BMCR 2004.03.08

Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium

, Heraclius, emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii, 359 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521814596. $70.00.

The fact that Geoffrey Greatrex (University of Ottawa) has already reviewed scrupulously the biography of Emperor Heraclius written by Professor Kaegi (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago) for The Medieval Review (04.01.28) highlights the importance of studying this subject and transitional period that interest scholars of Late Antiquity, byzantinists and medievalists.

In my review I will try to avoid repetition of the points that have been raised by Greatrex. However, I need to summarize briefly the content of Kaegi’s book for Bryn Mawr Classical Review readers. In eight chapters of Emperor Heraclius’ biography Kaegi, a very experienced scholar in the field whose long attention to the epoch of Heraclius is attested by his article published 30 years ago,1 tries to “investigate Heraclius as a man and an emperor, who confronted crises in both public and private dimensions of his life” (p. 4). To reconstruct the reign of the seventh-century Byzantine ruler who can be regarded one of the emperors who accommodated the late antique Eastern Roman Empire to the new environment Kaegi deploys the corpus of the late sixth-seventh century sources in many languages. He illustrates his text with several maps, plans and figures, which represent one of the considerable advantages of this book.

The author strives to analyze how Heraclius progressed from his early, “formative years” in Armenia and Africa, when his father’s experience and network might have influenced young Heraclius most, through his successful seizure of power in Constantinople and the victorious war against the Persians, to the catastrophic results of the Muslim incursions which the emperor faced, using tactics perhaps too conservative and obvious for his enemies.

Chapter 1 (“Armenia and Africa: the formative years”, pp. 19-57) is the most speculative since almost nothing is known on this subject. Here Kaegi resorts to characterizing Heraclius and drawing the picture of otherwise undecipherable events by posing questions that in fact have no answers. By the way, the author lavishly employs this method of characterization throughout the text. The chapter ends with the narrative of Heraclius’ seizure of power in Constantinople.

Chapter 2 (“Internal and external challenges in the first decade of the reign”, pp. 58-99) narrates how Heraclius consolidated his power and faced internal and external crises while legitimizing his accession to the throne. This period of 610-620 is represented as a time of predominance of the Persians on all fronts, their fast advance through the imperial areas and arrogant refusals of Byzantine peace proposals.

Chapter 3 (“Taking the offensive”, pp. 100-121) discusses attempts to stabilize the situation in Byzantium (propaganda measures, Heraclius’ marriage as a maintenance of his dynasty etc.), the implementation of the programme of the offensive warfare against the Persians and their first defeat in Pontus. Here Kaegi also deals very briefly with peace negotiations of the emperor with the Avars in an attempt to avoide war on two fronts.

Chapter 4 (“Peril and hope”, pp. 122-155) proceeds with the narrative of the Byzantine large-scale offensive combined with skilful diplomatic measures in 624-627, the siege of Constantinople by the Persians and Avars in 626 and shows Heraclius as a master of diplomacy, including various tactical maneuvers and “small marginal successes” leading to general victory, rather than a mighty military leader.

Chapter 5 (“The invasion of Mesopotamia”, pp. 156-191) characterizes the final stage of the Byzantine war against the Persians, marked by the battle “of Nineveh” (12 December 627). I agree with Greatrex who considers this chapter of the book the best but notes that the story of post-Khusrauian order in Persia told by Kaegi is too kaleidoscopic and sometimes incomprehensible.

Chapter 6 (“Five crucial years: a narrow window of opportunity”, pp. 192-228) is devoted to the period of 628-633, i.e. to Byzantium after the victory over Persia on the eve of the Arab invasion. Here one can find brief discussions of the religious and economic issues of Heraclius’ reign, some remarks on the institutional weakness of his power and his reliance on relatives in the army. At the end we come back to the Persian concerns of the emperor.

Chapter 7 (“Tested again”, pp. 229-264) draws the reader’s attention to the problem of how the Byzantines confronted the Arab raids. Kaegi discusses the question whether Heraclius “miscalculated the Muslim challenge” and whether he could work out an adequate strategy in this new situation. He also analyzes internal affairs and the succession crisis provoked by the Byzantine failures. Chapter 8 (“Losing control”, pp. 265-299) demonstrates that in the 640s the Empire faced “a multi-front conflict, including several dimensions of internal stress” and entered into a very dangerous period of new crises which the ageing emperor could not successfully manage.

In conclusion (pp. 300-323) Kaegi presents a defense of Heraclius supplemented by a short overview of the crises which he confronted, his achievements and failures, his merits and deficiencies.

