Chapter XXVI.—Of the siege of the city of Nisibis, 582 and the apostolic conversation of Bishop Jacobus.
On war being waged against the Romans by Sapor King of Persia, Constantius mustered his forces and marched to Antioch. But the enemy were driven forth, not by the Roman army, but by Him whom the pious in the Roman host worshipped as their God. How the victory was won I shall now proceed to relate.
Nisibis, sometimes called Antiochia Mygdonia, lies on the confines of the realms of Persia and of Rome. In Nisibis Jacobus whom I named just now was at once bishop, guardian, 583 and commander in chief. He was a man who shone with the grace of a truly apostolic character. His extraordinary and memorable miracles, which I have fully related in my religious history, I think it superfluous and irrelevant to enumerate again. 584
One however I will record because of the subject before us. The city which Jacobus ruled was now in possession of the Romans, and besieged by the Persian Army. The blockade was prolonged for seventy days. “Helepoles” 585 and many other engines were advanced to the walls. The town was begirt with a palisade and entrenchment, but still held out. The river Mygdonius flowing through the middle of the town, at last the Persians dammed its stream a considerable distance up, and increased the height of its bank on both sides so as to shut the waters in. When they saw that a great mass of water was collected and already beginning to overflow the dam, they suddenly launched it like an engine against the wall. The impact was tremendous; the bulwarks could not sustain it, but gave way and fell down. Just the same fate befell the other side of the circuit, through which the Mygdonius made its exit; it could not withstand the shock, and was carried away. No sooner did Sapor see this than he expected to capture the rest of the city, and for all that day he rested for the mud to dry and the river to become passable. Next day he attacked in full force, and looked to enter the city through the breaches that had been made. But he found the wall built up on both sides, and all his labour vain. For that holy man, through prayer, filled with valour both the troops and the rest of the townsfolk, and both built the walls, withstood the engines, and beat off the advancing foe. And all this he did without approaching the walls, but by beseeching the Lord of all within the church. Sapor, moreover, was not only p. 92 astounded at the speed of the building of the walls but awed by another spectacle. For he saw standing on the battlements one of kingly mien and all ablaze with purple robe and crown. He supposed that this was the Roman emperor, and threatened his attendants with death for not having announced the imperial presence; but on their stoutly maintaining that their report had been a true one and that Constantius was at Antioch, he perceived the meaning of the vision and exclaimed “their God is fighting for the Romans.” Then the wretched man in a rage flung a javelin into the air, though he knew that he could not hit a bodiless being, but unable to curb his passion. Therefore the excellent Ephraim (he is the best writer among the Syrians) besought the divine Jacobus to mount the wall to see the barbarians and to let fly at them the darts of his curse. So the divine man consented and climbed up into a tower but when he saw the innumerable host he discharged no other curse than to that mosquitoes and gnats might be sent forth upon them, so that by means of these tiny animals they might learn the might of the Protector of the Romans. On his prayer followed clouds of mosquitoes and gnats; they filled the hollow trunks of the elephants, and the ears and nostrils of horses and other animals. Finding the attack of these little creatures past endurance they broke their bridles, unseated their riders and threw the ranks into confusion. The Persians abandoned their camp and fled head-long. So the wretched prince learned by a slight and kindly chastisement the power of the God who protects the pious, and marched his army home again, reaping for all the harvest of the siege not triumph but disgrace.
Now Nisibin, an important city of Mesopotamia on the Mygdonius (Hulai). Its name was changed under the Macedonian dynasty to Antiochia Mygdonica. Frequently taken and retaken it was ultimately ceded by Jovian to Sapor a.d. 363.91:583
“πολιοῦχος” is an epithet of the protecting deity of a city, as of Athens “Παλλὰς πολιοῦχος;” Ar. Eq. 581.91:584
Born in the city of which he was afterwards bishop, Jacobus early acquired fame by his ascetic austerity. While on a journey into Persia with the object at once of confirming his own faith and that of the Christian sufferers under the persecution of Sapor II, he was supposed to work wonders, of which the following, related by Theodoretus, is a specimen. Once upon a time he saw a Persian judge delivering an unjust sentence. Now a huge stone happening to be lying close by, he ordered it to be crushed and broken into pieces, and so proved the injustice of the sentence. The stone was instantly divided into innumerable fragments, the spectators were panic-stricken, and the judge in terror revoked his sentence and delivered a righteous judgment. On the see of his native city falling vacant Jacobus was made bishop. The “Religious History” describes him as signalling his episcopate by the miracle attributed by Gregory of Nyssa to Gregory the Wonder-Worker, and by Sozomen (vii. 27) to Epiphanius. As in the “Nuremberg Chronicle,” the same woodcut serves for Thales, Nehemiah, and Dante, so a popular miracle was indiscriminately assigned to saint after saint. “Once upon a time he came to a certain village,—the spot I cannot name,—and up come some beggars putting down one of their number before him as though dead, and begging him to supply some necessaries for the funeral. Jacobus granted their petition, and on behalf of the apparently dead man began to pray to God to forgive him the sins of his lifetime and grant him a place in the company of the just. Even while he was speaking, away flew the soul of the man who had up to this moment shammed death, and coverings were provided for the corpse. The holy man proceeded on his journey, and the inventors of this play told their recumbent companion to get up. But now they saw that he did not hear, that the pretence had become a reality, and that what a moment ago was a live mans mask was now a dead mans face. So they overtake the great Jacobus, bow down before him, roll at his feet and declare that they would not have played their impudent trick but for their poverty, and implored him to forgive them and restore the dead mans soul. So Jacobus in imitation of the philanthropy of the Lord granted their prayer, exhibited his wonder working power, and through his prayer restored the life which his power had taken away.”
At Nicæa Theodoret describes Jacobus as a “champion” of the orthodox “phalanx.” (Relig. Hist. 1114.) At the state dinner given by Constantine to the Nicene Fathers, “James of Nisibis (so ran the Eastern tale—Biblioth. Pat. clv.) saw angels standing round the Emperor, and underneath his purple robe discovered a sackcloth garment. Constantine, in return, saw angels ministering to James, placed his seat above the other bishops, and said: There are three pillars of the world, Antony in Egypt, Nicolas of Myra, James in Assyria.” Stanley, Eastern Church, Lect. V.91:585
Ammianus Marcellinus 23. 4. 10. thus describes the “῾Ελέπολις μηχανή.” “An enormous testudo is strengthened by long planks and fitted with iron bolts. This is covered with hides and fresh wicker-work. Its upper parts are smeared with mud as a protection against fire and missiles. To its front are fastened three-pronged spear points made exceedingly sharp, and steadied by iron weights, like the thunderbolts of painters and potters. Thus whenever it was directed against anything these stings were shot out to destroy. The huge mass was moved on wheels and ropes from within by a considerable body of troops, and advanced with a mighty impulse against the weaker part of a town wall. Then unless the defenders prevailed against it the walls were beaten in and a wide breach made.”