The Eastern Empire to the Twelfth Century

It is necessary to begin a history of the middle ages with reference to the decline of the Roman Empire. This decline was caused by various circumstances, but chiefly by the weakened condition of society. Instead of rearing a respectable lower and middle class, the Roman aristocracy kept the mass of the people in slavery, so that at length society consisted of but a comparatively small number of privileged persons, including the military, and vast numbers of serfs or slaves the hangers-on of great men - and in effect paupers. 'The freedom of the ancient world expired in the course of ages,' says Alison, 'from the small number of those who enjoyed its benefits. The ruling citizens became corrupted from the influence of prosperity, or by the seduction of wealth; and no infusion of energy took place from the lower ranks to renovate their strength or supply their place.' Besides this general, there was a special cause. In 321., Constantine transferred the imperial abode from Rome to Byzantium, a city situated on the Bosphorus, and afterwards called Constantinople. In his endeavors to make this city the seat of government, Constantine only partially succeeded; for it generally happened after his day that there was one emperor in the East and another in the West, and not unfrequently two or three different individuals in the provinces, at the head of considerable military forces, claiming partial and even universal empire. Rome itself, and the countries of western Europe, were soon taken posession of by barbarous intruders, and lost all the characteristics and individuality of empire; but Constantinople continued for a thousand years the abode of men who had still the name of emperors, reckoning themselves the descendants of the Caesars, although they had long ceased to wield anything but the shadow of power. Constantine was himself instrumental in dismembering his empire, having before his death divided it among no fewer than five individuals - namely, his three sons, Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and his two nephews, Dalmatius and Annipalianus, both of whom bore in addition the surname of Caesar a name still popular among a people who wished themselves to be considered Roman.

Constantine II soon fell a sacrifice to the cruelty and ambition of his brother Constans, who in his turn lost his life in attempting to quell a revolt among his subjects; and Constantius, the youngest of the sons, having found means to destroy the two Caesars, and five other cousins, and two uncles, found himself at an early period of life the undisputed master of the empire. He reigned twenty-four years, but left no monuments of goodness or of greatness, having wasted his time in the practice of vice, or in the equally unprofitable, if more innocent, employment of disputing with bishops on the abstrusest points of doctrinal theology; while a host of enemies, apparently from every side of his dominions, were engaged in undermining and laying waste the empire. It was in the West that these attacks were first made, though perhaps it was in the East that they were fiercest. Numberless and powerful barbarians now began to pour unceasingly upon Gaul, Spain, and latterly upon . Italy itself, from the forests of the north, and in particular from those of Germany - a country whose inhabitants have been remarkable in the history of the world, both as having originated many of the greatest movements in society, and as having laid open more of the sources of human thought than any people that could be named. The Franks, Saxons, Goths, and Alemanni, devastated the fine countries watered by the Rhine, and so effectually severed them from the Empire, that from this period their history becomes wholly separate. At the same time the Sarmatians, Persians, Scythians, and others, made dreadful incursions in the East. All that Constantius could do to stem this powerful tide was to raise his kinsman Julian, whom he surnamed Caesar, to command in the army.

