Edward Gibbon.

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

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clemency, resigned the ensigns of royalty, and was rewarded with the
monastic habit, and the title of Archbishop of Ephesus. He left a son,
a Constantine, born and educated in the purple; and a daughter of the
house of Ducas illustrated the blood, and confirmed the succession, of
the Comnenian dynasty.

John Comnenus, the brother of the emperor Isaac, survived in peace and
dignity his generous refusal of the sceptre. By his wife Anne, a woman
of masculine spirit and a policy, he left eight children: the three
daughters multiplied the Comnenian alliance with the noblest of the
Greeks: of the five sons, Manuel was stopped by a premature death; Isaac
and Alexius restored the Imperial greatness of their house, which was
enjoyed without toil or danger by the two younger brethren, Adrian and
Nicephorus. Alexius, the third and most illustrious of the brothers was
endowed by nature with the choicest gifts both of mind and body: they
were cultivated by a liberal education, and exercised in the school of
obedience and adversity. The youth was dismissed from the perils of the
Turkish war, by the paternal care of the emperor Romanus: but the mother
of the Comneni, with her aspiring face, was accused of treason, and
banished, by the sons of Ducas, to an island in the Propontis. The two
brothers soon emerged into favor and action, fought by each other's side
against the rebels and Barbarians, and adhered to the emperor Michael,
till he was deserted by the world and by himself. In his first interview
with Botaniates, "Prince," said Alexius with a noble frankness, "my duty
rendered me your enemy; the decrees of God and of the people have made
me your subject. Judge of my future loyalty by my past opposition." The
successor of Michael entertained him with esteem and confidence: his
valor was employed against three rebels, who disturbed the peace of the
empire, or at least of the emperors. Ursel, Bryennius, and Basilacius,
were formidable by their numerous forces and military fame: they were
successively vanquished in the field, and led in chains to the foot of
the throne; and whatever treatment they might receive from a timid and
cruel court, they applauded the clemency, as well as the courage, of
their conqueror. But the loyalty of the Comneni was soon tainted by fear
and suspicion; nor is it easy to settle between a subject and a despot,
the debt of gratitude, which the former is tempted to claim by a revolt,
and the latter to discharge by an executioner. The refusal of Alexius to
march against a fourth rebel, the husband of his sister, destroyed
the merit or memory of his past services: the favorites of Botaniates
provoked the ambition which they apprehended and accused; and the
retreat of the two brothers might be justified by the defence of their
life and liberty. The women of the family were deposited in a sanctuary,
respected by tyrants: the men, mounted on horseback, sallied from the
city, and erected the standard of civil war. The soldiers who had been
gradually assembled in the capital and the neighborhood, were devoted
to the cause of a victorious and injured leader: the ties of common
interest and domestic alliance secured the attachment of the house of
Ducas; and the generous dispute of the Comneni was terminated by the
decisive resolution of Isaac, who was the first to invest his younger
brother with the name and ensigns of royalty. They returned to
Constantinople, to threaten rather than besiege that impregnable
fortress; but the fidelity of the guards was corrupted; a gate was
surprised, and the fleet was occupied by the active courage of George
Palæologus, who fought against his father, without foreseeing that he
labored for his posterity. Alexius ascended the throne; and his aged
competitor disappeared in a monastery. An army of various nations was
gratified with the pillage of the city; but the public disorders were
expiated by the tears and fasts of the Comneni, who submitted to every
penance compatible with the possession of the empire.

