In the years before he became emperor of Constantinople, Heraclius (or Herakleios) was stationed around Carthage with his father, who served as the governor of Constantinople’s territory in North Africa. Heraclius’ family continued to hold this governorship, with its significant military and institutional power, during the troubled reign of Emperor Phokas (r. 602-610)—a vulnerable ruler who was perceived by many as an illegitimate usurper and a tyrant. Although some other governors and generals rebelled against Phokas from the beginning of his reign, Heraclius’ family in Africa delayed their decision. It was as late as around 607 or 608 when Heraclius and his powerful father finally became openly hostile to Emperor Phokas. By that time, they had cultivated a relationship with an important man named Priskos, who was the commander of the Excubitors (guards of the emperor and defenders of the capital). With this insider on their side, Heraclius obtained a fleet from his father and set off to usurp power from the unpopular Emperor Phokas. It was a risky move, because although Heraclius and his father had been safe in Africa, they still had family inside Constantinople. In particular, Heraclius’ mother and fiancée were still within the walls of the capital.
Emperor Phokas eventually learned that the governor of Africa had rebelled, and that the governor’s son, Heraclius, was coming to take the throne. When the identities of these men were revealed, their family members inside Constantinople were rounded up by Phokas’ dwindling loyalists. Heraclius’ mother, Epiphaneia, was successfully captured by Phokas, as was Heraclius’ fiancée, Eudokia. The two women were reportedly imprisoned in a monastery or convent, called New Repentance, which was located near the city. Epiphaneia and Eudokia likely felt their situation was hopeless, as Emperor Phokas had executed many rebels and their families (including women and children) in the years prior to Heraclius’ bid for the throne. This time, however, Phokas delayed bringing out the executioners, perhaps hoping to use his prisoners to pressure or negotiate with Heraclius when his fleet arrived.
Whatever the emperor’s decision might have been, when Heraclius did indeed arrive at Constantinople, it was too late for Emperor Phokas—the capital quickly revolted and Heraclius was proclaimed the new emperor. Epiphaneia and Eudokia were freed from their captivity and it was instead Phokas who faced the executioner. When victorious Heraclius came face to face with his freed fiancée, he liked what he saw and they quickly arranged for their wedding to occur on the same day that Heraclius would formally be crowned as emperor. The chronicler, Theophanes (c. 750s-818), wrote of this in his Chronographia, stating “Herakleios entered the palaces and was crowned by Sergios in the oratory of St. Stephen there. On the same day as his fiancée Eudokia was crowned Augusta, and they both received the crowns of marriage from the patriarch Sergios. Herakleios was revealed as autokrator and bridegroom on the same day” (entry for Annus Mundi 6102 (610-611 CE)). Unfortunately, Empress Eudokia died around the year 612, not long after giving birth to her second child.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Belt ornament featuring a married couple, dated to the 4th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.