Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire

Gibbon's The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire

Home | Prev | Next | Contents

609--614.) It is amusing to compare the style and sentiments of the courtier and citizen. Facinus profecto quo . . . . neque periculo horribilius, neque audaciâ detestabilius, neque crudelitate tetrius, a quoquam perditissimo uspiam excogitatum sit . . . . Perdette la vita quell' huomo da bene, e amatore dello bene e libertà di Roma.]

But the independence of the nobles, which was fomented by discord, survived the freedom of the commons, which must be founded in union. A privilege of rapine and oppression was long maintained by the barons of Rome; their houses were a fortress and a sanctuary: and the ferocious train of banditti and criminals whom they protected from the law repaid the hospitality with the service of their swords and daggers. The private interest of the pontiffs, or their nephews, sometimes involved them in these domestic feuds. Under the reign of Sixtus the Fourth, Rome was distracted by the battles and sieges of the rival houses: after the conflagration of his palace, the prothonotary Colonna was tortured and beheaded; and Savelli, his captive friend, was murdered on the spot, for refusing to join in the acclamations of the victorious Ursini. ^86 But the popes no longer trembled in the Vatican: they had strength to command, if they had resolution to claim, the obedience of their subjects; and the strangers, who observed these partial disorders, admired the easy taxes and wise administration of the ecclesiastical state. ^87

[Footnote 86: The disorders of Rome, which were much inflamed by the partiality of Sixtus IV. are exposed in the Diaries of two spectators, Stephen Infessura, and an anonymous citizen. See the troubles of the year 1484, and the death of the prothonotary Colonna, in tom. iii. P.

  1. p. 1083, 1158.]

[Footnote 87: Est toute la terre de l'église troublée pour cette partialité (des Colonnes et des Ursins) come nous dirions Luce et Grammont, ou en Hollande Houc et Caballan; et quand ce ne seroit ce différend la terre de l'église seroit la plus heureuse habitation pour les sujets qui soit dans toute le monde (car ils ne payent ni tailles ni guères autres choses,) et seroient toujours bien conduits, (car toujours les papes sont sages et bien consellies;) mais très souvent en advient de grands et cruels meurtres et pilleries.]

The spiritual thunders of the Vatican depend on the force of opinion; and if that opinion be supplanted by reason or passion, the sound may idly waste itself in the air; and the helpless priest is exposed to the brutal violence of a noble or a plebeian adversary. But after their return from Avignon, the keys of St. Peter were guarded by the sword of St. Paul. Rome was commanded by an impregnable citadel: the use of cannon is a powerful engine against popular seditions: a regular force of cavalry and infantry was enlisted under the banners of the pope: his ample revenues supplied the resources of war: and, from the extent of his domain, he could bring down on a rebellious city an army of hostile neighbors and loyal subjects. ^88 Since the union of the duchies of Ferrara and Urbino, the ecclesiastical state extends from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic, and from the confines of Naples to the banks of the Po; and as early as the sixteenth century, the greater part of that spacious and fruitful country acknowledged the lawful claims and temporal sovereignty of the Roman pontiffs. Their claims were readily deduced from the genuine, or fabulous, donations of the darker ages: the successive steps of their final settlement would engage us too far in the transactions of Italy, and even of Europe; the crimes of Alexander the Sixth, the martial operations of Julius the Second, and the liberal policy of Leo the Tenth, a theme which has been adorned by the pens of the noblest historians of the times. ^89 In the first period of their conquests, till the expedition of Charles the Eighth, the popes might successfully wrestle with the adjacent princes and states, whose military force was equal, or inferior, to their own. But as soon as the monarchs of France, Germany and Spain, contended with gigantic arms for the dominion of Italy, they supplied with art the deficiency of strength; and concealed, in a labyrinth of wars and treaties, their aspiring views, and the immortal hope of chasing the Barbarians beyond the Alps. The nice balance of the Vatican was often subverted by the soldiers of the North and West, who were united under the standard of Charles the Fifth: the feeble and fluctuating policy of Clement the Seventh exposed his person and dominions to the conqueror; and Rome was abandoned seven months to a lawless army, more cruel and rapacious than the Goths and Vandals. ^90 After this severe lesson, the popes contracted their ambition, which was almost satisfied, resumed the character of a common parent, and abstained from all offensive hostilities, except in a hasty quarrel, when the vicar of Christ and the Turkish sultan were armed at the same time against the kingdom of Naples. ^91 The French and Germans at length withdrew from the field of battle: Milan, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and the sea-coast of Tuscany, were firmly possessed by the Spaniards; and it became their interest to maintain the peace and dependence of Italy, which continued almost without disturbance from the middle of the sixteenth to the opening of the eighteenth century. The Vatican was swayed and protected by the religious policy of the Catholic king: his prejudice and interest disposed him in every dispute to support the prince against the people; and instead of the encouragement, the aid, and the asylum, which they obtained from the adjacent states, the friends of liberty, or the enemies of law, were enclosed on all sides within the iron circle of despotism. The long habits of obedience and education subdued the turbulent spirit of the nobles and commons of Rome. The barons forgot the arms and factions of their ancestors, and insensibly became the servants of luxury and government. Instead of maintaining a crowd of tenants and followers, the produce of their estates was consumed in the private expenses which multiply the pleasures, and diminish the power, of the lord. ^92 The Colonna and Ursini vied with each other in the decoration of their palaces and chapels; and their antique splendor was rivalled or surpassed by the sudden opulence of the papal families. In Rome the voice of freedom and discord is no longer heard; and, instead of the foaming torrent, a smooth and stagnant lake reflects the image of idleness and servitude.

