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5. Heraclius |
Unaware of their peril, two ancient enemies battle to exhaustion

Heraclius is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 122, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Persia and Byzantium, seventh century superpowers, are drawn into a final and mutually calamitous war

Heraclius - Unaware of their peril, two ancient enemies battle to exhaustion

Heraclius - Unaware of their peril, two ancient enemies battle to exhaustion
This detail from Piero della Francesco’s Legend of the True Cross: Battle of Heraclius and Khosrow captures the ferocity of the last battles between the Roman emperor and the ancient enemy, Persia. This detail is part of a huge fresco created by the Renaissance master for the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy.

As the great Muslim tactician Khalid ibn al-Walid turned his eyes northward from Mecca across the Arabian sands, two ancient and seemingly invincible empires stood squarely before him. Directly north lay mighty Byzantium, still calling itself “Roman,” with all that this name implied. To the northeast lay Rome’s historic foe, ancient Persia, whose “King of Kings” had claimed world dominion since Darius’s assault on Greece, twelve hundred years earlier.

Khalid, soon to prove himself one of history’s great generals, knew that these unimaginably wealthy superpowers boasted the world’s largest and mightiest armies. The notion that his motley, fractious camel-soldiers might challenge either was preposterous, even though he fervently believed Allah was with him. What Khalid probably did not know, however, was that at this very moment, both empires lay exhausted. Byzantium and Persia, striving for the last half-century to beat each other to death, had both very nearly succeeded, a fact that rendered Khalid’s preposterous aspiration not nearly so preposterous.

This death-struggle had not been inevitable. At times one of the contestants, or even both, recognized the need for détente. But Rome’s ancient assumption that it represented the highest expression of human civilization, reinforced by two centuries of Christian certitude, rendered unthinkable any permanent acceptance of Persia. Meanwhile, Persia’s rulers apparently believed that to sustain their prestige among their subjects, they must repeatedly demonstrate their might by vanquishing all challengers.

The Byzantine Empire was inherently far stronger, but through the mid-sixth century, in the three decades immediately prior to the birth of Muhammad, the emperor Justinian had striven to restore Rome’s ancient glory in the west by reconquering barbarian-dominated Italy, Sicily, North Africa and Spain. (See earlier volume Darkness Descends, chapter 10.) His campaigns, although successful in part, had been ruinously costly, and meanwhile he had to purchase peace in the east by agreeing to pay Persia an annual subsidy of thirty thousand gold solidi.1

This subsidy was inherited by Justinian’s hapless successors. Between his death in 565 and the Muslim attack on the Roman frontier in 632, five emperors would rule at Constantinople. Only the first was related by blood to his predecessor, and all five were radically different. In the same period, the Persian throne was mostly occupied by a grandfather and grandson, both named Chosroes. The grandfather was deliberate, cautious, calculating, and it seemed, ultimately well intentioned. The grandson was dashing, brilliant, unpredictable, increasingly vicious, and by the time of his death, probably insane.

Justinian was succeeded by his nephew, Justin, a willful, volcanic ruler distressingly dominated by his wife Sophia, the clumsily devious niece of Justinian’s formidable spouse Theodora. Early one morning in November 565, this pair was awakened by a party of senators, pounding at their gate to tell them Justinian had just died. Through the deserted streets, wrote the court poet Corripus, as dawn crept upon the sleeping city to a fanfare of roosters, they hastened to the palace.

The distraught Justin threw himself upon his uncle’s body, protesting his unworthiness to replace him. Even Constantinople’s numerous cynics admitted that his humility might not be entirely feigned, for Justin idolized his conquering uncle. Moreover, although he was likely in his early forties (his precise birth date is nowhere recorded), Justin had never visited a frontier, let alone planned a campaign. He nevertheless managed to convince himself of one thing: sheer strength of will could overcome all obstacles. Too late, he would discover that it would not.

Sophia, a realist, was remarkably well prepared for this somber occasion. As the sun rose, rumor spread, and a crowd gathered outside, she appeared beside the bier in a luxurious purple funeral robe sewn with gold and set with precious gems. Justin crossed himself and besought God: “If you command me to hold the Roman scepter . . . if it please you that the people believe in me, make me able to do your will. You subject enemies and bend the necks and break the hearts of the proud; you make kings serve. Let me do your will, that I may do what is pleasing to you.”

It was Justin’s neck that seemingly needed bending, however. Seven days after his accession an embassy from the predatory Avars, kinsmen of the Huns, came to collect their annual subsidy for “protecting” the Balkans from their Slav subsidiaries. “My gift is to let you off with your lives,” Justin sneered, and when they protested, he jailed them. The Avar response was to pillage the cities of Thrace for the next five years, until Justin finally agreed to another expensive treaty with the Avar’s khagan (“Khan of khans”).

Similarly misguided was his cancellation of Justinian’s payments to certain Persia-allied Arab tribes in Syria, causing them to resume raids against Byzantium’s southern borderlands and the friendly Banu Ghassan. The Monophysite Christian Ghassanids at length prevailed, and Harith ibn Jabala, their most formidable chief (introduced in chapter 1), politely requested his own peacekeeping subsidy. Justin replied with a conciliatory letter, but simultaneously dispatched to his eastern commander another letter ordering Harith’s assassination.

Somehow, the two letters were catastrophically switched. A flabbergasted Harith, beholding his own death warrant, fumed “So this is my dessert!” and switched sides. Then, further alienating the Ghassanids and many others, Justin unleashed a virulent anti-Monophysite persecution in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Monks and nuns were scattered “like birds before the hawk,” writes the Monophysite bishop John of Ephesus, in his detailed and contemptuous account of Justin’s reign.

Justin apparently saw himself as the fearless and resolute Roman of ancient legend. He scoffed at Byzantium’s populist political parties, the Blues and the Greens. Proudly antiquarian, he favored the old and dangerously independent aristocracy, whose private armies now notoriously “defended” the provinces by looting them. “The sin is on my head,” languidly yawned one governor of Palestine when accused of this, a reply that apparently satisfied the emperor.

He was alert to the slightest hint of sedition, however. He beheaded two senators for treason, without trial. On suspicion of conspiracy he fired his cousin, military commander on the Danube, and banished him to Alexandria. There he was assassinated, reportedly on Sophia’s orders. This lady, a daunting piece of work in her own right, had all Theodora’s ambition and little of her intelligence, but she was clever enough to manipulate Justin.

Thus Sophia became the first empress whose image appeared on Byzantine coins, and first to be included in the diptychs, the state prayers. There are unsettling reports of her viciousness if not depravity, however. She was said, for example, to have kicked the head of Justin’s murdered cousin around the royal apartments like a football. And so implacably did she attack the aging eunuch Narses, Justinian’s great general, that Narses prudently exiled himself to Italy.

Her husband, meanwhile, determined to accomplish a feat worthy of a Roman emperor, resolved to rid Byzantium of the detestable Persian levy. This would require a war, he knew, and in 572 a pretext was provided by Christian Armenia, the tough little buffer state squashed between Persia and Byzantium, over which the armies of east and west had marched since the dawn of history. (See sidebar, page 260.) Persia currently controlled Armenia but had guaranteed Armenians freedom to practice their religion. Hence, after Persia’s king Chosroes I ordered a Zoroastrian fire-worship temple built in the capital of Dvin, Armenia had risen in rebellion. The revolt failed, and the leaders fled to Constantinople. When the Persian envoy next arrived for the annual levy, Justin not only refused to pay it, but loftily asserted his right to shelter his fellow Christians.

Thus began yet another Persian-Roman war, with Persia everywhere triumphant as its armies sliced through Armenia into Syria. The affronted Christian Banu Ghassan stepped aside while the Persians laid waste the whole area of Antioch, torched Apamea, and returned to Persia, herding a reported 292,000 Roman subjects into slavery.2 In a counterattack, a Byzantine general laid siege to the linchpin Persian fortress of Nisibis. For reasons unknown, Justin suddenly ordered this commander’s arrest, provoking the Roman army into panicked flight. With Nisibis safe, the Persians pounced on neighboring Daras, Rome’s eastern bastion, and the refuge of a thousand aristocratic fortunes. Using Roman siege engines abandoned at Nisibis, they took Daras. The booty was immense, and Persia now held both great Mesopotamian fortresses.

The loss of Daras precipitated Justin into suicidal madness. He was kept like a caged animal behind barred windows, on occasion biting his chamberlains in frenzy. “Gabolo’s son is coming to get you!” they would shout, and the name of the Arab chieftain would make him cower in his bed. Or they would amuse him by pulling him about the palace in a little wagon, barking like a dog or meowing like a cat. To Sophia, however, this represented opportunity. For one disastrous year she ruled supreme, negotiating a more humiliating and expensive truce with Persia (forty-five thousand solidi), while barbarian tribes rampaged in the Balkans and Italy. By late 574, the exasperated Senate decided that a firmer hand was needed.

It was evident whose hand this would be: Tiberius, commander of the household troops, who had become what John of Ephesus calls “Justin’s keeper.” A handsome man in his early thirties, with the easy camaraderie of the army camp, he was already close enough to the center of power to begin exercising it. Justin, in one of his rare lucid moments, was persuaded to adopt him as his son and appoint him Caesar, appearing at his coronation as a devastated penitent. “Do not return evil for evil,” the hollow-eyed emperor advised his new co-ruler, “lest you become like me. I have been called to account as a man, for I fell and received according to my sins. . . . Let not this imperial garb elate you as it elated me.” As he spoke, says John of Ephesus, thousands wept.

However, Tiberius’s immediate problem was neither the Persians nor the barbarians. It was Sophia, who kept the keys to the treasury and put Tiberius on an allowance. She would not allow his wife in the palace, so that the courtiers prudently ignored this new queen, and Tiberius had to slip out at night to see her. It was rumored that Sophia wanted to marry Tiberius. When spurned, she plotted his assassination, but was caught, which enabled him to put her under house arrest.

