Edward Gibbon.

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

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in person against the Saracens; and every Roman might compute the
employment of his taxes in triumphs, conquests, and the security of the
Eastern barrier.

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

Among the warriors who promoted his elevation, and served under his
standard, a noble and valiant Armenian had deserved and obtained
the most eminent rewards. The stature of John Zimisces was below the
ordinary standard: but this diminutive body was endowed with strength,
beauty, and the soul of a hero. By the jealousy of the emperor's
brother, he was degraded from the office of general of the East, to that
of director of the posts, and his murmurs were chastised with disgrace
and exile. But Zimisces was ranked among the numerous lovers of the
empress: on her intercession, he was permitted to reside at Chalcedon,
in the neighborhood of the capital: her bounty was repaid in his
clandestine and amorous visits to the palace; and Theophano consented,
with alacrity, to the death of an ugly and penurious husband. Some bold
and trusty conspirators were concealed in her most private chambers: in
the darkness of a winter night, Zimisces, with his principal companions,
embarked in a small boat, traversed the Bosphorus, landed at the palace
stairs, and silently ascended a ladder of ropes, which was cast down by
the female attendants. Neither his own suspicions, nor the warnings
of his friends, nor the tardy aid of his brother Leo, nor the fortress
which he had erected in the palace, could protect Nicephorus from a
domestic foe, at whose voice every door was open to the assassins. As
he slept on a bear-skin on the ground, he was roused by their noisy
intrusion, and thirty daggers glittered before his eyes. It is doubtful
whether Zimisces imbrued his hands in the blood of his sovereign; but he
enjoyed the inhuman spectacle of revenge. The murder was protracted by
insult and cruelty: and as soon as the head of Nicephorus was shown from
the window, the tumult was hushed, and the Armenian was emperor of the
East. On the day of his coronation, he was stopped on the threshold of
St. Sophia, by the intrepid patriarch; who charged his conscience with
the deed of treason and blood; and required, as a sign of repentance,
that he should separate himself from his more criminal associate. This
sally of apostolic zeal was not offensive to the prince, since he could
neither love nor trust a woman who had repeatedly violated the most
sacred obligations; and Theophano, instead of sharing his imperial
fortune, was dismissed with ignominy from his bed and palace. In their
last interview, she displayed a frantic and impotent rage; accused
the ingratitude of her lover; assaulted, with words and blows, her son
Basil, as he stood silent and submissive in the presence of a
superior colleague; and avowed her own prostitution in proclaiming the
illegitimacy of his birth. The public indignation was appeased by her
exile, and the punishment of the meaner accomplices: the death of an
unpopular prince was forgiven; and the guilt of Zimisces was forgotten
in the splendor of his virtues. Perhaps his profusion was less useful
to the state than the avarice of Nicephorus; but his gentle and generous
behavior delighted all who approached his person; and it was only in the
paths of victory that he trod in the footsteps of his predecessor. The
greatest part of his reign was employed in the camp and the field:
his personal valor and activity were signalized on the Danube and the
Tigris, the ancient boundaries of the Roman world; and by his double
triumph over the Russians and the Saracens, he deserved the titles of
savior of the empire, and conqueror of the East. In his last return from
Syria, he observed that the most fruitful lands of his new provinces
were possessed by the eunuchs. "And is it for them," he exclaimed, with
honest indignation, "that we have fought and conquered? Is it for them
that we shed our blood, and exhaust the treasures of our people?" The
complaint was reëchoed to the palace, and the death of Zimisces is
strongly marked with the suspicion of poison.

