Friday, October 27, 2017

Constantine's Vision of the Cross ~ Early Accounts and Backstory

Constantine's great victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge took place on October 28, AD 312. The day before — October 27 — is the date traditionally given for the miraculous vision and dream which Constantine experienced prior to the battle. This vision has been the subject of debate in both scholarly and popular imagination for hundreds of years. But what really happened on that day 1,705 years ago that changed forever the course of human history?

As a prelude to the famous accounts of this vision, it should be noted that Constantine also seems to have had pagan theophany in the early years of his reign. Writing sometime between AD 307 and AD 310, an anonymous Gallic panegyricist describes Constantine’s presence on the frontier as almost miraculous in restoring order after a barbarian incursion. He explains the reason why as follows:
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"Fortune herself so ordered this matter that the happy outcome of your affairs prompted you to convey to the immortal gods what you had vowed at the very spot where you had turned aside toward the most beautiful temple in the whole world, or rather, to the deity made manifest, as you saw. For you saw, I believe, O Constantine, your Apollo, accompanied by Victory, offering you laurel wreaths, each one of which carries a portent of thirty years. For this is the number of human ages which are owed to you without fail—beyond the old age of Nestor." [In Praise of the Later Roman Emperors, page 248-50] 
This reputed vision of Apollo took place at least two years prior to Constantine’s more famous vision of a cross in the sky. Interestingly, this vision fits in well with the Christian accounts of later events.

In his treatise entitled Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died (written before AD 320), Lactantius offers the earliest account of Constantine's Christian theophany. Incidentally, this passage also provides the date for the Battle of the Milvian Bridge:
"A civil war broke out between Constantine and Maxentius. Although Maxentius kept himself within Rome, because the soothsayers had foretold that if he went out of it he should perish, yet he conducted the military operations by able generals....At length Constantine, with steady courage and a mind prepared for every event, led his whole forces to the neighborhood of Rome, and encamped them opposite to the Milvian bridge. The anniversary of the reign of Maxentius approached, that is, the sixth of the kalends of November [i.e. the 27th of October], and the fifth year of his reign was drawing to an end.
"Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ (XP). Having this sign , his troops stood to arms.” [Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, Chapter 44] 
Writing perhaps 20 years later, Eusebius Pamphilus offers a more detailed account in his Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine—and what’s more, claims that he heard it directly from Constantine’s own lips, confirmed with an oath. When reading the following, note especially Constantine’s confusion and doubts about the source of the vision and the identity of the God he saw:
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"Being convinced, however, that he needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him, on account of the wicked and magical enchantments which were so diligently practiced by the tyrant, he sought Divine assistance, deeming the possession of arms and a numerous soldiery of secondary importance, but believing the co-operating power of Deity invincible and not to be shaken. He considered, therefore, on what God he might rely for protection and assistance….
"Accordingly he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of aftertime has established its truth?

"He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
"He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness...and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies….
"Being struck with amazement at the extraordinary vision, and resolving to worship no other God save Him who had appeared to him, he sent for those who were acquainted with the mysteries of His doctrines, and enquired who that God was, and what was intended by the sign of the vision he had seen." [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book I, Chapter 29-32]
It should be noted that Christians at this time, Constantine included, didn’t think that the pagan gods were non-existent. On the contrary, they believed that they were demonic spirits who could and did appear to men. Furthermore, Constantine himself provides evidence that he believed that pagan prophecy was, in fact, true and pointed directly, if inadvertently, toward the salvation of the world under the auspices of Jesus Christ. In his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, Constantine puts forward his belief that the Erythræan Sibyl, writing in Asia Minor hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, predicted both His coming and His judgment upon mankind.

Furthermore, in the same speech, Constantine calls out Virgil’s 4th Eclogue as a further prophetic writing to support the premise that the coming of Christ was predicted not only by the Hebrew prophets, but by pagan ones as well.

Many, no doubt, look for political reasons behind Constantine’s shift from pagan piety to Christian devotion. But frankly, the political explanations make very little sense. Why would an emperor motivated purely by power, abandon the religious practices favored by an estimated 80-90% of Roman citizens in AD 312 to take up the banner of a small and despised sect which, as recently as six years before was subject to the harshest penalties of Roman law?

It seems clear that Constantine was willing, no matter what the consequences, to follow what he perceived as the divine will. An edict of Constantine, written later in his reign and recorded in Eusebius's Life, gives a glimpse into his mindset, now clearly Christian and devoid of any trace of doubt or pagan syncretism which may have existed earlier:
"To all who entertain just and wise sentiments respecting the character of the Supreme Being, it has long been most clearly evident, and beyond the possibility of doubt, how vast a difference there has ever been between those who maintain a careful observance of the hallowed duties of the Christian religion, and those who treat this religion with hostility or contempt. But at this present time, we may see by still more manifest proofs, and still more decisive instances, but how unreasonable it were to question this truth, and how mighty is the power of the Supreme God: since it appears that they who faithfully observe His commandments, are rewarded with abundant blessings, and are endued with well-grounded hope as well as ample power for the accomplishment of their undertakings. On the other hand, they who have cherished impious sentiments have experienced results corresponding to their evil choice….

"For whoever have addressed themselves with integrity for purpose to any course of action, keeping the fear of God continually before their thougths…such persons, though for a season they may have experienced painful trials, have borne their afflictions lightly, being supported by the belief of greater rewards in store for them. And their character has acquired a brighter lustre in proportion to the severity of their past sufferings….

"I would desire never to be forgetful of the gratitude due to His grace….I am most certainly persuaded that I myself owe my life, my every breath, in short, my very inmost and secret thoughts, entirely to the favor of the Supreme God.” [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book II, Chapters 26-29]
For more on the life of this amazing historical personage and his family members, see the following:

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Catholic Origins of Halloween

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Contrary to popular misconceptions, All Saints Day and its vigil, Halloween, are not the same as the pagan feast known as Samhain. The feast of All Saints developed independently among Christian churches within the territory of the later Roman Empire. Halloween is merely the vigil of the feast of All Saints -- hence, All Hallows Eve.

Samhain, meanwhile, was theoretically a festival of those pagans in Celtic regions outside the Roman Empire, specifically Ireland, about which almost nothing is known prior to the 12th century AD.

The two feasts seem to share a common date, but beyond that, their provenance is quite different.

If you run into someone who insists that Halloween is actually the pagan celebration of Samhain, ask them to provide a primary source reference demonstrating that point. They will struggle to do so because the earliest extant literary references to the pagan festival don't occur until the Middle Ages, and much of what passes for descriptions of pagan Samhain traditions and practices are nothing more than fanciful modern imaginings. Ronald Hutton, writing in The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain offers the following about traditional pagan practices during Samhain according to sources from the 10th through 12th centuries:
In Serglige Con Culaind, which exists in a twelfth-century version, it is stated that the feis of the Ulaid (Ulstermen) lasted ‘three days before Samuin and the three days after Samuin and Samuin itself. They would gather at Mag Muirthemni, and during these seven days there would be nothing but meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting.” These activities (together with a great deal of boasting and brawling) are precisely those portrayed at the feis in this and other accounts of it. No doubt there were religious observances as well, but none of the tales ever portrays any, and a text like Sanas Chormaic, which is so informative on Beltane, furnishes nothing for the winter festival. [Hutton: The Stations of the Sun]
It should be noted that the above passage was written by a scholar who is largely sympathetic to the pagan side of the argument, but is honest enough to admit that there is no ancient evidence to support it. Indeed, the holiday described in the 12th century source above seems to have more affinity to American Thanksgiving, with its feasts, games and brawling than All Hallows Eve.

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Meanwhile, there is considerable ancient literary evidence to support the Catholic feast of All Saints and All Hallows Eve. The feast was originally celebrated on various dates in various churches as early as the 4th century AD, and began to be officially established on November 1 in many places throughout Europe by the early Middle Ages.

