Zosimus The New History

The adamantly anti-Christian historian Zosimus composed his history of the "corruption" of the Roman Empire some time around the year 500. His vitriolic account of Constantine, reproduced, in part, here, relies on an earlier account by the equally ardent non-Christian Eu-napius (writing around 400). It is, in some respects, an accurate historical account; we read about Constantine's reorganization of the political, military, and economic structures of the empire following his rise to sole rule. We read about his foundation of New Rome, the eponymous city of Constantinople, on top of the old city of Byzantium. We read about episodes that are usually absent from Christian accounts like Eusebius's, such as the mysterious execution of Constantine's wife Fausta and eldest son Crispus. All these events are framed by Zosimus (and his source Eunapius), however, as the result of Constantine's defective character and his self-serving adherence to Christianity, described here as the last religious resort of a blood-stained killer. Constantine's conversion, for Zosimus, is merely one more sign of the man's outrageous impiety and one more factor that would lead to the corruption and deterioration of a proud, pious empire. As Zosimus plainly states: "Constantine was the origin and beginning of the present destruction of the empire" (New History 2.34).

29 (1) The whole empire now devolved on Constan-tine alone. At last he no longer needed to conceal his natural malignity but acted in accordance with his unlimited power. He still practiced the ancestral religion, although not so much out of honor as necessity, and he believed the seers, since he had learned by experience that they prophesied the truth in all his sue-cesses. But when he came to Rome, he was filled with arrogance, and thought fit to begin his impiety at home. (2) Without any consideration for natural law, he killed his son, Crispus (who, as I related before, had been considered worthy of the rank of Caesar) on suspicion of having had intercourse with his stepmother Fausta. And when Constantine's mother, Helena, was saddened by this atrocity and was incon solable at the young man's death, Constantine, as if to comfort her, applied a remedy worse than the disease: he ordered a bath to be overheated and shut Fausta up in it until she was dead. (3) Since he was himself aware of his guilt and of his disregard for oaths as well, he approached the priests seeking absolution, but they said that there was no kind of purge known that could absolve him of such impieties. A certain Egyptian, who had come from Spain to Rome and was intimate with the ladies of the court, met Constantine and assured him that the Christian religion was able to absolve him from guilt and that it promised every wicked man who was converted to it immediate release from all sin. (4) Constantine readily believed what he was told and, abandoning his an

From Zosimus: A New History, trans. Ronald T. Ridley. Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1982. Used with permission of Australian Catholic University.

cestral religion, embraced the one that the Egyptian offered him. He began his impiety by doubting divination, for since many of its predictions about his successes had been fulfilled, he was afraid that peo-pie inquiring about the future might hear prophecies about his misfortunes. For this reason, he applied himself to the abolition of divination. (5) When an ancient festival fell due and it was necessary for the army to go up to the Capitol to carry out the rites, for fear of the soldiers he took part in the festival, but when the Egyptian sent him an apparition that unrestrainedly abused the rite of ascending to the Capitol, he stood aloof from the holy worship and thus incurred the hatred of the Senate and people.

30 (1) Unable to endure the curses of almost everyone, he sought out a city as a counterbalance to Rome, where he had to build a palace. When he found a place in the Troad between Sigeum and old Ilium suitable for constructing a city, he laid foundations and built part of the wall, which can still be seen to this day as you sail toward the Hellespont. But he changed his mind and, leaving the work unfinished, went to Byzantium. (2) The site of the city pleased him, and he resolved to enlarge it as much as possible to make it a home fit for an emperor, for the city stands on a hill that is part of that isthmus formed by the so-called Horn and the Propontis. Formerly it had a gate at the end of the portico built by the Emperor Severus (this was when he was reconciled to the Byzantines after being angry with them for harboring his enemy Niger) (3) and the wall used to run down from the western side of the hill to the temple of Aphrodite and the sea opposite Chrysopolis. On the northern side of the hill, the wall ran down to the harbor called Neorion (the Docks) and thence to the sea that lies opposite the channel through which one enters the Black Sea. The length of this narrow channel leading into the sea is about three hundred Stades. (4) This, then, was the extent of the old city.

Constantine built a circular forum where the gate used to be and surrounded it with double-roofed porticoes. He set two huge arches of Proconnesian marble opposite each other, through which one could enter the portico of Severus or go out of the old city.

To make the city much larger, he surrounded it with a wall fifteen Stades beyond the old one, cutting off the whole isthmus from sea to sea.

