Edward Gibbon.

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

. (page 6 of 49)
Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 6 of 49)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Yet such was the parsimony which supported this liberal disposition,
that, in a reign of twenty-seven years, Anastasius saved, from his
annual revenue, the enormous sum of thirteen millions sterling, or three
hundred and twenty thousand pounds of gold. His example was neglected,
and his treasure was abused, by the nephew of Justin. The riches of
Justinian were speedily exhausted by alms and buildings, by ambitious
wars, and ignominious treaties. His revenues were found inadequate to
his expenses. Every art was tried to extort from the people the gold and
silver which he scattered with a lavish hand from Persia to France:
his reign was marked by the vicissitudes or rather by the combat, of
rapaciousness and avarice, of splendor and poverty; he lived with the
reputation of hidden treasures, and bequeathed to his successor the
payment of his debts. Such a character has been justly accused by
the voice of the people and of posterity: but public discontent is
credulous; private malice is bold; and a lover of truth will peruse
with a suspicious eye the instructive anecdotes of Procopius. The secret
historian represents only the vices of Justinian, and those vices are
darkened by his malevolent pencil. Ambiguous actions are imputed to the
worst motives; error is confounded with guilt, accident with design,
and laws with abuses; the partial injustice of a moment is dexterously
applied as the general maxim of a reign of thirty-two years; the emperor
alone is made responsible for the faults of his officers, the disorders
of the times, and the corruption of his subjects; and even the
calamities of nature, plagues, earthquakes, and inundations, are imputed
to the prince of the dæmons, who had mischievously assumed the form of

After this precaution, I shall briefly relate the anecdotes of avarice
and rapine under the following heads: I. Justinian was so profuse that
he could not be liberal. The civil and military officers, when they were
admitted into the service of the palace, obtained an humble rank and a
moderate stipend; they ascended by seniority to a station of affluence
and repose; the annual pensions, of which the most honorable class was
abolished by Justinian, amounted to four hundred thousand pounds; and
this domestic economy was deplored by the venal or indigent courtiers as
the last outrage on the majesty of the empire. The posts, the salaries
of physicians, and the nocturnal illuminations, were objects of more
general concern; and the cities might justly complain, that he usurped
the municipal revenues which had been appropriated to these useful
institutions. Even the soldiers were injured; and such was the decay
of military spirit, that they were injured with impunity. The emperor
refused, at the return of each fifth year, the customary donative
of five pieces of gold, reduced his veterans to beg their bread, and
suffered unpaid armies to melt away in the wars of Italy and Persia. II.
The humanity of his predecessors had always remitted, in some auspicious
circumstance of their reign, the arrears of the public tribute, and they
dexterously assumed the merit of resigning those claims which it was
impracticable to enforce. "Justinian, in the space of thirty-two years,
has never granted a similar indulgence; and many of his subjects have
renounced the possession of those lands whose value is insufficient to
satisfy the demands of the treasury. To the cities which had suffered by
hostile inroads Anastasius promised a general exemption of seven years:
the provinces of Justinian have been ravaged by the Persians and Arabs,
the Huns and Sclavonians; but his vain and ridiculous dispensation of a
single year has been confined to those places which were actually
taken by the enemy." Such is the language of the secret historian, who
expressly denies that any indulgence was granted to Palestine after the
revolt of the Samaritans; a false and odious charge, confuted by the
authentic record which attests a relief of thirteen centenaries of gold
(fifty-two thousand pounds) obtained for that desolate province by
the intercession of St. Sabas. III. Procopius has not condescended to
explain the system of taxation, which fell like a hail-storm upon the
land, like a devouring pestilence on its inhabitants: but we should
become the accomplices of his malignity, if we imputed to Justinian
alone the ancient though rigorous principle, that a whole district
should be condemned to sustain the partial loss of the persons or
property of individuals. The _Annona_, or supply of corn for the use
of the army and capital, was a grievous and arbitrary exaction, which
exceeded, perhaps in a tenfold proportion, the ability of the farmer;
and his distress was aggravated by the partial injustice of weights and
measures, and the expense and labor of distant carriage. In a time
of scarcity, an extraordinary requisition was made to the adjacent
provinces of Thrace, Bithynia, and Phrygia: but the proprietors, after
a wearisome journey and perilous navigation, received so inadequate a
compensation, that they would have chosen the alternative of delivering
both the corn and price at the doors of their granaries. These
precautions might indicate a tender solicitude for the welfare of the
capital; yet Constantinople did not escape the rapacious despotism of
Justinian. Till his reign, the Straits of the Bosphorus and Hellespont
were open to the freedom of trade, and nothing was prohibited except the
exportation of arms for the service of the Barbarians. At each of these
gates of the city, a prætor was stationed, the minister of Imperial
avarice; heavy customs were imposed on the vessels and their
merchandise; the oppression was retaliated on the helpless consumer; the
poor were afflicted by the artificial scarcity, and exorbitant price
of the market; and a people, accustomed to depend on the liberality of
their prince, might sometimes complain of the deficiency of water
and bread. The _aerial_ tribute, without a name, a law, or a definite
object, was an annual gift of one hundred and twenty thousand pounds,
which the emperor accepted from his Prætorian præfect; and the means of
payment were abandoned to the discretion of that powerful magistrate.
IV. Even such a tax was less intolerable than the privilege of
monopolies, which checked the fair competition of industry, and, for
the sake of a small and dishonest gain, imposed an arbitrary burden
on the wants and luxury of the subject. "As soon" (I transcribe the
Anecdotes) "as the exclusive sale of silk was usurped by the Imperial
treasurer, a whole people, the manufacturers of Tyre and Berytus, was
reduced to extreme misery, and either perished with hunger, or fled to
the hostile dominions of Persia." A province might suffer by the
decay of its manufactures, but in this example of silk, Procopius has
partially overlooked the inestimable and lasting benefit which the
empire received from the curiosity of Justinian. His addition of one
seventh to the ordinary price of copper money may be interpreted with
the same candor; and the alteration, which might be wise, appears to
have been innocent; since he neither alloyed the purity, nor enhanced
the value, of the gold coin, the legal measure of public and private
payments. V. The ample jurisdiction required by the farmers of the
revenue to accomplish their engagements might be placed in an odious
light, as if they had purchased from the emperor the lives and fortunes
of their fellow-citizens. And a more direct sale of honors and offices
was transacted in the palace, with the permission, or at least with the
connivance, of Justinian and Theodora. The claims of merit, even those
of favor, were disregarded, and it was almost reasonable to expect,
that the bold adventurer, who had undertaken the trade of a magistrate,
should find a rich compensation for infamy, labor, danger, the debts
which he had contracted, and the heavy interest which he paid. A sense
of the disgrace and mischief of this venal practice, at length awakened
the slumbering virtue of Justinian; and he attempted, by the sanction
of oaths and penalties, to guard the integrity of his government: but
at the end of a year of perjury, his rigorous edict was suspended, and
corruption licentiously abused her triumph over the impotence of the
laws. VI. The testament of Eulalius, count of the domestics, declared
the emperor his sole heir, on condition, however, that he should
discharge his debts and legacies, allow to his three daughters a decent
maintenance, and bestow each of them in marriage, with a portion of ten
pounds of gold. But the splendid fortune of Eulalius had been consumed
by fire, and the inventory of his goods did not exceed the trifling sum
of five hundred and sixty-four pieces of gold. A similar instance, in
Grecian history, admonished the emperor of the honorable part prescribed
for his imitation. He checked the selfish murmurs of the treasury,
applauded the confidence of his friend, discharged the legacies and
debts, educated the three virgins under the eye of the empress Theodora,
and doubled the marriage portion which had satisfied the tenderness of
their father. The humanity of a prince (for princes cannot be generous)
is entitled to some praise; yet even in this act of virtue we may
discover the inveterate custom of supplanting the legal or natural
heirs, which Procopius imputes to the reign of Justinian. His charge is
supported by eminent names and scandalous examples; neither widows
nor orphans were spared; and the art of soliciting, or extorting, or
supposing testaments, was beneficially practised by the agents of
the palace. This base and mischievous tyranny invades the security of
private life; and the monarch who has indulged an appetite for gain,
will soon be tempted to anticipate the moment of succession, to
interpret wealth as an evidence of guilt, and to proceed, from the claim
of inheritance, to the power of confiscation. VII. Among the forms of
rapine, a philosopher may be permitted to name the conversion of Pagan
or heretical riches to the use of the faithful; but in the time of
Justinian this holy plunder was condemned by the sectaries alone, who
became the victims of his orthodox avarice.