Under this usurpation, or regency, of twelve years, the two lawful
emperors, Basil and Constantine, had silently grown to the age of
manhood. Their tender years had been incapable of dominion: the
respectful modesty of their attendance and salutation was due to the age
and merit of their guardians; the childless ambition of those guardians
had no temptation to violate their right of succession: their patrimony
was ably and faithfully administered; and the premature death of
Zimisces was a loss, rather than a benefit, to the sons of Romanus.
Their want of experience detained them twelve years longer the obscure
and voluntary pupils of a minister, who extended his reign by persuading
them to indulge the pleasures of youth, and to disdain the labors of
government. In this silken web, the weakness of Constantine was forever
entangled; but his elder brother felt the impulse of genius and the
desire of action; he frowned, and the minister was no more. Basil
was the acknowledged sovereign of Constantinople and the provinces
of Europe; but Asia was oppressed by two veteran generals, Phocas and
Sclerus, who, alternately friends and enemies, subjects and rebels,
maintained their independence, and labored to emulate the example of
successful usurpation. Against these domestic enemies the son of Romanus
first drew his sword, and they trembled in the presence of a lawful and
high-spirited prince. The first, in the front of battle, was thrown from
his horse, by the stroke of poison, or an arrow; the second, who had
been twice loaded with chains, and twice invested with the purple, was
desirous of ending in peace the small remainder of his days. As the
aged suppliant approached the throne, with dim eyes and faltering steps,
leaning on his two attendants, the emperor exclaimed, in the insolence
of youth and power, "And is this the man who has so long been the object
of our terror?" After he had confirmed his own authority, and the peace
of the empire, the trophies of Nicephorus and Zimisces would not
suffer their royal pupil to sleep in the palace. His long and frequent
expeditions against the Saracens were rather glorious than useful to the
empire; but the final destruction of the kingdom of Bulgaria appears,
since the time of Belisarius, the most important triumph of the Roman
arms. Yet, instead of applauding their victorious prince, his subjects
detested the rapacious and rigid avarice of Basil; and in the imperfect
narrative of his exploits, we can only discern the courage, patience,
and ferociousness of a soldier. A vicious education, which could not
subdue his spirit, had clouded his mind; he was ignorant of every
science; and the remembrance of his learned and feeble grandsire might
encourage his real or affected contempt of laws and lawyers, of artists
and arts. Of such a character, in such an age, superstition took a firm
and lasting possession; after the first license of his youth, Basil the
Second devoted his life, in the palace and the camp, to the penance of
a hermit, wore the monastic habit under his robes and armor, observed a
vow of continence, and imposed on his appetites a perpetual abstinence
from wine and flesh. In the sixty-eighth year of his age, his martial
spirit urged him to embark in person ferso the clergy and the curse of
the people. After his decease, his brother Constantine enjoyed, about
three years, the power, ersrather the pleasures, of royalty; and his
only care was the settlement of the succession. He had enjoyed sixty-six
years the title of Augustus; and the reign of the two brothers is the
longest, and most obscure, of the Byzantine history.