[Footnote 88: By the conomy of Sixtus V. the revenue of the ecclesiastical state was raised to two millions and a half of Roman crowns, (Vita, tom. ii. p. 291--296;) and so regular was the military establishment, that in one month Clement VIII. could invade the duchy of Ferrara with three thousand horse and twenty thousand foot, (tom. iii.

  1. 64) Since that time (A.D. 1597) the papal arms are happily rusted: but the revenue must have gained some nominal increase. *
* On the financial measures of Sixtus V. see Ranke, Dio Römischen Päpste, i. p. 459. -- M.]

[Footnote 89: More especially by Guicciardini and Machiavel; in the general history of the former, in the Florentine history, the Prince, and the political discourses of the latter. These, with their worthy successors, Fra Paolo and Davila, were justly esteemed the first historians of modern languages, till, in the present age, Scotland arose, to dispute the prize with Italy herself.]

[Footnote 90: In the history of the Gothic siege, I have compared the Barbarians with the subjects of Charles V., (vol. iii. p. 289, 290;) an anticipation, which, like that of the Tartar conquests, I indulged with the less scruple, as I could scarcely hope to reach the conclusion of my work.]

[Footnote 91: The ambitious and feeble hostilities of the Caraffa pope, Paul IV. may be seen in Thuanus (l. xvi.--xviii.) and Giannone, (tom. iv

  1. 149--163.) Those Catholic bigots, Philip II. and the duke of Alva, presumed to separate the Roman prince from the vicar of Christ, yet the holy character, which would have sanctified his victory was decently applied to protect his defeat. *

Note: * But compare Ranke, Die Römischen Päpste, i. p. 289. -- M.]

[Footnote 92: This gradual change of manners and expense is admirably explained by Dr. Adam Smith, (Wealth of Nations, vol. i. p. 495--504,) who proves, perhaps too severely, that the most salutary effects have flowed from the meanest and most selfish causes.]

A Christian, a philosopher, ^93 and a patriot, will be equally scandalized by the temporal kingdom of the clergy; and the local majesty of Rome, the remembrance of her consuls and triumphs, may seem to imbitter the sense, and aggravate the shame, of her slavery. If we calmly weigh the merits and defects of the ecclesiastical government, it may be praised in its present state, as a mild, decent, and tranquil system, exempt from the dangers of a minority, the sallies of youth, the expenses of luxury, and the calamities of war. But these advantages are overbalanced by a frequent, perhaps a septennial, election of a sovereign, who is seldom a native of the country; the reign of a young statesman of threescore, in the decline of his life and abilities, without hope to accomplish, and without children to inherit, the labors of his transitory reign. The successful candidate is drawn from the church, and even the convent; from the mode of education and life the most adverse to reason, humanity, and freedom. In the trammels of servile faith, he has learned to believe because it is absurd, to revere all that is contemptible, and to despise whatever might deserve the esteem of a rational being; to punish error as a crime, to reward mortification and celibacy as the first of virtues; to place the saints of the calendar ^94 above the heroes of Rome and the sages of Athens; and to consider the missal, or the crucifix, as more useful instruments than the plough or the loom. In the office of nuncio, or the rank of cardinal, he may acquire some knowledge of the world, but the primitive stain will adhere to his mind and manners: from study and experience he may suspect the mystery of his profession; but the sacerdotal artist will imbibe some portion of the bigotry which he inculcates. The genius of Sixtus the Fifth ^95 burst from the gloom of a Franciscan cloister. In a reign of five years, he exterminated the outlaws and banditti, abolished the profane sanctuaries of Rome, ^96 formed a naval and military force, restored and emulated the monuments of antiquity, and after a liberal use and large increase of the revenue, left five millions of crowns in the castle of St. Angelo. But his justice was sullied with cruelty, his activity was prompted by the ambition of conquest: after his decease the abuses revived; the treasure was dissipated; he entailed on posterity thirty-five new taxes and the venality of offices; and, after his death, his statue was demolished by an ungrateful, or an injured, people. ^97 The wild and original character of Sixtus the Fifth stands alone in the series of the pontiffs; the maxims and effects of their temporal government may be collected from the positive and comparative view of the arts and philosophy, the agriculture and trade, the wealth and population, of the ecclesiastical state. For myself, it is my wish to depart in charity with all mankind, nor am I willing, in these last moments, to offend even the pope and clergy of Rome. ^98

[Footnote 93: Mr. Hume (Hist. of England, vol. i. p. 389) too hastily conclude that if the civil and ecclesiastical powers be united in the same person, it is of little moment whether he be styled prince or prelate since the temporal character will always predominate.]

