Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium, Review by Sean Gabb

Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium
Walter E. Kaegi
Cambridge University Press, 2003, 380pp
ISBN 0 521 81459 6
Reviewed by Richard Blake

This is the first biography of Heraclius in over a century, and the first ever in English. That a biography was worth writing should be clear from the book’s cover note:

This book evaluates the life and times of the pivotal yet controversial and poorly understood Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (AD 610-641), a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad. Heraclius’ reign is critical for understanding the background to fundamental changes in the Balkans and the Middle East, including the emergence of Islam, at the end of Antiquity.

Though few in England know of him, Heraclius is one of the most astonishing figures in history. Except they are true, the facts of his life read like something out of legend. He seized power in 610 just as the Persians were turning their war with the Empire from a set of opportunistic raids into an attempt at its destruction. During the next ten years, every Imperial frontier crumbled. After a thousand years of control by Greeks, or by Greeks and Romans, Persia and Egypt fell to the Persians.. The Slavs and Avars took most of Greece. The Lombards and Visigoths nibbled away at the remaining European provinces in the West. Africa aside, the Empire was reduced to a core that covered roughly the same area as modern Turkey.

Suddenly, after a decade of seeming inactivity, Heraclius went on the offensive and struck deep inside the Persian Empire. In a series of brilliant campaigns, he shattered the Persians and won everything back. In 629, he went in triumph to Jerusalem and restored the fragment of the True Cross that had been taken by the Persians. It seemed to be the start of a new age of Roman greatness, in which its absolutely triumphant Emperor – the new Alexander – could remake the world as he pleased.

Five years later, and without warning, the Moslems streamed out of the desert and took Syria. Another few years, and they took Egypt. By the time he died, Heraclius had lost nearly every one of the regained territories. And these were now permanently lost. From the ashes of the Eastern Roman Empire would emerge the Byzantine state and society in much the same form as they preserved down to 1204.

You can hardly go wrong in telling the story. Gibbon did it well. So did Finlay. So did Oman. So did many in the 20th century. I have now written six novels set in seventh century Byzantium, and you really have to work hard not to convey something of how remarkable the age was. Yet, for all his undoubted mastery of the sources in at least four languages, Walter E. Kaegi makes an embarrassingly good effort at draining all sense of wonder from the story.

First, there is the writing of the book. It begins well enough – even if the discussion of possible Armenian origins soon outstays its welcome. After a few dozen pages, though, the narrative breaks down into a mass of repetitions. Look at this:

Both antagonists remained on the battlefield after the combat. Byzantine cavalrymen watered their horses to arrow-shots’ distance from the Persian horsemen, who watched over their dead until the seventh hour of the night. (p.162)

At the end of the battle of Nineveh, after the stripping of the dead, and while the Zoroastrian Persians watched over their dead for a minimal observance of respect, the Byzantines, at a distance of two arrow-shots (approximately 266 or 600 meters), watered and fed their horses. (p.163)

After defeat, the Persians, in what was a kind of standoff, having lost 6,000 men, kept a watch over the corpses of their dead…, following Zoroastrian strictures, but for a more limited duration, for one-fifth or so of a day (probably an abbreviated watch for military exingencies). (p.169)

These repetitions are carried to the point where I suspect that Professor Kaegi, over many years, jotted his thoughts onto postcards, and wrote his book by arranging the cards into loose order and not revising anything at all. Apart from looking incompetent, he manages to ruin any sense of narrative.

Then we have continual assertions of what might have been, but for which we have little or no evidence. For example:

Heraclius probably used the threat of abandoning Constantinople for Africa to help persuade the Patriarch Sergios and the clergy and the Constantinopolitan public to accept, or be resigned to, the forced loan of ecclesiastical plate and to accept other extraordinary governmental measures. (p.111)

This might have happened. There is nothing wrong with asking what might have been in history. I do this all the time in my novels. I see no reason why historians should refuse to speculate. For Professor Kaegi, however, it seems to have crowded out many things that should have gone into his book.

He does not give a clear overview of the Orthodox and Monophysite dispute about the nature of Christ. Nor does he show how the Monothelite compromise was an attempt at shutting down almost two centuries of rancorous debate. The omission is a grave fault, as there was no boundary in this age between religion and politics. Possibly one reason why Syria and Egypt fell so easily once the Persians broke through the frontiers was that the Semites largely believed in a single nature for Christ and the Greeks did not. Each side saw the other as heretical. This may also have allowed a shared outlook with the Arabs when they invaded. Why Greek hegemony collapsed so easily in Syria and Egypt cannot be explained by any single cause. But religion was one of the important causes.

