The Downward Drift

[565-610]

En A vares Francique truces Gipidesque Getaeque Totque aliae gentes commotis undlque signis Bella movent. Qua vi tantos superabimus hostes Cum, virtus Romana, jaces?

Lo, the Avars and the wild Franks, the Gepids and the Getae,1 and so many other nations, their standards waving, make war on us from every side. What strength shall we find to overcome such fearsome enemies when you, O Roman virtue, lie forgotten?

Justin II, quoted by Corippus, In Laudem Justin:', I, 254-7

Byzantium was indeed beset by its enemies; and whether or not the Emperor Justin II, standing beside the bier of his predecessor, actually lamented the passing of the old Roman virtues as Corippus would have us believe, he certainly did his best to resurrect them. Proud, arrogant, unshakeable in his self-confidence, he believed implicitly that with wisdom and determination, with prudence and fortitude and above all with courage, those enemies could and would be scattered - and that he was the man to do it. He was soon to be painfully, even pitifully, disillusioned.

Justin gave proof of his new philosophy within a week of his accession, when he received an embassy from the Avars, a race of unknown but probably Tartar origin that had made its first appearance in the West only a few years before. His uncle, as might have been expected, had agreed to pay them an annual subsidy in return for their undertaking to keep various other hostile tribes away from the imperial frontiers; but in 562 they themselves had invaded Thrace and had categorically declined to accept the alternative homeland that he offered them in Pannonia. Clearly they were not to be trusted; and when their representatives,

1 A barbarian tribe by then extinct. The reference is presumably to their successors, the Slavs.

having offered formal congratulations to the new Emperor, requested payment of the money due to them under the former agreement it was Justin's turn to refuse. In the course of the following year he showed that he intended to take a similar line with the several other recipients of Justinian's bounty, including the Great King Chosroes himself. Such a display of firmness much increased his popularity, particularly as it seemed to offer prospects of reduced taxes; it soon revealed, however, that Justinian had not been paying out his subsidies for nothing.

Ironically enough, the race that dealt the Empire the severest blow of the many it sustained during Justin's reign was one which had previously caused no trouble and which had never received a penny of Byzantine protection money. The Lombards were a Germanic people who, in the fourth and fifth centuries, had slowly drifted southwards from their homes around the lower Elbe to the region that we should now call Austria. In 567, allied with the Avars, they inflicted an annihilating defeat on their neighbours the Gepids, and in the spring of the following year they crossed the Julian Alps into Italy. It says much for the effects of the wars of Belisarius and Narses that after fifteen years the greater part of the country was still in ruins, its people stunned and demoralized. The Lombards encountered no real resistance anywhere except Pavia, which they captured only after a three-year siege; but they made no move against Ravenna - where the imperial commander Lon-ginus also refrained from opposition, contenting himself with securing the city and its immediate surroundings. Meanwhile the conquerors continued their southward advance. Their King, Alboin, went no further than Tuscany, but many of his nobles pressed on further to set up independent duchies in Spoleto and Benevento which were to survive for another five centuries.1

Thus, from the start, the Lombards came to Italy not as raiders but as permanent settlers. They intermarried with the Italians, adopted their language, absorbed their culture and doubtless intended to make the whole peninsula their own. The fact that they made no attempt at this time on Byzantine Ravenna, nor on the cities of the Venetian lagoon associated with it is probably explained by their lack of numbers;

1 There is a venerable legend according to which the Lombards had been invited into Italy by Narses, in revenge for an insult that he had received from the Empress Sophia who, so the story goes, had sent him a distaff in a pointed reference to his emasculation. 'I will weave her such a skein,' the old eunuch is said to have muttered, 'that she will not unravel in her lifetime.' It is a good story - but, alas, nothing more.

doubtless for the same reason Naples, Calabria and Sicily also remained in imperial hands. It would be a mistake therefore to see the Lombards as destroyers of everything that Justinian, Belisarius and Narses had achieved; what they did was to impose severe limits on Byzantine authority in Italy and to introduce a powerful new element into the political scene. For over two centuries they were to flourish as an independent kingdom - until at last they were swallowed up in the new-founded Empire of the West and Charlemagne himself assumed their crown.

It might have been expected that so staunch an upholder of the Roman tradition as was the Emperor Justin would have lost no time in sending an army to expel the Lombards from his dominions; but he was fully occupied with the Avars. They too had profited vastly from the victory that the Lombards, with their help, had won over the Gepids. The former having moved into Italy and the latter having been virtually wiped out, the old Lombard territories now lay open to settlement; and once installed in their new homeland the Avars were at last in a position to take their revenge on Justin for his refusal to continue their subsidy. In 568, only a few months after the Lombard invasion, they burst into Dalmatia in a frenzy of wholesale destruction. This time the Emperor reacted quickly, sending as large a force as he could muster under the command of his Count of the Excubitors, Tiberius; but after three years of warfare the exhausted general could continue no longer and was obliged to seek a truce. The ensuing treaty cost Justin 80,000 pieces of silver, a sum far greater than the original subsidy; the blow to his pride must have been greater still.

That same year, 571, saw a dangerous development in the East. Justin was not the only ruler who had difficulties with his neighbours. For King Chosroes, the perennial problem was that of Armenia. It was not so much the fact that the Armenians, having lost not only their independence but also their political unity, were now split between the Byzantine and the Persian Empires; rather was it the fierce pride that they took in their Christianity, which constantly impelled those of them who were under the sway of the Great King to escape from the Persian yoke and, if they could no longer have a Kingdom of their own, to join their compatriots as subjects of the Christian Emperor. Now, suddenly, this chronic disaffection exploded into open revolt and the insurgents appealed to Justin for support - a request which as a Christian monarch he could not possibly ignore. Neither, however, could he hope that Chosroes, already furious at his refusal to continue the tribute promised by his uncle, would any longer restrain himself. Early in 5 72 the Persian War was resumed. It was to continue, with brief interruptions, for twenty years.

From the outset, things went badly for Byzantium. In November 573 the Persians seized Dara on the Tigris, one of the most important Christian bishoprics in the East; and at much the same time they invaded and ravaged Syria - whence, the chroniclers assure us, they returned with no less than 292,000 captives. Of these, 2,000 of the most beautiful Christian virgins were personally selected by Chosroes for presentation to the Khan of the Turks, whom he hoped to enlist as an ally; but the maidens, when they reached a great river within fifty leagues of the Khan's camp, sought permission from their heavy military escort to bathe, separated themselves a little from the soldiers on grounds of modesty and then, rather than face the simultaneous loss of their religion and their virtue, deliberately drowned themselves.1

By this time the Emperor had abandoned his earlier policy of guarded toleration of monophysitism in favour of open persecution - a decision made more reprehensible by the fact that he and Sophia had both been monophysites themselves in their youth, having later adopted the orthodox faith for purely political reasons. There were, so far as we know, no executions or tortures, but monks and nuns were driven from their monasteries and convents and the monophysite clergy were no longer recognized. This abrupt change of attitude occurred in 571, and some historians have attributed it to the beginnings of the mental disturbance which, over the next three years, reduced Justin to a state of hopeless insanity. In his calmer moments, John of Ephesus tells us, his chief amusement was to sit in a little cart and be dragged round his apartments by his keepers; but he was often subject to fits of extreme violence, during which he would attack anyone who approached him2 and try to hurl himself out of the windows, which had to be fitted with bars for his protection. In these moods there was only one way to pacify him: to

1.   John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History, VI, i. This period marks the first appearance of the Turks in the history of the West. In 568 or 569 they had sent an embassy to Constantinople, and a treaty of allegiance in the event of renewed hostilities with Persia had been signed the following year; but Chosrocs was evidently not unhopeful of winning them over.

2.   'They selected strong young men to act as his chamberlains and guard him; and when these youths were obliged to run after him and hold him he, being a powerful man, would turn upon them and seize them with his teeth, and tear them; and two of them he bit so severely about the head as to do them serious injury; and they took to their sick beds, and the report spread about the city that the Emperor had eaten two of his chamberlains' (John of Ephesus, 111, iii).

3.    

speak the name of Harith, the leader of a minor Arab tribe known as the Ghassanids. For reasons that were never altogether understood, this relatively unimportant chieftain inspired him with such terror that he instantly became quiet.

Sophia had meanwhile taken over the government of the Empire, and in 574 she persuaded Chosroes to grant a year's truce in return for a payment of 45,000 nomismata; but at the end of that same year, finding the burdens of state too heavy to bear alone, she took advantage of one of her husband's brief spells of lucidity to persuade him to raise Tiberius

·         whose defeat by the Avars had not, apparently, affected his reputation

·         to the rank of Caesar. From that moment the two of them acted as joint regents; and when Justin died on 4 October 578 his former Count of the Excubitors was his uncontested successor.

For Tiberius, it had not been an easy regency. The Turks, furious at the peace with Persia about which they had not been consulted and which they considered a betrayal, had repudiated the alliance and seized a Byzantine stronghold in the Crimea; and in 577 a vast horde of Slavs -their numbers were conservatively estimated at a hundred thousand - had poured into Thrace and Illyricum and settled there, the few and insignificant imperial garrisons being powerless to stop them. A more immediate problem than either, however, was that presented by Sophia herself. Not for nothing was she Theodora's niece. Having secured her colleague's promotion, she immediately began to show a marked reluctance to share her authority with him - especially in financial matters, in which he was, she claimed, unnecessarily extravagant. For as long as her husband lived, she insisted on keeping the keys of the imperial treasury herself, granting the unfortunate Caesar only the most meagre of allowances on which to keep himself and his family; she also jealously refused to permit his wife Ino or his two daughters to set foot in the Palace. Only after Justin's death did Tiberius finally dare to assert himself: Sophia, despite several unsuccessful plots to dethrone him, suddenly found herself deprived of her court and placed under close surveillance, in which unhappy condition she was to remain for the rest of her natural life while Ino, now rechristened Anastasia, was at last able to enjoy the privileges so long denied her.

The new Emperor, who assumed on his accession the additional name of Constantine, was - in marked contrast to his two predecessors -outstandingly popular with his people. He was also a pragmatist who, throughout his short reign, did his utmost to stem the steady decline in Byzantine fortunes. Persecution of the monophysites was stopped at once; being himself a Thracian, he instinctively understood that with Greek influence everywhere on the increase it was above all the Greek-speaking provinces of Asia that must be kept loyal and contented, and if that meant antagonizing the West it could not be helped.1 At the same time, in a deliberate reaction to the haughty aristocratic style favoured by Justinian and Justin, he tried to broaden the base of government by increasing the powers both of the previously moribund Senate and of the demes - the Greens and the Blues - which had been suppressed by Justinian after the Nika riots. The principal focus of his attention, however, was the army. The moment he had control of the Exchequer he set out to strengthen it by every means within his power, and in 581 he established a new elite corps of 15,000 barbarian foederati2 which, centuries later, was to evolve into the famous Varangian Guard.

With all his excellent intentions and his unremitting effort, Tiberius Constantine might have proved a great Emperor. The fact that he failed to do so can be attributed in a large degree to the fatal weakness against which Sophia had so forcibly reacted - his uncontrolled liberality. Not content with remitting, soon after his accession, one quarter of all taxes levied throughout the Empire, at various times in his reign he dispensed huge amounts of largesse in every direction. In his first year alone he gave away no less than7,200 pounds of gold - 800 of them to the army in Asia - to say nothing of silver, silk and other luxuries in almost insane abundance. The next three years saw further distributions on a similar scale; and it was perhaps just as well for the imperial treasury that by the end of the fourth he was dead - of poison, it was rumoured, taken in a dish of early but particularly succulent mulberries.

Tiberius Constantine died on 13 August 582, in his palace of the Hebdomon.3 A week before, he had appointed as his successor a young Cappadocian named Maurice, to whom he had simultaneously given his second daughter Constantina in marriage. Maurice could already boast a distinguished military record; he had just returned from four years at the Persian front, during which time he had largely reorganized the army, breathing new life and hope into its dispirited ranks. 'Make your reign my finest epitaph,' were the last words of the dying Emperor; and for

1 It must, however, in justice be recorded that he was a good deal less sympathetic to Arianism -presumably because, being a heresy favoured almost exclusively by barbarians, it did not in his view deserve similar respect,

2 See p. 108.

3 A suburb of the city which lay at the seventh milestone.

the next twenty years Maurice was to rule the Empire with a firm and competent hand.1 Coming to the throne during one of those brief lulls which occasionally interrupted the long drawn-out war with Persia, he was able to give serious thought to the situation in the West and to what was left of Justinian's conquests in Italy and Africa. The result was the two great Exarchates which he created - Ravenna and Carthage; organized on strict military lines under an Exarch who wielded absolute power over both the military and the civilian administration, they were long to remain the principal western outposts of imperial authority.

All too soon, however, hostilities with Persia flared up again. Old Chosroes had died in 579, a few months after Justin, and had been succeeded by his son Hormisdas, who had inherited to the full his father's love of battle. He had sustained a grave defeat at the hands of Maurice in 581, after which he had needed time to rebuild his shattered army; but by the end of the following year he had returned to the attack. A detailed account of the subsequent course of the war would be tedious for writer and reader alike, and is in any case unnecessary; suffice it to say that, despite a serious mutiny of their army in 588, the Romans somehow managed to hold their ground for two more years, until a coup d'etat in Persia led to a civil war. Hormisdas was killed; his son Chosroes II fled into Byzantine territory and appealed to Maurice for help. Despite the almost unanimous advice of his ministers, the Emperor saw a chance and seized it: he told the prince that he would be happy to provide the assistance he needed - but only in return for a treaty of peace between the two Empires, by the terms of which both Persian Armenia and eastern Mesopotamia, including the two great cities of Dara and Martyropolis on the Tigris, would be restored to Byzantium. In 591, with his support, young Chosroes overthrew the opposition - and kept his promises to the letter. The Persian War was over, sooner and on more favourable terms than anyone had dared to expect.

Now at last Maurice could fling the whole weight of his army against a foe which, during the past two years, had become every bit as dangerous as the Persians had ever been. In 571, the Avars had won their first major victory over Tiberius - by then Caesar and effective co-regent of the Empire. Next, in 581, they had captured by trickery the key city of Sirmium on the river Sava, which they were soon able to use as a base for the mopping up of several poorly-defended Byzantine

1 Our main primary source for the reign of Maurice is the History of Theophylact Simocatta, an Egyptian whose name literally means a flat-nosed cat and in whose style - 1 quote Professor Bury -'bombast, in all its frigidity, is carried to an unprecedented extreme'.

fortresses along the Danube. Meanwhile they continually increased their demands for tribute, until by 5 84 Maurice - whose propitiatory presents of an elephant and a golden bed had been contemptuously rejected by the Avar Khagan - was obliged to agree to a revised figure of 100,000 pieces. By this time the Emperor had appointed as general of his army in the West a former commander of his bodyguard named Comentiolus; but the army itself amounted to a mere 10,000 men, of whom only slightly more than half were capable soldiers; and apart from one significant victory at Adrianople he had little success in stemming the barbarian tide.

The peace with Persia meant that Maurice suddenly found himself with a far greater force at his disposal for deployment in the West;1 and such was his exhilaration that he announced his intention of taking the field in person. The Patriarch and Senate, to say nothing of his own family, implored him not to risk his life in such a manner; he refused to listen. As it happened, they need not have worried. The Emperor had got no further than Anchialus - on the Gulf of Burgas, in modern Bulgaria - when the unexpected arrival of a Persian embassy in Constantinople recalled him hurriedly to the capital; and by the time the ambassadors had departed he had lost interest in joining his army. Perhaps it was just as well. Despite his new-found strength the war was to continue, against both the predatory Avars and the immigrant Slavs, for the rest of his reign; and was to prove, indirectly, the cause of his death.

Maurice's difficulties in the West were further complicated by the fact that his relations with the Papacy were deteriorating fast. There had been several minor points of contention over the years, but the serious trouble began only in 588, when the Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Faster, adopted the title of 'Ecumenical' - thereby implying universal supremacy over all other prelates, including the Pope himself. John was not the first Patriarch to make this claim; the title had been used at various times for the best part of a century and until now had passed apparently unnoticed. This time, however, there were angry expostulations from Pope Pelagius; and still more vigorous protests followed two years later, when Pelagius was succeeded by one of the most formidable

1 As Theophylact puts it: 'And so, now that the day smiled upon affairs in the East, and made not her progress mythically, in Homeric fashion, from a barbaric couch, but refused to be called "rosy-fingered" inasmuch as the sword was not crimsoned with blood, the Emperor transferred his forces to Europe* - a fair enough example of the literary style admired at the time, through which the luckless historian is compelled to wade.

characters ever to assume the throne of St Peter: Gregory the Great. Gregory at once fired off two letters. The first was to Maurice demanding, for the sake of the peace of the Empire, that he call his recalcitrant Patriarch to order; the second he addressed to the Empress Constantina, begging her to intervene with her husband; John's arrogant assumption of the ecumenical title was, he claimed, a clear indication that the age of Antichrist was at hand.

Whether Constantina ever replied we do not know; but her husband did, and he fully supported his Patriarch. From that time forward, Gregory's irritation is plain to see; even so reasonable a measure as Maurice's law forbidding serving soldiers to desert on the grounds that they wished to enter monasteries was denounced by him as a further blow struck against the Church. But the Byzantines were irritated too, and it may well have been as a result of the Pope's protests that the fatal word soon became a regular part of the Patriarchal style. Gregory's successors wisely decided to ignore it; but what both sides must have known well enough was that the incident, trivial as it might seem in retrospect, marked another stage in the steadily growing rivalry between the Eastern and Western Churches - a rivalry which, four and a half centuries later, was to end in schism.

From the moment that he assumed the throne of Byzantium, Maurice had had to face one overriding problem: lack of money. Thanks to his predecessor's extravagance he had inherited a virtually bankrupt state, and the almost incessant warfare in both East and West - to say nothing of the vast subsidies which he was obliged to pay to his potential enemies - made it impossible for him to replenish the imperial coffers as he would have wished. The result was a parsimoniousness which, in his later years, became an obsession - making him not only unpopular with his subjects but oddly insensitive to what they would or would not tolerate. Already in 588 his proclamation that all military rations were to be reduced by a quarter had led to a widespread mutiny among the army of the East; in599 he is said to have refused - once more on grounds of economy - to ransom no less than 12,000 prisoners taken by the Avars, who consequently put them all to death; and three years later, in 602, he issued the most disastrous decree of all: that the army should not return to base for the coming winter, but should sit it out in the inhospitable and barbarous lands beyond the Danube.

The reaction was immediate and dramatic. The army had been fighting hard for eight months, and was physically and mentally exhausted.

During that time the men had acquired considerable amounts of booty, which was however useless to them until they could sell it in the markets of the capital. There was, in any case, a generally accepted tradition that soldiers returned for the winter to their wives and families. Instead, they were now being ordered to endure the intense cold and discomfort of a winter under canvas on the plains of Pannonia, living as best they could off the local populations and in constant danger from marauding barbarian clans, all because their miserly Emperor claimed that he could not afford to send them home. When they reached the fortress of Securisca (now the Bulgarian town of Nikopol) at which they were to cross the Danube, they flatly refused to go another step. Their general, Peter - whose position was scarcely improved by the fact that he was the Emperor's brother - argued and pleaded with them in vain. Turning their backs on him in scorn, they raised one of their own centurions, a certain Phocas, on their shields and proclaimed him their leader.

Peter, doubtless considering himself lucky to have escaped with his life, hurried back to Constantinople with news of the revolt, bearing with him a message to the Emperor from the rebels, who were even then preparing to march on the capital. There was no question, they emphasized, of Phocas being made Emperor. Maurice himself they would no longer tolerate, but they had not withdrawn their allegiance from his family: they would be happy to acclaim either his seventeen-year-old son Theodosius (who would be the first Emperor since Theodosius II to have been born in the purple), or failing him his father-in-law Germanus, as successor to the throne.

Both men chanced to be away together on a hunting expedition, but were immediately recalled by Maurice and accused of treason. Theodosius was flogged; Germanus, fearing (with good reason) that his life was in danger, fled for refuge to St Sophia where - with the help of numerous adherents - he successfully resisted several attempts by the imperial guard to drag him out by force. The Emperor meanwhile had turned for support to the demes - the two popular factions of the Hippodrome, brought out of their temporary obscurity by Tiberius and once again influential forces in the city. He had hoped to ensure the allegiance of both the Blues and the Greens, and had been relieved when both had agreed to man the Theodosian Walls against the mutineers' advance; but he soon discovered that while he could rely on the loyalty of the 900 active Blues, that of the 1,500 Greens was dangerously uncertain. By now riots had broken out all over the capital, and an angry crowd had gathered in the square outside the Palace, hurling imprecations at the Emperor and baying for his blood.

That night - it was 22 November - Maurice, his wife Constantina and their eight children, together with Constantine Lardys, the Praetorian Prefect of the East whose house had been burnt down by the mob, crept out of the Palace in disguise and took a small boat across the Marmara to Asia. A violent storm carried them far off their course, but they landed at last on the shore of the Bay of Nicomedia, near the Church of St Autonomus the Martyr. Here the Emperor, incapacitated by a severe attack of gout, was obliged to remain with Constantina and the rest of his children; Theodosius and the Prefect, however, headed east to the court of the Persian King. Chosroes owed his throne to Maurice's support; now was his opportunity to repay the debt.

