Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 5

Heraclius’ Heroes

“Khosrau, greatest of Gods, and master of the earth, to Heraclius, his vile and insensate slave. Why do you still refuse to submit to our rule, and call yourself a king? Have I not destroyed the Greeks? You say that you trust in your God. Why has he not delivered out of my hand Caesarea, Jerusalem, and Alexandria? And shall I not also destroy Constantinople? But I will pardon your faults if you submit to me, and come hither with your wife and children; and I will give you lands, vineyards, and olive groves, and look upon you with a kindly aspect. Do not deceive yourself with vain hope in that Christ, who was not able to save himself from the Jews, who killed him by nailing him to a cross. Even if you take refuge in the depths of the sea, I will stretch out my hand and take you, whether you will or no.”

- Khosrau II, in a letter to Heraclius after the Persian capture of Egypt (618AD)

When Heraclius adopted the Imperial purple, he brought with him not only a brilliant military mind but also a predilection for reform: the army, the church, the civil administration – all changed under his leadership.

First and foremost, during his reign the lingua franca of the Empire changed from Latin to Greek – more commonly spoken in the East since the time of the Hellenistic kings anyway, and Heraclius’ mother tongue.

No longer would the heirs of Caesar be called Augustus; now they would be called Basileus (“Monarch”).

Some historians would argue that this was the moment when it stopped being the “Roman” Empire, and truly became the “Byzantine” Empire.

He also attempted to heal the rift between the Orthodox and the Monophysites Christians, a long-standing division stemming from different interpretations of the nature of the Christ.

But his most important contribution would be to the defence of the realm:

Beset on all sides by enemies, it would take Heraclius over a decade to rebuild the Byzantine military machine into a formidable force once again. In that time he would be soundly defeated by the Persians at Antioch; lose Anatolia, the Levant, Jerusalem (and crucially, the True Cross with it) and Egypt to them; cede much of the Balkans to rampaging Slavs and Avars; and nearly see the city of Constantinople fall as well. If was only with the payment of a costly tribute that the capital was saved (although some would argue that it was never in any real danger from the Persian forces, as later events would attest).

Having bought himself some time, Heraclius set about raising the funds to recruit, train and arm a new Byzantine army – one he would command personally, contravening the established tradition. He temporarily debased the Empire’s coinage, halved the pay of officials, increased taxation, mandated sizable loans and ruthlessly prosecuted corruption; also, despite angering the Patriarch of Constantinople Sergius by engaging in an incestuous relationship with his niece, Martina, he managed to convince the other man to fully support his plans for defence against the Persians, and promptly began melting down and selling off the treasures of the Church.

It was all, or nothing.

On the new, lighter coins issued during this period, was inscribed Deus adiuta Romanis: May God help the Romans. Very quickly, Heraclius’ campaign was taking on the characteristics of a Holy War – for the defence of the realm, and the faith.

By 622AD, the preparations had been made: leaving his son, Heraclius Constantine, as regent in Constantinople (under the protection of Patriarch Sergius and a prominent patrician ally, Bonus), the Emperor set out to hone his army’s edge against the Persian general Shahrbaraz in Anatolia. Winning his first significant victory, Heraclius drove the Persians from Asia-Minor before being forced to turn back and deal with a threat from the Avars and Slavs, who besides ravaging the Balkans had now captured a number of Byzantine cities and were threatening both Greece and Thrace with invasion.

Unwilling to divert his attention from recapturing the lost provinces in the East, the Basileus paid the rampaging barbarians a huge sum of money to withdraw their forces north of the Danube frontier. He then marched his army across Anatolia and through the mountainous territory of Armenia to attack the Persian heartland (the route Crassus should probably have taken some 676 years earlier when he set out to defeat the Parthians!).

His army likely consisted of 20,000 – 25,000 troops, and they swept through the Caucasus defeating multiple Persian armies of superior size, recapturing key cities and putting fear into the heart of the Persian Shah Khosrau II.

