Byzantium under the Heraclians

Infobox Former Country
native_name = Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων
conventional_long_name = Byzantine Empire
common_name = Byzantium
p1 = Byzantium under the Justinian Dynasty
s1 = Byzantium under the Isaurians
year_start = 610
year_end = 711
date_start = October 5
date_end = December
event_start = accession of Heraclius
event_end = deposition of Justinian II

image_map_caption =
capital = Constantinople
continent = Europe
common_languages = Greek
government_type = Absolute monarchy
title_leader = Emperor
leader1 = Heraclius
year_leader1 = 610–641
leader2 = Constantine IV
year_leader2 = 668–685
leader3 = Justinian II
year_leader3 = 685–695; 705–711

Byzantium under the Heraclians refers to the period where the East Roman or Byzantine Empire was ruled by the emperors of the Heraclian dynasty. The Heraclians presided over a period of cataclysmic events, a watershed in the history of the Empire and the world in general. At the beginning of the dynasty, the Empire was still recognizable as the East Roman Empire, dominating the Mediterranean and harbouring a prosperous late Antique urban civilization. This world was shattered by successive invasions, which resulted in extensive territorial losses and financial collapse, plagues that depopulated the cities, while religious controversies and rebellions further weakened the Empire. By the dynasty's end, a very different state had emerged: medieval Byzantium, a chiefly agrarian, military-dominated society which was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the Muslim Caliphate. However, this state was also far more homogeneous, being reduced to its mostly Greek-speaking and firmly Chalcedonian core territories, which enabled it to weather the storms and enter a period of stability under the successor Isaurian Dynasty.

The Heraclian dynasty was named after the general Heraclius the Younger, who in 610 sailed from Carthage, overthrew the usurper Phocas and was crowned Emperor. At the time, the Empire was embroiled in a war with the Sassanid Persian Empire, which in the next decade conquered the Empire's eastern provinces. After a long and exhausting struggle, Heraclius managed to defeat the Persians and restore the Empire, only to lose these provinces again shortly after to the sudden eruption of the Muslim conquests. His successors struggled to contain the Arab tide, to no avail. The Levant and North Africa were lost, while in 674–678, a large Arab army besieged Constantinople itself. Nevertheless, the state survived, and the establishment of the Theme system allowed the imperial heartland, Asia Minor, to be retained. Under Justinian II and Tiberios III the imperial frontier in the East was somewhat stabilized, although incursions continued on both sides. The latter 7th century also saw the first conflicts with the Bulgars, and the establishment of a Bulgarian state in formerly Byzantine lands south of the Danube, which would be the Empire's chief antagonist in the West until the 11th century.


Ever since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire continued to see Western Europe as rightfully Imperial territory. However, only Justinian I attempted to enforce this claim with military might. Temporary success in the west was achieved at the cost of Persian dominance in the East, where the Byzantines were forced to pay them tribute to avert war.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 74] However leading up to Justinian's death, the western provinces fell to the numerous German tribes, notably the Lombards and the Visigoths.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 76] At the same time, wars with the Persian Empire brought no conclusive victory. When the last Emperor of the Justinian dynasty Maurice (along with his four sons) was murdered by the general Phocas in 602 the Persian King Khosrau II launched an assault on the Byzantine Empire.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 88] Due to the repressive nature of Phocas (introducing torture on a large scale), the Persians got their way, defeating the Byzantines and capturing Syria and Mesopotamia by 607.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 89] In 608, the Persians camped outside of Chalcedon, within sight of the Capital whilst Anatolia was ravaged by Persian raids. Making matters worse was the advance of the Avars and Slavs heading south across the Danube and into Imperial territory. In this crisis, Heraclius the younger seized power from Phocas in an effort to better Byzantium's fortunes.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 90]


The Empire in chaos

The Byzantine Empire was in a most horrendous state on the eve of Phocas' overthrow. At a time when the Persians were making headway in their attempt to conquer the lands of the Byzantine Empire, Phocas choose to divide his subjects rather than unite them against the threat of the Persians. Perhaps seeing his defeats as Divine retribution, Phocas initiated a savage and bloody campaign to forcibly convert the Jews to Christianity. Persecutions and alienations of the Jews, a frontline people in the war against the Persians was a stupid move that undoubtedly led to the Jews aiding the Persian conquerors. As Jews and Christians began tearing each other apart, some fled the butchery into Persian territory. Meanwhile it appears that the disasters befalling the Empire led the Emperor into a state of paranoia - although it must be said that there were numerous plots against his rule and execution followed execution. Among those being relieved of this hell on Earth was the former Empress Constantina and her three daughters.