31 (1) When he had thus enlarged the original city, he built a palace scarcely inferior to the one in Rome. He decorated the hippodrome most beautifully, incorporating the temple of the Dioscuri in it; their statues are still to be seen standing in the porticoes ofthe hippodrome. He even placed somewhere in the hippodrome the tripod of Delphic Apollo, which had on it the very image ofApollo. (2) There was in Byzantium a huge forum consisting of four porticoes, and at the end of one of them, which has numerous steps leading up to it, he built two temples. Statues were set up in them, in one Rhea, mother of the gods. This statue the Argonauts had set up on mount Dindymus overlooking the city of Cyzicus, but they say Constantine damaged it through his disregard for religion, by taking away the lions on each side and changing the arrangement of the hands; (3) for whereas previously she was apparently restraining lions, now she seemed to be praying and looking to the city as if guarding it. And in the other temple he set up the statue of Fortuna Romae. Houses were then built for the senators who accompanied him.

Constantine fought no more successful battles; when the Thaiphallians, a Scythian people, attacked him with five hundred horses, not only did he not oppose them, but when he had lost most of his army and saw them plundering as far as his fortified camp, he was glad to save himself by flight.

32 (1) Being thus at peace, he devoted his life to pleasure. He distributed a daily grain ration to the people of Byzantium, which they continue to receive to this day. Public money was spent on structures that were mostly useless, while some he built were shortly after pulled down, being unsafe owing to their hasty construction. He also thoroughly confused the ancient and established magistracies. (2) Previously there were two praetorian prefects who administered the office together, and not only the court soldiers were under their care and command, but also those entrusted with the protection of the city and those on the frontier. For the prefecture was considered second only to the emperor, and it was in charge of the corn dole and corrected military crimes with proper punishments.

33 (1) Constantine upset this sound organization and divided the one office into four. He assigned to one prefect all Egypt, in addition to the Pentapolis in Africa; the East as far as Mesopotamia; Cilicia, Cap-padocia, and Armenia; the whole coast from Pam-phylia to Trapezus and on to the forts near Phasis; Thrace and the neighboring provinces of Moesia (which extends to the river Asamus) and Rhodope (to the city of Topirus); Cyprus; and the Cyclades save Lemnos, Imbros, and Samothrace. (2) To the second he gave Macedonia, Thessaly, Crete, Greece and the islands around her, the two Epiruses, Illyricum, Dacia, the Triballi, Pannonia, as well as Valeria and upper Moesia. To the third went all Italy and Sicily; the adjacent islands, Sardinia and Corsica; and Africa from the Syrtes to Mauretania Caesariensis. To the fourth he gave the Gaul beyond the Alps, Spain, and also the island of Britain. (3) After thus dividing the office of the prefects, he was anxious to reduce their influence still further, for whereas the commanders of the soldiers everywhere used to be centurions and tribunes and duces who held the rank of generals in each place, Constantine set up Magistri Militum, one of horse, the other of infantry, and to these he transferred power to command the troops and to punish those guilty of crimes, depriving the prefects of this authority. (4) That this was damaging both in peace and war I shall immediately show. Since the prefects had collected taxes everywhere by means of their subordinates to cover military expenses, and since the soldiers were subject to their discretion in penalties for crimes, the troops naturally realized that the person who supplied them with provisions also punished those who made a mistake, and so did not dare do anything contrary to duty through fear both of 10s-ing their allowance and of immediate punishment. (5) Now, however, since one person is paymaster and another is in charge of discipline, the soldiers do what they like and, furthermore, the greater part of the provisions goes into the pockets of the magister and his subordinates.

34 (1) And Constantine did something else that gave the barbarians unhindered access to the Roman

Empire. By the forethought of Diocletian, the frontiers of the empire everywhere were covered, as I have stated, with cities, garrisons, and fortifications that housed the whole army. Consequently it was impossible for the barbarians to cross the frontier because they were confronted at every point by forces capable of resisting their attacks. (2) Constantine destroyed this security by removing most of the troops from the frontiers and stationing them in cities that did not need assistance, thus both stripping of protection those being molested by the barbarians and subjecting the cities left alone by them to the outrages of the soldiers, so that henceforth most have become deserted. Moreover he enervated the troops by allowing them to devote themselves to shows and luxuries. In plain terms, Constantine was the origin and beginning of the present destruction of the empire.

35 (1) He proclaimed his son, Constantine, Caesar, and later appointed his other sons, Constantius and Constans, the same rank. The size of Constantinople was increased until it was by far the greatest city, with the result that many of the succeeding emperors chose to live there and attracted an unnecessarily large population that came from all over the world—soldiers and officials, traders and other professions. (2) Therefore, they have surrounded it with new walls much more extensive than those of Con-stantine and allowed the buildings to be so close to each other that the inhabitants, whether at home or in the streets, are crowded for room and it is dangerous to walk about because of the great number of men and beasts. And a lot of the sea round about has been turned into land by sinking piles and building houses on them, which by themselves are enough to fill a large city.

36 (1) I have often wondered why, since the city of Byzantium has grown so great that no other surpasses it in prosperity or size, no divine prophecy was given to our predecessors concerning its progress and destiny. (2) After thinking about this for a long time and reading through many historical works and collections of oracles and spending time puzzling over them, I finally came across an oracle said to be of the Sibyl of Erythrae or Phaennis in Epirus (who is said to have been inspired and given out some oracles).

Nicomedes, son of Prusias, believed this oracle and, interpreting it to what seemed his own advantage, made war on his father at Attalus's instigation. The oracle runs thus: 37(1)

O king of Thrace, you will leave your city. Among the sheep you will rear a great lion, crooked-clawed and terrible,

Who will plunder the treasures of your country And take the land without toil. I say to you, not long Will you enjoy your royal honors (5) But will fall from your throne which is surrounded by columns.

You will disturb a sleeping wolf, crooked-clawed and terrible,

Who will put the yoke on your unwilling neck. Wolves will then make their lair in the land of Bithynia

By Zeus' decree. But power will soon pass to (10) The men who dwell in Byzas' seat. Thrice-blessed Hellespont, walls built for men by the gods

At the gods' behest,

Before whom the terrible wolf must submit, compelled by necessity.

0 inhabitants of Megara's city, my holy place, (15)

1 will no longer keep silent about my father's intentions but reveal

The divine oracles' message clearly to mortals. Thrace will bring forth a great woe, and the birth is imminent,

A serpent child bringing evil to the land sometime. A savage ulcer will grow on the side of the land (20) Which will swell and swell until, suddenly bursting, It will pour blood.

(2) This oracle tells, although ambiguously and in rid-dies, virtually all the evils that were to befall the Bithy-mans because of the burdens that later fell upon them, and how power was swiftly "to pass to the men who dwell in Byzas' seat." The fact that the predictions did not eventuate for a long time should not induce anyone to think that the prophecy refers to another place, for all time is short to the god who is and always will be. These are my conclusions from the words of the oracle and from subsequent events, but if anyone thinks it ought to be interpreted differently, he may do so.

38 (1) After this, Constantine continued wasting revenue by unnecessary gifts to unworthy and useless people and oppressed those who paid taxes while enriching those who were useless to the state, for he thought that prodigality was liberality. (2) He also laid a gold and silver tax on all merchants throughout the empire, including the poorest urban shopkeepers; he did not allow even unfortunate prostitutes to escape. The result was that as each fourth year came round when this tax had to be paid, weeping and wailing were heard throughout the city because beatings and tortures were in store for those who could not pay owing to extreme poverty. (3) Indeed, mothers sold their children and fathers prostituted their daughters under compulsion to pay the exactors of the chrysar-gyron. Anxious also to contrive some harm for the more affluent, Constantine appointed each of them to the rank of praetor and used this honor as a pretext for demanding a large sum of money. So when those appointed to arrange this came to the various cities, everyone could be seen fleeing and going abroad, for fear of gaining this honor and losing all their property. He also made a list of the property of the richest peo-pie, on which he imposed a tax called afollis. By such exactions the cities were exhausted, for as these demands persisted long after Constantine, they were soon drained of wealth and most became deserted.

39 (1) After oppressing the state in all these ways, Constantine died from a disease. His three sons (born not from Fausta, the daughter of Herculius Maximi-anus, but from another woman whom he killed on a charge of adultery) succeeded him, but abstained from administration and devoted themselves to the inclinations of youth, rather than to the service of the state. (2) First of all, then, they divided the empire, and Constantine, the eldest, and Constans, the youngest, obtained everything beyond the Alps, Italy, and Illyricum, as well as the countries around the Black Sea and Carthaginian Africa, while to Constan-tius were entrusted Asia, the East, and Egypt. And in a sense Delmatius, his brother Constantius, and Han-nibalianus acted as their colleagues: they all wore pur-pie robes adorned with gold and out of respect for their relationship to himself had been appointed to the rank of the so-called nobilissimate by Constantine.

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