Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire

Gibbon's The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire

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Chapter LVI: The Saracens, The Franks And The Normans. -- Part IV.

Of the Latin princes, the allies of Alexius and enemies of Robert, the most prompt and powerful was Henry the Third or Fourth, king of Germany and Italy, and future emperor of the West. The epistle of the Greek monarch to his brother is filled with the warmest professions of friendship, and the most lively desire of strengthening their alliance by every public and private tie. He congratulates Henry on his success in a just and pious war; and complains that the prosperity of his own empire is disturbed by the audacious enterprises of the Norman Robert. The lists of his presents expresses the manners of the age -- a radiated crown of gold, a cross set with pearls to hang on the breast, a case of relics, with the names and titles of the saints, a vase of crystal, a vase of sardonyx, some balm, most probably of Mecca, and one hundred pieces of purple. To these he added a more solid present, of one hundred and forty-four thousand Byzantines of gold, with a further assurance of two hundred and sixteen thousand, so soon as Henry should have entered in arms the Apulian territories, and confirmed by an oath the league against the common enemy. The German, who was already in Lombardy at the head of an army and a faction, accepted these liberal offers, and marched towards the south: his speed was checked by the sound of the battle of Durazzo; but the influence of his arms, or name, in the hasty return of Robert, was a full equivalent for the Grecian bribe. Henry was the severe adversary of the Normans, the allies and vassals of Gregory the Seventh, his implacable foe. The long quarrel of the throne and mitre had been recently kindled by the zeal and ambition of that haughty priest: the king and the pope had degraded each other; and each had seated a rival on the temporal or spiritual throne of his antagonist. After the defeat and death of his Swabian rebel, Henry descended into Italy, to assume the Imperial crown, and to drive from the Vatican the tyrant of the church. But the Roman people adhered to the cause of Gregory: their resolution was fortified by supplies of men and money from Apulia; and the city was thrice ineffectually besieged by the king of Germany. In the fourth year he corrupted, as it is said, with Byzantine gold, the nobles of Rome, whose estates and castles had been ruined by the war. The gates, the bridges, and fifty hostages, were delivered into his hands: the anti-pope, Clement the Third, was consecrated in the Lateran: the grateful pontiff crowned his protector in the Vatican; and the emperor Henry fixed his residence in the Capitol, as the lawful successor of Augustus and Charlemagne. The ruins of the Septizonium were still defended by the nephew of Gregory: the pope himself was invested in the castle of St. Angelo; and his last hope was in the courage and fidelity of his Norman vassal. Their friendship had been interrupted by some reciprocal injuries and complaints; but, on this pressing occasion, Guiscard was urged by the obligation of his oath, by his interest, more potent than oaths, by the love of fame, and his enmity to the two emperors. Unfurling the holy banner, he resolved to fly to the relief of the prince of the apostles: the most numerous of his armies, six thousand horse, and thirty thousand foot, was instantly assembled; and his march from Salerno to Rome was animated by the public applause and the promise of the divine favor. Henry, invincible in sixty-six battles, trembled at his approach; recollected some indispensable affairs that required his presence in Lombardy; exhorted the Romans to persevere in their allegiance; and hastily retreated three days before the entrance of the Normans. In less than three years, the son of Tancred of Hauteville enjoyed the glory of delivering the pope, and of compelling the two emperors, of the East and West, to fly before his victorious arms. But the triumph of Robert was clouded by the calamities of Rome. By the aid of the friends of Gregory, the walls had been perforated or scaled; but the Imperial faction was still powerful and active; on the third day, the people rose in a furious tumult; and a hasty word of the conqueror, in his defence or revenge, was the signal of fire and pillage. The Saracens of Sicily, the subjects of Roger, and auxiliaries of his brother, embraced this fair occasion of rifling and profaning the holy city of the Christians: many thousands of the citizens, in the sight, and by the allies, of their spiritual father were exposed to violation, captivity, or death; and a spacious quarter of the city, from the Lateran to the Coliseum, was consumed by the flames, and devoted to perpetual solitude. From a city, where he was now hated, and might be no longer feared, Gregory retired to end his days in the palace of Salerno. The artful pontiff might flatter the vanity of Guiscard with the hope of a Roman or Imperial crown; but this dangerous measure, which would have inflamed the ambition of the Norman, must forever have alienated the most faithful princes of Germany.

The deliverer and scourge of Rome might have indulged himself in a season of repose; but in the same year of the flight of the German emperor, the indefatigable Robert resumed the design of his eastern conquests. The zeal or gratitude of Gregory had promised to his valor the kingdoms of Greece and Asia; his troops were assembled in arms, flushed with success, and eager for action. Their numbers, in the language of Homer, are compared by Anna to a swarm of bees; yet the utmost and moderate limits of the powers of Guiscard have been already defined; they were contained on this second occasion in one hundred and twenty vessels; and as the season was far advanced, the harbor of Brundusium was preferred to the open road of Otranto. Alexius, apprehensive of a second attack, had assiduously labored to restore the naval forces of the empire; and obtained from the republic of Venice an important succor of thirty-six transports, fourteen galleys, and nine galiots or ships of extra-ordinary strength and magnitude. Their services were liberally paid by the license or monopoly of trade, a profitable gift of many shops and houses in the port of Constantinople, and a tribute to St. Mark, the more acceptable, as it was the produce of a tax on their rivals at Amalphi. By the union of the Greeks and Venetians, the Adriatic was covered with a hostile fleet; but their own neglect, or the vigilance of Robert, the change of a wind, or the shelter of a mist, opened a free passage; and the Norman troops were safely disembarked on the coast of Epirus. With twenty strong and well-appointed galleys, their intrepid duke immediately sought the enemy, and though more accustomed to fight on horseback, he trusted his own life, and the lives of his brother and two sons, to the event of a naval combat. The dominion of the sea was disputed in three engagements, in sight of the Isle of Corfu: in the two former, the skill and numbers of the allies were superior; but in the third, the Normans obtained a final and complete victory. The light brigantines of the Greeks were scattered in ignominious flight: the nine castles of the Venetians maintained a more obstinate conflict; seven were sunk, two were taken; two thousand five hundred captives implored in vain the mercy of the victor; and the daughter of Alexius deplores the loss of thirteen thousand of his subjects or allies. The want of experience had been supplied by the genius of Guiscard; and each evening, when he had sounded a retreat, he calmly explored the causes of his repulse, and invented new methods how to remedy his own defects, and to baffle the advantages of the enemy. The winter season suspended his progress: with the return of spring he again aspired to the conquest of Constantinople; but, instead of traversing the hills of Epirus, he turned his arms against Greece and the islands, where the spoils would repay the labor, and where the land and sea forces might pursue their joint operations with vigor and effect. But, in the Isle of Cephalonia, his projects were fatally blasted by an epidemical disease: Robert himself, in the seventieth year of his age, expired in his tent; and a suspicion of poison was imputed, by public rumor, to his wife, or to the Greek emperor. This premature death might allow a boundless scope for the imagination of his future exploits; and the event sufficiently declares, that the Norman greatness was founded on his life. Without the appearance of an enemy, a victorious army dispersed or retreated in disorder and consternation; and Alexius, who had trembled for his empire, rejoiced in his deliverance. The galley which transported the remains of Guiscard was ship-wrecked on the Italian shore; but the duke's body was recovered from the sea, and deposited in the sepulchre of Venusia, a place more illustrious for the birth of Horace than for the burial of the Norman heroes. Roger, his second son and successor, immediately sunk to the humble station of a duke of Apulia: the esteem or partiality of his father left the valiant Bohemond to the inheritance of his sword. The national tranquillity was disturbed by his claims, till the first crusade against the infidels of the East opened a more splendid field of glory and conquest.

