Noblest of the Gods, King and Master of the whole Earth, Son of the great Hormisdas, CHOSROES, to Heraclius his vile and insensate slave:
Refusing to submit to our rule, you call yourself lord and sovereign. You seize and distribute our treasure, you deceive our servants. You never cease to annoy us with your bands of brigands. Have I not destroyed you Greeks? You say that you trust in God; why then has he not delivered out of my hand Caesarea, Jerusalem, Alexandria? . . . Could I not also destroy Constantinople?
Letter from Chosroes II to Heraclius, c. 622
Now in the prime of life - he was probably about thirty-six - fair-haired and broad-chested, still glowing with his triple triumph of conquest, marriage and coronation in a single day, Heraclius must have appeared something of a demi-god when, on the evening of Monday 5 October 610, he stepped out of the Great Palace, his lovely young wife on his arm. And yet, among all his cheering subjects, there were surely many who feared lest this twenty-first Emperor of Byzantium might also be the last.
Never had any of his predecessors inherited so desperate a situation. To the west, the Avars and the Slavs had overrun the Balkans, their raiding parties regularly approaching the very gates of Constantinople; to the east the Persian watch-fires at Chalcedon, immediately across the Bosphorus, were clearly visible from the windows of the imperial palace. The capital, he knew, was safe for the moment: the Theodosian Walls were in good repair, while the Persians had no ships by which to pass over the straits, which were in any case ceaselessly patrolled by his own fleet. Constantine the Great had chosen the site for its impregnability, and he had chosen well. But though the centre of the Empire might remain secure, the extremities were fast falling away. The entire Balkan peninsula was by now effectively lost to the Slavs; and the Persian advance, halted as it might be at the frontiers of Europe, was continuing in Asia unchecked - and was now receiving additional momentum all the time, thanks to the enthusiastic support of the Jewish communities. Within a year of Heraclius's accession, the brilliant Persian general Shahr-Baraz - the 'Royal Boar' - had seized Antioch. In 613 he added Damascus, and in 614 Jerusalem.
Of the many catastrophes that have befallen this unhappiest of cities during its long history, the capture of Jerusalem by the Persians was one of the most hideous. The tale begins innocently enough: the citizens accepted the quite reasonable terms offered them - including a Persian garrison - and for a month all was well. Then, without warning, the Christians suddenly rose up and slaughtered every Persian and Jew on whom they could lay their hands. Those fortunate enough to escape hurried at once to Shahr-Baraz, who had by now continued his advance with the army. He turned back, only to find that Jerusalem had once more closed its gates against him. For the best part of a month it held out; only after the Persians had mined the walls were they able to smash their way into the city.
What followed was a massacre - and one of quite unprecedented savagery. It lasted for three long days, at the end of which hardly a Christian was left alive, hardly a house standing. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was burnt to ashes, together with most of the other principal Christian shrines; the Patriarch Zacharias was taken prisoner; the True Cross was seized, together with all the other most sacred relics of the Crucifixion, including the Holy Lance and Sponge, and carried away to Ctesiphon. Nor, it appears, were the Persians the only - or even the worst - aggressors. Many Jews had survived the first uprising; many more had taken service with the Persian army; and more still, we may assume, when they heard of what was going on in Jerusalem, hurried up from the neighbouring towns and villages to settle old scores. According to one of our principal sources for the period, the monk Theophanes -who was, however, writing 200 years later, and from a strongly Christian viewpoint - no less than 90,000 of his co-religionists met their deaths at Jewish hands during those nightmare days. None, he maintains, were spared - least of all the monks and nuns, who were often singled out for especially brutal treatment.
The news of the destruction of Jerusalem, and above all of the removal of the True Cross, was received with horror in Constantinople. No clearer mark of divine displeasure could be imagined. But it was not the end of the Empire's tribulations. Three years later the Great King turned his attention to Egypt; and before long one of the most indispensable sources of the imperial corn supply had become a Persian province. With the entire Greek peninsula now lost to the Slavs and the rich wheatfields of Thrace in Avar hands, the inevitable result was famine, bringing pestilence in its train. It began to look as though the Romans might, after all, be brought to their knees - though by starvation rather than conquest.
Already in 618 Heraclius had virtually decided on a drastic and unprecedented step - that of abandoning the capital altogether and falling back on his home city of Carthage, there to prepare a major offensive against his enemies similar to that which had led to the elimination of Phocas. From the point of view of the Empire as a whole, such a course would have had much to recommend it. It would have enabled him to make his dispensations in a way that was impossible in beleaguered Constantinople; it would have rid him of the inhibiting and frequently destructive influence of the Byzantine aristocracy and Senate, which had grown dangerously powerful since the death of Justinian; and it would have spared him the expense of maintaining the imperial palace and the court ceremonial that went with it, liberating huge sums of money for the raising of manpower and the provision of equipment and supplies. The citizens of Constantinople, on the other hand, were predictably horrified. Led by Sergius the Patriarch, they came to the Emperor in a body and implored him to remain with them; and Heraclius gave in to their entreaties. It may be that he feared a revolution if he stood firm; perhaps he interpreted as a sign from heaven the recent shipwreck, in a violent storm, of the vessel bound for Carthage on which he had secretly entrusted an advance consignment of the palace treasure some weeks before. In any case, he must have seen in this appeal the perfect opportunity of renewing the covenant with his subjects. If he remained with them, they in turn must be ready to accept whatever sacrifices he might demand of them, whatever hardships he might impose. Unhesitatingly, they accepted; and a day or two later, in the Church of St Sophia and in the presence of the Patriarch, he gave them a solemn oath that he would never desert the city.
By this time Heraclius had already been eight years on the throne - eight years about which our chief sources for the period are unusually silent; and more than one modern historian has expressed surprise at so long a period of apparent inactivity on the part of a young and energetic Emperor, at a time when the Empire was facing one of the most awesome crises in its history. Was it really necessary - so the argument runs - for him to wait twelve years after his accession before leading his army into battle? The answer, surely, is that it was. He had found the Empire in a state of chaos: the treasury exhausted, the army demoralized and dispirited, the civil administration incompetent and hopelessly corrupt. Confronted as he was by two such formidable enemies, there could be no question of victory until he had subjected the whole state to a thorough reorganization, moulding it once again into an efficient fighting machine. Meanwhile, he refused to be hurried. The walls of Constantinople and the waters of the Bosphorus would keep his foes at bay for as long as was required, if not a good deal longer. Let Chosroes whittle away at the eastern provinces if he must; once he were defeated, all the lost territory would be regained at a stroke. But to march against him without adequate preparation would be to risk the defeat not only of the Roman army but - since he was resolved to lead it in person - of Heraclius himself. And that, almost certainly, would be the end of the Empire.
Therefore, the very day after his coronation, he had set to work. His first task was to make those of his dominions as were still within his control properly ready for war. His years at Carthage - one of the two great exarchates established by Maurice some thirty years before - had shown him the wisdom of running the outlying provinces on strict military lines; and it was on just such a basis that he now began to reorganize all that part of Asia Minor that had not been lost to the Persians. This consisted, roughly speaking, of the land that lay west of a jagged line running north-east from Seleucia (the modern Selifke) on the Mediterranean coast to Rhizus (Rize) on the Black Sea;1 and Heraclius now divided it into four Themes - the Opsikion to the north-west, the Armeniakon to the north-east, the Anatolikon in the centre and finally the Carabisiani, which covered most of the southern coast and its hinterland. The new designation was significant in itself: tbema was the normal Greek word used to describe a division of troops, so the warlike character of the scheme was emphasized from the start. Not only was each theme placed under the supreme command of astrategos, or military governor; but considerable numbers of soldiers, or potential soldiers, were settled in each, receiving inalienable grants of land on condition of hereditary military service.
1 The Persian camp at Chalcedon had been merely a temporary outpost; all the land around it had remained loyal to the Emperor.
This new arrangement was to prove of immense value for the defence of the Empire in the years to come. It laid the foundations for a well-trained and on the whole reliable native army, and it effectively put an end to the old hit-and-miss system whereby the Emperor was obliged to recruit bodies of barbarian or other foreign mercenaries who all too frequently betrayed him. Well before the end of the seventh century there had grown up, all over western Anatolia, a whole new class of soldier-farmers who maintained themselves on their own land and, in return for a nominal stipend, were expected to present themselves for duty, armed and mounted, when summoned. The former provincial administration with its Praetorian Prefectures - dating largely from the days of Diocletian and Constantine and in some respects older still -soon withered away.
Then there were the imperial finances to be restored - another task which could not be accomplished overnight. Heraclius tackled it in a number of ways - through taxation, forced loans and the imposition of crippling fines on former members of Phocas's notoriously corrupt bureaucracy; he was also able to arrange for large subsidies from his family and friends in Africa. But by far the most significant single source of revenue was - for the first time in its history - the orthodox Church. For Patriarch Sergius, the coming war was to be a war of religion, a war which would signal the final victory of the forces of Christ over the pagan fire-worshippers; and he was resolved to back his Emperor to the hilt. Relations between himself and Heraclius had recently been under strain. The Empress Eudocia had died, apparently of an epileptic seizure, soon after the birth of her second child in 612; and her husband had shortly afterwards gone through a ceremony of marriage with his niece Martina, thereby causing much scandal in religious circles. Sergius had made a violent protest at the time; but now, in the national interest, he was prepared to overlook any irregularities in the Emperor's private life. Unhesitatingly he put all the ecclesiastical and monastic treasure, from every diocese and parish under his authority, at the disposal of the State. Heraclius accepted it at once. At least for the moment, his financial worries were over.
Before he could march against the Persians, however, there were the Avars to be dealt with. In 619 it looked as though some accommodation might be reached, when their Khagan proposed a conference with the Emperor at Heraclea on the Marmara. Heraclius eagerly accepted the invitation, and decided to dazzle the barbarian horde with elaborate pageantry and theatrical performances, all designed to show off the magnificence of the Empire. It was while he was planning these manifestations at Selymbria that he suddenly received word that a detachment of Avar troops was even then taking up its position in the wooded heights above the Anastasian Walls.1 Clearly the whole thing was a plot: his line of retreat to Constantinople was to be cut off, after which it would be an easy matter to take him prisoner. Delaying only long enough to throw off his imperial robes and to disguise himself as a poor peasant, he leapt on to his horse and galloped back at full speed to the capital; minutes later, the Avars were in hot pursuit. They found the Theodosian Walls closed against them, but departed only after having destroyed several churches in the outer suburbs.
How Byzantine-Avar relations were patched up after this regrettable incident we do not know; our sources are once again silent. All that can be said for certain is that by the spring of 622 Heraclius was ready for the war which would, he was determined, put an end to the Persian threat once and for all. On Easter Monday, 5 April, he boarded his flagship - the first Emperor since Theodosius the Great personally to lead his forces into battle2 - and set sail to the south-west, his war fleet crowding behind him. Already, had he but known it, he had taken the Persians by surprise. They had expected him to move up the Bosphorus and into the Black Sea, ultimately launching his attack through Armenia. Instead, he headed in precisely the opposite direction: through the Marmara and the Hellespont, down the Ionian coast to Rhodes, then east along the southern shore of Asia Minor to the Bay of Issus. Here -only a few miles from where Alexander had routed the Persian host nearly a thousand years before - he landed his army, and here he spent the entire summer in an intensive programme of tactical exercises and manoeuvres, testing his own generalship and building up the endurance and stamina of his men until he felt that together they would be a match for anything the Great King could hurl against them. All the time, too, he was working steadily on their morale. It was their privilege, he told them, to be the chosen instruments of God by which he would destroy the forces of Antichrist. They were fighting not just for the Empire but also for their Faith, and must comport themselves accordingly. The Emperor's court poet, George of Pisidia, who accompanied the expedition, describes somewhat sanctimoniously the contrast between the two
1. Sec p. 260.
2. In 487 the Emperor Zeno, in one of his rasher moments, had undertaken to march against Thcodoric the Ostrogoth, and a century later Maurice had wished to take the field against the Avars; but both had thought better of it.
camps. In the Persian, he claims, the air was loud with cymbals and every kind of music, as the naked houris danced for the generals' delectation; in the Roman, 'the Emperor sought delight in psalms sung to mystical instruments, which awoke a divine echo in his soul'.1
Only as autumn was closing in did Heraclius begin his advance to the north towards Pontus and the Black Sea; and it was probably somewhere in the Cappadocian highlands that the Roman and Persian armies came finally face to face. The latter were once again under the command of Shahr-Baraz, their greatest and most experienced general. Heraclius, by contrast, had never before commanded an army in the field; but the encounter ended in the precipitous flight of the Persians, while the imperial troops pursued them through the rocks and gullies - for all the world, wrote George of Pisidia, as if they were hunting wild goats. Hugely elated by his victory, Heraclius hurried back by sea from Trebi-zond to Constantinople - where the Avars were again giving trouble -leaving his army to pass what remained of the winter in Pontus. There were no protests this time from the soldiers that they were not being permitted to return to their families. They were, after all, soldiers of the Cross - and victorious ones at that.
The second year of the campaign was even more successful than the first. After settling the Avar problem and spending Easter with his family in Nicomedia, the Emperor took ship back to Trebizond, accompanied this time by his beloved Martina. There he found the army awaiting him, eager to march. South-eastward they went, through Armenia and over the Persian frontier into the region we now know as Azerbaijan, the 'land of fire' that was the centre of Zoroastrian fire-worship. Presently the news reached him that Chosroes himself was nearby, in his magnificent palace at Ganzak; and having previously received reports suggesting that the True Cross and the other holy relics from Jerusalem might be there also, Heraclius now advanced directly on the city.
With a garrison estimated at 40,000, the Great King might have been expected to make a stand; instead, he immediately took flight towards Nineveh, leaving the great palace and the fire-temple adjoining it to the mercy of the invaders. Heraclius, however, was not in merciful mood. One glance at the temple, with its central statue of Chosroes surrounded by winged figures representing the sun, moon and stars, was enough to throw him into a fury. The building was razed to the ground, and the palace too; after which the army passed on to the neighbouring town of
1 Exp. Ptrs., iii, i; Bury, op. cit., V, iii.
Thebarmes, birthplace of Zoroaster himself, and reduced it to ashes in its turn. To their sorrow, there was no sign of the holy relics; but at least the Persian sack of Jerusalem had been properly avenged.
On they marched, almost due south now, towards the Persian capital at Ctesiphon, leaving a trail of ravaged fields and burning cities behind them. Had Heraclius driven his men just a little harder, they might have reached their goal before Shahr-Baraz arrived from the west with his newly recruited army - and the war might have ended four years earlier than it did. But the winter was approaching - and he had moreover other, more personal, reasons for wishing to call a halt. He told his men that he had resolved upon a sors evangelica: they would all fast for four days, after which he would open the gospels at random and be guided by whatever verse first met his eye. Which passage this proved to be we are not told; but it comes as no great surprise to hear that it confirmed the Emperor's own inclinations. Even the most bellicose of his lieutenants could hardly object to an order that could boast the Almighty's own seal of approval; but there must have been more than a few knowing glances when, a month or two later, the Empress Martina was safely delivered of a child.
The region to which Heraclius and his army withdrew - rather confusingly known as Albania - lay just beyond the confines of the Persian Empire, on the western shore of the Caspian. It was at that time inhabited by various barbarian tribes, mostly of Hunnish origin, who hated the Persians and were correspondingly well-disposed towards their enemies; many of them, indeed, eagerly enlisted under the imperial standards. Thus it was with a considerably larger army than before that Heraclius was able to launch the campaign of 624 - a campaign which centred almost exclusively on that territory, part Albania, part Armenia, lying between the Cyrus and the Araxes Rivers.1 There the Romans gained a victory even more decisive than that of two years before, this time over the combined armies of Shahr-Baraz and his colleague Sarablagas, who was killed in the course of the fighting. No sooner was the battle over than a third Persian general, Shahin,2 arrived at the head of yet another force in the hopes of turning the tide. But he was too late - and by the time he realized the fact, he found that he was also too late to retreat. His army in its turn, tired after a long march and appalled by the unexpected scenes of carnage, was quickly smashed to pieces.
The Emperor wintered on Lake Van; with the coming of spring, however, he decided to leave the high Armenian plateau. The local tribes
1. Now the Kura and the Aras.
2. He was also known as Sacs, a name by which he appears in several of the chronicles.
were beginning to distrust his increasing strength, and could no longer be relied upon; while the Persians, after their defeats of the previous year, would certainly not wish to give battle there again. It was far likelier that Shahr-Baraz would return to Asia Minor and, perhaps, press on to Chalcedon as he had before - particularly since the Avars were known to be preparing a major offensive from the west. And so, on 1 March 625, Heraclius led his army away on what was to be the longest and hardest journey that they had yet undertaken. Heading north past the eastern shore of the lake, they met the Arsanias River - now the Murat - among the foothills of Ararat, then followed it some 200 miles to the west before dropping down southward again to the neighbouring cities of Martyropolis and Amida (Diyarbakir), both of which he captured. From Amida it was only another seventy or eighty miles to the Euphrates, which they reached without, as yet, having had sight or sound of the enemy.
But he had been right about Shahr-Baraz, who had been following his every movement and who reached the great river just in time to cross it by a rope bridge - the only one existing for many miles on either side -and to cut it behind him. Heraclius had no alternative but to turn south, where he was fortunate enough to find a ford near Samosata (Samsat); it was then a relatively easy march on to the swiftly flowing Sarus - now the Seyhan - which he met just north of Adana. Here at last he found the Persian army, awaiting him across the river and drawn up ready for battle. There was, as it happened, a modest bridge nearby and the Romans, despite the fatigues of their long march, immediately flung themselves into the attack; but Shahr-Baraz, feigning retreat, cunningly led them into a carefully prepared ambush. Within a matter of minutes, the vanguard of the Emperor's hitherto invincible army was utterly destroyed.
The Persians meanwhile, overjoyed by the success of their plan and now busily engaged in pursuing and finishing off the survivors, had allowed their attention to become momentarily distracted from the bridge; and Heraclius saw his chance. Spurring his horse forward, he charged across, his rearguard close behind him. A Persian giant blocked his path, but the Emperor cut him down with a stroke of his sword and sent him plunging into the river. Shahr-Baraz, suddenly aware of what was happening, ordered his archers to defend the bank; but Heraclius pressed on, oblivious of the hail of arrows around him - several of which had found their mark on his own body. The Persians watched him in amazement. Not even their general could conceal his admiration:
'Look at your Emperor!' he is said to have exclaimed to a renegade Greek nearby. 'He fears these arrows and spears no more than would an anvil!'1
By his courage alone, Heraclius had saved the day. Early the next morning the Persians struck camp and began the long, weary journey back to their homeland, all the spirit gone out of them. Still, it had been a hard-fought battle; and the Emperor may well have reflected, as he led his sadly diminished army back through Cappadocia to its winter quarters outside Trebizond, on the dangers of over-confidence. Despite the heavy casualties, morale remained high; and thanks to the heroism that he had shown, his own personal prestige was higher still. But this year, for the first time, he had looked defeat in the face - and he had not liked what he saw. The war was not yet over. All the signs suggested that the enemy - both enemies - would renew the offensive in the spring; and that Constantinople itself would be their objective.
The city of Trebizond was ideally placed to receive intelligence from both east and west; and from neither quarter were the reports favourable. The Great King, determined to bring the war to a quick conclusion, had ordered a mass conscription of all able-bodied men, including foreigners, within his dominions and had entrusted Shahin with 50,000 hardened troops, ordering him to pursue Heraclius and cut his army to pieces. Should he fail, his own life would be forfeit. Shahr-Baraz, on the other hand, was to march an army of new recruits, untried and untrained, across Asia Minor to Chalcedon, there to give all possible assistance to the Avars in their projected attack. This too was now almost ready for launching. Meanwhile the Avar Khagan had managed to assemble virtually all the barbarian tribes from the Vistula to the Urals, and was already dragging his huge siege engines towards the walls of Constantinople. To what extent he had been able to coordinate his plans with those of the Persians is hard to assess; but some degree of collusion is beyond a doubt - the result, in all likelihood, of Shahr-Baraz's long sojourn at Chalcedon before his recent campaigns.
Heraclius was now faced with a difficult decision. If he and his army remained in Anatolia, his capital might fall through lack of manpower to protect it; if on the other hand he were to rush to its defence, he would be obliged to abandon positions on which the whole containment of the Persian menace depended, to say nothing of all hope of recovering the True Cross. At a stroke, he would be throwing away everything that he
1 Theophancs, Chronographia in M.P.G., Vol. 108, p. 654.
had worked so hard, through four exhausting campaigns, to achieve. He decided therefore to stay where he was, but to divide his available forces into three. The first left at once by sea for Constantinople; the second, which he placed under the command of his brother Theodore, he sent off to deal with Shahin, whom he knew to be in Mesopotamia; the third — and by far the smallest - would remain under his command, hold Armenia and the Caucasus and, he hoped, ultimately invade a relatively defenceless Persia.
This decision did not, however, mean that the Emperor intended to leave Constantinople and its defenders to look after themselves. On the contrary, Patriarch Sergius and the Patrician Bonus, to whom he had jointly entrusted the city's defence, found themselves deluged with orders, instructions, advice and messages of encouragement. These last were posted publicly in the streets and had an immediate effect, firing the whole population with determination and enthusiasm for the struggle ahead. Heraclius himself meanwhile turned his attention to one of the principal Hunnish tribes of the Caucasus, the Khazars, intercepting them as they returned from a raiding expedition in Azerbaijan and dazzling their Khagan, Ziebil, by the splendour of his court, which he maintained even when on campaign, and by the richness of his presents. In the course of one of their several conversations, he showed the Khagan a picture of his daughter Epiphania and promised him her hand in marriage. Ziebil, enchanted by the picture and flattered beyond measure both by the treatment he was receiving and by the prospect of himself joining the imperial family, offered Heraclius 40,000 of his best men in return. (Fortunately for Epiphania, he was dead by the end of the year; the poor girl was thus spared the grim fate to which her father had unhesitatingly consigned her.)
While Heraclius and his new Khazar army were ravaging Azerbaijan, his brother Theodore scored a crushing victory over Shahin in Mesopotamia. We know little about the battle, save that it was fought in a driving hailstorm, which unleashed its entire fury on the Persian army -the Romans being in some mysterious way sheltered or protected from it. In consequence of his defeat, the Persian commander fell into a deep depression and shortly afterwards died - whether by his own hand, to forestall the promised vengeance of his master, or of sheer despair is not recorded. When Chosroes heard of his death, he ordered the body to be packed in salt and brought to him at once; on its arrival, he watched grimly while it was stripped and scourged until it was no longer recognizable.
For some time now, there had been those at the Persian court who were beginning to doubt the Great King's sanity. After this exhibition they doubted no longer.
It was 29 June 626. The night sky glowed red with the light of blazing churches as Persians and Avars signalled to each other across the Bosphorus, confirming that they had arrived in their prearranged positions and that they were ready to mount their concerted attack. The inhabitants of the suburbs outside the walls hastily loaded their possessions on to barrows and carts and sought refuge within the gates, which were closed and bolted behind them; and the long-threatened siege began. As the barbarian hordes dug themselves in along the walls, the Avar Khagan made one last offer to spare the city, in return for a huge ransom; but morale in Constantinople had never been higher, and his proposals were rejected with contempt.
The barbarian host - Avars and Huns, Gepids and Bulgars, Scythians and Slavs - numbering about 80,000, were now spread out along the whole seven-mile length of the Theodosian Walls from the Marmara to the Golden Horn - in the upper reaches of which, a mile or two to the north of the city, a fleet of small dug-outs, manned by Slavs of both sexes, stood ready to give sea-borne assistance as necessary to the besiegers. The walls were defended by rather more than 12,000 Byzantine cavalry; but these in their turn were supported by every citizen of Constantinople, the entire population having been worked up by Patriarch Sergius to a positive frenzy of religious enthusiasm. Day and night, the pressure was maintained; one after another, the great catapults and mangonels were trundled into position, hurling huge rocks against, and occasionally over, the ramparts. But the walls held, and the defenders stood firm. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Persians had still made no attempt to cross the Bosphorus. It was true that they had no siege engines, and they may well have reasoned that for the moment they could make no useful contribution to the proceedings; but to the people of Constantinople it seemed that they were playing an unusually passive role.
All through a sweltering July the siege continued, Patriarch Sergius making a daily procession with his clergy along the whole length of the walls, carrying above his head a miraculous icon of the Virgin which, it was claimed, struck terror into the hearts of the barbarians below. Then, on the evening of Saturday 2 August, the Khagan invited the Patrician Bonus to send a deputation to his camp, giving it to be understood that he might be ready to call off the attack on more favourable terms than those previously offered. The delegates duly arrived at his tent, where they were furious to find three silk-robed envoys from Shahr-Baraz also present; and they felt still more insulted when the Persians were offered seats, while they themselves were obliged to remain standing. A violent argument ensued, after which the Byzantines repeated once again that they had no intention of surrender, then turned angrily on their heel and returned to Constantinople. That night they took their revenge. The boat carrying the three Persians was intercepted as it returned to Chal-cedon. One of the three, who had attempted to hide under a pile of blankets, was beheaded on the spot; the second had his hands cut off and was returned to the Khagan; the third was carried to a point off Chalcedon and there executed in full view of the Persian camp. His severed head was then hurled ashore with a message attached. It read: 'We and the Khagan are now reconciled. He has taken charge of the first two of your ambassadors. As for the third, here he is!'
It may be that the luckless Persians, in a final attempt to save their own lives, had revealed to the Byzantines details of their army's future plans; for, on the following Thursday, 7 August, a fleet of rafts and dugouts which was moving quietly across the Bosphorus to the Asiatic shore, there to pick up Persian troops and ferry them back over the straits, suddenly found itself surrounded by Greek ships. Their crews, hopelessly outnumbered, were either killed outright or thrown into the sea to drown, while their crude vessels were towed triumphantly back to Constantinople. Almost immediately afterwards, a collection of similar craft which the Slavs had gathered in the upper reaches of the Golden Horn was also pressed into action: their orders were to wait for a prearranged signal - a beacon fire at the foot of the walls, where they ran down to the water at Blachernae - and then to row en masse down the Horn and force their way through to the open sea. Once again, Bonus received advance warning of what was planned. Quickly he brought all his available biremes and triremes up to Blachernae; then, the moment they were in position, he himself lit a signal fire. The Slavs, who had not been expecting it for some hours, were taken by surprise; nevertheless, they obediently started on their way - only to run straight into the Byzantine ambush. Within an hour, their whole fleet was destroyed.
After this second disaster the besiegers seem to have been overcome by a sort of panic. The siege engines in which they had put so much trust had been proved useless, their most subtle stratagems had been effortlessly thwarted. At this moment, too, the news reached them of Theodore's victory over Shahin and Heraclius's new alliance with the Khazars. There could be but one explanation: the Empire was under divine protection. Had not a richly dressed woman - whom many believed to be the Blessed Virgin herself - been seen pacing to and fro along the ramparts? The next morning, the barbarians began to strike their camps; the day after, they were gone. Face, as far as possible, was saved: one or two more churches were burnt as they retreated, and there were the usual threats of vengeance and an early return to renew the siege. But to the Byzantines these words must have had a hollow ring. As the last of the horde disappeared from sight, with one accord they all hurried to Blachernae where, just outside the walls, stood the great church dedicated to the Virgin. To their joy, they found it untouched -yet another proof of her miraculous powers, to which they unhesitatingly ascribed their salvation.
The year 626, so memorable for the people of Constantinople, was for the Emperor Heraclius boring in the extreme. His Khazar alliance, by which he had set such store, proved a disappointment - after the death of Ziebil, the tribesmen quietly drifted away to the steppes of Turkestan whence they had come - and after Theodore's victory over Shahin there had been no major engagement with the Persians. Early in 627, therefore, the Emperor decided to make the long journey south to the palace of the Great King himself - at Dastagird, some twenty miles north of Ctesiphon. The journey took him most of the year; he was in no particular hurry, and it was in his interest to devastate as much of the countryside as he could en route. He knew, too, that he must move with caution. An immense Persian army was not far away; it might strike at any time, and he could not risk being caught off his guard.
But the Persian army was also biding its time. Its new commander was a general named Razates; he too had been ordered by Chosroes to conquer or die, and he was determined not to meet Heraclius until he was ready to do so, and then on his own terms. The moment came only at the very end of the year, when he finally caught up with the Roman army by the ruins of Nineveh. Even then, there was no surprise attack. Both commanders had ample time to choose their positions and dispose of their forces as they thought best; both placed themselves in the front line; and early in the morning of 12 December battle was joined. It continued for eleven hours without a break, every man involved knowing full well that he was almost certainly fighting the decisive encounter of the war. At its height, Razates suddenly challenged Heraclius to single combat. The Emperor accepted, spurred on his dun charger Dorkon, and - if George of Pisidia is to be believed - struck off the general's head with a single thrust. Two more Persian commanders are said to have suffered similar fates. Heraclius himself was wounded more than once, but refused to sheathe his sword. He and his men were still fighting when the sun set. Only then did they realize that there was virtually no enemy left to oppose them. The Persian army had been annihilated; all its commanders lay dead on the field.
It was morning before they could collect the spoils. The Emperor himself claimed the shield of Razates, set with 120 plates of gold, together with his gauntlets and his superb saddle. The general's head, impaled on a lance, was exhibited at the centre of the Roman camp, surrounded by twenty-eight captured Persian standards. Meanwhile the victorious soldiers were similarly helping themselves to helmets and swords, bucklers and breastplates. Few were to return to the west without some proud trophy of that memorable day.
But the time had not yet come to turn back. Chosroes had still to be sought out and toppled from his throne. After a few days' rest the army continued its march to the south, now heading towards Dastagird along the left bank of the Tigris. The river's two mighty tributaries, the Great Zab and the Little Zab, were crossed without incident, and Heraclius was able to celebrate Christmas in the oasis of Yezdem, while the priests of Zoroaster looked helplessly on. It was at about this time that he had the supreme good fortune to intercept a messenger from Chosroes bearing a letter to Shahr-Baraz in Chalcedon, ordering him to return at once. Here was an opportunity not to be missed. The Emperor quickly dictated another message, which was translated and substituted for the first. It announced a major Persian victory over the Romans, and instructed Shahr-Baraz to remain where he was. At least one potential danger had been deftly averted.
The Great King, meanwhile, had fled. He, his wife and his children had slipped out of the palace at Dastagird through a hole in the wall, unbeknownst to his ministers or even to his guards. He went first to Ctesiphon, the ancient capital in which he had not set foot for twenty-four years, only on his arrival remembering the prophecy of the Magi that any return to the city would portend his inevitable downfall; there was nothing for it but to continue his flight eastward into Suziana, the modern Khuzistan. Heraclius arrived at Dastagird to find the vast palace deserted. It was, by all accounts, of a beauty and sumptuousness incomparable; indeed, as the chief residence for a quarter of a century of the most magnificent of all the Sassanian monarchs, it could hardly have been otherwise. But the Emperor and his soldiers showed it no mercy or respect. They could not take it with them; and so in January 628 they committed it, and everything within it, to the flames - just as Alexander and his followers had fired Persepolis a thousand years before.
From the safety of Suziana, King Chosroes rejected a Roman offer of peace, calling instead on women and children, old men and eunuchs, to rally to the defence of Ctesiphon. But no one listened. The Persians had lost patience with their King; they were no longer prepared to tolerate his irrational behaviour, his folly or his by now legendary cruelty. Anyone could see that flash-point was not far off. For Heraclius, there was no purpose in besieging the old capital, or even in finally overthrowing a ruler whose own subjects were obviously about to do the job very effectively themselves. He may, too, have remembered his distant predecessor, the Emperor Julian who, returning nearly three centuries before from another expedition to the East, had been cut down in the desert by a Persian army within a few miles of Ctesiphon. He had no wish to suffer a similar fate. While still at Dastagird, therefore, he ordered his men to make themselves ready to march; and a week or two later he headed for home.
The subsequent downfall of Chosroes is not really part of our story; suffice it to say that the revolt, when it came early in 628, was led by the King's own son, Kavadh-Siroes; by Gundarnasp, the general commanding at Ctesiphon; and by Shahr-Baraz, who had by now returned from his long spell of inactivity at Chalcedon after discovering that Chosroes, furious that he had not come back earlier as instructed, had ordered his execution.1 The Great King was seized and flung into what was known as the Tower of Darkness, being allowed only as much bread and water as would keep him alive and so prolong his agony. All his children by his beautiful young second wife, Shirin - one of whom he had tried to make his successor - were then executed by their half-brother in his presence. Finally, on the fifth day of his incarceration, he was shot slowly to death with arrows.
The news reached Heraclius at Tauris (now Tabriz). The Persian ambassadors who brought it had encountered on their way, frozen in the mountain snows, the corpses of 3,000 of their compatriots, victims of
1 The discovery was made as a result of the interception by the Byzantines of another Persian messenger. This time they naturally passed his message on to Shahr-Baraz, having first added a list of four hundred other senior Persian officers also purportedly condemned - thereby ensuring plenty of support for the revolt when it took place.
the Emperor's last campaign. Only after Gundarnasp agreed to accompany them did they find the courage to complete their mission, and it was 3 April when they at last reached the Roman camp. Siroes's letter, announcing that he had succeeded to the throne 'without difficulty, by the grace of God', would have turned the stomach of a lesser man; but Heraclius gave as good as he got, addressing his reply to his 'dear son' and protesting that he had never dreamt of overthrowing Chosroes and that, had he captured him, he would immediately have restored him to power. The result was a treaty of peace, by the terms of which the Persians surrendered all the territories they had conquered and all the captives they had taken, together with the True Cross and the other relics of the Passion.
On Whit Sunday, 15 May, Patriarch Sergius ascended the high ambo in St Sophia and read the Emperor's message to his people.1 Beginning with the jubilate - 'Be joyful in the Lord' - it was, predictably, more a hymn of thanksgiving and a* religious exhortation than a proclamation of victory; and though there was much vilification and abuse heaped on the dead Chosroes ('He has gone by the same path as Judas Iscariot, of whom the Almighty said that it were better he had never been born') it is noteworthy that there is not a word of disapproval of Siroes and his particularly revolting parricide. But the people of Constantinople did not care. While the Senate passed a resolution granting Heraclius the honorific title of Scipio, one and all began to prepare a reception worthy of the conqueror.
Leaving the signing of the peace treaty to Theodore, Heraclius had meanwhile begun the long journey home with his army. When at last he arrived at his palace of Hiera, opposite Constantinople across the Bosphorus, it was to find what appeared to be the entire population of the capital waiting to greet him, olive branches and lighted candles in their hands. In the palace itself was his family: his sixteen-year-old elder son Constantine, who had already distinguished himself by his courage during the siege; his daughter Epiphania - all unconscious, one hopes, of the fate she had so narrowly escaped; his younger son by Martina, Heraclonas, now thirteen; and Martina herself, who had returned from the East with her new-born baby some months before.
It was, according to Theophanes, a happy if tearful reunion, after which the family might have been expected to pass on at once to Constantinople. Heraclius, however, had resolved not to enter his capital without the True Cross, which Theodore had been charged to bring as
1 The full text is preserved in the Paschal Chronicle.
quickly as possible. There was some initial delay, since for some time it could not be found; it was Shahr-Baraz who, in return for an assurance of the Emperor's goodwill towards him, eventually revealed its hiding-place. With this holiest of relics at last in his possession, Theodore hurried back; but it was well into September before he arrived at Chalcedon and arrangements could be made for the imperial homecoming.
The Golden Gate of Constantinople, that great ceremonial arch erected by Theodosius the Great in about 390 and incorporated into the newly built Land Walls some thirty years later, is a sa d sight today. The plates of solid gold which covered it and to which it owed its name have long since disappeared; gone too are the sculptures, both marble and bronze, which adorned the facade. Worse still, its three openings have been bricked up so that it is no longer even a gate at all. It now stands, half-hidden by the long grass surrounding the yedikule - the Castle of the Seven Towers, a few hundred yards along the walls from the Marmara shore - ignored and forgotten. It must, however, have looked very different on the morning of 14 September 628, when Heraclius entered his capital in triumph. Before him went the True Cross; behind, surrounded by his victorious soldiers, lumbered four elephants who had also made the long journey from Persia - the first, we are told, ever seen in Constantinople. Among the cheering crowds there were many who remarked how their Emperor had aged during his years of campaign: certainly, there was little now to remind them of the stalwart young demi-god who had made his first entry into the city on his arrival from Carthage, eighteen years before. The years of anxiety and hardship had taken their toll: though still only in his middle fifties he looked old and ill, his body prematurely stooping, his once-glorious mane of blond hair now reduced to a few grey strands. But if he had worn himself out, he had done so in the service of the Empire; thanks to him Sassanid Persia, though it would struggle on for a few more years, would never again prove a threat to Byzantium.
The procession threaded its way slowly through the streets to St Sophia, where Patriarch Sergius was waiting; and, at the solemn mass of thanksgiving that followed, the True Cross on which the Redeemer had died was slowly raised up until it stood, vertical, before the high altar. It was, perhaps, the most moving moment in the history of the Great Church, and it could well have been seen as a sign that God's enemies had been scattered and that a new golden age of Empire was about to dawn.
Alas, it proved to be nothing of the kind. Just six years before, in September 622 - the very year in which Heraclius had launched his Persian expedition - the Prophet Mohammed had taken flight with a few followers from the hostile city of Mecca to friendly Medina, thereby marking the starting-point for the whole Muslim era; and just five years afterwards, in 633, the armies of Islam would begin the advance that was to take them, in the course of a single century, to within 150 miles of Paris and to the very gates of Constantinople. Christendom's most formidable rival - and for the next thousand years its most implacable enemy - was already born, and would soon be on the march.
Until the second quarter of the seventh century, the land of Arabia was terra incognita to the Christian world. Remote and inhospitable, productive of nothing to tempt the sophisticated merchants of the West, it had made no contribution to civilization and seemed unlikely ever to do so. Its people, insofar as anyone knew anything about them, were presumed to be little better than savages, periodically slaughtering each other in violent outbreaks of tribal warfare, falling mercilessly upon any traveller foolhardy enough to venture among them, making not the slightest attempt towards unity or even stable government. Apart from a few scattered Jewish colonies around the coast and in Medina and a small Christian community in the Yemen, the overwhelming majority practised a sort of primitive polytheism which, in the city of Mecca - their commercial centre - appeared to be somehow focused on the huge black stone that stood in their principal temple, the Ka'aba. Where the outside world was concerned they showed no interest, made no impact and certainly posed no threat.
Then, in the twinkling of an eye, all was changed. In 633, showing a discipline and singleness of purpose of which they had previously given no sign and which was therefore totally unexpected by their victims, they suddenly burst out of Arabia. After three years they had taken Damascus; after five, Jerusalem; after six, all Syria. Within a decade, Egypt and Armenia had alike fallen to the Arab sword; within twenty years, the whole Persian Empire; within thirty, Afghanistan and most of the Punjab. Then, after a brief interval for consolidation, the victorious armies turned their attention to the West. In 711, having occupied the entire coast of North Africa, they invaded Spain; and by 732, less than a century after their first eruption from their desert homeland, they had crossed the Pyrenees and driven north to the banks of the Loire -where, after a week-long battle, they were checked at last.
History provides few parallels for so dramatic a saga of conquest, and only one explanation: that the Arabs were carried forward on a great surge of religious enthusiasm, implanted in them by their first and greatest leader, the Prophet Mohammed. So, indisputably, they were; it is worth remembering, however, that this enthusiasm contained scarcely any missionary zeal. Throughout their century of advance, their attempts at the mass - or even individual - conversion of their defeated enemies were remarkably few; and they tended at times to show an almost embarrassing respect for the religion of the Jews and Christians who, as 'People of the Book', could normally count on their toleration and goodwill. What their faith gave to them was, above all, a feeling of brotherhood, of cohesion and of almost limitless self-confidence, knowing as they did that Allah was with them, and that if it were His will that they should fall in battle they would be immediately rewarded in paradise - and a delightfully sensual paradise at that, whose promised delights were, it must be admitted, a good deal more alluring than those of its Christian counterpart. In this world, on the other hand, they willingly adopted a disciplined austerity that they had never known before, together with an unquestioning obedience whose outward manifestations were abstinence from wine and strong drink, periodic fasting and the five-times-daily ritual of prayer.
The founder of their religion was himself never to lead them on campaign. Born of humble origins some time around 570, orphaned in early childhood and finally married to a rich widow considerably older than himself, Mohammed was that rare combination of a visionary mystic and an astute, far-sighted statesman. In the former capacity, he preached, first, the singleness of God and second, the importance to mankind of total submission (islam) to his will. This was not a particularly original creed - both Jews and Christians, inside Arabia as well as out, had maintained it for centuries - but it seemed so to most of those who now heard it for the first time; and it was Mohammed's skill to present it in a new, homespun form, clothed in proverbs, fragments of desert lore and passages of almost musical eloquence, all of which were combined in that posthumous collection of his revelations which we know as the Koran. He was clever, too, in the way in which - although he almost certainly considered himself as a reformer rather than a revolutionary -he managed to identify his own name and person with the doctrine he preached: not by ascribing any divinity to himself as Jesus Christ had done, but by putting himself forward as the last and greatest of the Prophets, in whom all his predecessors - including Jesus - were subsumed.
He was a statesman, above all, in his pragmatic approach. Despite his genuine spiritual fervour, he was never a fanatic. He perfectly understood the people among whom he lived, and was always careful not to push them further than they would willingly go. He knew, for example, that they would never abandon polygamy: he therefore accepted it, and indeed himself took several more wives after the death of his first. Slavery was another integral part of Arabian life: this too he tolerated. He was even prepared to come to terms with features of the old animist religion; as early as 624 he decreed that the Faithful should turn towards the Ka'aba in Mecca when praying, rather than towards Jerusalem as he had previously enjoined. He never ceased to stress, on the other hand, one entirely new and distinctly unpalatable aspect of his creed - the inevitability of divine judgement after death: often, it seemed, he described the torments of hell even more vividly than the joys of paradise. And the fear of retribution may well have proved useful when he came to weld his followers into a political state.
Mohammed died of a fever in Mecca - to which he had triumphantly returned - on 8 June 632; and the leadership, both religious and political, passed to his oldest friend and most trusted lieutenant Abu-Bakr, who assumed the title of Caliph - literally, 'representative' of the Prophet. In the year following, the Muslim armies marched. But Abu-Bakr was already growing old; he in turn died soon afterwards - according to tradition in August 634, on the very day of the first capture of Damascus - and it was under the second Caliph, Omar, that the initial series of historic victories was won. In one respect in particular, luck was on the side of the Arabs: the recent war between Byzantium and Persia had left both Empires exhausted, no longer capable of any serious resistance. For the former, the situation was further aggravated by the fact that the peoples of Syria and Palestine felt no real loyalty towards the Emperor in Constantinople, who represented an alien Graeco-Roman culture and whose lack of sympathy for their monophysite traditions had periodically led to active persecution. The Muslim tide, composed as it was of Semites like themselves, professing a rigid monotheism not unlike their own and promising toleration for every variety of Christian belief, cannot have seemed to them substantially worse than the regime it swept away.
The Arab invasion of Syria in 633 found Heraclius already back in the East. He had stayed in Constantinople only six months after his triumphant homecoming, conscious all the time of the tasks that awaited him in the lands that he had so recently left. The provinces, for example, that he had reconquered from Persia - they must be re-established and reorganized, given a firm military and economic base to protect their future security. The doctrinal problems with the Eastern churches - they must be studied, thoroughly discussed and, if possible, resolved. Most important of all, the True Cross must be returned to Jerusalem where it belonged. With the coming of spring in 629, accompanied by his wife Martina and his eldest son Constantine, he had set off across Anatolia for Syria and Palestine. On reaching the Holy City, he had personally carried the Cross along the Via Dolorosa to the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Patriarch Zacharias was waiting to receive it back into his charge.
It was a measure of the good government that he had given the Empire - to say nothing of the security of his own position - that Heraclius was able to spend the next seven years in these eastern provinces, moving constantly from place to place, setting up his court in Damascus or Antioch, Edessa' or Emesa2 or Hierapolis,3 stamping out incompetence and inefficiency, reducing the power of the rich land-owners, improving and streamlining the administrative machine. Meanwhile, in the theological field, he made himself the champion of a new formula, recently developed by Patriarch Sergius in Constantinople, in the hopes that it might prove acceptable to the orthodox and monophysite communities alike, thus healing the rift which was assuming ever more dangerous proportions.
Sergius's proposal was, essentially, that although Christ had two separate natures, the human and the divine, these natures possessed a single active force, or energy. To put it another way, all that the monophysites would now be asked to accept was that the unity which they very properly perceived in the Saviour was one of energy rather than of nature. From the first this solution to the problem had been enthusiastically supported by Heraclius, who had proposed it to an Armenian bishop as early as 622; and during these later years we find him returning to it again and again - with, it must be said, most encouraging results. At Hierapolis in 629 the monophysite Bishop Athanasius had endorsed it in return for being appointed Patriarch of Antioch, and in the following year the new Patriarch of Alexandria reported further notable successes. From Rome, meanwhile, Pope Honorius had intimated that he had no
objection - although he made it clear that he took little interest in the matter one way or the other.
There was, nevertheless, a good deal of opposition from other quarters; and this opposition was led and orchestrated by a fanatically orthodox monk by the name of Sophronius. If Sophronius had remained in his monastery all might have been well, but in 634 an ironic fate decreed that he should be elected Patriarch of Jerusalem. Immediately, with all the authority of his new rank, he redoubled his attacks. The new doctrine, he thundered, was nothing but a bastard form of monophysitism, thinly disguised; as such, like the older heresy, it was a betrayal of all that had been achieved at the Council of Chalcedon. Suddenly, support for the theory of the single energy began to fall away. Erstwhile enthusiasts began to see fallacies and inherent contradictions, and the Emperor watched powerless while all that he had so patiently and painfully built up crumbled away to dust.
Nor was this the only blow that he was called upon to bear. In that same disastrous year of 634, the armies of the Prophet first poured into Syria; soon afterwards, news reached Heraclius in Antioch that the modest Byzantine force sent against them had been utterly annihilated. A few months later the Muslims had occupied Damascus and Emesa and were laying siege to Jerusalem. Now it was no longer just the results of long and patient diplomacy that had been undone overnight; it was all that had been achieved in six years' hard campaigning. Shattered as he was by these events, Heraclius at once applied himself to the task of raising a full-scale army; and a year later no less than 80,000 men were drawn up outside Antioch, including several thousand Armenians and a large detachment of Christian Arab cavalry.
In face of this threat the Muslims withdrew their garrisons from Emesa and Damascus and fell back on the Yarmuk River, a tributary of the Jordan which meets it just south of the Sea of Galilee. In May 636 the imperial army advanced southward to meet them - but, instead of launching an immediate attack, waited for three months in apparent indecision. The delay was fatal. The Christians, exposed to the increasingly merciless heat of the Syrian summer, grew restive and demoralized while the brilliant young Muslim general Khalid harassed them with incessant forays while awaiting the reinforcements he had ordered from Arabia. Soon after these had arrived, on 20 August, a violent sandstorm swept up from the south; Khalid saw his chance and charged. The Byzantine troops, caught unawares and blinded by the flying sand blown full in their faces, gave way under the impact and were massacred almost to a man.
The struggle, such as it had been, was over. Emesa and Damascus were reoccupied, and have ever since remained under Muslim rule. Jerusalem, under the governorship of Patriarch Sophronius, resisted stoutly for as long as it could; but food supplies were running low, all the surrounding countryside was in Arab hands and, apart from a small garrison at Caesarea, there was no Christian army nearer than Egypt. By the autumn of 637, the Patriarch agreed to capitulate - stipulating, however, one condition: that the Caliph Omar should be present to receive his surrender in person. Thus it was that, in February 638, the Caliph himself rode into Jerusalem. He was mounted on a snow-white camel, but his robes were tattered and threadbare in keeping with the austerity enjoined by the Prophet. Sophronius received him on the Mount of Olives and showed him every courtesy, taking him personally on a tour of the principal Christian shrines;' only when he saw the ragged but majestic figure standing in silence on the site of the Temple of Solomon - whence, it was believed, his friend Mohammed had ascended into heaven - did the Patriarch's self-control momentarily desert him. 'Behold,' he murmured, 'the Abomination of Desolation, spoken of by the Prophet Daniel, that standeth in the Holy Place.'
And what, during this hideous chain of disasters, of Heraclius himself? True, he had ordered the mobilization of his ill-fated army; but neither before nor afterwards did he personally take any part in the fighting. How, one wonders, can it possibly be that this heroic soldier-Emperor, scourge of the Persians, the first to lead his subjects into battle for over 200 years, should have remained inactive while these new and terrible enemies carried all before them - that this stalwart defender of Christendom, recoverer of the True Cross, should have stood by while Jerusalem itself fell into the hands of the infidel, lifting not a finger to save it?
The answer to these questions becomes painfully clear as we follow the Emperor through the last tragic years of his life. Already stricken by the disease that was ultimately to kill him, he was also rapidly approaching a state of both mental and spiritual collapse. Even before the battle of the Yarmuk, as he watched while the soldiers of the Prophet
1 The Caliph is said to have been in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when the hour came for prayer, but to have refused to spread his prayer-rug within the church lest the building should be claimed by his followers for Islam. He therefore withdrew to the outer porch and prayed there. His fears proved justified: the porch - but only the porch - was immediately taken over, and remains in Muslim hands to this day.
overran the lands that he had fought so hard to regain, he had been tormented by fears that God had abandoned him - that the Almighty had perhaps even transferred His support to this new tribe of conquerors. After the battle, he had given up all hope. His life's work, his long struggle with Persia, his tireless efforts to settle the theological controversies - all had been in vain. Pausing only to slip into beleaguered Jerusalem, thence to remove once again the True Cross that he had so recently restored, he turned his back on Syria for ever and set off on the long, weary road to Constantinople.
By the time he reached the Bosphorus his mind was seriously affected. Somehow, on the journey, he had developed an unreasoning terror of the sea; and once arrived at the palace of Hiera, nothing would induce him to make the mile-long journey across the strait. He remained, trembling, in his apartment, refusing to receive the anxious delegations from the capital that begged him to delay his return no longer, occasionally sending his sons to represent him at the games or at important feasts of the Church. Meanwhile he began to behave with quite uncharacteristic brutality. Hearing rumours of a conspiracy within the city in which his nephew Theodore and his bastard son Athalaric were said to have been implicated, he had them both sent away into banishment - but not before their noses and hands had been cut off at his command. When Theodore arrived at his place of exile on the Maltese offshore island of Gozo, it was to discover that the governor had been ordered to remove one of his feet as well.
Only after a delay of several weeks did his wife and his entourage hit upon a way of getting the Emperor home. If we are to believe the history of Theophanes - who, it must be remembered, was writing nearly two centuries after the event - a bridge of boats was thrown across the Bosphorus and fenced with green branches so as to form a sort of artificial hedge along each side, preventing him from seeing the water; Heraclius then mounted his horse and rode across 'as if he were on land'. Given the width of the strait and the strength of the currents, the story seems hardly likely; perhaps, as certain more recent historians have suggested, he travelled on a boat similarly disguised. Whatever the truth may be, the last return of the Emperor to his capital could not have been other than a sad, pathetic contrast to his previous entry, less than nine years before.
By this time it was plain to all that he was a dying man; and his superstitious subjects were not slow to explain the cause of his decline. Clearly, they whispered, he had incurred the wrath of God by his incestuous marriage to his niece. Of the nine children that Martina had borne him, four had died in infancy, one had a twisted neck and another, Theodosius, was deaf and dumb: could there be any more unmistakable indication of divine displeasure? The Emperor's steadily deteriorating mental and physical condition was only additional corroboration. Martina, never popular in Constantinople, now found herself hated and publicly reviled.
It is uncertain, however, whether she greatly cared, for all her energies were now fixed on a single objective: to ensure the succession of her own first-born, Heraclonas,1 as co-Emperor with Constantine, her husband's son by his first wife Eudocia. The task was scarcely daunting. Young Constantine, despite the heroism he had shown during the siege of the capital in 626, had grown up a sad and sickly young man, almost certainly consumptive; although there is no cause to think that his reason was impaired, he is known to have needed constant attention. And Heraclius no longer possessed the strength to resist his wife, even had he wished to do so. Thus it was that on 4 June 638, in the Palace of the Bosphorus, he tremulously lowered the imperial diadem on to the head of Heraclonas, while Martina and Constantine stood by. Both sons -now twenty-three and twenty-six respectively - were thenceforth co-rulers with their father, accompanying him (when he appeared at all) at occasional state ceremonies, but more and more often representing him in his absence.
The most important of these ceremonies, occurring within a few weeks of his son's coronation, was Heraclius's promulgation of what was known as his Ekthesis, in which he made one last attempt to heal the still-raging monophysite controversy. The doctrine of the single energy of Christ had, as we have seen, been exploded by Sophronius of Jerusalem four years previously; in Constantinople, however, Patriarch Sergius had refused to give up, and had now slightly amended his formula. The question of energies, it seemed, was no longer relevant: the important thing was that Christ, while possessing the two natures that had been confirmed at Chalcedon, had but a single will. If only this proposition could now be universally accepted, peace would at last return to the tormented Church.
And so the principles of monothelitism, the doctrine of the Single Will as set forth in the Ekthesis, were circulated to all the bishops of Christendom. A copy was posted up in the narthex of St Sophia; and
1 His real name was Heraclius, but he was generally known as Heraclonas to distinguish him from his father.
when Patriarch Sergius died in December 638 its prospects looked distinctly promising, with all four of the eastern Patriarchs signifying their assent. Only two years later did the blow fall, and then from a most unexpected quarter. Early in 641, the newly elected Pope John IV condemned the whole thing out of hand. An issue which had been virtually confined to the Eastern Church, and to which the Pope in Rome had till now shown himself to be largely indifferent, had suddenly been inflated into a major schism between East and West.
It led, too, to the final humiliation of the Emperor Heraclius. His body by now distended and near-paralysed with dropsy and plagued by other symptoms almost as unattractive,1 he spent the days groaning on his litter, brooding on the frustration of his efforts, the hopelessness of his life and the torments that he confidently expected after his death. In December 640 he had been informed of the arrival of the Saracen army at the gates of Alexandria; and now, just two months later, came the news of the Pope's condemnation of monothelitism. Had it been just a little longer delayed, the Emperor would have been beyond its reach; coming as it did, it added yet further to his despair. He was too tired, now, for courage: with his last breath he denied having had any part in the Ekthesis. It was all the fault of Sergius, he muttered; only at the Patriarch's request had he given it his unwilling approval. Thus, on 11 February 641, with a transparent lie on his lips, one of the greatest of Byzantine Emperors expired in misery and shame.
He had lived too long. Could he only have died in 629, with the Persian Empire on its knees and the Holy Cross restored to Jerusalem, his reign would have been the most glorious in the Empire's history; those last twelve years brought him only disappointment, disillusion and, ultimately, dishonour - with all the pain and indignity of a loathsome disease. Yet his record, despite its tragic end, remains a magnificent one. Without his energy, determination and inspired leadership, Constantinople might well have fallen to the Persians - in which case it would almost inevitably have been engulfed a few years later by the Muslim tide, with consequences for western Europe that can scarcely be imagined. As it was, he left Byzantium stronger than it had been for centuries, thanks to the military and administrative organization that he conceived and created and that was to become the backbone of the medieval Empire. The survival of that Empire for another 800 years, during which
1 'Every time that he voided water, he was obliged to lay a board across his stomach to prevent its spurting into his face' (Niccphorus, VII, xi). Thus, his subjects whispered, was the organ primarily responsible for his incestuous union singled out by the Almighty for special punishment.
it was to reach its highest and most brilliant apogee, was due in a very large measure to him.
Culturally, too, his reign marked the beginning of a new era. If Justinian had been the last of the truly Roman Emperors, it was Heraclius who dealt the old Roman tradition its death-blow. Until his day, Latin was still regularly used by the civil service and even by the army -despite the fact that it was incomprehensible to the overwhelming majority of his subjects. At a moment when efficiency of communications was of paramount importance, such a state of affairs was clearly ridiculous; and it was Heraclius who decreed that Greek, for long the language of the people and the Church, should henceforth be the official language of the Empire. Within a generation, even among the educated classes, Latin became virtually extinct. Finally, by way of marking the end of the old Empire and setting the seal on the new, he abolished the ancient Roman titles of imperial dignity. Heretofore, like his predecessors, he had been formally hailed as Imperator Caesar and Augustus; all these were now replaced by the old Greek word for 'King', Basileus — which was to remain the official title for as long as the Empire lasted.
For three days after his death the body of the Emperor lay, grotesque and misshapen, on an open bier guarded by the Palace eunuchs, while those of his subjects who remembered him in the years of his greatness filed slowly past it in silent homage. It was then laid in a sarcophagus of white onyx and buried, near that of Constantine the Great, in the Church of the Holy Apostles. Heraclius's sufferings were over at last; one further indignity, however, was reserved for him. Barely three months after his entombment, on the order of his first-born son, the sarcophagus was reopened and the jewelled diadem with which he had been buried was wrenched from his head.1 Spite, rather than cupidity, seems to have been the motive: Constantine had probably never forgiven his father for obliging him to share a crown that should have been his alone. None the less, as we read of those hideous last years of this most tragic of Emperors, it is hard not to feel that he - more perhaps than any other occupant of the Byzantine throne - should have been allowed to rest in peace
1 Cedrenus, 1, p. i 1.