Heraclius : Emperor of Byzantium
Walter Kaegi has written the first biography in English of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. This attempts to fill a major gap, as Heraclius was a major figure in the history of the Byzantine Empire, reigning for 31 years from 610 to 641. Coming to power in a coup at a time of crisis, Heraclius largely restored the fortunes of the empire in the East and finally defeating the Persians. The empire, weakened by many years of war, then fell victim to the rise of Islam, and lost most of the Middle East, although it stabilized and held on to the Anatolian heartland. Territories in the west, particularly Spain were lost as the defence of the heart of the empire took priority.
Reading the biography it becomes clear as to why there has been no biography in English. There is a major lack of detailed sources on Heraclius, and Kaegi has had to struggle with this throughout the book. Kaegi has, however, accessed a huge range of sources, including Arabic and Persian sources in order to remedy this deficiency as much as possible. Many of the sources that do exist have their own agendas and cutting through these to the truth is a difficult task. Political spin is not a twenty-first century phenomenon.
This is particularly apparent in the first chapter on Heraclius’ early life. Born into the aristocracy, of Armenian extraction, his father was a high ranking general who became Exarch (governor) of Africa. Much of his early adult life was spent in Africa. This part of the life is pretty speculative and Kaegi spends a lot of time telling us what we don’t know about Heraclius. Even the details of the build up to the coup against Phokas are fairly slight.
Once Heraclius is on the throne then the pace picks up and the information more plentiful. The next chapter concentrates on the crises of the first ten years of his reign. Power was consolidated, but war with the Persians continued, with the Persians capturing much of the Middle East. The Persian alliance with the Avars resulted in Constantinople being besieged, although the failure of this siege was a major blow to Avar prestige.
The next chapter describes Heraclius’ move on to the offensive, gradually
pushing the Persians out of Anatolia.
Kaegi attributes many of Heraclius’ successes to his ability to a talent for dividing his opponents among themselves and taking advantage of this through calculated risk taking. His military expertise increased over the years, becoming an extremely competent general. At the crucial battle if Nineveh (627), despite being in the heart of Mesopotamia, he lured the Persians onto ground of his own choosing and defeated them. The account of this campaign is very fine. Kaegi has actually visited much of the area and he locates the battle site from the descriptions in the sources.
He then discusses the window of opportunity that existed after the Persian wars to rebuild the exhausted empire. Heraclius addressed religious issues and reduced military expenditure, whilst increasing civil expenditure, to undo some of the damage of the wars. Some of the subsidy reductions to friendly Arab tribes may have proved to be unwise in the light of subsequent events.
The Moslem expansion then struck, presenting Heraclius with further challenges. The defeat at Yarmuk destroyed the main Byzantine army in the Middle East and the challenge became one of preserving as much of the empire as possible, despite fractured and sometimes rebellious commanders. Heraclius did not lead his armies in the field. Kaegi maintains that the lack of disunity among the Islamic forces gave Heraclius no openings to use his talents for dividing the enemy, who gradually drove the Byzantines back from many of the richest areas of the empire.
The last years of his life featured battling ill health while fighting a losing battle to save the empire whilst consolidating the succession for his family.
Generally the book is very interesting and tells us a lot about Heraclius and his life and times. However a few areas of the book were disappointing.
There are number of times where significant sections of text are repeated in different contexts. This made me think I had lost my place and should have been picked up in the editing process.
As the book is a biography of Heraclius it concentrates almost exclusively on him and his actions. Events in Italy, Africa, Spain and the Balkans are touched on only lightly while the focusing on the events in Anatolia, the Middle East and Mesopotamia. This means that the book doesn’t provide a comprehensive picture of the Byzantine Empire during his reign.
Heraclius was fascinated by religion and was heavily involved in the disputes of the day, attempting to impose religious uniformity throughout the empire. The background and detail to the theological disputes and the role of the church in the empire would have added to the reader’s understanding of an important part of life in those times. The relationship between church and state is touched on in a number of places, but is never really satisfactorily described.
Finally, Kaegi often tells us how much we don’t know about Heraclius from the sources. It is true that we have no diaries of Heraclius or his intimates, so we can know little from first hand about him; however we do know a lot about his actions and these reveal a lot about his character. Scriptwriters are taught to reveal character through actions rather than through words. Historians can, perhaps use the actions that we know about to deduce and assess character. For example, we know that Heraclius was ruthless and ambitious as w can see from his coup against Phokas and his pitiless treatment of Phokas and his adherents. The act of initiating a grab for power with no very strong claim to the throne shows a certain level of ego and ambition and willingness to act, even if it dispose of a manifestly unpopular and incompetent emperor.
Overall, despite the above reservations, I think that this is an outstanding work of scholarship in an area that has been neglected. The diversity of sources used results in a balanced account of Heraclius’ life. It is probably more for the specialist end of the market, rather than the general reader, but will be an important reference for other scholars working in the area.