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by the ancient walls of its cities, composed for the most part of large
rounded Alpine pebbles alternating with narrow courses of brick, and was
curiously illustrated in 1848 by the ramparts of these same pebbles
thrown up four or five feet high round every field, to check the
Austrian cavalry in the battle under the walls of Verona.

The finer dust among which these pebbles are dispersed is taken up by
the rivers, fed into continual strength by the Alpine snow, so that,
however pure their waters may be when they issue from the lakes at the
foot of the great chain, they become of the color and opacity of clay
before they reach the Adriatic; the sediment which they bear is at once
thrown down as they enter the sea, forming a vast belt of low land along
the eastern coast of Italy. The powerful stream of the Po of course
builds forward the fastest; on each side of it, north and south, there
is a tract of marsh, fed by more feeble streams, and less liable to
rapid change than the delta of the central river. In one of these tracts
is built Ravenna, and in the other Venice.

What circumstances directed the peculiar arrangement of this great belt
of sediment in the earliest times, it is not here the place to inquire.
It is enough for us to know that from the mouths of the Adige to those
of the Piave there stretches, at a variable distance of from three to
five miles from the actual shore, a bank of sand, divided into long
islands by narrow channels of sea. The space between this bank and the
true shore consists of the sedimentary deposits from these and other
rivers, a great plain of calcareous mud, covered, in the neighborhood of
Venice, by the sea at high water, to the depth in most places of a foot
or a foot and a half, and nearly everywhere exposed at low tide, but
divided by an intricate network of narrow and winding channels, from
which the sea never retires.

In some places, according to the run of the currents, the land has risen
into marshy islets, consolidated, some by art, and some by time, into
ground firm enough to be built upon or fruitful enough to be cultivated:
in others, on the contrary, it has not reached the sea-level; so that,
at the average low water, shallow lakelets glitter among its irregularly
exposed fields of seaweed. In the midst of the largest of these,
increased in importance by the confluence of several large river
channels toward one of the openings in the sea-bank, the city of Venice
itself is built, on a crowded cluster of islands; the various plots of
higher ground which appear to the north and south of this central
cluster have at different periods been also thickly inhabited, and now
bear, according to their size, the remains of cities, villages, or
isolated convents and churches, scattered among spaces of open ground,
partly waste and encumbered by ruins, partly under cultivation for the
supply of the metropolis.

The average rise and fall of the tide are about three feet - varying
considerably with the seasons - but this fall, on so flat a shore, is
enough to cause continual movement in the waters, and in the main canals
to produce a reflux which frequently runs like a mill-stream. At high
water no land is visible for many miles to the north or south of Venice,
except in the form of small islands crowned with towers or gleaming with
villages; there is a channel, some three miles wide, between the city
and the mainland, and some mile and a half wide between it and the sandy
breakwater called the Lido, which divides the Lagoon from the Adriatic,
but which is so low as hardly to disturb the impression of the city's
having been built in the midst of the ocean, although the secret of its
true position is partly, yet not painfully, betrayed by the clusters of
piles set to mark the deep-water channels, which undulate far away in
spotty chains like the studded backs of huge sea-snakes, and by the
quick glittering of the crisped and crowded waves that flicker and dance
before the strong winds upon the unlifted level of the shallow sea.

But the scene is widely different at low tide. A fall of eighteen or
twenty inches is enough to show ground over the greater part of the
Lagoon; and at the complete ebb the city is seen standing in the midst
of a dark plain of sea-weed, of gloomy green, except only where the
larger branches of the Brenta and its associated streams converge toward
the port of the Lido. Through this salt and sombre plain the gondola and
the fishing-boat advance by tortuous channels, seldom more than four or
five feet deep, and often so choked with slime that the heavier keels
furrow the bottom till their crossing tracks are seen through the clear
sea-water like the ruts upon a wintry road, and the oar leaves blue
gashes upon the ground at every stroke, or is entangled among the thick
weed that fringes the banks with the weight of its sullen waves, leaning
to and fro upon the uncertain sway of the exhausted tide.

The scene is often profoundly oppressive, even at this day, when every
plot of higher ground bears some fragment of fair building: but, in
order to know what it was once, let the traveller follow in his boat at
evening the windings of some unfrequented channel far into the midst of
the melancholy plain; let him remove, in his imagination, the brightness
of the great city that still extends itself in the distance, and the
walls and towers from the islands that are near; and so wait, until the
bright investiture and sweet warmth of the sunset are withdrawn from the
waters, and the black desert of their shore lies in its nakedness
beneath the night, pathless, comfortless, infirm, lost in dark languor
and fearful silence, except where the salt runlets plash into the
tideless pools, or the sea-birds flit from their margins with a
questioning cry; and he will be enabled to enter in some sort into the
horror of heart with which this solitude was anciently chosen by man for
his habitation.

They little thought, who first drove the stakes into the sand, and
strewed the ocean reeds for their rest, that their children were to be
the princes of that ocean, and their palaces its pride; and yet, in the
great natural laws that rule that sorrowful wilderness, let it be
remembered what strange preparation had been made for the things which
no human imagination could have foretold, and how the whole existence
and fortune of the Venetian nation were anticipated or compelled, by the
setting of those bars and doors to the rivers and the sea. Had deeper
currents divided their islands, hostile navies would again and again
have reduced the rising city into servitude; had stronger surges beaten
their shores, all the richness and refinement of the Venetian
architecture must have been exchanged for the walls and bulwarks of an
ordinary seaport. Had there been no tide, as in other parts of the
Mediterranean, the narrow canals of the city would have become noisome,
and the marsh in which it was built pestiferous. Had the tide been only
a foot or eighteen inches higher in its rise, the water access to the
doors of the palaces would have been impossible; even as it is, there is
sometimes a little difficulty, at the ebb, in landing without setting
foot upon the lower and slippery steps: and the highest tides sometimes
enter the court-yards, and overflow the entrance halls.

Eighteen inches more of difference between the level of the flood and
ebb would have rendered the doorsteps of every palace, at low water, a
treacherous mass of weeds and limpets, and the entire system of
water-carriage for the higher classes, in their easy and daily
intercourse, must have been done away with. The streets of the city
would have been widened, its network of canals filled up, and all the
peculiar character of the place and the people destroyed.

The reader may perhaps have felt some pain in the contrast between this
faithful view of the site of the Venetian throne, and the romantic
conception of it which we ordinarily form; but this pain, if he have
felt it, ought to be more than counterbalanced by the value of the
instance thus afforded to us at once of the inscrutableness and the
wisdom of the ways of God. If, two thousand years ago, we had been
permitted to watch the slow settling of the slime of those turbid rivers
into the polluted sea, and the gaining upon its deep and fresh waters of
the lifeless, impassable, unvoyageable plain, how little could we have
understood the purpose with which those islands were shaped out of the
void, and the torpid waters enclosed with their desolate walls of sand!
How little could we have known, any more than of what now seems to us
most distressful, dark, and objectless, the glorious aim which was then
in the mind of Him in whose hand are all the corners of the earth! How
little imagined that in the laws which were stretching forth the gloomy
margins of those fruitless banks, and feeding the bitter grass among
their shallows, there was indeed a preparation, and _the only
preparation possible_, for the founding of a city which was to be set
like a golden clasp on the girdle of the earth, to write her history on
the white scrolls of the sea-surges, and to word it in their thunder,
and to gather and give forth, in world-wide pulsation, the glory of the
West and of the East, from the burning heart of her Fortitude and


A.D. 486-511


Clovis, the sturdy Frank, wrought marvellous changes in Gaul. His
marriage to the Christian princess Clotilde was followed by the
conversion of himself and, gradually, that of his people. With a
well-disciplined army he pulled down and swept away the last
pillars of Roman power out of Gaul. Guizot gives a graphic account
of the transition of the Franks, during two hundred and fifty
years, from being isolated wandering tribes, each constantly
warring against the other, to a well-ordered Christian kingdom,
which led to the establishment of the French monarchy. The climax
of this period of transition came in the reign of Clovis, with whom
commences the real history of France. Under his strong hand the
various tribes were gradually brought under his sole rule.