Heraclius the elder arrives

As the Empire was led into anarchy, the Exarchate of Carthage remained relatively out of reach of Persian conquest. Far from the incompetent Imperial authority of the time Heraclius, the Exarch of Carthage, with his brother Gregorius, began building up his forces to take on Constantinople. After cutting of whatever grain supply to the capital was under his control, he led a substantial army and a fleet in 608 AD to restore order in the Empire. Heraclius gave the command of the army to Gregorius' son, Nicetas whilst command of the fleet went to Heraclius' son, Heraclius the younger. cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 298] Nicetas took part of the fleet and his forces to Egypt, taking Alexandria at the end of 608 AD. Heraclius the younger meanwhile headed to Thessalonika from where, after receiving more supplies and troops, he sailed for Constantinople. He reached his destination un-opposed; in fact the citizens of Constantinople greeted him as their deliverer, just as he had been secretly assured not too long before. When Phocas was delivered to Heraclius, an amusing conversation took place:

"Heraclius": "Is it thus that you have governed the Empire?"
"Phocas": "Will you govern it better?"

In some aspects, Phocas and Heraclius were very alike - both were usurpers to the throne, both having been Generals of the Byzantine army. The similarities end however when it comes to how well they did in office.

Early failures

Heraclius executed Phocas and his loyal henchmen shortly after the conversation. After having married his wife in an elaborate ceremony and crowned by the Patriarch, Heraclius set out to do his work. He was 36 years old when he seized power. His early reign yielded results reminiscent of Phocas' reign. The Avars and Slavs continued to overrun the Balkans whilst the Persians remained outside Chalcedon, not too far from the Capital. The province of Syria was in total chaos; there were few Christians left alive in Damascus or Jerusalem. Countless churches (including the Holy Sepulchre) were burnt and many relics, including the True Cross, the Holy Lance and the Sponge, present at the time of Jesus Christ's death were now in Ctesiphon. In 611 AD, 613 AD and 614 AD respectively Antioch, Damascus and Jerusalem were taken. Despite his cousin's earlier efforts, Egypt was also lost, resulting in a significant loss in manpower and food. It was not entirely hopeless however. Constantinople's walls were as good as ever, and he still had a much better fleet than any of his "barbarian" opponents (especially the Slavs and Avars). The Persians had no vessels in the Bosporus so a siege of the city could not commence.

Themata system

Heraclius' first act was to reorganize Western Anatolia into four "Themes". These administrative regions were to be governed by a "strategos", a military governor. The aim of these themes was to maximise military potential - many able-bodied men and their families were settled in these four themes and given land for farming.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 91] In return they were to provide the Empire with troops and so began the Thematic armies of the Byzantine Empire that would prove to be reliable, though not unbeatable. Nonetheless a native, well-trained army loyal to the state would serve the Empire better than ill-disciplined mercenaries, whose loyalty to coin could be manipulated and turned against the state itself, as it had in the Western Empire. To finance the reconstruction of the military, Heraclius fined those accused of corruption, increased taxes, debased the currency to pay more soldiers and forced loans. The Patriarch of Constantinople Sergius placed the finances of the Church into the hands of the State, a surprising but well-needed sacrifice.

Byzantine counter

Next, he aimed to eliminate one of his dangerous enemies. Since the Persians had conquered much territory, but had yet to consolidate fully, he decided to make peace with the Avars and attack the Persians. With his Eastern opponents still outside Chalcedon, in the Spring of 622 AD Heraclius took his army and sailed down the Ionian coast and landed at Issus, the site where Alexander the Great had defeated the same enemies of Rome some 1,000 years ago. At Issus he oversaw the extensive training of his men. In Autumn of 622 AD, he marched his army north and encountered a Persian force in the Cappadocian highlands. Despite having no military experience in leading an army in the field, the Byzantine Emperor routed the forces of the experienced Persian General Shahr-Baraz, winning morale and territory. The following Spring in 623 AD, Heraclius led his troops through Armenia and Azerbaijan, destroying the Persian palace at Gaznak. Burning numerous cities of his opponents, Heraclius made a risky move and headed deep to Ctesiphon. However, Shahr-Baraz began cutting of Heraclius' supply lines and so he withdrew to the western shore of the Caspian where his second wife & niece safely delivered a child (the marriage was seen by many as incestuous). In 624 AD, Heraclius led another campaign to the Lake Van. However the victory that he sought would not come to him until the following year. Leading his army through Ararat down the Arsanias river for some convert|200|mi|km|-1 to capture Martyropolis and Amida, he finally encountered a Persian army north of Adana after marching convert|70|mi|km|0 to Mesopotamia. The Battle went well for the Persians initially as they destroyed the vanguard of the Byzantine army.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 92] However, Heraclius then seized the initiative by launching a seemingly suicidal charge across the river Euphrates - even Shahr-Baraz did not deny the bravery of the Emperor:

iege of Constantinople

Victory belonged to the Byzantines and now the honours in the war were even. However, the Persian threat was not diminished. The long awaited assault on Constantinople was beginning to materialize - the Avars began moving siege equipment towards the capital (the siege began on 29th June 626 AD) whilst Shahr-Baraz was ordered to send his army to Chalcedon and link up with them. Meanwhile Khosrau II began conscription, raising a crack force of 50,000 men. Heraclius it seems, was being out-manoeuvred by more numerous armies. Duplicating this strategy, he divided his army into three sections. One would defend the capital whilst another would face the 50,000 conscripts in Mesopotamia under the Persian General Shahin. A third under Heraclius would march through Armenia and the Caucasus and into Persia, which he believed had been stripped of her troops. Heraclius' general Theodore fared well against Shahin in Mesopotamia, inflicting a crushing defeat on his enemies. At Constantinople, the city was well defended with a force of some 12,000 cavalry (presumably dismounted), supported by the entire city's population. Indeed, the efforts of the Patriarch Sergius in whipping up the population into a religious and patriotic frenzy cannot be overlooked. When the Byzantine fleet annihilated a Persian and an Avar fleet in two separate ambushes with Greek fire, the besiegers appeared to have withdrawn in panic; when word of Theodore's victory in Mesopotamia came it was concluded by the besiegers that Byzantium was now under the protection of their Christian God.


For Heraclius, 626 AD was a year of little action - it appears that in an attempt to bolster his forces, he promised the hand of his daughter Epiphania to the Khan of the Khazars. Impressed by the offer (though no doubt Epiphania was not), the Khan put to field some 40,000 troops to the Byzantine side. It would be to Epiphania's great relief that the Khan died the following year. Nonetheless Byzantium made good use of the boost in troops when Heraclius marched into Mesopotamia in 627 AD. His objective was clear: to destroy the Persians' army and march to Ctesiphon. No Emperor had done so in hundreds of years since the days of Julian. His army marched cautiously. It was known that a Persian force was close and an ambush was always possible. Razates, the new Persian commander, was not keen to face Heraclius either until his army was ready for a pitched battle. After spending a greater part of 627 in Mesopotamia, Heraclius finally encountered the Persian army close to the ruins of the city of Ninevah. For eleven hours, the Byzantines and the Persians fought each other without break. In the thick of the fighting Razates issued a challenge to Heraclius, who accepted. Despite being wounded, Heraclius managed to cut off Razates' head. [cite book|last=Grant|first=R.G.|title=Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat|location=London|publisher=Dorling Kindersley|year=2005|pages=p. 65] cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 93] When the sun finally began to set, the Persians were defeated and the army rested.Heraclius later moved on to Dastagird only to find that Khosrau II had fled the Palace. Heraclius had it and everything within burnt to the ground. Moving on he soon found that Khosrau no longer commanded the loyalty of his subjects - as they refused to rally to defend Ctesiphon. Heraclius waited a week or two before marching his army back. Khosrau's son Siroes took power and had his father shot to death with arrows.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 94] Later, a peace treaty favourable to the Byzantines led to the restoration of the pre-war boundaries. As an added bonus, all captives and Christian relics captured were handed back. Thus it was at the head of the True Cross that Heraclius entered the Capital on 14th September 628 AD triumphant. Leading a procession which included four elephants, the True Cross was placed high atop the altar of the Hagia Sophia.

It was expected by all that the Emperor would lead Byzantium into a new age of glory. All of Heraclius' achievements would come to naught when in 633 AD, the Byzantine-Arab Wars began.

