BMCR 2021.08.24

Szenen eines Überlebenskampfes: Akteure und Handlungsspielräume im Imperium Romanum 610-630

, Szenen eines Überlebenskampfes: Akteure und Handlungsspielräume im Imperium Romanum 610-630. Roma Aeterna, 9. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021. Pp. 254. ISBN 9783515129053 €54,00.

The reign of the emperor Heraclius (610-641) is rightfully receiving much attention in current scholarship, where it is often perceived as an important transitional period between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages in the eastern Mediterranean.[1] Theresia Raum successfully intervenes in the latest discussions about this emperor in this revised version of her doctoral thesis, submitted in 2019 at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Tübingen. She focuses on the years between 610-630, during which the Roman empire repeatedly struggled for its survival. In military terms, there were devastating conflicts with the Sasanids in the east and the Avars and Slavs in the Danube region. Raum then asks about the specific role of different actors and their actions that contributed to the survival of the empire. This differentiates her approach from methods deployed by biographical analysis or structural history. While Heraclius gradually took on the qualities of a soldier as he led his armies in person against the Persians, other important actors in Constantinople, such as the patriarch and distinguished members of the senate, were given new opportunities for political decision-making.

Chapter I (I. Einleitung: Hinter den Kulissen – Introduction: Behind the stage, pp. 11-28) starts with a concise summary of outstanding events during the reign of Heraclius, a period that, from Raum’s point of view, would also provide material for an exciting stage production. This is followed by an overview of the relevant sources in which the author places particular emphasis on the historiographical and hagiographical literary evidence as well as the rich numismatic tradition. There then follows a focused survey of recent research. In order to analyze the emperor’s decisions in detail beyond already established biographical depictions, Raum methodically focuses on the ruler’s scope for action (“Handlungsspielräume”), which was expanded or reduced by the varying acceptance of different individual groups (“Akzeptanzgruppen”), such as the inhabitants of Constantinople as well as members of the senate, the military, and the clergy. In this regard, her approach is inspired by premises and findings by Egon Flaig and Rene Pfeilschifter, in particular.[2] In her view, the emperor’s options for political decision-making in late antiquity were determined to a great extent by how well he dealt with the expectations of the mentioned groups. An important prerequisite for this system was the personal presence of the emperor in the capital.[3] Heraclius’ military campaigns and his subsequent absence from Constantinople during the 620s challenged this system fundamentally.

Raum’s original use of metaphors borrowed from theatrical stage productions permeate her entire analysis. Her depiction of Heraclius’ reign indeed becomes a study of various “scenes of a struggle for survival” (“Szenen eines Überlebenskampfs”) of the Roman empire. The decisions of individual actors “on the stage of history” provide the structure for her portrayal of events, while repeated glimpses “behind the curtain” reveal the conditions, resources, and the scope for the actions of various individuals involved in historical events. Appropriately, the usurpation of Heraclius in 610 is considered the first act of the story (II. Erster Akt: Die Usurpation im Jahr 610 – II. First Act: The Usurpation in the year 610, pp. 29-51). On the one hand, this chapter offers an overview of events that led to Heraclius’ accession to power by paying particular attention to the material and personal conditions underpinning the successful uprising against the tyrant Phocas. This includes an analysis of the significance of the exarchate of Carthage, the role of Heraclius the Elder and his family, as well as the importance of the quarrelling circus parties. Raum emphasizes that Heraclius’ rise to the throne was to a great extent due to his father and the socio-political networks that he established during his military service under the emperor Maurice.

Chapter III (Zweiter Akt: Die Jahre 610 bis 622 – Second Act: The years between 610 to 622, pp. 52-135) begins with an account of major military and political events during Heraclius’ first years as emperor. It pays particular attention to the Persian conquests in Syria and Palestine and the military advances of the Avars and Slavs in the Danube region. This is followed by an examination of the material resources and environmental factors that shaped imperial action. Of fundamental importance was the so-called Late Antique Little Ice Age (536-around 660), which, together with various political and military challenges, made it very difficult to provide food for the empire’s population. The progressing transformation of cities as well as the subsequent decline of Byzantium’s population resulted in a decrease in tax revenues. Against the background of dwindling financial resources and imminent military challenges, the emperor resorted to emergency solutions, including the melting of Church silver and the introduction of the new silver hexagram coin to pay soldiers and state officials.

In the capital, patriarch Sergius appears as a reliable and supportive political partner for the stability of Heraclius’ reign. In addition, the inhabitants of Constantinople, looked up to him for divine assistance in times of violent challenges. The relationship between Heraclius and the capital’s population, however, does not seem to differ fundamentally from that of earlier emperors; according to literary sources, the ruler appeared in public primarily during ceremonial occasions. The senate, however, remained of great importance. Especially in critical moments of his reign, the emperor appeared to make political decisions with the support of the empire’s elite, a feature that leads the author to conclude that the significance of the senate generally increased under Heraclius. She then pays particular attention to the role of Nicetas, the emperor’s cousin and one of his most prominent military leaders during the 610s, as well as the active distancing of the regime from Phocas’ commanders Comentiolus and Priscus. According to Raum, women at the imperial court were of fundamental importance both as models of orthodox piety and as agents who established dynastic stability. The author concludes that Heraclius’ possibilities for decision-making between 610-622 were severely limited by practical constraints because he had to meet varying expectations of greatly differing groups in the capital. The military sector seemed to offer the most options to overcome contemporary challenges. This might explain why Heraclius was so inclined to wage war against the Persians in person.

Chapter IV (Dritter Akt: Die Jahre 622 bis 628 – Third act: The years between 622 to 628, pp. 136-198) begins with a concise summary of the context of events, examining the situation of the Persian empire and the campaigns of Heraclius as well as selective interactions with the Avars. Raum then focuses on the situation in Constantinople. She identifies the revolt of the scholae palatinae in 626 against John qui et Seismos, which could be settled only through the intervention of the patriarch Sergius, as a first test for the political stability of the empire during the emperor’s absence. The siege of Constantinople in the same year is perceived as an even greater trial of endurance for the population. It was overcome thanks to the leadership of the imperial deputies Heraclius Constantine III – Heraclius’ eldest son –, the patriarch Sergius, and the magister (officiorum?) Bonus.[4] Together with imperial letters encouraging the defenders, Heraclius thus attempted to be present in the capital at least indirectly, while simultaneously fighting the Persians in the east. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the relationship between the remaining core of the empire and the lost territories in Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. In this context, Raum highlights an increasing fragmentation of the eastern Mediterranean on a political, social and cultural level.

Chapter V (Vierter Akt: Die Rückführung des Kreuzes im Jahr 630 – Fourth act: The return of the True Cross in the year 630, pp. 199-217) focuses on the end of the war between the Roman and the Persian empires when general Sharbaraz handed over the True Cross (previously taken from Jerusalem in 614) to Heraclius. Its subsequent return to Jerusalem allowed the emperor to present himself as the God-ordained savior of the Roman world and marked the definitive conclusion of the former military confrontations.

Chapter VI (Schluss: Der Vorhang fällt – Conlusion: The curtain falls, pp. 218-221) presents a brief summary of Raum’s argument. Heraclius’ successes against the Persians were remembered as deeds of a fantastical hero by succeeding generations – especially in the west in the context of artistic performances. The author fittingly concludes her study with a reference to a theater play first performed in 1671 in Venice and translated into German in 1684 titled “Die listige Rache oder Der tapfere Heraclius” (“The cunning revenge or Heraclius, the brave”). The book ends with a bibliography (pp. 223-241) and a register of persons, places, subjects, and sources (pp. 242-254).

Based on the results of current scholarship, Theresia Raum presents her readership with a concise depiction of Heraclius’ reign between 610-630. One of the greatest strengths of her analysis lies in the new perspective that she offers when analyzing imperial options for action as well as their premises in times of violent challenges to Byzantium. Chapter III in particular presents new insights into the sometimes understudied first phase of Heraclius’ reign between 610-622. Furthermore, her examination of the situation in Constantinople during the absence of the emperor as well as her study of his activities as a military leader contribute to the research of the development of Byzantine imperial ideology at the beginning of the seventh century. The metaphor of a theatrical stage play appears at first glance as an elegant way to depict historical developments between 610-630 from a modern perspective.[5] However, the often apt metaphor should not hide the fact that the people involved were no actors or spectators in a mere stage play – often enough, they were fighting for their survival, as the author rightly notes at the beginning of her study (pp. 13-14).

In conclusion, this reader-friendly publication sheds new light on the first half of Heraclius’ reign. It is therefore well-suited for an interested readership of students and scholars alike, who are intrigued by the history of the later Roman Empire during the last war of antiquity.


[1] See, e.g., Gerrit J. Reinink and Bernard H. Stolte (eds.), The Reign of Heraclius (610-641): Crisis and Confrontation. Groningen Studies in Cultural Changes 2. Leuven: Peeters, 2002; Walter Kaegi, Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003; James Howard-Johnston: Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; Anastasia Sirotenko, Erinnern an Herakleios: Zur Darstellung des Kaisers Herakleios in mittelalterlichen Quellen. Dissertation, LMU München, Fakultät für Kulturwissenschaften, 2020; Nadine Viermann, Herakleios, der schwitzende Kaiser: Die oströmische Monarchie in der ausgehenden Spätantike. Millennium Studien / Millennium Studies 89. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021; James Howard-Johnston, The Last Great War of Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

[2] Rene Pfeilschifter, Der Kaiser und Konstantinopel: Kommunikation und Konfliktaustrag in einer spätantiken Metropole. Millennium-Studien 44. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2013; Egon Flaig, Den Kaiser herausfordern: Die Usurpation im Römischen Reich. Campus Historische Studien 7. Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 20192 (1st edition 1995).

[3] See Felix K. Maier, Palastrevolution: Der Weg zum hauptstädtischen Kaisertum im Römischen Reich. Antike Imperien. Geschichte und Archäologie 1. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2019, for the development of this system in the later Roman empire.

[4] Martin Hurbanič, The Avar Siege of Constantinople in 626: History and Legend. New Approaches to Byzantine History and Culture, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

[5] It was also deployed – at least to a certain extent – by George of Pisidia, the most distinguished panegyrist under Heraclius, who sets imperial achievements against the “theatre of life” (τὸ τοῦ βίου θέατρον), e.g., Georg. Pis. Heracl. 211; Van. vit. 90.