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Old October 18th, 2016, 08:18 AM   #1

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Is Heraclius over-rated?


Heraclius is famous as the Emperor who beat the Sassanids and then was beaten in turn by the Arabs. His leadership during the Romano-Sassanid war of 602-628 has won him a reputation as a great commander, and it's true that his campaigns into the Persian heartland were well-executed, turning the tide of the war in favour of Rome. However, looking at the course of the entire war, Heraclius' rule starts to look less impressive.

Most sources blame Phocas for the near collapse of the Empire, but, whilst it's true that the Romans weren't doing very well under him, the really catastrophic losses were all under Heraclius' watch. It was Heraclius who lost Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Asia Minor, and his attempts to hold them were rather lacklustre: Syria fell after a battle at Antioch in 613 (at which Heraclius was personally in command), and Egypt was lost without a major battle.

It seems to me, therefore, that, whilst Heraclius' final campaigns against the Sassanids were impressive in bringing Rome back from the brink, the fact that Rome was on the brink in the first place was largely Heraclius' fault. Accordingly, whilst he was by no means the worst Emperor Rome/Byzantium ever had, he wasn't in the top tier, either, and the reputation he has among later historians is unjustified.

Any thoughts/comments/agreements/disagreements?
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Old October 18th, 2016, 09:32 AM   #2

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There are a couple of things you have to consider:

The reason the Arabs expanded have more to do with the facts that the Byzantines fought for 26 years of war alongside plagues, rather than it has to do with ineptitude.

The Byzantine-Persian war lasted for 26 years. After that the Byzantines meet a fresh Arab army immediately. Also the plagues tend to be more damaging towards agricultural societies(such of Byzantines) rather than nomadic societies(such of the Arabs). Right after or during the Byzantine-Persian war, plagues arrived which crippled it even more.

There was literally not much Heraclius could do after he won the war against the Persians indeed. Had both the Byzantines and the Persians realized the new threat from Arabian Peninsula in time, they would not have engaged in such a devastating war with each other.

So 26 years of war where Heraclius won against the odds, plagues hitting, and a fresh Arab nomadic army unaffected by the plagues. – Let’s be fair, there was not much he could do anymore.

Also it was Heraclius who initiated the Themes-system, which turned out very crucial later when Byzantine Empire successfully defended Constantinople in 717 and crippled the Caliphate. It was also crucial when Byzantines regained its position and became the strongest state during the Macedonian and Komnenian dynasty. Heraclius also tried to solve the division between the Christian fractions over doctrines and tried to unite them.

Heraclius, alongside Alexios Komnenos and Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer, are definitely top 3 most gifted Byzantine Emperors ever.


EDIT:

By the way, you have to keep in mind that Phocas and Heraclius squabbled and Phocas had used all resources, so there were not much Heraclius had to counter attack the Persians immediately to start with. So it is not like Heraclius took the throne with a full treasure chest and a stabile state, and just lost Syria and Egypt because of ineptitude. Rather he had to deal with Phocas and an empty chest from day one.

Last edited by El Cid; October 18th, 2016 at 09:47 AM.
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Old October 18th, 2016, 12:19 PM   #3

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In about a year or two, Heraclius had gone from defending Constantinople from an enemy coalition to capturing Ctesphion, the Sassanid capital. This was against one of the greatest Sassanid Kings, Khosrau II, who'd actually restored (temporarily) the Persian Empire to its territorial extent under the Achaemenian Dynasty. I think he deserves credit for ending the initial set of struggles between East and West. The Sassanids were thrown into complete anarchy after Khosrau's defeat and death. I only know about him through the purview of the Sassanid Empire though, so I would be unable to comment on other aspects of his rule.
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Old October 18th, 2016, 08:37 PM   #4

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Yes. Herakleios was a capable leader, but the credit goes to the wrong places. Herakleios was definitely a capable military commander, but his diplomatic skills were what won the day. He never took Ctesiphon. Rather, a coalition with disaffected Persian elites, Armenians, and the Gokturk Khanate won the day, with the heavy emphasis on the disaffected Persian elites. His pursuit of monothelitism ultimately caused problems with Syriac and Latin Christians as well. He never created the the theme system. That idea is dead and gone, but he probably set up a system of territorial placement of armies to temporarily supply them.