Of human life, the most glorious or humble prospects are alike and soon bounded by the sepulchre. The male line of Robert Guiscard was extinguished, both in Apulia and at Antioch, in the second generation; but his younger brother became the father of a line of kings; and the son of the great count was endowed with the name, the conquests, and the spirit, of the first Roger. The heir of that Norman adventurer was born in Sicily; and, at the age of only four years, he succeeded to the sovereignty of the island, a lot which reason might envy, could she indulge for a moment the visionary, though virtuous wish of dominion. Had Roger been content with his fruitful patrimony, a happy and grateful people might have blessed their benefactor; and if a wise administration could have restored the prosperous times of the Greek colonies, the opulence and power of Sicily alone might have equalled the widest scope that could be acquired and desolated by the sword of war. But the ambition of the great count was ignorant of these noble pursuits; it was gratified by the vulgar means of violence and artifice. He sought to obtain the undivided possession of Palermo, of which one moiety had been ceded to the elder branch; struggled to enlarge his Calabrian limits beyond the measure of former treaties; and impatiently watched the declining health of his cousin William of Apulia, the grandson of Robert. On the first intelligence of his premature death, Roger sailed from Palermo with seven galleys, cast anchor in the Bay of Salerno, received, after ten days' negotiation, an oath of fidelity from the Norman capital, commanded the submission of the barons, and extorted a legal investiture from the reluctant popes, who could not long endure either the friendship or enmity of a powerful vassal. The sacred spot of Benevento was respectfully spared, as the patrimony of St. Peter; but the reduction of Capua and Naples completed the design of his uncle Guiscard; and the sole inheritance of the Norman conquests was possessed by the victorious Roger. A conscious superiority of power and merit prompted him to disdain the titles of duke and of count; and the Isle of Sicily, with a third perhaps of the continent of Italy, might form the basis of a kingdom which would only yield to the monarchies of France and England. The chiefs of the nation who attended his coronation at Palermo might doubtless pronounce under what name he should reign over them; but the example of a Greek tyrant or a Saracen emir was insufficient to justify his regal character; and the nine kings of the Latin world might disclaim their new associate, unless he were consecrated by the authority of the supreme pontiff. The pride of Anacletus was pleased to confer a title, which the pride of the Norman had stooped to solicit; but his own legitimacy was attacked by the adverse election of Innocent the Second; and while Anacletus sat in the Vatican, the successful fugitive was acknowledged by the nations of Europe. The infant monarchy of Roger was shaken, and almost overthrown, by the unlucky choice of an ecclesiastical patron; and the sword of Lothaire the Second of Germany, the excommunications of Innocent, the fleets of Pisa, and the zeal of St. Bernard, were united for the ruin of the Sicilian robber. After a gallant resistance, the Norman prince was driven from the continent of Italy: a new duke of Apulia was invested by the pope and the emperor, each of whom held one end of the gonfanon, or flagstaff, as a token that they asserted their right, and suspended their quarrel. But such jealous friendship was of short and precarious duration: the German armies soon vanished in disease and desertion: the Apulian duke, with all his adherents, was exterminated by a conqueror who seldom forgave either the dead or the living; like his predecessor Leo the Ninth, the feeble though haughty pontiff became the captive and friend of the Normans; and their reconciliation was celebrated by the eloquence of Bernard, who now revered the title and virtues of the king of Sicily.

As a penance for his impious war against the successor of St. Peter, that monarch might have promised to display the banner of the cross, and he accomplished with ardor a vow so propitious to his interest and revenge. The recent injuries of Sicily might provoke a just retaliation on the heads of the Saracens: the Normans, whose blood had been mingled with so many subject streams, were encouraged to remember and emulate the naval trophies of their fathers, and in the maturity of their strength they contended with the decline of an African power. When the Fatimite caliph departed for the conquest of Egypt, he rewarded the real merit and apparent fidelity of his servant Joseph with a gift of his royal mantle, and forty Arabian horses, his palace with its sumptuous furniture, and the government of the kingdoms of Tunis and Algiers. The Zeirides, the descendants of Joseph, forgot their allegiance and gratitude to a distant benefactor, grasped and abused the fruits of prosperity; and after running the little course of an Oriental dynasty, were now fainting in their own weakness. On the side of the land, they were pressed by the Almohades, the fanatic princes of Morocco, while the sea-coast was open to the enterprises of the Greeks and Franks, who, before the close of the eleventh century, had extorted a ransom of two hundred thousand pieces of gold. By the first arms of Roger, the island or rock of Malta, which has been since ennobled by a military and religious colony, was inseparably annexed to the crown of Sicily. Tripoli, a strong and maritime city, was the next object of his attack; and the slaughter of the males, the captivity of the females, might be justified by the frequent practice of the Moslems themselves. The capital of the Zeirides was named Africa from the country, and Mahadia from the Arabian founder: it is strongly built on a neck of land, but the imperfection of the harbor is not compensated by the fertility of the adjacent plain. Mahadia was besieged by George the Sicilian admiral, with a fleet of one hundred and fifty galleys, amply provided with men and the instruments of mischief: the sovereign had fled, the Moorish governor refused to capitulate, declined the last and irresistible assault, and secretly escaping with the Moslem inhabitants abandoned the place and its treasures to the rapacious Franks. In successive expeditions, the king of Sicily or his lieutenants reduced the cities of Tunis, Safax, Capsia, Bona, and a long tract of the sea-coast; the fortresses were garrisoned, the country was tributary, and a boast that it held Africa in subjection might be inscribed with some flattery on the sword of Roger. After his death, that sword was broken; and these transmarine possessions were neglected, evacuated, or lost, under the troubled reign of his successor. The triumphs of Scipio and Belisarius have proved, that the African continent is neither inaccessible nor invincible; yet the great princes and powers of Christendom have repeatedly failed in their armaments against the Moors, who may still glory in the easy conquest and long servitude of Spain.