Julian had been early instructed in the Christian religion, but he is not known to have ever given it any credit, although he has been often called apostate. He had imbibed the philosophy of Plato in the schools of Athens; and with this learning, with the elements of a great character in his mind, and with the models of Cesar, of Trajan, and of Marcus Antonius in his eye, he formed the design, and seemed to have the ability, to raise up and consolidate the glories of a falling Empire. His victories over the Alemanni in Gaul, although they preserved the Empire, excited only the envy of the emperor, and Constantius was about to depose him from his command, when his own death saved him from the ignominy to which the soldiery would certainly have subjected him for any attempt to degrade their favorite commander. Julian was himself declared emperor by the army, and the people had lost both the power and the will to resist. Unfortunately for his fame, Julian perished in battle with the Persians only three years after his accession. In that short period he had reformed many abuses in the state; and though personally hostile to the Christian religion, and though he used both arguments and ridicule against it, he not only advocated, but practiced universal toleration. It is creditable also to Julian, that in establishing the ancient orders of Roman priesthood, he was at pains to enforce a strict morality in all the relations of life. He was succeeded, after the fall of several candidates, by Valentinian, whose father had been a soldier from the Danube. This emperor took for colleague his brother Valens, to whom he assigned Constantinople and the government of the East. The reign of Valens was signalized by the irruption into Europe of an enemy till then unknown to the Romans; these were the Huns, a confederation of Tartar tribes, some of whom had obtained the ascendancy and control over the rest, and led them on to invade the nations of Europe. Their numbers and ferocity led the ancient writers to describe them in terms of consternation, which to moderns, who are no strangers to Calmucs, Cossacks, Tartars, and other tribes of similar origin, appear sufficiently ludicrous. They never lived in houses, slept under trees, ate raw flesh, and were altogether superior in war even to the Goths, who were now in alliance with the Romans, and had begun to relish the comforts of a settled life. They were, therefore, driven away before the Huns, and Were forced, in search of a home, to invade the Roman territory. Here they were opposed by the Emperor Valens; but they defeated his army, and made his own life a sacrifice. He was succeeded by his nephew Gratian, who chose for his colleague Theodosius, a general of talents and celebrity. This emperor restored the confidence of his own army, and broke the power of the Goths, by his skill and caution; and was the first of the emperors who practiced the mode of dividing the barbarians against one another, by giving money to such of their tribes as he imagined would make useful auxiliaries. This system, which the wealth of the emperors (from their possession of all the maritime and trading cities) enabled them long to use against their poorer enemies, often saved the Empire at the expense of its dignity; for though the money was given at first as a gratuity, it was sometimes demanded in times of weakness as a tribute. This Theodosius (commonly called the Great) was the first who made Christianity the established religion of the Empire (390). He procured a senatorial edict in favor of the Christians and their religion, sanctioned the destruction of the heathen temples, and forbade the performance of sacrifices either in public or private. The Empire under this prince still preserved its origin al extent; but he divided it between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius (394), and its parts were never afterwards reunited.

From the death of Theodosius II (449) to the reign of Justinian (527), the Eastern Empire continued without any considerable alteration, though there were many changes and intrigues in the court and army. The reign of the latter prince is memorable on several accounts it was under his auspices that a knowledge of the silk manufacture was first brought to Europe, where it gave employment to much ingenious industry (900). Justinian also caused certain eminent lawyers to prepare a code of laws, and an abridgement of law decisions, etc. called the Pandects, which were used by all his successors, and have been adopted as the basis of their laws by several countries of Europe. With the single exception of the Code de Napoleon, these form the only complete and perfect abstract of national law which any government has given to its people. Whatever may have been Justinian's errors in other respects, his having projected this work, and procured so many able ministers to execute it, must redound forever to his honor. The talents and virtues of his general Belisarius regained to the Empire Africa and a great part of Italy, from the Vandals and Ostrogoths; this conquest, however, only prevented the latter region from being united under one government, and has been the cause of its remaining a feeble and divided country ever since. In the reign of Tiberius shortly after (580), the people of Rome, though they entreated with great earnestness the aid and pity of the emperor, who now claimed to rule over them, were unable to obtain any relief, and remained distracted between their attachment to the ancient head of the Empire, and the claims of his enemies who occupied the rest of Italy.

The next emperor who merits attention is Heraclius (610), a native of Africa. The Eastern Empire had till now preserved its ancient boundaries in their full extent, and was mistress of Carthage, Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, besides Greece, and the countries on the Danube. The Roman armies on the eastern frontier had, however, been lately driven in by Chosroes, king of Persia, who now occupied all the north of Africa and Syria. This was the first great violation of their territory sustained by the emperors of Constantinople; and Heraclius avenged it with a celerity and effect which made the Persians tremble. His triumph, however, was short, for the latter part of his reign was disturbed by the rise and victories of Mohammed. The successors of this signal impostor, after breaking the power of Persia (already weakened by the victories of Heraclius), immediately attacked the Roman Empire; then defeated its armies in two battles, occupied all Syria, and obliged the emperor (now an old man) to retire to Constantinople. He died in 641.

The continued victories of the followers of Mohammed (called Arabs or Saracens) soon deprived the Empire of Egypt, Africa, and Syria; and in 668 they followed up their success by attacking Constantinople itself. The city sustained two sieges, in the first of which the Saracens were encamped in its neighborhood, and carried on the operations of a siege at intervals, for seven years; and in the second, for nearly two. In both the Saracens wasted immense resources ineffectually.

The Empire had now lost all its provinces eastward of Mount Taurus, and the cities of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch, were in the hands of the Mohammedans. There was little further change in its condition till the year 867, under the Emperor Basil, who gave new vigor both to the internal administration and to the military resources of the government. This prince, and his immediate predecessor Zimisces, made the Roman arms - for they still wished to be called Romans respected on the Euphrates, and Tigris, and asserted the ancient warlike reputation and boundaries of the Empire. They were now, however, deprived of the resources they had enjoyed in the secure possession of the great commercial cities of the Mediterranean - Alexandria, Carthage, Caesarea, etc.; and the trade and revenues of those which remained were crippled and diminished, from the want of that free general intercourse which had existed when they were all under one government. Hence the . armies were maintained with greater difficulty, and any victories that were gained could not be followed up with effect. The 'early enemies of the Empire the Goths, Vandals, and Huns ' - had now settled into civilized communities, and were no longer formidable. The foes with whom it contended latterly were the Bulgarians and Seljukian Turks; the former of whom were rather troublesome than dangerous, but the latter, who had succeeded the Saracens in the dominion of Asia, aimed at nothing short of the destruction of the Roman name. They succeeded at last by defeating and taking prisoner the Emperor Romanus Diogenes, in tearing away almost the whole province of Asia Minor (1099); so that the emperors were now confined to the dominions in Europe, which, however, still formed a monarchy not much smaller than France or Spain.

The manners of the court of Constantinople during much of this period were dissolute and corrupt. We are told of one emperor who ordered a plate of human noses to be brought to his table; another was accustomed to seize the deputies of cities whose tribute was in arrear, and suspend them with their heads downwards over a slow fire; a third got up farces in mockery of the ceremonies of religion; and, in general, the appointment of officers, and even the succession to the Empire (where it was not seized by some successful general), were in the hands of the women and eunuchs of the palace. The cities and provinces generally acquiesced as to the choice of an emperor in the decision of the capital or army; this circumstance shows that the laws were attended to, and that there was a regular system of government, which were not much disturbed by the personal character of the reigning prince. The countries of Greece, however, which had formerly been the seat of knowledge and the arts, were now sunk in ignorance; and the little learning that was cultivated in Athens was only scholastic divinity, or the pedantry of law and grammar. There is no scholar, or philosopher, or poet, of the empire of Constantinople who is generally known to posterity.

A great change took place in the relations of the Empire after the eleventh century. It was still pressed by the Turks on the East, who now occupied Asia Minor, and were only separated from Constantinople by the Hellespont; while in Europe its territories were disturbed by the incursions of certain Norman adventurers who had settled in Sicily. Against these enemies the Emperor Claudius Comnenus, an active prince, and full of resources, made all the resistance which his diminished revenues allowed. He applied to the Christian sovereigns of Europe to aid him in expelling the Mohammedans from the territories of the Empire, but above all, to drive .out the Turks from the land of Judea, which they occupied and profaned, and, where they harassed the Christian pilgrims who desired to visit the scenes of Scripture history. His appeal was received in Europe at a time when many concurring causes had brought the mass of the people to a state of uneasiness which at once foreboded and rendered necessary some extensive change in their condition. Countrymen of their own, pilgrims from the shrine of the tomb of Christ, had returned and filled them with horror by a recital of indignities which Turkish infidels were casting on those scenes and subjects with which their own most sacred feelings were associated and the result was that extraordinary outpouring of the inhabitants of Europe upon Asia, which has been termed the Crusades, and to which we shall afterwards advert.