Childhood & Early Life
Born in 575 in Cappadocia, present-day Turkey, Heraclius was the oldest son of Heraclius the Elder and Epiphania. His family members were probably Armenians who had originally come from Cappadocia. He was possibly of Arsacid descent.
His father served as a general in Emperor Maurice’s campaign against the Sasanian Emperor Bahram Chobin. Following the conclusion of the war, Heraclius the Elder was made the exarch of Africa.
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Rebellion against Phocas & Enthronement
In 608, Heraclius the Elder refused to continue to be loyal to the Byzantine throne, which was occupied by Phocas at the time. In 602, Phocas had deposed Maurice to become the emperor and was a very unpopular ruler.
With the help of his younger cousin Nicetas, Heraclius overthrew and executed Phocas and ascended the throne himself. His formal coronation took place in Constantinople on October 5, 610.
It did not take Heraclius long to realise that he had become a ruler of a rapidly crumbling state. Several regions that had once been under the Byzantine control were occupied by invading forces at the time.
There were also numerous internal problems that plagued the empire, including a shambolic administration, depleted and demoralized military, and the existence of widespread poverty among the peasants.
In 614, the Sasanians took control of Syria and Palestine, conquering Jerusalem and taking possession of what was thought to be Christ’s Cross. Heraclius decided to deal with the nomadic Avars, who had carved out a large empire for themselves. He signed a peace treaty with them before switching his attention towards the Sasanian Empire.
In 622, Heraclius embarked on his first campaign against the Persian Zoroastrians. He forced the Persians out of Anatolia and offered a truce to the Sasanian Emperor Khosrow II.
Khosrow II rejected it, claiming himself to be the beloved of the gods and master of the world, dubbing Heraclius as his abject and imbecilic slave, and stating that Christ was unable to save the Byzantine Empire. Heraclius was well aware of the propagandistic value of Khosrow’s words and ensured that his subjects knew about it.
He spent the ensuing two years campaigning in Armenia and then leading a catastrophic invasion of Persia. In 625, he retreated to Anatolia and set up the Byzantine camp on the west bank of the Sarus River. That was when the Sasanians attacked and compelled Heraclius to fall back further, eventually reaching the walls of Constantinople.
Heraclius briefly considered the idea of deserting his capital but was dissuaded by the influential church figure Patriarch Sergius. The impenetrability of the Constantinople walls helped him convince the Sasanians to come to a truce with him.
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The ensuing peace gave him the opportunity to bring about drastic reforms in the military. He then once more attacked Persia and registered a famous victory against the Sasanians near the ruins of Nineveh in December 627.
Khosrow II was deposed and executed by his son, Kavad II, in February 628. The new Sasanian emperor signed a peace treaty with Heraclius, who asked for the return of the cross as well as the lands that once belonged to the Byzantine Empire.
Beginning in the fourth century, when the Roman emperors converted to Christianity, they had attempted to maintain a uniform theological belief. In places like Egypt, Syria, and Armenia, they introduced oppressive laws against people with other Christological views. This created hostilities among the Christian sects, and that in turn helped the Persian conquest.
Heraclius tried to bring together the dissenters by introducing Monothelitism or the doctrine of the single will of Christ. However, it proved to be unsuccessful, as well as too late.
Unified by Islam, the Arabs rode out of their desolate homeland and invaded Syria in 634. By then, Heraclius’ body and spirit had endured countless battles and affairs of state. He was not able to lead the Byzantine army himself. The empire suffered a massive defeat at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. It was not long before the Muslims took control of Syria and Egypt.
Heraclius retreated northwards carrying the “holy wood” with him. He had developed a fear of water and stayed on the Asiatic bank of the Bosporus for a year. Eventually, he mustered the courage to make it to Constantinople on a pontoon bridge with foliage hiding the water.
Family & Personal Life
Heraclius wedded two women: Fabia Eudokia and Martina. The latter was his niece. He fathered two children with Fabia: Eudoxia Epiphania and the future Emperor Constantine III. With Martina, he had nine, most of who were born with various physical issues. This was viewed as a judgement for the illegality of their union.
Heraclius fathered at least one son out of wedlock, named John Athalarichos, who tried to plot against his father with his cousin, the magister Theodorus, and the Armenian noble David Saharuni.
When the conspiracy was unearthed, Heraclius ordered the nose and hands of Athalarichos to be cut off and then sent him to Prinkipo, one of the Princes' Islands. He put Theodorus through the same punishment and exiled him to Gaudomelete (likely present-day Gozo Island), with the additional order to amputate one of his legs.
Death & Legacy
Heraclius passed away on February 11, 641, in Constantinople, Byzantine Empire. He was 65 or 66 years old at the time. After him, two of his sons, Heraclius Constantine or Constantine III (Fabia’s son) and Constantine Heraclius or Heraklonas (Martina's son), ascended the Byzantine throne.
In the final years of Heraclius’ rule, it became clear that there was a struggle for power between Heraclius Constantine and Martina, who was attempting to place Heraklonas as his father’s heir. Before his death, Heraclius ensured that Heraclius Constantine and Heraklonas would jointly reign over the empire, along with Martina as the empress.
Before Heraclius, Byzantine Empire had lost all its past glory and become a shadow of its former self. Heraclius restored much of it.
He is often credited as the emperor who began the militarization of Anatolia. In the ensuing years, his successors expanded it further. Mercenaries were substituted by a well-trained peasantry, and agriculture underwent a complete revival. All these enabled the empire to resist a fierce Islamic onslaught for centuries.