During one engagement (a setback for Heraclius, but not the disaster his enemies were hoping for) the Emperor personally led a charge that drove back the Persians who only moments earlier had looked ready to secure a crushing victory over the Byzantines. So fearless was he in the face of danger that the Persian general Shahrbaraz was to have remarked to a renegade Greek in his entourage:

“See your Emperor! He fears these arrows and spears no more than would an anvil!”

In desperation, Khosrau II sent a delegation to the leader of the Avars and proposed a joint siege of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople that began in 626AD. With the Avars threatening the city from the European side, and the Persians across the Bosphorus at Chalcedon, the Byzantines relied heavily on their navy to prevent the two enemy forces linking up. Meanwhile, inside the walls, 12,000 experienced Byzantine soldiers defended the walls against 80,000 Avars and Slavs, their morale and the morale of the citizens kept strong by the ministrations of Patriarch Sergius who walked the walls with an icon of the Virgin Mary and invoked “divine intervention”.

Numerous assaults failed to breach both the landward and seaward walls and eventually the Avars and Slavs abandoned their efforts, unwilling and unable to prosecute a protracted siege.

Meanwhile, in Mesopotamia, Heraclius concluded an alliance with barbarian nomads called the Gokturks and renewed his invasion of Persia. Although his new allies promptly abandoned him, the Emperor persisted and in December 627AD, during a surprise winter offensive that caught the Persians off-guard, he engaged and defeated an enemy army at the Battle of Nineveh.

Now the way was clear to Dastagird, Khosrau II’s palace and the home of his personal treasury. Along with all the precious riches, Heraclius’ forces recovered over 300 Byzantine and Roman battle standards that had previously been lost to the Sassanids. The only thing keeping them from pushing on to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon were the canals that protected it – the bridges across had been destroyed to prevent the Byzantine advance.

Even so, Heraclius had won a great victory. It was his turn to present an ultimatum:

“I pursue and run after peace. I do not willingly burn Persia, but compelled by you. Let us now throw down our arms and embrace peace. Let us quench the fire before it burns up everything.”

- Heraclius, in a letter to Khosrau II after the capture of Dastagird.

Khosrau II never had a chance to respond. The Persian army rebelled and deposed him in favour of his son Kavadh II, who had his father imprisoned, starved and executed. Exhausted by the war, both sides agreed to a peace treaty that restored the former Imperial provinces to the Byzantines, repatriated captured Byzantine soldiers, had the Persians pay a war indemnity and forced them to hand over the religious treasures they had taken from the Empire, including the True Cross of Christ.


In 629AD it was restored to Jerusalem, but not before being taken to Constantinople where Heraclius had it displayed in the Hagia Sofia.

Now in his 50s, Heraclius had restored the fortunes of the Empire and successfully concluded a 26-year war, preserved Christendom (in the minds of the Byzantines) and humbled the age-old enemy of the Roman world.

If he’d died then, he would have gone down in history as one of the greatest Emperors the Empire had ever been graced with.

Ironically, the great tragedy is that he didn’t…

Next part: Rise of Islam

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quote of the Day

“Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice. Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged.”

Joseph Joubert.

Posted in Quote of the Day | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quote of the Day

“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.”


Posted in Quote of the Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 4

Persian Dominance

“For the crime of an ambitious centurion [Phocas] the nation which he oppressed was chastised with the calamities of war, and the same calamities, at the end of twenty years, were retaliated and redoubled on the heads of the Persians.”

 - The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XLVI, Edward Gibbon (1776)

By 621AD the Byzantine Empire was in disarray. An internal power struggle between the “tyrant” Phocas and his successor, Heraclius, had left the Byzantines weak and underprepared for a renewed Persian assault.

Sassanid_Empire_226_-_651_(AD)Buoyed by early successes, the Sassanid Great King Khosrau II and his forces managed to overrun the eastern provinces, capturing Roman Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, Syria, Egypt, and a large portion of Anatolia all to the way to Chalcedon on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus.

Now, Persian forces camped across the waters from the capital of Constantinople.

The Byzantine Empire, the successor state to the Roman Empire of antiquity, was on the brink of collapse.

