Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XXII.: The weakness of the Eastern Empire. - Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters)
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CHAP. XXII.: The weakness of the Eastern Empire. - Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Complete Works, vol. 3 (Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire; A Dialogue between Sylla and Eucrates; Persian Letters) 
The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (London: T. Evans, 1777), 4 vols. Vol. 3.
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The weakness of the Eastern Empire.
PHOCAS, amidst the general confusion of affairs, being unsettled in his new dignity, Heraclius came from Africa, and caused him to be murdered; at the same time he found the provinces invaded, and the legions destroyed.
As soon as this prince had, in some measure, remedied these disasters, the Arabians quitted their own country, to extend the empire and religion which Mohammed had founded by their co-operation.
No people ever made so rapid a progress; for they immediately conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Africa, and then turned their hostilities against the Persians.
God permitted his religion to be laid low, in so many places where it once had been predominant; not that it now ceased to be the object of his providential care, but because it always either in its state of glory or depression produces its natural effect, which is the sanctification of the soul.
The welfare of religion has no similitude to the prosperity of empires, and we are told by a celebrated author, that it may well be distempered, since malady itself is the true state of a christian; to which we may add, that the humiliations and dispersion of the church, the destruction of her temples, and the persecutions of her martyrs, are eminent seasons of her glory; but when she appears triumphant to the eyes of the world, she is generally sinking in adversity.
We are not to have recourse to enthusiasm alone to clear up this memorable event of the Arabian conquests, which spread through so many countries: the Saracens had been long distinguished among the auxiliaries of Rome and Persia; and they, as well as the Osroanians, were the expertest archers in the world. Alexander Severus and Maximin had engaged them as much as possible in their service, and they were extremely useful in the wars with the Germans, to whom their arrows were fatal at a great distance. The Goths themselves * , in the reign of Valens, were incapable of resisting them: in a word, they at that time were the best cavalry in the world.
We have already observed, that the legions raised in Europe were much preferable to those of Asia, but it was directly contrary with respect to the cavalry; I mean that of the Parthians, the Osroanians, and the Saracens. This was the power that stopped the full career of the Roman conquests, because, after the death of Antiochus, a new nation of Tartars, who had the best cavalry of any people, made themselves masters of the Upper Asia.
This cavalry was heavy † , and that of Europe light, quite contrary to the present nature of their military equipage. Holland and Friseland were not as yet won from the waters; and * Germany was full of woods, lakes, and marshes, where the cavalry were of little importance.
When a free passage was opened to the great rivers, the stagnant waters shrunk from those marshes, and Germany assumed a new surface. Many changes were effected by the works of Valentinian † on the Necker, and those of the Romans on the Rhine; and commerce being once established, those countries which did not originally produce horses ‡ began to propagate the breed, and the inhabitants made great use of those animals.
Constantine ∥ , the son of Heraclius, having been poisoned, and his son Constance slain in Sicily, Constantine the bearded, his eldest son, succeeded to the empire; but the grandees of the eastern provinces being assembled on this occasion, were determined to crown the other brothers of this prince jointly with himself; alledging, that as it was indispensably necessary for them to believe in the Trinity, so it was reasonable they should be governed by three emperors.
The Grecian history is crouded with proceedings as extraordinary as this, and a low turn of mind being then characteristic of that nation, the former wisdom was no longer conspicuous in their actions, and the empire became a scene of troubles and revolutions, to which it was impossible to assign any preparatory motives.
An universal bigotry had stupified and emasculated the whole empire. Constantinople was the only place in the east where christianity was predominant, and likewise, where the pusillanimous indolence, and degrading softness of the Asiatic nations, were blended with devotion itself. Of a thousand instances that might be alledged, I shall only mention the conduct of Philippicus the general of Maurice’s army, who being on the point of charging the enemy in the field, burst into tears * when he suddenly considered what numbers of mankind were then to be destroyed.
The tears of the Arabians † flowed from a very different source, when they wept with regret that their general had agreed to a truce which frustrated their intended effusion of Christian blood.
There is a total difference between an army of fanatics, and another of bigots; and it evidently appeared in a late memorable revolution, in which Cromwell’s army resembled the Arabians, whilst the Irish and Scottish forces were like the Greeks.
A gross superstition which debases the mind as effectually as true religion exalts it, had reduced all virtue and devout confidence in the deity, to a stupid veneration for images; and history presents us with generals who would raise a siege, ‡ or surrendered a city for ∥ the gallant acquisition of a relick.
Christianity degenerated under the Grecian empire into as many corruptions as were intermixed with it in our time by the Muscovites, till the Czar Peter the first, new modelled that nation, and introduced more changes into the dominions he governed than are usually established in those which conquerors usurp.
