A massive war between Sāsānian Persia and the emperors of Constantinople was sparked in 602, when Emperor Maurice of Constantinople was overthrown by a military rebellion and replaced by the rebel leader, Emperor Phocas. As it happened, Maurice had been a close friend and ally of Khosrow II of Persia (r. 591-628) and the Persian ruler therefore decided to avenge his overthrown friend by declaring war on Phocas in 602. Emperor Phocas’ reign was internally plagued by discontent and rebellion, while Persian invasions into Constantinople’s imperial territories also added further chaos to Phocas’ period of rule. Ultimately, Heraclius (or Herakleios), whose father was the governor of Constantinople’s territory in North Africa, toppled Phocas and became the new emperor of Constantinople in 610. Although Phocas was gone, the war between Persia and Constantinople continued to rage on. Emperor Heraclius spent the first decade of his rule mainly focused on solidifying his control in Constantinople and also dealing with more immediate threats from Avar incursions near the capital city. Yet, around 622, the emperor decisively shifted to an offensive stance in his war against Persia. Heraclius marched his forces toward Armenia and then began pushing down deeper and deeper into the heartland of the Persian Empire with each successive year, sometimes even riskily continuing to fight during winter seasons. After outmaneuvering and defeating several Persian armies while invading further into the Persian heartland, Emperor Heraclius finally chased Khosrow II all the way to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon by 628, at which point Khosrow’s eldest son, known variously as Shērōē (or Siroes), Qobad or Kavadh II, launched a bid to overthrow his father. After the successful coup by the treacherous son in 628, Khosrow II was executed and peace was finally made between Constantinople and Persia.
A two-and-a-half decade long war between such ancient and famous powers as Constantinople (the Eastern Roman Empire) and the Sāsānian Persian Empire was sure to draw attention and interest from other nations and rulers. One such region that learned about the war and Emperor Heraclius’ impressive conduct in it was India. As the story goes, an Indian king was prompted by the news to send envoys and a gift to Emperor Heraclius. Of the presents carried by the envoys, the most eye-catching were gemstones and jewelry. Understandably, it took some time for the members of the Indian king’s diplomatic mission to prepare for their journey and to travel to Constantinople. They reportedly arrived at Heraclius’ imperial court between September 631 and August 632. A chronicler named Theophanes (c. 750s-818) recorded the arrival of these Indian travelers, stating, “In the same year the king of the Indians sent Herakleios congratulatory gifts for his victory over the Persians: pearls and a number of precious stones” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6123).
Unfortunately, it is difficult to confidently identify which Indian king sent the gift, for the Gupta Dynasty (c. 4th-6th century) had recently fallen and new dynasties and kingdoms were vying for supremacy in India at that time in the 7th century. Enticing contenders, however, would be Harsha (r. 606-647), the strongest ruler of northern India, and Pulakeshin II (r. 610–642), an equally powerful ruler in central India. Both of these mighty Indian rulers enjoyed international diplomacy. Pulakeshin II, in particular, was known to have cultivated friendly relations with the Persians, and his diplomats would not have had to travel too much further to contact Emperor Heraclius. Besides the bigger names of Harsha and Pulakeshin II, these rulers had various vassals and tributaries who could also be considered kings, and any one of those smaller Indian rulers may have potentially sent a gift to Emperor Heraclius. Whatever the case, a group of Indian diplomats arrived at Emperor Heraclius’ court around 631 or 632 and presented gifts that caught the attention of Constantinople’s people to the extent that the mission was recorded in history.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Indian procession with elephant, painted by Gyula Tornai (c. 1861 – 1928), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Artvee).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.