Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.06

Gerrit J. Reinink, Bernard H. Stolte, The Reign of Heraclius (610-641). Crisis and Confrontation. Groningen Studies in Cultural Change, 2.   Leuven:  Peeters, 2002.  Pp. 319.  ISBN 90-429-1228-6.  EUR 45.00.  

Reviewed by Anthony Alcock,
Word count: 3918 words

The thirteen papers presented during the workshop of the same name at Groningen 19-21 April 2001 and published here address the questions of whether and/or how the political changes of the first few decades of the 7th century affected the policies of Heraclius and contemporary social and cultural developments.

1. John Haldon, 'The reign of Heraclius. A context for change?' (pp.1-16). The answer to the question posed in the second half of the title is 'yes'. Haldon argues that Heraclius, after having restored the territorial integrity of the Roman Empire by driving out its enemies east and west, restored some of the social and administrative fabric of the empire to what it had previously been but was unable to avoid change. There were changes in administration (e.g. increasing prominence of imperial officials, transfer of power to the prefecture, to which growing numbers of 'kommerkiarioi' were attached), changes in urban life as a result of the wars, and changes in the growing emphasis on the divine aspect of imperial power. All these changes were evidently a way of coping with what was happening.

2. Wolfram Brandes, 'Heraclius between restoration and reform. Some remarks on recent research' (pp.17-40), is essentially a bibliographical essay on Heraclian research, which does not lend itself to easy summary. Since reference is made to books about Heraclius published as far back as 1869, perhaps the phrase 'and not so recent' might have been added to the title. Recent research is apparently so recent that it has not been included in encyclopaedia articles.

3. James Howard-Johnston, 'Armenian historians of Heraclius. An examination of the aims, sources and working-methods of Sebeos and Movses Daskhurantsi' (pp.41-62). The texts discussed in this contribution deal with the Byzantine-Persian war (603-628) from the Persian side. The principal work of Sebeos (not his real name, but retained for the sake of convenience) is a History of Khosrov. It ranges from the Turkish kingdoms to the north and the incipient Muslim state to the south. The message of the work seems to have been that Armenians, divided as they were into monophysite and dyophysite camps, should present a united front when dealing with outsiders. Sebeos' sources seem to have been a Persian history from 459 to the 630s, a narrative of the campaigns of the 620s based on Byzantine and Persian sources and material relating to the first Arab conquests. His working method was to stick as closely as possible to the documents he was using as source material, even reproducing some of these documents in his own work. The work of Movses Daskhurantsi is entitled the History of Albania, which begins with the Creation and moves forward to Movses' own time. The text probably dates from the 10th cent. Book Two of the work deals with the 7th cent. and is written in an expansive style that contrasts with the epitome style of the rest of the work. The sources on which it is based are enumerated on pp.51-52. The writer was 'scrupulous' and 'competent' in his use of the sources. The core of Book Two is the struggle between Heraclius and the Persians, and H-J evaluates the sources used in this narrative, official Byzantine and Persian sources and an eye-witness account of an Albanian katholikos, and argues that it derives from an earlier work. In fact, both works examined here draw on earlier works composed in Armenia and Albania, including encomiastic biographies, hagiographies, an annotated list of Persian governors of Armenia, and various historical accounts of the Turkish invasion of Albania and of events from the 620s to the 650s.

4. John W. Watt, 'The portrayal of Heraclius in Syriac historical sources' (pp.63-80). In the early part of the reign of Heraclius, Syria was divided approximately between the Byzantine Empire (West) and the Persian Empire (East). The most important West Syrian sources are The Chronicle of Michael the Syrian, The Chronicle to 1234 AD, and the Chronography of Bar Hebraeus, all of the 12th-13th cent. but based on earlier sources. The most important East Syrian sources are The Khuzistan Chronicle and the Resh Melle of John bar Penkaye, with two other later works, the monastic history of Beth Abhe and The Chronicle of Se'ert, which provide supplementary material. The Khuzistan Chronicle is the earliest text and is described as the Syriac counterpart of the Armenian work of Sebeos. In both works Khosrau is treated as the enemy and Heraclius the champion of Christianity. Heraclius is also said to have 'received priestly rank', which may have contributed to his military success in Armenia and Mesopotamia. But, after the removal of the common enemy, the Persians, Christians turned their attention once again to the Christological controversy, with the result that Heraclius became an 'heretical and interfering king', his prestige reaching rock bottom with the Arab conquest. The West Syrian sources, being much later, concentrated on the Dyophysite-Monophysite divide. Both East and West sources saw the Arab Conquest as a punishment from God. But the character of Heraclius is presented in an interesting light by Bar Hebraeus, an East Syrian of 'ecumenical' outlook who was well read in Muslim Arabic literature: Heraclius is said to have compared the Arab Conquest to a cloudy dawn in which there is only twilight, so not the end of the world merely a change in it. This philosophical attitude may well be informed by the writer's own experience of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 AD.

