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Heraclius

Byzantine Emperor, 610 - February 11, 641 AD.

Heraclius was the son of the powerful Exarch of Carthage and had been one of East Roman Emperor Maurice's key generals in the 590 AD war with Persia. He overthrew his predecessor Phocas and personally executed him. On October 5, 610, Heraclius was married and then crowned in the Chapel of St. Stephen within the Great Palace.

When Heraclius took power, the Empire was in a dire situation and he considered moving the capital from Constantinople to Carthage. He developed the idea of granting land to individuals in return for hereditary military service. The land so granted was organised into thema, a Greek word to describe a division of troops, and each theme was placed under the command of a strategos or military governor. This arrangement ensured the continuance of the Empire for hundreds of years and enabled Heraclius to reconquer lands taken by the Persians, ravaging Persia along the way.

During the reign of Phocas and the first decade under Heraclius, the empire had crumbled, losing control of Egypt, Syria, Armenia and Palestine to the Persians and most of the Balkans to the Avars. Twice, the city of Constantinople itself fell under siege, once by both the Persians and Avars working in concert.

Heraclius responded to this desperate situation by taking the field himself in 621. Confident that Constantinople was well defended, he marched across Asia Minor and invaded Persia. Along the way, he acquired the assistance of Khazarian and Turkic troops. At the Battle of Nineveh (627), the joint Khazar-Byzantine force routed the Persian forces of King Khusro II. When Khusro still refused to make peace, Heraclius continued his campaign, taking the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Khusro was deposed, and his successor made peace with Heraclius by restoring all the empire's former territories. The Persian Sassanid dynasty, however, never recovered from this war, and soon passed into history.

Heraclius took for himself the ancient Persian title of "King of Kings", dropping the traditional Roman imperial title of "Augustus". Later on, he styled himself as Basileus, the Greek word for "Emperor", and that title was used by the eastern Roman emperors for the next 800 years. Heraclius also dropped Latin as the empire's official language, replacing it with Greek. Although the empire called itself Roman throughout the rest of its history, it was in reality a Hellenic empire from Heraclius onward.

In 630, he reached the height of his power when he marched triumphantly into Jerusalem and restored the True Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But unfortunately for his war-weary nation, and unknown to him at the time, Mohammed had escaped to Medina in 622 and inaugurated the Muslim era. Already, his followers among the Arabian Saracens were building a vast military force along the empire's borders.

Heraclius fell ill soon after his triumph and never took the field again. When the Saracens invaded Syria and Palestine in 634, he was unable to oppose them personally, and his generals failed him. The Battle of Yarmuk[?] in that year resulted in a crushing defeat for the larger Roman army and within three years, Syria and Palestine were lost again. By the time of Heraclius' death, most of Egypt had fallen as well.

Although his defeat of the Persians produced no lasting benefit to the empire, Heraclius still ranks among the greatest of the Byzantine emperors. His reforms of the government reduced the corruption which had taken hold in the disastrous reign of Phocas, and he reorganized the military with great success. Ultimately, the reformed imperial army halted the Saracens in Asia Minor and held on to Carthage for another 60 years, saving a core from which the empire's strength could be rebuilt.

Preceded by:
Phocas
Byzantine emperors Followed by:
Constantine III



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