Main SourcebooksAncientMedievalModern

Subsidiary SourcebooksAfricanEast AsianGlobalIndianJewishIslamicLesbian/GayScienceWomen

About IHSP Help Page IHSP Credits

Internet Medieval Sourcebook

Judith Herrin:

The Formation of Christendom (1987)

Judith Herrin. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton Univ Press. 1987 [from pg. 183]

Byzantium Confronted by Islam

The Failure of Ecclesiastical Reconciliation

WHILE GREGORY the Great was laying the basis for a united Latin faith, conscious of its own western identity and directed to its specific needs, Justinian's successors in the East struggled to unite opposing factions within the churches. The heritage of the Fifth Council and behind it the fourth, at Chalcedon, cast a long shadow over the seventh century in all parts of Christendom. Long after 553, the Nestorian (East Syrian), Monophysite (West Syrian) and Istrian churches remained out of communion with both Constantinopie and Rome. Debates were held, meetings arranged, and tracts published, often at imperial or patriarchal initiative, with a view to reconciling one or another dissident group, but none was crowned with notable success. A fixed pattern inauspiciously similar to that of the late fifth century seemed to condemn such efforts. When Zeno and Anastasios had devised formulae to reunite obdurate opponents of Chalcedon, they had achieved nothing but schism with Rome and had provoked eastern clerics to take their appeals to the see of St. Peter, a dangerous precedent. This procedure, however, was to be much used during the seventh century, when individuals or whole sectors of the eastern churches who received an unsympathetic hearing in Constantinople found it expedient ro seek support in the West.

Christendom remained disunited, with non-observant and non-orthodox groups looking more like a permanent feature than a temporary aberrance. The authorities in Constantinople might choose to ignore rather accept an entire hierarchy of Severan Syria, Mesopotamia, and parts of Egypt. In its key period of creative theology (the early sixrh century), this church had established an unshakeable hold on these areas, which effectively removed them beyond the control of any other patriarch. Imperial attempts to impose its own orthodox (i.e. Duophysite) leaders generally foundered, partly no doubt because Antioch resisted the ecclesiastical pressure of Constantinople, but also because the theological differences were passionately held and vigorously defended. Anastasios of Antioch, Pope Gregory's friend, tried actively to overcome these obstacles, promoting the theory thar there was only one energy in the Word (Monoenergism). He believed that on this basis some factions could be reconciled. But the position was acceptable only to a few, as later Monotheletes (believers in one will) were to find. A series of debates and exchanges between Neo-Chalcedonians and leaders of various Monophysite sects, primarily the tritheites (who held that there were three Gods within the Trinity) achieved little. Loyalty to particular wordings and local clerics produced bitter hostility. Not even greatly respected leaders like John the Faster or Domitian of Melitene could make headway. Doctrinal divisions were apparently too ingrown for changes to be more than a temporary accommodation. One hundred and fifty years of opposition to the formulations of Chalcedon could not be obliterated.

In addition, the central government faced problems of a different order, which may be illustrated by a story recorded both by the Monophysite chronicler, John of Ephesos, and by the Chalcedonian layman, Evagrios. After the defeat of a revolt of Baalbek in ca. 579, certain "heathens" revealed under torture the names of high-ranking of ficials involved in pagan cults, including Anatolios, the governor of Edessa. As the governmental party arrived to arrest him, the feast of Zeus was being celebrated in a private house. When identified, one participant committed suicide on the spot, but Anatolios himself fled to the local bishop, "to consult him on a point of Scripture. " This ruse was uncovered, and he was arresred and taken back to Antioch for questioning. Both the governor and his secretary there implicated Gregory, patriarch of Antioch, and Eulogios, representative of the patriarch of Alexandria, in human sacrifice. The deed had been held responsible for an earthquake at Daphne, outside Anrioch, and popular disquiet about the matter had allegedly prevented Gregory from celebrating the liturgy during Holy Week.

Following these revelations, the whole matter was transferred to Constantinople. Evagrios here presents an entirely different chronology, placing Gregory's visit to the capital later and for reasons unconnected with Anatolios. John, however, persists in the intimate association of the two men and details the patriarch's method of perverting the course of justice. He describes how Gregory arrived laden with gifts of gold, silver, costly outfits, and other presents, which were distributed lavishly to the emperor (now Maurice), leading men of the court, and people of influence. The whole aristocracy was thus bought off and the patriarch returned to Antioch, not only exonerated, but also in possession of funds for rhe construction of a hippodrome for public entertainmenr there! Building a ''church of Satan" was John of Ephesos's comment. Wherher Gregory had been correctly branded as a pagan or not, his ability to sway the course of justice in the capital indicates considerable independence. Anatolios had nothing like the same power and was condemned to a most horrible death after his trial. He was accused not only of celebrating the outlawed cults of the ancient gods, but also of commissioning a portrait of Christ that actually represented Apollo. In this way he would have maintained his devotion to the old gods while appearing to venerate a Christian icon.

With such unreliable representatives of imperial authority in charge of major centres like Antioch and Edessa, it is hardly surprising that Constantinople made little headway in winning over regions with a long history of separatist tendencies. Faced with such opposition, the central government began to make conformity to a stricter canon of belief and behaviour one of its prime demands. By the end of the seventh century, Justinian II would have developed the means of obtaining at least a nominal conformity from both civilian and ecclesiastical officials. But the suppression of dissent and the generation of broader theological agreement remained constant problems.


The traditional theory of a universal church protected by an empire that also embraced the entire known world became increasingly unconvincing towards the end of the sixth century. In the secular sphere, particularly, the hollowness of New Rome's claims was underlined by the imperial government's failure to check non-Roman advances and conquests of border regions. The reorganised exarchate of Ravenna also failed to prevent the establishment of Lombard duchies in central Italy and the southward advance of those forces permanently settled in the Po valley, while in the Balkans, repeated Avar and Slav devastation was followed by occupation. Against these Sklaviniai, documented from the last two decades of the century, reinforcements sent out from the capital were initially successful, but as a never-ending stream of settlers crossed the Danube in search of fertile territory, Byzantine forces began to falter. Military pressure was exacerbated by financial problems, which made it necessary for Maurice to reduce military pay. In his earlier and highly successful campaign against the Persians, the emperor had had to face mutinies among the troops, provoked by similar difficulties. His generals had been rejected, a rival emperor was even proclaimed at one stage, but in the end (and in part due to the persuasion of Gregory of Antioch, no less) the campaign was brought to a brilliant conclusion. In the spring of 591, an "everlasting" peace between Byzantium and Persia was signed, and Chosroes II assumed the Sasanian throne as a grateful ally of the emperor.

A similar solution to the Balkan troubles was not possible. Not only were the Avar-Slav invaders difficult to negotiate with, being loosely organised under individual leaders, but in addition their very disparate nature meant constant unpredictability and contradictory military thrusts. Byzantine inability to adapt to this disorganised threat was symbolic of a more general military and political weakness, which manifested itself in dissatisfaction among the fighting forces. For a decade, from about 592 on, as successful raids across the Danube were balanced or cancelled out by unexpected Slavonic inroads, this frustration accumulated. Then in the autumn of 602, faced with the prospect of another futile winter campaign north of the Danube without bread rations and regular pay, certain army detachments raised their commander, Phokas, on a shield. By this well- established custom they thereby declared their lack of confidence in Emperor Maurice and demanded a more effective leader. Phokas assumed the title of exarch and began a triumphant march on the capital. News of the coup provoked a popular uprising in Constantinople, where the circus factions of Blues and Greens appear to have galvanised every element of opposition. Although they took their names from the colours worn by the teams that originally organised chariot racing in circuses and hippodromes throughout the Roman world, by the early seventh century the two factions of Constantinople had additional ceremonial and military duties. They attended the emperor on certain pulic occasions and could be deployed as a fighting force when necessary. In 602 Maurice entrusted them with the defence of the city walls, but they betrayed him. The emperor also sent his eldest son, Theodosios, to the Persians to request immediate assistance and prepared for flight. But he and his family were caught and returned to Constantinople, where Phokas had been welcomed as emperor. It may have been a scuffle between Blue and Green partisans at a special ceremony, which he clearly misunderstood, that provoked the new ruler's determination to have Maurice and the imperial princes murdered. Constantina and the daughters were confined to a nunnery, and the half-barbarian army officer, Phokas, became undisputed emperor of the East.

The Reign of Phokas (602-610)

His brief reign symbolises the disintegration afflicting Byzantium in the early seventh century. While his elevation followed a traditional military path to the throne, Phokas was a singularly inept choice, devoid of strategic or administrative capacities. Notable failures in both civilian government and military activity quickly reduced the confidence of even his most enthusiastic supporters, chiefly his fellow soldiers and members of the Green faction. And almost from his accession, partisans of the late emperor plotted with Constantina, utilising Chosroes's support and the threat of a Persian invasion. Popular riots in 603 and 605, a revolt in Edessa, and an alliance between Narses, the rebel commander, and the Persians, bear witness to the immediate antagonism to Phokas. But the new ruler commanded enough loyalty to uncover and repress these plots. Constantina herself, tortured to name accomplices, was finally put to death together with her three daughters and many senators, thus completing Phokas's slaughter of the family. Numerous military officers had similarly been mutilated, killed, or forced into ecclesiastical positions. Phokas employed his brother, son-in-law, and few remaining supporters in unsuccessful campaigns against the Persians, and tried to buy off the Avars with increased tribute. But he failed to secure a greater measure of security for Thessalonike, and after 604 many Slavs were able to settle unopposed in its environs.

Only in the West did Phokas maintain successful relations with both Byzantine administrators and foreign allies. And this was achieved largely by concession. To the exarchate of Ravenna he appointed Smaragdus, who had previously been removed for insanity. In the 580s this exarch had mounted a punitive raid against the Istrian schismatics, which captured the leading ecclesiastics under Severus of Grado, and forced them to accept the imperial position. The return of such an of ficial can hardly have augured well for the region, but it was accompanied by policies designed to placate. Lombard aggression, provoked by rhe kidnapping of King Agilulf's daughter, was assuaged by her return (603), and Roman hostility to eastern patriarchal claims to the title "oecumenical" lessened by a confirmation of papal primacy (607). During Phokas's reign the most isolated Byzantine garrison at Cremona was withdrawn, and a series of truces left Agilulf free to consolidate his northern kingdom. Smaragdus commemorated the emperor by erecting his statue on a column in the Forum, but none of his policies in the West would appear to justify such an honour. The emperor's authority in Rome was, however, acknowledged by Pope Boniface IV (608-615), who requested imperial permission to convert the Pantheon into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin and all martyrs. This marks the beginning of an important process of creating more Christian monuments in the predominantly pagan centre of Rome. But there is no evidence that Phokas took the initiative in it. During his reign neither the Istrian schism, nor the row over ecclesiastical ritles, nor the Lombard threat was solved; rather, they all persisted and continued to dominate Byzantine problems in the West.

The Senatorial Coup Against Phokas

After six years of terror, undirected government, unchecked Persian and Slav raiding, manipulation of the church, and continuing economic decline, the Senate of Constantinople took steps to remove the emperor. A secret letter was sent to Herakleios, exarch of Carthage, asking for his direct intervention. The invitation went in the name of Priskos, count of the exkoubitors, who had married the emperor's daughter (thus becoming the most likely successor) but now turned against him. By this appeal to an elderly Armenian general, associated with the Emperor Maurice and with a period of successful anti-Persian campaigning in the East, the metropolitan aristocracy expressed its unprecedented dissatisfaction. No other military commander could assist in this coup, for Theodoros, eparch of Cappadocia and the East, the generals Narses, Germanos, and Philippikos, and many other leaders had already been killed or removed by the emperor, whose appointees governed Ravenna and the major eastern provinces. It was therefore a last and slim chance, which indicates the desperation in Constantinople. Senators were prepared to run the risk of treasonable activ- ity and certain death if discovered.

The man to whom they appealed may have been appointed to the exarchate of Africa by Maurice, possibly after the death of Gennadios, exarch until ca. 598-99. (The fact that Herakleios was not apparently known to Pope Gregory the Great, who corresponded with Gennadios and the prefect Innocent, does not provide a decisive date.) Together with his brother Gregory, Herakleios directed the joint civil and military administration of the prosperous province. The export of natural foodstuffs (grain and oil) as well as manufactured objects (pottery) testify to Africa's continuing role in the traditional sea-borne Mediterranean economy. It was certainly by withholding the annual grain fleet in 60 that Herakleios registered his agreement with the senatorial plot. At that time his wife and future daughter-in-law were in fact in Constanrinple, perhaps in touch with his allies. Instead of participating in the plan himself, however, the exarch appointed his son, also called Herakleios, consul, thus designating him as leader of the Senate, a position traditionally held by a consul. In this way the younger Herakleios became a rival to Phokas with the highest title in the imperial hierarchy after that of ruler. In Carthage coins were struck with portraits of the two, father and son, exarch and consul. Whether or not this constitutional move was actually suggested by those in the capital, it established the young Herakleios's claim and gave him a formal position, from which he could be elevated to the throne. The 610 coup was thus quite different from Phokas's; it was achieved primarily by the Senate with military cooperation, not by a forceful revolt of dissatisfied soldiers.

The exarch appreciated the problems involved in mounting a coup from such a distance and planned the approach to Constantinople carefully. First his nephew Niketas (son of Gregory) was sent with the land forces of the exarchate to occupy Tripoli and the Pentapolis (modern Libya) and then Egypt. Only when Alexandria had been taken after fierce fighting with Phokas's general Bonosos, and the Egyptian fleet brought under control (November 609), was it possible for Herakleios the consul to embark for the capital. He commanded the fleets of Mauretania and Africa manned by Maroi, local Berbers, and protected by the Virgin, whose icon was displayed on their mastheads. Constantinople had not only been deprived of grain from Africa and Egypt after 609, but the winter of 608-609 had been unusually harsh, causing bad harvests, famine, and even freezing the sea. Phokas's murders and high-handed treatment of ecclesiastics compounded with shortages of bread and food made the capital rebellious. Few stood by the emperor as Herakleios's fleet approached. At Abydos, the southern- most point of the Propontis, the consul was welcomed by customs officials and informally crowned by the metropolitan of Kyzikos before sailing on to the city. There Phokas was found defenceless and alone in one of the palace churches by two senators, who arrested him. A legendary conversation between the two emperors on board ship may preserve some echo of a personal confrontation, in which the consul accused Phokas of gross mismanagement, and the latter replied, "You do better!" But Herakleios met no organised opposition and was soon raised from the position of consul to emperor, crowned by Patriarch Sergios and acclaimed by the Senate, factions, and people in St. Sophia. After this traditional Byzantine accession, he was also reunited with Fabia/Eudokia, his fiancee, who was crowned empress immediately after their marriage. One treasury official was killed with Phokas and burned in the bronze ox at the Forum Tauri, traditionally used for the cremation of tyrants and criminals. Phokas's brother, Domentziolos, and General Bonosos also died, while s'ymbols of the Blues and the exarch of the city were burned in the Hippodrome with a portrait or statue (eikon) of the deceased emperor. Phokas had adopted the habit of having his image paraded in the Hippodrome for people to make their obeisance.

Problems Facing Herakleios

The coup was thus completely successful. But from the provinces, opposition flared up. A general identified as another brother of Phokas marched his loyal troops towards Constantinople and was only checked by an Armenian assassin. In ItalyJohn Lemigios replaced Smaragdus as exarch but was unable to prevent a revolt against new taxes. Herakleios's new exarch, Eleutherios, was initially more successful. Only a few years later, however, the same official rebelled (619) and was in turn killed by the Roman militia. While the African exarchate, now governed by the new emperor's uncle, Gregory, remained calm and proud of their own consul's success, Ravenna displayed a tendency to independence, which increased throughout the seventh century. In conflicts with both Constantinople and with Rome, its metropolitans and local nobility attempted to win more autonomy. The same hostility to Byzantine control was manifested by certain sectors of the eastern population, who welcomed the Persians into their cities. Economic pressures and differences of belief may account for some of this opposition. But in addition, traditional imperial administration, civil, military, and ecclesiastical, was clearly failing to sustain the loyalties of many groups and sects. Naturally, external enemies determined to take advantage of the situation.

Coming from Carthage and with a tradition of military leadership in his Armenian family, Herakleios represented the provincial aristocracy rather than the senatorial leaders of the capital, who had promoted him. He appears to have accepted a greater degree of guidance from the Senate than was usual, as well as its participation in government, perhaps in order to share responsibility for the weakened state of which he now had charge. The contrast between Africa and the East must have been striking. In Constantinople there was hunger, inadequate funds to finance the court and administration, and a lack of regular troops. On 20 April 611, a great earthquake shook the city, a terrifying event that had to be mitigated by special litanies and prayers. In Asia Minor the Persians were capturing major cities like Caesarea while the Avars devastated Europe. Herakleios, then about 35 years old, had no previous experience of central government; his chief allies were his cousin, Niketas, who arrived from Egypt after the coronation, and his brother Theodore, both young men from Africa like himself. Hardly a single competent general was available to assist him, so he probably needed senatorial advice and help. At this time the Constantinopolitan Senate probably included representatives of the provincial aristocracy who sought refuge in the capital from rural disorders. Priskos; who had issued the original suggestion to Herakleios, might have been a most useful ally. But the emperor distrusted his designs on the throne and sent him off to recapture Caesarea. Patriarch Sergios, on the other hand, put his authority behind Herakleios, and it was to prove very important. One of the emperor's first legal acts concerned the clergy attached to the Great Church (of St. Sophia, Holy Wisdom); their numbers and ranks were clearly established.

