Heraclius, Eastern Roman Emperor

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Flavius Heraclius Augustus

Also Known As: "Flavius Heraclius Augustus", "Φλάβιος Ἡράκλειος", "Heraclius", "Herakleios"
Birthdate: (66)
Birthplace: Cappadocia
Death: February 11, 641 (62-70)
Byzantium (Constantinople), Istanbul, Turkey
Immediate Family:

Son of Herakleios Exarch of Carthage and Epiphania
Husband of Martina and Fabia Eudokia
Father of HĒRAKLŌNAS; Fabius; Theodosius; Tiberios Kaisar; Martinus or Marinus and 4 others
Brother of Maria
Half brother of Heraclius r.610-641 Byzantine emperor

Occupation: Emperor of Byzantium 610–641
Managed by: Noah Tutak
Last Updated:

About Heraclius, Eastern Roman Emperor

Flavius Heraclius (Greek: Φλάβιος Ἡράκλειος; known in English as Heraclius, or Herakleios; c. 575 - February 11, 641) was a Byzantine Emperor of Armenian origin, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire[A 1].

He was in power for over thirty years, from October 5, 610 to February 11, 641. His rise to power began in 608, when he and his father, the viceregal Exarch of Africa, successfully led a revolt against the unpopular usurper Phocas. Heraclius' reign was marked by several military campaigns, and he was remembered in future generations both for his battles against the Sassanian Persian king Khosrau Parvez, and as the first of the Byzantine emperors to engage the Muslims. In the Islamic world he seen as something of an ideal ruler who studied the Qur'an and was a true believer that viewed Muhammad as the true prophet and messenger of God.[4] At his request Pope John IV (640-642) sent Christian teachers and missionaries to the Dalmatia, newly Croatian Provinces settled by Porga, and his clan who practiced Slavic paganism.[5] He is also remembered for abandoning the use of Latin in favour of the Greek language in official documents, further Hellenising the Empire.[6] 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.[7]


Heraclius was born into an Armenian family from Cappadocia,[8] although beyond that, there is little specific information known about his ancestry. He was the son and namesake of Heraclius (generally referred to retrospectively as Heraclius the Elder), who had been a key general of Emperor Maurice's in the 590 war with Bahram Chobin, usurper of the Sassanid Empire. His mother was named Epiphania. After the war, Maurice appointed Heraclius the Elder to the position of Exarch of Africa. Though the younger Heraclius' birthplace is unknown, he grew up in Roman Africa; according to one tradition, he engaged in gladiatorial combat with lions as a youth.

Revolt against Phocas and the accession of Heraclius

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.[9] Heraclius' younger cousin Niketas launched an overland invasion of Egypt; by 609, he had defeated Phocas' general Bonosus and secured the province. Meanwhile, the younger Heraclius sailed eastward with another force via Sicily and Cyprus. [9]

As he approached Constantinople, he made contact with leading 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' 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?"[10] Phocas said in reply, "And will you rule better?" With that, Heraclius became so enraged he cut off Phocas' head on the spot.[10]

On October 5, 610, Heraclius was crowned for a second time, this time in the Chapel of St. Stephen within the Great Palace, and at the same time 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.[11] In the reign of Heraclius' 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.[11]

War against Persia

Byzantine–Sassanid Wars

The Sassanid Empire at its greatest extent ca. 620 AD. The shaded area (Phrygia/Lydia) indicates vassal kingdoms under Sassanid military control.

During Maurice’s Balkan campaigns, he and his family were murdered by Phocas in November 602 after a mutiny. Khosrau II (Chosroes) of the Sassanid Empire had been restored to his throne by Maurice and they had remained allies. Thus Persian King Khosrau II seized the pretext to attack the Eastern Roman Empire, and reconquer the Roman province of Mesopotamia.[12] Chosroes had at his court a man who claimed to be Maurice's son Theodosius, and Chosroes demanded that the Romans accept him as Emperor.