We may easily believe the Greeks were infected with idolatry. There can be no suspicion that the Italians and Germans were but coldly devoted to external worship; and yet when the Greek historians take notice of the contempt expressed by the Italians for images and relies, one would be apt to compare them with the modern zealots against Calvin. Nicetas informs us, that the Germans, in their march to the Holy Land, were received by the Armenians as friends, because they did not offer any adoration to images. Now, if the Italians and Germans did not sufficiently reverence images, in the apprehension of the Greeks, what an enormous veneration must then be paid to them by this people?
The east was on the point of being made the scence of such a revolution as happened about two centuries ago in the west, when, upon the revival of learning, the abuses and corruptions in religion became evident to all, and as every person was inquisitive after a proper remedy, so there were some so bold and untractable as to rend the church by divisions, instead of restoring it to its original purity by a due reformation.
Leo Isaurus, Constantine Copronymus, and Leo his son were implacable against images, and when the worship of them had been re-established by the empress Irene, Leo the Arminian, Michael the Stammerer, and Theophilus abolished them again. These princes imagined they could not moderate that worship unless they destroyed it effectually; they likewise turned their hostilities against the Monks * , who incommoded the state, and as their proceedings were always carried to extremes, they endeavoured to exterminate that fraternity instead of regulating them in a proper manner.
The monks † being accused of idolatry by those who favoured the new opinions, retorted, in their turn, upon their adversaries, and accused them of magic practices, ‡ and then calling upon the people to behold the churches that were divested of images, and the other furniture, which till that time had been the objects of adoration, they created a belief in their flock, that these holy places must certainly be profaned by daily sacrifices to Dæmons.
The controversy relating to images, was connected with very delicate circumstances, which kindled it into a raging flame, and in the event made persons of solid judgment incapable of proposing a moderate worship. The dispute included the tender article of power, and the monks having seized it, in consequence of their spiritual usurpations, they could neither enlarge nor maintain it, but by making daily additions to the acts of external adoration, wherein they were so considerably interested. For this reason all oppositions to the establishment of images were considered as so many hostilities against themselves, and when they had succeeded in their pretensions, their power was no longer limitable.
This period was remarkable for such a conjuncture as happened some centuries afterwards in the warm disagreement between Barlaam and the Monks of that time, which brought the empire to the verge of destruction. The subject of the dispute was, whether the light which encircled Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor was created or not. The Monks indeed were indifferent as to either part of the question in debate, but as Barlaam made a direct attack upon that fraternity, they found it consistent with their interest to assert that light to be uncreated.
The war which those emperors who were called Iconoclasts, declared against the Monks, revived some particular principles of government, and offered a plausible pretence for employing the public revenue, for the public advantage, and for disengaging the state from every inconvenience that encumbered it.
When I consider the profound ignorance into which the Grecian priests had plunged the laity, it seems natural to compare the former to those Scythians mentioned by Herodotus, * who caused the eyes of their slaves to be plucked out, that their attention might not be diverted, when they were churning milk for their masters.
When the empress Theodora had re-established the use of images, the Monks immediately began to corrupt the public devotion, and proceeded even to oppress the secular clergy: they thrust themselves into every beneficial see, † and gradually excluded all ecclesiastics from episcopal promotion. By this proceeding they became unsupportable; and if we draw a parallel between them and the Latin clergy, and compare the conduct of our popes with that of the patriarchs of Constantinople, we shall see in our pontiffs and clergy, a set of men altogether as judicious as the others were irrational.
We are presented with a surprizing contradiction in human nature, when we consider that the ministers of religion among the ancient Romans, when they were not made incapable of public employments and civil society, were but little solicitous about either; and that after the establishment of christianity, the ecclesiastics who were most secluded from temporal affairs, engaged in them with the greatest moderation; but when the Monks, in the declension of the empire, became the sole clergy, these people who were forbidden by a more particular profession, to intermeddle with the transactions of state, embraced all opportunities that could possibly introduce them into the government, and never ceased to fill every place with confusion, and to discompose the world which they pretended to renounce.
There was not any affair of the empire, any particular peace or war, any truce or negociation, or any private treaty of marriage capable of completion without the ministration of these Monks; they crowded into the cabinets of princes, and composed the greatest part of the national assemblies.
The calamities which resulted from this irreligious officiousness are inconceivable: these ecclesiastic statesmen infused an indolent insignificance into the minds of princes, and communicated a taint of imprudence to their best actions. Whilst Basilius employed his naval forces in erecting a church to the honour of St. Michael * ; he abandoned Sicily to the depredations of the Saracens, and suffered them to take Syracuse; but lest he should be singular in that proceeding, Leo, his successor, consigned his fleet to the same employment, and permitted the Barbarians to possess themselves of Tauromenia and the island of Lemnos.