Since the decease of Robert Guiscard, the Normans had relinquished, above sixty years, their hostile designs against the empire of the East. The policy of Roger solicited a public and private union with the Greek princes, whose alliance would dignify his regal character: he demanded in marriage a daughter of the Comnenian family, and the first steps of the treaty seemed to promise a favorable event. But the contemptuous treatment of his ambassadors exasperated the vanity of the new monarch; and the insolence of the Byzantine court was expiated, according to the laws of nations, by the sufferings of a guiltless people. With the fleet of seventy galleys, George, the admiral of Sicily, appeared before Corfu; and both the island and city were delivered into his hands by the disaffected inhabitants, who had yet to learn that a siege is still more calamitous than a tribute. In this invasion, of some moment in the annals of commerce, the Normans spread themselves by sea, and over the provinces of Greece; and the venerable age of Athens, Thebes, and Corinth, was violated by rapine and cruelty. Of the wrongs of Athens, no memorial remains. The ancient walls, which encompassed, without guarding, the opulence of Thebes, were scaled by the Latin Christians; but their sole use of the gospel was to sanctify an oath, that the lawful owners had not secreted any relic of their inheritance or industry. On the approach of the Normans, the lower town of Corinth was evacuated; the Greeks retired to the citadel, which was seated on a lofty eminence, abundantly watered by the classic fountain of Pirene; an impregnable fortress, if the want of courage could be balanced by any advantages of art or nature. As soon as the besiegers had surmounted the labor (their sole labor) of climbing the hill, their general, from the commanding eminence, admired his own victory, and testified his gratitude to Heaven, by tearing from the altar the precious image of Theodore, the tutelary saint. The silk weavers of both sexes, whom George transported to Sicily, composed the most valuable part of the spoil; and in comparing the skilful industry of the mechanic with the sloth and cowardice of the soldier, he was heard to exclaim that the distaff and loom were the only weapons which the Greeks were capable of using. The progress of this naval armament was marked by two conspicuous events, the rescue of the king of France, and the insult of the Byzantine capital. In his return by sea from an unfortunate crusade, Louis the Seventh was intercepted by the Greeks, who basely violated the laws of honor and religion. The fortunate encounter of the Norman fleet delivered the royal captive; and after a free and honorable entertainment in the court of Sicily, Louis continued his journey to Rome and Paris. In the absence of the emperor, Constantinople and the Hellespont were left without defence and without the suspicion of danger. The clergy and people (for the soldiers had followed the standard of Manuel) were astonished and dismayed at the hostile appearance of a line of galleys, which boldly cast anchor in the front of the Imperial city. The forces of the Sicilian admiral were inadequate to the siege or assault of an immense and populous metropolis; but George enjoyed the glory of humbling the Greek arrogance, and of marking the path of conquest to the navies of the West. He landed some soldiers to rifle the fruits of the royal gardens, and pointed with silver, or most probably with fire, the arrows which he discharged against the palace of the Cæsars. This playful outrage of the pirates of Sicily, who had surprised an unguarded moment, Manuel affected to despise, while his martial spirit, and the forces of the empire, were awakened to revenge. The Archipelago and Ionian Sea were covered with his squadrons and those of Venice; but I know not by what favorable allowance of transports, victuallers, and pinnaces, our reason, or even our fancy, can be reconciled to the stupendous account of fifteen hundred vessels, which is proposed by a Byzantine historian. These operations were directed with prudence and energy: in his homeward voyage George lost nineteen of his galleys, which were separated and taken: after an obstinate defence, Corfu implored the clemency of her lawful sovereign; nor could a ship, a soldier, of the Norman prince, be found, unless as a captive, within the limits of the Eastern empire. The prosperity and the health of Roger were already in a declining state: while he listened in his palace of Palermo to the messengers of victory or defeat, the invincible Manuel, the foremost in every assault, was celebrated by the Greeks and Latins as the Alexander or the Hercules of the age.

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Fall of Roman Empire