On This Day in History – February 11th – Heraclius Augustus Dies
Heraclius. The Exarch’s son. Roman Emperor. Had he not lived and triumphed over the Persian Empire in the last great war of antiquity, had he capitulated in the face of insurmountable odds and the most implacable of foes, the world we live in would be unrecognizable, and yet his name has been nearly lost to history. Handsome, brilliant, blessed with position at birth, cursed by the loss of his true love, Fabia, and several children, confronted by Black Plague, barbarian invasions, and a Persian King of Kings hellbent on Rome’s annihilation, Heraclius fought back. In 622CE he led the last Roman army out of beleaguered Constantinople’s gates to confront four maurading Persian generals that had torn Rome asunder. If he had lost a single battle that would have been the end. The histories would have said that the Western Roman Empire fell in 476CE, and the Eastern Roman Empire fell in 622CE. Instead the East would last until 1453CE, a breath before Columbus sailed the ‘ocean blue’. And when Rome finally fell, its last, rare breath would give life to the Renaissance, returning civilization to the West. Had Heraclius lost in 622, none of this would have happened. How could it be that we were not taught anything about Heraclius in school? Why hasn’t he starred in a dozen Hollywood blockbusters? When the downtrodden of the world look to history for inspiration, why do they not look to him? I have some thoughts on how such a vitally relevant, inspiring, and eminently human hero has been written out of our histories, but more on that another day. For now, I simply wish to recognize that Heraclius died on this day (February 11th – I trust he would forgive me for publishing this a week late) in the year 641CE.
2 thoughts on “On This Day in History – February 11th – Heraclius Augustus Dies”
So is he the fellow that offed the great Persian King Cyrus?
Heraclius came much later, but he was as significant as any emperor, or truly, just about any historical personage in the western world since Aurelian (another forgotten legend). When he came to power in 610CE, about 150 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Rome was being dismantled piece-by-piece by the greatest of Sassanid Persian ‘Shahanshahs’ (king of kings): Khosru II. Khosru’s armies had captured Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch – just about all of Rome’s eastern provinces. The end was nigh.
In addition to the Persian threat, Rome’s military might had been devastated by the Black Plague (the original version of the bubonic plague that would return again in the Middle Ages), environmental disasters and a succession of ineffective rulers. To put this into further historical context, Heraclius and Khosru were contemporaries of Muhammed (and in fact legend says that Muhammed wrote to both the Roman Emperor and Persian King of Kings asking them to convert to the one truth faith of Islam). Heraclius was an imperfect hero, i.e. very much human, who accomplished the superhuman, leaving a profound and mixed legacy in his wake.
The ‘mixed’ part of that legacy was as follows. Yes he saved the Roman state from destruction and though the Persians a gracious peace. But the Persian state was so riven by internal factions in the wake of their collapse that they never really got their act together, providing a ripe target for the armies of Islam that came roaring out of the desert soon thereafter, overrunning Persia and integrating it into their own nascent empire. Many historians say because of this fact that Heraclius’ victory was a pyrrhic victory but I think that misses the point.