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Byzantium: Heraclius and the Persians

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia

Heraclius was a warrior Emperor who led his armies from the front. Most people, when asked to think of a Roman Emperor, will picture a fat man lying on a couch, surrounded by dancing girls and eating far too much. But for some, the image is of a severe-looking general in armour, mounted on a horse and leading his army. Byzantium had plenty of the former sort, but Heraclius was of the latter type. Due to his efforts, the Persian Empire, which threatened to engulf the Roman one, was driven back and destroyed.


For the first few centuries after the founding of Constantinople, the city and the Empire were ruled by a series of generals. Justin passed the throne to his nephew Justinian, and Justinian passed it to his nephew Justin II, but that was the nearest yet to a family of Emperors. After Justin II, the rule of the Empire went back to assorted generals, some being nominated by their dying predecessor, others seizing the throne and executing the Emperor.

One of the worst who ever seized the throne, by all accounts, was Phocas:

Under a tangle of red hair, his thick, beetling eyebrows met across his nose; the rest of his face was deformed by a huge, angry scar that turned crimson when he was aroused, giving it a still more hideous aspect. He was not, however, as pleasant as he looked.
- John Julius Norwich

Phocas was indeed a nasty piece of work: a drunk, with a ferocious temper, whose idea of a bit of fun was to torture people in ingenious ways.

This might have been forgiven by the Byzantines if Phocas had been a good general, or a good administrator, but he was neither. Through mismanagement, he succeeded in alienating just about everybody, including the Persians. Their Great King, Chosroes II, declared that Persia's peace treaties had been with the previous rulers and did not apply to Phocas. He took the opportunity to invade the Byzantine Empire from the East. Eventually, the Persians held a significant part of Anatolia (Asian Turkey) and their troops were camped at Chalcedon, just across the strait of the Bosphorus from Byzantium itself. Although they had no ships, it was only a matter of time before they built or acquired some and invaded the city. At the same time, the Avars, a race of nomadic barbarians, were putting a lot of pressure on the Empire from the northwest.

Phocas's response to these pressures on the Empire was characteristic. He embarked on a campaign of persecution of the Jews who lived along the eastern borders with Persia. He felt they should convert to Christianity and then be trusted with the defence of the Empire. Needless to say, this caused major civil unrest, with many Jewish communities welcoming in the Persians. The Empire's best general, a man by the name of Narses1, refused to take orders from Phocas. He was invited to the capital to discuss the matter, where he was seized and burnt alive.

The Empire was falling apart, and Phocas was busy alienating or killing anybody who could stop it.

The Coup

The situation was saved by the intervention of a family from North Africa. Heraclius the Elder was a former general who now ruled the Roman province of North Africa from the city of Carthage. He had the support of his brother, Gregorius, who was also an ex-military man. They were both now too old to go out on campaign, but they each had a son. Heraclius's son was also called Heraclius: he was entrusted with a fleet of ships. Gregorius's son, Niketas, was put in charge of an army. In 609, Niketas led his army across North Africa and took Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. This meant that he now controlled the grain supply to Byzantium and could starve the city if he wished. Meanwhile, Heraclius (the younger) set sail, stopping along the way and making allies. His fleet arrived at Byzantium on 3 October, 610. Phocas was captured two days later and executed on the spot. Heraclius was welcomed and crowned as the new Emperor.


We don't know where Heraclius was born. His father, being a general, had moved around a lot. But we do know he was born in about 575, so he was about 36 when he took control of the Empire. According to the records, he was a good-looking man, and was certainly a lot more respectable and likeable than his predecessor.

Heraclius married his betrothed, Fabia, the same day that he was crowned Emperor. She took the name Eudokia2. She bore two children, but died suddenly only two years later in 612. Heraclius now incurred the displeasure of his relatives, the Christian Church and the people of Constantinople by marrying his own niece, Martina, in 613. They had at least nine children together and some of them were disabled - one had a twisted neck and another was deaf. This was seen as a punishment by God for an incestuous relationship. Nevertheless, Martina and Heraclius stayed together until his death, and she accompanied him on his long campaign against the Persians.

When Heraclius took control of the Empire, it was in a sorry state, with the Persians in the East threatening to invade the capital and the army in a shambles. His first action was to increase taxes, to impose heavy fines on criminal activity and to look for money from the church. With this, he boosted the army, giving land in Western Anatolia to anyone who would agree to a system of hereditary military service. The army suddenly became a job you could be proud of.

Heraclius organised a peace settlement with the Avars, paying them 200,000 pieces of gold, leaving him free to concentrate on defence against the Persians. He was cautious and slow - a whole 12 years went by before he reckoned the Empire was ready. During this time, the Persians advanced, taking Antioch in 611, Damascus in 613, Jerusalem in 614, and Egypt in 616, cutting off the food supply to the capital and causing widespread famine.

