Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

Part 15 out of 15

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 1.8 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

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

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 and
solitude of the prison, and reported, with shame and fear, his
incomprehensible flight. The gates of the palace and city were
instantly shut: the strictest orders were despatched into the
provinces, for the recovery of the fugitive; and his wife, on the
suspicion of a pious act, was basely imprisoned in the same
tower. At the dead of night she beheld a spectre; she recognized
her husband: they shared their provisions; and a son was the
fruit of these stolen interviews, which alleviated the
tediousness of their confinement. In the custody of a woman, the
vigilance of the keepers was insensibly relaxed; and the captive
had accomplished his real escape, when he was discovered, brought
back to Constantinople, and loaded with a double chain. At
length he found the moment, and the means, of his deliverance. A
boy, his domestic servant, intoxicated the guards, and obtained
in wax the impression of the keys. By the diligence of his
friends, a similar key, with a bundle of ropes, was introduced
into the prison, in the bottom of a hogshead. Andronicus
employed, with industry and courage, the instruments of his
safety, unlocked the doors, descended from the tower, concealed
himself all day among the bushes, and scaled in the night the
garden-wall of the palace. A boat was stationed for his
reception: he visited his own house, embraced his children, cast
away his chain, mounted a fleet horse, and directed his rapid
course towards the banks of the Danube. At Anchialus in Thrace,
an intrepid friend supplied him with horses and money: he passed
the river, traversed with speed the desert of Moldavia and the
Carpathian hills, and had almost reached the town of Halicz, in
the Polish Russia, when he was intercepted by a party of
Walachians, who resolved to convey their important captive to
Constantinople. His presence of mind again extricated him from
danger. Under the pretence of sickness, he dismounted in the
night, and was allowed to step aside from the troop: he planted
in the ground his long staff, clothed it with his cap and upper
garment; and, stealing into the wood, left a phantom to amuse,
for some time, the eyes of the Walachians. From Halicz he was
honorably conducted to Kiow, the residence of the great duke: the
subtle Greek soon obtained the esteem and confidence of
Ieroslaus; his character could assume the manners of every
climate; and the Barbarians applauded his strength and courage in
the chase of the elks and bears of the forest. In this northern
region he deserved the forgiveness of Manuel, who solicited the
Russian prince to join his arms in the invasion of Hungary. The
influence of Andronicus achieved this important service: his
private treaty was signed with a promise of fidelity on one side,
and of oblivion on the other; and he marched, at the head of the
Russian cavalry, from the Borysthenes to the Danube. In his
resentment Manuel had ever sympathized with the martial and
dissolute character of his cousin; and his free pardon was sealed
in the assault of Zemlin, in which he was second, and second
only, to the valor of the emperor.

No sooner was the exile restored to freedom and his country,
than his ambition revived, at first to his own, and at length to
the public, misfortune. A daughter of Manuel was a feeble bar to
the succession of the more deserving males of the Comnenian
blood; her future marriage with the prince of Hungary was
repugnant to the hopes or prejudices of the princes and nobles.
But when an oath of allegiance was required to the presumptive
heir, Andronicus alone asserted the honor of the Roman name,
declined the unlawful engagement, and boldly protested against
the adoption of a stranger. His patriotism was offensive to the
emperor, but he spoke the sentiments of the people, and was
removed from the royal presence by an honorable banishment, a
second command of the Cilician frontier, with the absolute
disposal of the revenues of Cyprus. In this station the
Armenians again exercised his courage and exposed his negligence;
and the same rebel, who baffled all his operations, was unhorsed,
and almost slain by the vigor of his lance. But Andronicus soon
discovered a more easy and pleasing conquest, the beautiful
Philippa, sister of the empress Maria, and daughter of Raymond of
Poitou, the Latin prince of Antioch. For her sake he deserted
his station, and wasted the summer in balls and tournaments: to
his love she sacrificed her innocence, her reputation, and the
offer of an advantageous marriage. But the resentment of Manuel
for this domestic affront interrupted his pleasures: Andronicus
left the indiscreet princess to weep and to repent; and, with a
band of desperate adventurers, undertook the pilgrimage of
Jerusalem. His birth, his martial renown, and professions of
zeal, announced him as the champion of the Cross: he soon
captivated both the clergy and the king; and the Greek prince was
invested with the lordship of Berytus, on the coast of Phoenicia.