In grand strategy, Tiberius proved altogether adequate. He quickly made peace in a man-to-man confrontation with Harith of the Ghassanids. Next he began seeking a truce with Persia, emphasizing the common interests and common problems of the two empires. Persia was threatened by the Turks, Byzantium by the Avars. Why not cooperate and suppress both? When Persia temporized, Tiberius struck hard, invading Armenia and compelling Persian forces in the west to retreat across the Euphrates, where half of them drowned.

Peace was now possible if only Persia would return Daras, but still Persia stalled, hoping for a break. This soon came. The Byzantine army in Armenia, reports John of Ephesus, whether under orders or spontaneously, launched another savage persecution of Monophysites. Soldiers impaled infants on their spears, nuns were raped, monks tortured. Unsurprisingly, twenty thousand Armenians joined the Persians and a Persian victory followed. Then Chosroes died and was succeeded by a son, Ormizd, for whom peace with Byzantium was unthinkable. “Why should I send gifts to slaves?” he demanded.

By now, Justin was also dead. After appointing Tiberius, he had lingered in the palace for four more years, until, pain-racked by bladder stones, he went down in agony, but also in penitence. “Just are thy judgments, O God, for all the sins I committed with my body,” he cried. He summoned Tiberius to take the crown as augustus. Death freed the emperor Justin from earthly woes a week later, on October 4, 578. In far off Mecca, Muhammad was now about eight years old.

Tiberius, meanwhile, was developing agonies of his own. Indifferent to civil affairs, he rewarded his troops generously and often remitted taxes, and lavishly subsidized lawyers, doctors, churchmen, bankers–anything to keep domestic peace. Within three years the treasury was destitute, and he was dipping into emergency funds established by Anastasius seventy years earlier. In mid-582, he fell suddenly ill after eating a dish of mulberries. The disease was thought to be dysentery, and death seemed imminent.

But Tiberius had provided for the succession. His son-in-law Maurice was a Cappadocian in his early forties, who rose through the ranks to become Count of the Guards. As commander of the army in the east (there was scarcely any army in the west by now), he had driven deep into Persian territory–not deep enough to shake the obstinacy of Ormizd, but enough to control the front. Upon Maurice the stricken Tiberius conferred the succession.

On August 12, 582, borne on a litter, Tiberius appeared before his clergy and nobles. Too weak to be clearly heard, he had his quaestor, John, read his speech: “May you, Maurice, make your reign our best epitaph; adorn my grave with your virtue.” Then, before the weeping court, Tiberius lifted the crown from his head and the robe of purple from his shoulders, and Maurice donned them, while Tiberius fell back exhausted. By next morning, he was dead.

Maurice would rule for twenty years, and be commemorated by the church as a martyred saint. Popular, however, he was not. For one thing, writes John of Ephesus, he inherited a treasury as empty “as if swept clean by a broom,” and earned a reputation for niggardliness–especially by contrast to his predecessor. But Maurice was personally courageous. When the Avars raged right up to the Long Walls of Constantinople, he himself directed the defense that drove them off. In the east, his generals kept the Persians on the defensive, even when the troops mutinied because their pay had to be cut. And then the Persians fortuitously encountered very serious trouble of their own, notably a civil war.

Baram, governor of Persian Media, had repelled a massive Turkish attack in the north. But then he suffered a minor defeat, and Ormizd saw fit to send him a taunting gift: a lady’s dress and a knitting kit. “He certainly is his father’s daughter,” retorted Baram, whereupon Ormizd dispatched a new satrap with orders to send Baram back in chains. Instead, Baram had his intended successor ceremoniously trampled to death by an elephant, and led all northern Persia in a rebellion on behalf of Ormizd’s eldest son. This young man, named Chosroes after his grandfather, prudently departed from his father’s court.

The key fortress of Nisibis declared for Baram; the army wavered, then joined him. As the rebels advanced upon Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, Ormizd named his second son as his heir. That did it. His court too opted for Baram, stripped Ormizd of his jewel-studded raiment, dragged him from his throne, butchered his designated heir before his eyes, then blinded him with hot needles, and later cudgeled him to death in his cell. The eldest son returned to the palace and became Chosroes II.

But then came an event astonishing even for Sassanid Persia’s turbulent court. Baram, camped with his army outside Ctesiphon, was not satisfied. Declaring the new King of Kings to be “defective and of minimal intelligence,” he launched an unexpected night assault. Chosroes II, none too sure of the loyalty of his own troops, fled with a minimum retinue–a mere three dozen nobles, his harem, and their retainers. His destination: the Roman frontier.3

He was recognized and received with honor by Roman troops at Circesium on the Euphrates, and from there appealed to Emperor Maurice. “God has so arranged things that the whole world should be illumined from the very beginning by two eyes,” Chosroes wrote, “the most powerful kingdom of the Romans and the most prudent scepter of the Persians. For by these greatest powers, the disobedient and bellicose tribes are winnowed.”