The life of the emperor Alexius has been delineated by a favorite
daughter, who was inspired by a tender regard for his person and
a laudable zeal to perpetuate his virtues. Conscious of the just
suspicions of her readers, the princess Anna Comnena repeatedly
protests, that, besides her personal knowledge, she had searched the
discourses and writings of the most respectable veterans: and after an
interval of thirty years, forgotten by, and forgetful of, the world, her
mournful solitude was inaccessible to hope and fear; and that truth,
the naked perfect truth, was more dear and sacred than the memory of her
parent. Yet, instead of the simplicity of style and narrative which wins
our belief, an elaborate affectation of rhetoric and science betrays
in every page the vanity of a female author. The genuine character of
Alexius is lost in a vague constellation of virtues; and the perpetual
strain of panegyric and apology awakens our jealousy, to question the
veracity of the historian and the merit of the hero. We cannot, however,
refuse her judicious and important remark, that the disorders of the
times were the misfortune and the glory of Alexius; and that every
calamity which can afflict a declining empire was accumulated on his
reign by the justice of Heaven and the vices of his predecessors. In the
East, the victorious Turks had spread, from Persia to the Hellespont,
the reign of the Koran and the Crescent: the West was invaded by the
adventurous valor of the Normans; and, in the moments of peace, the
Danube poured forth new swarms, who had gained, in the science of war,
what they had lost in the ferociousness of manners. The sea was not less
hostile than the land; and while the frontiers were assaulted by an open
enemy, the palace was distracted with secret treason and conspiracy. On
a sudden, the banner of the Cross was displayed by the Latins; Europe
was precipitated on Asia; and Constantinople had almost been swept away
by this impetuous deluge. In the tempest, Alexius steered the Imperial
vessel with dexterity and courage. At the head of his armies, he was
bold in action, skilful in stratagem, patient of fatigue, ready to
improve his advantages, and rising from his defeats with inexhaustible
vigor. The discipline of the camp was revived, and a new generation
of men and soldiers was created by the example and precepts of their
leader. In his intercourse with the Latins, Alexius was patient and
artful: his discerning eye pervaded the new system of an unknown
world and I shall hereafter describe the superior policy with which
he balanced the interests and passions of the champions of the first
crusade. In a long reign of thirty-seven years, he subdued and pardoned
the envy of his equals: the laws of public and private order were
restored: the arts of wealth and science were cultivated: the limits of
the empire were enlarged in Europe and Asia; and the Comnenian sceptre
was transmitted to his children of the third and fourth generation. Yet
the difficulties of the times betrayed some defects in his character;
and have exposed his memory to some just or ungenerous reproach. The
reader may possibly smile at the lavish praise which his daughter
so often bestows on a flying hero: the weakness or prudence of his
situation might be mistaken for a want of personal courage; and his
political arts are branded by the Latins with the names of deceit and
dissimulation. The increase of the male and female branches of his
family adorned the throne, and secured the succession; but their
princely luxury and pride offended the patricians, exhausted the
revenue, and insulted the misery of the people. Anna is a faithful
witness that his happiness was destroyed, and his health was broken, by
the cares of a public life; the patience of Constantinople was fatigued
by the length and severity of his reign; and before Alexius expired, he
had lost the love and reverence of his subjects. The clergy could not
forgive his application of the sacred riches to the defence of the
state; but they applauded his theological learning and ardent zeal for
the orthodox faith, which he defended with his tongue, his pen, and his
sword. His character was degraded by the superstition of the Greeks; and
the same inconsistent principle of human nature enjoined the emperor to
found a hospital for the poor and infirm, and to direct the execution
of a heretic, who was burned alive in the square of St. Sophia. Even
the sincerity of his moral and religious virtues was suspected by the
persons who had passed their lives in his familiar confidence. In
his last hours, when he was pressed by his wife Irene to alter the
succession, he raised his head, and breathed a pious ejaculation on
the vanity of this world. The indignant reply of the empress may be
inscribed as an epitaph on his tomb, "You die, as you have lived - a

