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Emperor of the Romans
Heraclius 610-641.jpg
Solidus of Emperor Heraclius (aged 35-38). Constantinople mint. Struck 610-613. Helmeted and cuirassed facing bust, holding cross.
Emperor of the Byzantine Empire
ReignOctober 5, 610 – February 11, 641
Coronation October 5, 610
Predecessor Phocas
Successor Constantine III
Co-emperors Constantine III (613-641)
Heraklonas (638-641)
Bornc. 575
Cappadocia, present-day Turkey
DiedFebruary 11, 641 (aged 65 or 66)
Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Spouse Eudokia
Issue Constantine III
John Athalarichos (illegitimate)
Full name
Flavius Heraclius
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Flavius Heraclius Augustus
Dynasty Heraclian Dynasty
Father Heraclius the Elder
Heraclian dynasty
Heraclius 610641
with Constantine III as co-emperor, 613641
Constantine III 641
with Heraklonas as co-emperor
Heraklonas 641
Constans II 641668
with Constantine IV (654668), Heraclius and Tiberius (659668) as co-emperors
Constantine IV 668685
with Heraclius and Tiberius (668681), and Justinian II (681685) as co-emperors
Justinian II 685695, 705711
with Tiberius as co-emperor, 706711
Preceded by
Justinian dynasty and Phocas
Followed by
Twenty Years' Anarchy

Heraclius (Latin : Flavius Heraclius Augustus, Greek : Φλάβιος Ἡράκλειος, Flavios Iraklios; c. 575 – February 11, 641) was the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 610 to 641. He was responsible for introducing Greek as the Byzantine Empire's official language. His rise to power began in 608, when he and his father, Heraclius the Elder, the exarch of Africa, led a revolt against the unpopular usurper Phocas.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

Byzantine Empire Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, is the common name given to the surviving Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople. It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Both "Byzantine Empire" and "Eastern Roman Empire" are terms created after the end of the realm; its citizens continued to refer to their empire simply as the Roman Empire, or Romania (Ῥωμανία), and to themselves as "Romans".

Heraclius the Elder Byzantine general

Heraclius the Elder was a Byzantine general and the father of Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Of possible Armenian origin, Heraclius the Elder distinguished himself in the war against the Sassanid Persians in the 580s. As a subordinate general, Heraclius served under the command of Philippicus during the Battle of Solachon and possibly served under Comentiolus during the Battle of Sisarbanon. In circa 595, Heraclius the Elder is mentioned as a magister militum per Armeniam sent by Emperor Maurice to quell an Armenian rebellion led by Samuel Vahewuni and Atat Khorkhoruni. In circa 600, he was appointed as the Exarch of Africa and in 608, Heraclius the Elder rebelled with his son against the usurper Phocas. Using North Africa as a base, the younger Heraclius managed to overthrow Phocas, beginning the Heraclian dynasty, which would rule Byzantium for a century. Heraclius the Elder died soon after receiving news of his son's accession to the Byzantine throne.


Heraclius's reign was marked by several military campaigns. The year Heraclius came to power, the empire was threatened on multiple frontiers. Heraclius immediately took charge of the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628. The first battles of the campaign ended in defeat for the Byzantines; the Persian army fought their way to the Bosphorus but Constantinople was protected by impenetrable walls and a strong navy, and Heraclius was able to avoid total defeat. Soon after, he initiated reforms to rebuild and strengthen the military. Heraclius drove the Persians out of Asia Minor and pushed deep into their territory, defeating them decisively in 627 at the Battle of Nineveh. The Persian king Khosrow II was overthrown and executed by his son Kavadh II, who soon sued for a peace treaty, agreeing to withdraw from all occupied territory. This way peaceful relations were restored to the two deeply strained empires.

Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 the last war between Byzantine Empire and Persia

The Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 was the final and most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire of Iran. The previous war between the two powers had ended in 591 after Emperor Maurice helped the Sasanian king Khosrow II regain his throne. In 602 Maurice was murdered by his political rival Phocas. Khosrow proceeded to declare war, ostensibly to avenge the death of Maurice. This became a decades-long conflict, the longest war in the series, and was fought throughout the Middle East: in Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, Anatolia, Armenia, the Aegean Sea and before the walls of Constantinople itself.

Constantinople capital city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, the Latin and the Ottoman Empire

Constantinople was the capital city of the Roman Empire (330–395), of the Byzantine Empire, and also of the brief Crusader state known as the Latin Empire (1204–1261). It was the capital of the Ottoman Empire (1453–1923). In 1923 the capital of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, was moved to Ankara and the name Constantinople was officially changed to Istanbul. The city was located in what is now the European side and the core of modern Istanbul.

Battle of Nineveh (627)

The Battle of Nineveh was the climactic battle of the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628. The Byzantine victory later resulted in civil war in Persia and for a period of time restored the (Eastern) Roman Empire to its ancient boundaries in the Middle East. This resurgence of power and prestige was not to last, as within a matter of a few years, the Arab Caliphate emerged and the empire was once again brought to the brink of destruction.

Heraclius soon experienced a new event, the Muslim conquests. Emerging from the Arabian Peninsula, the Muslims quickly conquered the Sasanian Empire. In 634 the Muslims marched into Roman Syria, defeating Heraclius's brother Theodore. Within a short period of time, the Arabs conquered Mesopotamia, Armenia and Egypt.

Arabian Peninsula peninsula of Western Asia situated in southern Arabia

The Arabian peninsula, simplified Arabia, is a peninsula of Western Asia situated northeast of Africa on the Arabian plate. From a geographical perspective, it is considered a subcontinent of Asia.

Sasanian Empire last Persian empire before the rise of Islam

The Sasanian Empire, or the Neo-Persian Empire, officially known as the Empire of Iranians, was the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. Named after the House of Sasan, it ruled from 224 to 651 AD. The Sasanian Empire succeeded the Parthian Empire and was recognised as one of the leading world powers alongside its neighbouring arch-rival, the Roman-Byzantine Empire for a period of more than 400 years.

Roman Syria Roman province

Syria was an early Roman province, annexed to the Roman Republic in 64 BC by Pompey in the Third Mithridatic War, following the defeat of Armenian King Tigranes the Great. Following the partition of the Herodian Kingdom into tetrarchies in 6 AD, it was gradually absorbed into Roman provinces, with Roman Syria annexing Iturea and Trachonitis.

Heraclius entered diplomatic relations with the Croats and Serbs in the Balkans. He tried to repair the schism in the Christian church in regard to the Monophysites, by promoting a compromise doctrine called Monothelitism. The Church of the East (commonly called Nestorian) was also involved in the process. [1] Eventually this project of unity was rejected by all sides of the dispute.

Croats Slavic ethnic group

Croats or Croatians are a nation and South Slavic ethnic group native to Croatia. Croats mainly live in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but are also recognized minorities in such countries as Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Serbs Ethnic group

The Serbs are a nation and South Slavic ethnic group that formed in the Balkans. The majority of Serbs inhabit the nation state of Serbia, as well as the disputed territory of Kosovo, and the neighboring countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro. They form significant minorities in North Macedonia and Slovenia. There is a large Serb diaspora in Western Europe, and outside Europe there are significant communities in North America and Australia.

Balkans Geopolitical and cultural region of southeastern Europe

The Balkans, also known as the Balkan Peninsula, is a geographic area in southeastern Europe with various definitions and meanings, including geopolitical and historical. The region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains that stretch throughout the whole of Bulgaria from the Serbian-Bulgarian border to the Black Sea coast. The Balkan Peninsula is bordered by the Adriatic Sea on the northwest, the Ionian Sea on the southwest, the Aegean Sea in the south and southeast, and the Black Sea on the east and northeast. The northern border of the peninsula is variously defined. The highest point of the Balkans is Mount Musala, 2,925 metres (9,596 ft), in the Rila mountain range.

Early life


Heraclius was the eldest son of Heraclius the Elder and Epiphania, of a family of possible Armenian origin from Cappadocia, [A 1] [2] with speculative Arsacid descent. [3] Beyond that, there is little specific information known about his ancestry. His father was a key general during Emperor Maurice's war with Bahram Chobin, usurper of the Sasanian Empire, during 590. [4] After the war, Maurice appointed Heraclius the Elder to the position of Exarch of Africa. [4]

Armenians ethnic group native to the Armenian Highland

Armenians are an ethnic group native to the Armenian Highlands of Western Asia.

Cappadocia Place in Katpatuka

Cappadocia is a historical region in Central Anatolia, largely in the Nevşehir, Kayseri, Kırşehir, Aksaray, and Niğde Provinces in Turkey.

Arsacid dynasty of Armenia dynastic family

The Arsacid dynasty or Arshakuni, ruled the Kingdom of Armenia from 54 to 428. The dynasty was a branch of the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia. Arsacid Kings reigned intermittently throughout the chaotic years following the fall of the Artaxiad dynasty until 62 when Tiridates I secured Arsacid dynasty of Parthia rule in Armenia. An independent line of Kings was established by Vologases II in 180. Two of the most notable events under Arsacid rule in Armenian history were the conversion of Armenia to Christianity by Gregory the Illuminator in 301 and the creation of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in c. 405. The reign of the Arsacids of Armenia marked the predominance of Iranianism in the country.

Revolt against Phocas and accession

Gold solidus of Heraclius and his father in consular robes, struck during their revolt against Phocas Revolt of the Heraclii solidus, 608 AD.jpg
Gold solidus of Heraclius and his father in consular robes, struck during their revolt against Phocas

In 608, Heraclius the Elder renounced his loyalty to the Emperor Phocas, who had overthrown Maurice six years earlier. The rebels issued coins showing both Heraclii dressed as consuls, though neither of them explicitly claimed the imperial title at this time. [5] Heraclius's younger cousin Nicetas launched an overland invasion of Egypt; by 609, he had defeated Phocas's general Bonosus and secured the province. Meanwhile, the younger Heraclius sailed eastward with another force via Sicily and Cyprus. [5]

Phocas emperor of Byzantine Empire

Phocas was Byzantine Emperor from 602 to 610. The early life of Phocas is largely unknown, but he rose to prominence in 602, as a leader in the revolt against Emperor Maurice. Phocas captured Constantinople and overthrew Maurice on 23 November 602, and declared himself Byzantine Emperor on the same day. Phocas deeply distrusted the elite of Constantinople, and therefore installed his relatives in high military positions, and brutally purged his opponents. Phocas was an incompetent leader, both of the administration and army, and under him the Byzantine Empire was threatened by multiple enemies, with frequent raids in the Balkans from the Avars and Slavs, and a Sassanid invasion of the eastern provinces. Because of Phocas' incompetence and brutality, the Exarch of Carthage, Heraclius the Elder, rebelled against him. Heraclius the Elder's son, Heraclius, succeeded in taking Constantinople on 5 October 610, and executed Phocas on the same day, before declaring himself the Byzantine Emperor.

Consul was the title of one of the two chief magistrates of the Roman Republic, and subsequently also an important title under the Roman Empire. The title was used in other European city states through antiquity and the Middle Ages, then revived in modern states, notably in the First French Republic. The related adjective is consular, from the Latin consularis.

Nicetas or Niketas was the cousin of Emperor Heraclius. He played a major role in the revolt against Phocas that brought Heraclius to the throne, where he captured Egypt for his cousin. Nicetas remained governor of Egypt thereafter, and participated also in the Byzantine–Sassanid War of 602–628, but failed to stop the Sassanid conquest of Egypt ca. 618/619. He disappears from the sources thereafter, but possibly served as Exarch of Africa until his death.

As he approached Constantinople, he made contact with prominent leaders and planned an attack to overthrow aristocrats in the city, and soon arranged a ceremony where he was crowned and acclaimed as Emperor. When he reached the capital, the Excubitors, an elite Imperial Guard unit led by Phocas's son-in-law Priscus, deserted to Heraclius, and he entered the city without serious resistance. When Heraclius captured Phocas, he asked him "Is this how you have ruled, wretch?" Phocas's reply—"And will you rule better?"—so enraged Heraclius that he beheaded Phocas on the spot. [6] He later had the genitalia removed from the body because Phocas had raped the wife of Photius, a powerful politician in the city. [7]

On October 5, 610, Heraclius was crowned for a second time, this time in the Chapel of St. Stephen within the Great Palace; at the same time he married Fabia, who took the name Eudokia. After her death in 612, he married his niece Martina in 613; this second marriage was considered incestuous and was very unpopular. [8] In the reign of Heraclius's two sons, the divisive Martina was to become the center of power and political intrigue. Despite widespread hatred for Martina in Constantinople, Heraclius took her on campaigns with him and refused attempts by Patriarch Sergius to prevent and later dissolve the marriage. [8]

Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628

Initial Persian advantage

During his Balkan Campaigns, Emperor Maurice and his family were murdered by Phocas in November 602 after a mutiny. [9] Khosrau II (Chosroes) of the Sasanian Empire had been restored to his throne by Maurice, and they had remained allies until the latter's death. [A 2] Thereafter, Khosrau seized the opportunity to attack the Byzantine Empire and reconquer Mesopotamia. [10] Khosrau had at his court a man who claimed to be Maurice's son Theodosius, and Khosrau demanded that the Byzantines accept this Theodosius as Emperor.

Heraclius in 613-616 (aged 38-41). Heraclius 613-616.jpg
Heraclius in 613-616 (aged 38-41).

The war initially went the Persians' way, partly because of Phocas's brutal repression and the succession crisis that ensued as the general Heraclius sent his nephew Nicetas to attack Egypt, enabling his son Heraclius the younger to claim the throne in 610. [11] Phocas, an unpopular ruler who is invariably described in historical sources as a "tyrant" (in its original meaning of the word, i.e. illegitimate king by the rules of succession), was eventually deposed by Heraclius, who sailed to Constantinople from Carthage with an icon affixed to the prow of his ship. [12] [13]

By this time, the Persians had conquered Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, and in 611 they overran Syria and entered Anatolia. A major counter-attack led by Heraclius two years later was decisively defeated outside Antioch by Shahrbaraz and Shahin, and the Roman position collapsed; the Persians devastated parts of Asia Minor and captured Chalcedon across from Constantinople on the Bosporus. [14] Over the following decade the Persians were able to conquer Palestine and Egypt (by mid-621 the whole province was in their hands) [15] and to devastate Anatolia, [A 3] while the Avars and Slavs took advantage of the situation to overrun the Balkans, bringing the Empire to the brink of destruction. In 613, the Persian army took Damascus with the help of the Jews, seized Jerusalem in 614, damaging the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and capturing the True Cross, and afterwards capturing Egypt in 617 or 618. [17]

With the Persians at the very gate of Constantinople, Heraclius thought of abandoning the city and moving the capital to Carthage, but the powerful church figure Patriarch Sergius convinced him to stay. Safe behind the walls of Constantinople, Heraclius was able to sue for peace in exchange for an annual tribute of a thousand talents of gold, a thousand talents of silver, a thousand silk robes, a thousand horses, and a thousand virgins to the Persian King. [18] The peace allowed him to rebuild the Empire's army by slashing non-military expenditure, devaluing the currency, and melting down, with the backing of Patriarch Sergius, Church treasures to raise the necessary funds to continue the war. [19]

Byzantine counter-offensive and resurgence

On April 5, 622, Heraclius left Constantinople, entrusting the city to Sergius and general Bonus as regents of his son. He assembled his forces in Asia Minor, probably in Bithynia, and, after he revived their broken morale, he launched a new counter-offensive, which took on the character of a holy war; an acheiropoietos image of Christ was carried as a military standard. [19] [20] [21] [22]

Cherub and Heraclius receiving the submission of Khosrau II; plaque from a cross (Champleve enamel over gilt copper, 1160-1170, Paris, Louvre). This is an allegory as Khosrau never submitted in person to Heraclius. Cherub plaque Louvre MRR245.jpg
Cherub and Heraclius receiving the submission of Khosrau II; plaque from a cross (Champlevé enamel over gilt copper, 1160–1170, Paris, Louvre). This is an allegory as Khosrau never submitted in person to Heraclius.

The Roman army proceeded to Armenia, inflicted a defeat on an army led by a Persian-allied Arab chief, and then won a victory over the Persians under Shahrbaraz. [23] Heraclius would stay on campaign for several years. [24] [25] On March 25, 624 he again left Constantinople with his wife, Martina, and his two children; after he celebrated Easter in Nicomedia on April 15, he campaigned in the Caucasus, winning a series of victories in Armenia against Khosrau and his generals Shahrbaraz, Shahin, and Shahraplakan. [26] [27] In the same year the Visigoths succeeded in recapturing Cartagena, capital of the western Byzantine province of Spania, resulting in the loss of one of the few minor provinces that had been conquered by the armies of Justinian I. [28] In 626 the Avars and Slavs supported by a Persian army commanded by Shahrbaraz, besieged Constantinople, but the siege ended in failure (the victory was attributed to the icons of the Virgin which were led in procession by Sergius about the walls of the city), [29] while a second Persian army under Shahin suffered another crushing defeat at the hands of Heraclius's brother Theodore.

Heraclius in 629-632 (aged 54-57), with his son Constantine. Heraclius 629-632.jpg
Heraclius in 629-632 (aged 54-57), with his son Constantine.

With the Persian war effort disintegrating, Heraclius was able to bring the Gokturks of the Western Turkic Khaganate, under Ziebel, who invaded Persian Transcaucasia. Heraclius exploited divisions within the Persian Empire, keeping Shahrbaraz neutral by convincing him that Khosrau had grown jealous of him and had ordered his execution. Late in 627 he launched a winter offensive into Mesopotamia, where, despite the desertion of his Turkish allies, he defeated the Persians under Rhahzadh at the Battle of Nineveh. [30] Continuing south along the Tigris he sacked Khosrau's great palace at Dastagird and was only prevented from attacking Ctesiphon by the destruction of the bridges on the Nahrawan Canal. Discredited by this series of disasters, Khosrau was overthrown and killed in a coup led by his son Kavadh II, who at once sued for peace, agreeing to withdraw from all occupied territories. [31] In 629 Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in a majestic ceremony. [13] [32] [33]

Heraclius took for himself the ancient Persian title of "King of Kings" after his victory. Later on, starting in 629, he styled himself as Basileus , the Greek word for "sovereign", and that title was used by the Roman Emperors for the next 800 years. The reason Heraclius chose this title over previous Roman terms such as Augustus has been attributed by some scholars to his Armenian origins. [34]

Heraclius's defeat of the Persians ended a war that had been going on intermittently for almost 400 years and led to instability in the Persian Empire. Kavadh II died only months after assuming the throne, plunging Persia into several years of dynastic turmoil and civil war. Ardashir III, Heraclius's ally Shahrbaraz, and Khosrau's daughters Purandokht and Azarmidokht all succeeded to the throne within months of each other. Only when Yazdgerd III, a grandson of Khosrau II, succeeded to the throne in 632 was there stability. But by then the Sasanid Empire was severely disorganised, having been weakened by years of war and civil strife over the succession to the throne. [35] [36] The war had been devastating, and left the Byzantines in a much-weakened state. Within a few years both empires were overwhelmed by the onslaught of the Arabs, who had become newly united by Islam, [37] ultimately leading to the Muslim conquest of Persia and the fall of the Sasanian dynasty in 651. [38]

War against the Arabs

Arab-Byzantine troop movement from September 635 to just before the event of the Battle of Yarmouk Muslim-Byzantine troop movement (635-636).svg
Arab-Byzantine troop movement from September 635 to just before the event of the Battle of Yarmouk

By 629, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad had unified all the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, previously too divided to pose a serious military challenge to the Byzantines or the Persians. Now animated by their conversion to Islam, they comprised one of the most powerful states in the region. [39] The first conflict between the Byzantines and Muslims was the Battle of Mu'tah in September 629. A small Muslim skirmishing force attacked the province of Arabia in response to the Muslim ambassador's murder at the hands of the Ghassanid Roman governor, but were repulsed. Because the engagement was a Byzantine victory, there was no apparent reason to make changes to the military organization of the region. [40] Also, the Byzantines had had little battlefield experience with the Arabs, and even less with zealous soldiers united by a prophet. [41] Even the Strategicon of Maurice, a manual of war praised for the variety of enemies it covers, does not mention warfare against Arabs at any length. [41]

The following year the Muslims launched an offensive into the Arabah south of Lake Tiberias, taking Al Karak. Other raids penetrated into the Negev, reaching as far as Gaza. [42] The Battle of Yarmouk in 636 resulted in a crushing defeat for the larger Byzantine army; within three years, the Levant had been lost again. By the time of Heraclius's death in Constantinople, on February 11, 641, most of Egypt had fallen as well. [43]


Battle between Heraclius's army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1452 Piero della Francesca 021.jpg
Battle between Heraclius's army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1452

Looking back at the reign of Heraclius, scholars have credited him with many accomplishments. He enlarged the Empire, and his reorganization of the government and military were great successes. His attempts at religious harmony failed, but he succeeded in returning the True Cross, one of the holiest Christian relics, to Jerusalem.


Although the territorial gains produced by his defeat of the Persians were lost to the advance of the Muslims, Heraclius still ranks among the great Roman Emperors. His reforms of the government reduced the corruption which had taken hold in Phocas's reign, and he reorganized the military with great success. Ultimately, the reformed Imperial army halted the Muslims in Asia Minor and held on to Carthage for another 60 years, saving a core from which the empire's strength could be rebuilt. [44]

The recovery of the eastern areas of the Roman Empire from the Persians once again raised the problem of religious unity centering on the understanding of the true nature of Christ. Most of the inhabitants of these provinces were Monophysites who rejected the Council of Chalcedon. [45] Heraclius tried to promote a compromise doctrine called Monothelitism but this philosophy was rejected as heretical by both sides of the dispute. For this reason, Heraclius was viewed as a heretic and bad ruler by some later religious writers. After the Monophysite provinces were finally lost to the Muslims, Monotheletism rather lost its raison d'être and was eventually abandoned. [45]

One of the most important legacies of Heraclius was changing the official language of the Empire from Latin to Greek in 620. [46] The Croats and Serbs of Byzantine Dalmatia initiated diplomatic relations and dependencies with Heraclius. [47] The Serbs, who briefly lived in Macedonia, became foederati and were baptized at the request of Heraclius (before 626). [47] [48] At his request, Pope John IV (640–642) sent Christian teachers and missionaries to Duke Porga and his Croats, who practiced Slavic paganism. [49] He also created the office of sakellarios, a comptroller of the treasury. [50]

Up to the 20th century he was credited with establishing the Thematic system but modern scholarship now points more to the 660s, under Constans II. [51]

Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem, anachronistically accompanied by Saint Helena. 15th century, Spain Bernat, Martin Saint Helena & Heraclius taking the Holy Cross to Jerusalem.jpg
Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem, anachronistically accompanied by Saint Helena. 15th century, Spain

Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , wrote:

Of the characters conspicuous in history, that of Heraclius is one of the most extraordinary and inconsistent. In the first and last years of a long reign, the emperor appears to be the slave of sloth, of pleasure, or of superstition, the careless and impotent spectator of the public calamities. But the languid mists of the morning and evening are separated by the brightness of the meridian sun; the Arcadius of the palace arose the Caesar of the camp; and the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns. [...] Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire. [52]

Recovery of the True Cross

Heraclius was long remembered favourably by the Western church for his reputed recovery of the True Cross from the Persians. As Heraclius approached the Persian capital during the final stages of the war, Khosrau fled from his favourite residence, Dastagird near Baghdad, without offering resistance. Meanwhile, some of the Persian grandees freed Khosrau's eldest son Kavadh II, who had been imprisoned by his father, and proclaimed him King on the night of 23–24 February, 628. [53] Kavadh, however, was mortally ill and was anxious that Heraclius should protect his infant son Ardeshir. So, as a goodwill gesture, he sent the True Cross with a negotiator in 628. [31]

After a tour of the Empire, Heraclius returned the cross to Jerusalem on March 21, 629 or 630. [54] [55] For Christians of Western Medieval Europe, Heraclius was the "first crusader". The iconography of the emperor appeared in the sanctuary at Mont Saint-Michel (ca. 1060), [56] and then it became popular, especially in France, the Italian Peninsula, and the Holy Roman Empire. [57] The story was included in the Golden Legend , the famous 13th-century compendium of hagiography, and he is sometimes shown in art, as in The History of the True Cross sequence of frescoes painted by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo, and a similar sequence on a small altarpiece by Adam Elsheimer (Städel, Frankfurt). Both of these show scenes of Heraclius and Constantine I's mother Saint Helena, traditionally responsible for the excavation of the cross. The scene usually shown is Heraclius carrying the cross; according to the Golden Legend, he insisted on doing this as he entered Jerusalem, against the advice of the Patriarch. At first, when he was on horseback (shown above), the burden was too heavy, but after he dismounted and removed his crown it became miraculously light, and the barred city gate opened of its own accord.

Probably because he was one of the few Eastern Roman Emperors widely known in the West, the Late Antique Colossus of Barletta was considered to depict Heraclius.

Some scholars disagree with this narrative, Professor Constantin Zuckerman going as far as to suggest that the True Cross was actually lost, and that the wood contained in the allegedly-still-sealed reliquary brought to Jerusalem by Heraclius in 629 was a fake. In his analysis, the hoax was designed to serve the political purposes of both Heraclius and his former foe, the Persian general Shahrvaraz. [55]

Islamic view of Heraclius

Purported letter sent by Muhammad to Heraclius, emperor of Byzantium; reproduction taken from Majid Ali Khan, Muhammad The Final Messenger Islamic Book Service, New Delhi (1998). Muhammad-Letter-To-Heraclius.jpg
Purported letter sent by Muhammad to Heraclius, emperor of Byzantium; reproduction taken from Majid Ali Khan, Muhammad The Final Messenger Islamic Book Service, New Delhi (1998).

In Surah 30, the Qur'an refers to the Roman-Sasanian wars as follows:

30:2The Romans have been defeated3In the nearest land. But they, after their defeat, will overcome.4Within several years. [58]

In Islamic and Arab histories Heraclius is the only Roman Emperor who is discussed at any length. [59] Owing to his role as the Roman Emperor at the time Islam emerged, he was remembered in Arabic literature, such as the Islamic hadith and sira.

The Swahili Utendi wa Tambuka , an epic poem composed in 1728 at Pate Island (off the shore of present-day Kenya) and depicting the wars between the Muslims and Byzantines from the former's point of view, is also known as Kyuo kya Hereḳali ("The book of Heraclius"). In that work, Heraclius is portrayed as declining the Prophet's request to renounce his belief in Christianity; he is therefore defeated by the Muslim forces. [60]

In Muslim tradition he is seen as a just ruler of great piety, who had direct contact with the emerging Islamic forces. [61] The 14th-century scholar Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) went even further, stating that "Heraclius was one of the wisest men and among the most resolute, shrewd, deep and opinionated of kings. He ruled the Romans with great leadership and splendor." [59] Historians such as Nadia Maria El-Cheikh and Lawrence Conrad note that Islamic histories even go so far as claiming that Heraclius recognized Islam as the true faith and Muhammad as its prophet, by comparing Islam to Christianity. [62] [63] [64]

Islamic historians often cite a letter that they claim Heraclius wrote to Muhammad: "I have received your letter with your ambassador and I testify that you are the messenger of God found in our New Testament. Jesus, son of Mary, announced you." [61] According to the Muslim sources reported by El-Cheikh, he tried to convert the ruling class of the Empire, but they resisted so strongly that he reversed his course and claimed that he was just testing their faith in Christianity. [65] El-Cheikh notes that these accounts of Heraclius add "little to our historical knowledge" of the emperor; rather, they are an important part of "Islamic kerygma," attempting to legitimize Muhammad's status as a prophet. [66]

Most scholarly historians view such traditions as "profoundly kerygmatic" and that "enormous difficulties" exist in using these sources for actual history. [67] Furthermore, they argue that any messengers sent by Muhammad to Heraclius would not have received an imperial audience or recognition. [68] Outside of Islamic sources there is no evidence to suggest Heraclius ever heard of Islam. [69] and it is possible that he and his advisors actually viewed the Muslims as some special sect of Jews. [41]


Solidus showing Heraclius (middle, with the large beard) in his later reign flanked by his sons Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas Solidus-Heraclius-sb0764.jpg
Solidus showing Heraclius (middle, with the large beard) in his later reign flanked by his sons Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas

Heraclius was married twice: first to Fabia Eudokia, a daughter of Rogatus, and then to his niece Martina. He had two children with Fabia (Eudoxia Epiphania and Emperor Constantine III) and at least nine with Martina, most of whom were sickly children. [A 4] [72] Of Martina's children at least two were disabled, which was seen as punishment for the illegality of the marriage: Fabius (Flavius) had a paralyzed neck and Theodosios was a deaf-mute. The latter married Nike, daughter of the Persian general Shahrbaraz, or daughter of Niketas, cousin of Heraclius.

Two of Heraclius's children would become Emperor: Heraclius Constantine (Constantine III), his son from Eudokia, for four months in 641, and Martina's son Constantine Heraclius (Heraklonas), in 638–641. [72]

Heraclius had at least one illegitimate son, John Athalarichos, who conspired against Heraclius with his cousin, the magister Theodorus, and the Armenian noble David Saharuni. [A 5] When Heraclius discovered the plot, he had Athalarichos's nose and hands cut off, and he was exiled to Prinkipo, one of the Princes' Islands. [76] Theodorus had the same treatment but was sent to Gaudomelete (possibly modern-day Gozo Island) with additional instructions to cut off one leg. [76]

During the last years of Heraclius's life, it became evident that a struggle was taking place between Heraclius Constantine and Martina, who was trying to position her son Heraklonas to assume the throne. When Heraclius died, he devised the empire to both Heraclius Constantine and Heraklonas to rule jointly with Martina as Empress. [72]

Family tree

See also


  1. His father referred to retrospectively as Heraclius the Elder.
  2. Also referred to as Khosrow II, Chosroes II, or Xosrov II in classical sources, sometimes called Parvez, "the Ever Victorious" (in Persian: خسرو پرویز).
  3. The mint of Nicomedia ceased operating in 613, and Rhodes fell to the invaders in 622/623. [16]
  4. The number and order of Heraclius's children by Martina is unsure, with some sources saying nine children [70] and others ten. [71]
  5. The illegitimate son is recorded by a number of different spellings including: Atalarichos, [73] Athalaric, [74] At'alarik, [75] etc.

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  48. De Administrando Imperio, ch. 32 [Of the Serbs and of the country they now dwell in.]: "the emperor brought elders from Rome and baptized them and taught them fairly to perform the works of piety and expounded to them the faith of the Christians."
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Further reading

Born: ca. 575 Died: 11 February 641
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Byzantine Emperor
with Constantine III from 613
Succeeded by
Constantine III and Heraklonas
Political offices
Preceded by
Imp. Caesar Flavius Phocas Augustus, 603, then lapsed
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Heraclius the Elder
Succeeded by
Lapsed, then Imp. Caesar Constantinus Augustus in 642