He offered to return Daras and Armenia, and maintain perpetual peace, in exchange for aid in recovering his throne.

The unprecedented offer threw Constantinople into a dilemma. The Senate wanted to reject it. It was not in Rome’s interest, they contended, to resolve Persia’s internal problems–quite the contrary. But Maurice shared Tiberius’s dream of a Roman—Persian entente, which now seemed within reach. He accepted.

Persian troops loyal to Chosroes II now joined the Roman army in Armenia as it moved upon their homeland. Another Roman army advanced into Mesopotamia. Daras went over to Chosroes. Finally, the combined Byzantine forces met Baram at Ganzaca, capital of the Persian province of Azerbaijan, crushed his army and put him to flight. Baram was assassinated, Chosroes returned home in triumph, and Rome and Persia were finally at peace.

Young Chosroes II certainly seemed a promising partner. John of Ephesus calls him a “prudent and wise man,” who studied the beliefs of all religions and concluded that the Christian scriptures were “true and wise above those of any other.” Before the decisive battle, he prayed to the Arab Christian martyr St. Sergius, though the prayer John records sounds more like a bargain with some idol than a petition to the One God. In any event, Chosroes later sent a thank-you note and a jewel-encrusted cross to Sergius’s shrine. He appointed Nestorian Christian courtiers as his physician, astrologer, and as attorney general for Mesopotamia.

While a refugee in Roman territory, the young man apparently formed a close friendship with Maurice, who called him his son, and a Persian myth even claimed that Chosroes married a daughter of Maurice named Marian. History records no such person or marriage, but later Chosroes did marry a strong-willed Armenian Monophysite Christian named Shirin. Though he was Zoroastrian, he said, he considered her his legitimate wife, and the mother of his heir. For the rest of his life, Shirin had an extraordinary influence over him, and remained with him to his ignominious end.4

All these things stirred hope among Christian optimists that Persia’s ancient monarchy, so long their enemy, might finally be moving towards the faith. Cynics, on the other hand, read them as mere opportunistic maneuvers by a calculating and persistent enemy. Whatever Chosroes’s motives, however, the treaty at last enabled Maurice to confront the Avars, who had been running wild all over the Danube country, laying siege to the towns of Moesia, Thrace and Illyricum, once prime recruiting ground for the Roman army.

In 589, the Avars stormed Anchialus, on the Black Sea just one hundred miles from Constantinople, where they found in its cathedral some ceremonial robes of Maurice’s wife, the empress Constantina. The khagan mockingly donned them, and made an offer to the cities of Thrace: “Pay your imperial taxes to me instead, and I’ll give you real protection.” It cost Maurice eight hundred pounds of gold to persuade the khagan to head back to his Hungarian pastures.

But in 590, the emperor’s temporizing came to an end. He ordered the army of the east to move north. The Romans spent the next decade restoring the Danube frontier, while plague sometimes felled more Avars than they did (including at one point, six of the khagan’s sons in a single day). By 601, Maurice achieved peace in both the north and the east, a peace unknown to Byzantium since the days of Justinian.

Was this emperor therefore hailed by all his subjects as the hero of his age? Emphatically not. He was in fact despised. The army loathed him because he not only cut their pay, he cut off their equipment allowance (on the seemingly reasonable grounds that they spent most of it on drink). The aristocrats were hostile because he had replaced so many of them in the provinces with imperial appointees, thus depriving them of their customary graft. The clergy resented him for reducing ecclesiastical tax exemptions. Orthodox Christians condemned him for stopping the persecution of Monophysites and decreeing empire-wide toleration. The people despised him because he spent so little on spectacles and games.

These measures made Maurice “one of the most outstanding of Byzantine emperors,” declares Russian historian George Ostrogorsky. But they also made him hated, and he does seem to have had at least two genuine weaknesses. One was for his hometown, tiny Arabissus in Cappadocia, upon which he bestowed a lavish building program, and then, when an earthquake leveled the new buildings, started all over again. “He had a curious love for this insignificant place,” remarks British historian John Bagnell Bury (A History of the Later Roman Empire). His other weakness was for his family. His father Paul became president of the Senate, his brother Peter a major general.

Had Maurice been cruel, he would no doubt have been feared–but he was merely severe, and therefore was scorned. In the bitter winter of 601—602, popular resentment became menacingly physical. Storms delayed the Egyptian grain ships, causing food shortages that were attributed to the emperor’s frugality. In February, the mob stoned the imperial party in procession to Hagia Sophia cathedral. Then they dressed a drunk in a supposedly imperial robe, crowned him with a wreath of garlic, and paraded him through the streets, singing ribald songs.

This incident was only a symptom of what was to come. Fearing a new onslaught of Avars, Maurice ordered the army to winter on the Danube rather than bivouac closer to the city as was usual. This ignited another military mutiny, in which the troops raised on their shields one of their centurions, Phocas by name,5 and declared him their commander. They marched on Constantinople, determined to proclaim Maurice’s eldest son Theodosius as emperor. Another possibility was Germanus, a much-respected senator, and Theodosius’s father-in-law.

Maurice, now sixty-three, could have saved his life if he had simply abdicated in favor of his son, suggests Andreas N. Stratos (Byzantium in the Seventh Century), “but with an old man’s cantankerousness” he resolved to fight it out. Again he mustered the demes to man the walls against the mutinous army, but riots against him soon broke out in the city. When both the Blues and the Greens joined in, and with the city aflame, he fled with his family to a shrine across the Bosporus. Crippled by gout, he could travel no farther. His son Theodosius, steadfastly loyal to his father, left to find help from the man whom Maurice had rescued in precisely similar circumstances: Chosroes II.

But it was too late. In the absence of Theodosius, the rebel Phocas invited to his camp the senators, the patriarch, and representatives of the Blues and Greens, for what was expected to be Germanus’s coronation. At the crucial moment, however, the army and the Greens raised a great cheer instead for Phocas himself. An unprepossessing man of fifty-five with thick red hair, eyebrows and beard, and a scar across his cheek that darkened in his frequent rages, the centurion was also a sly, sadistic lecher and a drunk. The Senate nevertheless swiftly elected him, and the patriarch agreed to crown him on condition he “confess the orthodox faith.” To this he readily agreed, and on November 25, 602, the new emperor entered Constantinople by its Golden Gate on a royal chariot drawn by four white horses, throwing “a continuous rain of gold” to the cheering populace.

Phocas knew he was not secure, however, as long as Maurice lived, so he sent one of his lieutenants across the Bosporus to perform a deed that would long survive in the annals of infamy. Maurice and his five remaining sons–Tiberius, Peter, Paul, Justin and Justinian–were taken to Chalcedon’s Eutropius Harbor, where a hideous scene took place. One by one, the former emperor’s sons were slaughtered before his eyes. Contemporary accounts agree that the nursemaid of one youngster offered to have her own child put to death rather than the prince. But Maurice himself stoically shook his head, and as each boy died, he pronounced the same line from Psalm 119 (verse 137): “Righteous art thou, O my Lord, and thy judgment is upright.” Finally he himself was run through. The six bodies were thrown into the sea, the heads arrayed at an army base outside Constantinople, where crowds lined up to view them.

Phocas proceeded to distribute lavish gifts to his troops, order races in the Hippodrome to please the crowds, and have his wife Leontia crowned Augusta. He also executed every senior official and commander who had served Maurice. The empress Constantina and her three younger daughters were imprisoned for the time being in a monastery. The fate of the young Theodosius is simply not known. The two most convincing accounts of these events say he was very soon captured and killed. A less-convincing tale claims he reached the Persian court and played some further role. Another says he was poisoned by Chosroes II, who twenty years later would still claim to be battling Constantinople on his behalf. Yet another has him taking refuge in a Jerusalem monastery.

Such tales, some say, visited upon Phocas throughout his terrible eight-year reign an enduring fear that the prince he had failed to kill would return to destroy him. Equally strange, writes historian Stratos, is the fact “that Maurice, who was loved by no one during his life, was sanctified very soon after his death.” Both the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites recognize him as a saint. But perhaps this is not so strange. Maurice’s chroniclers, who describe him as spending seven hours daily at liturgies, prayer or scripture study, may exaggerate his piety, but pious he assuredly was. He was also a conscientious Christian, and a man determined however misguidedly to do his duty, and–at his tragic end–a pitiful but noble figure.

Maurice’s failures left the empire fragmented, and it never did unite behind Phocas. Faction fights broke out unceasingly in Asia Minor, Palestine, Illyricum and Thrace. Armenians agitated for Theodosius, whom they presumed to be alive. Phocas declared for Christian orthodoxy and repudiated Maurice’s policy of toleration, igniting more widespread and bloody campaigns against Monophysitism, and further alienating Syria, Palestine and Egypt. In fear of renewed hostile moves from Persia, Phocas concluded a treaty with the Avars and stripped the Balkans of troops, laying open the Danube basin. First Dalmatia and Illyricum, then Macedonia and Thrace, were flooded with Slavs and Avars. But as Phocas expected all along, his worst trouble came from Persia.

Any interest Chosroes II might have had in Christianity proved short-lived as he strayed ever deeper into vanity, sensuality, morbid cruelty, ruthless ambition, and magic. In addition to his ample harem, he reportedly was accustomed to travel with a corps of three hundred and sixty astrologers, soothsayers and magicians. Increasingly, he chafed under what he saw as the burden of the treaty he had accepted with Byzantium to regain his throne. How could he break it? The murder of his friend Maurice gave him a satisfactory pretext.

Chosroes was said to have reacted to the killing of the Byzantine emperor with rage, whether real or theatrical no one knows, although historian Bury opts for the latter. However, when Phocas’s emissary arrived in Persia–none other than the executioner of Maurice and his sons–Chosroes ordered the man starved to death. He then launched the most devastating assault on the empire since the days of Darius the Great. He seized Daras after obliterating a Roman army sent to relieve it, and subsequently annihilated two more in Armenia.

Syria was next. Edessa was taken and Antioch pillaged, with Christian Monophysites aiding the Zoroastrian Persians at every opportunity. Orthodox clergy were killed or deposed, and replaced by Monophysites. In 609, Persia invaded Asia Minor, writes the eighth-century historian Theophanes, “showing mercy on their march to neither age nor sex,” and reached Chalcedon, scene of Maurice’s execution. In terror and indignation, the citizens of Constantinople watched fire rage through buildings on the opposite shore. Then the Persians left; the fear of them did not.

Phocas vented upon his own subjects his rage at these frightful reversals, and constantly feared for his life–possibly with justification. Between 607 and 609, he uncovered two plots against him and retaliated, according to Theophanes, by commanding the mutilation and beheading of “many” governors, senators and court officials, and even of the betrayers’ betrayers. Both Germanus and Maurice’s widow Constantina were implicated in a second scheme, and Constantina was tortured into naming other conspirators. Then she and her three younger daughters were slaughtered on the same breakwater at Eutropius that had been soaked with the blood of her husband and sons.

Chaos continued in the capital, where Phocas’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the Blue faction caused ceaseless fighting between Blues and Greens. When the Greens torched central Constantinople, a Blue district, Phocas had their leader burned alive. In Antioch, the authorities tried to block a Monophysite ecumenical council, civil war resulted, and thousands were slain when imperial forces moved in to suppress it. By now, the emperor was bitterly and universally hated, but also greatly feared.

In distant Carthage, however, one of Maurice’s generals had survived all Phocas’s purges. His name was Heraclius, and in 608, he struck shrewdly and hard, simply by cutting off the supply of North African grain to Constantinople. This would cause rebellion against Phocas, he knew, just as it had against Maurice when storms blocked the grain fleet. Heraclius, a man of sixty-five, further commissioned his son, also named Heraclius, to assemble a fleet. Meanwhile his nephew, Niketas, marched across northern Africa to Egypt, recruiting as he went. Niketas handily took Alexandria (whereupon the citizens slaughtered the orthodox patriarch), and trapped the imperial fleet up the Nile. At that point, all Egypt went over to him.

In Constantinople, Phocas’s situation grew daily more precarious. When he arrived late for the games one day in 609, the crowd greeted him with shouts of “You’re drunk! You’ve lost your senses!” The enraged emperor had his troops lay into the crowd, mutilating many of his subjects, stuffing some in sacks and throwing them into the sea, and hanging others. The mob retaliated by burning government buildings and opening the prisons.

Early that summer, the younger Heraclius sailed his fleet into the Golden Horn, an icon of the Virgin on the topmast of his flagship. Phocas seized as hostages his mother and his fiancée Flavia, who happened to be visiting the city, but pro-Heraclius rioters rescued them. Then the mob, led by a city administrator whose wife reportedly had been raped by Phocas, dragged the emperor from his palace and presented him to Heraclius, in chains, in the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle.

Heraclius confronted him: “Did you govern the state in this miserable fashion?” he demanded. “Will you govern it better?” Phocas sneered. With that he was hideously executed. According to one account, his limbs were one by one hacked from his body, until finally he was beheaded. His three senior commanders were burned in the Hippodrome. The next day, Heraclius was crowned emperor. He also married Flavia, who changed her name to Eudocia.

Thirty-six years old, blond, blue-eyed, and a superb athlete, Heraclius was godly, sincere and courageous. He was so passionately devoted to his people and to his Lord, Jesus Christ, that later chroniclers, especially in the west, would call him the “First Knight and First Crusader.” But he had another side. He was edgy, easily stressed, prone to depression, and eventually developed an uncontrollable fear of water. He would reign for thirty-one years, and was destined to preside over the worst reversal ever to befall Christendom. His reign divides into three distinct phases, the first catastrophic, the second astonishingly triumphant, and the third calamitous beyond anything that he or anyone else in his era could have envisioned.

By 610, the empire left behind by the wretched Phocas was arguably at the lowest state in its entire eleven-hundred-year history. “It seemed that nothing short of a divine miracle could restore it to well-being,” writes Bury. To the north the Avar situation was worse than ever. To the south the Monophysite conflict had reached a complete impasse. To the east, the Persians had taken Damascus and Antioch, and were threatening Jerusalem itself, Christianity’s Holy City.

The treasury was bankrupt, and the troops he brought from northern Africa constituted almost Heraclius’s entire army. Most of the Byzantine forces opposing the Persians appeared more loyal to local commanders than to the emperor.6 Everywhere self-interest seemed to have long since replaced duty and loyalty; depression and despair overhung the whole realm, particularly the capital.

Reversal followed upon reversal. Jerusalem opened its gates to Chosroes’s army, and the precious true cross, discovered nearly three centuries earlier by the empress Helena, was carried off to Persia. It seemed that God had indeed abandoned his people. Then the Persians seized Egypt, a Roman possession for six hundred years, cutting off Constantinople’s grain supply. Famine resulted, followed by plague among the malnourished populace, and when Heraclius sent a peace embassy to Chosroes, it was contemptuously rejected.

Disaster also darkened his personal life. After two years of marriage and two children (one of them an heir, Constantine), the empress Eudocia died.7 The following year, Heraclius made a move that would long haunt him. In defiance of a very explicit church rule, he married his niece, Martina, a union forbidden as incestuous. Martina’s first child, a boy, was born with a deformed neck; her second son was born deaf and dumb. This was seen by the devout as a divine judgment, and she was referred to thereafter as “the accursed thing.”

In 616, Chosroes’s army reappeared at Chalcedon. While his soldiers looted city and countryside, their general crossed the Bosporus and arranged with Heraclius to conduct two Byzantine peace envoys to the King of Kings. It was a doomed mission. The enraged Chosroes had the two Byzantines imprisoned, and his general flayed alive (and a bag made of his skin, writes the Greek historian Nicephorus), for failing to assassinate Heraclius when he had the chance. As for peace, his haughty reply to Heraclius included the following inflammatory passage:

Refusing to submit to our rule, you call yourself a lord and sovereign. Having gathered together a troop of brigands, you ceaselessly annoy us. . . . You say you have trust in God. Why then has he not delivered out of my hand Caesarea, Jerusalem, Alexandria? And could I not destroy Constantinople? But not so. I will pardon all your faults if you will come hither with your wife and children. I will give you lands, vines and olive groves. . . . Do not deceive yourself with a vain hope in Christ, who was not able to save himself from the Jews that killed him by nailing him to a cross. If you descend to the depths of the sea, I will stretch out my hand and seize you.

To counter this doom-laden ultimatum, Heraclius had no army, no money and no support from his church. His capital, moreover, was threatened by the Avars as well as the Persians, so he decided on a desperate strategy. He would abandon Constantinople to its fate. He would move his government to his hometown of Carthage–far from Persia, loyal to his family, and well situated for the recovery of Egypt and Italy. He shipped the treasures of the imperial household in advance, doubtless asking God’s blessing on this audacious expedient.

God’s answer soon came, when the ships bearing the treasure sank in a storm, and Constantinople discovered the emperor’s intention. The reaction of its people bordered on the miraculous. “The possibility of losing the emperor brought suddenly home to Constantinople the realities of its situation,” writes Bury. “It awakened the city from the false dream of a spoiled child,” and “to this awakening we may ascribe the salvation of the empire.”

Salvation also came from the church. The reigning patriarch, Sergius, was a born leader with a signal ability to stir the consciences and resolve of his people, and of his emperor. He demanded that Heraclius swear he would never abandon Constantinople, and Heraclius so swore. Now, incestuous marriage notwithstanding, the emperor had in the patriarch a powerful ally.

Equally important, the current crisis was no longer merely one more hopeless struggle for survival; that message from Chosroes had unintentionally transformed it into a crusade to save Christianity. On this favorable tide, Heraclius moved swiftly. Using the loss of Egypt as sufficient pretext, he ended the welfare dole, the automatic daily ration of government flour that so long had grievously burdened the imperial treasury. This alone had three instantly beneficial effects. It drastically cut the cost of government. It furnished a new supply of labor, since idleness was now impossible. And it strengthened the army, because idlers who would not produce were promptly conscripted.

The churches, as directed by Sergius, melted down golden vessels and ornaments to produce coinage that would finance a new army. Almost overnight, a new spirit took hold of the Christian capital. But Heraclius did not move precipitously. He took five years to equip and train an army, and not until 622 was he ready to put it to full use.

Before that, however, the Avars experienced the effects of the new resolve animating Constantinople. In 619, in a plan he doubtless regarded as a knockout blow, the khagan began demonstrating a new amiability towards Byzantine envoys. He wanted to make peace, he told them, to put an end to all this waste and war. Could he meet the emperor personally outside the Long Walls of the city? Heraclius, hoping not to have the Avars at his back when he attacked Persia, readily agreed.

A magnificent reception was arranged for the khagan in the suburbs of the city, where tens of thousands of spectators waited to greet him. At the very last moment, however, Heraclius was warned that he was walking into a trap. Swiftly seizing a poor man’s cloak, he threw it over his shoulders, hid the crown beneath it, and bolted back within the walls. While he speedily organized a defense, a screaming Avar horde was already pouring into the suburbs, rounding up by some accounts more than two hundred thousand civilian prisoners.

To their surprise, however, they were shortly stopped dead by an unwontedly resilient civilian and military force, and had to withdraw. In the following week, Heraclius ransomed all the civilian captives, and the Avars signed a treaty that would keep them at bay for seven vital years. Moreover, the Byzantine exarch in Italy made a treaty with the barbarian Lombards, spurring them to attack the Avars from behind, and divert their attention from Constantinople.

Next came Persia. Heraclius spent the winter of 621—622 in seclusion–some said in prayer, others in conference. Probably it was both. By Easter all was ready, and he had his son Constantine, aged ten, made regent under Patriarch Sergius: “Into the hands of God and his mother, and into yours, I commend this city and my son,” he told the patriarch. Then he and his army, more than one hundred and twenty thousand strong, entrusting Constantinople to God and its own defenses, set sail under the icon of the Virgin. In this same season of the year 622, possibly the same month of June, Muhammad’s Muslims moved from Mecca to Medina in the hijra.

For years to come, Heraclius’s counteroffensive against the ancient enemy in the east would provide material for Christian storybooks. How he realized that if his fleet controlled the Bosporus, the Persian army there could not attack the capital. How for the first time in two hundred years, a Roman emperor led his troops in battle. How he outwitted the Persians by taking his army in an end run right around Asia Minor and unexpectedly landing in Cilicia, St. Paul’s home province. How he further confused them by moving his army back and forth. How he defeated one army in the Persian province of Azerbaijan, then quickly turned and drove Chosroes out of the north. How he became a hero to the Persian troops by freeing fifty thousand enemy prisoners and sending them home (which meant he needn’t feed them over the winter). How the worst of all possible perils arose when the Persians finally made a treaty with the Avars for a combined assault on Constantinople, now hundreds of miles behind him. And finally, how he recruited thousands of good soldiers in Christian Armenia so that he could split his army three ways, sending one unit back to defend the capital, one to take on the Persian army still in Cilicia, and one to pursue the offensive in the Persian heartland.

It reads like romantic fiction, yet is nevertheless true, and the great crisis came with that final combined attack on the Christian capital in 626. Some eighty thousand Avars and their allies struck at the city’s walls, where twenty thousand of Heraclius’s crack troops awaited them. All through July, the Avars labored with their siege engines but could make no headway, and at month’s end, the khagan offered peace, at a conference in his tent of three uniformed Byzantine officers and three Persian envoys clad in silk. The Romans were forced to stand while the Persians sat, a deliberate affront, and the meeting failed because the Romans seemed no longer interested in making peace. Instead, they intercepted the vessel carrying the Persian negotiators back to Chalcedon, killed one of them right in front of the Persian army, threw another into the sea, and sent the body of the third to the Avars as a gift for the khagan.

A few days later, there was worse news yet for the khagan. Slav sailors in rowboats and other small vessels, on the shore of the Golden Horn opposite the capital, awaited a signal by night that the Persian army was ready to simultaneously attack across the Bosporus in a tiny fleet that they, too, had managed to assemble. But the Romans discovered the plan, sent them a premature fake signal, and sank all their boats as they attempted the crossing. Then they doubled back and sank the Persian force as well. That same night, the Avars were also assailing the walls of the city, and both defenders and attackers reported seeing the figure of a woman on the ramparts, encouraging the Byzantine soldiers. Unquestionably, the Christians agreed, it was the Blessed Virgin. That was enough for the khagan. The next day, he burned his siege engines and withdrew his army. The city had been saved.

Heraclius’s second army had meanwhile defeated the Persians in Cilicia. Now his third army, reinforced by veterans from the other two, moved steadily through Persia towards Ctesiphon, to a decisive battle at the ancient city of Nineveh. There, Chosroes gave his commanding general an ultimatum–victory or death–and the desperate man, with nothing to lose, challenged Heraclius to personal combat. Heraclius accepted and swiftly killed him. When devastating defeat for the Persian army followed, Chosroes had the corpse of his unfortunate general thrashed, affirming what many had already suspected–that he was losing his mind.

Heraclius then proceeded to Dastagerd, site of the palace where Chosroes II liked to live in unparalleled luxury, with his host of servants and a harem, by now said to number three thousand women. The King of Kings consequently fled to Ctesiphon, where he had not set foot for twenty-four years. If you ever return there, the Zoroastrian magi had warned him, you will be destroyed.

And so it was. The Persian nobility rose against him. They seized him and ordered him starved to death, while his children were one by one executed before his dimming eyes. They spared only Seroes, his eldest son, who reputedly watched with satisfaction the demise of his brothers, sisters and father. The fate of his mother, Shirin, is not recorded. The Persian army at Chalcedon made immediate peace with Constantinople. Seroes signed a treaty returning all Roman territorial possessions, and to crown all, the true cross was returned with much ceremony and rejoicing to Jerusalem, now once more in Christian hands. It was by now 628. In four years, Muhammad would be dead, and Khalid ibn al-Walid would be ready to launch his preposterous endeavor.

Meanwhile, with Heraclius’s life’s work complete, or so he must have supposed, he returned to Constantinople to enjoy in relative tranquility the fruits of his victories. But his empire, although alive, was destitute. It was as religiously divided as ever, and it was exhausted by internal strife and constant warfare. The condition of Persia, its longtime enemy, was worse. Seroes reigned a mere eight months, and repeated regicide and rebellion thereafter rapidly enthroned and deposed one Persian king after another. Such, then, was the state of the world’s two superpowers in what, unbeknownst to them both, would be their darkest hour.

This is the end of the Heraclius category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 122, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Heraclius from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at