11

A PERSIAN FIRE

As outwardly glorious as Justinian’s reign had been, there were few who mourned its passing. The population that gathered silently in the streets to watch the funeral procession blamed him for the miseries of high taxation and the ravages of the plague. The scheming aristocrats packed into the Church of the Holy Apostles to watch the ceremony felt only relief that their oppressor was dead, and the officiating priests gladly buried the man whose meddling wife had added so much division to the church. Even the guard of honor at his massive, porphyry tomb couldn’t bring themselves to love the man who had so often delayed the army’s pay.

Despite the empire’s problems, however, its former emperor had succeeded in making Byzantium a shining beacon of civilization. The architectural triumph of the Hagia Sophia had only been possible by sophisticated advances in mathematics, and it soon spawned a flourishing school dedicated to improving the field. In Byzantium, primary education was available for both genders, and thanks to the stability of Justinian’s rule, virtually every level of society was literate. Universities throughout the empire continued the Aristotelian and Platonic traditions that were by now over a millennium old, and the works of the great scientists of antiquity were compiled in both public and private libraries.

The old western provinces under barbarian rule, by contrast, were quickly sinking into the brutish chaos of the Dark Ages, with recollections of advanced urban life a fading memory. Literacy declined precipitously as the struggle to scratch out an existence madeeducation an unaffordable luxury, and it would have disappeared completely without the church. There, writing was still valued, and remote monasteries managed to keep learning dimly alive. But throughout the West, trade slowed to a crawl, cities shrank, and the grand public buildings fell into disrepair.

The East, by contrast, remained a thriving hub of business, an extensive network of prosperous towns linked by the unparalleled Roman road system. Merchants carrying spices, bolts of silk from the Far East, and amber from the distant north crisscrossed busy roads to and from the bustling seaports. Artisans produced stunning works of enamel and gold filigree, jewelry and illuminations. On the coasts of Asia Minor and Greece, skilled workers harvested tiny shellfish to make a luxurious purple dye, and a new state-run industry of silk production sprang up in Constantinople.* In the minor and major cities alike, the professional classes were divided into guilds, students gathered at the universities, and peddlers delivered wares to housewives who didn’t want to fight the crowded streets.

Feast days and state holidays provided occasions for lavish parties among the upper class, while those of lower social standing en tertained themselves in the pleasant distractions of wine shops, restaurants, and small theaters. Country life continued to hum with the same rhythm it had maintained for centuries. Farmers scattered throughout the countryside cultivated their vineyards and gardens, while villagers worked the communal crop farms. At night, the working class would return from their fields to their wives and children for an evening meal of bread, vegetables, and cereals, usually boiled and combined with omelets and various kinds of cheese. The more affluent could add the meat of hares and birds, salt pork and sausages, or even lamb. For dessert, there were grape leaves stuffed with cinnamon, currants, and pastries filled with nuts and honey or stuffed with jam. Unlike the barbarian custom of smearing bread with animal fat, the Byzantines dipped their food in olive oil, and they filled out the meal with fresh fish, fruits, and various wines. A man’s worth could be judged, so they said, by his table.

But as the sixth century drew to a close, there were troubling signs on the horizon. The merchants, industrialists, and small landowners that made up the middle class were diminishing as wars and uprisings began to disrupt trade. Natural disasters and the seizure of their produce by passing troops made life difficult for farmers and frequently led them to borrow money they couldn’t hope to repay. Growing numbers of poor tried to flee the land to avoid their creditors, while those who remained sold themselves into serfdom to resolve their debts. Small farms began to disappear, swallowed by the ravenous hunger of the great aristocratic landowners. With a shrinking tax base and powerful landed magnates enjoying considerable tax exemptions, the central government was forced to resort to increasingly severe measures to keep its coffers full, but harsh tactics met with diminishing returns. Always chronically short of funds, the emperors who followed Justinian could spare no time for the relief of their citizens and turned a deaf ear to their complaints.