Here is a passage from a homily of Saint Bede's written in the early 8th century:
"Today, beloved, we celebrate in the joy of one solemnity, the festival of All Saints, in whose companionship the heaven exults; in whose guardianship the earth rejoices; by whom triumphs the Holy Church is crowned; whose confession, as braver in its passion, is also brighter in its honor—because while the battle increased, the glory of them that fought in it was also augmented. And the triumph of martyrdom is adorned with the manifold kind of its torments, because the more severe the pangs, the more illustrious also were the rewards; while our Mother, the Catholic Church, was taught by her Head, Jesus Christ, not to fear contumely, affliction, death, and more and more strengthened—not by resistance, but by endurance—inspired all of that illustrious number who suffered imprisonment or torture, with one and equal ardor to fight the battle for triumphal glory. 
"O truly blessed Mother Church! so illuminated by the honor of divine condescension, so adorned by the glorious blood of triumphant martyrs, so decked with the inviolate confession of snow white virginity! Among its flowers neither roses nor lilies are wanting. Endeavor now, beloved, each for yourselves, in each kind of honor, to obtain your own dignity—crowns, snow white for chastity, or purple for passion. In those heavenly camps, both peace and war have their own flowers wherewith the soldiers of Christ are crowned."
The rest of this sermon may be read here.

As for the date of November 1, here is a quote from the Chronicon of Sigebert of Gembloux, detailing the official movement of All Saints Day to November 1 throughout the Holy Roman Empire as of the year AD 835:
DCCCXXXV: Monente Gregorio Papa et omnibus episcopis assentientibus, Ludovicus Imperator statuit, ut in Gallia et Germania festivitas Omnium Sanctorum in kalendis Novembris celebrarentur, quam Romani ex instituto Bonefacii Papae celebrabant. 
Forgive my rough translation: 835 AD: Following the instruction of Pope Gregory [IV] and the assent of all the bishops, Emperor Louis [the Pious] established that in France and Germany the feast of All Saints would be celebrated on the first of November, when the Romans celebrate following the custom established by Pope Boniface [IV].
See the original here
A good summary of other references to All Saints Day in early Medieval sources may be found in this article on the Origins of All Saints and All Souls Day.

Writing from a more syncretist point of view not unsympathetic to the pagan side, Alexei Kondratiev says the following, which gives a plausible explanation of why, in Medieval times, those still holding semi-pagan beliefs may have consolidated their beliefs about the dead around All Saints/Souls day, following the lead of the Church:
“Whatever the specific elements had been that determined the proper date of the end-of harvest honoring of the dead in various places, by the ninth and tenth centuries the unifying influence of the Church had led to concentrating the rituals on November 1st and November 2nd. The first date was All Hallows, when the most spiritually powerful of the Christian community's dead (the Saints) were invoked to strengthen the living community, in a way quite consistent with pre-Christian thought. The second date, All Souls, was added on (first as a Benedictine practice, beginning ca. 988) as an extension of this concept, enlarging it to include the dead of families and local communities. Under the mantle of the specifically Christian observances, however, older patterns of ancestor veneration were preserved.” [Kondratiev: Samhain - Season of Death and Renewal]
This is an honest assessment that seems to capture quite well the actual history behind All Saints Day / Halloween and its relationship to co-existing pagan death rituals and ancestor worship.

As Catholics, we have not done a particularly good job informing the modern culture of the Christian meaning behind All Hallows Eve. As a result, we have ceded the field to the purveyors of popular culture who have turned the feast into a celebration of monsters, gore and neo-paganism. The correct response, in my opinion, is not to opt out completely, but to bring the holiday back to its uniquely Christian roots. Doing so will not only serve to dispel myths propagated by an increasingly hostile secular society, but will also help Catholics young and old to be inspired by the stories of "that illustrious number who suffered imprisonment or torture, with one and equal ardor to fight the battle for triumphal glory."

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One idea I particularly like is to read more about the lives of the saints during this time of year, particularly with your kids. Here is a list of about 40 novels and short biographies of a variety of Catholic saints and heroes, courtesy of The Young Catholic's Bookshelf.

Or, if that's too much for you, try reading this one new book about the lives of the early martyrs drawn from the most trustworthy eye-witness sources: I Am A Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources.

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Or, if you'd prefer, here is an inexpensive booklet which will allow you to celebrate All Hallow's Eve like a traditional Catholic (imagine that!). All Hallow's Eve Prayers and Devotions is a new booklet by our friends at Ancilla Press that combines Celtic, English, and Latin traditions in a unique format. It provides adults and children with an unashamedly Catholic and  historically authentic way to celebrate the beginning of Hallowtide, and includes the full version of "Black Vespers", an old Breton tradition for the afternoon of Halloween, three prayers against evil spirits, witchcraft, and spells, and more. Click here to order a copy or to find out more.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"You shall die in your bed under the sharpest torments" ~ The martyrdom of St. Theodoret and the horrible death of Julianus

The passion of St. Theodoret, from Shea: Pictorial Lives of the Saints, 1894.
If you've read Lactantius's work known as Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, you know that it was a widely-held belief in Christian antiquity that those who made war against the Church tended to suffer particularly atrocious deaths. Heresiarchs, also, were cursed with a similar fate, as we saw previously in the gruesome death of Arius in AD 336.