Chapter XL: Reign Of Justinian. - Part IV.

Dishonor might be ultimately reflected on the character of Justinian;
but much of the guilt, and still more of the profit, was intercepted
by the ministers, who were seldom promoted for their virtues, and not
always selected for their talents. The merits of Tribonian the quæstor
will hereafter be weighed in the reformation of the Roman law; but
the economy of the East was subordinate to the Prætorian præfect, and
Procopius has justified his anecdotes by the portrait which he exposes
in his public history, of the notorious vices of John of Cappadocia.
* His knowledge was not borrowed from the schools, and his style was
scarcely legible; but he excelled in the powers of native genius,
to suggest the wisest counsels, and to find expedients in the most
desperate situations. The corruption of his heart was equal to the
vigor of his understanding. Although he was suspected of magic and
Pagan superstition, he appeared insensible to the fear of God or the
reproaches of man; and his aspiring fortune was raised on the death
of thousands, the poverty of millions, the ruins of cities, and the
desolation of provinces. From the dawn of light to the moment of dinner,
he assiduously labored to enrich his master and himself at the expense
of the Roman world; the remainder of the day was spent in sensual and
obscene pleasures, and the silent hours of the night were interrupted
by the perpetual dread of the justice of an assassin. His abilities,
perhaps his vices, recommended him to the lasting friendship of
Justinian: the emperor yielded with reluctance to the fury of the
people; his victory was displayed by the immediate restoration of
their enemy; and they felt above ten years, under his oppressive
administration, that he was stimulated by revenge, rather than
instructed by misfortune. Their murmurs served only to fortify the
resolution of Justinian; but the resentment of Theodora, disdained a
power before which every knee was bent, and attempted to sow the seeds
of discord between the emperor and his beloved consort. Even Theodora
herself was constrained to dissemble, to wait a favorable moment, and,
by an artful conspiracy, to render John of Cappadocia the accomplice
of his own destruction. At a time when Belisarius, unless he had been
a hero, must have shown himself a rebel, his wife Antonina, who
enjoyed the secret confidence of the empress, communicated his feigned
discontent to Euphemia, the daughter of the præfect; the credulous
virgin imparted to her father the dangerous project, and John, who might
have known the value of oaths and promises, was tempted to accept
a nocturnal, and almost treasonable, interview with the wife of
Belisarius. An ambuscade of guards and eunuchs had been posted by the
command of Theodora; they rushed with drawn swords to seize or to punish
the guilty minister: he was saved by the fidelity of his attendants; but
instead of appealing to a gracious sovereign, who had privately warned
him of his danger, he pusillanimously fled to the sanctuary of the
church. The favorite of Justinian was sacrificed to conjugal tenderness
or domestic tranquility; the conversion of a præfect into a priest
extinguished his ambitious hopes: but the friendship of the emperor
alleviated his disgrace, and he retained in the mild exile of Cyzicus
an ample portion of his riches. Such imperfect revenge could not satisfy
the unrelenting hatred of Theodora; the murder of his old enemy, the
bishop of Cyzicus, afforded a decent pretence; and John of Cappadocia,
whose actions had deserved a thousand deaths, was at last condemned
for a crime of which he was innocent. A great minister, who had been
invested with the honors of consul and patrician, was ignominiously
scourged like the vilest of malefactors; a tattered cloak was the sole
remnant of his fortunes; he was transported in a bark to the place of
his banishment at Antinopolis in Upper Egypt, and the præfect of the
East begged his bread through the cities which had trembled at his name.