5. Gerrit J. Reinink, in 'Heraclius, the New Alexander. Apocalyptic prophecies during the reign of Heraclius' (pp.81-94), looks at the pessimism of various texts set against the background of Heraclius' campaigns against the Persians and compares it with the optimism of post-Persian texts, especially the work on Heraclius by George of Pisidia: after the eschatology, a brave new world. The Syriac Alexander Legend was composed at about the same time as George's work and contains two prophecies attributed to Alexander and the Persian king Tubarlaq, to the effect that the countries of the Romans and Persians would be overrun by Huns and that the Huns and Persians would destroy each other, leaving the way clear for a new order set up by Alexander. Thus, Alexander-Heraclius and Tubarlaq-Khosrau figures were created. These prophecies, according to Reinink, may have been a response to other prophecies 'connected with Khusrau II, which predicted a less rosy future for the Roman Empire' in the History of Theodore of Simocatta. Heraclius' plan to forcibly baptise Jews after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem in 630, presented in the Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati is also examined here. Reinink believes that the message of the text was for Christians faced with a serious change in their world and apprehensive of a Jewish-Islamic religious and political alliance.

6. Wout Jac. van Bekkum, 'Jewish messianic expectations in the age of Heraclius' (pp.95-112). The numerous synagogues from the 6th-7th cent. AD in Gaza, Galilee and modern Jordan testify to the size of the Jewish community in the region, a community that had been there from the 3rd cent AD. Caesarea, one of the Jewish centres, was also the residence of Christian intellectuals such as Origen and Eusebius, and must have been the scene of lively debates between the two faiths. Though Judaism was regarded as a 'licit religion' by Constantine, anti-Jewish sentiment came to be inscribed legislation such as the Theodosian Code. During the Council of Nicaea in 325, Arius was called the 'hidden Jew', and in a post-conciliar circular letter, Constantine called the Jews 'God-killers'. Towards the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th cent. legislation against the Jews became more pointed than mere insults. For example, in 388 there was legislation against mixed marriages, thenceforth considered adulterous and so punishable by death. In the 5th cent. the Egyptian patriarch Cyril expelled all the Jews from Alexandria and burned the great synagogue. In 553, Justinian outlawed the use of Hebrew for reading Biblical texts in synagogues and for 'second teaching', meaning 'the Mishnah, or in a wider sense rabbinic legislation'. The effect of this latter prohibition was to stimulate the production of liturgical poetry in which Jewish resentment against Christians could be expressed. As the Byzantine Empire came under attack from the Persians in 578, Jews saw this as an opportunity to rise up against the Romans. With the Persian invasion of Byzantine territories in the first two decades of the 7th cent. Jerusalem seems to have returned briefly to Jewish control. In this connection, passages from a text called The Book Of Zerubbabel (of which there is a translation, but as yet no critical edition) and from a poem (piyyut) commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temple are quoted. Both are highly apocalyptic works, in which ancient imagery is used to depict contemporary events. After the Arabs had established themselves as the ruling power in that part of the world, reference to them was still made in the piyyutim, where they were called 'Assur'. The Arabs also came to be regarded, like the Persians before them, as possible liberators of Jews from Christian intolerance. But when the Arabs turned out to be oppressors of Israel, they came to be regarded in the same way as the former Byzantine oppressors.

7. Lawrence I. Conrad, 'Heraclius in the early Islamic kerygma' (pp.113-156). The interest of Arabic writers in neighboring countries manifests itself in 'messenger stories': letters and messengers were sent out from Arabia to various leaders in order to announce that Islam had 'superseded' the other religions, in particular Christianity. Some rulers, like the Negus of Abyssinia, reacted favourably to this 'kerygma'. Others, like Khosrav, did not. The most elaborate of these stories is the one involving Heraclius. Indeed, the whole body of Arabic material relating to Heraclius is large and requires analysis: it seems to be largely fictitious material produced in Syria, 'inspired ... by the concerns of the kerygma'. An important element of this tradition is that Heraclius wanted to embrace Islam, but his 'unbelieving entourage' would not let him. The letter to Heraclius is then examined, beginning with the phrase 'if you refuse (to embrace Islam), then the sin of the cultivators will be held against you', interpreted on the basis of Matt. 21:33-41 as a veiled threat that if the Romans (cultivators of the empire) did not fall into line with God's plan (Islam), their land would be taken away from them. In 1st-2nd cent. A.H. Arabic writers held no unitary view on the history of Islamic origins, and so there may not have been any unitary Islamic view of Heraclius. Early historical works with a distinct regional perspective have to be examined, and the two chosen for scrutiny here are works of the 2nd cent. A.H. dealing with the conquest of Syria by Al-Azdi and Ibn Atham, where the regional perspective is evident in the prominence given to the south Arabians as the conquerors of Syria. Heraclius is portrayed as deluded in his assessment of the Arabs, but not especially malicious. When things are obviously not going very well for the Romans in their encounters with the Arabs, Heraclius is told that the Arabs are morally superior (no drink or fornication, unlike the Romans). The deciding battle for Syria between the two armies was at al Yarmuk. After this encounter, there are two portrayals of Heraclius in al Azdi: one has Heraclius endorsing the moral superiority of the Arabs, the other has Heraclius as the recipient of bad advice, not as a wicked ruler. The final 'Farewell, Syria' uttered by Heraclius, which became a slogan of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, is also examined. The story, found in both Arab and Byzantine sources, might have originated in Islamic sources and been taken over by Christian ones: the term 'farewell' can also be understood as 'fare well' (now that Syria is in the safe hands of God/Allah). Why this relatively benign portrayal in Muslim sources of the Byzantine emperor? The answer seems to be located in the Divine Economy view of history: the Byzantine empire, unlike the Sassanian one, survived, so it had to have God on its side. Moreover, the Christians and Muslims of a prosperous Syria lived in comparative harmony with one another, so mutual vilification simply did not happen. Thus, the portrayal of Heraclius is kerygmatic, but this does not exclude the possibility that real historical details have found their way into the picture.

8. Mary Whitby's 'George of Pisidia's presentation of the emperor Heraclius and his campaigns: variety and development' (pp.157-174) examines the panegyrical poems of George, Heraclius' chief 'spin-doctor', recovered like the rest of George's poetry from the 9th cent. Chronicle of Theophanes and the Suda. The first part (I) of the article considers the 'technique, range and tone' of the poems. The second part (II) looks at George's long poem on the Persian campaign of 622. The third section (III) examines the fragments and the post-victory poem, Heraclias. (I.) In the shorter poems (Heraclius' Return from Africa, Bonus, and The Restoration of the Holy Cross) repetition and allusion, together with apostrophe, exclamation and rhetorical questions (to create the effect of immediate dialogue with the invisible recipient) are not uncommon. In The Return George exonerates Heraclius for the murder of his rival Phocas, using classical and Old Testament allusions. In Bonus, which is named after Heraclius' deputy, responsible along with the Patriarch Sergius for keeping the Avars out of Constantinople during the Emperor's absence, George develops the theme of the love that unites Bonus and Heraclius using imagery from the natural world. In the Restoration the style relies on exclamation and apostrophe, juxtaposing classical and OT allusions. (II.) The Persian Expedition has 3 cantos. The first elaborates Heraclius' virtues, in particular his prowess in rescuing a foundering ship. Cantos two and three demonstrate Heraclius' military skill and clemency. (III.) The fragments appear in Theophanes' Chronicle at the point in the narrative when Heraclius is 'centre-stage'. One view is that they come from a long narrative poem on the second and third campaigns of Heraclius. Another view is that they belong to a lost third canto of the Heraclias. A third view is that they were deliberately written for inclusion in imperial military dispatches to enhance the profile of the emperor. In general, George's style is unlike that of 6th cent. 'high-brow' poets: his use of the iambic, characteristic of dramatic verse, enabled him 'to create a personal idiom' (p.172).

9. Jan Willem Drijvers, 'Heraclius and the Restitutio Crucis. Notes on symbolism and ideology' (pp.175-190). The victory of Constantine at Milvian Bridge in 312 changed the Cross from a symbol of disgrace to one of triumph. The story of the discovery of the Cross by Constantine's mother, very probably invented by Cyril of Alexandria, secured the prestige of the Cross as the ultimate symbol of the Christian victory over the Jews. The Cross, after centuries of neglect, came to symbolize the new victorious Christian era under Constantine, and its restoration, after years in Persian hands, came to symbolize another new victorious Christian era under Heraclius. George of Pisidia claimed that the Cross was superior to the Ark of the Covenant, thereby declaring the superiority of Heraclius, the restorer of the Cross, to David, who installed the Ark in the Temple at Jerusalem.

10. Bernard H. Stolte, 'The challenge of change. Notes on the legal history of the reign of Heraclius' (pp. 191-204). Heraclius' reign, midway between Justinian's codification of the laws and the Isaurian Ecloga, was not a period of great legal innovation. The full texts of four novels from the period have been preserved. Two of them (612-619) deal with numbers of clergy in the Great Church at Constantinople, one (617) tries to regulate the movement of clergy and monks, and the last one (629) extends the jurisdiction of the Church. The fact that they deal with the Church may be attributable to the influence of the Patriarch Sergius. They point also to the growing strength of canon law. A brief survey of Church law reveals that the Church regulated itself by means of canons (church laws) on matters of doctrine and ecclesiastical discipline. As the number of canons grew, they were organized by subject matter, and various systematic compilations were produced. Alongside the canons there were also secular laws (nomoi). Points of law could be frequently be settled only be reference to both, and compilations called nomocanons came into existence. Canons were not issued after the Council of Chalcedon (451), the reason being that canon law as an expression of the will of God was not required to be made anew, merely interpreted. This promoted the status of patristic writings as an instrument as a canonical source. Not only the fathers of the past but certain contemporary individuals, such Sergius of Constantinople or Sophronius of Jerusalem, were invested with great authority. This in its turn gave rise to the Questions (put to leading Church figures) and Answers (considered authoritative) (a method of instruction which I witnessed in 1987 in the Coptic Cathedral at Abbasiya, where the patriarch, then in semi-exile, would respond one evening a week to the needs of his flock.) Legal practice is not as well documented as legislation, but there is evidence that episcopal courts grew in importance. A Greco-Coptic dossier dating somewhere from before 619 to after the Arab Conquest shows elements of Roman imperial and indigenous law, and it is argued that this situation was probably true of earlier periods. Perhaps, but with the possible exception that none of the documents would have been written in Coptic, the indigenous language having been considered unsuitable for documents to be kept in official repositories. This situation clearly changes at the beginning of the 7th cent., when Coptic is found in use alongside Greek, and by 8th cent. it replaces Greek in legal documents, as in the texts from Kastron Jeme (west bank of mod. Luxor).

11. Peter Hatlie, 'A rough guide to Byzantine monasticism in the early seventh century' (pp.205-226). Little attempt was made to regulate monasteries or monks in the late 6th cent. Some monasteries interacted well economically and socially with local populations and churches, while others did not. Those directly affected by the Persian invasion were forced to reconsider their position and re-organize, and only the better organized ones survived. Security became an important consideration, and a location not far from a fortified area became necessary for rural monasteries. Itinerant monks were also forced to re-organize their lifestyle: they remained within convenient distance of a fortified area or took up residence in small rural monasteries.

12. Jan J. van Ginkel's 'Heraclius and the saints. The 'popular' image of an emperor' (pp.226-240) begins with a eulogy of Heraclius for his restoration of the Cross from the translatio of the remains of Anastasius the Persian. The turmoil of the 7th cent. provoked much theological writing and debate. Two questions are examined here: what was the relation between the emperors and the saints and what was the contemporary view of the emperor Heraclius? The texts chosen are the lives of (1) Theodore of Sykeon, (2) John the Almsgiver the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria, (3) Benjamin the Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria and (4) Maphrian Marouta. (1) After Maurice's death, Theodore became closely associated with Phocas through the latter's nephew, Domnitziolus. After the murder of Phocas by Heraclius, Theodore wrote a letter on behalf of Domnitziolus to Heraclius, but it is not known whether it was this letter that saved Domnitziolus' life. The saint is presented as a middleman between the emperor and the people, curbing the excesses of the former against the latter and securing the trust of the latter in the former. (2) John was a member of the privileged elite who used his wealth for philanthropic purposes. He helped Heraclius to keep a firm grip on Egypt. Nevertheless, his impartial charity made him a saint in the Monophysite Church. (3) The Arabic life of Benjamin, part of the History of the Patriarchs composed by Severus ibn Muqaffa, dwells at some length on the biggest problem confronting the Monophysite Church in 7th cent.: Heraclius, his Monothelite Formula (elaborated for him by Sergius of Constantinople) and the attempt to force this on the Monophysites of Egypt through Cyrus of Phasis (known in Arabic sources as the Muqauqis and in Coptic sources as the Kaukhianos). Benjamin expresses his relief at the departure of Cyrus and Heraclius by praying for the success of the Arab invader 'Amr ibn al 'As. A Coptic text, the Life of Samuel of Kalamun, refers to Heraclius and the Monothelite Formula as the 'false-king Justinian' and the 'Tome of Leo' respectively, an indication of the supreme indifference of monks to the dramatis personae of international politics. Since the text is declared to be based on the oral tradition of 'our generations' beginning with Samuel, these may have been the names known to the saint himself. (4) The Syriac life of the Monophysite Maphrian Marouta shows hardly any interest in Heraclius or the Arab Conquest but rather more interest in the position of the Nestorian and Monophysite Christians in Persia, who not surprisingly presented a united front as Christians. The bottom line of all this is that saints were much more interested in their communities than in the affairs of the world, except when the latter impinged on the former.

13. Frank R. Trombley in 'Military cadres and battle during the reign of Heraclius' (pp.240-260) proposes to look at warfare from the bottom up, not from the top down. The material used includes archaeological data, administrative texts and warfare manuals. One of the major manuals was the Strategikon of Maurice. Manuals were both descriptive of battle systems and prescriptive of what could be achieved. Funerary inscriptions of soldiers for specific periods provide information on age at death and length of military service, thus giving some limited idea of battle formations. The argument is summarised on p. 244 and the author concludes that 'it is clear that over a ten year period fifty percent of a given formation would have left the service or died as part of a predictable demographic attrition.' An attempt is made to define 'civilized' and 'primitive' warfare, the latter characterized by irregular participation, weak command structures, selection of leaders for reasons other than their military skill, non-existent logistics. Weaponry did not change much. Byzantine and Sassanian weapons are well known, unlike those of Christian and Muslim Arabs. The writer al J,hiz reports a fictitious dialogue between an Arab and a Persian which gives the impression that the Arabs were disorganized and badly equipped (or perhaps, flexible and highly mobile, depending on your point of view). More reliable reports may be found in the historian al Tabari. Archaeological evidence suggests that equipment varied according to circumstances, but in pictures it is often difficult to tell one nationality from another, and this is equally true of pre-Islamic warriors (e.g. at Dura-Europos). Evidence from Jordan suggests that by the 8th cent. Arabs were still fighting with spear and no stirrups (the older style) but were also wearing chain mail, mail coif, large round shields, a Persian-type sword and riding with Byzantine harnesses.

Much of the work presented here requires no illustration, but the final contribution would have benefited from pictures. Perhaps the odd map here and there might also have been useful. But I suppose they merely increase the price of the book and this is a minor complaint about an outstandingly good piece of scholarship.

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