The war initially went the Persians' way, partly because of Phocas' 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. Phocas, an unpopular ruler who is invariably described in historical sources as a "tyrant", was eventually deposed by Heraclius, who sailed to Constantinople from Carthage with an icon affixed to the prow of his ship.[13][14]

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 on the Bosporus.[15] Over the following decade the Persians were able to conquer Palestine and Egypt (by mid-621 the whole province was in their hands[16]) and to devastate Anatolia,[A 2] while the Avars and Slavs took advantage of the situation to overrun the Balkans, bringing the Roman Empire to the brink of destruction. In 613, the Persian army took Damascus with the help of the Jews, took Jerusalem in 614, damaging the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and capturing the Holy Cross and Egypt in the process.

With the Persians at the very gate of Constantinople Heraclius thought of abandoning the city and moving the capital to Carthage but was convinced to stay by the powerful church figure Patriarch Sergius. Safe behind the walls of Constantinople and with the support of the Roman navy, Heraclius strove to rebuild his army, slashing non-military expenditure, devaluing the currency and melting down, with the backing of Patriarch Sergius, Church plate to raise the necessary funds to continue the war.[18]

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][18]

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.[22] He would stay on campaign for several years.[23][24] On March 25, 624 Heraclius left again 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 Azerbaijan and Armenia against Khosrau and his generals Shahrbaraz, Shahin and Shahraplakan.[25][26] In 626 the Avars and Slavs besieged Constantinople, supported by a Persian army commanded by Shahrbaraz, 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[27]), while a second Persian army under Shahin suffered another crushing defeat at the hands of Heraclius' brother Theodore.

The assassination of Khosrau II, in a Mughal manuscript of ca 1535, Persian poems are from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh

With the Persian war effort disintegrating, Heraclius was able to bring the Gokturks of the Western Turkic Khaganate, Ziebel, who invaded Persian Transcaucasia. Heraclius also exploited divisions within the Persian Empire, keeping the Persian general Shahrbaraz neutral by convincing him that Chosroes had grown jealous of him and 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.[28] 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. In 629 Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in a majestic ceremony.[29][30][14]

Heraclius took for himself the ancient Persian title of "King of Kings" after his victory over Persia. Later on, starting in 629, he styled himself as Basileus, the Greek word for "sovereign", and that title was used by the Roman Eperors 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 having to do with Heraclius' Armenian origins.[31]

Heraclius also Hellenised the Empire by largely discontinuing the use of Latin as its official language, replacing it with Greek. Nonetheless, the empire continued to call itself Roman throughout the rest of its history.[1]

War against the Arabs

Byzantine-Arab Wars

The Islamic Prophet Muhammad had recently succeeded in unifying all the nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs, who had been too divided in the past to pose a military threat, now comprised one of the most powerful states in the region, and were animated by their new conversion to Islam.[32] Heraclius fell ill soon after his triumph over the Persians and never took the field again.

Islamic sources record that Heraclius dreamt of the coming Arab invasion. Historian Al-Tabari wrote that Heraclius dreamt of a new kingdom of the "circumcised man" that be victorious against all its enemies.[33] After telling his court his dream his patricians who did not know of the rise of Islam in Arabia, "advised him to send orders to behead every Jew in his dominion."[33] It was only when a bedouin trader speaking of a man uniting the tribes of Arabia under a new religion was brought before the Emperor did the Heraclius and his court realize that the kingdom of the "circumcised man" was not the Jews but the new Islamic Empire.[33] When the Muslim Arabs attacked Syria and Palestine in 634, he was unable to oppose them personally in battle. Though he remained strategically in charge of operations, his generals had failed him in battle. The Battle of Yarmuk in 636 resulted in a crushing defeat for the larger Roman army and within three years, the Levant was lost again. By the time of Heraclius' death, most of Egypt had fallen as well.

Islamic view of Heraclius

In Islamic and Arab histories Heraclius is the only Roman Emperor that is talked of any in any length.[34] Owing to his role as the Eastern Roman Emperor at the time Islam emerged, he was remembered in Arabic literature, such as the Islamic hadith and sira. They viewed him favourably and early Muslims were never enemies of Heraclius, as evidenced in the Quranic verses about the Perso-Roman wars below:

002 - 005: The Romans have been defeated [From Persians]. In the nearer land, and they, after their defeat will be victorious. Within ten years - Allah's is the command in the former case and in the latter - and in that day believers will rejoice. In Allah's help to victory. He helpeth to victory whom He will. He is the Mighty, the Merciful.[35]

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"). This reflects the considerable impression which this Emperor made on his Muslim foes, being still prominently remembered by Muslims more than a millennium after his death and at a considerable geographical and cultural distance.

In Arabic histories he is seen a just ruler with great piety who studied the Qur'an.[34] The fourteenth-century historian Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) went even further stating, "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."[34] Islamic history even goes as far to say Heraclius recognized that Muhammad was the true prophet and proclaimed him the messenger of God.[4] According to Arab sources he tried to convert the ruling class of the Empire but they resisted so strongly that he reversed his course and stated that he was just testing their faith in Christianity.[36] His status of true believer in Islamic texts is seen as a way to legitimize Muhammad as the true prophet. By writing that a foreign Emperor, that is viewed as almost a perfect ruler, believes in Islams message then Muhammad must be the true prophet and voice of God.[37]


Battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, c. 1452

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' 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. [38]

The recovery of the eastern areas of the Roman Empire from the Persians once again raised the problem of religious unity centering around the understanding of the true nature of Christ. Most of the inhabitants of these provinces were Monophysites who rejected the Council of Chalcedon.[39] Heraclius tried to promote a compromise doctrine called Monothelitism; however, 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.[39]

Perhaps the most important legacy of Heraclius was changing the official language of the Eastern Roman Empire from Latin to Greek in 620.[40]

The modern day border of Turkey can be attributed to Heraclius. This border was Heraclius' line of defence in Eastern Anatolia which would permanently define the border between lands Islamised by Arabs in the first flush of Islamic conquest and those which would only be Islamised many centuries later - by Turks. It was this ethnic and cultural dividing line which, at the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, would in 1925 become the eastern border of the present Turkish Republic.

Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem, anachronistically accompanied by Saint Helena. 15th century, Spain

Henry Hart Milman in his work 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.[41]

Recovery of the True Cross

Despite his actual heterodox theology, Heraclius was long remembered favourably in the Western church for his reputed feat in recovering the True Cross, which had been captured by the Persians. He returned the cross on March 21, 630.[42] 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 Legend of the True Cross sequence of frescoes painted by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo, or 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 (shown above), when he was on horseback, 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.


Heraclius was married twice first to Fabia Eudokia, a daughter of Rogatus and then with his niece Martina. He had two children with Fabia and 10 with Martina most of whom were sickly children.[43] Of Martina's children at least two were handicapped, which was seen as punishment for the illegality of the marriage: Fabius (Flavius) had a paralyzed neck and Theodosios, who was a deaf-mute, married Nike, daughter of Persian general Shahrbaraz or daughter of Niketas, cousin of Heraclius.

Two of Heraclius's children would become Emperor: Martina's son Constantine Heraclius (Heraklonas) from 638 – 641 and Heraclius Constantine (Constantine III), his son from Eudokia, from February, 641 – May, 641. [43]

He also had at least one illegitimate son, Ioannes Atalarichos[44] , who conspired a plot against Heraclius with his cousin, the magister Theodorus, and the Armenian noble David Saharuni. He was mutilated and exiled to Prinkipo, one of the Princes' Islands, in 637.

During the last years of Heraclius' life, it became evident that a struggle was taking place between Heraclius Constantine and Martina, who was trying to position her son Heraklonas in line for the throne. When Heraclius died, in his will he left the empire to both Heraclius Constantine and Heraklonas to rule jointly with Martina as Empress.[43]


Efter Fabias död gifte han om sig med Martina och fick med henne nio barn.

Förlorade Mesopotamien, Syrien och Palestina till Araberna.


Efter Fabias död gifte han om sig med Martina och fick med henne nio barn.

Förlorade Mesopotamien, Syrien och Palestina till Araberna.


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Heraclius, Eastern Roman Emperor's Timeline

Age 36
yzantium (Constantinople), Istanbul, Turkey
May 3, 612
Age 37
Eastern Roman Empire
Age 51
yzantium (Constantinople), Istanbul, Turkey
February 11, 641
Age 66
Byzantium (Constantinople), Istanbul, Turkey
yzantium (Constantinople), Istanbul, Turkey
yzantium (Constantinople), Istanbul, Turkey
yzantium (Constantinople), Istanbul, Turkey