Chapter 2

Disorders in the Eastern Empire

by Montesquieu Icon

THE Persians, during this period, were in a much better situation than the Romans.

  • They had little reason to fear the northern people because mount Taurus, which extends between the Caspian and Euxine seas, separated them.
  • They effectively closed a very narrow pass which was the only way for the cavalry.

In every other part, the Barbarians had to descend from frightful precipices and leave their horses.

They were blocked in by the Araxes, a deep river which flows from west to east.

With all these advantages, the Persians were in peace. On the south, they were bounded by the sea.

The Arabian princes, who were partly their allies, and partly [157] in confederacy with the Romans, were totally engaged in pillaging one another.

The Persians therefore had none whom they could properly call their enemies but the Romans. We are sensible, said an ambassador of Hormisdas * , that the Romans are engaged in several wars, and are at variance with almost all nations, whilst we, as they well know, have no hostilities with any people but themselves.

The Persians had cultivated the military art to as great a degree as it was neglected by the Romans. Belisarius said to his soldiers, The Persians are not your superiors in courage, and only surpass you in the discipline of war.

They had likewise the same superiority in the cabinet as they preserved in the field, and demanded tribute of the Romans, under a pretence that they maintained garrisons in the Caspian streights, as if each nation had not a right to guard its frontiers. They obliged them to pay for peace, and every cessation of arms; and did not scruple to make them purchase the very time employed either in negociations or war.

The Avari having crossed the Danube, the Romans, who had seldom any troops to oppose them, being engaged against the Persians when they should have given battle to the Avari, and having full employment from these when they ought to have faced the Persians, were still obliged to submit to a tribute; and thus the majesty of the empire bowed down before all nations.

Justin, Tiberius, and Maurice were very sedulous to defend the empire; the last of these princes had some virtues, but they were all sullied by an avarice almost incredible in a great monarch.

The king of the Avari offered to restore all his Roman prisoners to Maurice, if he would ranson, them at an inconsiderable price for each man.

This proposal being rejected, he caused them all to be inhumanly [158] murdered. The Roman army was greatly exasperated at this proceeding, and the faction of the Greens making an insurrection at the same time, a centurion named Phocas was raised to the imperial dignity, and he ordered Maurice and his children to be put to death.

The history of the Grecian empire, for so we shall denominate the monarchy of the Romans for the future, is little more than a series of revolts, seditions, and persidy. The subjects had no idea of the loyalty due to princes, and there were so many interruptions in the successions of the emperors, that the title of Porphyrogenitus, which signifies one born in the apartment where the empress reposed, was an appellation which few princes of the several imperial families could with any propriety assume.

All the paths that could be struck out to empire were unexceptionable; and the candidates were conducted to the diadem by the clergy, the senate, the peasants, the inhabitants of Constantinople, and the people of the provincial cities.

Christianity was now the religion of the empire. It was intermixed with several successive heresies, which called aloud for condemnation.

  • Arius denied the divinity of the Word
  • The Macedonians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit
  • The Nestorius denied the unity of the person of Jesus Christ
  • The Eutychians denied his two natures
  • The Monothelites denied his two wills

It became necessary to convene councils against them. But their decisions not being universally received, several emperors, who had been seduced into these heretical opinions, relapsed into the same persuasions after they had been condemned.

No nation was ever so implacable against heretics as the Greeks, who even imagined themselves polluted when they conversed with any of that class, or had any cohabitation with them, several emperors, in consequence of that popular aversion, lost the affections of their subjects, and the people became persuaded that princes who were so frequently rebellious against God, [159] could never be chosen by Providence to be their sovereigns.

A new opinion, formed by an idea that it was unlawful to shed christian blood, and which daily grew more popular when the Mohammedans appeared upon the stage of military action, was the cause that offences, in which religion was not directly interested, were punished with great moderation.

Those who had spirited up an insurrection, or framed any attempt against the person of the prince, were only sentenced to lose their eyes, to have their hair or noses cut off, or to suffer some other mutilation.

These offences might be committed with very little hazard, they might likewise be attempted without much courage * .

A certain veneration for the regalia of imperial majesty drew the eyes of all the people on those who presumed to wear them, and it was criminal to be either habited in purple, or to keep it in a wardrobe; but when a man had once the resolution to appear in that dress, the multitude immediately flocked after him, because their respect was more attached to the apparel than the person.

Ambition received greater provocatives still, from the surprising infatuation of those times; and there was hardly a man of any considerable consequence who could not accommodate to himself some prediction that promised him the empire.

As the indispositions of the mind are generally incurable † , judicial astrology, and the art of pointing out futurity by objects seen in a bason of water, succeeded among the christians, to the solemn imposture of divination by the entrails of victims, or the flight of birds, which had been abolished with paganism its parent.

Vain promises became the motives to most of the rash [160] actions of particular persons, and constituted the wisdom of princes councils.

The calamities of the empire daily increasing, it was natural to impute ill success in war, and dishonourable treaties in peace, to the injudicious conduct of those at the helm.

One revolution was now pregnant with another, and the effect itself became a cause= and as the Greeks had seen such a succession of different families on the throne, they were not devoted to any; and since fortune had created so many emperors out of all classes of people, no birth was so obscure, and no merit so inconsiderable as to be destitute of hope.

Several examples which had been familiar to the nation, modelled the genius of the people in general, and formed a system of manners which reigned as imperiously as the laws.

It should seem that great enterprizes among us, are more impracticable than they were to the ancients; it is very difficult to conceal them, because intelligence is now become so manageable that every prince has ministers in each court, and traitors may possibly be lurking in all the cabinets of majesty.

The invention of posts has given wings to information, and can immediately wast it to all parts.

As great undertakings are not to be accomplished without money, and as merchants are masters of it since the invention of bills of exchange, their affairs are always connected with the secrets of state, and they neglect nothing to penetrate into those depths.

The fluctuations in exchange, without any visible cause, entice numbers of people to search after it, and some of them find it at last to their cost.

The invention of printing, which has put books into the hands of all the world; the improvements in engraving, which have made geographic charts so common; in a word, the establishment of political papers, give every individual a knowledge of a general [161] interests, sufficient enough to instruct him in all the private transactions.

Conspiracies in a state are now become very difficult, because, since the establishment of posts, all the secrets of particular persons are in the power of the public.

Princes may act with promptitude, because all the power of the state is in their possession. Conspirators must proceed with caution, because they are destitute of expedients; and, since at present all transactions are more easily discovered, those who form designs against a government, are generally detected before they can adjust their schemes.


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