The Avar Outwitting Of Emperor Heraclius Of Constantinople

Around 618 or 619, the Avars began a noticeable uptick in raiding and marauding into the Thrace region of the Empire of Constantinople, then ruled by Emperor Heraclius (or Herakleios, r. 610-641). It was brilliant timing, strategically, for the Avars, as the war-torn emperors of Constantinople were facing wars on multiple fronts at that time. In particular, Constantinople was encumbered by long wars with the Lombards and Persians. As for the Lombards, Constantinople had been at near perpetual war with them ever since the Lombard king, Alboin, led his people in an invasion of Italy in 568. The war with the Persians came later, but it was much more devastating—the Persian king, Khosrow II, declared war on Emperor Phokas of Constantinople in 602, and Emepror Heraclius inherited the war with the Persians when he usurped power from Phokas. In Phokas’ reign and during Heraclius’ first decade of rule, the Empire of Constantinople responded terribly to Khosrow’s onslaught and they lost a great amount of territory. Therefore, when the Avars brought attention to a new warfront around 618 or 619 by launching a new wave of intense raids, it put embattled Emperor Heraclius in a tough position that needed to be fixed as fast as possible.

When the Avars began acting out, Emperor Heraclius evidently made dealing with them a top priority. Yet, instead of defense or conquest, his desire seemed to be to reach a truce as soon as possible so that he could focus on his other wars, particularly the one with the Persians. In keeping with this mission, Emperor Heraclius quickly opened up lines of communication with the Avar leadership. Heraclius reportedly decided to fall back onto one of Rome/Constantinople’s controversial favorite methods of dealing with ‘barbarian’ attackers—bribery. Not long after the Avars began their campaign of raids, Emperor Heraclius reached out to them and arranged a time and a place for a meeting in which the emperor promised to offer a great amount of wealth in exchange for peace with the Avars. Hearing this offer, the Avars were indeed interested, but not for the reasons Emperor Heraclius would have liked. A chronicler named Theophanes (c. 750s-818) wrote of the odd incident:

“In this year the Avars attacked Thrace. Herakleios sent envoys to them to ask for peace, and when the Khagan agreed to this, the Emperor went outside the Long Walls with the entire imperial bodyguard. He promised the Khagan many great gifts, and got pledges from him that they would make peace with each other. But the barbarian set aside his agreements and oaths, suddenly and treacherously advancing against the Emperor. Herakleios was thunderstruck at this unexpected affair, and fled to the city. The barbarian captured the imperial gear and bodyguard and whatever else he could reach, then withdrew, plundering many villages in Thrace thanks to his having unexpectedly cheated the hopes of peace” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6110 (618-619 CE).

Although Emperor Heraclius was no doubt angry and embarrassed about the Avar attack on his caravan of bribes and gifts, the emperor did not let the incident change his plan for dealing with the Avars. Instead of transitioning to a war footing against the raiders, Emperor Heraclius resumed negotiations and continued calling for peace. The Avars, laden with treasure that they had forcefully taken from the emperor, were now more willing to consider a truce. By around 620, Emperor Heraclius finally got his way, diplomatically pacifying the Avar front to such an extent that he felt comfortable enough to redirect troops away from Thrace to participate in the campaigns against the Persians. Nevertheless, the truce was only temporary, and by 626, the Avars had begun to openly support the Persians. By that time, however, Emperor Heraclius had already started turning the tide in his long war with the Persians.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Solidus of Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine, dated 629–631 , [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).



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