The failure of Heraclius

December 30 2009

Heraclius spent twenty-four years out of a reign of thirty-one on the desperate enterprise of trying by force of arms to prevent the Syriac provinces of the Hellenic universal state from shaking off at last an incubus of Hellenic domination which had been weighing upon them ever since the overthrow of the Achaemenian Empire by the arms of Alexander the Great. The sword of Heraclius could not avail to stem a tide of Syriac resurgence which had been flowing for at least eight centuries in the Transeuphratean [Parthian and Sasanian], and for at least four centuries in the Ciseuphratean, territories of the Syriac World by the time when Heraclius was called in to Hellenism’s rescue. The Syriac counter-attack was by then already victorious on the deeper planes of life in religion, in language, in architecture, in art and, even on the superficial planes of politics and war, the liberation, by Syriac arms, of the homeland of the Syriac culture had already been momentarily anticipated during the recurrence of the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” in the third century of the Christian Era, when Zenobia of Palmyra had brought the whole of Syria under her rule and had even pushed her outposts across the Taurus and the Nile. It is evident that Heraclius in the seventh century was courting disaster by venturing to repeat Aurelian’s barely successful counterstroke. Heraclius did succeed, at the end of eighteen years of strenuous and audacious campaigning, in pushing the Persian invader back from Chalcedon to Tabriz and imposing on the Sasanian [Toynbee’s preferred spelling in the Study] Empire a peace-settlement which restored the territorial status quo ante bellum. Yet the Persian champion of Syriac liberty had no sooner laid down his arms than an Arab champion stepped into his place in the arena and pitted his fresh vigour against a war-worn Roman Army; and this immediate return, from an unexpected quarter, of a tide which Heraclius had thought himself to have stemmed for good, was a challenge to which the weary emperor’s spirit was not equal. In his fight to save Syria from the Arabs Heraclius abandoned after six years a struggle which he had kept up for eighteen years against the Persians, and withdrew from Antioch to Constantinople to die there broken-hearted.

The Syriac society

Jewish and Christian Hellenophobia

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

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