“A thousand horrid prodigies foretold it.”
Samuel Johnson, Irene (1749)
A prodigy is a portent, an omen, a sign. It is some strange or freakish occurrence that precedes and foretells a more general wonder or calamity. Thus the prodigy of a comet was once taken as a sign that a prince was about to die or a kingdom about to fall. Indeed it would seem that our minds are naturally disposed to see any striking anomaly as a prodigy: as the herald and harbinger of a more general revolution.
My epigraph is from Dr. Johnson’s only play, which is by general agreement the least lovely thing he wrote. But this part is better than the whole. The speaker is one Demetrius, a Byzantine nobleman, and the time is the immediate aftermath of the Turkish siege and sack of Constantinople. Demetrius is speaking to Leontius, another Byzantine nobleman, and the two are lamenting their city’s disastrous fall.
Demetrius condemns the Byzantines for failing to foresee and forestall the great calamity. Leonitus in answer excuses their being taken unaware. He says the Byzantines had no reason for apprehension because they,
“ . . . so oft beseig’d in vain,
With false security beheld invasion.”
And what is more, there had been no ominous portents—no shooting stars, no signs.
“And not one prodigy foretold our fate,”
It is to these lame apologies that Demetrius angrily responds:
“A thousand horrid prodigies foretold it.
A feeble government, eluded laws,
A factious populace, luxurious nobles,
And all the maladies of sinking states.
When public villainy, too strong for justice,
Shows his bold front, the harbinger of ruin,
Can brave Leontius call for airy wonders,
Which cheats interpret, and which fools regard,
When some neglected fabric nods beneath
The weight of years, and totters to the tempest,
Must Heaven dispatch the messengers of light,
Or wake the dead to warn us of its fall?”
The future was foretold by mundane signs that were right under of the noses of the Byzantines. Their empire was corrupt and they were themselves divided into petty factions. The stinking rich were soft sybarites and everywhere villainy walked abroad with a bare face. With such horrible prodigies manifest to all who had eyes to see, there was no need for stargazers, angelic messengers, or the necromancer’s bidden shades. When an old tree with an unhealthy constitution (“neglected fabric”) falls in a great storm (“totters to the tempest”), no one should be amazed.
Unchastened, the apologist Leontius seeks to place the blame for the Byzantine’s failure on the gods. The Turks triumphed with diabolical aid.
“Well might the weakness of our empire sink
Before such foes of more than human force;
Some power invisible, from heaven or hell,
Conducts their armies and asserts their cause.”
These words have been the approved analgesic of beaten men in every age. “We would have won but the fight was not fair!”
Demetrius will have none of it.
“And yet, my friend, what miracles were wrought,
Beyond the power of constancy and courage?
Did unresisted lightening aid their cannon?
Did roaring whirlwinds sweep us from the ramparts?
T’was vice that shook our nerves, ‘t was vice, Leontius,
That froze our veins, and wither’d all our powers.”
These are the words with which honest losers have in every age resolved not to lose again. They admit that they should have seen what was coming, that they should have prepared for what they saw.
Edward Gibbon has a relevant line about an earlier Byzantine emperor who sought courage but found confusion in recondite prodigies. The emperor had forgotten that the best prodigies are right under our nose.
“He solicited, without success, a miraculous answer to his nocturnal prayers; his mind was confounded by the death of a favorite horse, the encounter of a wild boar, a storm of wind and rain, and he birth of a monstrous child; and he forgot that the best of omens is to unsheathe our sword in the defense of our country.”