The great power struggle that defined much of the Roman Empire’s history was the conflict with Persia. Celts and Germans could come and go, often with disastrous consequences, but the Persian threat, in many ways a malign inheritance from the Greeks, remained a constant problem for Rome ever since the Republic expanded into the Eastern Mediterranean. Julius Caesar was planning a campaign against the Persians when he was mobbed and cut down in the portico of the building where the Senate was meeting; the Roman and Byzantine Emperors were regularly bedeviled and occasionally killed by armies of the traditional enemy from the Iranian plateau.
A brief summary of the career of the Emperor Heraclius [575 CE – 641 CE] illustrates the unexpected climax to this great rivalry.
When Heraclius became emperor in Constantinople in 610, the situation was dire. The Western Empire, partially reconquered in the middle of the preceding century at crippling cost by Justinian’s generals, had shattered beyond recovery, and the Persians fought their way to the Bosporus shortly after Heraclius took the throne.
Worse, by 616 the Persians had invaded Anatolia again and occupied Egypt, the imperial granary, taking Jerusalem with its holy sites along the way. Heraclius briefly considered transferring the seat of the Empire to the unravaged lands of North Africa, centered on what is now known as Tunisia.
It took Heraclius a decade to stabilize the situation in the East. He called for what amounted to a crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Persians, who at this time by and large followed a form of Zoroastrianism, in terms that anticipated those later used by West European invaders of the Middle East. Forging an alliance with the Khazars, who are better known for their 8th Century conversion to Judaism and their contribution of a bride selection ceremony to Byzantine court ritual, on the northern border of the Iranian Plateau, Heraclius wisely decided to attack the Persian homeland rather than undertake a grinding war of attrition to regain devastated provinces along the Roman border.
Heraclius invaded the Iranian Plateau from the north in a brilliant campaign [623 – 624]. Though fighting was to last half a decade more, the Romans so convincingly defeated the Persians on their home soil that Persian aristocrats deposed and murdered their emperor Chosroes II and begged for peace while their troops still occupied half of the Mediterranean East. It took the better part of a year to transfer power in the provinces, but the Eastern Roman Empire’s frontiers were restored. The crusade had every appearance of total success.
The Byzantine troops expressed their religious feelings in part by extinguishing the Persian’s sacred flame and defiling the Persian’s sacred well. The pious of Christendom praised Heraclius for recovering the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified. Over time, relics purporting to be from this artifact proliferated throughout Europe, suggesting an unusually massive or perhaps self-replicating piece of wood.
Both the Byzantine and Persian Empires were exhausted by the conflict.
Operating for the most part beneath their notice were the Arabs, who had long been valued as barbarian mercenaries. But the Arabian Peninsula had been religiously and politically united by the Prophet Mohammed. There is a strong and plausible tradition of a letter having been sent to Heraclius in the name of Mohammed. There is unfortunately no compelling proof the Byzantine Emperor ever received or read such a missive, if it indeed existed.
Unless he dies young, no hero lives forever. In the fullness of time, the golden youth of Heraclius gave way to a bloated old age. He lost much of his prestige with his people for marrying his niece.
By 634 the first army of the great Arabian Conquest had been formed. Neither the Byzantines nor the Persians understood that their time honored method of controlling Arabian marauders, subsidizing the nearest sheik, was no longer adequate or even remotely possible.
Exhausted by age and infirmity, with his country still rebuilding from its prodigious military efforts, Heraclius could not stop the Arabs from taking the provinces he had won back from the Persians. The forces of the Caliphate quickly conquered Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia [636 – 646], and were with difficulty temporarily turned back from Tunisia. At about the same time, Lombards and Visigoths relieved the Byzantines of small but crucial territories in Italy and Spain. Heraclius must have believed his life’s work was in vain.
His Persian foes, if they had time to spare him a thought, might have considered him lucky by comparison. The Arabs, treating the deserts near and in Persia as seas only they could navigate, attacked at will and overran the Iranian plateau by 649. Still prostrate from their defeat by Heraclius, the Persians could not mount an adequate defense.
A few aristocrats hid out in the mountains, but the ancient civilization of Persia became a part of the Islamic Caliphate. In time, the Iranians established what independence they could by adherence to Shiite rather than orthodox Sunni beliefs, but their ancient religion, deeply wounded by the crusading Heraclius, lived on only in attenuated form in persecuted minority populations scattered from Mesopotamia to India.
The conquest of Byzantine and Persian provinces of the Middle East and eastern Northern Africa eventually provided the resources for the Caliphate to expand across all of North Africa as well as much of South and Southeast Asia. Thus the most lasting creation of the original crusading Christian ruler is the belt of Islam running from the gates of Spain through North Africa, the Mideast, and South Asia to Indonesia and the southern Philippines.
• Geoffrey Regan’s First Crusader: Byzantium’s Holy Wars offers an accessible account of the career of Heraclius in English.
• For the full sweep of Rome’s conflict with Persia, painted in broad strokes with illuminating detail, selectively perusing Colin McEvedy’s The [New] Penguin Atlas of Ancient History and The [New] Penguin Atlas of Medieval History will be rewarding.
• Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests provides a useful overview of its subject.