Today in Roman history: Heraclius is crowned emperor (610)

Roman history is an interest that I don’t usually indulge here (with rare exceptions), mostly because “interest” is all it is and I figure you should get something more for your reading time than “Some Guy Writes About Whatever.” But the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Heraclius (d. 641) is actually an important figure in Islamic history as well as Roman (without Heraclius, the world in which Muhammad began preaching might have looked considerably different than it actually looked), so his coronation is worth a brief post given our usual focus around this place.

In 610 the Byzantine Empire* was reeling, and things were only getting worse. Back in 602, then-Emperor Maurice had decided that the rent was empire’s military expenses were too damn high, and his solution to that problem was to tell his large army campaigning against the Avars in the Balkans that it was basically on its own for the winter. This was a bad idea, and by the time that army had fully expressed just how bad an idea it had been, Maurice was dead (after attempting to defend himself by arming the Blues and the Greens, remember them?) and a junior officer in the Balkan army, Phocas, was your new emperor. The problem for Phocas is that hardly anybody in the empire, aside from the army that had put him there, really approved of him taking the throne. One Byzantine governor in northern Mesopotamia, Narces, squatted in the northern Mesopotamian (today the site is in modern Turkey) city of Edessa, declared his independence, and begged the Sasanian Emperor Khosrow II for help in holding off Phocas’s inevitable attack.

Looping in the Persians was the nuclear option for any rebelling Roman governor, particularly at this point in Roman history. After grappling with Germanic threats in Europe on equal or even disadvantageous military terms for centuries, by the time of Justinian (early 6th century) the Romans/Byzantines were once again the military power in their own backyard. They’d managed to reestablish military superiority by professionalizing their army (soldiers who do nothing but train to be better soldiers are unsurprisingly usually better at being soldiers than amateurs) and by employing mercenaries and borrowed tactics from the dominant European power of the two previous centuries, the Huns. The only true military threat to the empire at this point was Persia, another large empire with a professional army that also used, and had been exposed to, tactics similar to those used by the Huns, particularly in their dealings with the Turks and the Hephthalites. So for Narces to appeal for Persian aid was a big deal. The big question was whether he’d get it.

Well, it so happens that the Sasanians and Byzantines had just ended a war in 591 on Byzantine terms (most of the Caucasus came under Byzantine control or “influence” as a result). That war had ended when Maurice helped Khosrow take his throne back from the (brief, he ruled for about a year) usurper Bahram VI. So not only were the Sasanians itching for a rematch, but Khosrow had particular reason to be indebted to Maurice and therefore hostile to the guy who’d had Maurice deposed and executed. He jumped at the chance to aid Narces, and his armies defeated the Byzantines at Edessa and, in 605, at Dara (also in northern Mesopotamia/modern Turkey), which the Persians took for themselves. Narces then tried to patch things up with Phocas, but after being promised safe passage to Constantinople he was arrested and burned at the stake for his troubles.

People took things like promises of safe passage pretty seriously back then (it was hard to conduct diplomacy, trade, or really anything else if you thought the emperor might just snatch you up and burn you to death for kicks), so Phocas’s treatment of Narces didn’t do much for his already poor reputation throughout most of the empire. The Exarch of Africa (a very autonomous viceroy who ruled everything from southern Spain to western Libya in the name of the emperor in Constantinople) was a man named Heraclius the Elder, and in 608 he started minting coins (always a bad sign for imperial unity) declaring that he and his son, our Heraclius, were consuls.

Late antiquity’s version of “don’t talk to me or my son ever again” (Wikimedia user Cplakidas)

The title of “consul” was a formal honor only by this time in Roman history, with no real authority, but it was the emperor’s prerogative to appoint the two consuls, so by declaring themselves consuls the Heraclii were also saying something about Phocas’s legitimacy as emperor. Other revolts began breaking out all over the empire, and Phocas was clearly incapable of dealing with them. Heraclius the Elder apparently died sometime around 610, after his rebellion had captured Egypt. But his son, the younger Heraclius, sailed a fleet into Constantinople in that same year, and by that point things were so bad for Phocas that his own nobles basically handed him over to Heraclius for execution (which he’s said to have done personally, on the spot, when Phocas unwisely decided to mouth off to him).

Things got a lot worse under Heraclius before they got better, because the war with the Persians went against Constantinople for another 12 years. Khosrow’s armies swept through Syria in 611-613, defeating an army that Heraclius sent against them, then took Jerusalem in 614 and Egypt in 618. In every one of these places the Persians were not seriously opposed (though to be fair you can’t say they were exactly welcomed either) by the locals, who practiced various non-Chalcedonian forms of Christianity (Nestorianism, miaphysitism, etc.) and had generally (there were occasional respites) been badly treated by the Chalcedonian imperial center for some time. And this is to say nothing of the empire’s Jews, many of whom happily aided the Persians and did some terrible things to their Christian neighbors–who also, it must be said, did some terrible things to them. By the early 620s, Persian armies were threatening to break into the Byzantines’ Anatolian heartland and were even within striking distance of Constantinople.

However, Heraclius bought himself a little time by agreeing to a heavily lopsided peace deal with Khosrow. He used that time to reorganize and rebuild his shattered army by debasing the currency, slashing all non-military expenditures to the bone, and partnering with the Church to cast the war with the Persians as a holy enterprise. In 622, Heraclius personally (because if you want something done right…) led his new, fairly small (probably about 25,000 but maybe as many as 40,000 men) army on a daring end-around invasion of the Persian Empire. He first drove the Persian army out of Anatolia but was then forced to return west to fend off those pesky Avars. The advance resumed in 624 though Armenia and south toward the Persian capital at Ctesiphon. He defeated no fewer than three separate Persian armies over the next two years. A Persian attempt to turn the tide by assaulting Constantinople (simultaneously with an army of Avars and Slavs from the Balkans) failed, and after Heraclius defeated yet another Persian army sent against him at Nineveh, the Persians overthrew Khosrow in favor of his son, Kavadh II, who sued for peace.

Heraclius, whose army must have been past the point of exhaustion, asked for fairly light terms (mostly the return of the captured Byzantine territories and a war indemnity) and that was that. This returned the world to what amounted to status quo ante bellum, and crucially it’s that world, one with two war-weary and weakened superpowers having just pounded each other senseless to very little actual change, rather than one dominated by a powerful and surging Sasanian Empire, into which Islam began to spread. History might have gone quite differently if the early Arab armies didn’t start moving into the Middle East in the aftermath of the 602-628 war, when the great powers were at their most vulnerable.

Heraclius reigned until 641, which meant that he was alive (and well-known to the Arabs) during Muhammad’s lifetime and was also alive to see most of his empire lost to the Arabs after the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. He led the empire through one of its greatest victories and watched, almost helplessly, as it suffered one of its greatest defeats. There are a couple of Muslim tales relating to Heraclius that are worth mentioning. The first comes straight out of the Qurʾan itself; the thirtieth chapter is called Surat al-Rum, or “Chapter of the Romans,” and verses 2-4 read like this:

2. The Romans have been defeated.

3. In the nearer land (Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine), and they, after their defeat, will be victorious.

4. Within three to nine years. The decision of the matter, before and after (these events) is only with Allah, (before the defeat of Romans by the Persians, and after, i.e. the defeat of the Persians by the Romans). And on that Day, the believers (i.e. Muslims) will rejoice (at the victory given by Allah to the Romans against the Persians),

This is taken as a prophetic statement, since Muhammad preached it at Mecca, before his 622 flight to Medina and thus before Heraclius turned the war around (starting, coincidentally, in 622), and since it probably refers, in the “have been defeated” verse, to the Persian capture of Jerusalem in 614 (614 to 622 is “within three to nine years”). However, because it is literally impossible in most cases to differentiate active from passive voice verbs in unvoweled Arabic, there is a variant way (i.e., acceptable grammatically though not the one generally used) to read that passage that says “the Romans have defeated (i.e., been victorious) and they, after their victory, will be defeated.” In this reading, the passage is about past Roman successes and seems to predict their future defeat by Muslim forces. “The believers” here might variously be Muslims, Christians, or both, depending on how you read the rest of the passage.

Heraclius is directly mentioned as the protagonist, of sorts, of a story about Muhammad’s time in Medina. Some later Islamic historians/writers/fabulists claimed that, during his lifetime, Muhammad wrote to all the major world leaders of his day to tell them of his revelation and of the new, True faith of Islam. Heraclius, alone among all those leaders, is said in these stories to have recognized that Muhammad was the “messenger” who was supposedly foretold in a couple of esoteric passages in the Christian scriptures, like John 14:16 and Acts 7:37. Heraclius then is supposed to have proclaimed Islam to his people to be the One True Religion, at which point they practically revolted and Heraclius had to pretend that he was “just testing their faith.” Obviously this is a legend meant to enhance Muhammad’s stature by giving him the Byzantine emperor’s seal of approval; if Heraclius knew anything about early Islam (which many modern scholars don’t even think had coalesced into what we think of as “Islam” by the time Heraclius died), he probably thought it was a Christian heretical movement or a militant Jewish sect. It’s also intended to help explain why God allowed the Arabs to totally obliterate the Persian Empire (in the story, Khosrow reacts very negatively to Muhammad’s letter) while the Byzantine Empire, albeit a vastly shrunken Byzantine Empire, still existed.

* I’m using “Byzantine Empire,” even though that term bothers the hell out of me, because that’s what most people call the later, eastern empire today. But to be clear, it was the Roman Empire the whole time, right through 1453. They called themselves Romans, the Persians called them Romans, the Arabs called them Romans, the Turks called them Romans, and so on. Nobody used the word “Byzantine” to refer to the eastern empire until 1557, over a century after the Roman Empire had ceased to exist.



2 thoughts on “Today in Roman history: Heraclius is crowned emperor (610)

  1. Pingback: Today in Middle East history: the Battle of al-Qadisiyah (636) | and that's the way it was

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