The growth of arts and sciences, which had reached such a pinnacle during Justinian’s reign, also began to slow as the empire’s fortunes declined. There was no more time or money for lavish buildings or leisurely inquiry; all resources had to be marshaled for the basic needs of survival. Even that survival, however, must have seemed to ensure only continued misery. Justinian’s wars of reconquest had obscured his diplomatic finesse, and the vain emperors who followed him saw war as the first, rather than the last, option. They thought that invincibility came with prestige and all too quickly committed the empire to ruinous conflicts it could ill afford. To the poor farmers building their lives in the countryside, it hardly mattered if the armies that tramped across their land wore Byzantine uniforms or not. The end result was always the same: Their produce was seized, their fields were plundered, and their livestock disappeared. They felt little loyalty to the distant rulers in Constantinople and were perfectly happy to throw their support behind the first pretender to promise them better lives. Revolt became endemic, and emperors found it impossible to hold onto the allegiance of such a diverse and splintering state.

Justinian had boasted that his empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, but in the wake of his glory, the empire faced a stunning collapse. The territory added by his reconquest introduced the diverse lands of North Africa, Italy, and Spain to an already volatile mix, and since these new territories were isolated with only tenuous land routes between them, they had little that bound them to the rest of the empire. The great synthesis of the Roman world cracked under the strain of plague, invasion, and religious tension, and its edges drifted steadily away from the center at Constantinople.

To hold itself together, the unwieldy state needed a visionary leader, but the emperors who sat on the Byzantine throne at the end of the fifth century were shortsighted men, neither as wise nor as forceful as Justinian, and they were completely unable to duplicate the delicate balancing act needed to maintain peace with the empire’s many enemies. All too often they compounded their problems by trading Justinian’s unpopular but necessary policies for the temporary favor of the crowd, and these shortsighted decisions brought the empire to the verge of collapse within a generation. History provides few better examples of the dangers of governing by the interests of the moment.

By the end of the sixth century, the reconquests that had cost so much blood and treasure to gain had been carelessly thrown away, and the empire was retreating on all fronts.* In Constantinople, a demented usurper without a shred of legitimacy named Phocas seized the throne, and the Balkans disappeared under a flood of Slavic invasion. Armies pushed beyond endurance were demoralized and disorganized, unwilling to fight for an uninspiring and corrupt government. Any wealth that escaped the clutches of the imperial tax collectors disappeared into the bottomless pockets of barbarian hordes that seemed to appear with depressing regularity. Refugees packed the cities, trade slowed to a crawl, and weeds and ruins choked the once-fertile fields. The empire was a spent force, a broken reed, the luster of its past a fading memory.

Virtually the only area of the empire that wasn’t collapsing was the prosperous coast of North Africa. There, under the warm sun, merchants continued to ply the waters of its harbors unmolested, and farmers harvested its fertile wheat fields. The province seemed far away from the swirling revolts and chronic unrest that had so thoroughly destroyed imperial prosperity, and some in Constantinople began to see it as the only chance of salvation. Disgusted by their bloody emperor, the Senate wrote secretly to the governor of North Africa, urging him to come at the head of an army and deliver the empire from its present nightmare.

When the letter arrived in Carthage, the governor read it with considerable interest. He was far too comfortable where he was, and, in any case, he felt himself to be too old to go gallivanting around, so he sent his son Heraclius with the African fleet to seize the throne in his stead.

The young man knew he had to act quickly. Each passing day seemed to bring the empire closer to destruction: While the government in Constantinople concentrated on purging itself of suspected dissidents in a horrifying bloodbath, the Persian king Chosroes II took advantage of the distraction to invade. Meeting only token resistance from the demoralized imperial army, the Persians quickly overran Mesopotamia and Armenia, plunging deeply into the Byzantine heartland and even probing into Egypt. Before long, Persian watch fires could be seen from the walls of Constantinople; and as panic rippled through the capital, the plague returned, bringing with it terrified prophecies of the end of the world.

It was at this moment, with the population of the capital at a fever pitch, that Heraclius arrived in the imperial harbor on board his magnificent flagship. At the sight of the vessel, a mob in Constan tinople lynched his predecessor, Phocas, dragging the mutilated corpse through the streets. Picking his way through the despoiled palace with care, Heraclius took stock of his shattered empire. It had lost nearly half of its territory, and what was left was demoralized and impoverished, but its roots were deep, and Heraclius was already starting to plan. The empire of the past was gone—of that he was confident. His task was to create something new—an empire that embraced its future. Byzantium would never be the same again.

The crowd milling about outside the imperial palace in the bright October sun of AD 610, waiting to catch a glimpse of their new emperor, didn’t quite know what to expect. He’d appeared seemingly out of nowhere like the Athena of their old pagan myths, springing fully grown out of the head of Zeus. There was an aura of success about him, and he was undeniably physically impressive. Barely thirty-six, with a full head of golden hair and impossibly burnished armor, he looked every inch an emperor, like some new Achilles appearing at Byzantium’s darkest hour. Energetic and hardworking, the emperor had the rare ability to inspire confidence in even the most desperate circumstances, and he threw himself into the task of rescuing the empire.

The challenges confronting him were enormous. The once-vaunted imperial army was scattered helplessly before its enemies, and Greece was buried beneath a Slavic flood. Refugees crowded into Constantinople, soon bringing with them news too terrible to comprehend. At first, it was only whispered in disbelief, but it spread like wildfire. Jerusalem had fallen to the Persians, and the True Cross was now in the hands of the fire worshippers of Ctesiphon.* All male citizens of Jerusalem had been killed, and the women and children had been sold into slavery.

Not since the Visigothic sack of Rome had such a disaster buffeted the empire. The Almighty had obviously withdrawn his hand, allowing pagans to cart off Christendom’s holiest relic, and now Byzantium was being punished for its hubris. All resistance to Persian arms collapsed as the terrified citizens scrambled to get out of the way of the terrible army. With nothing to stop him, the Persian king gleefully turned to Egypt and, in 619, managed to sack the province, depriving the empire of its main source of grain. After six centuries, the days of free bread were over. From now on, the citizens of Constantinople had to get their wheat from Thrace—and pay for it like everyone else. The end was clearly at hand, and with the frightening Persian enemy at the gates, Heraclius made the strategically sensible decision to abandon Constantinople and move the capital to his native Carthage, in North Africa. Or at least that’s what he announced. When the horrified population begged him to stay, he shrewdly agreed to remain on the condition that they would swear to accept whatever sacrifice he would demand.

Heraclius, it seemed, had learned the lessons of the last fifty years quite well. He had come to power on a wave of popularity but didn’t intend to rule with one finger in the wind. The empire was in a dreadful condition, and he knew that the road ahead would be long and difficult. He had little personal military experience, no veteran officers, no disciplined troops, and above all no money. The empire was bankrupt, unable to pay even the reduced salaries of its soldiers, and it couldn’t afford to hire costly mercenaries. If there was to be any hope of recovery, Heraclius needed money, and to get it he turned for the first time to the church.

In theory, the patriarch and the emperor were two arms of the same divine will, a spiritual leader and a secular enforcer of God’s kingdom here on earth, but all too often their relationship was defined by mild antagonism as each tried to ward off encroachment by the other. The emperor was driven by political necessities and wanted pliable bishops, but the church, always wary of the throne, took great pains to ensure that emperors remembered their place. The imperial role was to implement, not create, church policy, and patriarchs jealously guarded their councils from any hint of imperial interference. Keeping such roles clearly defined obviously needed constant vigilance, but it sometimes made it impossible for church and state to work confidently together.

When Heraclius met with the patriarch, Sergius, and explained the emergency, the patriarch responded immediately, pledging the entire wealth of the church and turning over an immense quantity of gold and silver plate to the emperor. This was especially impressive since Heraclius, violating several commandments (not to mention laws), had recently married his niece, Martina. Tactfully managing to overlook this indiscretion in light of the emergency, the patriarch made his donation, temporarily solving the financial woes of the empire.

Such cooperation would have been impossible in the West, where the pope had lost his emperor and the distinction between sacred and secular power had become hopelessly blurred. Forced to wear both the crown and the papal tiara, the pope entered the political arena, bringing the church into direct competition with the state. The kings of Europe strenuously fought papal interference in their affairs, while the church tried to fight its growing worldliness while maintaining its influence. The struggle between the two would become the defining tension of western history, and make the East—where the original roles hadn’t broken down—appear impossibly alien.

The cooperation between church and state may have enriched the emperor, but it failed to cheer the miserable inhabitants of the Eastern Empire. Farms continued to burn, men continued to be killed or enslaved, and still no armies came streaming out of the golden gate to defend the beleaguered citizens. They were left to fend for themselves, to curse the dreaded Persians and the emperor who had seemingly abandoned them, and to survive as best they could.

Heraclius hadn’t forgotten about them, however. He simply had his own plans and didn’t intend to be rushed. The imperial army was shattered and demoralized, and throwing it in front of the Persians would only destroy it completely. It needed to be carefully rebuilt and reorganized, and only when that task was finished could he lead it to the defense of the empire. For ten long years, Heraclius stubbornly resisted the pleas of his suffering people, the hawks in his government, and the repeated attempts of the Persians to draw him out. The walls of Constantinople would keep him safe, and he wouldn’t risk everything in a battle before he was absolutely ready.

By the spring of 622, his preparations were at last finished. It was a testament to Heraclius’s power to inspire that during those long years, despite appalling losses to imperial territory, there were no calls for his removal or pretenders rising to usurp him. There was still a nervous sense of disquiet, but the emperor’s confidence never wavered, and it proved infectious. The army he finally led out of the golden gate was infused with his charisma and proud in their bright armor to march to the defense of their compatriots.

The great advantage the Byzantines had never lost to the Persians was the control of the sea, and Heraclius used it to its full extent. Landing at Issus—where Alexander the Great had destroyed an earlier Persian Empire nearly a thousand years before—he launched a surprise attack. The battle was a desperate gamble. Heraclius knew that if he should fall the empire was doomed, but he was prepared to risk everything—even bringing along his pregnant wife, Martina. The Persians confronting him were commanded by their most famous general, a man who had conquered Egypt, but it was the inexperienced Heraclius who triumphed. Breaking before the Byzantine charge, the Persians were scattered, according to one source, “like a herd of goats.” Morale skyrocketed. The Persians were not invincible after all.

As the army wintered in Cappadocia, Heraclius infused them with his spirit, holding daily training sessions and filling them with confidence. They were honored men, he told them, fighting on the side of truth against the pagans who had burned their crops, killed their sons, and enslaved their wives. That spring they would have their revenge. Marching into modern-day Azerbaijan, the center of Persian Zoroastrian fire worship, the reinvigorated Byzantine army avenged Jerusalem by burning the great fire temple and sacking the birthplace of Zoroaster.

The Persian king Chosroes II was close to panic, but that spring he began to formulate a plan. The Persian Empire was vast, and Heraclius had now penetrated deeper into it than any Roman commander before him. The Byzantines were outnumbered and far from home, unable to maintain a war of attrition, and perhaps the king could use that to his advantage. Gathering an army fifty thousand strong, Chosroes II entrusted it to a general named Shahin, ordering him to destroy Heraclius and warning him that the cost of failure was death. Then, confident that the Byzantines would be tied down, the Persian king contacted the barbarian Avars and offered his support in an attack on Constantinople.

Heraclius was now faced with the most difficult decision of his career. If he rushed back to the defense of the capital, he would lose his best chance of winning the war and undo all the hard work of the past four years. On the other hand, if he stayed, Constantinople might fall for lack of defenders. His solution was to split the army into three parts. The first raced back to defend Constantinople; the second he entrusted to his brother Theodore to deal with Shahin; and the third, and by far the smallest, stayed with him to hold Armenia and the Caucasus Mountains and invade a virtually defenseless Persia.

Heraclius had great faith in the defenses of Constantinople, and in an attempt to bolster its defenders’ morale, he sent an avalanche of letters detailing every aspect of a successful defense. Armed with the emperor’s letters, and the knowledge that he had not left them to their fate, morale soared despite the rather terrifying presence of eighty thousand barbarians outside the walls. Every citizen of the city cheerfully took his turn manning the defenses or carrying supplies to the soldiers on the walls, and each day the patriarch made a circuit of the land walls while holding high an icon of the Virgin Mary, the protector of the city, who, it was whispered, struck terror into the hearts of the barbarians.*

The city certainly seemed to be under divine protection. Day after day, the siege engines battered uselessly against the walls, and tensions among the attackers began to rise, fraying the alliance between the barbarians and the Persians. When news arrived that the Byzantine army under Heraclius’s brother Theodore had met Shahin in a driving hailstorm and completely crushed the Persian army, the frustrated Avars gave up. Their mighty siege engines had been futile, their Persian allies were useless, and every attempt at subtlety had been effortlessly repulsed. The city was obviously under divine protection after all, and therefore invincible. Dismantling their equipment, the Avar hordes dragged themselves away from the sight of those accursed walls, burning some churches for good measure as they lumbered off.

Everything seemed to be collapsing at once for the Persians. Just a few years before, they had been on the brink of capturing Constantinople, and now their armies were broken and retreating on all fronts. Outside the ancient city of Nineveh, a last, desperate attempt was made to restrain the triumphant Heraclius, but in a bloody, eleven-hour battle, the emperor shattered the Persian army, killing its commander in single combat.

The brutal sacking of Ctesiphon that followed the battle put the finishing touches on the war. So much treasure was captured that Heraclius’s army couldn’t carry it all, and much of it had to be consigned to the flames. Chosroes II called for women and children todefend him, but by now he was widely blamed for the calamity that had overtaken Persia, and no one was willing to fight for him.* Furiously turning on their monarch, the army and people alike rose up in revolt, and their justice was terrible. Chosroes II was flung into the ominously named Tower of Darkness, where he was given only enough food and water to prolong his agony. When he had suffered enough, he was dragged out and forced to watch as his children were executed in front of him. After the last of his offspring had expired, his torment was finally brought to an end when he was shot slowly to death with arrows.

The war had broken Persian strength, and the new king, Shahr-Baraz, immediately sued for peace, surrendering all the conquered land, releasing all prisoners, and returning the True Cross. As a final gesture of submission, he even made the Byzantine emperor the guardian of his son. Heraclius had recovered at a stroke all that had been lost during the long years of decline. The long struggle with Persia was over; never again would they trouble the Byzantine Empire.

The Senate rapturously granted their glorious emperor the title of “Scipio,” and when he arrived in sight of the capital, it was to find the entire population streaming out to meet him, waving olive branches and cheering. Singing hymns, they carried the emperor into the city, following the True Cross through the Golden Gate in a procession complete with the first elephants ever seen in the city. After marching to the Hagia Sophia, they watched as their victorious emperor raised the cross above the high altar. It had been six long years since Heraclius had left the city, but now he sat enthroned in all his glory. He had snatched the empire from the jaws of extinction and overthrown the power of Persia. The True Cross was enshrined, and the Lord’s enemies were scattered before it. Surely, this was the dawn of a new age.

Heraclius had restored the empire to its former glory, and, in appearance at least, it still resembled the classical world of antiquity. A Greek or Italian traveler could walk from the Strait of Gibraltar through North Africa and Egypt to Mesopotamia and feel comfortably at home. There were regional differences, but the cities were all reassuringly Roman, the language was Greek, and the culture was Hellenized. Most towns had the same familiar plan, complete with sumptuous baths waiting to wash the dust from tired feet and aqueducts and amphitheaters dotting the landscapes. Life may have been a bit more turbulent and uncertain, but it continued much as it had since the Romans first arrived with their powerful legions and ordered architecture.

But there were important differences, too. Even in educated circles, few men were now bilingual. Latin had always been widely considered an unsatisfactory language for sophisticated discussions, especially theological ones, and over the centuries it had slowly died out. Western officials posted to the East had been able to obtain phrase books with local Greek expressions to assist them, but no one bothered to return the favor. The cultural flow swept relentlessly in one direction only, and though Greek thought still moved west, in the East the Latin classics of Virgil, Horace, and Cicero remained untranslated and widely unknown. By the time of Heraclius, few men could understand the archaic language that the empire’s laws were written in, and the emperor, who prized military efficiency above all else, swept away the old trappings of the Latin empire. Greek was made the official language, and even the imperial titles were modified accordingly. Every emperor from Augustus to Heraclius had been hailed as Imperator Caesar and Augustus, but after him they were known only as Basileus—the Greek word for king.* The break with the past was startling but long overdue. The empire was now thoroughly Greek, and within a generation the old imperial language was extinct.

In the spring of 630, Heraclius made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, walking barefoot to Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre to return the True Cross to the Holy City. He was riding high on a wave of popularity, but he soon discovered that his triumph over the Persians brought with it the familiar specter of religious dissension. Syria and Egypt had always been Monophysite, and their re-absorption into the empire ensured that the religious debate was reopened with a vengeance. Such a state of affairs was an ominous weakness for the next invader to exploit, but where faith was involved, not even the conqueror of Persia could force his stubbornly independent inhabitants to fall into line.

The empire had been ravaged by the war with Persia, losing more than two hundred thousand men to the struggle, and now it was ripping itself apart internally as well. Despite the recent victory, the days of prosperity seemed long gone. Too many cities had been sacked and farms burned for the rhythms of everyday life to resume. Perhaps with time and stability the merchants and laborers would be coaxed back to their trades and prosperity would return, but the long, crippling war between Persia and Byzantium had left both empires exhausted. The cost of Heraclius’s great victory was a weakened and vulnerable empire, and the only saving grace was that Persia was in an even worse state. In 622, however, the very year Heraclius had set out on his great campaign, a new and infinitely more predatory enemy than Persia had been born.

*Transporting silks from the Far East was both expensive and slow, but fortunately for the empire, two monks had discovered the secrets of the silk moth’s life cycle and managed to smuggle several out of China. The delighted Justinian immediately planted mulberry trees in the capital to provide them with food, and Byzantium’s most lucrative industry was born.

*After he had completed the conquest of Italy, Justinian’s old commander Narses was recalled with an alarming lack of tact. The wife of Justinian’s successor mocked the ninety-year-old eunuch by sending him a golden distaff with a letter of dismissal. “Since you are not a man,” it supposedly read, “go spin wool with the women.” Enraged by the unnecessary insult after a lifetime of service, Narses muttered that “he would tie her such a knot that she would not unravel it in her lifetime.” Preparing to go into retirement in Naples, he spitefully invited the long beards—Lombards—into Italy. The peninsula was not united again until the risorgimento of the nineteenth century.

*The cross had been found in the Holy Land by Constantine the Great’s mother, Saint Helena, and was believed to be the very cross on which Christ was crucified.

*This was known as the Hodegetria and was the holiest relic in Byzantium. Believed to have been painted by Saint Luke himself, it was brought to Constantinople in the fifth century and installed in a monastery built specifically to house it.

Shahin committed suicide after the battle to escape the wrath of his vicious overlord, but Chosroes II had the body packed in salt and transported to the capital. When it arrived, he had it whipped until it was no longer recognizable.

*Chosroes II certainly didn’t help matters with his conduct. After one battle he sent his defeated general a woman’s dress, provoking an instant rebellion.

Scipio Africanus, the greatest of the Roman Republic’s military heroes, had defeated the mighty Hannibal and ended the Second Punic War.

*After his victory over the Persians Heraclius took their title of “King of Kings,” but thought better of it and stuck with the more modest Basileus.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!