In his neighborhood resided a young and handsome queen, of his
own nation and family, great-granddaughter of the emperor Alexis,
and widow of Baldwin the Third, king of Jerusalem. She visited
and loved her kinsman. Theodora was the third victim of his
amorous seduction; and her shame was more public and scandalous
than that of her predecessors. The emperor still thirsted for
revenge; and his subjects and allies of the Syrian frontier were
repeatedly pressed to seize the person, and put out the eyes, of
the fugitive. In Palestine he was no longer safe; but the tender
Theodora revealed his danger, and accompanied his flight. The
queen of Jerusalem was exposed to the East, his obsequious
concubine; and two illegitimate children were the living
monuments of her weakness. Damascus was his first refuge; and,
in the characters of the great Noureddin and his servant Saladin,
the superstitious Greek might learn to revere the virtues of the
Mussulmans. As the friend of Noureddin he visited, most
probably, Bagdad, and the courts of Persia; and, after a long
circuit round the Caspian Sea and the mountains of Georgia, he
finally settled among the Turks of Asia Minor, the hereditary
enemies of his country. The sultan of Colonia afforded a
hospitable retreat to Andronicus, his mistress, and his band of
outlaws: the debt of gratitude was paid by frequent inroads in
the Roman province of Trebizond; and he seldom returned without
an ample harvest of spoil and of Christian captives. In the story
of his adventures, he was fond of comparing himself to David, who
escaped, by a long exile, the snares of the wicked. But the
royal prophet (he presumed to add) was content to lurk on the
borders of Judaea, to slay an Amalekite, and to threaten, in his
miserable state, the life of the avaricious Nabal. The
excursions of the Comnenian prince had a wider range; and he had
spread over the Eastern world the glory of his name and religion.

By a sentence of the Greek church, the licentious rover had been
separated from the faithful; but even this excommunication may
prove, that he never abjured the profession of Chistianity.

His vigilance had eluded or repelled the open and secret
persecution of the emperor; but he was at length insnared by the
captivity of his female companion. The governor of Trebizond
succeeded in his attempt to surprise the person of Theodora: the
queen of Jerusalem and her two children were sent to
Constantinople, and their loss imbittered the tedious solitude of
banishment. The fugitive implored and obtained a final pardon,
with leave to throw himself at the feet of his sovereign, who was
satisfied with the submission of this haughty spirit. Prostrate
on the ground, he deplored with tears and groans the guilt of his
past rebellion; nor would he presume to arise, unless some
faithful subject would drag him to the foot of the throne, by an
iron chain with which he had secretly encircled his neck. This
extraordinary penance excited the wonder and pity of the
assembly; his sins were forgiven by the church and state; but the
just suspicion of Manuel fixed his residence at a distance from
the court, at Oenoe, a town of Pontus, surrounded with rich
vineyards, and situate on the coast of the Euxine. The death of
Manuel, and the disorders of the minority, soon opened the
fairest field to his ambition. The emperor was a boy of twelve or
fourteen years of age, without vigor, or wisdom, or experience:
his mother, the empress Mary, abandoned her person and government
to a favorite of the Comnenian name; and his sister, another
Mary, whose husband, an Italian, was decorated with the title of
Caesar, excited a conspiracy, and at length an insurrection,
against her odious step-mother. The provinces were forgotten, the
capital was in flames, and a century of peace and order was
overthrown in the vice and weakness of a few months. A civil war
was kindled in Constantinople; the two factions fought a bloody
battle in the square of the palace, and the rebels sustained a
regular siege in the cathedral of St. Sophia. The patriarch
labored with honest zeal to heal the wounds of the republic, the
most respectable patriots called aloud for a guardian and
avenger, and every tongue repeated the praise of the talents and
