Emperor Heraclius became the ruler of Constantinople and its empire after overthrowing his predecessor, Emperor Phokas (r. 602-610). By taking the throne, Heraclius inherited Emperor Phokas’ long war with the Persian king, Khosrow II (r. 590-628), who had declared war against Constantinople in 602. Although Emperor Heraclius was under an onslaught of effective Persian attacks during his first decade of rule, he seemed to prefer in those early years to leave the Persian war effort to regional garrisons while he personally kept his focus on domestic politics to entrench his dynasty and to crush dissent. By 620, however, with critics suppressed, marriages made, and a war with the Avars ended, Emperor Heraclius finally became more open to personally commanding a military campaign against Persia. Plans and preparations ramped up for the expedition between 620-622. During that time, Heraclius arranged his finances and rerouted troops from the newly peaceful Avar front to march across the empire to take part in the campaign against the Persians. Yet, besides troops, funding, and training, there was something else that Emperor Heraclius wanted to have in his possession before he marched against his foe. The item in question was an image of a so-called “God-man” (presumably Jesus) that was alleged to have been divinely, or naturally, formed. It was deemed extra special because it supposedly came into being without having been shaped or painted by human hands. To Emperor Heraclius, or at least to the religious writers who wrote of his reign, the curious God-man relic was a holy item that would bring good luck to the emperor’s upcoming campaign. With an army at his disposal and his God-man image in hand, Emperor Heraclius set off on his campaign, choosing to march toward the Black Sea and Armenia.
Emperor Heraclius began his march around April, 622. This campaign was described by the chronicler, Theophanes (c. 750s-818), and he also made mention of the emperor’s peculiar God-man image. Theophanes wrote, “The emperor took into his hand an image of the God man (which hands did not paint, but which, just as He was conceived without semen, the Word which formed and shaped everything created [it] without painting). Putting his faith in the God-limned image, he began his struggles” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6113 (621-622 CE)). Whether through holy influence or human talent, Emperor Heraclius’ campaign in 622 did end up going well. The emperor’s march toward Armenia caught the attention of the Persian general, Shahrbarāz, who followed the emperor’s army for a time and then unwisely decided to engage in a battle. The fight turned out to be a decisive victory for Emperor Heraclius, and it was a much-needed boost in morale for the imperial troops who were pummeled by the Persians for two decades. As told by the aforementioned chronicler, Theophanes, “they had never thought to see Persian dust; now they had found and plundered their still-pitched tents. Who could have expected the invincible Persian race ever to show its back to the Romans?” (Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6113 (621-622 CE)). After winning this victory, Emperor Heraclius—holy image in hand—jubilantly returned home to Constantinople for the winter. The army, however, stayed on the Armenian front, where the war would continue.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration labeled Nicephore Botaniate, empereur d’orient, by Raphaël Jacquemin (c. 1821-1881?), [no rights statement] via Creative Commons and the NYPL).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.