It was the wish of Irene to supplant the eldest of her surviving sons,
in favor of her daughter the princess Anne whose philosophy would not
have refused the weight of a diadem. But the order of male succession
was asserted by the friends of their country; the lawful heir drew the
royal signet from the finger of his insensible or conscious father and
the empire obeyed the master of the palace. Anna Comnena was stimulated
by ambition and revenge to conspire against the life of her brother, and
when the design was prevented by the fears or scruples of her husband,
she passionately exclaimed that nature had mistaken the two sexes, and
had endowed Bryennius with the soul of a woman. The two sons of Alexius,
John and Isaac, maintained the fraternal concord, the hereditary virtue
of their race, and the younger brother was content with the title of
_Sebastocrator_, which approached the dignity, without sharing the
power, of the emperor. In the same person the claims of primogeniture
and merit were fortunately united; his swarthy complexion, harsh
features, and diminutive stature, had suggested the ironical surname of
Calo-Johannes, or John the Handsome, which his grateful subjects more
seriously applied to the beauties of his mind. After the discovery of
her treason, the life and fortune of Anne were justly forfeited to the
laws. Her life was spared by the clemency of the emperor; but he visited
the pomp and treasures of her palace, and bestowed the rich confiscation
on the most deserving of his friends. That respectable friend Axuch,
a slave of Turkish extraction, presumed to decline the gift, and to
intercede for the criminal: his generous master applauded and imitated
the virtue of his favorite, and the reproach or complaint of an injured
brother was the only chastisement of the guilty princess. After this
example of clemency, the remainder of his reign was never disturbed by
conspiracy or rebellion: feared by his nobles, beloved by his people,
John was never reduced to the painful necessity of punishing, or even
of pardoning, his personal enemies. During his government of twenty-five
years, the penalty of death was abolished in the Roman empire, a law of
mercy most delightful to the humane theorist, but of which the practice,
in a large and vicious community, is seldom consistent with the
public safety. Severe to himself, indulgent to others, chaste, frugal,
abstemious, the philosophic Marcus would not have disdained the artless
virtues of his successor, derived from his heart, and not borrowed from
the schools. He despised and moderated the stately magnificence of the
Byzantine court, so oppressive to the people, so contemptible to the eye
of reason. Under such a prince, innocence had nothing to fear, and merit
had every thing to hope; and, without assuming the tyrannic office of a
censor, he introduced a gradual though visible reformation in the
public and private manners of Constantinople. The only defect of this
accomplished character was the frailty of noble minds, the love of arms
and military glory. Yet the frequent expeditions of John the Handsome
may be justified, at least in their principle, by the necessity of
repelling the Turks from the Hellespont and the Bosphorus. The sultan of
Iconium was confined to his capital, the Barbarians were driven to the
mountains, and the maritime provinces of Asia enjoyed the transient
blessings of their deliverance. From Constantinople to Antioch and
Aleppo, he repeatedly marched at the head of a victorious army, and
in the sieges and battles of this holy war, his Latin allies were
astonished by the superior spirit and prowess of a Greek. As he began
to indulge the ambitious hope of restoring the ancient limits of the
empire, as he revolved in his mind, the Euphrates and Tigris, the
dominion of Syria, and the conquest of Jerusalem, the thread of his life
and of the public felicity was broken by a singular accident. He hunted
the wild boar in the valley of Anazarbus, and had fixed his javelin in
the body of the furious animal; but in the struggle a poisoned arrow
dropped from his quiver, and a slight wound in his hand, which produced
a mortification, was fatal to the best and greatest of the Comnenian

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

A premature death had swept away the two eldest sons of John the
Handsome; of the two survivors, Isaac and Manuel, his judgment or
affection preferred the younger; and the choice of their dying prince
was ratified by the soldiers, who had applauded the valor of his
favorite in the Turkish war The faithful Axuch hastened to the capital,
secured the person of Isaac in honorable confinement, and purchased,
with a gift of two hundred pounds of silver, the leading ecclesiastics
of St. Sophia, who possessed a decisive voice in the consecration of an
emperor. With his veteran and affectionate troops, Manuel soon visited
Constantinople; his brother acquiesced in the title of Sebastocrator;
his subjects admired the lofty stature and martial graces of their new
sovereign, and listened with credulity to the flattering promise, that
he blended the wisdom of age with the activity and vigor of youth. By
the experience of his government, they were taught, that he emulated the
spirit, and shared the talents, of his father whose social virtues
were buried in the grave. A reign of thirty seven years is filled by a
perpetual though various warfare against the Turks, the Christians, and
the hordes of the wilderness beyond the Danube. The arms of Manuel were
exercised on Mount Taurus, in the plains of Hungary, on the coast of
Italy and Egypt, and on the seas of Sicily and Greece: the influence
of his negotiations extended from Jerusalem to Rome and Russia; and the
Byzantine monarchy, for a while, became an object of respect or terror
to the powers of Asia and Europe. Educated in the silk and purple of the
East, Manuel possessed the iron temper of a soldier, which cannot easily
be paralleled, except in the lives of Richard the First of England, and
of Charles the Twelfth of Sweden. Such was his strength and exercise in
arms, that Raymond, surnamed the Hercules of Antioch, was incapable
of wielding the lance and buckler of the Greek emperor. In a famous
tournament, he entered the lists on a fiery courser, and overturned in
his first career two of the stoutest of the Italian knights. The first
in the charge, the last in the retreat, his friends and his enemies
alike trembled, the former for his safety, and the latter for their own.
After posting an ambuscade in a wood, he rode forwards in search of some
perilous adventure, accompanied only by his brother and the faithful
Axuch, who refused to desert their sovereign. Eighteen horsemen, after a
short combat, fled before them: but the numbers of the enemy increased;
the march of the reënforcement was tardy and fearful, and Manuel,
without receiving a wound, cut his way through a squadron of five
hundred Turks. In a battle against the Hungarians, impatient of the
slowness of his troops, he snatched a standard from the head of the
column, and was the first, almost alone, who passed a bridge that
separated him from the enemy. In the same country, after transporting
his army beyond the Save, he sent back the boats, with an order under
pain of death, to their commander, that he should leave him to conquer
or die on that hostile land. In the siege of Corfu, towing after him a
captive galley, the emperor stood aloft on the poop, opposing against
the volleys of darts and stones, a large buckler and a flowing sail;
nor could he have escaped inevitable death, had not the Sicilian admiral
enjoined his archers to respect the person of a hero. In one day, he is
said to have slain above forty of the Barbarians with his own hand; he
returned to the camp, dragging along four Turkish prisoners, whom he had
tied to the rings of his saddle: he was ever the foremost to provoke or
to accept a single combat; and the _gigantic_ champions, who encountered
his arm, were transpierced by the lance, or cut asunder by the sword,
of the invincible Manuel. The story of his exploits, which appear as
a model or a copy of the romances of chivalry, may induce a reasonable
suspicion of the veracity of the Greeks: I will not, to vindicate their
credit, endanger my own: yet I may observe, that, in the long series
of their annals, Manuel is the only prince who has been the subject of
similar exaggeration. With the valor of a soldier, he did no unite the
skill or prudence of a general; his victories were not productive of any
permanent or useful conquest; and his Turkish laurels were blasted
in his last unfortunate campaign, in which he lost his army in the
mountains of Pisidia, and owed his deliverance to the generosity of the
sultan. But the most singular feature in the character of Manuel, is
the contrast and vicissitude of labor and sloth, of hardiness and
effeminacy. In war he seemed ignorant of peace, in peace he appeared
incapable of war. In the field he slept in the sun or in the snow, tired
in the longest marches the strength of his men and horses, and shared
with a smile the abstinence or diet of the camp. No sooner did he return
to Constantinople, than he resigned himself to the arts and pleasures of
a life of luxury: the expense of his dress, his table, and his palace,
surpassed the measure of his predecessors, and whole summer days were
idly wasted in the delicious isles of the Propontis, in the incestuous
love of his niece Theodora. The double cost of a warlike and dissolute
prince exhausted the revenue, and multiplied the taxes; and Manuel, in
the distress of his last Turkish campaign, endured a bitter reproach
from the mouth of a desperate soldier. As he quenched his thirst, he
complained that the water of a fountain was mingled with Christian
blood. "It is not the first time," exclaimed a voice from the crowd,
"that you have drank, O emperor, the blood of your Christian subjects."
Manuel Comnenus was twice married, to the virtuous Bertha or Irene
of Germany, and to the beauteous Maria, a French or Latin princess of
Antioch. The only daughter of his first wife was destined for Bela, a
Hungarian prince, who was educated at Constantinople under the name of
Alexius; and the consummation of their nuptials might have transferred
the Roman sceptre to a race of free and warlike Barbarians. But as
soon as Maria of Antioch had given a son and heir to the empire, the
presumptive rights of Bela were abolished, and he was deprived of
his promised bride; but the Hungarian prince resumed his name and the
kingdom of his fathers, and displayed such virtues as might excite the
regret and envy of the Greeks. The son of Maria was named Alexius; and
at the age of ten years he ascended the Byzantine throne, after his
father's decease had closed the glories of the Comnenian line.

The fraternal concord of the two sons of the great Alexius had been
sometimes clouded by an opposition of interest and passion. By ambition,
Isaac the Sebastocrator was excited to flight and rebellion, from whence
he was reclaimed by the firmness and clemency of John the Handsome. The
errors of Isaac, the father of the emperors of Trebizond, were short and
venial; but John, the elder of his sons, renounced forever his religion.
Provoked by a real or imaginary insult of his uncle, he escaped from the
Roman to the Turkish camp: his apostasy was rewarded with the sultan's
daughter, the title of Chelebi, or noble, and the inheritance of a
princely estate; and in the fifteenth century, Mahomet the Second
boasted of his Imperial descent from the Comnenian family. Andronicus,
the younger brother of John, son of Isaac, and grandson of Alexius
Comnenus, is one of the most conspicuous characters of the age; and his
genuine adventures might form the subject of a very singular romance. To
justify the choice of three ladies of royal birth, it is incumbent on me
to observe, that their fortunate lover was cast in the best proportions
of strength and beauty; and that the want of the softer graces was
supplied by a manly countenance, a lofty stature, athletic muscles, and
the air and deportment of a soldier. The preservation, in his old age,
of health and vigor, was the reward of temperance and exercise. A piece
of bread and a draught of water was often his sole and evening repast;
and if he tasted of a wild boar or a stag, which he had roasted with his
own hands, it was the well-earned fruit of a laborious chase. Dexterous
in arms, he was ignorant of fear; his persuasive eloquence could bend
to every situation and character of life, his style, though not his
practice, was fashioned by the example of St. Paul; and, in every deed
of mischief, he had a heart to resolve, a head to contrive, and a
hand to execute. In his youth, after the death of the emperor John, he
followed the retreat of the Roman army; but, in the march through Asia
Minor, design or accident tempted him to wander in the mountains: the
hunter was encompassed by the Turkish huntsmen, and he remained some
time a reluctant or willing captive in the power of the sultan. His
virtues and vices recommended him to the favor of his cousin: he shared
the perils and the pleasures of Manuel; and while the emperor lived
in public incest with his niece Theodora, the affections of her sister
Eudocia were seduced and enjoyed by Andronicus. Above the decencies of
her sex and rank, she gloried in the name of his concubine; and both
the palace and the camp could witness that she slept, or watched, in
the arms of her lover. She accompanied him to his military command of
Cilicia, the first scene of his valor and imprudence. He pressed, with
active ardor, the siege of Mopsuestia: the day was employed in the
boldest attacks; but the night was wasted in song and dance; and a band
of Greek comedians formed the choicest part of his retinue. Andronicus
was surprised by the sally of a vigilant foe; but, while his troops fled
in disorder, his invincible lance transpierced the thickest ranks of
the Armenians. On his return to the Imperial camp in Macedonia, he was
received by Manuel with public smiles and a private reproof; but
the duchies of Naissus, Braniseba, and Castoria, were the reward or
consolation of the unsuccessful general. Eudocia still attended his
motions: at midnight, their tent was suddenly attacked by her angry
brothers, impatient to expiate her infamy in his blood: his daring
spirit refused her advice, and the disguise of a female habit; and,
boldly starting from his couch, he drew his sword, and cut his way
through the numerous assassins. It was here that he first betrayed his
ingratitude and treachery: he engaged in a treasonable correspondence
with the king of Hungary and the German emperor; approached the royal
tent at a suspicious hour with a drawn sword, and under the mask of a
Latin soldier, avowed an intention of revenge against a mortal foe;
and imprudently praised the fleetness of his horse as an instrument of
flight and safety. The monarch dissembled his suspicions; but, after the
close of the campaign, Andronicus was arrested and strictly confined in
a tower of the palace of Constantinople.

In this prison he was left about twelve years; a most painful restraint,
from which the thirst of action and pleasure perpetually urged him to
escape. Alone and pensive, he perceived some broken bricks in a corner
of the chamber, and gradually widened the passage, till he had explored
a dark and forgotten recess. Into this hole he conveyed himself, and
the remains of his provisions, replacing the bricks in their former
position, and erasing with care the footsteps of his retreat. At the
hour of the customary visit, his guards were amazed by the silence

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 47 of 49)