Heraclius Saves The Day – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 46 Part 2

‘.

The Avars continued to occupy the area to the north of the Danube. The Chegan’s authority stretched across much of what is now Germany and Poland and so was quite capable of causing trouble for the Byzantines. He was initially kept quiet by expensive gifts. But he was a difficult customer. He demanded a Gold bed. When it was delivered he decided he didn’t like it and sent it back. He also asked for an elephant. I have no idea how difficult it was for the empire to obtain and transport such a large creature from presumably Persia, where they were a regular feature of the army, to somewhere in modern Hungary. Given how much elephants eat it sounds like quite a logistical challenge to me. So I am quite impressed. The Chegan however, wasn’t.

But eventually the Avars decided, probably with some Persian diplomat involved, that they would rather attack than be bought off and they invaded the empire in force. Their cavalry allowed them to range freely much like Huns of three hundred years before. But like the Huns they couldn’t make much headway against walled cities. But they were quite able to use diplomacy where it suited them. For instance they swore that they wouldnt build a bridge at the strategically important confluence of the Danube and the Sava at the point where Belgrade now stands. The garrison of the fortress therefore let them pass. Once they had secured the area they built the bridge anyway.

The tactical use of outrageous porkies was supplemented by the acquisition of admittedly primitive siege engines. The Avars were becoming dangerous as well as unscrupulous and frankly rather annoying enemies. In fact they succeeded in beating a path to Constantinople itself.

Maurice now took personal charge and drove them back. This was the first time a Roman emperor had led his troops in the field for around 200 years, and it went well. The superior tactics and strategic vision of Maurice were more than a match for the Avars. But he aimed not just to drive them out of Byzantine territory but also to knock them out of the reckoning altogether. This required sending troops on a long campaign operating as far as beyond the Danube as Trajan had five hundred years before. And it required staying there over winter.

The troops did not like it. They were miles from home and the conditions were no fun. Discontent rose and the general in charge lost control of the army.

The army’s revolt was led by a low ranking centurion called Phocas. He was so obscure nobody in the court had any idea who he was. Military coups used to be standard operating procedure in the empire, but there hadn’t been one for many a decade and Phocas seems to have been a bit unsure of how to get his revolt going.

He led his army to Constantinople. That was a rookie tactical error as under normal circumstances he would have been defeated by its impregnable walls. But he was in luck and was let into the city by the Greens. Whether this was the result of a political or a sporting grievance wasn’t recorded.

Phocas turned out to be a rather unpleasant tyrant. He killed Maurice and his five sons – this was done with maximum and totally unnecessary cruelty with the emperor having to watch his sons killed in front of him. He later killed the former empress. He also killed people further down the food chain, dispensing with due process and giving people a vested interest in changing the regime.

Chosroes regarded his own return to his throne as a personal favour from Maurice and when he heard that his benefactor had been murdered he swore vengeance. The Persians attacked and were remarkably successful over-running Asia Minor and capturing Jerusalem. The True Cross was removed and taken to Ctesiphon as a prize of war.

The bad news, especially the loss of Jerusalem, undermined the already shaky regime of Phocas. He renewed his reign of terror but an illegitimate regime needs continual success to maintain its position. There were spectacular losses piling up on either front with both the Avars and the Persians advancing.

A general called Heraclius took matters into his own hands. He returned to Constantinople with troops from his command in Africa which he used to depose Phocas.

The military situation worsened despite the regime change, with the Avars camped on the European side of the Boshphoros while a Persian army occupying the far side. The only slither of hope was that the Byzantines still controlled the sea and so could prevent a complete union of their enemies. As luck would have it the Avars were the ones facing the walls of Constantinople and they were not as adept at siegecraft as the Persians would have been. So the naval component of the situation was critical in preventing the two enemies working together. And of course as long as the sea was open the city could continue to be supplied.

Heraclius looked for a way to change the situation to his advantage and resolved to counterattack – landing on the north coast of Asia Minor behind the Persian lines. The Avars he left to the commander in the city who was able to drive the attackers off. The fight Heraclius led personally was long and tough, but eventually Heraclius was to demonstrate his skill as a general and completely defeat the Persians.

Their capital was sacked and the True Cross recovered. After 500 years of conflict the fight had finally been won by the Romans. Heraclius returned to Constantinople in triumph. The Persian Empire was destroyed being reduced to dependence on the emperor. The Romans lined the streets to cheer the return of their new hero who entered the city on a chariot drawn by 4 elephants. It looked like the empire was back and was now free of any enemy that could threaten it.

Appearances have rarely been more deceptive.

In 629 the emperor returned the True Cross to Jerusalem, now safely again under Byzantine control. The prophet Mohammed was at this time an old man but still alive and would no doubt have heard the news. It must have seemed like Rome was invincible. But the reality was that the empire had been greatly weakened by the huge resources consumed in the titanic struggle with the Persians.

The rich eastern provinces that the Romans had won from the Persians with so much loss of blood and treasure were only to remain in their hands a few years. The Arabs had adopted the religion of Mohammed and were now fanatically attached to it. In their zeal to spread their new faith at the edge of the sword they swept away the Roman defences and seized Egypt, Palestine and Syria. The world was about to change. Forever.

Leave a Reply