When Clovis, at the age of fifteen, succeeded his father,
Childeric, as king of the Salian tribe, his people were mainly
pagans; the Salian domain was very limited, the treasury empty, and
there was no store of either grain or wine. But these difficulties
were overcome by him; he subjugated the neighboring tribes, and
made Christianity the state religion. The new faith was accorded
great privileges and means of influence, in many cases favorable to
humanity and showing respect to the rights of individuals. So great
an advance in civilization is an early milestone on the path of

About A.D. 241 or 242 the Sixth Roman legion, commanded by Aurelian, at
that time military tribune, and thirty years later emperor, had just
finished a campaign on the Rhine, undertaken for the purpose of driving
the Germans from Gaul, and was preparing for eastern service, to make
war on the Persians. The soldiers sang:

"We have slain a thousand Franks and a thousand
Sarmatians; we want a thousand, thousand,
Thousand Persians."

That was, apparently, a popular burthen at the time, for on the days of
military festivals, at Rome and in Gaul, the children sang, as they

"We have cut off the heads of a thousand, thousand, thousand
One man hath cut off the heads of a thousand, thousand, thousand,
Thousand thousand;
May he live a thousand thousand years, he who
Hath slain a thousand thousand!
Nobody hath so much of wine as he
Hath of blood poured out."

Aurelian, the hero of these ditties, was indeed much given to the
pouring out of blood, for at the approach of a fresh war he wrote to the

"I marvel, conscript fathers, that ye have so much misgiving about
opening the Sibylline books, as if ye were deliberating in an assembly
of Christians, and not in the temple of all the gods. Let inquiry be
made of the sacred books, and let celebration take place of the
ceremonies that ought to be fulfilled. Far from refusing, I offer, with
zeal, to satisfy all expenditure required with _captives of every
nationality_, victims of royal rank. It is no shame to conquer with the
aid of the gods; it is thus that our ancestors began and ended many a

Human sacrifices, then, were not yet foreign to pagan festivals, and
probably the blood of more than one Frankish captive on that occasion
flowed in the temple of all the gods.

It is the first time the name of _Franks_ appears in history; and it
indicated no particular, single people, but a confederation of Germanic
peoplets, settled or roving on the right bank of the Rhine, from the
Main to the ocean. The number and the names of the tribes united in this
confederation are uncertain. A chart of the Roman Empire, prepared
apparently at the end of the fourth century, in the reign of the emperor
Honorius - which chart, called _tabula Peutingeri_, was found among the
ancient MSS. collected by Conrad Peutinger, a learned German
philosopher, in the fifteenth century - bears, over a large territory on
the right bank of the Rhine, the word _Francia_, and the following
enumeration: "The Chaucians, the Ampsuarians, the Cheruscans, and the
Chamavians, who are also called Franks;" and to these tribes divers
chroniclers added several others, "the Attuarians, the Bructerians, the
Cattians, and the Sicambrians."

Whatever may have been the specific names of these peoplets, they were
all of German race, called themselves Franks, that is "freemen," and
made, sometimes separately, sometimes collectively, continued incursions
into Gaul - especially Belgica and the northern portions of Lyonness - at
one time plundering and ravaging, at another occupying forcibly, or
demanding of the Roman emperors lands whereon to settle. From the middle
of the third to the beginning of the fifth century the history of the
Western Empire presents an almost uninterrupted series of these
invasions on the part of the Franks, together with the different
relationships established between them and the imperial government. At
one time whole tribes settled on Roman soil, submitted to the emperors,
entered their service, and fought for them even against their own German
compatriots. At another, isolated individuals, such and such warriors of
German race, put themselves at the command of the emperors, and became
of importance. At the middle of the third century the emperor Valerian,
on committing a command to Aurelian, wrote, "Thou wilt have with thee
Hartmund, Haldegast, Hildmund, and Carioviscus."

Some Frankish tribes allied themselves more or less fleetingly with the
imperial government, at the same time that they preserved their
independence; others pursued, throughout the empire, their life of
incursion and adventure. From A.D. 260 to 268, under the reign of
Gallienus, a band of Franks threw itself upon Gaul, scoured it from
northeast to southeast, plundering and devastating on its way; then it
passed from Aquitania into Spain, took and burned Tarragona, gained
possession of certain vessels, sailed away, and disappeared in Africa,
after having wandered about for twelve years at its own will and
pleasure. There was no lack of valiant emperors, precarious and
ephemeral as their power may have been, to defend the empire, and
especially Gaul, against those enemies, themselves ephemeral, but
forever recurring; Decius, Valerian, Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus,
Aurelian, and Probus gallantly withstood those repeated attacks of
German hordes. Sometimes they flattered themselves they had gained a
definitive victory, and then the old Roman pride exhibited itself in
their patriotic confidence. About A.D. 278, the emperor Probus, after
gaining several victories in Gaul over the Franks, wrote to the senate:

"I render thanks to the immortal gods, conscript fathers, for that they
have confirmed your judgment as regards me. Germany is subdued
throughout its whole extent; nine kings of different nations have come
and cast themselves at my feet, or rather at yours, as suppliants with
their foreheads in the dust. Already all those barbarians are tilling
for you, sowing for you, and fighting for you against the most distant
nations. Order ye, therefore, according to your custom, prayers of
thanksgiving, for we have slain four thousand of the enemy; we have had
offered to us sixteen thousand men ready armed; and we have wrested from
the enemy the seventy most important towns. The Gauls, in fact, are
completely delivered. The crowns offered to me by all the cities of Gaul
I have submitted, conscript fathers, to your grace; dedicate ye them
with your own hands to Jupiter, all-bountiful, all-powerful, and to the
other immortal gods and goddesses. All the booty is retaken, and,
further, we have made fresh captures, more considerable than our first
losses; the fields of Gaul are tilled by the oxen of the barbarians, and
German teams bend their necks in slavery to our husbandmen; divers
nations raise cattle for our consumption, and horses to remount our
cavalry; our stores are full of the corn of the barbarians - in one word,
we have left to the vanquished naught but the soil; all their other
possessions are ours. We had at first thought it necessary, conscript
fathers, to appoint a new governor of Germany; but we have put off this
measure to the time when our ambition shall be more completely
satisfied, which will be, as it seems to us, when it shall have pleased
divine Providence to increase and multiply the forces of our armies."

Probus had good reason to wish that "divine Providence might be pleased
to increase the forces of the Roman armies," for even after his
victories, exaggerated as they probably were, they did not suffice for
their task, and it was not long before the vanquished recommenced war.
He had dispersed over the territory of the empire the majority of the
prisoners he had taken. A band of Franks, who had been transported and
established as a military colony on the European shore of the Black Sea,
could not make up their minds to remain there. They obtained possession
of some vessels, traversed the Propontis, the Hellespont, and the
Archipelago, ravaged the coasts of Greece, Asia Minor, and Africa,
plundered Syracuse, scoured the whole of the Mediterranean, entered the
ocean by the Straits of Gibraltar, and, making their way up again along
the coasts of Gaul, arrived at last at the mouths of the Rhine, where
they once more found themselves at home among the vines which Probus, in
his victorious progress, had been the first to have planted, and with
probably their old taste for adventure and plunder.

After the commencement of the fifth century, from A.D. 406 to 409, it
was no longer by incursions limited to certain points, and sometimes
repelled with success, that the Germans harassed the Roman provinces; a
veritable deluge of divers nations forced, one upon another, from Asia,
into Europe, by wars and migration in mass, inundated the empire and
gave the decisive signal for its fall. St. Jerome did not exaggerate
when he wrote to Ageruchia: "Nations, countless in number and exceeding
fierce, have occupied all the Gauls; Quadians, Vandals, Sarmatians,
Alans, Gepidians, Herulians, Saxons, Burgundians, Allemannians,
Pannonians, and even Assyrians have laid waste all that there is between
the Alps and the Pyrenees, the ocean and the Rhine. Sad destiny of the
Commonwealth! Mayence, once a noble city, hath been taken and destroyed;
thousands of men were slaughtered in the church. Worms hath fallen after
a long siege. The inhabitants of Rheims, a powerful city, and those of
Amiens, Arras, Térouanne, at the extremity of Gaul, Tournay, Spires, and
Strasburg have been carried away to Germany. All hath been ravaged in
Aquitania (Novempopulania), Lyonness, and Narbonensis; the towns, save a
few, are dispeopled; the sword pursueth them abroad and famine at home.
I cannot speak without tears of Toulouse; if she be not reduced to equal
ruin, it is to the merits of her holy bishop Exuperus that she oweth

Then took place throughout the Roman Empire, in the East as well as in
the West, in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe, the last grand
struggle between the Roman armies and barbaric nations. _Armies_ is the
proper term; for, to tell the truth, there was no longer a Roman nation,
and very seldom a Roman emperor with some little capacity for government
or war. The long continuance of despotism and slavery had enervated
equally the ruling power and the people; everything depended on the
soldiers and their generals. It was in Gaul that the struggle was most
obstinate and most promptly brought to a decisive issue, and the
confusion there was as great as the obstinacy. Barbaric peoplets served
in the ranks and barbaric leaders held the command of the Roman armies;
Stilicho was a Goth; Arbogastes and Mellobaudes were Franks; Ricimer was
a Suevian. The Roman generals, Bonifacius, Aetius, Ægidius, Syagrius, at
one time fought the barbarians, at another negotiated with such and such
of them, either to entice them to take service against other barbarians,
or to promote the objects of personal ambition; for the Roman generals
also, under the titles of patrician, consul, or proconsul, aspired to
and attained a sort of political independence, and contributed to the
dismemberment of the empire in the very act of defending it.

No later than A.D. 412 two German nations, the Visigoths and the
Burgundians, took their stand definitively in Gaul, and founded there
two new kingdoms: the Visigoths, under their kings Ataulph and Wallia,
in Aquitania and Narbonensis; the Burgundians, under their kings
Gundichaire and Gundioch, in Lyonnais, from the southern point of
Alsatia right into Provence, along the two banks of the Saône and the
left bank of the Rhone, and also in Switzerland. In 451 the arrival in
Gaul of the Huns and their king Attila - already famous, both king and
nation, for their wild habits, their fierce valor, and their successes
against the Eastern Empire - gravely complicated the situation. The
common interest of resistance against the most barbarous of barbarians,
and the renown and energy of Aetius, united, for the moment, the old and
new masters of Gaul; Romans, Gauls, Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks,
Alans, Saxons, and Britons formed the army led by Aetius against that of
Attila, who also had in his ranks Goths, Burgundians, Gepidians, Alans,
and beyond-Rhine Franks, gathered together and enlisted on his road. It
was a chaos and a conflict of barbarians, of every name and race,
disputing one with another, pell-mell, the remnants of the Roman Empire
torn asunder and in dissolution.

Attila had already arrived before Orleans, and was laying siege to it.
The bishop, St. Anianus, sustained awhile the courage of the besieged by
promising them aid from Aetius and his allies. The aid was slow to come;
and the bishop sent to Aetius a message: "If thou be not here this very
day, my son, it will be too late." Still Aetius came not. The people of
Orleans determined to surrender; the gates flew open; the Huns entered;
the plundering began without much disorder; "wagons were stationed to
receive the booty as it was taken from the houses, and the captives,
arranged in groups, were divided by lot between the victorious
chieftains." Suddenly a shout reëchoed through the streets: it was
Aetius, Theodoric, and Torismund, his son, who were coming with the
eagles of the Roman legions and with the banners of the Visigoths. A
fight took place between them and the Huns, at first on the banks of the
Loire, and then in the streets of the city. The people of Orleans joined
their liberators; the danger was great for the Huns, and Attila ordered
a retreat.

It was the 14th of June, 451, and that day was for a long while
celebrated in the church of Orleans as the date of a signal deliverance.
The Huns retired toward Champagne, which they had already crossed at
their coming into Gaul; and when they were before Troyes, the bishop,
St. Lupus, repaired to Attila's camp, and besought him to spare a
defenceless city, which had neither walls nor garrison. "So be it,"
answered Attila; "but thou shalt come with me and see the Rhine; I
promise then to send thee back again." With mingled prudence and
superstition the barbarian meant to keep the holy man as a hostage. The

Online LibraryVariousThe Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume 4 → online text (page 12 of 38)