even the virtues of Andronicus. In his retirement, he affected to
revolve the solemn duties of his oath: "If the safety or honor of
the Imperial family be threatened, I will reveal and oppose the
mischief to the utmost of my power." His correspondence with the
patriarch and patricians was seasoned with apt quotations from
the Psalms of David and the epistles of St. Paul; and he
patiently waited till he was called to her deliverance by the
voice of his country. In his march from Oenoe to Constantinople,
his slender train insensibly swelled to a crowd and an army: his
professions of religion and loyalty were mistaken for the
language of his heart; and the simplicity of a foreign dress,
which showed to advantage his majestic stature, displayed a
lively image of his poverty and exile. All opposition sunk
before him; he reached the straits of the Thracian Bosphorus; the
Byzantine navy sailed from the harbor to receive and transport
the savior of the empire: the torrent was loud and irresistible,
and the insects who had basked in the sunshine of royal favor
disappeared at the blast of the storm. It was the first care of
Andronicus to occupy the palace, to salute the emperor, to
confine his mother, to punish her minister, and to restore the
public order and tranquillity. He then visited the sepulchre of
Manuel: the spectators were ordered to stand aloof, but as he
bowed in the attitude of prayer, they heard, or thought they
heard, a murmur of triumph or revenge: "I no longer fear thee, my
old enemy, who hast driven me a vagabond to every climate of the
earth. Thou art safety deposited under a seven-fold dome, from
whence thou canst never arise till the signal of the last
trumpet. It is now my turn, and speedily will I trample on thy
ashes and thy posterity." From his subsequent tyranny we may
impute such feelings to the man and the moment; but it is not
extremely probable that he gave an articulate sound to his secret
thoughts. In the first months of his administration, his designs
were veiled by a fair semblance of hypocrisy, which could delude
only the eyes of the multitude; the coronation of Alexius was
performed with due solemnity, and his perfidious guardian,
holding in his hands the body and blood of Christ, most fervently
declared that he lived, and was ready to die, for the service of
his beloved pupil. But his numerous adherents were instructed to
maintain, that the sinking empire must perish in the hands of a
child, that the Romans could only be saved by a veteran prince,
bold in arms, skilful in policy, and taught to reign by the long
experience of fortune and mankind; and that it was the duty of
every citizen to force the reluctant modesty of Andronicus to
undertake the burden of the public care. The young emperor was
himself constrained to join his voice to the general acclamation,
and to solicit the association of a colleague, who instantly
degraded him from the supreme rank, secluded his person, and
verified the rash declaration of the patriarch, that Alexius
might be considered as dead, so soon as he was committed to the
custody of his guardian. But his death was preceded by the
imprisonment and execution of his mother. After blackening her
reputation, and inflaming against her the passions of the
multitude, the tyrant accused and tried the empress for a
treasonable correspondence with the king of Hungary. His own
son, a youth of honor and humanity, avowed his abhorrence of this
flagitious act, and three of the judges had the merit of
preferring their conscience to their safety: but the obsequious
tribunal, without requiring any reproof, or hearing any defence,
condemned the widow of Manuel; and her unfortunate son subscribed
the sentence of her death. Maria was strangled, her corpse was
buried in the sea, and her memory was wounded by the insult most
offensive to female vanity, a false and ugly representation of
her beauteous form. The fate of her son was not long deferred:
he was strangled with a bowstring; and the tyrant, insensible to
pity or remorse, after surveying the body of the innocent youth,
struck it rudely with his foot: "Thy father," he cried, "was a
knave, thy mother a whore, and thyself a fool!"

The Roman sceptre, the reward of his crimes, was held by
Andronicus about three years and a half as the guardian or
sovereign of the empire. His government exhibited a singular
contrast of vice and virtue. When he listened to his passions,
he was the scourge; when he consulted his reason, the father, of
his people. In the exercise of private justice, he was equitable
and rigorous: a shameful and pernicious venality was abolished,
and the offices were filled with the most deserving candidates,
by a prince who had sense to choose, and severity to punish. He
prohibited the inhuman practice of pillaging the goods and
persons of shipwrecked mariners; the provinces, so long the
objects of oppression or neglect, revived in prosperity and
plenty; and millions applauded the distant blessings of his
reign, while he was cursed by the witnesses of his daily
cruelties. The ancient proverb, That bloodthirsty is the man who
returns from banishment to power, had been applied, with too much
truth, to 'Marius and Tiberius; and was now verified for the
third time in the life of Andronicus. His memory was stored with
a black list of the enemies and rivals, who had traduced his
merit, opposed his greatness, or insulted his misfortunes; and
the only comfort of his exile was the sacred hope and promise of
revenge. The necessary extinction of the young emperor and his
mother imposed the fatal obligation of extirpating the friends,
who hated, and might punish, the assassin; and the repetition of
murder rendered him less willing, and less able, to forgive. ^* A
horrid narrative of the victims whom he sacrificed by poison or
the sword, by the sea or the flames, would be less expressive of
his cruelty than the appellation of the halcyon days, which was
applied to a rare and bloodless week of repose: the tyrant strove
to transfer, on the laws and the judges, some portion of his
guilt; but the mask was fallen, and his subjects could no longer
mistake the true author of their calamities. The noblest of the
Greeks, more especially those who, by descent or alliance, might
dispute the Comnenian inheritance, escaped from the monster's
den: Nice and Prusa, Sicily or Cyprus, were their places of
refuge; and as their flight was already criminal, they aggravated
their offence by an open revolt, and the Imperial title. Yet
Andronicus resisted the daggers and swords of his most formidable
enemies: Nice and Prusa were reduced and chastised: the Sicilians
were content with the sack of Thessalonica; and the distance of
Cyprus was not more propitious to the rebel than to the tyrant.
His throne was subverted by a rival without merit, and a people
without arms. Isaac Angelus, a descendant in the female line
from the great Alexius, was marked as a victim by the prudence or
superstition of the emperor. ^! In a moment of despair, Angelus
defended his life and liberty, slew the executioner, and fled to
the church of St. Sophia. The sanctuary was insensibly filled
with a curious and mournful crowd, who, in his fate,
prognosticated their own. But their lamentations were soon
turned to curses, and their curses to threats: they dared to ask,
"Why do we fear? why do we obey? We are many, and he is one:
our patience is the only bond of our slavery." With the dawn of
day the city burst into a general sedition, the prisons were
thrown open, the coldest and most servile were roused to the
defence of their country, and Isaac, the second of the name, was
raised from the sanctuary to the throne. Unconscious of his
danger, the tyrant was absent; withdrawn from the toils of state,
in the delicious islands of the Propontis. He had contracted an
indecent marriage with Alice, or Agnes, daughter of Lewis the
Seventh, of France, and relict of the unfortunate Alexius; and
his society, more suitable to his temper than to his age, was
composed of a young wife and a favorite concubine. On the first
alarm, he rushed to Constantinople, impatient for the blood of
the guilty; but he was astonished by the silence of the palace,
the tumult of the city, and the general desertion of mankind.
Andronicus proclaimed a free pardon to his subjects; they neither
desired, nor would grant, forgiveness; he offered to resign the
crown to his son Manuel; but the virtues of the son could not
expiate his father's crimes. The sea was still open for his
retreat; but the news of the revolution had flown along the
coast; when fear had ceased, obedience was no more: the Imperial
galley was pursued and taken by an armed brigantine; and the
tyrant was dragged to the presence of Isaac Angelus, loaded with
fetters, and a long chain round his neck. His eloquence, and the
tears of his female companions, pleaded in vain for his life;
but, instead of the decencies of a legal execution, the new
monarch abandoned the criminal to the numerous sufferers, whom he
had deprived of a father, a husband, or a friend. His teeth and
hair, an eye and a hand, were torn from him, as a poor
compensation for their loss: and a short respite was allowed,
that he might feel the bitterness of death. Astride on a camel,
without any danger of a rescue, he was carried through the city,
and the basest of the populace rejoiced to trample on the fallen
majesty of their prince. After a thousand blows and outrages,
Andronicus was hung by the feet, between two pillars, that
supported the statues of a wolf and an a sow; and every hand that
could reach the public enemy, inflicted on his body some mark of
ingenious or brutal cruelty, till two friendly or furious
Italians, plunging their swords into his body, released him from
all human punishment. In this long and painful agony, "Lord,
have mercy upon me!" and "Why will you bruise a broken reed?"
were the only words that escaped from his mouth. Our hatred for
the tyrant is lost in pity for the man; nor can we blame his
pusillanimous resignation, since a Greek Christian was no longer
master of his life.

[Footnote *: Fallmerayer (Geschichte des Kaiserthums von
Trapezunt, p. 29, 33) has highly drawn the character of
Andronicus. In his view the extermination of the Byzantine
factions and dissolute nobility was part of a deep-laid and
splendid plan for the regeneration of the empire. It was
necessary for the wise and benevolent schemes of the father of
his people to lop off those limbs which were infected with
irremediable pestilence -

"and with necessity, The tyrant's plea, excused his devilish
deeds!!" -
Still the fall of Andronicus was a fatal blow to the Byzantine
empire. - M.]
[Footnote !: According to Nicetas, (p. 444,) Andronicus despised
the imbecile Isaac too much to fear him; he was arrested by the
officious zeal of Stephen, the instrument of the Emperor's
cruelties. - M.]

I have been tempted to expatiate on the extraordinary
character and adventures of Andronicus; but I shall here
terminate the series of the Greek emperors since the time of
Heraclius. The branches that sprang from the Comnenian trunk had
insensibly withered; and the male line was continued only in the
posterity of Andronicus himself, who, in the public confusion,
usurped the sovereignty of Trebizond, so obscure in history, and
so famous in romance. A private citizen of Philadelphia,
Constantine Angelus, had emerged to wealth and honors, by his
marriage with a daughter of the emperor Alexius. His son
Andronicus is conspicuous only by his cowardice. His grandson
Isaac punished and succeeded the tyrant; but he was dethroned by
his own vices, and the ambition of his brother; and their discord
introduced the Latins to the conquest of Constantinople, the
first great period in the fall of the Eastern empire.

If we compute the number and duration of the reigns, it will
be found, that a period of six hundred years is filled by sixty
emperors, including in the Augustan list some female sovereigns;
and deducting some usurpers who were never acknowledged in the
capital, and some princes who did not live to possess their
inheritance. The average proportion will allow ten years for
each emperor, far below the chronological rule of Sir Isaac
Newton, who, from the experience of more recent and regular
monarchies, has defined about eighteen or twenty years as the
term of an ordinary reign. The Byzantine empire was most
tranquil and prosperous when it could acquiesce in hereditary
succession; five dynasties, the Heraclian, Isaurian, Amorian,
Basilian, and Comnenian families, enjoyed and transmitted the
royal patrimony during their respective series of five, four,
three, six, and four generations; several princes number the
years of their reign with those of their infancy; and Constantine
the Seventh and his two grandsons occupy the space of an entire
century. But in the intervals of the Byzantine dynasties, the
succession is rapid and broken, and the name of a successful
candidate is speedily erased by a more fortunate competitor.
Many were the paths that led to the summit of royalty: the fabric
of rebellion was overthrown by the stroke of conspiracy, or
undermined by the silent arts of intrigue: the favorites of the
soldiers or people, of the senate or clergy, of the women and
eunuchs, were alternately clothed with the purple: the means of
their elevation were base, and their end was often contemptible
or tragic. A being of the nature of man, endowed with the same
faculties, but with a longer measure of existence, would cast
down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of
human ambition, so eager, in a narrow span, to grasp at a
precarious and shortlived enjoyment. It is thus that the
experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our
intellectual view. In a composition of some days, in a perusal
of some hours, six hundred years have rolled away, and the
duration of a life or reign is contracted to a fleeting moment:
the grave is ever beside the throne: the success of a criminal is
almost instantly followed by the loss of his prize and our
immortal reason survives and disdains the sixty phantoms of kings
who have passed before our eyes, and faintly dwell on our
remembrance. The observation that, in every age and climate,
ambition has prevailed with the same commanding energy, may abate
the surprise of a philosopher: but while he condemns the vanity,
he may search the motive, of this universal desire to obtain and
hold the sceptre of dominion. To the greater part of the
Byzantine series, we cannot reasonably ascribe the love of fame
and of mankind. The virtue alone of John Comnenus was beneficent
and pure: the most illustrious of the princes, who procede or
follow that respectable name, have trod with some dexterity and
vigor the crooked and bloody paths of a selfish policy: in
scrutinizing the imperfect characters of Leo the Isaurian, Basil
the First, and Alexius Comnenus, of Theophilus, the second Basil,
and Manuel Comnenus, our esteem and censure are almost equally
balanced; and the remainder of the Imperial crowd could only
desire and expect to be forgotten by posterity. Was personal
happiness the aim and object of their ambition? I shall not
descant on the vulgar topics of the misery of kings; but I may
surely observe, that their condition, of all others, is the most
pregnant with fear, and the least susceptible of hope. For these
opposite passions, a larger scope was allowed in the revolutions
of antiquity, than in the smooth and solid temper of the modern
world, which cannot easily repeat either the triumph of Alexander
or the fall of Darius. But the peculiar infelicity of the
Byzantine princes exposed them to domestic perils, without
affording any lively promise of foreign conquest. From the
pinnacle of greatness, Andronicus was precipitated by a death
more cruel and shameful than that of the malefactor; but the most
glorious of his predecessors had much more to dread from their
subjects than to hope from their enemies. The army was
licentious without spirit, the nation turbulent without freedom:
the Barbarians of the East and West pressed on the monarchy, and
the loss of the provinces was terminated by the final servitude
of the capital.

The entire series of Roman emperors, from the first of the
Caesars to the last of the Constantines, extends above fifteen
hundred years: and the term of dominion, unbroken by foreign
conquest, surpasses the measure of the ancient monarchies; the
Assyrians or Medes, the successors of Cyrus, or those of

End Of

Book of the day: