Apocalypse Then: December 12, 627
In 627 a biblical prophecy came true-for a while. Five centuries earlier a Jew-for-Jesus, now remembered as St. John, had predicted a decisive battle between the Empires of the East and the West. The Book of Revelation has been cited as a prediction of the Cold War, September 11th and Rupert Murdoch; however, St. John thought that he writing about Rome and Parthia.
Parthia was Rome’s annoying neighbor to the East. Alexander the Great may have destroyed one Persian empire but with sufficient time and spite the Iranians had created another. Parthia bordered Rome’s Asian provinces and was never shy about raiding them. Of course, Rome retaliated but lost a few armies learning the tactics of desert warfare. The two Empires had already been sparring for a century when John pioneered stream-of-consciousness.
The conflict had lasted nearly two centuries when the Emperor Trajan (53-117) resolved to end it by conquering Mesopotamia. Marching east from Asia Minor, through Armenia (Of course, no one asked the Armenians for permission; no one ever does.) Rome’s army then attacked south along the Euphrates. In a two year campaign (114-115), led personally by Trajan, the Romans conquered Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, the Parthians did not seem to realize that they had been defeated and humiliated. Their forces east of the Tigris were just as annoying as ever. Mesopotamia itself was in continuous rebellion. Trajan died of natural causes-really. The Roman army, hoping to do the same, left Mesopotamia soon after.
And the war continued. Eighty years later, the Emperor Septimus Severus “conquered” Mesopotamia and withdrew two years later. However, the Parthians could hardly feel victorious. Rome had repeatedly sacked their cities but they were in no position to rampage through Italy. Parthia’s leaders realized the futility of their situation and came to one rational conclusion: they needed even more belligerent rulers to fight Rome.
The new dynasty-the Sassanids for you name-droppers-managed to continue the war for another three centuries. Proclaiming themselves as the heirs and avengers of the first Persian Empire, the Sassanids were not merely aggressive and vain; they were lucky. Rome was growing weaker. When the legions were not slaughtering each other in civil war, they were floundering against the barbarian invasions. Rome–divided, diverted and dissipated–could no longer threatened its Iranian nemesis. Indeed, the new Persia was on the attack, rampaging through Rome’s eastern provinces and defeating the legions that Rome could muster. This emboldened Persia demanded tribute and Rome was reduced to paying it.
Byzantium succeeded Rome and continued the policy of appeasement. But if the Byzantines lacked the military resources to thwart the Sassanid empire, they made an art of undermining it. Where there was an idle tribe of barbarians on Persia’s borders, Byzantium would subsidize an invasion. If there were a surplus of Sassanid princes, the Greeks would generously encourage a civil war. Between paying tribute to the Sassanids while subsidizing attacks on them, the Byzantines probably would have found it cheaper to be looted by the Persians.
The Byzantine machinations did achieve a remarkable coup, however. In 590, a deposed Persian king appealed to the Byzantines for support. Always willing to encourage Persian fratricide, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice lent Chosroes II an army and helped restore him to his throne. Chosroes’ response was unusual if not aberrant for a king: sincere gratitude. He established peace between the two kingdoms and dispensed with Persia’s extortion racket. Chosroes, who had overthrown and murdered his own father, behaved like an exemplary son to his Byzantine patron.
And when Maurice was murdered in 602, Chosroes declared war on the usurper: a red-headed and warted miscreant named Phocas. This war was more than the usual Persian exercise in pillage; it was a determined, uncompromising effort to overthrow the usurper. And Phocas certainly was helping the Persians. He executed capable generals, replacing them with idiot relatives. His order to coerce the conversion of Jews set off riots and civil war in the very provinces where the Persians were encroaching. Rather than resisting the invaders, Byzantines were defecting to Chosroes. Persian armies quickly conquered Syria and Asia Minor. The ease of these campaigns convinced Chosroes that he was the rightful successor of Maurice on the Byzantine throne.
However, Chosroes was not the only alternative to Phocas. There were quite a few plots against the usurper, and in 610 one succeeded. The new emperor was Heraclius, and he would live up to his name. His labors included the reorganization of the army, replacing a slapdash, unreliable collection of mercenaries with an uniform system of recruiting, supplying and training an army of Byzantines. This transition took more than a decade, and during that time the Persians conquered all of Byzantium’s Asian provinces and Egypt. Chosroes now ruled a realm as vast as the first Persian Empire. To his frustration, however, the Mediterranean Sea put up a better defense than Byzantine armies. Since Persia had no navy, Constantinople and her European provinces remained safe.
Chosroes should have realized that he had reached his limits. The Byzantines would have negotiated–after all, they were Byzantines–but Chosroes had become insatiable, mistaking his luck for infallibility. He insisted the war continue, no matter how pointless it had become. He kept an army stationed on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, perhaps waiting for the Mediterranean to dry up.
Chosroes certainly had patience but so did the Byzantines, and they also had a navy. In 622, Heraclius and his new army landed in Asia Minor and began the reconquest. Heraclius had created an army superior to any the Persians could muster. Furthermore, the Emperor gladly entered into unsavory but expedient alliances with Huns and other barbarians. Over the next five years, campaigning in Asia Minor, Armenia (as usual) and Mesopotamia itself, Heraclius’ forces smashed one Persian army after another.
On December 12, 627, near the ruins of Ninevah, Heraclius confronted Persia’s last standing army in Mesopotamia. This would be the decisive battle of the war. Chosroes was not there; his boldness did not extend to personal courage. On the other hand, Heraclius was feeling obnoxiously chipper. When challenged to personal combat by the Persian commander, the 52 year old Emperor accepted. The Persian general must have felt embarrassed to be decapitated by a middle-aged man. And the rest of the Persian army had the same kind of day.
Mesopotamia was at the mercy of the Byzantines. In frustration with Chosroes’ disastrous leadership, rebellion was breaking out in Persia and throughout what was left of the empire. But Chosroes refused to acknowledge the defeat and chaos. The next year his son murdered him. (This was a Sassanid family tradition). Persia then signed an apologetic peace treaty with Byzantium.
Byzantine supremacy would last all of eight years. It had recovered from the Persian invasion but had exhausted its manpower and resources in the effort. The Empire could not withstand a few thousand enthusiastic Arab horsemen who wrested control of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and North Africa. (And they still seem to be the predominant influence there.) Another small but equally zealous Arab force overran what was left of Persia.
So, in the war between Heraclius and Chosroes, Mohammed won.