We also tend to think of Herakleios in the light of his contemporaries. Phokas is hard to judge, since almost everything that we have on him was produced under the Herakleian regime and is quite vitriolic. Phokas inherited a poor financial situation and was faced with a major revolt in the east that further sapped his resources. Following Herakleios was Constans II, recently called a "failed Herakleios" by Walter Kaegi. Yet this underscores Constans achievements: he held the line against the now vastly superior military might of Islam, even taking the offensive when he had the chance. He was also a capable politician, securing Italy and Sicily, of which the last Byzantine territory there would only be lost in 1071. The reasons are murky, but he failed in Africa, however. He seems to have had some real political success in Armenia and certainly still held quite a bit of sway with the Latin church, although his support of monothelitism and his persecution of Maximos the Confessor and Pope Martin ended up costing him that in the long run. But this more positive view of Constans is quite recent and will take some time to percolate down, but hopefully it'll steal a bit of Herakleios' thunder.

The cynical reason is simply that we have ample source material that reflects positively on Herakleios, much as we do for some of the other "great" emperors like Alexios I Komnenos, although Basil II is a slightly different case since his reputation was largely constructed a century after his death. In terms of active and successful campaigning Byzantine emperors, Constantine V must be on the list, but we have no long, eulogistic account of his wars and so he remains forgotten.
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Old October 18th, 2016, 10:01 PM   #5
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Kirialax, I would appreciate your thoughts on the following responses to your remarks, if it's okay.

Quote:
Phokas is hard to judge, since almost everything that we have on him was produced under the Herakleian regime and is quite vitriolic.
Understandably, this is so. One viewpoint might be, even if Phocas was initially a reluctant emperor, as the tool of the army that mutinied, his action of withdrawing the army from the frontier created the conditions that led to the final breakdown of the Balkan frontier, the dissolution of vital military units, and the perishing much of the urbanized Balkans world. While the Byzantines occasionally restored control over much or even all of the Balkans, it was a tenuous control because it was based on hegemony over subjuigated peoples. How valid is this viewpoint and how much of it, if any, can be blamed on Phocas?

Regarding the issue of monothelitism, some historians argue that this was Heraclius' attempt to reconcile monophysitism with the Chalcedon (or whatever it should be called) branch. While this effort failed, should Heraclius really be blamed for the alienation of the eastern provinces? The disaffection of the eastern provinces had been recognized as something that needed to be addressed. Indeed, even if there is no historical record to support it, it's a reasonable guess that the eastern disaffection was a contributor to the rapid advance of the Persians.

