Emperor Heraclius - what am I missing?

Maki

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
2,274
Republika Srpska
#1
Alright, in most books about Byzantine Empire that I have read, Heraclius was always presented as one of the best emperors of all time, as a military leader comparable to Caesar and Trajan. These are some of Heraclius' most famous achievements:

1. he deposed the tyrant Phocas
2. he defeated the Persians and saved the Empire from doom
3. he introduced the themes
4. he changed the empire's official language from Latin to Greek

Let's go over this point by point:

1. he deposed the tyrant Phocas
This Heraclius most certainly did, but as far as I am aware, all sources mentioning Phocas date from after his reign, so it is likely that some, if not most of Phocas' sinister reputation was fabricated by the later authors in order to legitimize the Heraclean dynasty.


2. he defeated the Persians and saved the Empire from doom
Heraclius also most certainly defeated the Persians and saved the Empire, but OTOH one could argue that Heraclius was one of the reasons the Persians were even able to conquer as much as they did. All of the great Persian conquests during the 602-28 war (Near East, Egypt) happened during the reign of Heraclius. The Persians were on the rise during the reign of Phocas, that is true, for example they conquered Dara and Amida, but it seems that the Persians exploited the Byzantine civil war between Phocas and Heraclius. We know that the father-son Heraclius duo stopped grain shipments from Egypt to Constantinople, causing or at least worsening the already existing famine. This instability certainly helped the Persians and enabled them to later conquer all those territories. Plus, we know that in the end, the territories that Heraclius had retaken from the Persians were very soon after conquered by the Muslims. The Balkan frontier was also endangered during the reign of Heraclius and the Avar-Slav threat became ever more dangerous. The Avars and Slavs eventually took part in the 626 siege of the capital. Keep in mind that Phocas actually managed to conclude a peace treaty with the Avars.


3. he introduced the themes
It was frequently claimed that Heraclius was the one who introduced the themes, but recently there has been a new theory that proposed that it was actually Constans II who introduced the themes.


4. he changed the empire's official language from Latin to Greek
AFAIK, we have no official decree from Heraclius that states that he switched the Empire's official language. Greek was very much in use even before Heraclius, so we can't really say that the Empire's switch from Latin to Greek was solely due to Heraclius.

There is also the fact that Heraclius' promotion of Monothelitism caused a schism with Rome, so we can't say he really had a stabilizing influence on the Church. Though his support for Monothelitism does open up doors for many alternate history scenarios, it is not really a topic of this thread.

So, what am I missing? No matter which way I look at it, it seems that Heraclius was, dare I say, overrated a bit.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,605
Blachernai
#3
Pretty much. The textbook history of Herakleios is rather inaccurate, but fortunately we have some much better textbooks these days.

3. he introduced the themes
It was frequently claimed that Heraclius was the one who introduced the themes, but recently there has been a new theory that proposed that it was actually Constans II who introduced the themes.
Treadgold came up with this idea and he is really the only adherent. The current status of the debate is that the themata actually date to Nikephoros I, although of course the armies were settled in areas that soon took on their names under Herakleios. See: Haldon, John. “A context for two ‘evil deeds’: Nikephoros I and the origins of the themata.” In Le saint, le moine et le paysan: mélanges d’histoire byzantine offerts à Michel Kaplan, edited by Olivier Delouis, Sophie Métivier, and Paule Pagès, 245–65. Publications de la Sorbonne, 2016.
 
Likes: Maki
Mar 2016
559
Australia
#4
To be honest his achievements during the war with the Persians are so impressive and all but saved the Roman Empire from extinction that I think it's deeply unfair to call him overrated. If a less competent or less strong-willed emperor was on the throne, there's a very good chance the Roman Empire would have ended in the early-7th century rather than the mid-15th century.
 

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