In the reign of Herakleios (r. 610-641) the Roman emperor took for the first time the Greek title of βασιλεύς (basileus). This has been regarded by many as one of the potential dates for the foundation of Byzantium and the break with Rome, because for the first time an eastern emperor chose to express his official position in Greek instead of Latin. Alongside the introduction of Greek as the official language of the administration, numerous commentators have taken this to be the end of Rome due to Hellenization and the triumph of Greek ideas over Roman ones. The transition from Rome to Byzantium is not the topic of this post. My ideas on that lie in the realm the end of the structures that supported classical elite culture, but that is another story for another day. However, while I’m on the topic of language, I’ll bring up a point that always seems to be neglected when referring to the change of official language: Latin was not always the official language in the east. It was only instituted at the end of the third century under the reign of Diocletian.
Anyhow, back to the question of the basileus. If this is not an example of Hellenization, then what is it? Basileus is roughly equivalent to the Latin word rex, the term that the Romans feared so much. At least in the city of Rome the populace expected the fiction of republican rule well into the late empire, as Diocletian’s visit there to celebrate his vicennalia, a celebration which marks twenty years of rule. Autocracy was more accepted in the east where Diocletian could flaunt his power openly, so one might reasonably expect that Herakleios would be able to use the term basileus more freely to express the reality of his rule.
While this general context is not irrelevant, it is not as significant as the immediate context of Herakleios’ rule and his propaganda. The concept of Biblical kingship had become important in the Eastern Roman Empire and has strong precedents going back at least a century before Herakleios took the throne. Anicia Juliana’s great church, the Hagios Polyeuktos, was before Justinian’s Hagia Sophia the largest church in Constantinople. A recent argument has concluded that the church expressed Roman, Sassanian, and Biblical precedents of rulership. On the last point, the church was compared to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which although its previous iteration had not existed since 70 A.D., it still held an eschatological role in Christian thought. The significance of this lies in Anicia Juliana’s relatives: she was the daughter of an emperor of the west, and the granddaughter of Valentinian III. Her husband had served as consul in Constantinople, and had even been briefly acclaimed emperor before his death. Anicia Juliana had imperial pretensions and the church she built showed it.
Justinian’s court historian Prokopios recorded that upon entering his newly completed Great Church (as the Hagia Sophia was frequently referred to in the Byzantine period) Justinian remarked that he had outdone Solomon. In the context of Anicia Juliana’s establishment, Justinian’s words have two meanings. On the most basic level, he compared himself to one of the most-favoured Israelite kings of the Old Testament, and thus brought his regime into the realm of Biblical kingship where God played a role in the success of rulers. On a more contemporary level, by constructing the largest and grandest church in the city, Justinian took the claims of Anicia Juliana’s church to be a new Temple and outdid them.
The purpose of this example is to demonstrate that the propaganda of rulers or aspiring rulers in the sixth-century could readily use Biblical material as imperial propaganda for the legitimacy of their regimes. Herakleios inherited a desperate situation when he took the throne in 610. Within a couple of years his army was mostly gone, Slavs and Avars had deprived the empire of much of its territory in the Balkans, and the Persians were busy conquering Syria and Egypt, and would eventually join the Avars in 626 for their failed attack on Constantinople. Herakleios began one of the most potent propaganda campaigns in Byzantine history. Militarily, he had little power, and so to rally whatever he could Herakleios’ regime strongly invoked Biblical imagery.The situation was so desperate that instead of the usual inscriptions announcing imperial success and titles on coins, Herakleios added the legend DEUS ADIUTA ROMANIIS: May God help the Romans.
A series of silver patens date from the emperor’s incredible victory over Persia, and these depict a number of scenes in which the Biblical king David is shown fighting Goliath. That Herakleios had named his youngest son David and that the figures depicted in the plates were equipped with contemporary Roman armour must have made the connection for contemporaries. One of the sources for Herakleios’ reign also recorded that the emperor was the only one brave enough to fight in a giant Persian in single combat. We may doubt the historicity of this incident, but its propagandistic effect is clear. In this role, Herakleios was a New David.
Despite the claims of the universal kingship of Roman emperors which began to be strongly asserted towards the end of the third century on, the art and propaganda which surrounded the court was intensely aware of that other universal king, the Sassanian shahanshah. Suffice it to say that for as much as the two rulers fought, a strong degree of parity existed in their relations. Both were universal sovereigns, but both realized the other was not going to go away, and worked this into their propaganda. However, the seventh century was a turbulent time, and the Sassanian Persians felt that they could eliminate the Romans. They were very nearly right, as the lights of Chalcedon (mod. Kadıköy) were Persian fires for a time in 626.
In one of history’s great surprises, Herakleios launched a lightning campaign into Persia and brought about its utter submission. Herakleios’ propaganda had become a reality. Like the Israelites fighting the giant and fierce Philistines, the Romans had triumphed against seemingly impossible odds. At some point around the time of the victory in 628, the term basileus first appeared on an official document. This triumphal, Biblical context is how that word should be understood. Herakleios’ propaganda continually stressed Old Testament history, so it makes little sense that in the wake of his triumph he would deliberately adopt a pagan, classical term in a pagan, classical sense. Instead, the word should be seen in the context it appears in. As one whose propaganda lauded him as God’s vice-regent on Earth and Christian victor, Herakleios simply adopted the term to bring his regime more completely into New Testament history. Jesus did not establish a church, he preached his coming kingdom; his basileia. By adding the term basileus to imperial titulature, Herakleios re-formulated earlier tetrarchic ideas of Roman universal sovereignty. God had evidently acted on the side of the Romans and re-established the Roman state from the brink of destruction. It is only fitting that the reborn Chosen Roman People fully enter into Christ’s basileia. Until Jesus returned to earth, they needed a vice-regent to act on his behalf; a basileus to govern the basileia.