The Rise of Heraclius and the True Cross

4 October 610, Heraclius, the rebellious exarch of Carthage, captured Constantinople, overthrew and executed Emperor Phocas and is crowned himself on the following day.
“”Is it thus,” asked Heraclius, “that you have governed the Empire?” – “Will you, “replied Phocas, “govern it better?”” (John of Antioch)

Piero della Francesca’s crusade-coined imagination of a “Battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II”, Fresco, ca. 1452

Phocas, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire between 602 and 610 CE, must have been a tyrant out of the picture book. A cad and carouser, one orgy after the other, setting up apolice state, bullying nobility and commoners alike while foreign policy flew right into his face – the Avars, a confederation of Steppe nomads of multiple ethnicities, had conquered vast territories on the Balkans, the Germanic princes in the West threatened Roman Italy and the Sassanid Persians, the other superpower in the East, had invaded Asia Minor. The revolt against Phocas began in Africa in 608, led by Heraclius the Elder. His nephew Nicetas occupied Constantinople’s breadbasket Egypt, while his son, the younger Heraclius, sailed for the capital. Arriving there, even the emperor’s lifeguards, the Excubitors, defected to Heraclius and he entered Constantinople without any resistance worth mentioning – the rule of the Heraclian Dynasty had begun, as well as a time of radical changes.

Constantine Manasses’ Chronicle, 14th century illustration: Emperor Heraclius attacks a Persian fortress,
while the Persians attack Constantinople

The Eastern Roman Empire was really in deep water when Heraclius took over. Being on the brink of bankruptcy together with the considerable loss of territory and severely weakened in the Levant after the civil war with Phocas, Heraclius’ resources were by no means sufficient to counter a threat like the one posed by the brilliant Sassanid King Khosrau II. Roman Syria fell in 612, Jerusalem was taken in 614, the True Cross captured and made a gift to Khosrau’s allegedly Christian wife Shirin, Egypt surrendered in 618 to the Sassanids and Khosrau pushed deeper and deeper into Anatolia, his goal to re-establish the borders of the old Achaemenid Empire within his grasp. Heraclius had no other choice than to sue for peace and pay a large tribute. He took four years to rebuild his army and was finally prepared to retaliate in 622. The campaign against the Sassanids began with the character of a religious war, temples of the “fire worshippers” were systematically destroyed, the army was in an almost mystical mood and Asia Minor was slowly reconquered – then, the Sassanids allied with the Avars and laid siege to Constantinople herself in 626 – and failed. The Eastern Romans were winning again and after a decisive defeat in the Persian heartland near Nineveh, it was Khosrau’s turn to sue for peace.

Godfried Maes’ (1649 – 1700) idea of
"The Emperor Heraclius Carrying the Cross of Christ into Jerusalem”, 1664

Khosrau returned the True Cross as part of the reparations and the relic was returned to Jerusalem in 630 – a feat that gave Heraclius almost a saint’s reputation throughout the Middle Ages, despite later religious differences. Khosrau’s nobility did not take kindly to the defeat at all. The king of kings was murdered in 629 and the Sassanid Empire descended into anarchy only 10 years after being on the summit of its power. Both archenemies were bled dry in fact after more than a generation of something along the lines of a world war. Eastern Rome finally had become the Byzantine Empire and Heraclius was probably the last emperor who bothered to speak Latin at all – and then the unexpected happened: In 629, the armies of Islam broke out of Arabia and began their unprecedented conquest of the Near and Middle East and Northern Africa. Within a generation, when Heraclius finally died, the Sassanid Empire was no more, the Byzantine borders were in Asia Minor for good and antiquity had finally ended in the Eastern Mediterranean as well.

Below is the read version of the tale by yours truly