Again, there is no systematic or ultimately meaningful discussion of how the Empire twice managed to survive the loss of Syria and Egypt. These had always been rich territories, contributing much in taxes and manpower. And Egypt, for over 600 years, had been sending around seven million bushels of corn every year, first to Rome, then to Constantinople. The corn was sold or given to the people. It fed armies on campaign. It was handed out as bribes to allies or enemies. How did the Empire get over this loss? What effect might it have had on the population of Constantinople? How far might the numbers have declined? To what extent might the Imperial capital have become less parasitic?

Above all perhaps, there is the brief mention of an anomaly that I have long wondered about, but no discussion of how this might transform our understanding of Byzantium during and after the reign of Heraclius. Back in the third century, the undivided Empire had faced increased pressure on two fronts – the arrival of the Goths on the Rhine and Danube, and the Persian revival in the East. By and large, the frontiers were held. But there was a fiscal crisis that led to debasement of the silver coinage. Though the frontiers simply collapsed after 602, the gold coinage was not debased. Indeed, in 615 – between the loss of Syria and of Egypt – the silver coinage was stabilised for the first time, and the new standard lasted for centuries. What was going on? The established narrative is one of catastrophic decline, only briefly arrested, and only finally overcome by internal recovery and the decay of Islamic power. But hard money has no place in this narrative. Professor Kaegi writes much about forced loans of plate from the Church, and secular confiscations. But I do not see how these could account for a bimetallic stability that lasted though all the interlocking crises of the seventh century and beyond.

Now, my credentials for announcing new theories are slight. I am a novelist. I have not spent a lifetime studying Byzantium. On the other hand, I am reasonably competent in the two classical languages, and have read all the Greek and Latin literary sources, either in the original or in translation. I have read my way through most of the Dumbarton Oaks conference papers, and dozens of other journal articles. I have read many of the relevant archaeological reports, and the main overviews of the numismatic and epigraphic sources. In saying what I think, I have some right to a hearing.

I suspect is that the seventh century was far less disastrous than the subsequent historians have claimed. The real collapse happened in the middle of the sixth century, when bubonic plague killed over a third of the Mediterranean population. It was now that Syria and Egypt lost their Greek elites, and ceased to contribute anything meaningful to the Empire. They remained attached only so long as no other power was able to detach them. The Empire itself retreated into its “Turkish” core. Within this, a largely Greek and mostly Orthodox population slowly recovered. It was barely touched by the Persian and Arab wars, and was always able to provide sufficient armies and taxes to defend the core. Syria and Egypt could be recovered from the Persians because they were overstretched, and Heraclius was clever enough in the end to defeat them inside Persia with minimal forces. Recovering territory from the Arabs was another matter – but the Arabs never broke for long into the core.

If we assume that the mediaeval Byzantine Empire had already come into being by the time Justinian died in 565, the reverses of the next century were less a disaster than somewhere between an embarrassment and a blessing. Perhaps the currency was never debased because no one in government was that concerned about the lost territories.

But let me return to the book in question. It would have been useful had it contained a discussion of the decay of Latin in the Empire, and its replacement by Greek as the official language. Professor Kaegi does mention the change in the Imperial titles from something long and pompous and very Roman to the simple Pisteuos en Christo Basileus. But there is no sense here of how one civilisation is giving way to another. George of Pisidia is used as a source. But we are not told that he wrote his epic in iambic trimeter rather than the traditional hexameters. That would have led us into the interesting matter of how Greek was spoken in the seventh century, and the relationship between the living and the increasingly distant exemplars on whom they tried to base themselves. I suppose you can find all this in Warren Treadgold. You can certainly find it in the Dumbarton Oaks papers. But a biography of Heraclius without any of the cultural background is of doubtful value.

To be fair, the book does have its good points. There are excellent notes and a comprehensive bibliography. Also, Professor Kaegi tells me things about the campaigns in Persia that I did not know. He locates and describes the battlefields. No one else has done this. Also, I had supposed that Heraclius won annihilating victories. In fact, he won a series of what amount to skirmishes, relying on diplomacy and the terror of his name to bring an already exhausted Persia crumbling into dust. And, better than anyone else has, this explains why he failed to stop the Arabs. Unlike the Persians, they needed annihilating defeats that were not possible given the resources available. Or their generals needed to be bribed or tricked into treason against the Caliph in ways that the fellowship of early Islamic civilisation made impossible. If you persist with this book, you will not come away empty handed.

On the whole, however, the book is disappointing. It could have been so much better. Perhaps it will be – if only it can be rewritten for a second edition.