During the latter part of Justinian‘s reign, the Empire’s circumstances deteriorated. He faced battles on multiple fronts: against the Persians in the East and the Ostrogoths in the West. Amidst these challenges, a devastating plague struck the Empire. His successors grappled with these adverse conditions, and by the onset of the 7th century, under Phocas’s rule, the beleaguered Empire teetered on the brink.

Mass executions ensued, and the aristocracy’s rebellion against the government culminated in further executions. The Exarch of Carthage opposed Phocas’ reign of terror. After securing Egypt, he dispatched a fleet to Constantinople, led by his son Heraclius.

On October 3, 610, the fleet appeared beneath the capital’s walls. By October 5, Heraclius successfully seized Constantinople and ordered the execution of Phocas. That same day, Heraclius was crowned as the Byzantine Emperor, the last to govern over all of Egypt and the Levant.

During this era, the Byzantine Empire started to embrace a more eastern orientation. The Latin language, which most of the inhabitants neither understood nor spoke, was gradually replaced by Greek. As a result, in subsequent generations, knowledge of Latin became scarce, even among the most educated Byzantines. The title of the ruler was also changed to “Basileus.”

An intricate medieval illustration depicting various scenes from the life of Emperor Heraclius. In the top section, armored soldiers engage in fierce combat against a backdrop of a hill and a distant castle. Below, in an opulent room, crowned individuals converse and engage in ceremonies, with Heraclius being crowned. On the right, a figure kneels before a bishop, and a body is shown on a bier, suggesting a funerary scene of Heraclius. Each segment showcases the significant moments in the life of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius.
Scenes from the life of Emperor Heraclius; Flavius Heraclius Augustus (575-641), a Byzantine Emperor of Armenian descent who governed the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, Musée Condé, Chantilly

Heraclius saves the languishing Byzantine Empire

Upon Heraclius’s ascension to the throne, the Empire was in a battle for its very survival. The Sassanid forces breached the eastern frontier, making inroads into imperial lands. Meanwhile, in the west, the Lombards made their way into Italy. Even the capital, Constantinople, wasn’t free from peril.

Heraclius considered relocating the capital to Carthage to better coordinate its defense. However, opposition from the local populace, spearheaded by the Patriarch, compelled him to abandon this idea. Upon meeting with the Emperor, they urged him to vow that he would remain steadfast and defend his capital to his final breath. Their plea swayed him.

Utilizing the treasure donated by the Church, Heraclius fortified and restructured the army. He partitioned the Empire into themes, which were military-political administrative units led by a strategist who wielded both military and civilian authority. Soldiers, known as stratiots, were granted land in return for their military service. The army’s efficiency dramatically improved as the soldiers were now defending not only the Empire but also their personal lands. This personal stake provided a powerful incentive, making them more effective than mere slaves or mercenaries.

Colorful map showcasing the development of the Byzantine themes (administrative divisions) in 650 A.D. The regions are demarcated with various hues and labeled with names such as 'Opsikion,' 'Optimatoi,' 'Bucellarians,' 'Armeniacs,' and 'Anatolic.' Significant cities and geographical features like Constantinople, Ancyra (Ankara), Tarsus, Antioch, Edessa, and the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas are also pinpointed. The map is sourced from the US Military Academy History archives.
Eastern Themata of Byzantine Empire in 650 AD, from the US Military Academy History archives

Siege of Constantinople

In the Balkans, Heraclius faced significant challenges from the Slavs and Avars. After their conquest of Sirmium in 582, they initiated their permanent settlement in the region. The Slavs inundated not just the Danube provinces but also vast stretches of Macedonia, while Thrace was ravaged right up to the outskirts of the capital. Thessaloniki faced multiple onslaughts from the Slovenes and Avars, but Byzantine defenses held firm against each assault. Nevertheless, the city’s surrounding territories succumbed to the Slavs, and the Avar-Slavic tide pressed onward into central Greece and the Peloponnese. Concurrently, Dalmatia bore the brunt of these incursions.

The most perilous moment for Constantinople happened in 626, during the combined Avar-Slavic siege, compounded by a Persian assault from the Asian flank. The vanguard of the Avar forces reached the capital’s outskirts on June 29, 626. Approximately 12,000 Byzantine cavalry, led by the patrician Bonus and Patriarch Sergius, engaged a formidable assembly of around 80,000 Avars and Slavs.

Detail of a fresco depicting the Siege of Constantinople, showcasing vibrant colors with a fortified city surrounded by turbulent waters, numerous soldiers, and flying angels. Historic date inscriptions and Orthodox Christian iconography are interwoven into the artwork, all set against a richly painted backdrop. Located at Moldovița Monastery in Romania
Siege of Constantinople, Fresco detail, Moldovița Monastery, Joyce Pinsker

A month later, the Khagan arrived, leading the primary force. The initial assault transpired on July 31, with the pivotal clash unfolding on August 7. A Persian naval fleet attempted to transport soldiers to the European shore of the Bosphorus but was vanquished by Byzantine ships. Concurrently, Slavs advanced on the city’s walls with their fleet via the Golden Horn, and the Avars initiated their siege on the terrestrial fortifications. However, Bonus’s vessels thwarted the Slovenian naval force, and the Avar ground assault was repelled. By the subsequent day, the remnants of the Avar contingent withdrew. Remarkably, Constantinople withstood these threats in the absence of Heraclius among its defenders.

It became evident that the walls of Constantinople could not be breached without a formidable naval force. Following this realization, the Slavs made peace and embraced Christianity, facilitated by the Byzantine Empire. Consequently, they established themselves as a buffer against other potential invaders in the Balkans, reaffirming the Balkan Peninsula as a Byzantine domain.

The Byzantine–Sasanian War

At the same time, the Persian invasion in Eastern Asia was gaining momentum. While the Byzantines succeeded in repelling the adversary from Caesarea in 611, their counter-offensive in Armenia and Syria faltered. By 613, the imperial forces suffered a defeat at Antioch. This loss paved the way for the Persians’ swift advancement.

Persian forces occupied Damascus and Tarsus, driving the Byzantines from Armenia. In 614, the Byzantines suffered a profound morale setback when the holy city of Jerusalem succumbed to the Persians after a siege lasting three weeks. The conquered city witnessed days of slaughter and flames, with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a legacy of Constantine the Great, being consumed by fire. This tragedy deeply shook the Byzantine Empire, all the more because the most revered of relics, the Holy Cross, was captured and transported to Ctesiphon.

A few years later, Heraclius was prepared for another campaign against Persia, aiming to vanquish it once and for all. While the capital contended with sieges by the Slavs and Avars, the principal force of the imperial army was stationed thousands of kilometers away. This strategic positioning proved beneficial when, at the Battle of Nineveh in 627, Heraclius dealt a crushing blow to the Persians. Subsequently, the Persians were compelled to accept a humiliating truce. Heraclius even managed to retrieve a fragment of the true cross, which the Persians had seized during their conquest of Jerusalem.

An intricate painting by Miguel Ximénez from 1483-7 depicting Saint Helena and Emperor Heraclius, adorned in royal garments, carrying the Holy Cross to Jerusalem. The scene showcases a richly detailed cityscape in the background with multicolored buildings and spires. An angel hovers above, guiding their way, while a group of nobles and clergy watches in reverence. Two majestic horses stand by their side, with one carrying the cross.
Saint Helena and Emperor Heraclius taking the Holy Cross to Jerusalem by Miguel Ximénez, 1483-7, Wikimedia Commons

Hellenization and the Orientalization of the Empire

As remarkable as Heraclius’ military triumphs were, the significance of his reign wasn’t solely anchored in his foreign policy achievements. Following Muhammad’s passing, a burgeoning threat emerged from the Arabs, who swiftly annexed vast portions of the Byzantine Empire within a mere decade. Heraclius discerned that this adversary was far more formidable than Persia. What ensued was an innovative military and administrative paradigm on which the Byzantine power of subsequent centuries was built. The thematic system, introduced by Heraclius, became the structural mainstay of the medieval Byzantine polity. Yet, Heraclius’ epoch marked a cultural watershed for the Byzantine Empire. With it, the Roman chapter concluded, giving way to the quintessential Byzantine era, characterized by the orientalization of society and the theocratization of governance.

At a linguistic level, orientalization manifested in the prominent ascent of the Greek language. In prior epochs, Latin served as the official language for the state, military, and bureaucracy, despite the majority of the populace communicating primarily in Greek. However, during Heraclius’ reign, this dynamic shifted. Greek, the language of the masses and the church, ascended to the status of the Byzantine state’s official language. This catalyzed a swift Hellenization process, and remarkably, by the succeeding generation, proficiency in Latin—even among the intellectual elite—had become a distinct rarity.

Hellenization also manifested in the imperial titulary. While Heraclius initially employed the intricate Latin imperial titles, they were abandoned after his triumph over the Persians. Instead, Heraclius adopted the ancient Greek royal title of ‘Basileus.’ This title subsequently became the exclusive official designation for Byzantine rulers, enduring unchanged until the empire’s fall. Traditional Latin titles such as ‘imperator,’ ‘caesar,’ and ‘augustus’ either diminished in relevance or vanished altogether.

The last days of the reign of Heraclius

14th-century manuscript illustration depicting the Battle of Yarmouk. Saracen warriors, identified by a star and crescent on their banners, face off against Byzantine soldiers dressed in Crusader armor, carrying flags adorned with a star. Both groups are shown in vibrant colors, engaged in intense combat, with intricately detailed armor and weapons.
The Battle of Yarmouk: Saracens with a star and crescent, Byzantines in Crusader armor with a star, 14th-century manuscript, Wikimedia Commons

As Heraclius’ reign neared its conclusion, he found himself confronting the Arabs. The Battle of Yarmouk, which unfolded on August 20, 636, saw the Byzantine forces endure a crushing defeat. This setback heralded the enduring forfeiture of Syria from Byzantine control. The Battle of Yarmouk stands as the largest battle between the Byzantines and the emergent force of the Muslim Arabs. It symbolized the beginning of Muslim ascendancy in the Middle East and North Africa. Notably, it was also the final major battle in which Heraclius took part.

A mere two years later, the Arabs seized Jerusalem following an extended siege, and subsequently, Byzantine Mesopotamia fell under their control. After departing Syria, Heraclius lingered along the coast of Asia Minor, his spirit crushed. He developed an overwhelming fear of water and adamantly refused to make the crossing. Eventually, he mustered the resolve to return to the capital. However, following a protracted illness, he passed away on February 11, 641. His demise ushered the Empire into a turbulent era that would cast a long shadow. Yet, in light of the foregoing accomplishments and foundational structures he set in place, Heraclius’ reign undeniably stands as a success, laying the groundwork for the Byzantine state throughout the Middle Ages.

The image depicts a geographical map of the territories controlled by the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, under the Heraclian Dynasty. The regions under this empire's control are highlighted in purple. From the map, we can see that the Eastern Roman Empire's territories during this period spanned regions including parts of modern-day Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, parts of northern Africa, and more. The label "0641 A.D." indicates that the map represents the state of the empire in the year 641 A.D., a pivotal time in Byzantine history. Various place names are labeled, such as "Ravenna," "Rome," "Constantinople" (modern-day Istanbul), "Thrace," "Pontica," "Asia," and "Africa." Additionally, the surrounding territories and tribes, like "Serbs" and "Berbers," are marked, providing context about neighboring entities and regions during this era. In the bottom right corner, a part labeled "AEGYPTU" (referring to Egypt) is depicted in a different color, indicating the emergence of the Arab Caliphate in the region, which was a significant geopolitical development during this period.
Map of the Byzantine Empire at the time of death of Heraclius on February 11, 641, the regions under this empire’s control are highlighted in purple, Wikimedia Commons