The chronological table (pp. 324-327), the list of selected bibliography (pp. 328-345) and index (pp. 346-359) conclude the book.

To my mind, this book raises the question how one can write Emperor Heraclius’ biography. Although the period is extremely interesting and significant for the future of Byzantium, sources are scarce and discordant and do not provide much personal information about the emperor. Kaegi offers a meticulous narrative of Heraclius’ seizure of power and the wars in the east as well as an almost comprehensive analysis of victories of Byzantine forces over the Persians and their failures in the wars against the Arabs. Still this is not enough for a biography, and this is rather a book on the Heraclian Strategy and Practice of War and Coup, with some references to other aspects of his reign.

Kaegi’s book is certainly an attempt to study what Heraclius was personally responsible for, but the author strangely fails to present a wider context of Heraclius’ reign. Kaegi states in the introduction that nowadays scholars reconstruct more clearly “the historical context in which Heraclius lived due to advances in archeology and to improved interpretation of literary evidence, the asking of questions that earlier historians did not pose, and the edition of many new texts in many languages” (p. 3) and that “not only the seventh century, but also the broader Late Roman cultural, religious, economic, and political context has undergone reinterpretation and more accurate adjustment of focus”. The reader anticipates (in vain) that this study will provide a comprehensive picture of the times of Heraclius with the major characteristics of the reign of his predecessors, Maurice and Phocas. The outline of their politics would provide the necessary background to Heraclius’ reign, his coming to power, Byzantine-Persian relations etc. Though the previous publications of Kaegi provide a broader context of Heraclius’ reign, this study is rather vague on this matter and the above-mentioned archeological advances are not evident. The scattered attempts to deal with economy and religion under Heraclius do not succeed in the creation of a comprehensive picture. Religious issues are especially indistinct and culture is totally neglected (except some examples of imperial building activity). There is war almost without pause.

I do agree with Kaegi that “a much better understanding … has evolved of conditions in many provinces from Africa to Mesopotamia before, during, and after Heraclius’ reign than scholars possessed a century ago”; however, this book says little about the events in the Balkans and Italy.2 Out of 323 pages hardly 20 are devoted to the west. This is obviously partly explained by the unbalanced politics of Heraclius (Kaegi writes about middle-easternization of the Empire under Heraclius) but also by the unbalanced interest of the author himself.

Perhaps the above-mentioned themes cannot be directly associated with the emperor himself, whose attention was riveted on the east, but the reader still has no opportunity to judge Heraclius by all the fruits of his reign. His figure has remained obscure for us like the emperor’s silhouettes on the coins. Regrettably Kaegi’s Heraclius cannot be called an “adequate biography” (p. 3) of the emperor. The lack of such a biography, highlighted in Kaegi’s study, obviously deserves attention from future historians. Kaegi’s book is undoubtedly a starting point in this research. Finally I would not recommend this book to general readers who are not familiar with the post-Justinian epoch.

Some minor errata:

p. 90, fig. 3, inscription on the coin: “Deus adiuta Romanis” (as in the text on the same page) instead “aiuta” below the illustration;

map 10, p. 299, in the legend the same hachure is used for various territories, although on the map they are hachured differently.


1. “New Evidence on the Early Reign of Heraclius,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 66 (1973), pp. 308-330.

2. The bibliography on the Avars is extensive, e.g. Walter Pohl, Die Awaren. Ein Steppenvolk im Mitteleuropa, 567-822 n.Chr. (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1988). On the Byzantine presence in the Adriatic see Jadran Ferluga, L’amministrazione bizantina in Dalmazia (Venice: Deputazione di storia patria per le Venezie, 1978); Jadran Ferluga, Untersuchungen zur byzantinischen Provinzverwaltung: VI-XIII Jahrhundert: gesammelte Aufsätze (Amsterdam: A. Hakkert, 1992); Ivo Goldstein, Bizant na Jadranu od Justiniana I. do Bazilija I [Byzantium in the Adriatic from Justinian I until Basil I] (Zagreb: Latina et Graeca, 1992). For archeological evidence on Salona, whose fall is mentioned in Kaegi’s book on p. 86, see Salona: recherches archéologiques franco-croates à Salone, conduites par le Centre A. Merlin (C.N.R.S., Paris-Sorbonne) et le Musée archéologique de Split, dirigées par N. Duval et E. Marin, 3 vols. (Rome: École française de Rome; Split: Musée archéologique de Split, 1994-2000).