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The Emperor Heraclius

r. 610-641


Heraclius and the Impact of Islam

The Byzantine Empire was able to survive over a long period of time. However, this accomplishment was not achieved easily. One of the Byzantine Emperors, Heraclius was able to keep some of the empire together despite enemy confrontation on three sides of the empire, and was able to save the empire from being conquered by the Avars, Slavs and Muslims.

Little is known about the life of Heraclius before he became emperor. He was born around AD 575. Heraclius, with the help of an African fleet, ascended the throne by overthrowing the ruthless Emperor Phocas. When Heraclius was crowned emperor on October 5, 610, he found the empire in chaos. The Slavs and Avars were invading the Northern Balkans, the adamant followers of Phocas were enraged and a constant threat, and the Persians, led by General Komentiolios, had revolted against Heraclius. War with the Persians was devastating. Only a year after Heraclius had become emperor the Persians seized Antioch, Damascus in 613, Jerusalem in 614, and finally Egypt from around 619- 629. Many Christians were executed and churches burned.

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In 619, Heraclius realized that he would not be able to defeat the Persians on one front while battling with the Avars on the other, so he made a truce with the Avars. This break allowed Heraclius to reorganize his troops and focus on defeating the Persians. His efforts worked, and he was able to regain some of what he had lost to the Persians. Nearly 200,000 men had been killed and a vast amount of wealth had been lost during the war with the Persians. When the fighting had finally come to an end, Heraclius thought that both he and his empire would have a chance to recover and rebuild. Before he was able to do this, the Byzantine Empire was confronted by another threat, Islam.

The war between Persia and the Byzantine Empire had created the perfect opportunity for the Muslims to invade and surprise both of them. Neither the Persian nor the Byzantine Empires had enough strength to repulse the Muslim attacks. It did not take long for the Muslims to conquer the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Not only was the Empire weakened by the war with Persia, it was also weakened by internal division, due to a desire to maintain orthodox Christianity within the Empire. Many Christians wanted to keep the empire pure and looked upon certain religious sects as heretics. Monophysites, who believed that Christ had a single nature, not two as orthodoxy taught, were especially persecuted. To these people, life under Islam was more appealing than life under Byzantium because Muslims tolerated other religions and those incorporated into the Muslim Empire were free to practice what religion they chose. Many Byzantine dissenters, therefore, welcomed the Muslim conquerors.

Finally, Heraclius became ill and presented no further competition for the Muslims . Heraclius died of dropsy in 641, unable to keep the Muslims from conquering the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Although Heraclius had not been able to save his entire empire, parts of it were able to survive as a result of his accomplishments. He is remembered as one of the greatest emperors of the Byzantine Empire.

 


Bibliography:

Barker, John W. Justinian and the Later Roman Empire. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1966

Diehl, Charles. Byzantium: Greatness and Decline. Rutgers University Press, 1957.

Ostrogorsky, George. History of the Byzantine State. Rutgers University Press, 1957.

"Heraclius." The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. 1991.

"The Rise and Containment of Islam: 600-800." The Encyclopedia of Military History. 1970.


Edited by N'Donna Russell
Research by Iliana Carrero
Written by Darlene Brod
3 May 1999

 

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