In Constantinople, Germanus had meanwhile emerged from his refuge in St Sophia and, encouraged by the popular support he had received, now made his bid for the throne. Everything, he knew, depended on the attitude of the demes. He himself had always favoured the Blues, but it was clear that his cause would be hopeless without the backing of the far more numerous and influential Greens - in return for which he promised their leader, Sergius, rich rewards once the Empire were his. The offer was carefully considered, but refused. Convinced in their hearts that despite his protestations he would never really abandon their rivals, the Greens cast in their lot with Phocas, who had by now reached the outskirts of the capital.

Phocas too had made up his mind. His early disclaimer of any imperial ambitions may have been sincere at the time, but now the situation had changed: of the two candidates for the throne, Theodosius had fled and Germanus, it appeared, was no longer acceptable. From his headquarters in the Hebdomon he sent an emissary into Constantinople with a message to be read from the high pulpit of St Sophia, requiring Patriarch, Senate and people to come out at once to the Church of St John the Baptist; and there, a few hours later, 'that impudent centaur' (as Theophylact1 describes him) was crowned Emperor of the Romans. The following morning, in a chariot drawn by four white horses, he rode in triumph into his capital, scattering showers of gold to the populace as he passed; the day after, he made the traditional donations to the soldiers and, with still greater pomp, invested his wife Leontia with the rank and title of Augusta.

During this last ceremony a scuffle broke out between the Blues and

1 The full story of Maurice's downfall is given by Thcophylact {History, Vlll, vi-xii).

the Greens, in the course of which several Blues were heard to shout: 'Beware, beware! Remember that Maurice is not dead!' Phocas is unlikely to have forgotten; but it was a state of affairs that he was determined to remedy. A troop of soldiers was dispatched to Asia, where it quickly ran the fugitives to earth. The Emperor made no attempt to escape; there was no fight left in him. Indeed he appeared almost to welcome his captors, even sending a messenger to recall Theodosius and Constantine Lardys and dissuading the children's nurse from her attempt to substitute another child for one of the imperial princes. He is said to have watched impassively as his four younger sons were butchered before his eyes, only murmuring, 'Thou art just, O Lord, and just are thy judgements,' again and again. Then without another word he himself faced the executioner who dispatched him at a stroke. The bodies were cast into the sea, and Theophylact tells us that huge crowds came down to the shore to gaze on the corpses as they floated on the still waters of the bay. The troop commander, Lilius, meanwhile returned with the five heads to Constantinople, where they were later exposed at the Hebdomon.

As a ruler, Maurice had his faults. He was too much given to nepotism, a tendency which led him to advance worthless men like his brother Peter to positions far beyond their capabilities and to bestow large estates on members of his family and other favourites. His subjects, too, were surprised - in view of the parsimoniousness for which he was famous -to see the vast sums that he spent on his birthplace, the insignificant little Cappadocian town of Arabissus, in his determination to transform it into a rich and splendid city.1 We have seen, finally, his curious in-sensitivity to the feelings of his subjects and his inability to judge how far an unpopular policy could safely be pursued. In other ways, however, he proved a wise and far-sighted statesman. Quite apart from his newly established Exarchates of Carthage and Ravenna, he redrew the administrative map of the Empire, incorporating the scattered imperial possessions in both East and West into a new provincial system far simpler and more logical than the old. He was careful, too, always to place the ultimate responsibility for any given province in the hands of the military rather than those of the civil authorities. It was the former magister militum who was now accorded the new title of Exarch, effectively the imperial viceroy and answerable to none but the Emperor himself. Had

1 Now the still more insignificant village of Yarpuz, a little to the north of Mara§. When an earthquake destroyed all that Maurice had built, he immediately began all over again.

such firm organization existed in Justinian's day, Italy would surely have been conquered a good deal more expeditiously than it was, and might even have succeeded in turning the Lombard tide.

Thus the tragedy of Maurice's overthrow, even though he brought it largely on himself, was one that he had done little to deserve. By a combination of determination, clear-sightedness and sheer hard work he left the Empire immeasurably stronger than he found it - which was more than could have been said of any of his three immediate predecessors. Had he allowed his soldiers only a little more bread, or his people just a few more circuses, he would easily have escaped the fate he was called upon to suffer. Even as things were, it was only a matter of weeks before his subjects were mourning his death, asking themselves how they could ever have sacrificed him for the depraved and sadistic monster who took his place.