Regarding Constans' apparent success when compared to that of Heraclius, as far as defense against the Arabs, are there any accounts that discuss a possible transformation in Heraclius's character; a transformation that might have made him unfit to be emperor later in his life. We do know that he entered into what contemporaries considered to be a scandalous marriage. We do know that, while he sailed forth from Carthage, he had trouble returning to Constantinople because he feared seeing the water. So, could he possibly have suffered, later in his rule, from either depression or PTSD?
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Old October 18th, 2016, 10:02 PM   #6
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Quote:
it was Heraclius who initiated the Themes-system
I think that this is still subject to argument.
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Old October 18th, 2016, 10:38 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Obey Bayezid View Post
I think that this is still subject to argument.
Then argue it.
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Old October 19th, 2016, 05:28 AM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Obey Bayezid View Post
Understandably, this is so. One viewpoint might be, even if Phocas was initially a reluctant emperor, as the tool of the army that mutinied, his action of withdrawing the army from the frontier created the conditions that led to the final breakdown of the Balkan frontier, the dissolution of vital military units, and the perishing much of the urbanized Balkans world. While the Byzantines occasionally restored control over much or even all of the Balkans, it was a tenuous control because it was based on hegemony over subjuigated peoples. How valid is this viewpoint and how much of it, if any, can be blamed on Phocas?
It's really hard to say. I think most of the problems were already evident under Maurikios and he was having a hard time dealing with them. Herakleios did have the good fortune of having things get so bad that he effectively wound up with complete support from the senate and church, which allowed him to maximize his limited resources. I'm not sure things were quite so unified under Phokas, as the major rebellion in the east suggests.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Obey Bayezid View Post
Regarding the issue of monothelitism, some historians argue that this was Heraclius' attempt to reconcile monophysitism with the Chalcedon (or whatever it should be called) branch. While this effort failed, should Heraclius really be blamed for the alienation of the eastern provinces? The disaffection of the eastern provinces had been recognized as something that needed to be addressed. Indeed, even if there is no historical record to support it, it's a reasonable guess that the eastern disaffection was a contributor to the rapid advance of the Persians.
I'm skeptical of the whole eastern disaffection idea, since it reads separate churches back into the conquest periods and completely elides the fact that many of the Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian elites were in accordance with Chalcedon. We need to be careful with monothelitism, too, since it has recently been argued that it's not a new imperial formulation at all but rather something that was well-developed in Syriac. Herakleios just took it up as a possible means to gain unity. I also think that we may be a bit too cynical regarding Chalcedonianism equaling support for the empire. The unity of the Roman Christian world evidently meant a lot to some of these people, and we should probably take them seriously when say that it's important. I tend to think that the long-term consequences of monothelitism was more deleterious in relations with the papacy, but I don't read a lot of the religious literature and so I'm not totally up to speed on this.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Obey Bayezid View Post
Regarding Constans' apparent success when compared to that of Heraclius, as far as defense against the Arabs, are there any accounts that discuss a possible transformation in Heraclius's character; a transformation that might have made him unfit to be emperor later in his life. We do know that he entered into what contemporaries considered to be a scandalous marriage. We do know that, while he sailed forth from Carthage, he had trouble returning to Constantinople because he feared seeing the water. So, could he possibly have suffered, later in his rule, from either depression or PTSD?
It's quite possible, but modern authorities have been hesitant to weigh in on the issue. Horrible suffering during life can also, however, be one of the things that heretics have to endure, and given the Chalcedonian nature of some of our sources I would at least be cautious. But given that Herakleios is not the only emperor to have suffered campaign-related health problems, it's eminently plausible.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Obey Bayezid View Post
I think that this is still subject to argument.
It depends on how you want to define a theme. The main evidence for Herakleios creating them is a line in Theophanes that uses the word thema, but this is widely considered now to have been an inaccurate understanding emanating from the early ninth century. What Herakleios did was establish the Roman field armies in Asia in order to supply them. The Roman provinces and the ecclesiastical administration remained in place. He did this to keep the armies supplied. The soldiers getting estates on which to support themselves comes later, as does the establishment of specific military districts for each army. Only in the ninth century do the generals of the armies actually gain civil authority in the regions in which their armies are based.
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Old October 19th, 2016, 05:32 AM   #9
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Quote:
Then argue it.
Please understand that I am not personally taking a position. Still, the question of who takes the credit for the theme system is debated. Yes, many people have credited Heraclius. On the other hand, Warren Treadgold, in "A History of the Byzantine State and Society", page 315, credits Constans II.
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Old October 19th, 2016, 05:53 AM   #10
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Thanks, Kirialax.

Regarding Phocas and the Byzantine position in the Balkans, yes, the problems existed under Maurice. And, this is why he ultimately lost his life, right?

One story goes that his Balkans campaign was arduous and, yet, victory was within sight. The rebellion was spurred on by his economizing, which included ordering the army to quarter, for the winter, on the harsh pannonian plain.

The eastern rebellion, I think Treadgold says, came from a pretender after the fall of Maurice and was used as a pretext by Persia for the invasion.

So, while I am not actively forcefully arguing that the "blame" for these things goes to Phocas, to the casual observer, things can appear to be this way.

Regarding possible eastern disaffection, I see your point and it makes sense. My question is based on a supposition that I recognize that I have limited ability to defend...That a large, densely populated region will be extremely difficult for an enemy to subjugate and pacify, longterm, without either the disaffection of its people for its previous rulers or without the support for its people for its new rulers. I am currently reading Haldon's book on Eastern Roman survival and am looking to see what he will say.
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