The War

Finally, in 622, Heraclius reckoned that he was ready. On Easter Monday, he assembled his army and sailed south and east along the coast of Anatolia until he reached Issus, which was still in Byzantine control. He camped his army here for about six months, putting the soldiers through intensive training, and learning himself how to lead an army. In the autumn, the army advanced north, and had its first encounter with the Persians, led by their supreme general Shahr-Baraz. The Persians were routed and fled. Heraclius was happy. His troops now knew that they could fight, so he left them and returned to Constantinople for the winter.

The following spring, in 623, Heraclius rejoined his troops and began a long campaign - five years in the field against the Persians. Virtually every time they met up with a Persian army, they defeated them, often with Heraclius enduring a rain of arrows at the front of the troops to urge them on. Heraclius's army wandered through Persia wherever they liked, leaving a trail of burning cities behind them.

The Avar Siege of Constantinople

Meanwhile, the Persians had not been idle. Avoiding the Byzantines where possible, they concentrated their efforts on attacking Byzantium itself. Shahr-Baraz led the assault. They were aided in this by the Avars, who had abandoned their treaty for the promise of the rich booty to be had in the city. On 29 June, 626, a force of 80,000 Avars approached Byzantium from the west, and the people withdrew within the massive Walls of Theodosius. Heraclius hadn't left the city undefended - there were 12,000 Byzantine cavalry to protect the city. The Avars had siege catapults, with which they bombarded the walls, but the troops inside were aided by every resident of the city, which was at the time probably the second biggest in the world. The siege of the city went on until August without any great effect.

On 7 August, the Persians launched an attack from the Asian side of the Bosphorus, sending their troops across on rafts. But the rafts never reached the European shore: the Byzantine fleet sank them all, taking no prisoners. An Avar fleet which tried to come to the rescue was also destroyed by the Byzantines. The attack was called off. The Avars had had enough. On 9 August, they withdrew and the siege was over.

Around the same time, a battle took place in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) between the Byzantines led by Theodore, brother of Heraclius, and Persian general Shahin, resulting in the annihilation of the Persian army. The Persian general died immediately after the battle, but he did not escape punishment that easily. His body was shipped back to the capital where it was publicly flogged in front of the Great King, Chosroes.

The Defeat of Chosroes

Heraclius continued to roam about in Persian territory. He formed an alliance with the Khazars, a wild people who lived in the Caucasus, and they swelled the numbers of his army by another 40,000 men. In 627, he attacked the palace of Chosroes in Dastagird (near to modern Baghdad). He found that the king had fled. He then advanced to the Persian capital, Ctesiphon3, which was at the time probably the biggest city in the world, and surrounded it. Negotiations now took place, and at this stage it became obvious that the Persians themselves were sick of the war and of their king. They agreed to withdraw from Byzantine land, so Heraclius packed up and headed for home. The Persians arrested and executed Chosroes.

This was effectively the end of the Persian Empire. Heraclius had left it in a shambles, and it never recovered. He returned in triumph to Constantinople on 14 September, 628, bearing in front of him the True Cross, supposedly the cross on which Jesus Christ had been crucified, and behind him came four elephants.

The Decline of Heraclius

Heraclius survived another 13 years, but his final years were a sharp contrast with his years as a warrior. His continued incestuous marriage to Martina made him less popular with the people. He involved himself in theological matters, trying to patch up a rift between two factions in the Christian Church, and earning the disapproval of both sides. He also suffered from failing health - he had worn himself out in his campaigns.

Then in 633, a new force appeared on the world stage: the Islamic armies of Arabia. They spread like wildfire from their homelands, quickly conquering much of the lands that Heraclius had fought to recover from the Persians. On 20 August, 636, a huge Byzantine army was wiped out by the Arabs at the Yarmuk river (the present-day border between Israel and Jordan). Heraclius lost heart - he didn't have the energy to personally lead another great campaign. He returned to Byzantium and died in 641.

Heraclius has been described as the 'Last Roman Emperor' - he was certainly built in the mould of Julius Caesar, at his best at the front of an army of Roman soldiers. But there is another reason. During his lifetime, the laws were officially changed to abandon the old Latin language; from now on, all official documents and ceremonies were in Greek, the language of the people.

Heraclius defeated the menace of Persia once and for all, but failed to protect the Byzantine world from the invasion of the Arabs. One of the greatest emperors of his time, he is virtually unknown today.

1Nothing to do with the Narses that lived in the time of Justinian.2Sometimes written Eudocia.3Ctesiphon was located about 20 miles southeast of modern Baghdad, Iraq.

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