To the fore strode a soldier-emperor the likes of which had not been seen for some time: Heraclius the Younger, as he was called, was the son of Heraclius the exarch of Africa, the commander of the Byzantine forces stationed in that province.

When Phocas’ reign quickly began to deteriorate it was the Heraclii who seized the opportunity first and revolted: they immediately began issuing their own coinage (a crucial first step on the road to legitimacy); and while Heraclius’ cousin Nicetas led an overland invasion into Egypt, Heraclius (the Younger) set sail for Constantinople.


Convincing many prominent members of the establishment to back him, Heraclius entered the capital without serious resistance in 610AD; and when the Imperial Guards (Excubitors) defected to his side, he had Phocas captured and brought before him in chains.

“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?” he asked.

“And you will rule better?” replied Phocas.

Heraclius himself beheaded Phocas there and then. And so the diadem passed to a new ruler.

Acclaimed and crowned as Emperor, Heraclius now had to contend with both the Persians and the Avars and Slavs who were ravaging the Balkans and threatening Constantinople from the west. Sandwiched between these two threats, he might have found himself thinking that things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But the worst was yet to come…

Next part: Heraclius’ Heroes

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Year of Blogging!

So, the Ethan Reilly blog has been going now for a year. And what a year it’s been – let’s look at the stats:

106 posts


1255 overall views


I want to thank all those who have taken the time to visit over the last 12 months. I hope it’s been informative and entertaining. And I hope the next 12 months are just as good, if not better.

Speaking of the future, is there anything that people want to see?

More fiction, like The Killing Place?

More history, like Heir to Greatness and now, Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes?

Or more pop-culture – movies, books and TV?

Let me know.

Happy blogiversary!

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Quote of the Day

“They call you heartless: but you have a heart, and I love you for being ashamed to show it. You are ashamed of your flood, while others are ashamed of their ebb.”

Friedrich Nietzsche.

Posted in Quote of the Day | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 3


“You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them, not from my hand, but from the hand of God. Honor them, and from them you will derive honor. Respect the empress your mother: you are now her son; before, you were her servant. Delight not in blood; abstain from revenge; avoid those actions by which I have incurred the public hatred; and consult the experience, rather than the example, of your predecessor. As a man, I have sinned; as a sinner, even in this life, I have been severely punished: but these servants, (and he pointed to his ministers), who have abused my confidence, and inflamed my passions, will appear with me before the tribunal of Christ. I have been dazzled by the splendor of the diadem: be thou wise and modest; remember what you have been, remember what you are. You see around us your slaves, and your children: with the authority, assume the tenderness, of a parent. Love your people like yourself; cultivate the affections, maintain the discipline, of the army; protect the fortunes of the rich, relieve the necessities of the poor.”

- Emperor Justin II to his successor Tiberius II Constantine, from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XLV, Edward Gibbon (1776)

When Justin II ascended to the throne of the Byzantine Empire in 565AD, he inherited a realm beset with problems: his uncle, Justinian, had taken a treasury in surplus (thanks to the spend-thrift policies of a preceding emperor, Anastasius) and spent it all on costly building projects, draining conquests and exorbitant payoffs to barbarian neighbours. The borders had been expanded but at the expense of army maintenance, while wars and the plague of 541AD had cost the empire dearly in precious manpower.

The Byzantines were spread thin, overextended and bankrupt.

Into this crisis stepped Justin II, nephew of the “Great” Justinian and his nominated successor (although, as is often the case with Byzantine succession, even this is suspect). A stronger man may have been able to take this rampaging bull of a predicament by the horns and wrestle it back under control; unfortunately, Justin II was not that man. In order to spare the state excessive taxation and poverty he was forced to suspend payments to the Avars and Persians, ensuring their belligerence and putting even more pressure on the Imperial borders. It wasn’t long before the Avars crossed the Danube and went rampaging through the northern provinces, while renewed hostilities with the Sassanids helped to drive the fragile emperor (literally) insane.

This was the beginning of a slow erosion of Byzantine territories and power. In Italy, the Lombards under King Alboin saw an opportunity and took it, overwhelming the Imperial garrisons and claiming the northern half of the peninsula for their own. The moors in Africa continued to harass the newly re-established authorities there. And everywhere the noose continued to tighten around the beleaguered Byzantines’ collective neck…

Having degenerated into a wild and unpredictable wreck of a man, Justin II nevertheless showed impeccable clarity when nominating his own successor early – Tiberius II Constantine suffered all the same problems but was much more resilient than his predecessor. Throughout his reign he managed a delicate balancing act, reinforcing both the western and eastern provinces at crucial times; managing to placate a restless populous and a near-mutinous army; and practicing timely diplomacy to shore-up the Empire’s tenuous position.

That is to say, he did his best.

Unfortunately, there was nothing that could really stem the tide of decay – the Lombards continued to seize key territories in Italy (with Rome barely being retained at one point by the Byzantine forces), Avars and then the migrating Slavs penetrated into Greece (reaching as far south as Athens), while the war with Persia continued to seesaw back and forth.

It was in the east that the next man to wear the purple, Maurice, made his mark. Acquitting himself against the Sassanids, Maurice managed to win the favour of the Emperor, and was so esteemed that by the time of Tiberius’ death (by illness, or possibly poison) in 582AD he was ready to be nominated as Augustus.

Continuing the balancing act proved problematic though, with the state treasury once again bare Maurice was forced to cut back on almost everything, including the army that had helped make his name. Although he managed to win notable victories against almost all the Empire’s enemies, when he asked the disaffected soldiers of the northern frontier to winter on the upper, unprotected bank of the Danube, it was one step too far. They mutinied, and elevated one of their own – Phocas – to be Emperor.

Immediately marching on the capital, Phocas captured and executed both Maurice and all his sons, putting an end to the Justinian dynasty and inaugurating a reign of terror that would last for eight years and see the Empire exposed to one of the greatest threats it would ever face.

Next Part: Persian Dominance.

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nine Inch Nails & Queens of the Stone Age!

Again with the bucket list – this time I managed to take care of an item that’s quite high up there, namely seeing Nine Inch Nails live in concert.

Back in 2009 when Trent Reznor announced that NIN was going on hiatus (possibly, forever!) I was inconsolable – here I was, a Nine Inch Nails fan who had never gotten the chance to see them live, being told that now I never would! Needless to say, when the new album ‘Hesitation Marks’ was released, and a new tour schedule announced, I wasn’t about to rest on my laurels – as soon as those tickets were released, I was on to them.

Co-headlining with Queens of the Stone Age (another exceptional band, but not one of the ones I had to see before I died), NIN have just begun their tour around Australia and New Zealand. First up was Sydney. Last night, it was Brisbane’s turn…

The Brisbane Entertainment Centre was packed. The crowd was primed. And nobody knew who would be coming onto stage first – word was that Trent and Josh (Homme, lead singer of QOTSA) would flip a coin each night to decide the order of the acts. In this case, it was Nine Inch Nail’s job to warm up the arena (although some prelim work had already been done by Josh Homme’s wife and solo act, Brody Dalle)…


Drawing from a catalogue that spans 25 years and nine albums, NIN’s creator and front-man Reznor, along with current line-up Robin Finck, Alessandro Cortini and Ilan Rubin, launched into a blistering set that proved relentless from start to finish. Almost without pause, they jumped from old favourites like “Somewhat Damaged”, “March of the Pigs” and “Terrible Lie” to tracks from their latest offering, “Came Back Haunted” and “Copy of A”. In the end they finished with “The Hand That Feeds”, “Head Like A Hole” and an emotion-filled rendition of “Hurt”, leaving the crowd awestruck by their energy, verve, and the complexity of their stage performance: a true audio-visual experience.


Queens of the Stone Age meanwhile went for a more traditional rock-concert display, leaving the synthesizers aside for the most part and relying on good old-fashioned guitar and drum solos. Josh Homme played-up to the crowd with typical rock-star swagger, while Troy Van Leeuwen, Dean Fertita, Michael Shuman and Jon Theodore backed him up, energising the crowd early on with hits like “No One Knows”, “Burn the Witch” and “Little Sister”, before settling into less familiar territory with new songs like “Smooth Sailing” and “Fairweather Friends”. By the end the crowd were threatening to tear the house down, so “Go With The Flow” and encore-worthy “A Song for the Dead” rounded it out nicely.

