- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003


By Geoffrey Regan

Palgrave/Macmillan, $29.95, 280 pages, illus.


When it comes to warrior-kings, the Byzantine emperor Heraclitus, who ruled Constantinople from 610 to 641 A.D., was in a league by himself. Few have risen so fast, and achieved so much in such a short time, only to lose all at the end.

Indeed, in “First Crusader: Byzantium’s Holy Wars,” the British historian Geoffrey Regan makes a convincing case that the wars of Heraclitus against the Sasanian Persians (622-628 A.D.) should rank as the first crusade rather than that from the West called by Pope Urban in 1095. Heraclitus smashed the Persian empire, recovering the flags and standards lost by 100 Byzantine armies over the centuries, regained the lost colonies of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, sacked a dozen great cities, brought back the True Cross from Persia and rebuilt the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre.

Whether you call the wars of the Christian Byzantines against the fire-worshipping Zoroastrian Persians crusades, or something else, the heroics of Heraclitus, who personally led his troops in battle and fought in single combat the champions of many enemy armies, had the effect of prolonging the life of the Eastern Roman empire for several centuries, delaying the Moslem advance into the Balkans by hundreds of years. Both his personal life and his military successes combined to weaken Heraclitus toward the end of his reign. His popular first wife, Fabia-Eudokia, died in 612 A.D., leaving the emperor with only one male heir, not nearly enough to guarantee the succession.

So Heraclitus married his beautiful and able niece, Martina, daughter of his sister, Maria. Although incestuous unions were not that unusual in those days, they were forbidden. But a significant group of the Byzantine establishment regarded the deaths of four of her disabled children as God’s judgement on Martina, blaming her for defeats at the hands of the Moslem Arabs. When Heraclitus died horribly of “dropsy” (cancer) this was taken as yet another sign of divine displeasure. The fates of Martina and her surviving sons: Martina’s tongue was split and she was exiled to Rhodes with her eldest son, who had his nose cut off.

Of her three other sons, two had their noses cut off and the youngest was castrated. Like many another political leader, Heraclitus wanted to have both chariots and wine, and his wars proved ruinously expensive. Syria and Palestine had been regained but were denuded of their populations, their fields lay fallow and returned little revenue.

Egypt was about to fall to Mohammed’s desert Bedouin breaking out from Arabia. The Orthodox Church, through the influence of Heraclitus’ great friend and supporter, the Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople, had floated huge loans to pay for the wars. But now, except in distant Egypt, the wars were over and the church wanted its money back. Heraclitus paid up, but only at the cost of his planned reform of the army and the civil service. Alexandria soon fell to the Moslems and much of Syria followed. By 674 A.D. the Moslem jihad had carried them to the gates of Constantinople. In desperation, the Byzantines fell back on their secret weapon: “Greek fire,” a highly flammable mixture of tar, resin, sandarac and powdered sulphur mixed with dolphin and goat fat. It was ignited after passing through a hose and could not be put out with water.

The Byzantine garrison of Constantinople used this primitive napalm to great effect against the Arab fleet and the wooden siege machines of the Moslems. Their effective use of “Greek fire” and the arrival of Bulgar reinforcements and their King Tervel, resulted in over 20,000 Moslems killed. The Arabs abandoned the siege in 718 A.D., and the city was to block the Moslem invasion of Eastern Europe for another 700 years. The millennium of Christ’s death in 1033 A.D. triggered a wave of religious fervor that engulfed all Western Europe.

What had been mere acts of faith evolved into a series of crusades whose objective was nothing less than the conquest of the Holy Land and its restoration to Christian rule. What distinguished the Western crusaders from the earlier pilgrims was that by their acts they earned indulgences from the pope. These guaranteed protection of his family, lands and assets during his absence and granted the remission of sins should the crusader die in battle, with immediate entry into Paradise. In an age of faith, this was of no little consequence.

Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. and by the Persians in 614 A.D. The Moslem Arabs had captured it in 638 A.D. In 1099 A.D. it was invested by the Western Crusaders and fell in a bloody massacre. After all the Moslems were dead and most of the Crusaders had sailed back to Europe, just 300 Christian knights and 2,000 infantry remained in the smoking ruins. While Byzantium remained, it did so only as a shadow of its former days of greatness under Hiraclitus. Christian communities in the Near East could no longer expect help from Constantinople, which was to fall to the Ottoman Turks.

As the gap grew greater between Latin Christianity and the Orthodox Church, Islam was rent by the division between Sunni and Shia and defeated in France and Hungary. It was not a time for greatness.

Smith Hempstone is a former editor in chief of The Washington Times.

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