A lineal succession of five emperors, in a period of one hundred and
sixty years, had attached the loyalty of the Greeks to the Macedonian
dynasty, which had been thrice respected by the usurpers of their power.
After the death of Constantine the Ninth, the last male of the royal
race, a new and broken scene presents itself, and the accumulated years
of twelve emperors do not equal the space of his single reign. His elder
brother had preferred his private chastity to the public interest, and
Constantine himself had only three daughters; Eudocia, who took the
veil, and Zoe and Theodora, who were preserved till a mature age in a
state of ignorance and virginity. When their marriage was discussed in
the council of their dying father, the cold erspious Theodora refused
to give an heir to the empire, but her sister Zoe presented herself a
willing victim at the altar. Romanus Argyrus, a patrician of a graceful
person and fair reputation, was chosen for her husband, and, on his
declining that blindness or death was the second alternative. The
motive of his reluctance was conjugal affection but his faithful wife
sacrificed her own happiness to his safety and greatness; and her
entrance into a monastery removed the only bar to the Imperial nuptials.
After the decease of Constantine, the sceptre devolved to Romanus
the Third; but his labors at the indulgence of pleasure. Her favorite
chamberlain was a handsome Paphlagonian of the name of Michael, whose
first trade had been that of a money-changer; and Romanus, either from
gratitude, connived at their criminal intercourse, accepted
a slight assurance of their innocence. But Zoe soon justified the Roman
maxim, that every adulteress is capable of poisoning her husband; and
the death of Romanus was instantly followed by the scandalous marriage
and elevation of Michael the Fourth. The expectations of Zoe were,
however, disappointed: instead of a vigorous and grateful lover, she
had placed in her bed a miserable wretch, whose health and reason
were impaired by epileptic fits, and whose conscience was tormented by
despair and remorse. The most skilful physicians of the mind and
body were summoned to his aid; and his hopes were amused by frequent
pilgrimages to the baths, and to the tombs of the most popular saints;
the monks applauded his penance, and, except restitution, (but to whom
should he have restored?) Michael sought every method of expiating his
guilt. While he groaned and prayed in sackcloth and ashes, his brother,
the eunuch John, smiled at his remorse, and enjoyed the harvest of
a crime of which himself was the secret and most guilty author. His
administration was only the art of satiating his avarice, and Zoe became
a captive in the palace of her fathers, and in the hands of her slaves.
When he perceived the irretrievable decline of his brother's health,
he introduced his nephew, another Michael, who derived his surname of
Calaphates from his father's occupation in the careening of vessels:
at the command of the eunuch, Zoe adopted for her son the son of a
mechanic; and this fictitious heir was invested with the title and
purple of the Cæsars, in the presence of the senate and clergy. So
feeble was the character of Zoe, that she was oppressed by the liberty
and power which she recovered by the death of the Paphlagonian; and at
the end of four days, she placed the crown on the head of Michael the
Fifth, who had protested, with tears and oaths, that he should ever
reign the first and most obedient of her subjects. The only act of his
short reign was his base ingratitude to his benefactors, the eunuch and
the empress. The disgrace of the former was pleasing to the public: but
the murmurs, and at length the clamors, of Constantinople deplored
the exile of Zoe, the daughter of so many emperors; her vices were
forgotten, and Michael was taught, that there is a period in which the
patience of the tamest slaves rises into fury and revenge. The citizens
of every degree assembled in a formidable tumult which lasted three
days; they besieged the palace, forced the gates, recalled their
_mothers_, Zoe from her prison, Theodora from her monastery, and
condemned the son of Calaphates to the loss of his eyes or of his life.
For the first time the Greeks beheld with surprise the two royal sisters
seated on the same throne, presiding in the senate, and giving audience
to the ambassadors of the nations. But the singular union subsisted no
more than two months; the two sovereigns, their tempers, interests,
and adherents, were secretly hostile to each other; and as Theodora was
still averse to marriage, the indefatigable Zoe, at the age of sixty,
consented, for the public good, to sustain the embraces of a third
husband, and the censures of the Greek church. His name and number
were Constantine the Tenth, and the epithet of _Monomachus_, the single
combatant, must have been expressive of his valor and victory in some
public or private quarrel. But his health was broken by the tortures
of the gout, and his dissolute reign was spent in the alternative
of sickness and pleasure. A fair and noble widow had accompanied
Constantine in his exile to the Isle of Lesbos, and Sclerena gloried in
the appellation of his mistress. After his marriage and elevation,
she was invested with the title and pomp of _Augusta_, and occupied a
contiguous apartment in the palace. The lawful consort (such was the
delicacy or corruption of Zoe) consented to this strange and scandalous
partition; and the emperor appeared in public between his wife and his
concubine. He survived them both; but the last measures of Constantine
to change the order of succession were prevented by the more vigilant
friends of Theodora; and after his decease, she resumed, with the
general consent, the possession of her inheritance. In her name, and by
the influence of four eunuchs, the Eastern world was peaceably governed
about nineteen months; and as they wished to prolong their dominion,
they persuaded the aged princess to nominate for her successor
Michael the Sixth. The surname of _Stratioticus_ declares his military
profession; but the crazy and decrepit veteran could only see with the
eyes, and execute with the hands, of his ministers. Whilst he ascended
the throne, Theodora sunk into the grave; the last of the Macedonian
or Basilian dynasty. I have hastily reviewed, and gladly dismiss, this
shameful and destructive period of twenty-eight years, in which the
Greeks, degraded below the common level of servitude, were transferred
like a herd of cattle by the choice or caprice of two impotent females.

From this night of slavery, a ray of freedom, or at least of spirit,
begins to emerge: the Greeks either preserved or revived the use of
surnames, which perpetuate the fame of hereditary virtue: and we now
discern the rise, succession, and alliances of the last dynasties of
Constantinople and Trebizond. The _Comneni_, who upheld for a while the
fate of the sinking empire, assumed the honor of a Roman origin: but
the family had been long since transported from Italy to Asia. Their
patrimonial estate was situate in the district of Castamona, in the
neighborhood of the Euxine; and one of their chiefs, who had already
entered the paths of ambition, revisited with affection, perhaps with
regret, the modest though honorable dwelling of his fathers. The first
of their line was the illustrious Manuel, who in the reign of the second
Basil, contributed by war and treaty to appease the troubles of the
East: he left, in a tender age, two sons, Isaac and John, whom, with the
consciousness of desert, he bequeathed to the gratitude and favor of his
sovereign. The noble youths were carefully trained in the learning of
the monastery, the arts of the palace, and the exercises of the camp:
and from the domestic service of the guards, they were rapidly promoted
to the command of provinces and armies. Their fraternal union doubled
the force and reputation of the Comneni, and their ancient nobility was
illustrated by the marriage of the two brothers, with a captive princess
of Bulgaria, and the daughter of a patrician, who had obtained the name
of _Charon_ from the number of enemies whom he had sent to the infernal
shades. The soldiers had served with reluctant loyalty a series of
effeminate masters; the elevation of Michael the Sixth was a personal
insult to the more deserving generals; and their discontent was inflamed
by the parsimony of the emperor and the insolence of the eunuchs. They
secretly assembled in the sanctuary of St. Sophia, and the votes of the
military synod would have been unanimous in favor of the old and valiant
Catacalon, if the patriotism or modesty of the veteran had not suggested
the importance of birth as well as merit in the choice of a sovereign.
Isaac Comnenus was approved by general consent, and the associates
separated without delay to meet in the plains of Phrygia at the head
of their respective squadrons and detachments. The cause of Michael was
defended in a single battle by the mercenaries of the Imperial guard,
who were aliens to the public interest, and animated only by a principle
of honor and gratitude. After their defeat, the fears of the emperor
solicited a treaty, which was almost accepted by the moderation of
the Comnenian. But the former was betrayed by his ambassadors, and the
latter was prevented by his friends. The solitary Michael submitted
to the voice of the people; the patriarch annulled their oath of
allegiance; and as he shaved the head of the royal monk, congratulated
his beneficial exchange of temporal royalty for the kingdom of heaven;
an exchange, however, which the priest, on his own account, would
probably have declined. By the hands of the same patriarch, Isaac
Comnenus was solemnly crowned; the sword which he inscribed on his coins
might be an offensive symbol, if it implied his title by conquest;
but this sword would have been drawn against the foreign and domestic
enemies of the state. The decline of his health and vigor suspended
the operation of active virtue; and the prospect of approaching death
determined him to interpose some moments between life and eternity. But
instead of leaving the empire as the marriage portion of his daughter,
his reason and inclination concurred in the preference of his brother
John, a soldier, a patriot, and the father of five sons, the future
pillars of an hereditary succession. His first modest reluctance might
be the natural dictates of discretion and tenderness, but his obstinate
and successful perseverance, however it may dazzle with the show of
virtue, must be censured as a criminal desertion of his duty, and a rare
offence against his family and country. The purple which he had refused
was accepted by Constantine Ducas, a friend of the Comnenian house,
and whose noble birth was adorned with the experience and reputation
of civil policy. In the monastic habit, Isaac recovered his health,
and survived two years his voluntary abdication. At the command of his
abbot, he observed the rule of St. Basil, and executed the most servile
offices of the convent: but his latent vanity was gratified by the
frequent and respectful visits of the reigning monarch, who revered in
his person the character of a benefactor and a saint.