Today is the feast of Saint Theodoret of Antioch. This obscure saint deserves to be better known today as he was one of the last to be slain under the auspices of a pagan emperor of Rome. His slayer was the uncle of the apostate emperor Julian, coincidentally also named Julianus. This Julianus was at the time serving as prefect of the East. Seeking to curry favor with his imperial nephew, Julianus attempted to seize the treasures of the Antiochene Church, and when his intentions were made known, all the clergy of Antioch fled—except one. The ecclesiastical historian, Sozomen, continues the tale:
One presbyter, by name Theodoritus, alone did not leave the city; Julian seized him, as the keeper of the treasures, and as capable of giving information concerning them, and maltreated him terribly; finally he ordered him to be slain with the sword, after he had responded bravely under every torture and had been well approved by his doctrinal confessions. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter 8]
Alban Butler offers the following prophecy uttered by Saint Theodoret, as he was about the be slain following his torments, as taken from the Bollandist’s Acta Sanctorum:
“You, Julian[us], shall die in your bed under the sharpest torments; and your master who hopes to vanquish the Persians, shall be himself vanquished: an unknown hand shall bereave him of life; he shall return no more to the territory of the Romans.” [Butler: The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and other Principal Saints]
Immediately thereafter, Julianus had the saint’s head struck off. The date given is October 22, AD 362.

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After a short space of time, the prophecy of Saint Theodoret came to pass in a most horrible way. Here is Sozomen’s description:
When Julian[us] had made a booty of the sacred vessels, he flung them upon the ground and began to mock; after blaspheming Christ as much as he wished, he sat upon the vessels and augmented his insulting acts. Immediately his genitals and rectum were corrupted; their flesh became putrescent, and was changed into worms. The disease was beyond the skill of the physicians. However, from reverence and fear for the emperor, they resorted to experiments with all manner of drugs, and the most costly and the fattest birds were slain, and their fat was applied to the corrupted parts, in the hope that the worms might be thereby attracted to the surface, but this was of no effect; for being deep buried, they crept into the living flesh, and did not cease their gnawing until they put an end to his life. It seemed that this calamity was an infliction of Divine wrath, because the keeper of the imperial treasures, and other of the chief officers of the court who had made sport of the Church, died in an extraordinary and dreadful manner, as if condemned by Divine wrath. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter 8]
The second part of the prophecy was also fulfilled, as the emperor Julian the Apostate was slain while on campaign in Persia less than a year later.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Battle of Soissons (AD 486) ~ The final fall of Roman power in Gaul

Approximate extent of the domain of Syagrius, AD 486.
What if I told you that the Western Roman Empire didn't actually fall until AD 486? Yes, most know that Odoacer deposed the puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus in AD 476, and Julius Nepos reigned as "emperor of the West" from Dalmatia until AD 480. But in Gaul, a sizable territory remained under Roman control for another six years after the death of Nepos. This is the so-called “Kingdom of Soissons”, and it had been carved out originally by Aegidius, the last Magister Militum per Gallias.

Aegidius was a former lieutenant of the great Roman commander, Flavius Aetius. After Aetius’s assassination, Aegidius became a partisan of the emperor Majorian, helping him in his campaign against the Visigoths in southern Gaul. When the barbarian Magister Militum Ricimer toppled Majorian, Aegidius refused to recognize Ricimer’s puppet emperor, Libius Severus, and established a separate polity in northern Gaul. Given Aegidius’s apparent facility with creating alliances with his barbarian neighbors and Ricimer’s inability to project power beyond the Alps, Aegidius was able to hold his domain successfully until his death of plague in AD 465. Upon that event, his son Syagrius took control of Soissons and was able to protect it from barbarian incursions for over 20 years.

Things came apart for Syagrius and Soissons, however, with the arrival on the scene of the powerful Frankish king, Clovis I, who desired to add Soissons to his growing possessions. The account of Gregory of Tours, written in the mid-6th century AD, offers a summary of what happened next:
“Childeric died and Clovis his son reigned in his stead. In the fifth year of his reign Siagrius, king of the Romans, son of Egidius, had his seat in the city of Soissons which Egidius, who has been mentioned before, once held. And Clovis came against him with Ragnachar, his kinsman, because he used to possess the kingdom, and demanded that they make ready a battlefield. And Siagrius did not delay nor was he afraid to resist. And so they fought against each other and Siagrius, seeing his army crushed, turned his back and fled swiftly to king Alaric at Toulouse.” [Gregory of Tours (Brehaut, ed.), History of the Franks, pg. 36]
This small passage is the last written remnant we have of a significant Western Roman army doing battle to defend the Empire.

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Interestingly, several years ago this tiny fragment of history was expanded into a full-fledged novel by Justin Swanton entitled Centurion’s Daughter. The book is one of those rare pieces of historical fiction that successfully shines light on a very obscure time without engaging in ridiculous revisionism, allowing the extant history to speak for itself while providing a completely plausible framework.

Here is an excerpt from Swanton’s well-written narrative, told from the point-of-view of Aemilia, a Franco-Roman maiden from Soissons. It has always struck me as a very good representation of a clash of arms between late Romans and Franks:
Over the wind the murmur of a clamor reached her ears: a faint cry that rose and fell. With it came a sound as of a vast drumming. One of the cavalry guards turned to Ennodius. “Doing their warcry, My Lord, and hitting their weapons against their shields. They’ll be coming now.”

For a full minute the cry lingered on the wind, then, drifting like a heavy mist over the land, the thin line of Frankish skirmishers approached the Romans.

Aemilia did not hear the command that let loose a rainstorm of arrows upon the Franks. She saw figures fall. It took a moment for the truth to impact on her mind—within her sight, men were wounded, dying, dead. All she had read about the epic clash of arms, the renown of great soldiers and the glory of battle melted before the reality like wax in a fire….

The Battle of Soissons as imagined by
Justin Swanton in Centurion's Daughter
After a few moments, the Frankish skirmishers reached their own bowshot range and stopped to shoot back. A number of them ran closer and hurled javelins at the front ranks. In their turn the Romans added darts and javelins to the blizzard of arrows enveloping the Franks. More and more fell and finally, as if on a signal, the survivors broke and ran.

The horse archers surged after them, individual horsemen pausing now and then to shoot arrows at the retreating Franks. Their pursuit followed up all the way to the main Frankish lines which became their next target.

Some moments passed. Finally, through the front Frankish line, the Frankish cavalry charged. The horse archers ceased shooting and turned, making for their lines at a full gallop with the Franks close behind.

With her attention on the horsemen, Aemilia did not immediately notice what was happening in the center. Once the remnants of the Frankish skirmishers had retreated through the main lines, the frontmost of these began to advance rapidly towards the Roman infantry. At the same time the Frankish cavalry halted in their pursuit of the retreating horse archers. There was a murmur from the riders surrounding Aemilia and Ennodius.

“What’s happening?” Ennodius asked.

“The Franks have stopped their charge,” replied the one who had spoken to Ennodius earlier. “First time I’ve ever seen barbarians do such a thing…My Lord.” Aemilia heard the note of concern in his voice.

The horse archers reached their starting positions and began milling around, slowly reforming their line. Aemilia sensed that Syagrius’s plan had met a hitch: the Franks were not doing what was expected of them.

Thwunk, thwunk, thwunk. The noise startled Aemilia. She glanced to the left. The ballistae, enormous crossbow-like weapons mounted on wheeled bases, were firing their missiles at the Frankish line. The bolts flew with incredible speed over the heads of the Plumbarii and disappeared into the enemy ranks, with what effect she could only imagine.

A few moments later, the archers loosed on the Franks, followed shortly after by a volley of large war darts from the Plumbarii. Then, as the Frankish first line drew near, Aemilia heard the centurions crying out an order, “Second line!” …

[© Justin Swanton. Centurion’s Daughter, page 184-5. Reprinted with permission.]
Needless to say, the situation soon deteriorates for Syagrius, but this excerpt should give you an idea of how well the author captures the action. Swanton offers some additional comments on the research he put into this novel here. He provides a very detailed hypothetical reconstruction of the Battle of Soissons here.

If you like this sort of thing, as I do, you will enjoy Swanton’s writing and thoughtful attention to historical detail. Given the scant information available on these events, he has done an admirable job piecing together a plausible scenario for the final stand of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of Clovis's powerful kingdom of the Franks.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

“Wretch! Is this the way you have governed the empire?” ~ The fall of Phocas the Tyrant, AD 610

The captured tyrant, Phocas, is delivered to Heraclius, AD 610.
On this date in late Roman history, the general Heraclius landed with his army a few miles outside the land walls of Constantinople. His mission—to topple the ghastly and corrupt regime of the usurper, Phocas.

For eight years, Phocas had mismanaged the empire’s affairs, having taken the crown in AD 602 after leading a successful soldiers’ rebellion against the Emperor Maurice. Now, with the frontiers collapsing and the people of Constantinople living in fear of the tyrant’s rapine tax collectors and murderous officials, Heraclius and his father, Heraclius the Elder, launched an insurrection from their base in Roman north Africa. It took their expedition two years to reach Constantinople, pacifying Egypt along the way.

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When the armies under Heraclius reached Constantinople on October 3, AD 610, the resistance of the forces loyal to Phocas was quickly suppressed. John of Nikiu, writing about 70 years later, picks up the narrative:
“When Phocas and Leontius the chamberlain became aware that they were sought with evil intent to slay them as they had slain the depraved Bonosus, the two arose and seized all the money that was in the imperial treasury which had been amassed by Maurice, and likewise that which had been amassed by (Phocas) himself from the Roman nobles whom he had put to death, and whose property he had confiscated, and likewise the money of Bonosus, and they cast it into the waves of the sea, and so thoroughly impoverished the Roman empire.” [page 177]
This spiteful act would cause much hardship in the coming years as Heraclius struggled to fight wars on two fronts with an empty treasury. But such an action was in keeping with the base, unscrupulous character of Phocas whose rule was marked by such avarice, lust and brutality that he was completely reviled even by the Green faction who had helped put him on the throne. According to the Chronicle of Theophanes, during the last year of his reign, the Greens mocked Phocas in the Hippodrome, chanting: “You are drunk again, and long ago lost your mind.” In response, Phocas set his soldiers upon them. The soldiers killed some, mutilated others and “hung their members in the sphendone” – the semi-circular end of the Hippodrome.

As a result of such atrocities, the people and nobility of Constantinople all nursed a grudge against Phocas which burst forth with the arrival of Heraclius. John of Nikiu continues:
“And thereupon, the senators and officers and soldiers went and seized Phocas, and took the imperial crown from his head, and (they seized) Leontius the chamberlain likewise, and conducted them in chains to Heraclius to the Church of S. Thomas the Apostle…”
At this point, a tradition exists that is not from any of the contemporary sources but is nonetheless recorded in every modern source. A dramatic scene unfolded aboard ship, as depicted in the image above. Looking with disgust upon the fallen tyrant, Heraclius rebuked him:
“Wretch! Is this the way you have governed the empire?”

Phocas replied: “And will you do better?” 
In a fury at this sarcastic response, Heraclius condemned Phocas and Leontius to immediate death:
“And they put both of them to death in his presence. And they cut off the privy parts of Phocas, and tore off his skin right down to his legs because of the dishonor and shame he had brought on the wife of [Photius] because she was consecrated to the service of God, for he had taken her by force and violated her, although she was of an illustrious family. And next, they took the bodies of Phocas and Leontius and Bonosus and they conveyed them to the city of Constantinople, and they burnt them with fire, and scattered the ashes of their bodies to the winds; for they were detested by all men.”
Thus the triumphant and tragic reign of Heraclius began with the bloody overthrow of a vicious tyrant. The execution of Phocas occurred on October 5, AD 610, and Heraclius himself was crowned emperor on the same day.

John of Nikiu’s Chronicle is an excellent source for this eventful period, particularly considering the paucity of primary sources for this era more generally. More details of this gruesome event may be found in the Chronicon Paschale and in Walter Kaegi’s superb scholarly biography, Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium.