previous next


*(Hra/kleios), a Roman emperor of the East, reigned from A. D. 610 to 641. The character of this extraordinary man is a problem ; his reign, signalised by both splendid victories and awful defeats, is the last epoch of ancient Roman grandeur: he crushed Persia, the hereditary enemy of Rome, and he vainly opposed his sword to the rise and progress of another enemy, whose followers achieved their prophet's prediction, the extermination of the Roman empire in the East.

Heraclius was the son of Heraclius the elder, exarch or governor-general of Africa, who was renowned for his victories over the Persians, and who was descended from another Heraclius, of Edessa, who wrested the province of Tripolitana from the Vandals during the reign of the emperor Leo the Great. Heraclius the younger, the subject of this notice, was born in Cappadocia, about A. D. 575. We know little of his earlier life, but we must suppose that he showed himself worthy of his ancestors, since in A. D. 610, his father destined hint to put an end to the insupportable tyranny of the emperor Phocas. This prince, the assassin of the emperor Mauritius, whose throne he had usurped, committed such unheard-of cruelties, and misgoverned the empire in so frightful a manner, that conspiracies were formed in all the provinces to deprive him of his ill-gotten crown. The principal conspirator was Crispus, the son-in-law of Phocas, who urged Heraclius the elder to join him in the undertaking. During two years the prudent exarch declined rising in open rebellion, but lie manifested his hostile intentions by prohibiting the export of corn from Africa and Egypt into Constantinople, thus creating discontent among the inhabitants of the capital, who depended almost entirely upon the harvests of Africa. He then withheld from the imperial treasury the revenue of his province, and at last promised open assistance to Crispus, who had offered him the imperial crown. This, however, the exarch declined, alleging his advanced age. In his stead lie sent his son Heraclius with a fleet, and Nicetas, the son of his brother, and his lieutenant, Gregorius or Gregoras, with an army, with which they were to proceed through Egylpt, Syria, and Asia Minor. They started from Carthage in the autumn of A. D. 610. There is a strange story that the one who should first arrive at Constantinople should be emperor. But a fleet requires only twelve days or a fortnight to sail from Africa to the Bosporus, and no army can march from Carthage to Constantinople in less than three months. When Heraclius with his fleet appeared off Constantinople, Crispus rose in revolt; Heraclius forced the entrance of the Golden Horn; and the emperor, abandoned by his mercenaries, hid himself in his palace. The ignominious death, which Phocas suffered from the infuriated mob, is related in the life of that emperor [PHOCAS]. When Phocas was conducted before Heraclius, " Is it thus, wretch," exclaimed the victor, " that thou misgovernest the empire ?" " Govern it better," was the sturdy answer; and Heraclius, in a fit of vulgar passion, knocked the royal captive down with his fist, and trampled upon him with his feet.

Constantinople was then agitated by two factions, the blue and the green. The green saluted Heraclius as emperor; the greater part of the population followed their example; and whatever might have been the secret designs of Crispus, he had no chance of prevailing upon the people while a conqueror filled their souls with admiration and gratitude. No enmity, however, arose between Heraclius and Crispus, who was rewarded with riches and honours, and entrusted with the supreme command against the Persians. Nicetas, of course, arrived long after the downfal of the tyrant; but as he could not traverse so many provinces without preparing the people for the revolution, he received his share, likewise, in the favours of the new emperor, with whom he continued to live in the most intimate friendship.

The Eastern empire was then in a miserable condition. Torn to pieces by political factions, attacked and ravaged in all quarters by barbarous and implacable enemies, its ruin was imminent, and a great monarch only could prevent its downfal. Heraclius was a great man, and yet he accomplished nothing. He had certainly great defects: his love of pleasure was unbounded, but his virtues were still greater; yet we search in vain for a single powerful exertion to extricate himself and his subjects from their awful position. This seems strange and wholly unaccountable; but when we call to mind his heroic exploits in a subsequent part of his reign, we have every reason for believing that he could not act vigorously on account of the circumstances in which he was placed, and therefore we are not justified in condemning his inactivity.

The following was the state of the empire: the European provinces between the Bosporus and the Danube were laid waste by the Bulgarians, Slavonians, and especially the Avars, who, in (619, overran and plundered all the country as far as Constantinople. Heraclius tried all the means within his power to persuade them to retreat; and having at last found their king disposed to return to his native wildernesses, he went into his camp, which was pitched in the neighborhood of Constantinople, for the purpose of concluding a definite truce through a personal interview. The barbarian having pledged his word to refrain from all hostilities, the gates of Constantinople were left open, and a motley crowd of soldiers citizens, and women left the town to witness the interview. No sooner had Heraclius entered the camp of the Avars, than he was suddenly surrounded by their horsemen, who sabred his escort, and would have made him a prisoner but for the swiftness of his horse. He succeeded in reaching the town, but the immense crowd of spectators were less fortunate. Many of them were unmercifully slain, others trampled down by the horses, and such was the flight and the eagerness of the pursuit, that the gates were closed before the last of the fugitives were in safety, as there was. the greatest danger lest the pursuers should enter the town together with the flying Greeks, and make themselves masters of the capital. The barbarian then withdrew, with 250,000 prisoners, into his kingdom beyond the Danube. As the part of Illyricum between the Haemus, the Danube, the Adriatic sea, and the frontier of Italy was laid waste and most of its inhabitants slain or carried off, Heraclius allotted it to the Servians and Croates, with a view of making them serve as a barrier against the Avars, and those nations have ever since continued to live in that part of Europe. In Italy the exarchatte was exposed to the attacks of the Lombards and some Slavonian tribes: the latter conquered Istria, where they still continue to dwell. In Spain and on the opposite coast of Africa, part of the Greek dominions was conquered by the West-Gothic king, Sisibut, in 616, and the remaining part by king Suinthila, in 624. These calamities, however, were trifling in comparison with those inflicted upon the empire by the inroads and conquests of the Persians. The war which broke out in A. D. 603 between the emperor Phocas and the Persian king Chosroes or Khosrew II., was still raging, and to the conquest of Mesopotamia and parts of Arminia, the king added, in the beginning of the reign of Heraclius, all Syria and Palaestine. Sarlbar, the Persian general, conquered and pillaged Jerusalem in A. D. 615, and sent the holy lance, as his noblest trophy, to his master at Ctesiphon. In A. D. 616, Sarbar took and plundered Alexandria, conquered Egypt, and penetrated as far as Abyssinia; the export of corn from Egypt to Constantinople was interrupted, and famine soon began to increase the sufferings of the capital. Having been urged by a Greek officer to abandon Egypt as a country of which the Persians could only keep transient possession, the proud victor pointed out a lofty column in Alexandria, and said, " I shall leave Egypt after you have swallowed that column !" During this year, another Persian army overran Asia Minor, laid siege to Chalcedon, opposite Constantinople, and took it, in A. D. 616. The Greeks, however, reconquered it a few years afterwards. Heraclius made an attempt to enter into negotiations with Chosroes, but his ambassadors were thrown into prison, where they were afterwards put to death. It seems that Heraclius remained unshaken in the midst of all these tempests: he kept his eye upon Persia; he organised and increased his means, and when at last the time was come when he thought himself able to keep the field, he took the command of his troops in person, against the persuasion of his courtiers, and astonished the world by a series of campaigns worthy of comparison with those of the most consummate generals of all times. " Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal," says Gibbon, " no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraciius achieved for the deliverance of the empire."

Heraclius spent a whole year in disciplining a host of Greeks and barbarians into a compact army. In 622 he embarked them on vessels lying in the Bosporus, and made sail for Cilicia. He pitched his camp in the plain of Issus, and occupied the Pylae Ciliciae and the other passes of the Taurus and Anti-Taurus that lead into the plain round the corner of the gulf of Iskénderun, between Mount Taurus and Mount Amanus. He was soon surrounded by a Persian army, but defeated it in a decisive battle, and, in spite of repeated attacks, fought his way across the Taurus and Anti-Taurus into the province of Pontus. There his army took up its winter-quarters. He himself returned to Constantinople, and in the spring of 623 sailed with another army, small but select. to Trebizond. This campaign and those of the following years led to great results: the campaign of 624, however, is fall of obscurities. Heraclius crossed Armenia, and soon was in sight of Gandzaca, now Tauris, which yielded to him after a short siege, Chosroes being unable or un willing to defend it, although he was in the neighbourhood with 40,000 veteran soldiers. Thence the emperor marched into the Caucasian countries, destroying some of the most famous temples of the Magi, on his way through Albania (Dághestán), along the Caspian Sea. His motive in approaching the Caucasus was probably to put himself into communication with Ziebel, the khan of the Khazars, with whom he afterwards concluded a very advantageous alliance. The Khazars were masters of the steppes north of the Caucasus as far as the Don and the Ural. Joined by the Colchians and other Caucasian nations, he directed his attacks against the northern part of Media, and he penetrated probably as far, and perhaps beyond, the present Persian capital, Ispahan. He then returned to the Caucasus, but before taking up his winter-quarters, he was attacked by the main army of the Persians commanded by Chosroes in person, who, however, suffered a total defeat. Having been informed that Chosroes meditated another expedition against Constantinople, which would be commanded by Sarbar, Heraclius descended, in 625, into Mesopotamia, and from thence went into Cilicia in order to fall upon the rear of the Persians, if Sarbar should venture to penetrate into Asia Minor with a Greek army at his back. In order to drive the emperor before him, Sarbar attacked him on the river Sarus, now Síhfún. A terrible conflict took place; the Persians were routed with great slaughter, and Heraclius gained the entire devotion of his soldiers, not only for having led them to a decisive victory, but also for the most splendid proofs of personal courage: on the bridge of the Sarus he slew a giant-like Persian, whom nobody dared to meet in single combat. Sarbar hurried into Persia, and Heraclius once more marched into Pontus. During this year Chosroes concluded an alliance with the Avars: they had been on friendly terms with the emperor since the year 620, but they now listened to the proposals of the Persian, and in 626 they descended into Thrace, laying siege to Constantinople, while Sarbar with a powerful army advanced from Persia, and took up his former quarters on the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus. Heraclius was then encamped on the lower Halys. Every body expected lie would fly to the relief of his capital; but he did just the contrary. He despatched his son Theodore with an army against Sais, the lieutenant of Chosroes, who invaded Mesopotamia, and he himself, with the main body, took up a position in the Caucasus, taking no notice of Sarbar and the Avars. His plan was admirable, and crowned with complete success. In the Caucasus he was joined by the khan Ziebel, with whom lie had just concluded an offensive and defensive alliance, and who now hastened to his assistance with a powerful army of Khazars. The khan with his main army invaded Media; Heraclius, with his Greeks and 50,000 Khazarian auxiliaries, attacked Assyria; and Constantinople stood firmly against its assailants. As neither of the besiegers had ships, they could not effect a junction, and thus the Avars withdrew, after having sustained several severe defeats, and Sarbar amused himself with besieging Chalcedon, thus running the risk of being cut off from Persia: for in the following year, 627, Heraclius made an irresistible attack against the very heart of the Persian empire. He crossed the Great Zab, and encamped on the ruins of Nineveh. Rhazates, the Persian general, took up a fortified position near the junction of the Little Zab and the Tigris. There he was attacked and routed by the emperor, in the month of December, 627, and an immense booty remained in the hands of the victors. A few days afterwards Heraclius took Dastagerd or Artemita, not far from Ctesiphon, which was the favourite residence of Chosroes, and the numerous palaces of the king in the neighbourhood of that town were likewise taken and plundered. The booty was so great as to baffle description, though we must not believe the Arabic historians when they say that in the treasury of Dastagerd the king used annually to deposit the greater part of the income of the empire, which amounted to two hundred millions of pounds sterling, and that the Greek emperor found in the treasury a thousand chests full of diamonds and other precious stones. Chosroes fled to Seleuceia, and thence into the interior of Persia. The only army left to him was that of Sarbar, and he sent messengers to Chalcedon to urge his immediate return. The messengers were intercepted, but Heraclius ordered them to be released, taking care, however, to substitute another letter for that written by the king, in which it was said that the king was victorious on all sides, and that Sarbar might continue the siege of Chalcedon.

The protracted absence of Sarbar in such a critical moment was certain proof of high treason in the eyes of the Persian king, and a confident officer was despatched into the camp of Chalcedon, bearing an order to the second in command, directing him to kill Sarbar. The despatch fell into Sarbar's hands: he inserted after his name those of four hundred of the principal officers, who seeing their lives in danger, agreed with the proposition of their commander to conclude a separate peace with the Greeks. Deprived of his only army and his best general, Chosroes was unable to oppose resistance to a new attack of Heraclius upon the heart of Persia. He fled to the East, abandoning the West to the victorious Greeks; but the loyalty of his subjects ceased with his victories, and Chosroes became the victim of a rebellion headed by his own son, Siroes, by whom he was put to death in the month of February, A. D. 628. In the following month of March a peace was concluded between Heraclius and Siroes, in consequence of which the ancient limits of the two empires were restored, and the holy cross was given back to the Christians. It was presented to the holy sepulchre by Heraclius himself in A. D. 629. Previous to this, however, the emperor celebrated his victories by a triumphal entrance into Constantinople : the blessings of his subjects followed him wherever he went, and his fame spread over the world from Europe to the remotest corners of India. Ambassadors from that country, from the Frankish king, Dagobert, and many other eastern and western princes, came to Constantinople to congratulate the emperor on his having overthrown the hereditary enemy of the Roman empire.

The glory acquired by Heraclius was of short duration. The provinces reconquered from the Persians he was deprived of for ever by the Arabs. Our space does not allow us to give more than a short sketch of the long and bloody war that gave a new religion and a new master to the East.

On his way to Jerusalem in A. D. 629, Heraclius received at Edessa an ambassador of Mohammed, who summoned the empeior to adopt the new religion. In spite of this insult the emperor condescended to conclude a treaty of friendship with the prophet. A small town, however, on the frontier of Syria was plundered by some Arabs, and this trifling circumstance was the signal of a general war, which Mohammed feared all the less as the Greek empire was exhausted through the long wars with the Persians. The war was continued by Mohammed's successors, Abubekr and Omar; and before Heraclius died, Syria, Palaestine, and Jerusalem, Mesopotamia and Egypt, were annexed to the dominion of the Khalifs. Heraclius did not command his armies, as he had done with so much success against Chosroes, but spent his days in pleasures and theological controversies in his palace at Constantinople. The motives of his inactivity are unknown to us, and we are inclined to ascribe the misfortunes of the last ten years of his reign to bodily sufferings and debility, the consequence of his numerous campaigns and of the many wounds which he had received in his daring exploits, rather than to some mental derangement, or to that sort of character which has been given him by modern historians, who represent him as possessing a mixture of energy and laziness of such an extraordinary description as to be hardly consistent with the organisation of the human mind. So Iong as there is no positive evidence of the most unequivocal character, no man, and still less a great man, ought to be declared either a madman or a fool. Heraclius died on the 11 th of March (February), A. D. 641, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Heraclius, called Constantine III., whom he had by his first wife, Eudoxia; lie left another son, Heracleonas, by his second wife, Martina. A colossal statue of Heraclius was shown at Barletto in Apulia so late as the end of the fifteenth century. (Theophan. p. 250, &c., ed. Paris; Nicephor. p. 4, &c., ed. Paris; Cedrenus, p. 407, ed. Paris; Chronicon Alexandrinum; Zonar. vol. ii. p. 82, &c., ed. Paris; Manasses, p. 75, &c.; Glycas, p. 270, &c., ed. Paris.)


hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
610 AD (3)
629 AD (2)
616 AD (2)
641 AD (1)
628 AD (1)
615 AD (1)
603 AD (1)
575 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: