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CHAP. 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
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 Unconscious of his danger, the tyrant was absent; withdrawn from the toils of state, in the delicious islands of the Propontis.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 favourite 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 CHAP. 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 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.
I have been tempted to expatiate on the extra- Isaac II. ordinary character and adventures of Andronicus ; A.D. 1185, but I shall here terminate the series of the Greek Sept. 12. emperors since the time of Heraclius. The branches
CHAP, that sprang from the Comnenian trunk had insensi
bly 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 honours 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 ty
rant: but he was dethroned by his own vices and the A.D. 1204, 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 for- CHAP. tunate 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 favourites 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 precede or follow that respectable name, have trod with some dexterity and vigour the crooked and bloody paths of a selfish policy: in scrutinizing the
CHAP. 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 vilest 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 Cæsars 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 Alexander.