[This was put together as an attempt to collect my thoughts before a give a brief introduction to the topic in the title in the Greek reading group I’m organizing this summer. Since I normally write boring, argumentative stuff I tried to make this is a bit more exciting.]
From Constantinople, the world must have looked like a dark and frightening place. In the palace, the emperor Herakleios was dying. He was a shell of the man who had gone east nearly two decades previous to combat the Persians, and possessed neither the physical nor mental strength to combat the new invaders from the south. In 602, the emperor Maurice had been assassinated by a military coup and a soldier by the name of Phokas was brought to power. We do not know much about Phokas’ reign, but it was not militarily successful. With the coup, the Persians attacked, allegedly to reinstall Maurice’s son upon the throne. It’s unclear exactly whether Maurice’s son escaped to Persia, but it is unlikely. The Persians were probably hoping to take advantage of a weakened Byzantium to gain some strategic leverage in the heavily-fortified region of northern Mesopotamia. Meeting little Roman resistance, the Persians pushed forward, and by the end of Phokas’ reign in 610 had battered their way through the shield that had long protected Asia Minor and the Levantine provinces from Iraq.
Phokas was deposed in 610 by the son of the exarch of Africa, Herakleios. Although Phokas’ reputation is stained black in the pages of history, perhaps we should reconsider his lack of success in comparison to Herakleios’ first eight year. While Phokas managed to lose Mesopotamia and parts of the Balkans, by the end of Herakleios’ first decade he had lost the Levant and Egypt, and the Persians were moving into Asia Minor. Had Herakleios been deposed at this point he would undoubtedly have gone down in the annals of history as another useless tyrant, much as Phokas has.
The situation had worsened by the mid-620s. The Avars had proved themselves to be a very dangerous foe in the Balkans, perhaps more than the Huns had ever been, as they had a complex logistical system and advanced knowledge of siege warfare. Allegedly in collusion with the Persians, the Avars besieged Constantinople in 626. The Persians were unsuccessful in joining the siege as they lacked a navy to transport them across the Bosporos, but Persian fires burning in Chalcedon just across the narrow strip of water were unlikely to inspire confidence for the defenders of Constantinople. The emperor Herakleios at this point was out east, deep in the fastness of the Caucasus with what remained of the Roman army. When he heard of the danger presented by the Avars, he was forced to send an entire third of his army to defend Constantinople.
Herakleios was not idle in the Caucasus. He was actively recruiting locals, drilling his troops, and engaging in diplomacy with Turks from the Gok Turk confederation. Diplomacy was Herakleios’ greatest success in this period, for not only was he in contact with potential military allies, but he was also talking with Persian generals who were occupying former Roman land. In any event, the Avar siege of 626 was a failure, and the shahanshah in Ctesiphon now had to deal with a Roman emperor occupying a dangerous strategic position with the remnants of the Roman army. Persian armies were sent against Herakleios, but he managed to outmanoeuvre and defeat them individually. Then, when the campaigning season was over, Herakleios did something unexpected. Rather than encamp the army in the Caucasus for the winter, Herakleios turned south and marched into Persia. There was no word of protest from his army; by this point they seem to have had great confidence in their leader and were battle-hardened troops accustomed to long marches in difficult terrain and even moving at night. While the standard texts follow the sources in claiming that this was a masterstroke on Herakleios’ part, I am inclined to be a little more cautious. Herakleios’ army moved extraordinarily fast, which indicates to me that they had no siege train. Ctesiphon was a very well defended city, and I do not believe that Herakleios had the resources to invest it. If his army was as good as it seems, it’s not impossible that he conceived storming it, but such tactics are very uncharacteristic of Roman armies in this period. Then again, so is an emperor marching into Persia. The real victory was diplomatic. Herakleios had been in contact with Persian generals, many of whom had been campaigning far from home for many years on their own dime. They were disaffected, and the failure to capture Constantinople cannot have helped the situation. Thus rather than an attempt at conquest or a conclusion of the war through a feat of arms, Herakleios’ march into Persia was an indication to his allies in the Persian court that it was time for a shahanshah who would be more amenable to Roman peace offers. This is what happened, the Persian government collapsed and a new regime, supported by Herakleios’ army in Persia negotiated a peace.
All was not well in the near east, however. Two and a half decades of war had left both devastated. The urban populations of Syria and Egypt, who had long been in conflict with Constantinople over religious matters now had spent an entire generation under foreign domination. Herakleios created a new religious policy in an attempt to bridge the gap between the Chalcedonians and the so-called Monophysites, but like Justinian’s attempt in the previous century it failed to win over the hardliners and tainted the emperor’s image with heresy.
Arab groups living on the Roman periphery had begun raiding Roman territory in the late 620s. While the Romans had no concept of it yet, these Arabs would later be known as the first Muslims, and they soon appeared in sufficient force to threaten the fragile Roman hegemony in the region. The chronology is very problematic from 628 (when most of the Chronicon Paschale ends) for the next century, and the information available for the next few decades is confusing and difficult to place. At some point the Arabs took Damascus, were driven out of it by a large Roman field, but subsequently were able to defeat that field army. Following that battle, traditionally known as the Battle of Yarmuk, although where it took place and when (636 or 638?) is unknown, the Romans fell back to the Taurus, the mountain chain that divides Asia from Syria and Mesopotamia. Unable to withstand the Arabs on land and unwilling to risk another decisive engagement, the Romans took to the seas. They did not know that it would be another two centuries of grim fighting before their power was re-asserted in the east. Herakleios’ gains had effectively been wiped out in a few short years by the Arabs, and the situation looked dire. The Romans had fought the Persians for centuries, they shared numerous aspects of elite culture, and typically had fought limited wars over minor objectives. The Arabs, however, played a new game. By 640 they had effectively annihilated the Persian empire in Iraq. Their culture, language, and religion were a mystery to the Byzantines at this time, but they had proved themselves to be military effective. The emperor who had turned back impossible odds against the Persians was now dying, and the future of the empire must have seemed bleak indeed.