The Alliance Between Church and State

The scale of problems facing the new emperor may perhaps be gauged by the fact that during the first decade of his reign he contemplated moving his capital to Carthage, a plan vigorously opposed by the metropolitan population and the patriarch. Sergios's argument against leaving Constantinople may have been supported by the promise of ecclesiastical assistance for the depleted financial resources of the empire. Although no agreement is recorded officially, every known action of the patriarch appears to confirm this decision to help Herakleios in his daunting tasks. The alliance appears to have been based on a close friendship, which was tested by a disaster in the emperor's family. In August 612 Empress Fabia- Eudokia died and was buried in the imperial mausoleum at the Holy Apostles. For the court ceremonies to be continued, the little princess Epiphaneia (then aged 15 months) was crowned empress, but the emperor quickly sought another bride. Unfortunately, his choice of Martina, his own niece, provoked popular protest at a marriage deemed incestuous and declared uncanonical by Sergios. However, once it became evident that Herakleios could not be moved, despite his recognition of the prohibited degree of consanguinity, the patriarch decided to make the best of the situation and stood by the emperor. He duly blessed the couple, crowned Martina as empress, and baptised their son, Constantine, born one year later.

Another element in the new alliance was welded in 619, when the Avars raided the suburbs of Constantinople, causing great terror and panic among the local population. Sergios agreed to a loan of church plate to pro- vide silver for a new coin, struck to buy a peace treaty with the Chagan. At this time supplies of other metals, even bronze in the form of antique statues, were collected and melted down to be minted as coin. But normally the gold and silver in church liturgical vessels was only sold to ransom Christian prisoners, and Sergios's innovation clearly represented an unusual measure of support for secular matters. It was probably during the same Avar threat that the patriarch arranged for the precious relic of the Virgin's robe, which was kept at Blachernai outside the city walls, to be transferred to St. Sophia for safe-keeping. Once peace returned, Sergios had the church at Blachernai restored and devised a ceremony involving the emperor, as his "assistant," the clergy, and the entire population of Constantinople in the relic's return. First it was transferred to the church of St. Lawrence, where an all-night vigil was held. Then, on the appointed day, a procession set out carrying the precious casket to Blachernai, where its seals were broken and the relic itself displayed, "completely intact, whole and indestructible," although the imperial purple silk in which it was wrapped had perished. Once it had been reinstalled in the shrine, a service was held and a new festival decreed to commemorate the event, which confirmed popular conviction that the Virgin ensured the city's defence. The episode prefigured the highly successful mobilisations that Sergios would organise later, which constituted a significant part of the new alliance between church and state.

The patriarch also revealed his support for the emperor in a practical fashion when the traditional free distributions of bread had to be abandoned, a highly unpopular measure. After the loss of Egypt in 619, the price of a loaf was set at three folleis (bronze coins). When the of ficial in charge of the new system, John (nicknamed "the Earthquake") tried to more than double the price to eight folleis, a crowd of protesters, led by some of the palace guards (scholai), advanced to St. Sophia in riotous ill humour. Sergios got to the bottom of the problem quickly; he ordered the city prefect to arrest John and take over bread distribution at the old price, thus preventing a serious popular revolt. THE PERSIAN MILITARY CHALLENGE: THE CAPTURE OFJERUSALEM While the Avaro-Slav menace to the European provinces of the empire preoccupied the emperor during the first decade of his reign--indeed, it nearly resulted in his death at Herakleia--his period was marked by an even more dangerous Persian assault. Chosroes II, to whom Maurice had appealed in 602, continued to use this as a pretext for expansion into imperial territory in the East. Neither Phokas nor Herakleios were able to check these advances, which resulted in a severe defeat for the new emperor in 613 and the loss of Antioch. In the following year, a two-pronged attack against Syria and Armenia routed imperial defences; Damascus and then Jerusalem fell, with the catastrophic destruction of Christian monuments and the removal of the True Cross from its shrine in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. An eyewitness account by Strategikos, a monk of the Mar Sabas monastery, describes the slaughter, looting, and burning and the patriarch's efforts to console and strengthen those who remained alive and faced exile in their captors' homeland: "When the holy Zacharias saw the con- gregation of people in this lamentation . . . he said to them, 'Blessed is the Lord, who makes this chastisement to come upon us.... Do not lament, my children, because of this captivity, for even I, the sinner Zacharias, your father, am with you in captivity.... Behold we have His cross in our protection and He, who is exalted over us is with us, the True Father who inhabits the heavens.... And now, lift up your voice and call upon the Lord and do not cease from prayer, that he may save us from the hands of your enemies....' As the Persians began to drive them away from the Mount of Olives, where this sermon was given, Zacharias bade farewell to Jerusalem: 'Peace to you, Sion, bride of Christ, peace to you, Jerusalem, holy city; peace to you, Holy Anastasis, illuminated by the Lord . . . this is the last peace and my final greeting to you; may I have hope and length of days that I may eventually gain your vision again?' " Then the column of prisoners moved off, 35 ,000 according to the Armenian bishop Sebeos, leaving behind many thousands of dead. Sebeos says 57,000; Strategikos, relying on Thomas, one of the unfortunate survivors who had to bury the bodies, claims 66,509, and gives a detailed breakdown of the figures by location. To contemporaries, the capture of the holy places by the pagan Zoroastrians was an unparalleled disaster. For the Persians, however, Jerusalem constituted the base from which Egypt could be conquered, and from 619 the entire province passed under Persian rule for almost a decade. Imperial resistance was not effective, and Chosroes repeatedly spurned the embassies sent by Herakleios to negotiate a peace settlement. Nor was Asia Minor spared, for it was during the long campaign of 613-19 that many of the oldest urban centres were overrun. The classical way of life was brought to an abrupt end; survivors took refuge in citadels and new mountain set- tlements more like fortihed villages than ancient cities.

Faced with destruction on this scale, and with the appearance of the Persians as far west as the Bosphoros on more than one occasion, Herakleios set about reorganising and training Byzantine military forces. Among the professional troops, the exkotbitors represented a capable regiment, but it was commanded by Priskos, whom Herakleios had reason to distrust as Phokas's son-in-law. After the debacle at Caesarea, when the Persians broke through the Byzantine siege and made good their retreat after a 12- month occupation, Priskos was summoned to stand trial before the Senate of Constantinople. The emperor stripped him of his wealth and titles and forced him to enter a monastery. His personal retainers, however, were enrolled as soldiers of the state, and issued with the traditional army rations of grain, though bread was in short supply. At the same time Herakleios appointed his cousin Niketas to lead the exkobitors and placed other supporters in key military positions: Philippikos, one of his father's associates and Maurice's brother-in-law, was brought out of a monastery to assume the title of count, and Theodore, the emperor's brother, was named kouropalates, the highest imperial position, and sent to replace Priskos. The chief reform of Byzantine forces, however, concerned the regrouping of palarine soldiers as a fighting force called the Opsikion. It seems to have been effective by 615, when a count of Opsikion is recorded in the position previously held by the count of the domestics (comes domesticorm). The Opsikion troops probably accompanied the emperor on his military campaigns in the East and formed the nucleus of a new regiment later based in Birhynia, the westernmost point of Asia Minor, opposite Constantinople.

By making military recovery his priority, Herakleios intensifed those currents tending towards an increasing militarisation of the empire. All exploitable institutions and resources were used, even when their subjection to military ends produced economic hardship and popular opposition. Thelengths to which the emperor was prepared to go may be illustrated by the decision to abolish free distributions of bread. After attempts to raise the price, the new principle was imposed, not without trouble. But at the same time, grain was sent to Thessalonike under siege (617- 19). To bring an end to the Avar threat to the Balkans, a truce was purchased in the new silver coin struck from church treasures. The same coin was also forced onto the administration, even though it represented an effective salary cut of 50%. The other metals melted down for coinage went to finance the treasury of the exkobitors, who were responsible for recruitment, and to the pay packets of new recruits. In thus putting Byzantine society on a war footing, Herakleios secured a more centralised mobilisation of the entire population during the 620s. He also prepared for the offensive against Persia by studying military manuals and strategy, for like Maurice, Herakleios was determined to lead his own forces into battle.

Although this personal involvement of the emperor was deplored by some members of the Senate, there can be no doubt that it was Herakleios's leadership that guaranteed a greater measure of success than could have been anticipated in 622 when he left the capital. After the peace treaty with the Avars (620), he had transferred what remained of the imperial troops in Europe to Asia, despite evident Slavonic activity. New recruits had been enrolled in the lists, armed, trained, instructed as to their Christian role and prepared for serious action. But to the contemporary poet, George of Pisidia, it was the emperor's piety and faith that proved decisive in the defeat of the pagan Chosroes. Carrying icons of Christ and the Virgin, a mark of Byzantine belief and a guarantee of holy protection, the troops advanced into Asia Minor, where they trained for several months under their supreme commander. Thus strengthened, they then marched east, deep into Armenia, achieving a notable victory in the winter of 622-23. For the next five years Herakleios remained in the East, even during the 626 Persian campaign, which advanced nearly to the walls of his capital. The decisive victory finally occurred late in 627, when Byzantine forces met Persian near the ancient city of Nineveh: the Zoroastrians suffered a total defeat. Early in 628, Chosroes was forced to flee from Dastagerd deep inside his empire. The humiliation provoked a coup in which he was killed and his son proclaimed ruler. Through the peace that followed immediately, Herakleios regained all the disputed eastern territory occupied during the previous 15 years. The Persian challenge was finally and decisively answered, but in the same process, both Iran and Byzantium were left weakened and ill-prepared to meet further external threats.

The Siege of 626

Prior to his departure from Constantinople at Easter 622, the emperor had made arrangements to secure its safety. These reflect the alliance between church and state and the degree to which Herakleios respected Sergios's advice. For the emperor entrusted his young son to the care of the patriarch and a general, Bonos, who were to form a council of regency in his ab- sence. He also relied on Sergios to plan the ceremonies that preceded the army's departure: sermons emphasising the crusading mission against the fire-worshipping Persians and the most holy task of returning the Cross to Jerusalem, and blessings on the soldiers who marched behind an icon of Christ "not made by human hands." This trust was not misplaced. When the regents were faced by major problems during the emperor's long cam- paign in the East, they did not falter.

In 625-26 a large force of Avars and Slavs, led by the Avar Chagan in person, advanced through Thrace towards the capital, while a Persian army approached Chalcedon, the Asiatic city on the Bosphoros opposite Constantinople. The threat of a combined and coordinated siege became clear after the failure of several diplomatic initiatives; this time the enemy was confident of victory. With the Slavs poised to ferry the Persians to the European side of the Bosphoros, the city was in a precarious state. Patriarch Sergios nonetheless addressed the besiegers with confidence: 'Oh strange peoples and daimonic hoards, you have undertaken this whole war against these {places} of ours. But the Lady Theotokos will put an end to your presumption and arrogance by her single command. For she is truly the mother of Him who immersed the Pharaoh and all his army in the middle of the Red Sea, and who will prove this daimonic hoard listless and feeble." He took a major part in the defence, organising processions of icons of Christ and the Virgin, which were carried round the walls accompanied by the city population, now increased by large numbers of refugees. They chanted hymns and prayers for divine intervention, while General Bonos led military sorties and planned the naval attack that destroyed the Slav ships (monoxyles, single-trunk canoes). This energetic mobilisation of the ordinary people undoubtedly contributed to the city's success in withstanding a brief but terrifying siege, when the emperor was hundreds of miles away in Armenia. After eleven days, the Avaro-Slav forces retired; their failure to capture the Queen City provoked a crisis within the alliance and eventually the collapse of the Danubian Empire of the Avars. The Persians remained encamped on the Bosphoros, within sight of their objective but unable to cross over to it, until the winter of 626-27.

In the folklore of Constantinople, this double victory held a very special place: according to a contemporary source, the Virgin herself had been seen fighting from the walls beside the defenders, a belief that increased common faith in her protective powers. This faith in the Virgin was enhanced by the introduction of her four feasts into the calendar of the Constantinopolitan church. Sergios certainly took the initiative in encouraging the cult, which confirmed popular belief in the "God-guarded" character of Constantinople. He also introduced a separate feast for the elevation of the True Cross when Herakleios returned it in triumph from the East. In addition, during the emperor's absence, two new liturgies were adopted, probably to mark victories in the East. In 624, Sergios's new hymn for the celebration of the Eucharist was first sung, and two years later a new liturgy of the Presanctified, a rite for Lent, which later spread to other seasons. In this way the patriarch not only contributed to the belief that Constantinople was destined to wirhstand attack because divine powers had ordained that it should remain a Christian bulwark against non-believers; he also composed new riruals that marked the Constantinopolitan church off from others, reinforcing the sense of its historic role.

The patriarch's personal contribution to the city's defence was highlighted when General Bonos died (in May 627) and Sergios remained sole regent and effective head of government. His success in this civilian role conformed to the emperor's high expectations. It was thus as the hero of the siege that Sergios accompanied young Herakleios-Constantine to welcome his father home in 628. The victorious emperor entered his capital in triumph and celebrated the Christian empire's supremacy over its pagan enemies with the patriarch beside him. Herakleios later returned the True Cross to Jerusalem, a symbol both of God's favour to devout believers and of restored Byzanrine authority in the East Mediterranean world.

Herakleios's Innovations

While George of Pisidia may have been confident in the emperor alone, twentieth-century historians must ask how such a remarkable reversal of Byzantine fortunes was realised. In particular, what meaning should be given to the terms nea strateia ("new army") and tas ton theinaton choras ("the lands of the themes"), descriptions that occur for the first time in the much commentary. Do they indicate some major reform undertaken by the emperor prior to his departure on the Persian campaign?

Although the precise meaning to be attached to strateia is disputed, in this context it seems reasonable to identify this new army with the body of recruits enrolled by the emperor's of ficers and exkobitors at this time. The evidence of temporary provincial mints, coupled with the imperial decision to increase funds by a variety of measures (as mentioned above), confirms the importance of this recruiting drive and indicates one area in which Herakleios's reorganisation had lasting effects, namely currency reform. By making additional money available, a large number of new soldiers could be enlisted. But this inexperienced force must have been stiffened by mercenaries hired for the campaign, such as the Lombards who participated. In addition, the regular troops attached to the armies of the Orient, Armenia, Thrace, and the Obsequium also took part. This motley collection of troops was trained by the emperor personally prior ro the departure from central Asia Minor. While it proved quickly successful, the key role in defeating the Persians may have been played by Herakleios's foreign allies, the Khazars. The new army, assembled before the campaign, is never again referred to as a separate unit and presumably dispersed on its return to Byzantium in 628.

As far as the term thena is concerned, an even greater obscurity surrounds its origin and meaning. Later in the seventh century, the themata are known as administrative units in Asia Minor, designed to centralise large areas under military command, somewhat in the manner of the western exarchates. The development from "the lands of the themes" to these well-documented "provinces" endowed with their own fighting forces is what causes such problems, although nearly every aspect of the history of themata is difficult. One area of agreement concerns the origin of the forces attached to the four original themata of Asia Minor: this origin is to be sought in the four chief armies of Late Roman times (of the Orient, Armenia, Thrace, and the Obsequium). But was Herakleios responible for their transformatino into military contingents settled in specific regions to which they gave their names? In particular, could such a reorganisation have been undertaken before 622 and did it contribute to the success of the campaign?

After the campaign of 622-28, Byzantine forces proved singularly ineffectual, and no troops identified as those of themata appear active. But Herakleios did undertake a reform of the Obsequium force, which he later settled in northwestern Asia Minor, a region known as the thema of Opsikion, in about 640. This move may well have provided the model for the dispersal of other units in different areas.

Herakleios was the emperor who defeated the Zoroastrian fire-worshippers, regained the True Cross, and returned it to Jerusalem. His example of military leadership, personal training, and involvement was to prove an important one for later Byzantine rulers. And behind this informed direction of the defence of the empire lies the emperor's subordination of all imperial resources to military purposes. The variety of means used to increase monetary supplies, the centralisation of economic control, and the use of provincial mints to facilitate recruitment and pay, all reflect Herakleios's innovation in the issue of coinage. Currency reform may have been the factor on which all other changes turned.

The Effects of the Persian Invasion

Despite the final victory in 628, when the Byzantine forces marched back to Constantinople they traversed areas of the empire that had been permanently and severely affected by the Persian campaign of 613-19. In particular, the spacious classical cities of antiquity had been destroyed and abandoned, marking a complete change in living patterns. The same process had taken place in the European provinces, producing new settlements. Other communities fled from their cities to islands. According to the Chronicle of Monemvasia, the bishop of Patras arranged for his flock to sail to safety in Sicily, where they remained for over 200 years. Only in the early ninth century did they return to Greece. While urban communities sometimes managed to preserve a certain cohesion, even as refugees, many fled in disorder. Everywhere life was ruralised, localised, and restricted. Provincial nobles and wealthy landowners may have sought refuge behind the walls of their fortified villas; those with houses in the capital maintained their aristocratic ways and added to the permanent membership of the Senate. In the confusion that afflicted the countryside, tied serfs and slaves probably tried to break free from their owners' estates, to become independent in new village or castle communities, where they could occupy and farm their own lands. The disruption of large-scale estate cultivation and regular agricultural activity, plus the lack of contact between different regions, gradually reduced the economy to a subsistence one. In place of organised exchange through markets with important goods available for sale, self-sufficiency became close to the norm - in manufactured goods as well as foodstuffs.

Even in a reduced state, some cities continued to exist. Thessalonike resisted repeated sieges under the energetic leadership of its bishops, supposedly aided by the protectino of its patron saint, Demetrios. The ruling people there may have been merchants involved in the grain trade of the city. Similarly, Athens, Corinth, Pergamon, Sardis, Ephesos, and others remained urban centres, though confined to their citadel walls and very much reduced in regular population. They became very different centres, organised as garrisons and provincial capitals for the protection of the surrounding villages; the bases of thema administration under the control of a central government rather than autonomous urban organs of a world united by international trade.

Byzantine Adaptation

In urgan terms, only Constantinople retained its ancient character as a metropolitan centre with its fora, arcades, public buildings, and statues. Similarly, the imperial court became the sole source of patronage, and the patriarchate developed into the most important religious centre in the East. Both adapted their ritual with new ceremonies and liturgies that emphasized their uniqueness. Even the circus factions (Greens and Blues) were gradually tamed by these changes to become more of an ornament of the court and its appearances in public. Their independent power was not entirely curbed, however, and would still play a significant role in political and military affairs in the eighth century.

As the empire shrank into increasing isolation, Latin was forgotten and Greek became the only lingua franca. Herakleios's official employment of the term Basileus from 629 in place of Imperator reflects this shift, which symbolises the passing of an epoch. The same dominance of Greek is visible in court titles and in the new thema administration under a strategos and krites. Despite a tendency to preserve archaic military forms, during the seventh century army offices were hellenised if not completely transformed, and the new rank of imperial spatharios was created. Under the impact of Herakleios's militarisation of the empire, aristocratic forms of address, rank, and function changed, and court positions previously resrved for eunuchs were bestowed on bearded men. It was probably from that capital that Herakleios recruited his generals and thema administrators. Certainly the Senate of Constantinople, which retained considerable influence throughout the century, was the sole remnant of curial autonomy and the only aristocratic body. This concentration of the well-born and the wealthy must have formed an important source for imperial advisers, court dignitaries, and bureaucrats.

Outside the capital, in the void caused by the breakdown of traditional provincial administration, bishops were sometimes forced to play an entirely civilian and military role. This extension of their previous participation in local government was emphasised by the chaotic conditions but was not noticeably different. The monks and bishops of the Tur Abdin in southeast Anatolia resisted the Persians for two years; Amida held out for three. In those parts of Syria where hostility to Chalcedon still dominated relations with the church of Constantinople, there were incidents of dissident Monophysites welcoming the invaders. But such a defiant anti-imperial gesture was generally reserved to Jewish communities, for example in Antioch in 609 when Patriarch Anastasios II was lynched. This revolt was provoked as much by Phokas's efforts to convert the Jews as by the proximity of the Persians, who did not succeed in capturing the city until 611. It was, however, in Jerusalem that the Jews were later held responsible for betrayal. In 614, Patriarch Zacharias had prepared for a long siege, confident in the city's walls and in the hope of imperial assistance. But after only six months the Persians entered by a secret passage and inflicted the worst recorded devastation of the holy places. According to Strategikos and Sebeos, the Jews openly rejoiced at the slaughter of Christians, and even participated in it by ransoming individuals, who were pressured to abandon their faith and killed if they refused. While such accusations resound with stock charges from a long tradition of conflict, stories of Jewish treachery in Jerusalem certainly colored later church dealings with the synagogues, as the Byzantine authorities attempted to persuade adherents of the Old Testament to accept the evident truths of the New. Although neither theological pressure in the form of Dialogues between Christians and Jews not outright persecution succeeded in this aim, it was pursued by Constantinople as a continuous ideal to the end of the empire.

Renewed Efforts for Ecclesiastical Unity

Among the Christians, however, Herakleios, like all previous emperors, insisted that there should be and could be greater uniformity in belief. He supported Patriarch Sergios's attempt to find common ground via the doctrine of one energy in Christ (Monoenergism), which avoided discussion of His nature. During the Persian campaign he also made contact with the Cypriot Monophysite community, whose leader was in Armenia in the 620s. The issue of Christian disunity was posed in a heightened form by the reoccupation of the eastern provinces, largely Monophysite, after 628. So when the emperor returned the True Cross to Jerusalem, he had talks with the Nestorian community and some dissidents at Edessa, and met Athanasios, the Monophysite Patriarch of Antioch, at Hierapolis. At the same time, Bishop Kyros of Phasis was appointed to Alexandria, where a moderate group of Monophysites called Theodosians seemed interested in re-establishing communion with Constantinople. Armed with a patristic florilegium attributed to the sixth-centyry Patriarch Menas, he was able to win them over and issued a document to celebrate the union in June 633. Monoenergism thus appeared to succeed in uniting Christians of very different persuasions.

In Palestine, however, antagonism to the one-energy doctrine found a vociferous exponent in an elderly monk, Sophronios, who was accalimed as patriarch of Jerusalem by the clergy there, in late 633 or early in 634. He had already travelled to Alexandria and Constantinople in an effort to prevent the agreements reached by Kyros and Sergios, who denounced him as a troublemaker. But his defence of the Chalcedonian position, backed by considerable popular support, proved sufficiently impressive for Sergios to have second thoughts about the emphatic statement of Monoenergism employed in the Alexandrian union. He issued a new formulation that stressed the unity of the Word (Logos) as the force responsible for directing both the human and spiritual aspects of Christ, and forbade debate over His energy or energies. This brief document also endorsed the theory of Monotheletism, Christ's one will, a doctrine acceptable to many Monophysites as well as Chalcedonians.

Monotheletism--The Doctrine of One Will. Although the problems of Christ's nature, energy, and will were all interrelated and had been addressed by many theologians before, Sergios now attempted to resolve the central problem raised by Gospel stories of the Gethsemane prayer. If Jesus could have appealed to His Father, saying, "Not my will but thine be done," was there not an opposition between His human will and the divine will of God? The answer provided in the new formulation was that Jesus manifested an instinctive movement of the flesh in this moment of weakness, which created a tension between His one divine will and apparent human desire. Sts. Athanasios and John Chrysostomos had offered the same explanation, so Sergio could justifiably stress that Jesus had one will corresponding to the hypostatic unity of His person. The Gethsemane incident was interpreted as evidence of the one divine will in the Trinity of three persons.

This new formulation was immediately circulated to the eastern patriarchs and the pope, then Honorius I, with a letter describing the union achieved at Alexandria. Sergios clearly hoped that by respecting the Chalcedonian wording "in two natures" and supporting the idea of Christ's "theandric" energy, derived from the writings of Pseudo-Dionysios, he could gain general acceptance for the new formulation. He also recommended a ban on further debate and condemned as a "war of words" the anxieties expressed by Sophronios. Unaware of the strength of feeling in the East, Pope Honorius responded favourably to the patriarchal formula and agreed with the need to silence discussion. In this, his first letter to Sergios, he also declared his belief in Christ's one will. Another distinguished monastic leader, Maximos the Confessor, praised the patriarch in lavish terms. Even Sophronios appeared satisfied by the withdrawal of the Alexandrian statement of Monenergism. Thus union seemed definite, and Sophronios was confirmed as patriarch of Jerusalem in 634.

Some lingering doubts remained, however, for in the synodical letter announcing his election as patriarch, Sophronios recapitulated the Chalcedonian doctrine of the unity of the human and divine in Christ. In this long, dogmatic statement, the contradictions of Monotheletism were forcefully revealed in a way that cast heavy theological suspicion on the union devised and so ardently desired in Constantinople. The document was sent to Constantinople and Rome, though not to Alexandria, already committed to the one-will doctrine by Patriarch Kyros, or to Antioch, irredeemably Monophysite. But it met with no success. Sergios of course rejected it, and Honorius found himself bound by his own statement on the will of Christ. In his failure to convince any of the other church leaders, the new patriarch of Jerusalem thus opened a schism over Monotheletism. It was with a sense of increasing isolation that Sophronios tried to get the theological arguments debated at a church council. He persuaded Bishop Arkadios of Cyprus to convene a synod, which met in the mid-630s and brought together 46 bishops. Under cover of the Trisagion issue (a formula that had become the hallmark of Monophysite belief), Sophronios's defence of the Chalcedonian definitions were discussed. One of Maximos the Confessor's disciples, Anastasios, put the case for Christ's two wills and two energies, but without success. The bishops were unable to conclude and decided to refer the matter to the emperor, a procedure that could not possibly advance Chalcedonian theology against Monotheletism. Realising that he had lost the battle for correct belief in the East, Sophronios decided to appeal directly to Rome and sent his personal envoy, Stephen of Dora, to the West.

Honorius, however, had already given his allegiance to the theory of one will, which was further used by Sergios in his final attempt to elaborate the official theology of Monotheletism. This was issued by Herakleios in 638 as an imperial edict to be observed by all Byzantine subjects. Constantinople's theology was thus given the force of imperial law. But like so many other compromise doctrines, it failed. In a brief three-paragraph definition, too little was expounded and too much omitted. The fierce and inevitable opposition of Sophronios and Maximos encouraged others, generally monks with a rigorous theological training. But in the course of unforeseen military and political events in the East, the centre of hostility to Constantinopolitan Monotheletism shifted to Rome. The doctrine developed to achieve Christian unity instead had the effect of driving another wedge between Old and New Rome.

Although a contrast is frequently made between pliable episcopal acceptance of Monotheletism and obstinate monastic opposition, this does not explain the division. Moderate Monophysite monks in Alexandria and Antioch appear to have welcomed the possibility of rejoining the Chalcedonian church; other monks, such as Pyrrhos, abbot of the monastery of Philippikos, supported the doctrine from the Chalcedonian side. Obviously these favorable forces were exploited by the patriarch and emperor, and one way of doing so was to place monastic supporters in positions of ecclesiastical authority as bishops, where they could influence and win over opponents. Pyrrhos, for instance, was appointed to the patriarchate of Constantinople on Sergios's death in 538. It was much easier for the emperor to manipulate bishops selected through his patronage than abbots chosen by their often very independent communities. So the church hierarchy was bound to play a noteworthy role in the attempt to impose this, as other definitions of belief supported by the secular authorities.

Their Failure

Conversely, members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who had misgivings about the new doctrine were not necessarily prepared to challenge it and thereby lose their positions. But monastic opposition could sometimes be voiced without provoking direct imperial retaliation. In this case, however, the uproar against both one-will and one-energiy theories (Monotheletism and Monoenergism) came from an unusual and distinctive monastic circle created in the first quarter of the seventh century against a background of continuous military unrest. Sophronios and his spiritual father, John Moschos, had adopted the practice of rootless wandering from one community to another - a choice that became a necessity during the Persian and Arab invasions from about 604 onwards. From Palestine to Eygpt, Syria, the Aegean islands, and Rome they journeyed, staying for longer preiods at Mount Sinai ca. 580-90, then under the direction of one of its most famous abbots, St. John Klimachos, and in Alexandria with Patriarch John the Almsgiver, assisting his Chalcedonian campaign ca. 604-614. After John Moschos's death, or during this final years in Rome, Sophronios visited North Africa, where he met Maximos, a refugee from the Asiatic coast of the Bosphoros, occupied by the Persians in 626. The two shared a Syro-Palestinian background, an intense commitment to the council of 451, and the intellectual training and access to doctrinal books t counter Sergios's innovations. They personified a Chalcedonian diaspora of monks, forced to move from one center to another, welcomed in their travels by communities respectful of their ascetic expreiences, learning, and monastic faith. They apparently took books with them and found other resources in Africa and Rome. And whereever they went, they debated with their opponents, arranging public discussions. John Moschos, Spohronios, Maximos, and his faithful assistant Anastasios were probably the last generation of eastern monks to practice the traditional "wanderings." Thereafter, the aimless wandering of errant monks wihtout resources and dependent solely on a shared experience would become impossible. One of the richest elements in primitive Christianity, the asceticism of the Desert Fathers, was thus consigned to history, to be revived after a long break by St. Francis of Assisi, whose dedication to poverty drew on this tradition.


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall, May 2023

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.   Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 6 October 2023