Saturday, February 11, 2017

Death of the Emperor Heraclius and the Loss of Roman Egypt ~ February 11

A medieval plaque showing Heraclius defeating Chosroes II.
After a reign of over thirty years, the Roman Emperor Heraclius passed to his eternal reward on February 11, AD 641.

His reign had begun as a rebellion against a rebellion, casting out the cruel and capricious regime of the usurper Phocas who had previously murdered the legitimate emperor, Maurice and his entire family. Launching his successful rebellion from Carthage, Heraclius ascended the throne at a time of acute crisis for the empire. The Persians had taken advantage of the internal strife and swept over practically the entire Roman east, including Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

Selling the very plate of the churches to fund his army, Heraclius began a counter-attack to eject the Persians from their ill-gotten gains. Rather than attempting to engage the Persian forces in the occupied territories, Heraclius marched directly into the Persian heartland where he inflicted a crushing defeat on the armies of the Persian King of Kings, Chosroes II, at Nineveh in AD 627. It is said that Heraclius himself defeated the Persian general Rhahzadh in single combat, thus earning the coveted spolia opima.

With his victories, Heraclius left Persia devastated and supine and secured what he thought would be a lasting peace in the east. However, in AD 636, a new force arose from the deserts of Arabia and utterly defeated a large Roman field army at the battle of Yarmuk. Under the command of Kahlid, the armies of Islam rolled over the Roman frontiers and occupied much of the Roman east--this time, for good.

As Heraclius lay ill in Constantinople at the beginning of the year AD 641, his heart must have been heavy having seen all of his hard-fought campaigns to come to nothing, and a Muslim army under 'Amr sweeping away all Roman resistance in Egypt. Here is how the situation in Egypt at the time of Heraclius's death was described by first-hand witness, John of Nikiu, a monophysite bishop who bore hostility toward the aggressive Chalcedonianism of Heraclius and his allies:
The Chronicle of John,
Bishop of Nikiu.
And 'Amr left lower Egypt and proceeded to war against Rīf. He sent a few Moslems against the city of Antinoe. And when the Moslem saw the weakness of the Romans and the hostility of the people to the emperor Heraclius because of the persecution wherewith he had visited all the land of Egypt in regard to the orthodox faith, at the instigation of Cyrus the Chalcedonian patriarch, they became bolder and stronger in the war.
And the inhabitants of the city (Antinoe) sought to concert measures with John their prefect with a view to attacking the Moslem; but he refused, and arose with haste with his troops and, having collected all the imposts of the city, betook himself to Alexandria; for he knew that he could not resist the Moslem, and (he feared) lest he should meet with the same fate as the garrison of Fajūm. Indeed, all the inhabitants of the province submitted to the Moslem, and paid them tribute. And they put to the sword all the Roman soldiers whom they encountered. And the Roman soldiers were in a fortress, and the Moslem besieged them, and captured their catapults, and demolished their towers, and dislodged them from the fortress. And they strengthened the fortress of Babylon, and they captured the city of Nakius and made themselves strong there. (Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, Chapter CXV:9-12)
On February 11, AD 641, Heraclius died. John of Nikiu provides a notice of this event, along with a rather superstitious explanation:
And Heraclius was grieved by the death of John the chief of the local levies, and of John the general who had been slain by the Moslem, as well as by the defeat of the Romans that were in the province of Egypt. And in accordance with the decree of God who takes away the souls of rulers, and of men of war as well as of kings, Heraclius fell ill with fever, and died in the thirty-first year of his reign in the month Yakātīt of the Egyptians, that is, February of the Roman months, in the fourteenth year of the lunar cycle, the 357th year of Diocletian. And some said: 'The death of Heraclius is due to his stamping the gold coinage with the figures of the three emperors—that is, his own and of his two sons on the right hand and on the left—and so no room was found for inscribing the name of the Roman empire.' And after the death of Heraclius they obliterated those three figures. (Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, Chapter CXVI:1-3)
An example of the gold solidus minted by Heraclius featuring the emperor
and his two sons as mentioned by John of Nikiu.
As the image above shows, not all of these coins were obliterated, apparently. Nevertheless, at the death of Heraclius, the Roman Empire finally passed from being a world power which dominated the Mediterranean, to a regional power scrambling to hold on to its remaining dominions against a new and vigorous set of enemies.

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