The Last Great War of Antiquity I


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After the fall of Maurice a rumor spread that Theodosius had managed to escape, as his father had hoped, and reached Colchis, from where he made his way to Khusro’s court (Theophylact 8.13.1-6). When, five months later, Lilius presented Phocas’ credentials to Khusro as the new Roman emperor, he was repudiated. Khusro II dismissed Phocas as a usurping tyrant, and declared war with the aim of restoring Theodosius to his father’s kingdom. Eastern sources helped to spread the word that the son had escaped (Theophylact 8.13.5; Armenian Chronicle Attributed to Sebeos 106, 110).

And so Chosroes exploited the tyranny as a pretext for war, and mobilized that world-destroying trumpet: for this became the undoing of the prosperity of Romans and Persians. For Chosroes feigned a pretence of upholding the pious memory of the emperor Maurice. And so in this way the Persian war was allotted its birth, and Lilius remained among the Persians in great hardship. In these days error came upon the inhabited world, and the Romans supposed that Theodosius was not dead. And this became an opportunity for great evils, and this false supposition contrived an abundance of slaughters. (Theophylact 8.15.7-8, trans. Whitby and Whitby)

The overthrow of Maurice was the first successful violent deposition of a Roman emperor in the East since Diocletian’s coup d’état in 284. Phocas was widely perceived as an illegitimate ruler. Disaffection was aggravated by the religious dissidence of the Monophysite communities of Syria and Egypt, and by rivalry of the circus factions.

Phocas depended on violent repression of opponents loyal to the old regime. Five of Maurice’s sons had been murdered with their father at the time of the coup; his widow, previously confined to a monastery, and daughters were implicated in a broad-based plot and put to death in 605. The bald account in the Chronicon Paschale of the suppression of this supposed conspiracy is an indication of a new brutality which characterized the style of the regime:

In this year in the month of Daisius, June according to the Romans, on a Saturday, there were beheaded Theodore the praetorian prefect, John antigrapheus, Romanus scholasticus, Theodosius subadjutant of the magister, Patricius illustris, nephew of Domnitziolus who was curator of the palace of Hormisdas, John and Tzittas, spatharii and candidati, Athanasius comes largitionum, Andrew illustris who was also called Scombrus, and Elpidius illustris. Elpidius had his tongue cut out and his four extremities removed; he was paraded on a stretcher and carried down to the sea; when his eyes had been gouged out, he was thrown into a skiff and burnt. The other people aforementioned were beheaded, on the grounds that they were discovered plotting against the emperor Phocas. (Chron. Pasch. 605, trans. Whitby and Whitby)

There were serious external setbacks. The Lombards in Italy under King Agilulf forced Smaragdus, the exarch based at Ravenna, to make major territorial concessions in a treaty of 604/5, and in the same year the Avars raised their tribute demands, after Phocas had been forced to move many of his Balkan troops to the eastern front. However, the decisive events which were to topple the regime came from renewed conflict with Persia. Promptly after Phocas’ accession, Narses, the magister militum based in Mesopotamia, led a military rebellion in support of Theodosius. Khusro put the full weight of Sassanian power behind him and the eastern frontier crumbled. Dara fell after a siege in 604, the Roman commanders in Armenia offered support to Theodosius, and placed the key east Anatolian fortresses of Theodosiopolis and Citharizon under his and the Persians’ control in 607. Mesopotamia and the whole of Asia Minor were thus exposed, and the strongholds soon toppled: Mardin, Amida, Rhesaina, and, in 609, Edessa.

Phocas’ authority was fatally undermined by this huge loss of territory, and he faced another internal challenge. In 608 Heraclius, the exarch of Africa based in Carthage, sent a fleet commanded by his nephew Nicetas to seize Alexandria and cut off the Constantinopolitan grain supply. The island of Cyprus was taken, and in September 610 Heraclius’ son, also called Heraclius, sailed with a fleet of warships from the sea of Marmara towards the capital. Preparations had been made in the city, and partisans of the Greens opened the harbors to the invaders. Supporters of the rebels already controlled most of the territory and resources of the Levant and Heraclius father and son had for two years issued gold, silver, and bronze coinage, which identified them with the insignia of consuls. This symbolism declared their own standing within the Roman state, while it implicitly denied the legitimacy of the usurper Phocas. Phocas was killed on October 5, 610. Heraclius, the son of the exarch of Africa, was proclaimed emperor.

The reign of Heraclius, from 610 to 641, encompassed the last great struggle between the Roman and Sassanian empires, the surrender of Roman control in the Balkans, and the collapse of the empire in the Near East and Egypt. Both the Romans and the Sassanians were confronted and overwhelmed by the growing power of the Arabs united by the religion of Islam. The sources which document these events reflect the complexity of the events themselves. The accounts of this period represent the various regional perspectives in diverse linguistic and historical traditions, a daunting challenge to a classical historian. The Roman perspective is represented by the Chronicon Paschale up to 629/30, which focuses on developments in the capital; the chronicle of Theophanes, compiled in the eighth century; and the panegyric poems in praise of Heraclius, written by George of Pisidia. Theophanes’ account derives in part from the detailed accounts by which Heraclius reported on the progress of his campaigns of the 620s. John, bishop of Nikiu, wrote a world chronicle, originally in Greek and written from the viewpoint of an inhabitant of the Egyptian delta, which has reached us through a series of translations and provides an indispensable account of the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs. Armenian history, including many observations on the coming of the Arabs, is provided by the work ascribed to Sebeos. The Persian version of the collapse of the Sassanian Empire lingers only as transmuted into the epic tales of the Shahname of Ferdowsi and the great history, written in Arabic, of Tabari, a native of the Caspian region. The fragmentary west Syriac chronicles of the seventh century throw a patchy light on the early Arab conquests of the Levant. It has been argued that the surviving eleventh- and thirteenth-century Syriac accounts of Michael the Syrian and of the Chronicle of 1234 (both of which also depend on the ninthcentury work of Dionysius of Telmahre), a historical narration written in Arabic by Agapius of Manbidj (Hierapolis) in the mid-tenth century, and the entries of Theophanes, Chronographia, all drew heavily on a common Syriac source, identifiable as the otherwise lost work of Theophilus of Edessa. Theophilus’ work, which was completed in the later eighth century, provided a historical account which covered the period of the Roman-Sassanian conflict and the early Arab conquests in the East from c. 590-750. An English translation of the sections of the later authors which are clearly derived or adapted from this common source, both defines the scope of Theophilus’ work and makes it accessible to a modern readership. More complex and difficult than any of these are the earliest Islamic accounts themselves, from a historiographical tradition that bore virtually no relation to classical predecessors. Beside the bewildering diversity of the literary sources, there is evidence from archaeology, numismatics, and the documentary record in Egypt, but much work needs to be done in these fields too before a clear picture of the early seventh century is likely to emerge. What follows is intended as no more than a summary and an attempt to highlight the main issues.

In 609/10 the Sassanian general Shahin invaded Cappadocia and besieged its capital, Caesarea. The city was handed over to the attackers in 611 by its Jewish inhabitants after the Christian population had fled. Meanwhile the main Persian offensive was sustained against Syria. Antioch and Apamea were taken in October 610, Emesa in 611, and Damascus in 613. A Roman counteroffensive led to the recapture of Cappadocian Caesarea in 612. The critical moment for Roman Syria came in 613, when the emperor Heraclius, who had broken with long tradition and led an expeditionary force in person, was defeated by Khusro’s forces near Antioch. He withdrew north of the Cilician gates, leaving Cilicia and Syria at the mercy of the Persian general Shahrvaraz. Caesarea Maritima, the Roman administrative capital of the southern Levant, and, traumatically, Jerusalem, fell to the Persians in 614. While the Jews were accused of complicity with the Sassanians, huge numbers of Jerusalem’s Christian population were slaughtered or resettled on Persian territory, and the relic of the Cross itself was removed as a trophy to Khusro’s treasury at Ctesiphon. The gateway to Egypt, Pelusium, was taken in 616 or 617, Alexandria surrendered after a siege in 619, and the Sassanians asserted control along the Nile Valley as far as Syene. As was inevitable annona distributions had been suspended in Constantinople since 618 (Chron. Pasch. 618). Thus the whole of the Near East and Egypt was lost to Roman control.

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