During an exile of seven years, his life was protracted and threatened
by the ingenious cruelty of Theodora; and when her death permitted
the emperor to recall a servant whom he had abandoned with regret, the
ambition of John of Cappadocia was reduced to the humble duties of
the sacerdotal profession. His successors convinced the subjects of
Justinian, that the arts of oppression might still be improved by
experience and industry; the frauds of a Syrian banker were introduced
into the administration of the finances; and the example of the præfect
was diligently copied by the quæstor, the public and private treasurer,
the governors of provinces, and the principal magistrates of the Eastern

V. The _edifices_ of Justinian were cemented with the blood and treasure
of his people; but those stately structures appeared to announce the
prosperity of the empire, and actually displayed the skill of their
architects. Both the theory and practice of the arts which depend on
mathematical science and mechanical power, were cultivated under the
patronage of the emperors; the fame of Archimedes was rivalled by
Proclus and Anthemius; and if their _miracles_ had been related by
intelligent spectators, they might now enlarge the speculations, instead
of exciting the distrust, of philosophers. A tradition has prevailed,
that the Roman fleet was reduced to ashes in the port of Syracuse, by
the burning-glasses of Archimedes; and it is asserted, that a similar
expedient was employed by Proclus to destroy the Gothic vessels in
the harbor of Constantinople, and to protect his benefactor Anastasius
against the bold enterprise of Vitalian. A machine was fixed on the
walls of the city, consisting of a hexagon mirror of polished brass,
with many smaller and movable polygons to receive and reflect the rays
of the meridian sun; and a consuming flame was darted, to the distance,
perhaps of two hundred feet. The truth of these two extraordinary facts
is invalidated by the silence of the most authentic historians; and the
use of burning-glasses was never adopted in the attack or defence of
places. Yet the admirable experiments of a French philosopher have
demonstrated the possibility of such a mirror; and, since it is
possible, I am more disposed to attribute the art to the greatest
mathematicians of antiquity, than to give the merit of the fiction
to the idle fancy of a monk or a sophist. According to another story,
Proclus applied sulphur to the destruction of the Gothic fleet; in a
modern imagination, the name of sulphur is instantly connected with the
suspicion of gunpowder, and that suspicion is propagated by the secret
arts of his disciple Anthemius. A citizen of Tralles in Asia had five
sons, who were all distinguished in their respective professions by
merit and success. Olympius excelled in the knowledge and practice
of the Roman jurisprudence. Dioscorus and Alexander became learned
physicians; but the skill of the former was exercised for the benefit
of his fellow-citizens, while his more ambitious brother acquired wealth
and reputation at Rome. The fame of Metrodorus the grammarian, and
of Anthemius the mathematician and architect, reached the ears of the
emperor Justinian, who invited them to Constantinople; and while the one
instructed the rising generation in the schools of eloquence, the other
filled the capital and provinces with more lasting monuments of his
art. In a trifling dispute relative to the walls or windows of their
contiguous houses, he had been vanquished by the eloquence of his
neighbor Zeno; but the orator was defeated in his turn by the master
of mechanics, whose malicious, though harmless, stratagems are darkly
represented by the ignorance of Agathias. In a lower room, Anthemius
arranged several vessels or caldrons of water, each of them covered by
the wide bottom of a leathern tube, which rose to a narrow top, and
was artificially conveyed among the joists and rafters of the adjacent
building. A fire was kindled beneath the caldron; the steam of the
boiling water ascended through the tubes; the house was shaken by the
efforts of imprisoned air, and its trembling inhabitants might wonder
that the city was unconscious of the earthquake which they had felt. At
another time, the friends of Zeno, as they sat at table, were dazzled
by the intolerable light which flashed in their eyes from the reflecting
mirrors of Anthemius; they were astonished by the noise which he
produced from the collision of certain minute and sonorous particles;
and the orator declared in tragic style to the senate, that a mere
mortal must yield to the power of an antagonist, who shook the earth
with the trident of Neptune, and imitated the thunder and lightning of
Jove himself. The genius of Anthemius, and his colleague Isidore
the Milesian, was excited and employed by a prince, whose taste for
architecture had degenerated into a mischievous and costly passion.
His favorite architects submitted their designs and difficulties to
Justinian, and discreetly confessed how much their laborious meditations
were surpassed by the intuitive knowledge of celestial inspiration of an
emperor, whose views were always directed to the benefit of his people,
the glory of his reign, and the salvation of his soul.

