Did the Romans fight Persia

614, The Cross and Islam: The Last World War of Antiquity

1400 years ago the Persians conquered Jerusalem.

One of the anniversaries in 2014 that was easily overlooked between the First World War, the Congress of Vienna, the death of Charlemagne and Augustus was the conquest of Jerusalem by the Persians in AD 614. The events surrounding this mark - in the perception of Christian contemporaries - Catastrophe both the end of the ancient world order and the dawn of a new age with the emergence of Islam.

Cold and hot wars

Since the 3rd century AD, the Romans and the Sasanids, who saw themselves as successors to the ancient Persian great kings, had fought for supremacy in the Near East. The Sasanid Empire in what is now Iran and Iraq was the only adversary that the empire had to recognize as an equal major power. From the Caucasus in the north to the South Arabian desert, the two superpowers waged hot and cold wars, often on behalf of various allied smaller kingdoms. The fact that the Roman Empire had been Christian since Constantine, but the Sasanids were Zoroastrians, fueled the conflict ideologically. After a century of détente, the confrontation turned hot again in the 6th century; Four times East or Byzantium and Persia waged war against each other, a total of 51 years in this century.

For the last of these wars had brought Emperor Maurikios (582-602) to a favorable end for Byzantium when he supported the Sassanid Crown Prince Chosrau II against a general of his father who had put himself on the throne. The "regime change" succeeded, and Chosrau II ceded important areas in northern Mesopotamia and the southern Caucasus in 591 as thanks to the emperor. Maurikios, however, was overthrown in 602 by a mutiny by the Byzantine army and met a cruel death with his family. The former NCO Phokas ascended the Roman imperial throne.

A welcome occasion

The murder of his benefactor gave Chosrau II the opportunity to take military action against the empire as the avenger of Maurikios - and to regain the territories that he had ceded ten years earlier. A mutiny by the troops on the eastern border weakened the resistance of the Romans. In contrast to earlier campaigns, which were often more like raids, the Sasanids began to systematically take city by city; the goal was permanent conquest. By 610 they had overcome the two belts of fortifications on the Euphrates and in western Armenia, which Emperor Justinian had expanded; the way to the enemy’s core provinces was clear

No peace with the new emperor

Resistance was raised against the rule of Phocas in the north African province (in present-day Tunisia); the son of the governor of Carthage, Herakleios, marched with a fleet against Constantinople. Phocas still ordered troops from the east to the west to overthrow the rising.

Herakleios landed in Constantinople in 610 and Phocas was executed. The reason for Chosrau's alleged war of revenge disappeared. But the great king did not think of making peace with the new emperor Herakleios. The struggle between Phocas and Herakleios had led to the final collapse of the Byzantine border defense in the east. Chosrau wanted to take advantage of it - and fulfill the dream of his ancestors of rebuilding the old Persian empire in the whole of the Orient.

The empire at the end

The Sasanids now advanced into Asia Minor and Syria - provinces that had been under Roman rule since Pompey. In 611 the Persians conquered Antiocheia (today's Antakya in southeastern Turkey), the third largest city in the empire. Emperor Herakleios, whose coffers were empty and whose armies were in dissolution, had little to counter this. Nevertheless he undertook a counter-offensive in 613, but suffered a bitter defeat near Antiocheia. The Reich's military resistance ceased to exist for a few years. The Sasanids conquered Damascus in 613.

In 614 they besieged and conquered Jerusalem, where they captured the remains of the true cross of Christ, which Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, is said to have discovered. The relic was brought to Persia; the fall of the holy city seemed to many contemporaries as a sign of the near end of the Christian Roman Empire. And in fact the situation of the empire worsened more and more: 615 Persian troops stood for the first time on the coast of Asia Minor opposite Constantinople. In 618 the Sasanids invaded Egypt, conquered Alexandria and then the entire province, until then the breadbasket of the empire. At the same time, the Avar cavalry ravaged the Balkan provinces. Emperor Herakleios seriously considered giving up Constantinople and the east of the empire and returning to Carthage.

The Sasanids were by no means merely hostile; the oriental Christians in Armenia, Syria and Egypt had been dogmatically separated from the Orthodox imperial church since the 5th century and had experienced many oppressions in the past decades. Chosrau II cleverly presented himself as a Christian friend, promoted the oriental churches and had coins minted in Egypt with his face on the front and the cross on the back. But the long war also made heavy demands on Persia's resources - and due to the rapid expansion "the Persian occupying power formed just a thin coat that showed many holes", as Frank Thiess, who gripped the events in his book "The Greek Emperors" in 1959 after told, wrote. That should be the chance of the Byzantines.

The last contingent

Herakleios decided not to give up the fight - and found an ally in the Patriarch of Constantinople Sergios. With his permission, the emperor melted down the church treasures of the capital and minted new coins. This could buy peace with the Avars and equip and pay new soldiers. With these new forces, Herakleios crossed to Asia Minor on Easter Monday 622 and gathered the remnants of the Eastern Army for this purpose. The Persians were taken by surprise, because the emperor was not only able to prepare his new army for battle in tough maneuvers, but also march over a thousand kilometers east to Armenia. Only then did he encounter resistance - and in August 622 he won a victory over one of the Persian commanders-in-chief, the first military success in twenty years. The Byzantines continued to operate in Armenia and the Caucasus region, where the emperor was not only able to win the support of the local princes, but also directly threaten the Persian heartland. In view of the emperor's campaign, Chosrau II is said to have exclaimed: “Isn't that the man who, for fear of me, had already been driven into an abyss? What is this now? "

The battle for Constantinople

But Persian power was still strong - and the rest of the empire was open to them in the east in the absence of the emperor. In 623 the Persians conquered Ankara and sacked Rhodes. And in 626 Chosrau II ordered his general Sharvaraz to push forward again to the straits - and to deal the fatal blow to the capital of the enemy. The opportunity seemed favorable because the Avar Khan had decided to take advantage of the emperor's absence. In July 626 he marched with tens of thousands of his horsemen and Slavic auxiliaries before Constantinople and ordered the assault.

But the triple wall ring, which was built in the 5th century, held up. Patriarch Sergios was in charge of the defense. On land the Khan could only attack Constantinople from one side, while the city was otherwise surrounded by the sea - and here the Eastern Roman fleet was superior. When the Khan ordered his Slav allies to attack with simple dugouts, a bloodbath ensued. And even the Persians, who lacked ships, could only watch from the Asian coast as the khan's troops took bloody heads from the huge walls and finally had to leave in August. The conquest of Constantinople had failed; The city's salvation was attributed to Our Lady, whose cult thus received further impetus.

In the footsteps of Alexander

The year 626 also marked the turning point in the east; Herakleios had won a new powerful ally: the khan of the western Turkish empire, who ruled the steppes north of the Caucasus. The Khan threatened Khosrau that he should evacuate the Byzantine lands, otherwise he would "double retaliation for every evil deed he committed against the emperor." The Turks devastated Azerbaijan and northwestern Persia. Chosrau now sent all his remaining armies against Herakleios; but the emperor maneuvered them out and finally won a great victory at Nineveh near the modern city of Mosul in 627. Then Herakleios marched into Iraq in the winter of 627/628 - and came to the area of ​​Dastagerd near today's Baghdad, which Chosrau II used as his residence. He defeated a Persian army that was supposed to block his way. Chosrau fled through a tunnel to the old capital Ctesiphon - and his palace with all its treasures fell into the hands of the emperor. However, the Byzantines did not attack the strongly fortified Ctesiphon.

The Emperor's Victory

But the Persian capital was seething; The aristocracy grew dissatisfied with the long war of the great king, who had already devoured so many resources of the empire and had now reached the heartland itself. In February 628 Chosrau II was overthrown and replaced by his son Kavad II; the old great king was imprisoned and murdered a few days later. The first task of Kavad II was to make peace with Herakleios - his peace offer was addressed "To the most lenient emperor of the Romans, our brother" and it contained everything Herakleios could hope for: the restoration of the pre-war borders, the return of all prisoners and the kidnapped treasures, including the relic of the cross. The longest Persian War Rome had ever had to fight was victorious. On March 21, 630 the emperor himself carried the relic of the cross back to Jerusalem. To commemorate this triumph and the original finding of the cross by Empress Helena, the church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th.

The end of antiquity

This event found its way into all Christian chronicles of the Orient - but also into the Koran. When Herakleios began his counter-offensive in 622, the Prophet Mohammed emigrated from Mecca to Medina and began building a Muslim state there. In the 30th sura of the Koran, which bears the name "The Greeks" (= the Byzantines), alludes to the events of the war between Rome and Persia - and the victory of the Christian Romans over the "pagan" Persians with the help of Allah prophesies.

But the real victors of this war would become the Arabs, who united under the banner of Islam. Large areas of the two neighboring great powers were devastated, the resources exhausted by the long war - so they could do little to oppose the new military power from the desert. In 636, the Byzantines in Palestine and the Sasanids in Mesopotamia were defeated - by 651 the Arabs were able to conquer the entire Persian Empire, while Eastern Europe lost Syria, Egypt, Armenia and later also North Africa. The longest Persian War was also the last war of antiquity - its end marked the beginning of the redesign of the Old World.


Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (born August 24, 1977 in Zwettl / Lower Austria) studied Byzantine and Neo-Greek Studies as well as Ancient History and Classical Studies in Vienna. Since 2007 he has worked at the Byzantium Research Department of the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and also at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz. In spring 2014 he conducted research as a fellow of the Onassis Foundation in Athens. Numerous publications, also for a wider audience.