The decline

The threat of the Arabs from Arabia was overlooked by both Persia and Byzantium for several reasons - most compelling of all were the wars between the two powers, and the lack of communication across the desert expanse. Nonetheless, efforts were conducted, sometimes cooperatively, by the Byzantines and the Persians to stop the advance of the Arabs.

On the 8th June 632 AD, the Islamic Prophet Mohammed died of a fever.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 95] However, the religion he left behind would transform the Middle East forever. In 633 AD the armies of Islam marched out of Arabia, their goal to spread the word of the prophet, with force if needed. In 634 AD, the Arabs defeated a Byzantine force sent into Syria and captured Damasacus.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 96] The arrival of another large Byzantine army outside Antioch (some 80,000 troops) forced the Arabs to retreat. The Byzantines advanced in May 636 AD. However, a sandstorm blew on 20th August 636 AD against the Byzantines and when the Arabs charged against them they were utterly annihilated:

Jerusalem surrendered to the Arabs in 637 AD following a stout resistance; in 638 the Caliph Omar rode into the city. Heraclius stopped by Jerusalem to recover the True Cross whilst it was under siege. In his old age he was becoming increasingly defunct in his rule. Once the commander of his father's fleet, he developed a phobia of the sea and refused to cross the Bosporus to the Capital. Only when several boats were tied along the length of the strait with shrubs placed along to hide the water did he ride across, "as if by land" as a contemporary put it. When the commander of the Roman forces obtained such a mentality, it is little wonder how smaller but well-determined and zealous soldiers can defeat numerous and divided opponents.The Arab invasions and loss of territory was not all that bore heavily upon the Emperor's mind. It was rumoured that the incestuous marriage to his niece had incurred the wrath of God - of the nine children that he had, four had died in infancy, one had a twisted neck and one was deaf and dumb. Furthermore, it appears that the Empire was not even considering the Arab threat as a danger. The religious controversies once again emerged when the Patriarch of Constantinople Sergius proposed monothelitism as a compromise to the Chalcedonian Christians and the Monophysites. Heraclius agreed to the proposal. However, it received much criticism from both sides of the theological debate of Christ's true nature. When Sophronius, a major critic of monothelitism was elected as Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Empire began once again to tear itself apart. To some in the Empire the Arabs' promise of religious freedom seemed preferable to the other, seemingly blasphemous politically-motivated proposals. At his death bed on 11th February 641 AD, Heraclius died whispering that he had lied; he was reluctant to support monothelitism. It appears that unity was all that he sought.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 78] Before his death Heraclius was "persuaded" by his wife Martian to crown her son Heraclonas co-heir to the throne of the Empire with Constantine, the son of Heraclius' first wife Eudocia - all the meanwhile ignoring the numerous Byzantines who saw her as the reason for Byzantium's recent misfortunes. Her ambitions for power ensured that Byzantium would continue to succumb to disorder.

Heraclius' rule

Early on, Heraclius had proven to be an excellent Emperor - his reorganization of the Empire into Themes allowed the Byzantines to extract as much as they could to increase their military potential. This became essential after 650 AD when the Caliphate was far more resourceful and powerful then the Byzantines were - as a result a high level of efficiency was needed to combat the Arabs, achieved in part due to the Theme system. Heraclius also completed the Hellenization of the Empire by making Greek the language of the Empire - Latin became a language increasingly for the upper class. As the Empire lost her outer lands, the number of Greek speakers rose and Latin was no longer advantageous to use. Heraclius abandoned the words "Imperator", "Augustus" and other Imperial titles in favor of the word "Basileus", the Greek word for King. It is perhaps this transformation that results in coins bearing the motto, "King over Kings, Ruler of rulers", a defunct saying for post-640 AD Byzantium considering what little land was under Imperial rule.

Had Heraclius lived until 629 AD, he would have been remembered for his Themes and his astonishing handling of the last Persian war, which saw victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. However, his long life meant that the Byzantines remembered him for his religious controversies, his failures against the Arabs and the incestuous marriage to his niece, many believing to have brought divine retribution.

Heraclius' body remained unburied for three days, guarded by his soldiers until it was laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Apostles within a sarcophagus of white onyx next to the founder of his Empire, Constantine I. [cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 97]

Constans II

Death of Heraclius

Heraclius' incapability to rule the Empire as his death neared did Byzantium no favours. When he was finally relieved of his earthly worries forever the former Empress Martina declared herself, her son Heraclonas and Constantine co-emperors of the Byzantine Empire.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 98] Alas, the citizens of Constantinople would not have it and when Constantine III died sometime between 24 - 26 May 641 (perhaps by Martina's hand?), Heraclonas and his mother were deposed the following summer. Heraclonas had his nose slit and his mother Martina had her tongue pulled out. The nose slit ensured that he could never become "Basileus" - the Physical deformation would have made it out of the question. Nonetheless as regicide suspects their exile to Rhodes must have been a light punishment.

