachment of the
people. The studious temper and retirement of Constantine disarmed the
jealousy of power: his books and music, his pen and his pencil, were a
constant source of amusement; and if he could improve a scanty allowance
by the sale of his pictures, if their price was not enhanced by the name
of the artist, he was endowed with a personal talent, which few princes
could employ in the hour of adversity.

The fall of Romanus was occasioned by his own vices and those of his
children. After the decease of Christopher, his eldest son, the two
surviving brothers quarrelled with each other, and conspired against
their father. At the hour of noon, when all strangers were regularly
excluded from the palace, they entered his apartment with an armed
force, and conveyed him, in the habit of a monk, to a small island in
the Propontis, which was peopled by a religious community. The rumor
of this domestic revolution excited a tumult in the city; but
Porphyrogenitus alone, the true and lawful emperor, was the object
of the public care; and the sons of Lecapenus were taught, by tardy
experience, that they had achieved a guilty and perilous enterprise
for the benefit of their rival. Their sister Helena, the wife of
Constantine, revealed, or supposed, their treacherous design of
assassinating her husband at the royal banquet. His loyal adherents were
alarmed, and the two usurpers were prevented, seized, degraded from
the purple, and embarked for the same island and monastery where their
father had been so lately confined. Old Romanus met them on the beach
with a sarcastic smile, and, after a just reproach of their folly and
ingratitude, presented his Imperial colleagues with an equal share
of his water and vegetable diet. In the fortieth year of his reign,
Constantine the Seventh obtained the possession of the Eastern world,
which he ruled or seemed to rule, near fifteen years. But he was devoid
of that energy of character which could emerge into a life of action and
glory; and the studies, which had amused and dignified his leisure,
were incompatible with the serious duties of a sovereign. The emperor
neglected the practice to instruct his son Romanus in the theory of
government; while he indulged the habits of intemperance and sloth, he
dropped the reins of the administration into the hands of Helena his
wife; and, in the shifting scene of her favor and caprice, each minister
was regretted in the promotion of a more worthless successor. Yet the
birth and misfortunes of Constantine had endeared him to the Greeks;
they excused his failings; they respected his learning, his innocence,
and charity, his love of justice; and the ceremony of his funeral was
mourned with the unfeigned tears of his subjects. The body, according
to ancient custom, lay in state in the vestibule of the palace; and the
civil and military officers, the patricians, the senate, and the clergy
approached in due order to adore and kiss the inanimate corpse of their
sovereign. Before the procession moved towards the Imperial sepulchre,
a herald proclaimed this awful admonition: "Arise, O king of the world,
and obey the summons of the King of kings!"

The death of Constantine was imputed to poison; and his son Romanus, who
derived that name from his maternal grandfather, ascended the throne of
Constantinople. A prince who, at the age of twenty, could be suspected
of anticipating his inheritance, must have been already lost in the
public esteem; yet Romanus was rather weak than wicked; and the largest
share of the guilt was transferred to his wife, Theophano, a woman
of base origin masculine spirit, and flagitious manners. The sense of
personal glory and public happiness, the true pleasures of royalty,
were unknown to the son of Constantine; and, while the two brothers,
Nicephorus and Leo, triumphed over the Saracens, the hours which the
emperor owed to his people were consumed in strenuous idleness. In the
morning he visited the circus; at noon he feasted the senators; the
greater part of the afternoon he spent in the _sphristerium_, or
tennis-court, the only theatre of his victories; from thence he passed
over to the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus, hunted and killed four wild
boars of the largest size, and returned to the palace, proudly content
with the labors of the day. In strength and beauty he was conspicuous
above his equals: tall and straight as a young cypress, his complexion
was fair and florid, his eyes sparkling, his shoulders broad, his nose
long and aquiline. Yet even these perfections were insufficient to fix
the love of Theophano; and, after a reign of four years, she mingled
for her husband the same deadly draught which she had composed for his

By his marriage with this impious woman, Romanus the younger left two
sons, Basil the Second and Constantine the Ninth, and two daughters,
Theophano and Anne. The eldest sister was given to Otho the Second,
emperor of the West; the younger became the wife of Wolodomir, great
duke and apostle of Russia, and by the marriage of her granddaughter
with Henry the First, king of France, the blood of the Macedonians, and
perhaps of the Arsacides, still flows in the veins of the Bourbon line.
After the death of her husband, the empress aspired to reign in the name
of her sons, the elder of whom was five, and the younger only two,
years of age; but she soon felt the instability of a throne which was
supported by a female who could not be esteemed, and two infants who
could not be feared. Theophano looked around for a protector, and threw
herself into the arms of the bravest soldier; her heart was capacious;
but the deformity of the new favorite rendered it more than probable
that interest was the motive and excuse of her love. Nicephorus Phocus
united, in the popular opinion, the double merit of a hero and a saint.
In the former character, his qualifications were genuine and splendid:
the descendant of a race illustrious by their military exploits, he
had displayed in every station and in every province the courage of
a soldier and the conduct of a chief; and Nicephorus was crowned with
recent laurels, from the important conquest of the Isle of Crete. His
religion was of a more ambiguous cast; and his hair-cloth, his fasts,
his pious idiom, and his wish to retire from the business of the world,
were a convenient mask for his dark and dangerous ambition. Yet he
imposed on a holy patriarch, by whose influence, and by a decree of the
senate, he was intrusted, during the minority of the young princes, with
the absolute and independent command of the Oriental armies. As soon
as he had secured the leaders and the troops, he boldly marched to
Constantinople, trampled on his enemies, avowed his correspondence with
the empress, and without degrading her sons, assumed, with the title of
Augustus, the preeminence of rank and the plenitude of power. But his
marriage with Theophano was refused by the same patriarch who had placed
the crown on his head: by his second nuptials he incurred a year of
canonical penance; a bar of spiritual affinity was opposed to their
celebration; and some evasion and perjury were required to silence the
scruples of the clergy and people. The popularity of the emperor was
lost in the purple: in a reign of six years he provoked the hatred
of strangers and subjects: and the hypocrisy and avarice of the first
Nicephorus were revived in his successor. Hypocrisy I shall never
justify or palliate; but I will dare to observe, that the odious vice of
avarice is of all others most hastily arraigned, and most unmercifully
condemned. In a private citizen, our judgment seldom expects an accurate
scrutiny into his fortune and expense; and in a steward of the public
treasure, frugality is always a virtue, and the increase of taxes too
often an indispensable duty. In the use of his patrimony, the generous
temper of Nicephorus had been proved; and the revenue was strictly
applied to the service of the state: each spring the emperor marched

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 45 of 49)