Overall, I’d say I enjoyed watching NIN more, but that’s a personal thing. It was interesting to see the contrast between the two bands: one tightly-controlled and almost operatic, if you consider multi-layered electro-industrial rock loud enough to shake the roof operatic; the other a traditional mish-mash of anti-authoritative attitude and heavy riffs.

So there you go – tick that one off!

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 2

Reconquering the West

“It will be evident that no more important or mightier deeds are to be found in history than those which have been enacted in these wars,—provided one wishes to base his judgment on the truth. For in them more remarkable feats have been performed than in any other wars with which we are acquainted…”

- The Wars, Book 1, Procopius of Caesarea (549)

In 533AD Emperor Justinian embarked upon an ambitious plan: the reconquest of the western half of the Roman Empire, previously lost to successive waves of barbarian invaders in the last century. Whether or not he believed it possible to complete this goal within his own lifetime; or, more pointedly, whether or not he believed it even was possible to recover so much lost territory, is a matter for speculation; what we do know is that he was determined to try. And the agents of his attempt were some of the best generals of the age: Belisarius, Mundus, Narses…

At the beginning of his reign, Justinian ruled over the rich and still-powerful Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. The western provinces of Africa and Italy beckoned though, controlled as they were by the heretical (according to Orthodox adherents of the Empire) Arian Christians of the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, respectively.

EasternRomanEmpireThe pretext for invasion wasn’t simply one of pious concern for the souls of the erstwhile citizens of the Western Roman Empire though; in both cases Justinian used the deposition and/or execution of a pro-Byzantine monarch (Hilderic of the Vandals, and Amalasuntha of the Ostrogoths) as casus belli for war.

Despite these “laudable” justifications, the true reasoning behind Justinian’s decision to commit so much of the Empire’s wealth and manpower to such perilous undertakings is much more likely to have been one of riches and glory – reconquering the West gave him an opportunity to have his name writ large in the annals of history, as much as his legal reforms (see the Codex Iustinianus), his building projects (see the Hagia Sophia) or his attempts at promoting religious unity amongst the disparate variants of early Christianity.

Of those the Emperor (who, thanks to some contradictory evidence enjoys a somewhat murky reputation these days) chose to entrust this task to, none did more of the heavy lifting than Belisarius, widely considered the greatest (but most often overlooked) generals of late antiquity. Born in Thrace and a trusted confidante of Justinian from early in his reign, Belisarius was instrumental in securing the eastern border of the Empire against the Sassanid Persians before the reconquest of Africa beckoned.

Commanding a vastly outnumbered force comprised mostly of mercenaries and foederati, Belisarius defeated the Vandal King Gelimer at Ad Decimum and Tricamarum, routed the entirety of the forces sent against him and captured the principal North African city of Carthage all within a short space of time. When he returned to Constantinople in 534AD his victory was celebrated with a Triumph (the last of these traditional Roman processions to be celebrated, as it turns out) and was named consul for the year 535AD.

The conquest of Italy though, was to prove quite a different beast. Begun in 535-536AD, it wouldn’t be until 554AD that the Ostrogoths would be finally defeated by Narses at Mons Lactarius; but only after the death of Mundus in the early stages of the conflict and more than a decade of grinding warfare undertaken by Belisarius, who was often forced to maintain his armies on the barest resources, reinforcements and support from Constantinople. By the end both the great cities and the fertile hinterlands of Italy would be ruined, along with Belisarius’ good favour and the credibility of Justinian’s “vision”.


Between 552 and 555AD a foothold was also established in the former Roman province of Spania, but like the newly re-established control over Italy and Africa, it was not to last. After the death of Justinian in 565AD the Byzantine Empire quickly went into decline…

Next Part: Reverses

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Procrastination 102

Nuff’ said.

Posted in Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment