Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628: Wikis


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Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628
Part of the Byzantine–Sassanid Wars
Idealized painting of a battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II c. 1452
Battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, c. 1452
Date ca. 602 to ca. 628 CE a[›]
Location Caucasus, Asia Minor, Egypt, Levant, Mesopotamia
Result Status quo ante bellum
Byzantine Empire,
Western Turkic Khaganate
Sassanid Empire,
Germanus  ,
Khosrau II,
Shahraplakan  ,

The Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628 was the final and most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire. The previous war had ended in 591 after Emperor Maurice had helped the Sassanian king Khosrau II regain his throne. In 602, Maurice was murdered by his political rival Phocas. Khosrau proceeded to declare war, ostensibly to avenge Maurice's death. This war was a decades-long conflict, the longest single war in the series, and was fought throughout much of the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe: in Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and even before the walls of Constantinople itself.

While the Persians proved largely successful during the first stage of the war from 602–622, conquering much of the Levant, Egypt, and parts of Anatolia, the ascendancy of Heraclius in 610 eventually led to the Persians' defeat, despite initial setbacks. Heraclius' campaigns into Persian lands from 622–626 altered the balance, forcing the Persians on the defensive and allowing for the Byzantines to regain momentum. Allied with the Avars, the Persians made a final attempt to take Constantinople in 626, but were defeated there. Heraclius then invaded the Persian heartland in 627, forcing the Persians to sue for peace.

By the end of the conflict, both sides were exhausted and had depleted their human and material resources. Consequently, they were vulnerable to the sudden emergence of the Muslim Caliphate, whose forces invaded both empires only a few years after the end of the war. The Muslim forces swiftly conquered the entire Sassanid Empire, and deprived the Eastern Roman Empire of its territories in the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt, and North Africa. Over the following centuries, most of the Byzantine Empire and the entirety of the Sassanid Empire came under Muslim rule.



The Byzantine control most of the Mediterranean islands, parts of southern Spain, most of North Africa and Egypt, along with Palestine, Syria, Armenia, and Asia Minor. Byzantine control of Italy and the Balkans not as strong, being subject to Lombard and Slav and Avar attacks.
Byzantine Empire in 600

After decades of inconclusive fighting, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice ended the Roman–Persian War of 572–591 by helping the exiled Sassanid prince Khosrau, the future Khosrau II, regain his throne from the usurper Bahrām Chobin. In return, the Sassanids gave the Byzantines parts of northeastern Mesopotamia, much of Armenia, and Caucasian Iberia.[1] More importantly for the Byzantine economy, the Byzantines no longer had to pay tribute to the Sassanids.b[›] Maurice then began new campaigns in the Balkans to stop the Slavs and Avar incursions.[2]

The magnanimity of Tiberius II Constantine had created a large debt in the Byzantine treasury,[3][4] which Maurice tried to alleviate with strict fiscal measures. However, these measures made him unpopular with the army, as he cut their pay. When, in 602, Maurice commanded his troops campaigning in the Balkans to spend the winter in the barbarian lands beyond the Danube to save money, this led to open revolt. The army proclaimed Phocas, a Thracian centurion, as emperor.[5] Maurice attempted to defend Constantinople by arming the Blues and the Greens, the two major chariot racing teams of the Hippodrome, but they proved ineffective. Maurice fled, but was soon intercepted and killed by the soldiers of Phocas.[6][7][8]

Beginning of the conflict

A silver coin with the bust of Phocas. His eyes form the central focus of the image
A silver miliaresion coin of the Emperor Phocas

Upon the murder of Maurice, the Byzantine governor of the province of Mesopotamia, Narses rebelled against Phocas and seized Edessa, which was a major city of Byzantine Mesopotamia.[9] Phocas instructed Germanus to besiege Edessa, prompting Narses to request help from Khosrau. Khosrau, who was only too willing to help avenge Maurice, his "friend and father," used Maurice's death as a casus belli to attack the Byzantine Empire, trying to reconquer Armenia and Mesopotamia. [10][11]

Germanus, however, died in battle against the Persians, and Phocas therefore appointed the eunuch Leontius to deal with Narses, while sending another Byzantine army against Khosrau.[12] However, not only did Narses escape from Leontius, but the other Byzantine army was defeated near Dara in Upper Mesopotamia, leading to the capture of that important fortress in 605. Furthermore, when Narses attempted to return to Constantinople to discuss peace terms, he was seized and burned alive by Phocas, causing Phocas to lose a competent commander.[13] The slaughter of Narses and the failure to stop the Persians caused Phocas' military regime to lose its prestige.[12][14]

Heraclius' rebellion

Urged on by Priscus, the Count of the Excubitors and son-in-law of Phocas, the general Heraclius the Elder, who was the Exarch of Africa, revolted in 608.[14][15] Heraclius proclaimed himself and his son of the same name as consuls—thereby implicitly claiming the imperial title—and minted coins with the two wearing the consular robes.[16]