The principal church, which was dedicated by the founder of
Constantinople to St. Sophia, or the eternal wisdom, had been twice
destroyed by fire; after the exile of John Chrysostom, and during the
_Nika_ of the blue and green factions. No sooner did the tumult subside,
than the Christian populace deplored their sacrilegious rashness; but
they might have rejoiced in the calamity, had they foreseen the glory
of the new temple, which at the end of forty days was strenuously
undertaken by the piety of Justinian. The ruins were cleared away, a
more spacious plan was described, and as it required the consent of some
proprietors of ground, they obtained the most exorbitant terms from the
eager desires and timorous conscience of the monarch. Anthemius formed
the design, and his genius directed the hands of ten thousand workmen,
whose payment in pieces of fine silver was never delayed beyond the
evening. The emperor himself, clad in a linen tunic, surveyed each day
their rapid progress, and encouraged their diligence by his familiarity,
his zeal, and his rewards. The new Cathedral of St. Sophia was
consecrated by the patriarch, five years, eleven months, and ten days
from the first foundation; and in the midst of the solemn festival
Justinian exclaimed with devout vanity, "Glory be to God, who hath
thought me worthy to accomplish so great a work; I have vanquished thee,
O Solomon!" But the pride of the Roman Solomon, before twenty years had
elapsed, was humbled by an earthquake, which overthrew the eastern part
of the dome. Its splendor was again restored by the perseverance of
the same prince; and in the thirty-sixth year of his reign, Justinian
celebrated the second dedication of a temple which remains, after twelve
centuries, a stately monument of his fame. The architecture of St.
Sophia, which is now converted into the principal mosch, has been
imitated by the Turkish sultans, and that venerable pile continues
to excite the fond admiration of the Greeks, and the more rational
curiosity of European travellers. The eye of the spectator is
disappointed by an irregular prospect of half-domes and shelving roofs:
the western front, the principal approach, is destitute of simplicity
and magnificence; and the scale of dimensions has been much surpassed by
several of the Latin cathedrals. But the architect who first erected and
_aerial_ cupola, is entitled to the praise of bold design and skilful
execution. The dome of St. Sophia, illuminated by four-and-twenty
windows, is formed with so small a curve, that the depth is equal
only to one sixth of its diameter; the measure of that diameter is one
hundred and fifteen feet, and the lofty centre, where a crescent has
supplanted the cross, rises to the perpendicular height of one hundred
and eighty feet above the pavement. The circle which encompasses the
dome, lightly reposes on four strong arches, and their weight is firmly
supported by four massy piles, whose strength is assisted, on the
northern and southern sides, by four columns of Egyptian granite. A
Greek cross, inscribed in a quadrangle, represents the form of the
edifice; the exact breadth is two hundred and forty-three feet, and two
hundred and sixty-nine may be assigned for the extreme length from the
sanctuary in the east, to the nine western doors, which open into the
vestibule, and from thence into the _narthex_ or exterior portico. That
portico was the humble station of the penitents. The nave or body of the
church was filled by the congregation of the faithful; but the two sexes
were prudently distinguished, and the upper and lower galleries were
allotted for the more private devotion of the women. Beyond the northern
and southern piles, a balustrade, terminated on either side by the
thrones of the emperor and the patriarch, divided the nave from the
choir; and the space, as far as the steps of the altar, was occupied by
the clergy and singers. The altar itself, a name which insensibly
became familiar to Christian ears, was placed in the eastern recess,
artificially built in the form of a demi-cylinder; and this sanctuary
communicated by several doors with the sacristy, the vestry, the
baptistery, and the contiguous buildings, subservient either to the
pomp of worship, or the private use of the ecclesiastical ministers.
The memory of past calamities inspired Justinian with a wise resolution,
that no wood, except for the doors, should be admitted into the new
edifice; and the choice of the materials was applied to the strength,
the lightness, or the splendor of the respective parts. The solid piles
which contained the cupola were composed of huge blocks of freestone,
hewn into squares and triangles, fortified by circles of iron, and
firmly cemented by the infusion of lead and quicklime: but the weight of
the cupola was diminished by the levity of its substance, which consists
either of pumice-stone that floats in the water, or of bricks from the
Isle of Rhodes, five times less ponderous than the ordinary sort. The
whole frame of the edifice was constructed of brick; but those base

Online LibraryEdward GibbonHistory of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 → online text (page 6 of 49)