[Footnote 94: A Protestant may disdain the unworthy preference of St. Francis or St. Dominic, but he will not rashly condemn the zeal or judgment of Sixtus V., who placed the statues of the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul on the vacant columns of Trajan and Antonine.]

[Footnote 95: A wandering Italian, Gregorio Leti, has given the Vita di Sisto-Quinto, (Amstel. 1721, 3 vols. in 12mo.,) a copious and amusing work, but which does not command our absolute confidence. Yet the character of the man, and the principal facts, are supported by the annals of Spondanus and Muratori, (A.D. 1585--1590,) and the contemporary history of the great Thuanus, (l. lxxxii. c. 1, 2, l. lxxxiv. c. 10, l. c. c. 8.) *

* The industry of M. Ranke has discovered the document, a kind of scandalous chronicle of the time, from which Leti wrought up his amusing romances. See also M. Ranke's observations on the Life of Sixtus. by Tempesti, b. iii. p. 317, 324. -- M.]

[Footnote 96: These privileged places, the quartieri or franchises, were adopted from the Roman nobles by the foreign ministers. Julius II. had once abolished the abominandum et detestandum franchitiarum hujusmodi nomen: and after Sixtus V. they again revived. I cannot discern either the justice or magnanimity of Louis XIV., who, in 1687, sent his ambassador, the marquis de Lavardin, to Rome, with an armed force of a thousand officers, guards, and domestics, to maintain this iniquitous claim, and insult Pope Innocent XI. in the heart of his capital, (Vita di Sisto V. tom. iii. p. 260--278. Muratori, Annali d'Italia, tom. xv.

  1. 494--496, and Voltaire, Siecle de Louis XIV. tom. i. c. 14, p. 58,
  1. ]

[Footnote 97: This outrage produced a decree, which was inscribed on marble, and placed in the Capitol. It is expressed in a style of manly simplicity and freedom: Si quis, sive privatus, sive magistratum gerens de collocandâ vivo pontifici statuâ mentionem facere ausit, legitimo S.

  1. Q. R. decreto in perpetuum infamis et publicorum munerum expers esto. MDXC. mense Augusto, (Vita di Sisto V. tom. iii. p. 469.) I believe that this decree is still observed, and I know that every monarch who deserves a statue should himself impose the prohibition.]

[Footnote 98: The histories of the church, Italy, and Christendom, have contributed to the chapter which I now conclude. In the original Lives of the Popes, we often discover the city and republic of Rome: and the events of the xivth and xvth centuries are preserved in the rude and domestic chronicles which I have carefully inspected, and shall recapitulate in the order of time.

  1. Monaldeschi (Ludovici Boncomitis) Fragmenta Annalium Roman. A.D. 1328, in the Scriptores Rerum Italicarum of Muratori, tom. xii. p. 525.
  1. B. The credit of this fragment is somewhat hurt by a singular interpolation, in which the author relates his own death at the age of 115 years.

  1. Fragmenta Historiæ Romanæ (vulgo Thomas Fortifioccæ) in Romana Dialecto vulgari, (A.D. 1327--1354, in Muratori, Antiquitat. Medii Ævi Italiæ, tom. iii. p. 247--548;) the authentic groundwork of the history of Rienzi.

  2. Delphini (Gentilis) Diarium Romanum, (A.D. 1370--1410,) in the Rerum Italicarum, tom. iii. P. ii. p. 846.

  3. Antonii (Petri) Diarium Rom., (A.D. 1404--1417,) tom. xxiv. p. 699.

  4. Petroni (Pauli) Miscellanea Historica Romana, (A.D. 1433--1446,) tom.
  1. p. 1101.

  1. Volaterrani (Jacob.) Diarium Rom., (A.D. 1472--1484,) tom. xxiii p.

  1. Anonymi Diarium Urbis Romæ, (A.D. 1481--1492,) tom. iii. P. ii. p. 1069.

  2. Infessuræ (Stephani) Diarium Romanum, (A.D. 1294, or 1378--1494,) tom. iii. P. ii. p. 1109.

  3. Historia Arcana Alexandri VI. sive Excerpta ex Diario Joh. Burcardi,

Prev | Next | Contents

Preface | Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3 | Volume 4 | Volume 5 | Volume 6 |

Fall of Roman Empire