At about the same time, rebellions began in Syria and Palestine in the wake of Heraclius' revolt. In either 609 or 610, the Patriarch of Antioch, Anastasius II, died. Many sources claim that the Jews were heavily involved in the fighting, though it is unclear where they were just members of certain factions or as opponents of the Christians.[17] Phocas responded by appointed Bonus as comes Orientis or Count of the East to stop the violence. Bonus punished the Greens, a horse racing party, in Antioch for their role in the violence in 609.[17] Some like John Julius Norwich claim that Bonus tried to forcibly convert the Jews, even those who in the front lines. This made Phocas, who ordered the commands, a great enemy of the Jews.[18]

Heraclius the Elder sent his nephew Nicetas to attack Egypt. Bonus went to Egypt to try to stop Nicetas, but was defeated by Nicetas outside Alexandria.[17] Nicetas succeeded in capturing the province in 610, establishing a base of power there with the help of Patriarch John the Almsgiver, who was elected with the help of Nicetas.[19][20][21][22][23]

The main rebel force was employed in a naval invasion of Constantinople, led by younger Heraclius, who was to be the new emperor. Organized resistance against Heraclius soon disappeared, and Phocas was handed to him by the patrician Probos (Photius).[24] Phocas was executed, though not before a celebrated exchange of comments between him and his successor:

"Is it thus," asked Heraclius, "that you have governed the Empire?"

"Will you," replied Phocas, with unexpected spirit, "govern it any better?"[25]

The elder Heraclius soon afterward disappears from sources, supposedly dying, though that date is unknown.[26]

After marrying his niece Martina in an elaborate ceremony and being crowned by the Patriarch, the 35-year-old Heraclius set out to perform his work as emperor. Phocas' brother, Comentiolus, commanded a sizable force in central Anatolia, but was assassinated by the Armenian commander Justin, ending a major threat to Heraclius' reign.[20] Still, transfer of the forces commanded by Comentiolus had been delayed, allowing the Persians to advance further in Anatolia.[27] Trying to increase revenues and reduce costs, he made a law which limited the number of state-sponsored personnel of the Church.[28] His use of ceremonies allowed him to legitimize his dynasty,[29] and his support of justice strengthened his internal situation.[30] Still, external threats loomed before the empire.

Persian ascendancy

In the meantime, the Sassanids took advantage of this civil war to conquer Syria and launch raids into Asia Minor itself. In 609, they conquered Mardin and Amida; in 610, they conquered Edessa, which was thought impregnable by the Byzantines because of Jesus' promise to King Abgar V of Edessa to give him victory over all enemies.[14][31][32] Furthermore, in 608, they launched a raid that reached Chalcedon,[10] across the Bosphorus from Constantinople, and in 609, they conquered Caesarea in central Asia Minor.c[›][19][33]

A silver coin with a face of Khosrau II surrounded by a double ring and some symbols
A silver coin of Khosrau II

Heraclius accession as Emperor did little to improve the immediate situation regarding the Persians. During the first year of his reign, Heraclius attempted to make peace with the Persian since Phocas, the original casus belli, had been overthrown. However, the Persians rejected these overtures, since their armies were widely victorious.[34] According to Walter E. Kaegi, it is conceivable that the Persians' goal was to restore or even surpass the boundaries of the Achaemenid Empire by destroying the Byzantine Empire, though because of the loss of Persian archives, it is not possible to prove this.[34]

Early on, the Persians had forced the Byzantines to defend along two major fronts, namely in Armenia and on the Euphrates.[34] Although it was a long process, by the time of Heraclius' reign, the Persians had conquered Armenia, moved on to Cappadocia and led by their general Shahin, took Caesarea. There, Priscus, Phocas' son-in-law, started a year-long siege to trap them inside Caesarea.[35]

Although the established convention was that Byzantine emperors did not personally lead troops into battle,d[›] Heraclius ignored this convention and joined with his general Priscus' siege of the Persians at Caesarea. However, Priscus pretended to be ill and did not meet with the emperor. This was a veiled insult to Heraclius, who had to hide his dislike of Priscus and return to Constantinople in 612. Meanwhile, Shahin's troops managed to escape Priscus' encirclement and burned Caesarea, infuriating Heraclius.[36] Priscus was soon removed from command, along with others loyal to Phocas.[37] Philippicus, an old general of Maurice's, was appointed as commander-in-chief, but he proved himself incompetent against the Persians, avoiding engagements in battle.[38] Heraclius then appointed himself commander along with his brother Theodore to finally solidify command of the army in his hands.[38]

Khosrau took advantage of the incompetence of Heraclius' generals to attack Byzantine Syria, under the leadership of the Persian general Shahrbaraz.[39] Heraclius attempted to stop the invasion at Antioch, and even met with Saint Theodore of Sykeon to ask for a blessing for the battle. However, at Antioch, the Byzantines under Heraclius and Nicetas suffered a serious defeat at the hands of Shahin, though the exact details are unknown because of inadequate sources.[40] After this victory, the Persians slew the Patriarch and deported many citizens after looting the city. The Byzantines lost again while attempting to defend the area just to the north of Antioch at the Cilician Gates, despite some initial success. The Persians then captured Tarsus and the Cilician plain.[41] This defeat cut the Empire into two parts, with Constantinople and Byzantine Anatolia on one side and Byzantine Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and the Exarchate of Carthage on the other.[41]

Persian dominance

Capture of Jerusalem

This map shows the approximate campaign paths of Persian and Roman Generals from 611–624 as described in the text.
Campaign map from 611–624 through Syria, Asia Minor, Armenia, and Mesopotamia

The local resistance to the Persians in Syria and Palestine was not strong, although local elites constructed defensive fortification, but they could not stop the Persians by themselves. Thus, local elites generally tried to negotiate with the Persians.[41] The cities of Damascus, Apamea, and Emesa fell quickly in 613, giving the Persians a chance to strike further south. Nicetas, Heraclius' cousin, continued to resist the Persians, but was defeated at Adhri'at, although he managed to win a small victory near Emesa, where both sides suffered heavy casualties: some 20,000 reportedly died.[42] More seriously, however, the weakness of the resistance enabled the Persian to capture Jerusalem in three weeks, despite its diehard resistance.[43] Somewhere between 57,000 and 66,500 people were slain; another 35,000 were enslaved, including the Patriarch Zacharias.[42] Many churches in the city (including the Holy Sepulchre) were burned and numerous relics, including the True Cross, the Holy Lance, and the Holy Sponge were carried off to Ctesiphon, the Persian capital. The loss of these relics was thought to be a clear mark of divine displeasure by the Byzantines.[25] Many blamed the Jews for this misfortune and the loss of Syria in general.[44] This was because there were reports that Jews helped the Persians capture certain cities and that the Jews tried to slaughter Christians in cities that the Persians had already conquered, but were found and foiled from doing so. These reports are likely to be greatly exaggerated and the result of general hysteria.[41]


In 616, Shahrbaraz's forces invaded Egypt, a province that had been mostly untouched by war for three centuries.[45] The Monophysites living in Egypt, repressed by Byzantine orthodoxy, welcomed the Persian forces as saviors.[45] Resistance in Alexandria was led by Nicetas. After lasting one year, resistance in Alexandria collapsed supposedly after a traitor told the Persians of an unused canal, allowing the Persians to storm the city. Nicetas fled to Cyprus along with Patriarch John, who was a major supporter of Nicetas in Egypt.[46] The fate of Nicetas is unclear, since he disappears from records after this, but Heraclius was presumably deprived of a trusted commander.[47] The loss of Egypt was a severe blow to the empire, as Constantinople relied on grain shipments from fertile Egypt to feed the multitudes in the capital. The free grain ration in Constantinople, (which echoed the earlier Grain 'dole' in Rome) was abolished in 618.[48]

After conquering Egypt, Khosrau sent Heraclius the following letter:

Khosrau, greatest of Gods, and master of the earth, to Heraclius, his vile and insensate slave. Why do you still refuse to submit to our rule, and call yourself a king? Have I not destroyed the Greeks? You say that you trust in your God. Why has he not delivered out of my hand Caesarea, Jerusalem, and Alexandria? And shall I not also destroy Constantinople? But I will pardon your faults if you submit to me, and come hither with your wife and children; and I will give you lands, vineyards, and olive groves, and look upon you with a kindly aspect. Do not deceive yourself with vain hope in that Christ, who was not able to save himself from the Jews, who killed him by nailing him to a cross. Even if you take refuge in the depths of the sea, I will stretch out my hand and take you, whether you will or no.

Khosrau II[49][50]

The Sassanid Empire after its conquest of Jerusalem, Egypt and Anatolia under Khosrau II at ca. 620 AD. The shaded area (Phrygia/Lydia) indicates vassal kingdoms under Sassanid military control.


Things began to look even more grim for the Byzantines when Chalcedon fell in 617 to Shahin, making the Persians visible from Constantinople.[51] Attempts to make peace with Shahin resulted in a courteous reception, but they failed after Shahin claimed that he was unable to make peace.[52] Still, the Persians were soon forced to withdraw.[53] Despite this setback, the Persians still retained the advantage, capturing Ancyra, an important military base in central Anatolia, in either 620 or 622. The important naval base at Rhodes possibly fell in either 622 or 623, making the naval assault on Constantinople a possibility, though this event is difficult to confirm.[54][55] Such was the despair that Heraclius considered moving the government to Africa and Carthage.[48]

Byzantine resurgence


Khosrau's letter, however, did not cow Heraclius; instead, it prompted him to try a desperate strike against the Persians.[56] Heraclius now drastically reorganised the remainder of the empire to allow the Byzantines to fight on. Already, in 615, a new, lighter (6.82 grams) silver Byzantine coin appeared with the usual image of Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine, but uniquely carried the inscription of Deus adiuta Romanis or "May God help the Romans"; Kaegi believes this shows the desperation of the empire at this time.[57] The copper follis also dropped in weight from 11 grams to somewhere between 8 and 9 grams. Heraclius faced severely decreased revenues due to the loss of provinces; furthermore, a plague broke out in 619, which further damaged the tax base, and also increased fears of divine retribution.[58] The debasement of the coinage allowed the Byzantines to maintain expenditure in the face of declining revenues.[57]

Heraclius now halved the pay of officials, enforced increased taxation, forced loans, and levied extreme fines on corrupt officials in order to finance his counter-offensive.[59] The clergy of the Byzantine Empire, despite disagreements about his incestuous marriage to Martina, strongly backed his efforts by proclaiming that it was the duty of all Christian men to fight against the Persians and by offering to give him a war loan consisting of all the gold and silver plated objects in Constantinople. Precious metals and bronze were stripped from monuments and even the Hagia Sophia.[60] This military campaign has been called the "first crusade",[50][56] although some, like Kaegi, disagree with this moniker because religion was just one component in the war.[61] Thousands of volunteers were gathered and equipped with money from the church.[56] Heraclius himself deigned to command the army from the front lines. Thus, the Byzantine troops had been replenished, re-equipped, and were now led by competent general— while still having a full treasury.[56]

George Ostrogorsky believed that volunteers were gathered through the reorganization of Western Anatolia into four Themes, where the volunteers were given inalienable grants of land on the condition of hereditary military service.[62] However, modern scholars generally discredit this theory, saying that the creation of themes did not occur until later.[63][64]

Byzantine counter-offensive

By 622, Heraclius was ready to mount a counteroffensive. He left his young son, Heraclius Constantinus, as regent in Constantinople under the charge of Patriarch Sergius and Patrician Bonus.[65] He celebrated Easter on Sunday, 4 April 622 before leaving the next day.[66] In order to threaten both the Persian forces in Asia Minor and Syria, his first move was to sail from Constantinople down the Ionian coast to Rhodes and then east to Cilicia, landing at Issus, where Alexander the Great had defeated the Persians in 333 BC.[59] He spent the summer training so as to improve the skills of his men and his own generalship. In the autumn, Heraclius threatened the Persian communications from Asia Minor to the Euphrates valley by marching to Cappadocia.[59] This forced the Persian forces in Asia Minor under Shahrbaraz to retreat from the front-lines of Bithynia and Galatia to eastern Asia Minor in order to block his access to Persia.[67]

What followed next is not entirely clear, but Heraclius certainly won a crushing victory over Shahrbaraz in 622 at the Battle of Issus.[68] The key factor was Heraclius' discovery of hidden Persian forces in ambush and responding to this ambush by feigning retreat during the battle; the Persians left their cover to chase the Byzantines. Heraclius' elite Optimatoi then assaulted the chasing Persians, causing them to flee.[67] Thus, he saved Asia Minor from the Persians. However, Heraclius had to return to Constantinople to deal with the Avars. He left his army to winter in Pontus.[59][69]

Avar threat

While the Byzantines had been occupied with the Persians, the Avars and Slavs had poured into Dalmatia, capturing several Byzantine cities, namely Singidunum (Belgrade), Viminacium (Kostolac), Naissus (Niš), Sardica (Sofia), and destroyed Salona in 614. However, numerous attempts by the Slavs and Avars to take the city of Thessalonica, the second city of the Empire, ended in failure, allowing the Empire to hold onto a vital city in the region.[70] Other minor cities like Jadar (Zadar), Tragurium (Trogir), Butua (Budva), Scodra (Skadar), and Lissus (Ljes) also survived the invasions.[71] Isidore of Seville even claims that the Slavs took "Greece" from the Byzantines.[72] The Avars also began to raid Thrace, threatening commerce and argiculture, even near the gates of Constantinople.[72]

The Byzantines could therefore not afford use all their forces against the Persians, because of the need to defend against these incursions. Heraclius sent an envoy to the Avar Khagan saying that the Byzantines would pay a tribute in return for the Avars' withdrawing north of the Danube.[56] The Khagan replied by asking for a meeting on 5 June 623, at Heraclea in Thrace, where the Avar army was located; Heraclius agreed to this meeting, coming with his royal court.[73] The Khagan, however, put horsemen en route to Heraclea to ambush and capture Heraclius, so they could hold him for ransom.[65] Heraclius was fortunately warned in time and managed to escape, chased by the Avars all the way to Constantinople. Many members of his court however, as well as an alleged 70,000 Thracian peasants who came to see their Emperor, were captured and killed by the Khagan's men.[74] Despite this treachery, Heraclius was forced to give the Avars a subsidy of 200,000 solidi along with his illegitimate son John Atalarichos, his nephew Stephen, and the illegitimate son of Patrician Bonus in return for peace. This left him more able to focus his war effort completely on the Persians.[65][75]

Byzantine assault on Persia

Although Heraclius offered peace to Khosrau, presumably in 624, threatening otherwise to invade Persia should Khosrau refuse, Khosrau rejected the offer.[76] On March 25, 624, Heraclius left Constantinople to attack the Persian heartland, disregarding his communications with the sea.[76] He traveled through Armenia and Azerbaijan to assault Persia directly.[59] According to Walter Kaegi, he led an army of no more than 40,000, with the size most likely being between 20,000–24,000.[61] He recovered Caesarea, in defiance of the letter that Khosrau had sent him.[61]

He went along the Araxes River, destroying the Persian-held Dvin, the capital of Armenia, and Nakhchivan. At Ganzak, Heraclius met Khosrau's army, some 40,000 strong. Using loyal Arabs, he captured and killed some of Khosrau's guards, leading to disintegration of the Persian army. Heraclius then destroyed the famous fire temple of Takht-i-Suleiman, an important Zoroastrian holy place.e[›][77] Heraclius' raids went as far as the Gayshawan, a residence of Khosrau in Atrpatakan.[78]

This map shows the approximate campaign paths of Heraclius in 624,625, and 627-628
Campaign map of Heraclius in 624, 625, and 627–628 through Armenia, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia

Heraclius wintered in Caucasian Albania, gathering forces for the next year.[79] Khosrau was not content to let Heraclius quietly rest in Albania. He sent three armies, commanded by Shahrbaraz, Shahin and Shahraplakan, to try and trap and destroy Heraclius' forces.[80] Shahraplakan retook lands up as far as Siwnik, aiming to capture mountain passes. Shahrbaraz was sent to block Heraclius' retreat through Georgia and Shahin was sent to block the Bitlis Pass. Heraclius, planning to destroy the Persians separately, spoke to his worried Lazic, Abasgian, and Georgian allies and soldiers, saying: "Do not let the number of our enemies disturb us. For, God willing, one will pursue ten thousand".[80]

Two feigned deserters were sent to Shahrbaraz, claiming that the Byzantines were fleeing before Shahin. Due to jealousy between the Persian commanders, the Persians hurried to take part in the glory of the victory. Heraclius met them at Tigranakert and routed Shahraplakan and Shahin's forces one after another. Shahin lost his baggage train and Shahraplakan (according to one source) was killed, though he re-appears later.[80][81][82] After this victory, Heraclius crossed the Araxes river and camped in the plains on the other side. Shahin, with the remnants of both his army and Shahraplakan's army, joined Shahrbaraz in the pursuit of Heraclius; marshes slowed down their pursuit of Heraclius.[81][82] At Aliovit, Shahrbaraz split his forces, sending some 6,000 troops to ambush Heraclius while the remainder of the troops stayed at Aliovit. Heraclius instead launched a surprise night attack on Aliovit in February 625, destroying the base. Shahrbaraz only barely escaped, naked and alone, having lost his harem, baggage, and men.[81]

Heraclius spent the rest of winter along along the northern side of Lake Van.[81] In 625, his forces attempted to push back towards the Euphrates. In a mere seven days, he bypassed Mount Ararat and the 200 miles along the Arsanias river to capture Amida and Martyropolis, important fortresses on the upper Tigris.[59][83][84] Heraclius then carried on towards the Euphrates, pursued by Shahrbaraz. According to Arab sources, he was stopped at the Satidama or Batman Su River and defeated; Byzantine sources do not mention this incident.[84] There was then another encounter between Heraclius and Shahrbaraz near Adana. Shahrbaraz's forces stationed themselves on the opposite bank of the Sarus river from the Byzantines.[59] A bridge spanned the river, and the Byzantines immediately charged across it. Shahrbaraz feigned retreat to lead the Byzantines into an ambush; the vanguard of Heraclius' army was destroyed within minutes. The Persians, however, had ignored the bridge too long, and Heraclius charged across with the rearguard, unafraid of the arrows that the Persians fired, turning the tide of battle against the Persians.[85] Shahrbaraz expressed his admiration at Heraclius to a renegade Greek: "See your Emperor! He fears these arrows and spears no more than would an anvil!"[85] This action formed the Battle of Sarus, a nominal victory for the Byzantines.[86] In the aftermath of the battle, the Byzantine army wintered at Trebizond.[85]

Climax of the war

Siege of Constantinople

Khosrau, seeing that a decisive counterattack was needed to defeat the Romans, recruited two new armies from all the able men, including foreigners.[85] Shahin was entrusted with 50,000 men and stayed in Mesopotamia and Armenia to prevent Heraclius from invading Persia; the smaller army under Shahrbaraz slipped through Heraclius' flanks and bee-lined for Chalcedon, the Persian base across from Constantinople. Khosrau also coordinated with the Khagan of the Avars, so as to attack Constantinople from both the European and the Asiatic side.[83] The Persian army stationed themselves at Chalcedon, while the Avars placed themselves on the Thracian side Constantinople. However, they had difficulties communicating with each other due to the Byzantine navy guarding the Bosphorus, though undoubtedly, there was some communication between the two forces.[83][87][88]

The defense of Constantinople was under the command of Patriarch Sergius and the Patrician Bonus.[89] Heraclius split his army into three parts; although he judged that the capital was relatively safe, he still sent some reinforcements to Constantinople to boost the moral of the defenders.[89] Another part of the army was under the command of his brother Theodore and was sent to deal with Shahin, while the final and smallest part would remain under his own control, hopefully allowing him to raid the Persian heartland.[85]

The right panel shows Emperor Heraclius, in armor, holding a sword and preparing to strike the submissive Khosrau. The left panel shows a cherub with palms open.
Cherub and Heraclius receiving the submission of Khosrau II; plaque from a cross (Champlevé enamel over gilt copper, 1160-1170, Paris, Louvre).

On 29 June 626, a coordinated assault of the walls began. Inside the walls, some 12,000 well-trained Byzantine cavalry troops (presumably dismounted) defended the city against the forces of some 80,000 Avars and Slavs.[85] Despite continuous bombardment for a month, morale was high inside the walls of Constantinople because of Patriarch Sergius' divine fervor and his processions along the wall with the icon of the Virgin Mary, inspiring the belief that the Byzantines were under divine protection.[90][91]

On August 7, a fleet of Persian rafts ferrying troops across the Bosphorus were surrounded and destroyed by Greek ships. The Slavs under the Avars attempted to attack the sea walls from the Golden Horn, while the main Avar host attacked the land walls. Patrician Bonus' galleys rammed and destroyed the Slavic boats; the Avar land assault from August 6 to the 7th also failed.[92] With the news that Theodore had decisively triumphed over Shahin (supposedly leading Shahin to die from depression), the Avars retreated to the Balkans within two days, never to seriously threaten Constantinople again. Even though the army of Shahrbaraz still camped at Chalcedon, the threat to Constantinople was over.[89][90] Furthermore, Shahrbaraz switched to Heraclius' side after the emperor showed him intercepted letters from Khosrau ordering the Persian general's death.[93] Shahrbaraz then moved to northern Syria, where he could easily decide to support either Khosrau and Heraclius at a moment's notice. Still, with the neutralization of Khosrau's most skilled general, Heraclius deprived his enemy of some of his best and most experienced troops, and secured his flanks prior to his invasion of Persia.[94]

Byzantine-Turkic alliance

While the Siege of Constantinople was taking place, Heraclius allied with what Byzantine sources called the Khazars under Ziebel, now generally identified as the Western Turkic Khaganate of the Göktürks led by Tong Yabghu,[95] plying him with wondrous gifts and the promise of marriage to the porphyrogenita Eudoxia Epiphania. The Turks, based in the Caucasus responded by sending 40,000 of their men to ravage the Persian empire in 626, marking the start of the Third Perso-Turkic War.[85] Joint Byzantine and Göktürks operations were then focused on besieging Tiflis, where the Byzantines used the counterweight trebuchet. Khosrau sent 1,000 cavalry under Shahraplakan to reinforce the city,[96] but the city neverthelss fell, probably in late 628.[97] Ziebel was to die by the end of that year however, saving Epiphania from marriage to a barbarian.[85] Whilst the siege proceeded, Heraclius worked to secure his base in the upper Tigris.[89]

Battle of Nineveh

Both Heraclius and the Persians approached from the east of Nineveh. Persian reinforcements were near Mosul. After the battle, Heraclius went back east while the Persians looped back to Nineveh itself before following Heraclius again.
Maneuvers before and after the Battle of Nineveh

In mid-September 627, leaving Ziebel to continue the siege of Tiflis, Heraclius invaded the Persian heartland, this time with between 25,000 and 50,000 troops and 40,000 Göktürks. The Göktürks, however, quickly deserted him because of the unfamiliar winter conditions.[98] He advanced slowly because a Persian army under Rhahzadh was nearby; each commander was waiting for an opportune moment to attack.

Towards the end of the year, near the ruins of Nineveh, Heraclius engaged Rhahzadh to prevent reinforcements from reaching the Persian commander.[99] The Battle of Nineveh took place in the fog, reducing the Persian advantage in missile troops. Heraclius feigned retreat, leading the Persians to the plains, before reversing his troops to the surprise of the Persians.[100] After eight hours of fighting, the Persians suddenly retreated to nearby foothills, but the battle did not become a rout; [90][101] approximately 6,000 Persians fell.[102] Nikephoros' Brief History suggests that Rhahzadh challenged Heraclius to personal combat. Heraclius accepted and killed Rhahzadh in a single thrust; two other challengers fought against him and also lost.[90][103]

End of the war

Sassanian king Chosroes Parvez has been deposed and placed in house arrest. Mihr-Hurmuzd has been sent to assassinate him. To save time, Chosroes asks his page to bring him prayer items. The naive youth does exactly as he is told, without fetching guards to save his master. Mihr-Hurmuzd waits until the king is done praying and leaps on him, planting a knife in his stomach. The face of the assassin has been left unfinished.
The assassination of Khosrau II, in a Mughal manuscript of ca 1535, Persian poems are from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh.

With no Persian army left to oppose him, Heraclius' victorious army plundered Dastagird, which was a palace of Khosrau's, and gained tremendous riches while recovering 300 captured Byzantine flags.[104] Khosrau had already fled to the mountains of Susiana to try to rally support for the defense of Ctesiphon.[89][90] Heraclius then issued an ultimatum to Khosrau:

I pursue and run after peace. I do not willingly burn Persia, but compelled by you. Let us now throw down our arms and embrace peace. Let us quench the fire before it burns up everything.

Heraclius' ultimatum to Khosrau II, 6 January 628[105]

However, Heraclius could not attack Ctesiphon itself because the Nahrawan Canal was blocked due to the collapse of a bridge leading over it.[104] He did not attempt to bypass this canal.[106]

The Persian army rebelled and overthrew Khosrau II, raising his son Kavadh II, also known as Siroes, in his stead. Khosrau perished in a dungeon after suffering for five days on bare sustenance—he was shot to death slowly with arrows on the fifth day.[107] Kavadh immediately sent peace offers to Heraclius. Heraclius did not impose harsh terms, knowing that his own empire was also near exhaustion. Under the peace treaty, the Byzantines regained all their lost territories, their captured soldiers, a war indemnity, and most importantly for them, the True Cross and other relics that were lost in Jerusalem in 614.[107][108]


Short-term consequences

King Heraclius triumphantly returns the Holy Cross to Jerusalem on a brown horse accompanied by a host of figures both laypeople, clergy, and women. Prominently, Saint Helena is anachronistically depicted on a white horse. An angel looks on above.
Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem, anachronistically accompanied by Saint Helena. 15th century, Spain

Though Heraclius arrived in May at his palace of Hieria across from Constantinople, he refused to enter the city itself without the True Cross. It was mid-September before his brother Theodore had arrived at Chaceldon. On 14 September 628, Heraclius entered Constantinople in triumph. Before him was the True Cross and behind him were four elephants, the first to ever be seen in Constantinople.[107] The parade went toward the Hagia Sophia. There, the True Cross was slowly raised up until it vertically towered over the high altar. To many, this was a sign that a new golden age was about the begin for the Byzantine Empire.[107]

This war cemented Heraclius' position as one of history's most successful generals. He was hailed as 'the new Scipio' for his six years of unbroken victories and for leading the Roman army where no Roman army had ever gone before.[50][108] The triumphal raising of the True Cross in the Hagia Sophia was a crowning moment in his achievements. If Heraclius had died then, he would have been recorded in history, in the words of Norman Davies, as "the greatest Roman general since Julius Caesar".[50] Instead, he lived through the Arab invasions, losing battle after battle against their onslaught and tarnishing his reputation for victory. John Norwich succinctly described Heraclius as having "lived too long".[109]

For their part, the Sassanids struggled to establish a king. When Kavadh II died only months after coming to the throne, Persia was plunged into several years of dynastic turmoil and civil war. Ardashir III, Heraclius' ally Shahrbaraz, Purandokht, and Azarmidokht all succeeded to the throne within months of each other. Only when Yazdgerd III, a grandson of Khosrau II, succeeded to the throne in 632 was there stability, but by then, it was too late to rescue the Sassanid kingdom.[110][111]

Long-term consequences

The Byzantine control most of the Mediterranean islands, parts of Italy, most of North Africa and Egypt, along with Palestine, Syria, Armenia, and Asia Minor. Since 600, the Byzantines have lost Spain and parts of the Balkans.
Byzantine Empire in 630

The devastating impact of this last war, along with the cumulative effects of a century of almost continuous Byzantine-Persian conflict, left both empires crippled. The Sassanids were further weakened by economic decline, heavy taxation from Khosrau II's campaigns, religious unrest, and the increasing power of the provincial landholders.[112] According to Howard-Johnston: "[Heraclius'] victories in the field over the following years and their political repercussions...saved the main bastion of Christianity in the Near East and gravely weakened its old Zoroastrian rival. They may be shadowed by the even more extraordinary military achievements of the Arabs in the following two decades, but hindsight should not be allowed to dim their lustre."[112]

However, the Byzantine Empire was also severely affected, with its financial reserves exhausted and the Balkans now largely in the hands of the Slavs.[113] Additionally, Anatolia had been devastated by repeated Persian invasions, and the empire's hold on its recently regained territories in the Caucasus, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt was loosened by years of Persian occupation.f[›][114]Clive Foss called this war the "first stage in the process which marked the end of Antiquity in Asia Minor."[115]

The approximate territories of Byzantium in 650. Territories such as Egypt and Syria have captured while Armenia notably is now independent.
Byzantine Empire in 650, after the Arab conquests and collapse of the Sassanid kingdom

Neither empire was given much chance to recover, as within a few years they were struck by the onslaught of the Arabs (newly united by Islam);[116] which according to Howard-Johnston, "can only be likened to a human tsunami".[117] According to George Liska, the "unnecessarily prolonged Byzantine–Persian conflict opened the way for Islam".[118] The Sassanid Empire rapidly succumbed to these attacks and was completely destroyed. During the Byzantine–Arab Wars, the exhausted Byzantine Empire's recently regained eastern and southern provinces of Syria, Armenia, Egypt and North Africa were also lost, reducing the empire to a territorial rump consisting of Anatolia and a scatter of islands and footholds in the Balkans and Italy.[119] However, unlike Persia, the Roman Empire (in the form of the Byzantine Empire) ultimately survived the Arab assault, holding onto its residual territories and decisively repulsing two Arab sieges of its capital in 674–678 and 717–718.[120] The Byzantine Empire also lost its territories in Crete and southern Italy to the Arabs in later conflicts, though these too were ultimately recovered.[121][122]


The sources for this war are mostly of Byzantine origin. Foremost among the contemporary Greek texts is the Chronicon Paschale by an unidentified author from around 630.[123][124] George of Pisidia wrote many poems and other works that were contemporary. Theophylact Simocatta has surviving letters along with a history that gives the political outlook of the Byzantines, but that history only really covers from 582–602.[124][125][123] Theodore the Synkellos has a surviving speech, which was made during the Siege of Constantinople (626), that contains useful information for some events. There are also some surviving papyri from Egypt from that period.[123]

Non-Greek contemporary sources include the Chronicle of John of Nikiu, which was written in Coptic but only survives in Ethiopian translation, and the History of Sebeos. However, the History by Sebeos (though there is controversy over the authorship) is an Armenian compilation of various sources, arranged in only rough chronological order. This gives it an uneven coverage of the war. Furthermore, it was put together with the purpose of correlating Biblical prophecy and contemporary times, making it most certainly not objective.[126] There are also some surviving Syriac materials from that period, which Dodgeon, Greatrex, and Lieu believe are the "most important" of the contemporary sources.[124][126] These include the Chronicle of 724 by Thomas the Presbyter was composed in 640. The Chronicle of Guidi or Khuzistan Chronicle gives the perspective of a Nestorian Christian living in Sassanid territory.[124]

Later Greek accounts include Theophanes' Chronicles and the Short History of Nikephoros I of Constantinople. Theophanes' Chronicles is very useful in creating a framework of the war.[127] It is usually supplemented by even later Syriac sources like the Chronicle of 1234 and the Chronicle by Michael the Syrian.[124] However, these sources, excepting the Short History by Nikephoros, and the Christian Arabic Agapius of Manbij (Hierapolis) all likely drew their information from a common source, probably the 8th century historian Theophilos of Edessa.[124][127]

The 10th century Armenian History of the House of Artsrunik' by Thomas Artsruni probably have similar sources to the ones that the compiler of Sebeos used. Movses wrote the History of Armenia in the tenth century and has material from unidentified sources on the 620s.[128] Howard-Johnston considered the histories of Movses and Sebeos as "the most important of extant non-Muslim sources".[129] The Christian Arab Patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria' history contains many errors, but can still be used. The Quran also provides some detail, but can only be used cautiously. [127] Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari was an Arab historian who wrote the Tarikh al-Tabari (History of the Prophets and Kings), which contains a history of the Sassanid dynasty, which uses now lost sources.[125]

The Byzantine hagiographies, or the lives of saints, of Saints Theodore of Sykeon and Anastasios the Persian have proven to be helpful in understanding the era of the war. [127] The Life of George of Khozeba gives an idea of the panic at the time of the Siege of Jerusalem.[130] However, there are some doubts as to whether hagiographic texts may be corrupt from eighth or ninth century interpolations.[131] Numismatics, or the study of coins, has proven useful to dating.[132] Sigillography, or the study of seals, is also used for dating. Art and other archaeological findings are also of some use. Epigraphic sources or inscriptions are of limited use.[131]

Notes and Citations


^ a: All dates, especially between 602–620 are only approximate. This is primarily because many popular sources like Theophanes' Chronicles are all drawn from a common source, thought to be a history by Theophilus of Edessa. Thus, there are few independent witnesses of the following events, making reliable dating difficult.[124]
^ b: The war had originally begun when Justin II had refused to given the Sassanids the usual tribute dating from the time of Justinian I. The successful conclusion to that war meant that the tribute was no longer paid. [133]
^ c: Some authors, including Dodgeon, Greatrex, and Lieu, have expressed the belief that the raid on Chalcedon is fictious.[31] Either way, by 610, the Persians captured all the Byzantine cities east of the Euphrates.
^ d: Since the time of Theodosius I, no Roman emperor had personally led troops in battle. Heraclius was the first soldier-emperor since then.[134]
^ e: Thebarmes, described in Theophanes' Chronicles, is usually identified with Takht-i-Suleiman.[135]
^ f: Ambivalence toward Byzantine rule on the part of monophysites may have lessened local resistance to the Arab expansion.[136]


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