If Constantine the Eleventh were indeed the subject most worthy of
empire, we must pity the debasement of the age and nation in which he
was chosen. In the labor of puerile declamations he sought, without
obtaining, the crown of eloquence, more precious, in his opinion, than
that of Rome; and in the subordinate functions of a judge, he forgot the
duties of a sovereign and a warrior. Far from imitating the patriotic
indifference of the authors of his greatness, Ducas was anxious only to
secure, at the expense of the republic, the power and prosperity of his
children. His three sons, Michael the Seventh, Andronicus the First, and
Constantine the Twelfth, were invested, in a tender age, with the equal
title of Augustus; and the succession was speedily opened by
their father's death. His widow, Eudocia, was intrusted with the
administration; but experience had taught the jealousy of the dying
monarch to protect his sons from the danger of her second nuptials; and
her solemn engagement, attested by the principal senators, was deposited
in the hands of the patriarch. Before the end of seven months, the wants
of Eudocia, or those of the state, called aloud for the male virtues of
a soldier; and her heart had already chosen Romanus Diogenes, whom she
raised from the scaffold to the throne. The discovery of a treasonable
attempt had exposed him to the severity of the laws: his beauty and
valor absolved him in the eyes of the empress; and Romanus, from a mild
exile, was recalled on the second day to the command of the Oriental
armies. Her royal choice was yet unknown to the public; and the promise
which would have betrayed her falsehood and levity, was stolen by a
dexterous emissary from the ambition of the patriarch. Xiphilin at first
alleged the sanctity of oaths, and the sacred nature of a trust; but a
whisper, that his brother was the future emperor, relaxed his scruples,
and forced him to confess that the public safety was the supreme law. He
resigned the important paper; and when his hopes were confounded by the
nomination of Romanus, he could no longer regain his security, retract
his declarations, nor oppose the second nuptials of the empress. Yet
a murmur was heard in the palace; and the Barbarian guards had raised
their battle-axes in the cause of the house of Lucas, till the young
princes were soothed by the tears of their mother and the solemn
assurances of the fidelity of their guardian, who filled the Imperial
station with dignity and honor. Hereafter I shall relate his valiant,
but unsuccessful, efforts to resist the progress of the Turks. His
defeat and captivity inflicted a deadly wound on the Byzantine monarchy
of the East; and after he was released from the chains of the sultan, he
vainly sought his wife and his subjects. His wife had been thrust into
a monastery, and the subjects of Romanus had embraced the rigid maxim of
the civil law, that a prisoner in the hands of the enemy is deprived,
as by the stroke of death, of all the public and private rights of
a citizen. In the general consternation, the Cæsar John asserted the
indefeasible right of his three nephews: Constantinople listened to
his voice: and the Turkish captive was proclaimed in the capital, and
received on the frontier, as an enemy of the republic. Romanus was not
more fortunate in domestic than in foreign war: the loss of two
battles compelled him to yield, on the assurance of fair and honorable
treatment; but his enemies were devoid of faith or humanity; and, after
the cruel extinction of his sight, his wounds were left to bleed and
corrupt, till in a few days he was relieved from a state of misery.
Under the triple reign of the house of Ducas, the two younger brothers
were reduced to the vain honors of the purple; but the eldest, the
pusillanimous Michael, was incapable of sustaining the Roman sceptre;
and his surname of _Parapinaces_ denotes the reproach which he shared
with an avaricious favorite, who enhanced the price, and diminished the
measure, of wheat. In the school of Psellus, and after the example of
his mother, the son of Eudocia made some proficiency in philosophy and
rhetoric; but his character was degraded, rather than ennobled, by the
virtues of a monk and the learning of a sophist. Strong in the contempt
of their sovereign and their own esteem, two generals, at the head of
the European and Asiatic legions, assumed the purple at Adrianople and
Nice. Their revolt was in the same months; they bore the same name of
Nicephorus; but the two candidates were distinguished by the surnames
of Bryennius and Botaniates; the former in the maturity of wisdom and
courage, the latter conspicuous only by the memory of his past exploits.
While Botaniates advanced with cautious and dilatory steps, his active
competitor stood in arms before the gates of Constantinople. The name
of Bryennius was illustrious; his cause was popular; but his licentious
troops could not be restrained from burning and pillaging a suburb; and
the people, who would have hailed the rebel, rejected and repulsed
the incendiary of his country. This change of the public opinion
was favorable to Botaniates, who at length, with an army of Turks,
approached the shores of Chalcedon. A formal invitation, in the name
of the patriarch, the synod, and the senate, was circulated through the
streets of Constantinople; and the general assembly, in the dome of
St. Sophia, debated, with order and calmness, on the choice of their
sovereign. The guards of Michael would have dispersed this unarmed
multitude; but the feeble emperor, applauding his own moderation and

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 46 of 49)