ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Seventh Century

Section 2: The Wars of Heraclius

Steven Muhlberger

The crisis that destroyed the empire of Constantinople in its old form began with an internal upheaval that illustrates its fragile condition at the end of the sixth century.

The emperor Maurice, who had gained a temporary ascendancy over Persia in 591, was thereafter able to redirect his armies toward the Balkan front. This vital area was threatened by both the nomadic Avars and the Slavs (some of whom were subject to the Avar Khagan, while others infiltrated and settled independently). Maurice's campaigns strained the imperial treasury to the point that military pay had to be cut back. This, plus Maurice's plan to post the army north of the Danube during the winter of 601/2, provoked a mutiny. A soldier named Phokas was declared emperor, and he quickly succeeded in deposing Maurice. Phokas proved to be a suspicious, bloodthirsty ruler, who inspired a number of revolts against him. As Phokas lost control of the state, the Persian king Khusru used his murder of Maurice and the imperial family as a pretext for war. By 610, Phokas had lost all support and was deposed as soon as Heraclius, the son of the military governor of Africa, sailed into the Golden Horn.

Heraclius became emperor and was immediately faced with the imminent collapse of the empire. Both the Avars and the Persians already occupied imperial provinces, and Heraclius did not have the resources to face either without leaving the empire vulnerable to the other. It took him nine years to reach a temporary and expensive accommodation with the Avar Khagan, and in that time the Persians had taken all of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and sacked a number of important Anatolian cities, including Chalcedon, directly across the Bosporus from Constantinople.

Only in 622 was Heraclius able to respond to the Persian advance. He took a great army to the Armenian borderlands, from which with the help of mercenaries from the steppes and the Caucasus, he attacked Persian territory without attempting to regain lost Roman provinces first. Financed by the melting down of the accumulated church treasures of Constantinople, it was a bold, even desperate, strategy, one which was not abandoned even when the Avars and Persians cooperated in an attack on the capital city (626). Eventually Heraclius was successful. In 628, Persian nobles murdered Khusru, who had been unable to keep Heraclius from marching within striking distance of Ctesiphon, and chose a new king who sued for peace.

The Persian empire quickly descended into an anarchy that resembled the state of affairs in the Roman empire under Phokas. Heraclius, whose prestige was for the moment very great, immediately launched an ambitious reformation of his realm, one in which the restoration of religious orthodoxy was central.

Heraclius's wars had had from the beginning an important crusading element. When he sailed from Africa against Phokas, his "towered ships...had reliquaries and icons of the Mother of God on their masts." The Virgin Mary was seen in person defending the walls of the city during the seige of 626. The Romans did not doubt that they were fighting God's enemies. In part this resulted from events at the fall of Jerusalem in 614, when the population had been massacred (a deed that was blamed on the Jews of the city) and the Persians had taken the relics of the True Cross and handed them over to Nestorian (i.e. heretical) bishops in Persia. When Heraclius won a God-given victory, it was natural that he should first work to purify the religion of the empire. He was particularly interested in reunifying the Monophysite churches of Syria and Egypt with the Chalcedonian hierarchy of Constantinople and the west, through a compromise theology that both could accept.

As before, the effort at compromise was a failure, and merely served to alienate the court from both Egypt and Syria on one hand, and Italy and Africa on the other. Coercion soon followed. This had serious repercussions in the east. Monophysite leaders were already half-convinced that their sufferings under the Persians had been due to the heretical (Chalcedonian) leanings of emperors Maurice and Phokas. Heraclius's persecutions convinced them of their own righteousness and hardened their resistance to the regime and its efforts to restore effective imperial rule.

Distracted by religion and weakened by the hard war with Persia, Heraclius's regime was in no position to resist when, completely unexpectedly, a new power arose in the Middle East. In 633, the Arabs, newly united under the banner of Islam, began to attack first Syria and then Iraq. When Heraclius died in 641 both were largely in Arab hands. During the reigns of his sons, Rome continued to lose territory, while its ancient rival, Persia was entirely conquered by the new imperial people.

The early Arab conquests are an astonishing phenomenon, but not unique. They can be compared to the even swifter conquest that Alexander and his Macedonians and Greeks had made of the same area a thousand years before. The great power of Alexander's time, Achaemenid Persia, was huge and rich, but the Persian grip on their empire was not very strong. Most of its troops and many of its officials were not Persian -- indeed, a good many of them were Greeks. A few military defeats were sufficient to undermine the specifically Persian establishment and deliver its territories to new rulers.

In the seventh century A.D., both the Romans of Constantinople and the Sassanian Persians possessed large empires that did not love their rulers. In particular, both Persian-ruled Iraq and Roman-ruled Syria were alienated from the policies that radiated from the capitals. Arab warriors, settlers and merchants had long penetrated these regions. Roman and Persian rule of the Fertile Crescent depended on Arab soldiers and client kings. This had long been the case, but now the two governments had few resources with which to buy Arab service or punish Arab disobedience. When the Arabs of the imperial borderlands found a new focus of loyalty -- a pan-Arab religion -- Syria and Iraq quickly fell to them, and these first conquests financed the rest.

Imperial weakness is part of the picture. The other part is Arab unity, a unity never seen before. Like the conquests of Alexander, the Arab conquests owe much to the inspirational leadership of a single man -- in this case, the prophet Muhammed.

Next Section.

Index, Overview of Late Antiquity.

Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

ORB Homepage About ORB Who is ORB? ORB Library ORB Reference Shelf Index