Gibbon, Part 10: Justinian’s Successors and Heraclius’ Victory

Justin II

Justinian, who was childless, was succeeded by his favorite nephew Justin. Justin II began his reign with optimistic speeches promising to correct the mistakes of Justinian and revive the office of the consul. Shortly after, the new emperor received a embassy of the Avars, who had been erstwhile allies of Justinian, although their relationship had been interrupted by the Romans’ negotiations with the Turks. The Avars proudly asserted the greatness of their chagan and the power of their military forces. But in contrast to the (perhaps overly) liberal and generous conduct of his late uncle, Justin II refused to renew the empire’s alliance with the Avars, proudly asserting the independence and self-sufficiency of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, his newfound confidence worked; the chagan declined to execute his threats against the Roman empire. Instead, the Avars decided to ally with the Lombards, a people believed in Gibbon’s time to originate from Scandinavia. Under their king Alboin, the Lombards risen up and completely destroyed the people of the Gepidae residing in Upper Hungary and Transylvania. The spoils and captives were equally divided between the allies, but the lands were given entirely over to the Avars.

Despite this unequal division, the victory still rose the name of Alboin to fame among the barbarian nations in Germania. Unsatisfied, he turned his attention to the Roman exarchy in Italy, their former allies. (A contingent of Lombards had fought in Narses’ army over a decade earlier.) Under Narses, the province had fallen into the strangling bonds of governmental avarice and oppressiveness. Alboin enlisted the help of 20,000 Saxons and descended from the Julian Alps. Before long, they conquered Verona and Milan. “Terror preceded his march; he found everywhere, or he left, a dreary solitude; and the pusillanimous Italians presumed, without a trial, that the stranger was invincible” (Chapter XLV). Pavia was fixed as the new capital of the new Lombardian kingdom. But Alboin’s victories were cut short by a successful conspiracy against his life by his ambitious wife Rosamond. Rosamond could not win over the loyalty of the Lombards, however, and the chief Clepho was elected as Alboin’s successor.

The rest of Justin II’s reign was filled with similar disappointing developments, despite his initial optimistic visions and “pure and benevolent” intentions. Africa was still devastated by years of wars, and the Persian war continued anew in the East. Inside the empire, “Injustice prevailed both in the capital and the provinces: the rich trembled for their property, the poor for their safety, the ordinary magistrates were ignorant or venal, the occasional remedies appear to have been arbitrary and violent, and the complaints of the people could no longer be silenced by the splendid names of a legislator and a conqueror.” Unable to have children, he selected he captain of the guards, Tiberius, as his successor.

Tiberius & Maurice

Under the reign of Tiberius, Sophia, Justin II’s widow, hoped to still retain her power and influence, but instead, Tiberius elevated his own wife Anastasia as empress. In response, Sophia allied with Justinian, the son of the late famous commander Germanus (who as we saw previously died before he could lead the expedition to re-secure Belisarius’ conquests in Italy). The second Justinian was popular and had already been rumored to be a candidate for Justin II’s successor. He had been reluctantly pardoned and promoted to commander of the Eastern army, from which he successfully obtained a victory over the Persians in battle. Alarmed over Sophia’s intentions, Tiberius returned promptly to Constantinople and reduced her power further, but he still left Justinian alone. Tiberius was an emperor who, according to Gibbon, imitated the spirit of Constantine and the Antonines (of the period of the Five Good Emperors), but died only after four years.

His appointed successor, Maurice, had also come from a military background, displaying his merits during the battles with the Persians. During his reign, Italy was increasingly troubled by the Lombards, who had not yet managed to conquer Rome but had established a strong foothold in the region between the Alps and the Apennine mountains. Maurice attempted to help the exarchy by sending some supplies during a besiegement of Rome, and paying the Frankian king Childebert to invade the Lombard-controlled part of Italy. But Autharis, son and successor of Clepho, successfully withstood three of these invasions, and for 200 years Italy was divided between the Lombards and the exarchy of the Eastern Roman Empire. The exarchy’s territory was smaller than the Lombard’s, but included Rome, Venice, Naples, Tuscany, Latium, the central Apenines (Sabinia), and the islands of Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily – wealthy, industrious, and populous regions.

This period also contained the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604), an erudite and benevolent pope whose reign marked a highpoint of the power of the Catholic church, which had acquired numerous possessions in Italy and other provinces. Gregory’s actions exposed the injustice and incompetence of the exarch and inspired troops all around Italy to defend themselves from the Lombards. Yet he limited his martial ambitions: he could have been capable of destroying the Lombards, but refrained from doing so.

The sword of the enemy was suspended over Rome: it was averted by the mild eloquence and seasonable gifts of the pontiff, who commanded the respect of heretics and barbarians.
(Chapter XLV)

Wars Against and With Persia

Justinian’s reign had ended with an extended peace between Rome and Persia, purchased by the immense wealth and effeminacy of Constantinople. But in time, the force of the agreement waned, and Justin II decided to renege on his annual tribute to Persia under the pretext of avenging his defeated Abyssinian ally Abrahah (which we had briefly mentioned in the last post). This sparked a war which the Romans lost: Nushirvan (also known as Chosroes) besieged and conquered the fortress of Dara in a five-month siege, and his forces also conquered Syria. In response, Tiberius negotiated a short three-year peace that gave Rome a chance to consolidate her forces from all over the East and West. The two forces met at the battle of Melitene, and Persia was betrayed by the sudden attack of a Scythian chief. This devastated the Persian forces and forced Nushirvan to retreat and suspend the campaign.

The great and just Nushirvan was replaced by his tyrannical son, Hormouz (or Hormisdas), whose reign resembled that of Commodus after the death of his trusted tutor and adviser. His cruelty and greed terrorized the Persian court, army, and country. Several provinces of Persia began to revolt, Rome was given the opportunity to push from the west, and the invading Turks were welcomed in order to counteract the Roman threat. But it turned out that the Turks had allied with the Romans, and Hormouz’s decision was fatal. Hormouz’s incompetence precipitated the revolt of the great Persian general Bahram. In the court, Bindoes, a previously imprisoned Sassanian prince, successfully wrested power and imprisoned Hormouz instead. One of Hormouz’s sons, also named Chosroes, was persuaded by Bindoes to replace his father. Hormouz was put on trial and condemned like a criminal by his own son. Chosroes II’s plight drew the sympathy of Roman emperor Maurice and he sent an army under the general Narses (different from Narses the conqueror of Italy) to help him fight Bahram and restore him to his rightful place on the throne. Eventually Bahram was defeated in two decisive battles near the banks of the river Zab and inside Media.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Avars were running wild. Undeterred by Justin II’s attempts to assert Roman dignity and independence, the Avars still extorted the Romans while reneging on their promises and treaties. Under their chagan Baian, in a campaign to take their ancestral city of Sirmium in Pannonia, they devastated some 600 miles of Roman territory. Baian’s empire stretched over “Hungary, Poland, and Prussia, from the mouth of the Danube to that of the Oder.” Now that the alliance with Persia was secure, Maurice was free to move his armies against the Avars. At first, Maurice entertained the idea of leading his troops in person, as the Western emperors of old used to do: he camped with his soldiers. But he eventually refrained, probably because of cowardice and superstition. Gibbon remarks on the bad omens that the Romans received and were intimidated by, wittily, he points out their forgetfulness of the fact that “the best of omens is to unsheath our sword in the defence of our country.” So the Roman forces were led by the general Priscus, who defeated the Avars in five separate battles, killing tens of thousands of them. But Priscus’ victory was temporary, as Baian had not been completely vanquished, and he was ready to avenge his losses by invading Constantinople itself. Gibbon notes on the broad tactical knowledge of Roman warfare but the lack of good soldiers to fight the actual battles. Rome was technologically and culturally more advanced than any of the barbarians they were fighting, but it was in clear decadence. The material and intellectual resources were there, but the human resources were the biggest weakness.

Phocas’ Reign of Terror

Maurice attempted to reform the human defects of the Roman military, but his efforts only ended in futility. In fact, it only led for the soldiers to resent him and rise up in revolt under the general Phocas, in a coup reminiscent of those in the military chaos of the 3rd century. Maurice’s five sons were murdered before his eyes, before he himself was executed. Later, former empress Constantina’s attempts to revenge his treatment of her family led Phocas to also torture and kill her and the three daughters of Maurice. Phocas was promptly recognized by all as the new emperor of the Roman empire. But Chosroes II was horrified at his assassination of his former benefactor, and used it as a pretext to start a new war with the Romans. He besieged and conquered numerous cities, traversing the Euphrates and Syria and finally reaching Antioch.

Incredibly, Phocas was ultimately done in by his own insecurity: he had married his daughter to a patrician named Crispus, but the green faction of the circus started adoration of the young royal couple too early, by putting their portraits in the hippodrome alongside that of the emperor. Phocas’s execution of those responsible provoked an empire-wide rebellion. One of the officials resisting him most fiercely was Heraclius, exarch of Africa. Heraclius was quickly elevated by the people as their hope to overthrow the paranoid and tyrannical usurper. Shortly after, Phocas was betrayed by Crispus and his own court, brought to Heraclius, and executed brutally, as he had done onto others.

Heraclius Rescues the Empire

Chosroes II made very deep inroads into Roman territory, conquering Caesarea and Jerusalem, among others. The Roman provinces he occupied were oppressed by his avarice. When Phocas died, Chosroes refused to cease his war with Rome, as would be the case if his only quarrel was with him; instead, Chosroes had greater ambitions. The Roman empire was severely pressured, and it might easily have been the end, as the Persians obtained a victory a short distance from Constantinople. So Heraclius, looking for survival, started a daring strategy: allowing Persia to temporarily terrorize the provinces and capital, he started an expedition with the remaining troops to strike in the heart of Persia. Gibbon praises his brave attempts:

Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no boltder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.
(Chapter XLVI)

Heraclius sailed from Constantinople to Trebizond (now known as Trabzon, on the southeast corner of the Black Sea) with 5,000 troops, and conquered Tauris (of Iphigenia in Tauris), a capital of one of the provinces of the Persians. He traversed through Armenia, Media, Iraq, reaching as far as Ispahan (Isfahan) in Iran, where no Roman army had ever trod. Chosroes was already alarmed and recalled his forces from the Nile and Bosphorus. But Heraclius defeated these reinforcements. He besieged the Persian commander Sarbaraza at Salban, conquered the fortress and chased the general until he reached the walls of Amida. Having successfully forced back the besiegers near the capital, the Roman army then started their return, attacking and defeating the Persians at the banks of the river Sarus (Seyhan), returning to Sebaste (Sivas) at the Coast of the Black Sea after three years of the expedition.

Chosroes had not given up, however. Exhausting the manpower of the empire, he drew up three separate armies, one to handle Heraclius, the other the forces of his brother Theodorus, and a third army led by the commander Sarbar to assist the Avars and their chagan in besieging Constantinople. The Avars assaulted the capital for 10 days, but they were repulsed thanks to the efficient use of defensive siege weapons and a relief detachment of cuirassiers from Heraclius. Chosroes’ two remaining armies were also defeated with the help of the Turkish allies. At Chalcedon, Sarbar rebelled against the tyranny of Chosroes. Chosroes was declared no longer the legitimate emperor and a peace treaty with the Romans was negotiated. But Chosroes still retained a large number of soldiers under his command, as Heraclius advanced through Media and Assyria to meet him in a decisive battle at Niniveh in 627. The bulk of the Persian infantry was destroyed, after which the entire cavalry also routed. Heraclius pursued the Persian army until only a few miles short of Ctesiphon, their famous capital.

During the course of these battles, Heraclius fought at the forefront of his army in the spirit of Julian and the great Roman emperors of the past. He was credited with slaying multiple enemy commanders and even a giant by his own hand. This was in contrast to the timid Chosroes, who only watched the battles from a distance and failed to inspire his troops at Nineveh. Barely reaching Ctesiphon safely Chosroes was in denial, refusing the pleas of his courtiers to negotiate a truce with Constantinople. His heir Siroes finally took action, taking over the throne, massacring his 18 brothers and throwing his father to a dungeon where he died after five days. Siroes himself only ruled for eight months; the glory of the Sassanid empire had dissolved forever and it was mired in a series of coups and power struggles for the next few years, until the Arabian caliphs took over.

Heraclius negotiated an extended peace treaty with Siroes and was welcomed into Constantinople as a hero. In the remainder of his reign, he undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where a relic of the True Cross was restored. Heraclius’ fame spread across Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, the war with the Persia exhausted the financial resources of the empire, the spoils from the Persian expedition were lost or had been distributed to the soldiers. As a result, Heraclius’ government was poor, although his fame, says Gibbon, eclipsed the glory of Moses and Alexander.

Theological Controversies about Christ’s Nature

At this point, the Gibbon goes onto a detour chapter (XLVII) detailing the controversy centered on the nature of Christ (did he have a human nature? Divine nature? Or both? How did the two natures interact with each other?) that raged through the first few centuries AD. The controversy about the trinitarian nature of God resulted in Arianism, which had had its heyday in Africa and the Gothic kingdom, but as we have mentioned, it expired soon with the destruction of the Vandal kingdom in Africa by Belisarius and the rise of the orthodox Franks. But the controversy about the nature of Christ gave rise to several other sects of Christianity:

  1. Ebionites and Nazarenes, who believed in the continual necessity of the Jewish laws and that Jesus was the Messiah, but only a limited, temporary human being who became a martyr for a great cause.
  2. Gnostics (under the name of Manichaeans, Docetes, and Marcionites, who believed the human form of Jesus was only an illusion sent by God.
  3. Cerenthians, who reconciled Gnostic and Ebionite beliefs, in that Jesus was the best and wisest of all human beings, divinely selected to restore the proper worship of God.
  4. Apollinarians, who believed in only one divine nature of Christ, confined in an earthly body.
  5. Nestorians, who believed in the two natures of Christ, human and divine, but not in their perfect unity; instead, they believed “the manhood of Christ as the robe, the instrument, the tabernacle of his Godhead.
  6. Monophysites, especially under Eutyches, who believed that Christ only had one nature, which had been formed the fusion of human and divine characteristics.
  7. Finally, the orthodox Catholic view, that Christ was one person, but had two distinct natures, human and divine, which were united together but “the mode of their co-existence could neither be represented by our ideas nor expressed by our language.” This view took wide hold on the church by the fifth century.

The controversy led to the rise of characters such as the zealous Cyril, Patriarch Alexandria (412-444), later proclaimed Doctor of the Church. Cyril was a spiritual successor of the previous great defender of Orthodoxy, Athanasius. He persecuted Nestorius and was stained with the murder of Hypatia, the female Neoplatonic philosopher. After the death of Cyril, the monophysite view spread among churches in Egypt and the East. The controversy was finally “settled” in favor of the orthodox view at the Council of Chalcedon (451), convoked by Emperor Marcian and presided over by Pope Leo the Great. This decree angered the monophysite adherents in the East and resulted in a religious civil war that killed thousands. Throughout the next few centuries violent conflicts could erupt over the wording of a particular phrase in Christian liturgy or theology, which betrayed a certain interpretation regarding the nature(s) of Christ. Only by the end of the 7th century, when Constantine IV was personally converted to the orthodox view and persuaded the majority of the Byzantine bishops to do the same, was a single view widely accepted.

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