Andronicus Palæologus † entirely neglected his maritime power, because he had been assured God was so well satisfied with his zeal for the church’s peace, that his enemies would never presume to invade his dominions by sea. He was even apprehensive that the Deity would call him to a strict account for the time he devoted to the necessary affairs of state, and deducted from spiritual attentions.
The Greeks being very loquacious, great disputants, and naturally inclined to sophistry, were perpetually incumbering religion with controversial points; and as the Monks were in great reputation in a court which was always weak in proportion to its corruption, that court, and those Monks mutually communicated infection to each other; in consequence of which, the emperors devoted all their thoughts, sometimes to calm, and frequently to inflame theological disputes, which were always observed to be most frivolous when they were debated with the greatest warmth.
Michael Palæologus ‡ , whose reign was so infested with controversies in religion, growing sensible of the melancholy devastations committed by the Turks in Asia, said with a sigh, that the rash zeal of some persons, who by exclaiming against his conduct, had exasperated his subjects against him, made it necessary for him to employ all his cares to accomplish his own preservation, and compelled him to be a tame spectator of the ruin of several provinces. “I contented myself, said he, with providing for the security of those distant parts, by the ministration of governors, who being either corrupted by the enemy, or apprehensive of punishment, never acquainted me with the unhappy situation of the people with whose welfare they were intrusted.”
The Patriarchs of Constantinople had assumed an unlimited power; and as the emperors and their grandees generally retired to the churches, when the people were spirited up to insurrections, the patriarchs had consequently an opportunity of delivering them up to the popular fury, and never failed to exercise this power as they were directed by any particular fancy, by which means they always became the arbiters of public affairs, though in a very indirect manner.
When the elder Andronicus * caused the Patriarch to be admonished not to intermeddle with the transactions of state, but to confine his attention to spiritual affairs, “such a request, replied that imperious priest, is as if the body should say to the soul, I do not claim any community with you, and have no occasion for your assistance in the exercise of my functions.”
Such monstrous pretensions became insupportable to princes, and the patriarchs were frequently divested of their sees. But such a proceeding, in a superstitious nation, who detested all the ecclesiastical functions of the Patriarch whom they considered as an intruder, produced continual schisms, each particular Patriarch, the old, the new, and the last elected, being supported by his own set of partizans.
Such conditions as these were much more pernicious than any disagreements on points of doctrine, because they resembled an hydra to whom every defeat was a renovation.
The rage of disputation became so natural to the Greeks, that Cantacuzenus * , when he took Constantinople, found the emperor John and his empress engaged in a council which had been summoned against some adversaries of the Monks; and when Mohammed the second besieged that city † , the emperor could not suppress the theological animosities, and the council of Florence ‡ engaged the general attention much more than the Turkish army.
As every person, in common disputes, is sensible he may be deceived, a tenacious and untractable spirit seldom prevails to any extreme but in those controversies where religion is the subject; for there, as every person from the nature of the point in debate becomes persuaded that his own opinion is true, he grows exasperated against those, who, instead of concurring with his sentiments, endeavour to make him a convert to their own.
Those who may happen to read the history written by Pachymerus, will be effectually convinced of the unalterable inability of divines to accommodate their own disagreements, and will see an emperor ∥ who spent his days in assembling people of that class listening to their disputations and reproaching them for the inflexibility of their opinions: they will likewise behold another engaged with a hydra of controversies that were perpetually rising to new life, and will be sensible that the same pacific methods and persevering patience, the same inclination to finish their contentions; in a word, the same artless pliancy to their intrigues joined with the same deference to their aversions will never reconcile these implacable ecclesiastics while the world endures.
We shall present the reader with a remarkable instance of the disposition we have been describing. The Partisans of the patriach Arsenus * , were prevailed upon, by the solicitations of the emperor, to come into a treaty with those who were in the interest of the patriarch Joseph. This treaty specified that both parties should write down their several pretensions, and then throw the two papers which contained them into a pan of live coals, and if one of them should remain unconsumed, they were then to acquiesce with that determination from heaven; but if both should happen to be burnt, the parties were no longer to persist in their demands. The fire destroyed the two papers, the factions were reconciled, and the peace continued for a day. The next morning they pretended that the renunciation of their claims ought to flow from an internal persuasion, and not from chance; and from that moment the contention was renewed with greater animosity than ever.
The disputes of divines should always be considered with great attention; but at the same time this ought to be concealed as much as possible; because, any visible solicitude to calm the contending parties never fails to credit their singularities, and consequently tempts them to believe their sentiments are of such importance as to comprehend the welfare of the state and the security of the sovereign.
It is altogether as impracticable to decide the disagreements of clergymen by attending to their affected subtilties, as it would be to abolish duels by erecting a court, with a delegation to trace a point of honour through all its refinements.
Such was the imprudence of the Greek emperors, that when a religious controversy had been lulled asleep by time, they again awakened it in all its rage. Justinian, Heraclius, and Manual Comnenus proposed articles of faith to their ecclesiastics and laity who would certainly have been deceived in the truth, though it had flowed from the lips of those princes in all its purity. And as they were always defective in forms, and generally in essentials, and grew desirous of displaying their penetration, which they might have manifested to more advantage in other affairs confided to their judgment; they engaged in vain disputes on the nature of God, who, as he withdraws himself from the proud curiosity of the learned, so he veils the Majesty of his existence, as effectually from the great men of the earth.
It is an error to believe any human power can be absolute and insallible in these respects, for such there never was, nor ever will be imparted to any mortal. The largest extent of temporal authority is confined to certain limitations, and when the Grand Seignior ordains a new taxation at Constantinople, the universal murmurs of his subjects make him sensible of those restrictions of his power which till then were concealed from his observation. A Persian monarch may indeed compel a son to murder his father, or oblige a parent to plunge his dagger into the heart of his child, but he can never force his subjects to drink wine. There is a general principle in every nation which is the invariable basis of power, and when once this principle is too much loaded, it infallibly shrinks into smaller dimensions.
An unacquaintedness with the true nature and limits of ecclesiastical and secular power, was the most pernicious source of all the calamities that befel the Greeks, and involved both priests and people in perpetual errors.
This great distinction, which constitutes all the tranquillity of a nation, is founded not only on religion, but on reason and nature, which never confound things really distinct in themselves, and which can only subsist in consequence of that very distinction.
Though the priesthood among the ancient Romans did not form a separate body, yet the distinction we have been representing, was as well known to them as it can be to us. Clodius had consecrated the house of Cicero to the goddess of liberty, but when that great orator returned from his exile, he did not fail to demand it as his lawful property: the Pontiffs were of opinion, that if it had been so consecrated without an express order obtained from the people, it might be restored to him without any violation of religion. They have declared, says Cicero * , that they only examined the validity of the consecration and not the law enacted by the people, and that they had decided the first article as pontiffs, and the second in the quality of senators.
[* ]Zozim. lib. iv.
[† ]See the account given by Zosimus of the cavalry of Aurelian, and that of Palmyra. See likewise what Ammianus Marcellinus relates of the Persian cavalry.
[* ]The greatest part of that country was then covered with water, but the art of man has since made it habitable and commodious.
[† ]See Ammiar. Marcellin. lib. xxvii.
[‡ ]Cæsar represents the German horses as too small, and good for little.
[∥ ]Zonaras’s life of Constantine the Boarded.
[* ]History of the emperor Maurice by Theophylact, lib. ii. c. iii.
[† ]Ockley’s history of the conquest of Syria, Persia, and Egypt, by the Saracens.
[‡ ]Life of Lecapena by Zoraras.
[∥ ]Life of John Commenus, by Nicetas.
[* ]Valens, many years before this events, made a law to compel the Monks to serve the government in the army in times of war, and caused all who disobeyed that injunction, to be slain
[† ]These circumstances relating to the monks, cannot fix any criminal imputation on their order in general; for it would be unjust to represent an institution as pernicious, because it may happen to be abused in some particular countries and at certain periods of time.
[‡ ]Leo the grammarian’s lives of Leo the Arminian, and Theophilus. Suidas, under the article of Constantine the son of Leo.
[* ]Lib. iv.
[† ]Vide Pachymer, lib. viii.
[* ]See the lives of Basilius and Leo by Zonaras and Nicephorus.
[† ]Pachymer. lib. vii.
[‡ ]Pachymer. lib. vii. c. 29. We have had recourse to the translation of the president Cousin.
[* ]Palæologus. See the history of the two emperors of this name written by Cantacuzenus, lib. i. c. 50.
[* ]Cantacuzen. lib. iii. c. 99.
[† ]Hist. of the last Palæologi by Ducas.
[‡ ]The question in debate was, whether a congregation, who heard mass from a priest who had consented to pacific measures, ought not to have sied from him as if he had been a destructive flame. The great church was accounted a prophane temple, and the monk Gennadius hurled his anathemas against all who were desirous of peace.
[∥ ]Andronicus Palæologus.
[* ]Pachymer. lib. vii.
[* ]Epist. ad Attic. lib. iv.