With Constantine dead, the crowd of Constantinople turned to his 11-year old son (also known as Heraclius) who was crowned as the Byzantine Emperor and changed his name to Constans, becoming Constans II of Byzantium.

Wars with the Arabs

One of the less admirable elements Constans II inherited from his grandfather Heraclius was the war with the Arabs who were bent on conquering the Byzantine Empire and spreading the word of the Islamic Prophet Mohammad. Upon his ascension, there was little time to implement a defence for Egypt - and when the country fell in 642 Constans II could hardly be blamed.

The loss of Egypt and the Levant was catastrophic - along with the manpower, the supply of food from Egypt was now a thing of the past. Food shortages was added to an increasing list of problems. However bad the losses were, the Arab armies did not pause in celebration of victory - in 647 the Exarch of Carthage was decisively defeated - another costly defeat as Africa was the empires main source of grain aside from Egypt. cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 298] The list of defeats would continue to grow; in 644 the Arabs began building a large fleet to take on the centuries of Greco-Roman naval dominance. In 657 the fleet was sent into battle against the Byzantine naval base at Cyprus - the results were impressive for the fleet, sacking the chief city Constantia and destroying the countryside and its harbour installations. In 654 AD the fleet continued unopposed to the Island of Rhodes. When the island fell, Constans II suffered another humiliating defeat when he sent his fleet to engage the Arabs off Lycia. Constans II, fearing capture, changed his clothes with another man so, in the case of capture, would not be identifiable. Though never captured, the experience was rather embarrassing for the so-called "King of Kings".


At this point, the Arabs seemed invincible and only they could hinder themselves. Fortunately for Byzantium, the Arabs began just that. The Caliph Othman was assassinated in Medina. Ali, the Islamic Prophet's son-in law was elected as his successor. However, Muawiya, the governor of Syria who led the fleet against Byzantium was proclaimed Caliph in Syria as well. Only when Ali was assassinated in 661 AD did the civil strife end, much to Byzantium's disappointment..

Attempts to deal with religious controversies

Clearly, Byzantium stood no chance whatsoever of defending herself against her opponents when Bishops tore the Empire over theological debates. Constans II saw this and it seems that he had enough of it. In 648, Constans still only 18 years of age, declared an edict that no one would raise the monethelism/chalcedon controversy under the pain of banishment, following an excommunication by the Pope Theodore to the Patriarch of Constantinople. When Theodore's successor, Martin once again added fuel to the fire by summoning a council in condemnation of Monethelitism in October of 648, he was arrested, brought to the Capital and badly mistreated as a common criminal. cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 100] In prison it is said the his mistreatment was such that blood was on the floor. Finally, after being accused of treason and regicide he was banished to the Crimea. Such was the frustration of the Emperor. Suffice to say men like Martin, Phocas and others divided Byzantiums' subjects. Were this to continue, then the tide of the Islamic advance would not be held back and Christendom would not have the pleasure of destroying herself.

To the West

Constans II decided to turn his attention to the West in the hope of achieving better luck. Whilst the Saracens were establishing themselves in former Byzantine territory, the Avars and Bulgars still remained along the Danube river, as did the Slavs, whose annual payment to the Empire was falling short. Constans II then decided to move his capital to Syracuse in 662 AD. Some say that this was to escape horrible visions of his brother whom he had murdered 2 years past. His stay in Italy and Sicily can only be imagined as unpleasant for the locals. Everything of any value in Rome was requisitioned by the Byzantine army - even copper from the rooftops. It was to many people's relief that Constans II was murdered while bathing by his Greek servant on the 15th of September 668 AD.

Constans II left the Empire in a worse state than he had found it in. The Byzantine-Arab wars became increasingly one-sided and the immense resources of the Caliphate meant that any reconquest was now remotely unlikely - and more so whilst disunity through dissatisfied peasants and restless Bishops lingered as a cancer.

Constantine IV

Constantine IV would prove to be a much wiser and able Emperor than Constans II was.

Siege of Constantinople

Like his predecessors, the wars with the Saracens continued relatively unabated. Before becoming Emperor, Constantine IV was the administrator of his father's lands for the eastern portions of the Empire, what few territories they were.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 101] They became fewer still when the Arabs began taking one Imperial Byzantin city after another along the Ionian coast. Finally in 672 AD, Muawiya the Caliph captured the peninsula of Cyzicus only convert|50|mi|km|0 from Constantinople. The scene was all too depressingly familiar - the capital was under threat and the odds were not favorable to the defenders - the Arabs had brought with them heavy siege weapons and began the siege of Constantinople in 674 AD. Despite this, Constantinople was simply too much for the Arabs - where else before disunity, sheer bad luck or skill & zeal had given the warriors of Islam victory, now it was the defenders of the Capital who, armed with Greek fire cooked every Arab assault. Finally in 679 AD, with only death achieved, the Saracens withdrew and Muawiya accepted an offer of peace. In 680 AD Muawiya was dead and Constantine IV, now at the height of his popularity had managed to defeat the Arabs on both land at Lycia and at sea.

Wars with the Bulgars

With the Saracen threat averted, the Byzantines turned their attention to the west, where the Bulgars were encroaching on Imperial territory. In 680 AD, Constantine IV launched a naval expedition to drive them back - the expedition failed and the Bulgars grew even bolder. Unable to stop them by force, Constantine settled for a humiliating, but not disastrous treaty whereby "protection" money had to be paid to the Bulgar King. cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 102] The greatest implication of this treaty was that Byzantium would no longer have to worry about the Bulgars for the rest of Constantine's reign.

ixth Ecumenical Council

Constantine IV was determined to solve the problem of the monotheism/chalcedon controversy once and for all. Calling forth representatives from all corners of Christendom to discuss the matter at hand they debated until in 681 AD when Constantine IV, who had presided over much of the meetings, endorsed the virtually unanimous findings. Four years later in 685 AD, Constantine IV died. His death at Thirty three years robbed Byzantium of a good Emperor who had defeated her enemies from within as well as without.

Constantine's wife Anastasia had given him a son, Justinian. As it would turn out his name would dictate his foreign policy in an attempt to emulate Justinian I's conquest of the West - a risky move considering what few resources the Empire had to defend herself.

Justinian II


The beginning of Justinian's reign continued the successes his father had enjoyed against the Arab invaders. Campaigning into Armenia, Georgia and even Syria, he was able to enforce a renewal of a peace treaty signed by his father and the Caliph. With the wars in the east favorably concluded, Justinian II turned his attention to the west were he sent an expedition against the slavs between 688 and 689. His success in the west was crowned with a triumphant entry into Thessalonika, the second city of the Empire.

Following these victories, Justinian set about attempting to increase the Opsikion Theme by bringing in some 250,000 settlers of Slavic origin into Asia Minor. The benefit of the move was twofold - in addition to opening up more agricultural land, there would also have been an increase in the population and a larger number of Thematic militia troops could be raised - allowing the Byzantine Empire to wage war with more. Furthermore, the increase in the lower classes shifted the balance of power from the aristocracy to the class of well-off peasants. These self-sufficient peasants, who owned their own land formed the backbone of the Thematic armies. Under such circumstances the power of the Empire and the Emperor increased simultaneously [Note that since pre-Imperial times the Plebians looked towards a military champion to combat the rule of the aristocracy thus the Plebs supported a strong emperor] .


In 691 AD war with the Arabs resumed and Justinian began increasing taxes in order to finance the conflict. However, in the face of these extortionate requisitions some 20,000 slav soldiers deserted to the Arabs - with them went Armenia to the enemy. Enraged, Justinian ordered the extermination of all Slavs in Bithynia - countless men, women and children were put to the sword in rage.

Justinian then turned his attention to religious matters, which had been quietended down by the efforts of his Father. When he called yet another council to wrap up loose ends from the previous (fifth and sixth) ecumenical councils, trivial and strict proposals were laid out including excommunication for "crimes" ranging from provocative or seductive hair curling, the mention of the pagan gods (especially Bacchus during the grape harvest), the selling of charms, dealing with fortune tellers and even dancing. Hermits were forbidden from talking with townfolk or presenting themselves in a particular manner. To make matters worse, no representatives were summoned from Rome so when Pope Sergius I was asked to approve of 102 cannons he not only refused but managed to use the militias of Rome and Ravenna against the Exarch Zacharias. The clemency of the pope allowed the Exarch of Ravenna to escape with his life.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 103]

Upon hearing of this, Justinian is said to have gone into another one of his rages. cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 104] He was already unpopular at the young age of 23. His heavy handedness in extracting the tax money from the peasants and the rich made him deeply resented, especially with his use of torture, which included the use of fire and whips. It was therefore to no one's surprise (though to many a Byzantine's delight) that rebellion came from the ranks of the aristocracy. The revolt found a leader in a professional but disgraced soldier, Leontius.

Non-dynastic: Leontius


Leontius was in prison when a monk once told him that he would one day wear the Imperial diadem. Such talk was not only dangerous for the monk (who if discovered would have been blinded and exiled for treason) but also dangerous for the man whose ears received - and preyed upon Leontius' mind until in 695 AD (after being released) he immediately began a relatively unplanned coup. Fortunately for him many of his comrades had also been imprisoned (suggesting that perhaps his entire unit may well have been disgraced) so when he marched upon his former prison to release the inmates, many declared their support for him.

Rise and Fall

Marching on to the Hagia Sophia, he was fortunate enough to find the support of the Patriarch - whose recent insults to the incumbent Emperor left him in fear of his life and with little choice.

With the support of the fanatical Hippodrome Blue team, Leontius and his men overthrew Justinian II, cutting his nose off in the oriental process of "rhinokopia" and declaring himself as "Basileus". Justinian's Father, though on more friendly terms with Leontius still lost his tongue and his nose as well.

Leontius' rule was both brief and a miserable failure. The armies of Islam were once more on the march and this time the Exarch of Carthage was in serious trouble. Earlier defeats had established Arab supremacy in the region. Leontius, despite his military background, had an unsuccessful expedition sent to Carthage. Rather than report their loss and face the inevitable wrath of the Emperor, the defeated troops decided to name one of their own as "Basileus" (a German called Apsimar) and with the support of the Hippodrome Green team (a serious rival of the Blue team that promoted Leontius to the Imperial throne) established Apsimar as Basileus Tiberius III.

Non-dynastic: Tiberius III

Tiberius' rule was equally short but slightly more impressive for his successful campaigning against the Saracens - indeed it seems that his Germanic heritage had given him the same appetite for war that had allowed many of his "barbarian" kind to conquer the Western Empire, with his troops reaching into Armenia and even Muslim-held Syria. [cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 105] But by that time in 705 AD he was overthrown by military force. Justinian, who for ten years was in exile, returned. The Byzantine population could not have asked for a worse overthrow.

Justinian II (restored)

Years in Exile

After having been deposed by Leontius, Justinian escaped to the Khagan of the Khazars who welcomed him and even gave his sister as a wife to him. Renaming his wife Theodora he settled at Phanagoria at the entrance to the Sea of Azov where they could keep an eye on Imperial events. Justinian was forced to act when in 704 AD word reached that he was wanted dead or alive for a handsome reward. Such rumors were confirmed when a band of soldiers arrived at his location. Realizing that his life was in danger, he invited two of the officers (whom he suspected as the assassins) to his house and murdered them. Leaving his wife in the safety of her brother, he fled to Bulgaria, Byzantium's chief opponent in the West. There he secured a pact with the Bulgar King Tervel granting him the title of Caesar if he aided him in regaining the throne of Byzantium.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 298]

Restoration & rule

In the Spring of 705 AD, Constantinople found herself surrounded by yet another army of Slavs and Bulgars, led by Justinian. After three days of scouting his men found an abandoned conduit running across the walls and managed to slip inside. There he surprised the sleeping guards at the Palacae of Blachernae. Within moments the building was his and Tiberius fled to Bithynia whilst the citizens of the Capital surrendered - the alterative would have been a savage sack that in the mind of the vengeful Justinian, was what it needed. The following day Tervel was given the title of Caesar and a purple robe.

With his coup successful, Justinian II set about bringing his wife back and settling the numerous scores he had with his disloyal subjects. [cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 106] Tiberius and his predecessor Leontius were both executed the previous day after a humiliating pelting at the Hippodrome. Next the Patriarch, whose offence had led to his hasty support of Leontius and the crowning of both of Justinian's successors led to his blinding and exile to Rome. [cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 106] After that Justinian set about killing Tiberius' brother, Heraclius who was perhaps the best General in the Empire. With him and his staff of officers dead, Byzantium's neighbours lost no time in exploiting the weakened army - suffering major defeats against the barbarian tribes near the mouth of the Danube and losing the vital stronghold of Tyana in Cappadocia.

Expeditions of revenge

It can be said without hesitation that Justinian's return to power was nothing more than a sad epilogue to the Heraclian line, with revenge being the state's most highly prioritized policy.


Bent upon making other suffer as he had, Justinian had an expedition sent against the Exarch of Ravenna, for reasons which elude historian today - though sheer madness cannot be ruled out.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 106] Upon arriving there the expedition led by Theodore sacked the city whilst his men deceptively invited the officials to a banquet where they were seized and sent to Constantinople. Upon arrival they were met by Justinian who had them all executed except the Archbishop, who nonetheless suffered a blinding and the usual exile - not being able to return until Justinian was in his grave. It was this execution that led to Ravenna being looted by Theodore and his men.

In Rome however the mood was calmed by the Pope Constantine the Syrian. Relations between the Pope and the Emperor had greatly improved - with the Emperor kissing the Pope's feet and sending an impressive delegation before him to meet the Pope (consisting of the Patriarch of Constantinople and Justinian's son and co-emperor). Arriving at Constantinople in 711 he came to an accord with Justinian finally approving half of the 102 canons still outstanding (dealing with the trivial matters he addressed before his exile) and agreeing to drop the other, perhaps less important canons. Satisfied he allowed the Pope a safe journey to Rome.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 107]


Justinian then targeted his former place of exile in the Crimea. There his brother-in-law the Khagan had infringed on Imperial territory by establishing a Khazar governor of his own to run Cherson. Upon arriving there, the expedition set about doing its work - countless citizens were drowned (apparently with weights attached) and seven were roasted alive. The "Tudon", the governor appointed by the Khagan was sent to Constantinople with 30 others. However a storm destroyed his army and his fleet when he ordered it to return. Justinian is said to have greeted the news with great laughter. Another fleet was sent but the arrival of the Khagan's army made Justinian reconsider his move to a more diplomatic one. He decided to send the Tudun back to the Khagan with his apologies and had George of Syria to present the Imperial apology. The citizens of Cherson were naturally in no mood to hear any apology after what Justinian had done. When the Tudun died along the way, the Khazars took it upon themselves to send his 300-strong escort to the afterlife with him.


After the fiasco of the Cherson expedition, the citizens there proclaimed a new man, Bardanes (an exiled General) the Basileus of Byzantium. Justinian was enraged at these turn of events. Once more he began redirecting resources to another expedition under the Patriarch Maurus against Cherson, resources that could have been better spent against the Arabs or the Bulgars.cite book|last=Norwich|first=John Julius|title=A Short History of Byzantium|location=New York|publisher= Vintage Books|year=1997|pages=p. 108] The Khazars appeared at the scene preventing the expedition from destroying no more than two defense towers before being obliged to make terms. The Patriarch realized that returning to the capital in defeat would undoubtedly lead to a violent retirement at the hands of Justinian. Therefore in a similar case to Leontius and Tiberius' usurption, he defected and with the army and navy under his command declared his support for the renegade Bardanes, who changed his name to Philippicus.

As Philippicus headed for the Capital Justinian was making his way to Armenia, a warzone between the Byzantines and Arabs. He reached as far as Nicomedia when attempting to turn back, he was caught at the twelfth mile stone of the Capital and executed on the spot. Philippicus had arrived before he could and was greeted with open arms at the Capital.

Theodora, the Khazar wife of Justinian II escaped to a nearby monastery with her son and former co-emperor Tiberius. The young boy was holding on to the True Cross when a soldier entered and forced his hand from it. It is said that the soldier then laid the Cross with great respect on the Altar. Following this rather pious act, he then dragged the boy outside and beneath the porch of a nearby church, butchered the line of Heraclius into extinction forever.

See also

* Byzantine-Arab Wars
* Byzantium under the Isaurians
* Byzantium under the Macedonians
* Byzantium under the Komnenoi
* Byzantium under the Palaiologoi



*cite book |last=Treadgold |first=Warren T. |title=Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081 |year=1995 |publisher=Stanford University Press |isbn=0804731632 |url=
*cite book |last=Treadgold |first=Warren T. |title=A History of the Byzantine State and Society
year=1997 |publisher=Stanford University Press |isbn=0804726302 |url=

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