“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.
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