Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Zosimus (5)
|←Zosimus, bp. of Rome||Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century
Zosimus (5), a Byzantine historian worthy of particular attention, not only for his general merits as an historian, but because, as a heathen bitterly opposed to Christianity, he
gives the heathen view of the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman empire. There is considerable uncertainty as to when he flourished. The middle of the 5th cent. is a probable date. Zosimus was not a polytheist, for in one passage at least of his history, when referring to an oracle which had predicted the greatness of Old Byzantium, he speaks of the Deity in highly worthy terms (ii. 37). He paid honour, however, to the heathen religious rites, as having come down from former generations (v. 23), complaining of the attempts of various emperors to extinguish them (ii. 29; iv. 59), lamenting that the oracles of the gods were no longer listened to (i. 57), and finding in the abandonment of the old religion one main cause of the decline of the empire (iv. 59). He ridicules Christianity as an unreasonable conglomerate, ἄλογος συγκατάθεσις (iv. 59), sneers at Christian soldiers as only able to pray (iii. 2; iv. 23), and welcomes any opportunity of giving the most false representations of the Christian faith (ii. 29; iv. 59). An historian of such a spirit can hardly be relied on for an account of the events of a time when the old superstitions he venerated were compelled to yield to the advancing power of a religion he abhorred; and even his admirers are constrained to admit that he is not to be trusted where his religious prejudices come into play. Reitemeier, who defends him on the whole, allows that he was too partial to the heathen, too unjust to Christians (Disquis. p. 26); and Gibbon speaks of his "passion and prejudice," "ignorant and malicious suggestions," and "malcontent insinuations" (cc. xvii., xx.). His accounts of the conversion of Constantine, and of the character of Theodosius (ii. 29; iv. 26–33) suffer from this prejudice. To the former, as well as to many other of his most scandalous charges against that emperor, Evagrius replied in fierce language, addressing him as a "wicked spirit and fiend of hell" (iii. 41); and for the latter he has been condemned by Gibbon in hardly less emphatic language (c. xxvii.). De Broglie refers, for a full refutation of the story regarding the conversion of Constantine, to the Mém. de l’Acad. des Inscrip. 49, p. 470, etc.
The inference must not, however, be hastily drawn that Zosimus is an historian unworthy of our regard. On the contrary, he may be justly described as one of the best historians of these early centuries. Even his views on church matters are highly interesting, as shewing how they were regarded by the more intelligent heathen; nor are they always wanting in truth. In estimating, too, his value as an historian, it must be remembered that he treats more largely of civil affairs than others had done, and we owe to him many facts connected with the condition of the military, their degeneracy, exactions, and dissoluteness, which contributed in no slight degree to the fall of the empire.
There seems indeed no sufficient ground to ascribe intentional bad faith to his history. That he was mistaken in many of his conclusions, and especially in those relating to the influence of Christianity, is unquestionable. That he occasionally gave too easy credence to unfounded statements is not less so; but it has never been proved that he wilfully perverted facts to establish any theory.
He was not in all respects an original historian. His History closes with a.d. 410. Either he had been hindered by death from prosecuting it further or some portions have been lost. He is thus occupied throughout with events before his own day, and in relating these he seems rather to epitomize works of predecessors than to write original narrative. Reitemeier finds that in the first part of his History he followed the Synopsis of Denippus, in the middle and larger part the Chronicon of Eunapius, and in the last part the Silva of Olympiodorus (Disquis. p. 35). Photius charges him with extensive copying of Eunapius (cf. Fabric. vi. p. 232, note). It seems to have been his admiration of Polybius that led him to write. That historian had described the rise of the Roman empire, and Zosimus, beholding everywhere around him its majestic ruins, would describe its fall. Nor will he merely describe the phenomena: he proposes also to investigate their causes. He begins, accordingly, with the reign of Augustus, and, passing hastily over the time till the accession of Constantine, he occupies himself mainly with the reigns of that emperor and his successors. He sets forth as the causes of the fall of the Roman empire: the change of government to its imperial form (i. 5); the removal of the soldiery into cities where they were debased by luxury and vice (ii. 34); the iniquitous exactions of successive emperors (ii. 38; iv. 28, 29, 41; v. 12); above all, the casting aside of the old religion, and the neglect of the responses of the oracles (i. 57). There can be little doubt that he regarded this last as the most important, so frequently does he allude to it (ii. 7; iv. 37, 59; v. 38, etc.). He expresses what was often thought and said at the time, and to the view thus taken we owe, in no small degree, St. Augustine's immortal work, de Civitate Dei.
The style of the History of Zosimus has been praised by Photius as concise, perspicuous, pure, and, though not adorned by many figures, yet not devoid of sweetness (Cod. 98). (Cf. Heyne, Corp. Ser. H. B., Zosimus, p. 16.) These commendations are deserved. Zosimus is generally free from the ambitious periods of most historians of his age. His narrative is circumstantial, but clear; his language well chosen, and often very nervous and antithetical. He was not free from superstition; and the fact that an historian, generally so calm and so far removed from the credulity of his day, should have put his faith in oracles and recorded without hesitation appearances of Minerva and Achilles to Alaric, and various other miracles (see them in Fabric. vi. p. 610), shews how deep-seated such ideas were in the minds of his contemporaries, and may help to prove that the Christian belief in visions and miracles then prevailing was not inconsistent with sobriety of judgment and sound principles of criticism in other matters.
The History of Zosimus may be consulted for the lives and actions of the emperors between Augustus and a.d. 410, more especially for those of Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius the elder, Honorius, and Arcadius; for accounts of the Huns, Alamanni, Scythians, Goths, and minor barbarous tribes; the war in Africa in the time of Honorius, the campaign of Alaric in Italy, and the taking of Rome; for the right of asylum in Christian churches, and the changes introduced into the army; for an important description of Byzantium, old and new, and of Britain; and finally, for an account of the secular games to which, celebrated only once in 110 years, the people were summoned with the stirring yet solemn cry, "Quos nec spectavit quisquam nec spectaturus est." Some of the ancient oracles are preserved by him.
The best ed. is by Reitemeier, in Gk. and Lat., with Heyne's notes (Leipz. 1784); Bekker's ed. (Bonn, 1837) has Reitemeier's notes.