Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Darkest Hour

For the first time since Constantinople had become the seat of empire the throne had been won by armed rebellion and the murder of the legitimate ruler. The break in the peaceful and orderly succession which had hitherto prevailed was not only an evil precedent, but an immediate disaster. The new emperor proved a far worse governor than the unfortunate Maurice, who, in spite of his faults and his ill luck, had always been hard-working, moderate, pious, and economical. Phocas was a mere brutal soldier cruel, ignorant, suspicious, and reckless, and in his incapable hands the empire began to fall to pieces with alarming rapidity. He opened his reign with a series of cruel executions of his predecessor's friends, and from that moment his deeds of bloodshed never ceased: probably the worst of them was the execution of Constantina, widow of Maurice and daughter of Tiberius II., whom he slew together with her three young daughters, lest their names might be used as the excuse for a conspiracy against him. But even greater horror seems to have been caused when he burnt alive the able general Narses, who had won many laurels in the last Persian war. Narses had come up to the capital under safe conduct to clear himself from accusations of treason: so the Emperor not only devised a punishment which had never yet been heard of since the empire became Christian, but broke his own plighted oath.

The moment that Phocas had mounted the throne; Chosroes of Persia declared war on him, using the hypocritical pretext that he wished to revenge Maurice, for whom he professed a warm personal friendship. This war was far different from the indecisive contests in the reigns of Justinian and Justin II. In two successive years the Persians burst into North Syria and ravaged it as far as the sea; but in the third they turned north and swept over the hitherto untouched provinces of Asia Minor. In 608 their main army penetrated across Cappadocia and Galatia right up to the gates of Chalcedon. The inhabitants of Constantinople could see the blazing villages across the water on the Asiatic shore—a sight as new as it was terrifying; for although Thrace had several times been harried to within sight of the city, no enemy had ever been seen in Bithynia.

Plot after plot was formed in the capital against Phocas, but he succeeded in putting them all down, and slew the conspirators with fearful tortures. For eight years his reign continued: Constantinople was full of executions; Asia was ravaged from sea to sea; the Thracian and Illyrian provinces were over-run more and more by the Slavs, now that the army of Europe had been transferred across the Bosphorus to make head against the Persians. Yet Phocas still held on to Constantinople: the creature of a military revolt himself, it was by a military revolt alone that he was destined to be overthrown.

Africa was the only portion of the Roman Empire which in the reign of Phocas was suffering neither from civil strife nor foreign invasion. It was well governed by the aged exarch Heraclius, who was so well liked in the province that the emperor had not dared to depose him. Urged by desperate entreaties from all parties in Constantinople to strike a blow against the tyrant, and deliver the empire from the yoke of a monster, Heraclius at last consented. He quietly got ready a fleet, which he placed under the orders of his son, who bore the same name as himself. This he dispatched against Constantinople, while at the same time his nephew Nicetas led a large body of horse along the African shore to invade Egypt.

When Heraclius the younger arrived with his fleet at the Dardanelles, all the prominent citizens of Constantinople fled secretly to take refuge with him. As he neared the capital the troops of Phocas burst into mutiny: the tyrant's fleet was scattered after a slight engagement; and the city threw open its gates. Phocas was seized in the palace by an official whom he had cruelly wronged, and brought aboard the galley of the conqueror. "Is it thus," said Heraclius, "that you have governed the empire?" "Will you govern it any better?" sneered the desperate usurper. Heraclius spurned him away with his foot; and the sailors hewed him to pieces on the deck.

Next day the patriarch and the senate hailed Heraclius as emperor, and he was duly crowned in St Sophia on October 5, A.D. 610.

Heraclius took over the empire in such a state of disorder and confusion that he must soon have felt that there was some truth in the dying sneer of Phocas. It seemed almost impossible to get things into better order, for resources were wanting. Save Africa and Egypt and the district immediately around the capital, all the provinces were overrun by the Persian, the Avar, and the Slav. The treasury was empty, and the army had almost disappeared owing to repeated and bloody defeats in Asia Minor.

Heraclius seems at first, to have almost despaired of the possibility of evolving order out of this chaos, though he was in the prime of life and strength—"a man of middle stature, strongly built, and broad-chested, with grey eyes and yellow hair, and of a very fair complexion; he wore a bushy beard when he came to the throne, but afterwards cut it short." For the first twelve years of his reign he remained at Constantinople, endeavouring to reorganize the empire, and to defend at any rate the frontiers of Thrace and Asia Minor. The more distant provinces he hardly seems to have hoped to save, and the chronicle of his early years is filled with the catalogue of the losses of the empire. Mesopotamia and North Syria had already been lost by Phocas, but in 613, while the imperial armies were endeavouring to defend Cappadocia, the Persian general Shahrbarz turned southwards and attacked Central Syria. The great town of Damascus fell into his hands; but worse was to come. In 614 the Persian army appeared before the holy city of Jerusalem, took it after a short resistance, and occupied it with a garrison. But the populace rose and slaughtered the Persian troops when Shahrbarz had departed with his main army. This brought him back in wrath: he stormed the city and put 90,000 Christians to the sword, only sparing the Jewish inhabitants. Zacharias, Patriarch of Jerusalem, was carried into captivity, and with him went what all Christians then regarded as the most precious thing in the world—the wood of the "True Cross." Helena, the mother of Constantine, had dug the relic up, according to the well-known legend, on Mount Moriah, and built for it a splendid shrine. Now Shahrbarz desecrated the church and took off the "True Cross" to Persia.

This loss brought the inhabitants of the East almost to despair; they thought that the luck of the empire had departed with the Holy Wood, which had served as its Palladium, and even imagined that the Last Day was at hand and that Chosroes of Persia was Antichrist. The mad language of pride and insult which the Persian in the day of his triumph used to Heraclius might also explain their belief. His blasphemous phrases seem like an echo of the letter of Sennacherib in the Second Book of Kings. The epistle ran

"Chosroes, greatest of gods, and master of the whole earth, to Heraclius, his vile and insensate slave. Have I not destroyed the Greeks? You say you trust in your God: why, then, has he not delivered out of my hand Caesarea, Jerusalem, and Alexandria? Shall I not also destroy Constantinople? But I will pardon all your sins if you will come to me with your wife and children; I will give you lands, vines, and olive groves, and will look upon you with a kindly aspect. Do not deceive yourself with the vain hope in that Christ, who was not even able to save himself from the Jews, who slew him by nailing him to a cross."

The horror and rage roused by the loss of the "True Cross" and the blasphemies of, King Chosroes brought about the first real outburst of national feeling that we meet in the history of the Eastern Empire. It was felt that the fate of Christendom hung in the balance, and that all, from highest to lowest, were bound to make one great effort to beat back the fire-worshipping Persians from Palestine, and recover the Holy Places. The Emperor vowed that he would take the field at the head of the army—a thing most unprecedented, for since the death of Theodosius I., in 395, no Caesar had ever gone out in person to war. The Church came forward in the most noble way at the instance of the Patriarch Sergius all the churches of Constantinople sent their treasures and ornaments to the mint to be coined down, and serve as a great loan to the state, which was to be repaid when the Persians should have been conquered. The free dole of corn which the inhabitants of the capital had been receiving ever since the days of Constantine was abolished, and the populace bore the privation without demur. It was indeed observed that this measure not only saved the treasury, but drove into the army—where they were useful thousands of the able-bodied loiterers who were the strength of the circus factions and the pest of the city. If the dole had been continued Heraclius could not have found a penny for the war. Egypt, the granary of the empire, had been lost in 616, and the supply of government corn entirely cut off, so that the dole would have had to be provided by the treasury buying corn, a ruinously expensive task.

By the aid of the Church loan Heraclius equipped a new army and strengthened his fleet. He also provided for the garrisoning of Constantinople by an adequate force, a most necessary precaution, for in 617 the Persians had again forced their way to the Bosphorus, and this time captured Chalcedon. Heraclius would probably have taken the field next year but for troubles with the Avars. That wild race had long been working their wicked will on the almost undefended Thracian provinces, but now they promised peace. Heraclius went out, at the Chagan's pressing invitation, to meet him near Heraclea. But the conference was a snare, for the treacherous savage had planted ambushes on the way to secure the person of the Emperor, and Heraclius only escaped by the speed of his horse. He east off ,his imperial mantle to ride the faster, and galloped into the capital just in time to close its gates as the vanguard of the Chagan's army came in sight. The Avars kept the Emperor engaged for some time, and it was not till 622 that he was able to take the field against the Persians.

This expedition of Heraclius was in spirit the first of the Crusades. It was the first war that the Roman Empire had ever undertaken in a spirit of religious enthusiasm, for it was to no mere political end that the Emperor and his people looked forward. The army marched out to save Christendom, to conquer the Holy Places, and to recover the "True Cross." The men were wrought up to a high pitch of enthusiasm by warlike sermons, and the Emperor carried with him, to stimulate his zeal, a holy picture—one of those eikons in which the Greek Church has always delighted—which was believed to be the work of no mort hands.

Heraclius made no less than six campaigns (A.D. 622-27) in his gallant and successful attempt to save the half-ruined empire. He won great and well-deserved fame, and his name would be reckoned among the foremost of the world's warrior-kings if it had not been for the misfortunes which afterwards fell on him in his old age.

His first campaign cleared Asia Minor of the Persian hosts, not by a direct attack, but by skillful strategy. Instead of attacking the army at Chalcedon, he took ship and landed in Cilicia, in the rear of the enemy, threatening in this position both Syria and Cappadocia. As he expected, the Persians broke up from their camp opposite Constantinople, and came back to fall upon him. But after much manoeuvring he completely beat the general Shahrbarz, and cleared Asia Minor of the enemy.

In his next campaigns Heraclius endeavoured to liberate the rest of the Roman Empire by a similar plan: he resolved to assail Chosroes at home, and force him to recall the armies he kept in Syria and Egypt to defend his own Persian provinces. In 6234 the Emperor advanced across the Armenian mountains and threw himself into Media, where his army revenged the woes of Antioch and Jerusalem by burning the fire-temples of Ganzaca—the Median capital—and Thebarmes, the birthplace of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. Chosroes, as might have been expected, recalled his troops from the west, and fought two desperate battles to cover Ctesiphon. His generals were defeated in both, but the Roman army suffered severely. Winter was at hand, and Heraclius fell back on Armenia. In his next campaign he recovered Roman Mesopotamia, with its fortresses of Amida, Dara, and Martyropolis, and again defeated the general Shahrbarz.

But 626 was the decisive year of the war. The obstinate Chosroes determined on one final effort to crush Heraclius, by, concerting a joint plan of operations with the Chagan of the Avars. While the main Persian army watched the emperor in Armenia, a great body under Shahrbarz slipped south of him into Asia Minor and marched on the Bosphorus. At the same moment the Chagan of the Avars, with the whole force of his tribe and of his Slavonic dependents, burst over the Balkans and beset Constantinople on the European side. The two barbarian hosts could see each other across the water, and even contrived to exchange messages, but the Roman fleet sailing incessantly up and down the strait kept them from joining forces.

In the June, July, and August of 626 the capital was thus beset: the danger appeared imminent, and the Emperor was far away on the Euphrates. But the garrison was strong, the patrician Bonus, its commander, was an able officer, the fleet was efficient, and the same crusading fervour which had inspired the Constantinopolitans in 622 still buoyed up their spirits. In the end of July 80,000 Avars and Slavs, with all sorts of siege implements, delivered simultaneous assaults along the land front of the city, but they were beaten back with great slaughter. Next the Chagan built himself rafts and tried to bring the Persians across, but the Roman galleys sunk the clumsy structures, and slew thousands of the Slavs who had come off in small boats to attack the fleet. Then the Chagan gave up the siege in disgust and retired across the Danube.

Heraclius had shown great confidence in the strength of Constantinople and the courage of its defenders. He sent a few veteran troops to aid the garrison, but did not slacken from his attack on Persia. While Shahrbarz and the Chagan were besieging his capital, he himself was wasting Media and Mesopotamia. He imitated King Chosroes in calling in Tartar allies from the north, and revenged the ravages of the Avars in Thrace by turning 40,000 Khazar horsemen loose on Northern Persia. The enemy gave way before him everywhere, and the Persians began to grow desperate.

Next year King Chosroes put into the field the last levy of Persia, under a general named Rhazates, whom he bid to go out and "conquer or die." At the same time he wrote to command Shahrbarz to evacuate Chalcedon and return home in haste. But Heraclius intercepted the dispatch of recall, and Shahrbarz came not.

Near Nineveh Heraclius fell in with the Persian home army and inflicted on it a decisive defeat. He himself, charging at the head of his cavalry, rode down the general of the enemy and slew him with his lance. Chosroes could put no new army in the field, and by Christmas Heraclius had seized his palace of Dastagerd, and divided among his troops such a plunder as had never been seen since Alexander the Great captured Susa.

The Nemesis of Chosroes' insane vanity had now arrived. Ten years after he had written his vaunting letter to Heraclius he found himself in far worse plight than his adversary had ever been. After Dastagerd had fallen he retired to Ctesiphon, the capital of his empire, but even from thence he had to flee on the approach of the enemy. Then the end came: his own son Siroes and his chief nobles seized him and threw him in chains, and a few days after he died—of rage and despair according to one story, of starvation if the darker tale is true.

The new king sent the humblest messages to the victorious Roman, hailing him as his "father," and apologizing for all the woes that the ambition of Chosroes had brought upon the world. Heraclius received his ambassadors with kindness, and granted peace, on the condition that every inch of Roman territory should be evacuated, all Roman captives freed, a war indemnity paid, and the spoils of Jerusalem, including the "True Cross," faithfully restored. Siroes consented with alacrity, and in March, 628, a glorious peace ended the twenty-six years of the Persian war.

Heraclius returned to Constantinople in the summer of the same year with his spoils, his victorious army, and his great trophy, the Holy Wood." His entry was celebrated in the style of an old Roman triumph, and the Senate conferred on him the title of the "New Scipio." The whole of the citizens, bearing myrtle boughs, came out to meet the army, and the ceremony concluded with the exhibition of the "True Cross" before the high altar of St. Sophia. Heraclius afterwards took it back in great pomp to Jerusalem.

This was, perhaps, the greatest triumph that any emperor ever won. Heraclius had surpassed the eastern achievements of Trajan and Severus, and led his troops further east than any Roman general had ever penetrated. His task, too, had been the hardest ever imposed on an emperor; none of his predecessors had ever started to war with his very capital beleaguered and with three-fourths of his provinces in the hands of the enemy. Since Julius Caesar no one had fought so incessantly—for six years the emperor had not been out of the saddle—nor met with such uniform success.

Heraclius returned to Constantinople to spend, as he hoped, the rest of his years in peace. He had now reached the age of fifty-four, and was much worn by his incessant campaigning. But the quiet for which he yearned was to be denied him, and the end of his reign was to be almost as disastrous as the commencement.

The great Saracen invasion was at hand, and it was at the very moment of Heraclius' triumph that Mahomet sent out his famous circular letter to the kings of the earth, inviting them to embrace Islam. If the Emperor could but have known that his desolated realm, spoiled for ten long years by the Persian and the Avar, and drained of men and money, was to be invaded by a new enemy far more terrible than the old, he would have prayed that the day of his triumph might also be the day of his death.