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

About ethanreilly

Ethan Reilly is an author and blogger who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Did he mention he blogs?
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1 Response to Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 5

  1. Pingback: Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 9 | Ethan Reilly

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