The chronicler George Cedrenus has left us a physical description of the Emperor Phocas. It hardly predisposes us in his favour. Under a tangle of red hair his thick, beetling eyebrows met across his nose; the rest of his face was deformed by a huge, angry scar that turned crimson when he was aroused, giving it a still more hideous aspect than that which it normally bore. He was not, however, as pleasant as he looked. Debauched, drunken and almost pathologically cruel, he loved, we are told, nothing so much as the sight of blood. Until his day, torture had been rare in the Byzantine Empire; it was Phocas who introduced the gallows and the rack, the blindings and the mutilations which were to cast so sinister a shadow over the centuries to come.

His eight-year reign saw the Empire at the nadir of its fortunes: a depth of abasement, humiliation and despair unequalled at any previous moment in its history. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that a popular revolution had given place to a reign of terror. The deaths of Maurice and his sons proved to be only the beginning; thereafter, executions and judicial murders followed thick and fast - among them those of the Praetorian Prefect Constantine Lardys; of Comentiolus; of the Emperor's brother Peter; and, almost certainly, of his son Theodosius - though a persistent rumour that he had escaped to Persia seems to have been believed by Phocas himself, who soon afterwards had one of his principal henchmen put to death on a charge of having accepted bribes to assist the young prince's flight. Of those principally concerned in the drama the only survivors - apart from the new Emperor and his friends - were Germanus, who swore loyalty to Phocas and whose life was accordingly spared on condition that he became a priest, and the Empress Constantina, who was dispatched with her three daughters to a nunnery. All those suspected of continuing loyalty to Maurice, whatever their rank or station, met their deaths by the axe, the bowstring or, more frequently, slow torture.

King Chosroes, meanwhile, had found in the fate of his friend and benefactor the pretext he had long been awaiting, and in 603 launched a huge army against Byzantium. Now the Empire had at that time only one first-rate general in the East, a certain Narses - he was, so far as is known, no relation of his more famous namesake - who had distinguished himself in the previous phase of the war and at whose name, we are told, every Persian child cringed in terror. For Maurice, Narses would have sprung to arms and, quite probably, driven back the invader; for Phocas he refused to budge. He had heard enough of the upstart Emperor to be determined to unseat him, even at the cost of a Persian victory. Rallying his men to his own standard, he rose in rebellion, seized Edessa (the modern Urfa) and appealed to Chosroes for help. That part of the army that had remained loyal to Phocas thus found itself obliged to fight two enemies simultaneously and soon took flight. Narses and Chosroes met in Edessa, together - if an Armenian chronicler is to be believed - with a young pretender who claimed to be Theodosius, and began planning their joint attack upon the usurper.

It was now plain to Phocas that if he were to save his skin he would need every soldier he possessed on the eastern front. He quickly concluded a truce with the Avars - promising them a huge annual tribute in return - and flung the whole weight of his army against the advancing Persians. But it was of no avail. Narses was lured to Constantinople under a guarantee of safe conduct, ostensibly to discuss peace terms. If only the Emperor had acted in good faith, he could probably have come to some arrangement and even won back his general's allegiance. Instead, the moment Narses reached the capital he was seized and burnt alive. At a stroke, Phocas had deprived himself of his best commander. Only two others remained of comparable quality; and of those one died of wounds after a battle, while the other was recalled on suspicion of treason and cast into prison in Constantinople. Supreme command of the army passed to the Emperor's nephew, one Domentziolus, a callow and inexperienced young soldier who proved no match for his brilliant adversaries. Over the next four years the Persians overran much of western Mesopotamia and Syria, Armenia and Cappadocia, Paphlagonia and Galatia in a steady, relentless tide, until in 608 their advance guard was encamped at Chalcedon, within sight of the capital. Meanwhile the Slavs and the Avars -the latter oblivious of the protection money they had received - continued to flood into the Balkan peninsula.

Desperate crises of the kind that the Empire was now facing tend to arouse strong feelings of national solidarity, the threatened people forgetting its political, social or even its confessional differences in its determination to present a united front against the common enemy. If Phocas had any chance left to him of averting disaster, it would have been to encourage such an attitude among his subjects. Instead, he chose this of all moments to initiate an all-out campaign for the persecution and forcible conversion of the Jews. Most of his intended victims lived in the eastern provinces - in the front line, as it were, in face of the Persian attack; to alienate them at such a time was an act of barely credible folly. The result was as might have been expected. The Jews of Antioch rose in revolt and began in their turn to massacre the local Christians, inflicting a particularly horrible and obscene death on the Patriarch, Anastasius. Thousands of terrified citizens, Christian and Jewish alike, fled the butchery and sought refuge in Persian-held territory. The whole Empire, it seemed, was rapidly sinking into anarchy.

Meanwhile, plot succeeded plot in swift succession. In one of them, Phocas was to be murdered in the Hippodrome, his place taken by the Praetorian Prefect of the East, Theodorus; in another, the Prefect was to be supplanted by Germanus - still as ambitious as ever, despite the holy orders he had reluctantly assumed. Both of these conspiracies were betrayed and reported to the Emperor, who had all those involved immediately executed - including the ex-Empress Constantina and her three daughters. More executions followed as Phocas, seeing the Empire tottering about him, grew more and more paranoically unstable. In the capital, the Greens revolted and set fire to several public buildings; in the eastern provinces there was chaos. Christians and Jews were now everywhere at each others' throats, while the latter openly allied themselves with the Persians - who, not surprisingly, received them with open arms. Even as far away as Palestine, what had begun as faction fighting between the Blues and the Greens in Jerusalem was now assuming the dimensions of civil war.

It was, of all places, from Africa that deliverance came at last. Ruling as Exarch in the city of Carthage was a certain Heraclius, who had been one of Maurice's principal generals in the war with Persia some twenty years before. With him as his second-in-command was his brother Gregorius. The two men were both by now in their late middle age too old, certainly, to take any decisive action themselves beyond breaking off communications with Constantinople and cutting off the grain supplies on which the capital depended; but in the course of the year 608 they raised a considerable army and prepared a fleet of warships, which they placed under the command of their respective sons: the army under Nicetas, son of Gregorius, and the fleet under the son of Heraclius, who bore the same name as his father. Towards the end of the year, Nicetas set out overland for Egypt, where he soon succeeded in capturing Alexandria before continuing his advance on Constantinople;1 and in 609 the young Heraclius sailed for Thessalonica, receiving a rapturous reception at all the ports at which he called on his way. Once arrived in the city, he spent the best part of a year rallying all the European malcontents to his banner and collecting further ships to swell his expedition; then, in the summer of 610, he set off on the last lap of his journey.

Even now, he was in no particular hurry. There were plenty more stops along the route to Constantinople, each one providing its quota of new adherents; and it must have been a formidable force indeed that, on Saturday 1 October, sailed confidently through the Marmara to anchor at the mouth of the Golden Horn. Heraclius was not expecting opposition. For some time now he had been in secret correspondence with Priscus, the Emperor's son-in-law and another one of Maurice's old commanders, who had himself narrowly escaped execution a year or two before2 and who had assured him that he would be welcomed in the city as its deliverer; he knew, too, that in the unlikely event of trouble he could rely on the entire faction of the Greens to intervene on his behalf. In fact, no intervention was necessary. Two days later the captive Emperor, already shorn of his imperial robes, was rowed out to his ship and dragged into his presence.

'Is it thus,' asked Heraclius, 'that you have governed the Empire?'

'Will you,' replied Phocas, with unexpected spirit, 'govern it any better?'

It was a good question; but it was hardly calculated to incline Heraclius

1.   Owing to his delay in Egypt, Nicetas was to reach Constantinople some time after his cousin, but Gibbon tells us that 'he submitted without a murmur to the fortune of his friend, and his laudable intentions were rewarded with an equestrian statue and a daughter of the Emperor'.

2.   Priscus had been conspiring against his father-in-law ever since the leaders of the demes had erected statues of his wife and himself next to those of the Emperor and Empress in the Hippodrome; Phocas, in a paroxysm of fury, had ordered them to be removed and had been with difficulty restrained from executing Priscus on a charge of treason. Two years after his accession Heraclius, having rather better cause to doubt Priscus's loyalty, ordered him forcibly tonsured and removed to a monastery, where he died a year or two later.

towards clemency. One of our sources, John of Antioch, tells us that he had Phocas chopped into pieces to make 'a carcase fit for hounds'; others suggest that he was delivered up to the combined mercies of the Blues and the Greens, to much the same effect. His henchmen and cronies suffered similar fates; and that very afternoon, in the Chapel of St Stephen within the Great Palace, Heraclius underwent two separate, though near-simultaneous, religious ceremonies. First he was married - to a lady to whom he had long been betrothed. Formerly known as Fabia, she now changed her name to Eudocia. Immediately afterwards, he was crowned Emperor.

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