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Flavius Heraclius Augustus (Greek: Φλάβιος Ἡράκλειος; known in English as Heraclius, or Herakleios; c. 575 - February 11, 641) was a Byzantine Emperor of Armenian origin, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire. He was in power for over thirty years, from October 5, 610 to February 11, 641 and was the responsible for abandoning the use of Latin in favour of the Greek language in official documents, further Hellenising the Empire. His rise to power began in 608, when he and his father, the viceregal Exarch of Africa, successfully led a revolt against the unpopular usurper Phocas.

Heraclius' reign was marked by several military campaigns. The year Heraclius came to power the Byzantine Empire was threatened on multiple fronts. Heraclius immediately had to fight the invasion of the Empire by the Sassanian who were ruled by the Persian king Khosrau Parvez. The first battles of the campaign ended in defeat and the Persian army fought their way to the gate of Constantinople. The Persian army attacked the city from the east while an army of Avars, Slavs, and Bulgars attacked it from the west and from the sea. However, because Constantinople was protected by a strong navy and impenetrable walls, Heraclius was able to avoid total defeat. Soon after this, he initiated a campaign to rebuild and reform the military. Following this success Heraclius moved into Persian territory in 627 and won a decisive battle at Ninevahmarker crushing the Persian army. This defeat effectively crippled the Sassanid empire and left them unable to cope with the subsequent Islamic invasion forces. He was the first Emperor to engage the Muslims and in the Islamic world he is seen as something of an ideal ruler who studied the Qur'an, was a true believer of Islam, and viewed Muhammad as the true prophet, the messenger of God.

After his victory over the Sassanid Empire he faced a new threat with the rising power of Islam. The Persians were quickly defeated by the Islamic forces and in 634 invaded Syria, defeating the emperor's brother Theodore. Heraclius eventually lost Syria in a string of battles. Within a short period of time the Arabs would also conquer Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Egypt.

In religious matters Heraclius' is remembered as the driving force in converting the peoples migrating to the Balkans. At his request Pope John IV (640-642) sent Christian teachers and missionaries to the Dalmatia, newly Croatianmarker Provinces settled by Porga, and his clan who practiced Slavic paganism. He tried to repair the schism in the Christian church in regard to the Monophysites by promoting a compromise doctrine called Monothelitism; however, this philosophy was rejected as heretical by both sides of the dispute.

Early life


Heraclius was born the son of Heraclius the Elder and Epiphania, an Armenian family in Cappadociamarker. Beyond that, there is little specific information known about his ancestry. His father was a key general during Emperor Maurice's war with Bahrām Chobin, usurper of the Sassanid Empire, during 590. After the war, Maurice appointed Heraclius the Elder to the position of Exarch of Africa.

Revolt against Phocas and the accession to Emperor

In 608, Heraclius the Elder renounced his loyalty to the Emperor Phocas, who had overthrown Maurice six years earlier. The rebels issued coins showing both Heraclii dressed as consuls, though neither of them explicitly claimed the imperial title at this time. Heraclius' younger cousin Niketas launched an overland invasion of Egypt; by 609, he had defeated Phocas' general Bonosus and secured the province. Meanwhile, the younger Heraclius sailed eastward with another force via Sicily and Cyprusmarker.

As he approached Constantinoplemarker, he made contact with leading leaders and planned an attack to overthrow aristocrat in the city, and soon arranged a ceremony where he was crowned and acclaimed as emperor. When he reached the capital, the Excubitors, an elite imperial guard unit led by Phocas' son-in-law Priscus, deserted to Heraclius, and he entered the city without serious resistance. When Heraclius captured Phocas, he asked him, "Is this how you have ruled, wretch?" Phocas said in reply, "And will you rule better?" With that, Heraclius became so enraged he cut off Phocas' head on the spot. He later had his genitalia removed from his body because Phocas had raped the wife of Photius a powerful politician in the city.

On October 5, 610, Heraclius was crowned for a second time, this time in the Chapel of St. Stephen within the Great Palace, and at the same time married Fabia, who took the name Eudokia. After her death in 612, he married his niece Martina in 613; this second marriage was considered incestuous and was very unpopular. In the reign of Heraclius' two sons, the divisive Martina was to become the center of power and political intrigue. Despite widespread hatred for Martina in Constantinople, Heraclius took her on campaigns with him and refused attempts by Patriarch Sergius to prevent and later dissolve the marriage.

War against Persia

Almost defeated

During Maurice’s Balkan campaigns, he and his family were murdered by Phocas in November 602 after a mutiny. Khosrau II (Chosroes) of the Sassanid Empire had been restored to his throne by Maurice and they had remained allies. Thus Persian King Khosrau II seized the pretext to attack the Eastern Roman Empire, and reconquer the Roman province of Mesopotamia. Khosrau had at his court a man who claimed to be Maurice's son Theodosius, and Khosrau demanded that the Romans accept him as Emperor.

The war initially went the Persians' way, partly because of Phocas' brutal repression and the succession crisis that ensued as the general Heraclius sent his nephew Nicetas to attack Egyptmarker, enabling his son Heraclius the younger to claim the throne in 610. Phocas, an unpopular ruler who is invariably described in historical sources as a "tyrant", was eventually deposed by Heraclius, who sailed to Constantinople from Carthagemarker with an icon affixed to the prow of his ship.

By this time the Persians had conquered Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, and in 611 they overran Syria and entered Anatolia. A major counter-attack led by Heraclius two years later was decisively defeated outside Antiochmarker by Shahrbaraz and Shahin and the Roman position collapsed; the Persians devastated parts of Asia Minor, and captured Chalcedonmarker across from Constantinople on the Bosporusmarker. Over the following decade the Persians were able to conquer Palestine and Egypt (by mid-621 the whole province was in their hands) and to devastate Anatolia, while the Avars and Slavs took advantage of the situation to overrun the Balkans, bringing the Roman Empire to the brink of destruction. In 613, the Persian army took Damascusmarker with the help of the Jews, took Jerusalemmarker in 614, damaging the Church of the Holy Sepulchremarker and capturing the Holy True Cross and afterwards capturing Egypt in 616.

With the Persians at the very gate of Constantinople Heraclius thought of abandoning the city and moving the capital to Carthage but was convinced to stay by the powerful church figure Patriarch Sergius. Safe behind the walls of Constantinople he was able to sue for peace in exchange for an annual tribute of; a thousand talents of gold, a thousand talents of silver, a thousand silk robes, a thousand horses, and a thousand virgins to the Persian King. The peace allowed Heraclius to rebuild his army by slashing non-military expenditure, devaluing the currency and melting down, with the backing of Patriarch Sergius, Church treasures to raise the necessary funds to continue the war.

Empire strikes back

On April 5, 622, Heraclius left Constantinople, entrusting the city to Sergius and general Bonus as regents of his son. He assembled his forces in Asia Minor, probably in Bithynia, and, after he revived their broken morale, he launched a new counter-offensive, which took on the character of a holy war; an acheiropoietos image of Christ was carried as a military standard.
The Roman army proceeded to Armenia, inflicted a defeat on an army led by a Persian-allied Arab chief, and then won a victory over the Persians under Shahrbaraz. He would stay on campaign for several years. On March 25 624 Heraclius left again Constantinople with his wife, Martina, and his two children; after he celebrated Easter in Nicomedia on April 15, he campaigned in the Caucasus, winning a series of victories in Azerbaijan and Armenia against Khosrau and his generals Shahrbaraz, Shahin and Shahraplakan. In 626 the Avars and Slavs besieged Constantinople, supported by a Persian army commanded by Shahrbaraz, but the siege ended in failure (the victory was attributed to the icons of the Virgin which were led in procession by Sergius about the walls of the city), while a second Persian army under Shahin suffered another crushing defeat at the hands of Heraclius' brother Theodore.

With the Persian war effort disintegrating, Heraclius was able to bring the Gokturks of the Western Turkic Khaganate, Ziebel, who invaded Persian Transcaucasia. Heraclius also exploited divisions within the Persian Empire, keeping the Persian general Shahrbaraz neutral by convincing him that Khosrau had grown jealous of him and ordered his execution. Late in 627 he launched a winter offensive into Mesopotamia, where, despite the desertion of his Turkish allies, he defeated the Persians under Rhahzadh at the Battle of Nineveh. Continuing south along the Tigris he sacked Khosrau's great palace at Dastagird and was only prevented from attacking Ctesiphon by the destruction of the bridges on the Nahrawan Canal. Discredited by this series of disasters, Khosrau was overthrown and killed in a coup led by his son Kavadh II, who at once sued for peace, agreeing to withdraw from all occupied territories. In 629 Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalemmarker in a majestic ceremony.

Heraclius took for himself the ancient Persian title of "King of Kings" after his victory over Persia. Later on, starting in 629, he styled himself as Basileus, the Greek word for "sovereign", and that title was used by the Roman Eperors for the next 800 years. The reason Heraclius chose this title, over previous Roman terms such as Augustus, has been attributed by some scholars to having to do with Heraclius' Armenian origins.

Heraclius' defeat of the Persians had been the end game in a war that had been on and off for almost 800 years. It was then that Alexander the Great had also totally defeated the Persians. After Heraclius' victory over the Persian Empire left it in disarray which it never recovered. In 633 the new Islamic State slowly devoured the Persians until the Muslim conquest of Persia led to the end of the Sassanid Empire in 644, and the Sassanid dynasty in 651.

War against the Arabs

Muslim-Roman troop movement from September 665 to just before the event of the Battle of Yarmouk


The Islamic Prophet Muhammad had recently succeeded in unifying all the nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs, who had been too divided in the past to pose a military threat, now comprised one of the most powerful states in the region, and were animated by their new conversion to Islam. Heraclius fell ill soon after his triumph over the Persians and never took the field again.

Islamic sources record that Heraclius dreamt of the coming Arab invasion. Historian Al-Tabari wrote that Heraclius dreamt of a new kingdom of the "circumcised man" that be victorious against all its enemies. After telling his court his dream his patricians who did not know of the rise of Islam in Arabia, "advised him to send orders to behead every Jew in his dominion." It was only when a bedouin trader speaking of a man uniting the tribes of Arabia under a new religion was brought before the Emperor did the Heraclius and his court realize that the kingdom of the "circumcised man" was not the Jews but the new Islamic Empire. When the Muslim Arabs attacked Syriamarker and Palestine in 634, he was unable to oppose them personally in battle. Though he remained strategically in charge of operations, his generals had failed him in battle. The Battle of Yarmuk in 636 resulted in a crushing defeat for the larger Roman army and within three years, the Levant was lost again. By the time of Heraclius' death, on February 11, 641, most of Egypt had fallen as well.

Islamic view of Emperor

In Islamic and Arab histories Heraclius is the only Roman Emperor that is talked of any in any length. Owing to his role as the Eastern Roman Emperor at the time Islam emerged, he was remembered in Arabic literature, such as the Islamic hadith and sira. They viewed him favourably and early Muslims were never enemies of Heraclius, as evidenced in the Quranic verses about the Perso-Roman wars below:

002 - 005: The Romans have been defeated [From Persians]. In the nearer land, and they, after their defeat will be victorious. Within ten years - Allah's is the command in the former case and in the latter - and in that day believers will rejoice. In Allah's help to victory. He helpeth to victory whom He will. He is the Mighty, the Merciful.

The Swahili "Utendi wa Tambuka", an epic poem composed in 1728 at Pate Island (off the shore of present-day Kenyamarker) and depicting the wars between the Muslims and Byzantines from the former's point of view, is also known as Kyuo kya Hereḳali ("The book of Heraclius"). This reflects the considerable impression which this Emperor made on his Muslim foes, being still prominently remembered by Muslims more than a millennium after his death and at a considerable geographical and cultural distance.

In Arabic histories he is seen a just ruler with great piety who studied the Qur'an. The fourteenth-century historian Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) went even further stating, "Heraclius was one of the wisest men and among the most resolute, shrewd, deep and opinionated of kings. He ruled the Romans with great leadership and splendor." Islamic history even goes as far to say Heraclius recognized that Muhammad was the true prophet and proclaimed him the messenger of God. According to Arab sources he tried to convert the ruling class of the Empire but they resisted so strongly that he reversed his course and stated that he was just testing their faith in Christianity. His status of true believer in Islamic texts is seen as a way to legitimize Muhammad as the true prophet. By writing that a foreign Emperor, that is viewed as almost a perfect ruler, believes in Islams message then Muhammad must be the true prophet and voice of God.


Looking back at the reign of Heraclius scholars have credited him with many accomplishments. He enlarged the Empire and his reorganization of the government and military were great successes. His attempts at religious harmony failed but he succeeded in returning one of the Holiest Christian relics to Jerusalem.


Although the territorial gains produced by his defeat of the Persians were lost to the advance of the Muslims, Heraclius still ranks among the great Roman emperors. His reforms of the government reduced the corruption which had taken hold in Phocas' reign, and he reorganized the military with great success. Ultimately, the reformed imperial army halted the Muslims in Asia Minormarker and held on to Carthagemarker for another 60 years, saving a core from which the empire's strength could be rebuilt.

The recovery of the eastern areas of the Roman Empire from the Persians once again raised the problem of religious unity centering around the understanding of the true nature of Christ. Most of the inhabitants of these provinces were Monophysites who rejected the Council of Chalcedon. Heraclius tried to promote a compromise doctrine called Monothelitism; however, this philosophy was rejected as heretical by both sides of the dispute. For this reason, Heraclius was viewed as a heretic and bad ruler by some later religious writers. After the Monophysite provinces were finally lost to the Muslims, Monotheletism rather lost its raison d'être and was eventually abandoned.

One of the most important legacies of Heraclius was changing the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire from Latin to Greek in 620. Others include the conversation of the nomadic peoples settling in the Balkan region. At his request Pope John IV (640-642) sent Christian teachers and missionaries to the Dalmatia, newly Croatianmarker Provinces settled by Porga, and his clan who practiced Slavic paganism.

Up to the 20th century he was credited with establishing the Thematic system but modern scholarship now points more to the 660s, under Constans II.

The modern day border of Turkey can be attributed to Heraclius. This border was Heraclius' line of defence in Eastern Anatolia which would permanently define the border between lands Islamised by Arabs in the first flush of Islamic conquest and those which would only be Islamised many centuries later - by Turks. It was this ethnic and cultural dividing line which, at the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, would in 1925 become the eastern border of the present Turkish Republic.

Henry Hart Milman in his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wrote:

Recovery of the True Cross

Despite his actual heterodox theology, Heraclius was long remembered favourably in the Western church for his reputed feat in recovering the True Cross, which had been captured by the Persians. As Heraclius approached the capital Khosrau fled from his favourite residence, Dastgerd (near Baghdadmarker), without offering resistance. Meanwhile, some of the Persian grandees freed his eldest son Kavadh II, whom Khosrau II had imprisoned, and proclaimed him King on the night of 23-4 February , 628. Kavadh however was mortally ill and was anxious that Heraclius should protect his infant son Ardeshir. So as a goodwill gesture he sent the True Cross with a peace negotiator to sue for peace in 628. After a tour of the Empire he returned the cross on March 21, 630. The story was included in the Golden Legend the famous 13th century compendium of hagiography, and he is sometimes shown in art, as in The Legend of the True Cross sequence of frescoes painted by Piero della Francesca in Arezzomarker, or a similar sequence on a small altarpiece by Adam Elsheimer (Städelmarker, Frankfurt). Both of these show scenes of Heraclius and Constantine I's mother Saint Helena, traditionally responsible for the excavation of the cross. The scene usually shown is Heraclius carrying the cross; according to the Golden Legend he insisted on doing this as he entered Jerusalem, against the advice of the Patriarch. At first (shown above), when he was on horseback, the burden was too heavy, but after he dismounted and removed his crown it became miraculously light, and the barred city gate opened of its own accord.

Probably because he was one of the few Eastern Roman emperors widely known in the West, the Late Antique Colossus of Barletta was considered to depict Heraclius.


Heraclius was married twice: first to Fabia Eudokia, a daughter of Rogatus, and then to his niece Martina. He had two children with Fabia and at least nine with Martina most of whom were sickly children. Of Martina's children at least two were disabled, which was seen as punishment for the illegality of the marriage: Fabius (Flavius) had a paralyzed neck and Theodosios, who was a deaf-mute, married Nike, daughter of Persian general Shahrbaraz or daughter of Niketas, cousin of Heraclius.

Two of Heraclius's children would become Emperor: Martina's son Constantine Heraclius from 638 – 641 and Heraclius Constantine , his son from Eudokia, from February, 641 – May, 641.

He also had at least one illegitimate son, John Athalarichos, who conspired a plot against Heraclius with his cousin, the magister Theodorus, and the Armenian noble David Saharuni. When Heraclius discovered the plot he had Atalarichos' nose and hands cut off and he was exiled to Prinkipomarker, one of the Princes' Islandsmarker. Theodorus had the same treatment but was sent to Gaudomelete (possibly modern day Gozo Islandmarker) with additional instructions to cut off one leg.

During the last years of Heraclius' life, it became evident that a struggle was taking place between Heraclius Constantine and Martina, who was trying to position her son Heraklonas in line for the throne. When Heraclius died, in his will he left the empire to both Heraclius Constantine and Heraklonas to rule jointly with Martina as Empress.

Family tree

See also





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