Wild Success and Deplorable Failure: The Cursed Reign of Heraclius, Byzantine Emperor
The reign of Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor from 610 to 641, reads like a series of disasters that continued to be visited on his heirs. In between the disasters he had some successes, but he and his heirs ruled over a further loss of territory and the schism of the Church into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches.
While Emperor Heraclius or Herakleios did eventually succeed in crushing the Persian Empire, he lost Jerusalem, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt to the Arabs. Egypt was crucial territory because it supplied grain.
An Empire in Turmoil
When he arrived on the scene, the empire was beset by Slavs on the Balkan Peninsula, Persians in Anatolia, and Turkic Avars who occupied lands from the River Don to the Alps. The empire’s economy and administration were overwhelmed by problems and its army depopulated and demoralized. The peasants were overtaxed, religious dissenters were persecuted, and the aristocracy challenged the emperor.
Heraclius’s second wife, Martina, was also his niece and six of their nine children were either born deformed or died in infancy. While Heraclius’s later success in fighting the Persians kept some murmurings about incest down, when the empire began to lose cities and territories to the Arabs, some claimed it was divine retribution for the incestuous marriage. People said God had abandoned the Byzantines and the evidence of this was in Heraclius’s deformed children.
The Virgin Mary, seen here in a Byzantine icon, was especially important to Heraclius and his subjects. (Andreas und Judith A. Stylianou / Public Domain)
Heraclius to the Rescue?
As for Heraclius’ early life, he was the son of a governor of Carthage in North Africa. The Senate sought help in 610 from the father, also named Heraclius, to deal with the inept and cruel tyrant Phokas. Heraclius arrived at Constantinople at the head of a fleet, holding aloft an icon of Mary, mother of Jesus. When the residents of the city sighted the fleet, they rose up and overthrew Phokas. Heraclius was named emperor at age 36. Accounts say he was tall and handsome.
He took over an empire in October of 610 that had already lost half of its territory. Plus, the coffers were empty, and the Byzantine Empire was bankrupt.
A solidus or solid gold coin depicting Heraclius and his two sons. (Panairjdde / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Heraclius’ Wars: Wins and Losses
Heraclius’s wars were a disaster early on. He lost battles with the Persians and Jerusalem fell to the Arabs in 614. In 618 he lost parts of Egypt. Heraclius continued to lose territory in North Africa until 629 despite selling church treasures to raise armies.
But in 622, Heraclius had some success with his large, well-armed army and his powerful navy in fighting the Persians, who were ruled by Chosroes II.
While he was off fighting, in 626 the capital of Constantinople was besieged by some 80,000 Persian and Avar troops. The city was extremely well defended by its walls and a moat and the defenders repelled the invaders’ navy. In addition, city residents appealed for divine help to the Holy Virgin Mary and walked around the walls with an icon of her held aloft.
Because there were so many Persians besieging Constantinople, Persian forces in the East were weaker. Heraclius took advantage and destroyed the Persian army at Nineveh in an 11-hour battle in 627. Legend has it that the commanding Persian general died when Heraclius himself lopped off his head with a sword during combat. And when they sacked the city of Ctesiphon in 627, the Byzantine forces found more gold than they could carry away. This was a huge boon to the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantines overthrew Chosroes II of Persia, established peace, and in 630 when the Persian empire collapsed there was peace between the two empires from the first time in 400 years.
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Battle between Heraclius's army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1452. (The Yorck Project / Public Domain)
Heraclius’s Accomplishments – New Confidence Abounds
Heraclius was celebrated for the victory over the Persians as well as for reclaiming a purported piece of the One True Cross - upon which Jesus was crucified - that the Persians had stolen from Jerusalem. The Arabs were threatening Jerusalem again in 635, so Heraclius had the fragment of wood brought to Constantinople and had it placed in the magnificent Hagia Sophia Cathedral.
The Byzantine Empire under Heraclius now felt new confidence. The Byzantines cut ties with the Western Roman Empire, which had been moribund for generations. The Byzantines made Greek their official language, to replace Latin, which was nearly dead and used only in the laws that scarcely anyone understood.
Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem. (Miguel Ximénez / Public Domain)
Heraclius took the title of Basileus, which means “king,” and abandoned the Roman titles of Augustus and Imperator Caesar.
Heraclius also tried to settle Orthodox theology by endorsing the view that Jesus Christ had one will that united his human and divine natures. There were several other schools of thought on the nature of the Christ. The theory Heraclius endorsed, called Monothelitism, was later overturned.
In 636, Heraclius and the Byzantines’ fortunes changed again. The Arabs, with cavalry mounted on camels, and led by a general named Khalid, defeated the Byzantine army in the battle on the Yarmuk in Syria. The Arabs took Syria and in later years Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Egypt. Heraclius did not have the money or men to hold the eastern part of his kingdom.
Across the ravines lies the battlefield of Yarmouk, this picture taken about 8 miles away from Jordan. (Mohammad adil / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Heraclius’ Death and Succession Dispute
After Heraclius’s death in 641 of a condition called dropsy, his second wife, Martina, nominated their son Heraklonas as king. He shared the reign with Constantine III, his half-brother. But Constantine died of tuberculosis after just three months. So, Martina became regent and dubbed herself co-emperor.
Not long after, the Byzantines lost Alexandria to the Arabs, and the unpopular mother and son were dethroned. The new king, Valentinos Arsakuni cut out Martina’s tongue and slit Constantine’s nose and banished them to Rhodes. These mutilations signified that they were unfit to rule, and the practice became routine in later succession disputes.
Just a few months later, Constantine III’s son Constans II overthrew Valentinos and went on to rule for 27 more years, carrying on as the empire disintegrated further and lost more territory.
Top image: Heraclius is depicted beheading Choroses, the Persian king as Cherubim angels look on. (Jastrow / Public Domain)
By Mark Miller
Franzius, E., Heraclius: Byzantine Emperor, Encyclopedia Britannica , available here; https://www.britannica.com/biography/Heraclius-Byzantine-emperor
Livius, Heraclius: Emperor of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire, Livius.org, available here: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/heraclius/