Though World War One was initially referred to as The Great War before it became sadly apparent it was not to be the only 20th century war to quality for that title, there is another great war that took place 14 centuries ago and transformed history in ways, foreseen by none of the participants, that reverberate today.
By the start of the 7th century, Rome (republic, then empire) and the empires based on the Iranian plateau (Parthian, then Sassinid) had confronted each other for more than 600 years. Though the principals each had periods of weakness and strength, the borders did not change much during this entire period as the combatants found it impossible to put an end to each other.
The Parthian dynasty founded in 247 BC, seized Mesopotamia a century later, creating its new capital Ctesiphon along the Tigris River. The Roman Republic entered Asia in 133 BC when Attalus III, King of Pergamum, the rich land on the eastern side of the Aegean, died childless and bequeathed his kingdom to Rome.
Rome became increasingly entangled in the East until Pompey the Great's famous expedition in the 60s led to his settlement of the affairs of Syria, Cappadocia, Pontus, Judea and Egypt. Though it would be another century before the last of these lands were direct subjects, Rome was now a permanent fixture in the Mideast.
The first major conflict between Rome and Parthia was a stunning defeat for the former when Marcus Crassus, part of the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey, was killed and his legions destroyed by the Parthians in the Syrian desert near Carrhae in 53 BC.
Rome and Parthia fought occasional, and indecisive, wars during the next 150 years, mostly over Armenia, a mountainous kingdom to the north of Syria, laying in between the two.
In the second century AD, events seemed to tilt decisively in favor of Rome. In 115-116, Trajan conquered all of Mesopotamia, reaching the Persian Gulf and dreaming of Alexander the Great. His conquest was relinquished by his successor, Hadrian, but later in the century armies of Marcus Aurelius (165) and Septimius Severus (198) sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. The latter campaign led to the Roman annexation of the northern part of Mesopotamia (modern-day eastern Syria and northern Iraq).
The frequent Roman thrashings emboldened internal challenges to Parthian rule and they were overthrown in the 220s by a new dynasty, the Sassinids, who were much more formidable opponents for the Romans. In the middle of the century Shapur I (reigned 242-72) defeated two Roman emperors, capturing one of them, and leading a great raid culminating in the sacking of Antioch, one of the three great cities of the Roman Empire, during the 250s.
The tide swung back to Rome later in the century as Ctesiphon was sacked once again in 283 and another Roman campaign in 299, leading to further territorial consolidation in northern Iraq, where Roman lands now stretched across the Tigris, almost reaching the present boundary of Iran.
There was one last great Roman effort to defeat its rival. Julian, the last pagan emperor, launched a massive campaign in 363. Though the emperor reached the walls of Ctesiphon he was unable to capture the city. Short of supplies and harassed by raiders he was killed in a skirmish while retreating, leaving his beleaguered army to negotiate its passage home by surrendering part of Mesopotamia.
For much of the 5th century the borderlands between the two empires remained quiet. Things heated up again in the early 500s but the same pattern prevailed, indecisive conflicts. A fortress falling here or there, a raid on a vulnerable city with the boundaries and balance of power remaining stable.
In 590 a new Sassanid king, Khosrow II, ascended the throne, but faced an uprising led by one of his generals, causing him to flee to Roman territory where he was welcomed by the Emperor Maurice who had ruled since 582. The following year, Khosrow returned to his homeland, and with Roman help defeated the usurper and regained his throne. In returned he ceded two recently captured fortresses and part of Armenia to Rome. For the next decade relations between the two empires were peaceful. As the seventh century began both empires appeared prosperous and stable.
(Roman and Sassinid Empires in 600)
The Great War
602 was to prove a violent year. Maurice had been an effective, but parsimonious, ruler. The Byzantine army, mostly deployed in the Balkans to confront the Avars (a tribe from the Asia steppes which migrated into the area several decades earlier), became increasingly disaffected, particularly after he cut their pay despite his heavy demands upon them; for the first time since the 4th century, Roman armies were crossing the Danube to fight the barbarians. In the fall of that year, Maurice announced the army would remain north of the Danube for the winter rather than following the usual routine of moving south into comfortable winter quarters. The outraged soldiers revolted and, under a general officer named Phocas, marched on Constantinople, dethroned Maurice, murdering he and his six sons on November 27. Phocas became the new emperor.
Though the empire had experienced frequent upheavals due to its lack of rules for orderly succession, this was the first time since the founding of Constantinople in 330 an eastern emperor had been murdered during an internal uprising.
Khusrow, seeing an opportunity to avenge the death of his benefactor as well as to regain the territories he had ceded a decade before, mobilized his army, laying siege to the border fortress of Dara. He also had a vehicle at hand to help him; whether real or not it is impossible to determine at this distance - Maurice's son, Theodosios. According to Khusrow, Theodosios had fled the slaughter of his family and sought protection from the Shah who pledged to help him seek revenge.
(Coin depicting Khusrow II)
Of what followed we know only the bare chronology (and even that is uncertain at times), along with frustratingly few scraps of information providing brief illuminations of the events of the next two-plus decades.
The possible Theodosios was persuasive enough to convince Rome's general in Mesopotamia to support him and for some cities to open their gates to him. In 603 the Persians laid siege to the great fortress of Dara which finally fell in 606. Shortly after this "Theodosios" disappears from our narratives. What was probably originally intended by the Persians as a limited action of sieges and raids along the lines of prior conflicts, and which had some of the characteristics of an internal war of succession among the Romans, began to take on a life of its own.
In 608 Khosrow launched an unprecedented raid into Asia Minor and his army reached Chalcedon, opposite Constantinople on the Sea of Marmara. The same year Heraclius the Elder, Exarch (governor) of Africa (modern Tunisia) renounced his allegiance to Phocas and revolted. He sent a cousin with an army to seize Egypt which fell in 609 and his son, Heraclius, embarked the following year on an amphibious attack on Constantinople. The risky venture succeeded, Phocas was killed and the younger Heraclius proclaimed emperor (his father died the same year).
The death of Phocas did not stop Khosrow, who now saw an opportunity to recreate the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great and to finally crush the Roman state. During the Heraclian revolt the Persians captured the great Mesopotamian cities of Amida and Edessa and conquered the Caucasus on Rome's northeast border.
(Coin depicting Heraclius)
Completing a major reorganization of the Roman administration and military, Heraclius felt confident in launching a counterattack in Syria during 612-3. After initial success he was defeated, retreating to Constantinople. Pursuing Persians once again drove deep into Asia Minor, burning the great city of Ephesus on the Aegean coast. In 614, Khusrow captured Jerusalem (and, in a traumatic turn of events, seized the True Cross, reputedly a fragment of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified and Christendom's most sacred relic, "discovered" by Constantine's mother, Helen, during her visit to Jerusalem in 326, and taken it to Persia as a trophy), and annexing Syria and Palestine. This was to be no mere raid. Khusrow refused to negotiate with Heraclius, demanding his unconditional submission. A purported missive from Khusrow to the Emperor begins:
From Khusro, beloved of the Gods, master and king of all the earth, son of the great Ahuramazda, to our slave, imbecile and lowly, Herakleios . . .(The Finding of the True Cross by Agnolo Gaddi, 14th century)
Yet another raid into Asia Minor in 617 resulted in the capture of Chalcedon. Though the Persians withdrew, they held onto Ancyra (modern Ankara) giving them a permanent base on the plateau. Two years later they invaded and annexed Egypt, followed by the seizure of Mediterranean and Aegean islands, most importantly the strategic base of Rhodes, creating a Persian naval threat to Constantinople.
It was not only in the East that Heraclius faced catastrophe. Upon his accession, Heraclius stripped the Balkans of soldiers sending them to confront the Persians. The region now lay open to the Avars, along with their allied Slav warriors, and during the decade of the 610s they widely pillaged as far south as the Greek cities, capturing Belgrade, Nis and Sofia. Some of our sources tell us the situation looked so grim that Heraclius considered abandoning Constantinople and moving the capital to Carthage in Africa.
(Sassinid Empire in 620 from wikipedia)
The emperor ultimately chose a different, and extremely risky, course of action. Of Armenian descent, Heraclius left the capital on April 4, 622, traveled by sea to Pontus and established himself in the mountains of Armenia where he began to build a coalition of Armenians, Romans, tribes from the Caucasus and Turks, a newly arrived Asiatic tribe threatening Persia from the north. The emperor was forced to return to Constantinople in 623 as the Avars, having overrun the Balkans, now turned their attention to the capital. Heraclius bribed the tribal leaders with a huge payment that was raised by stripping the city's churches of their accumulated wealth but all knew the Avars would eventually return. The Emperor left Constantinople a second time on March 25, 624. It was to be more than four years before he returned.
Slowly building a new army in Armenia, Heraclius began undertaking small scale assaults and defending against Persian attacks, including the burning of the greatest of the Zoroastrian fire temples in retaliation for the sacking of Jerusalem. He was determined to pursue a long-term strategy regardless of the risk to the rest of the empire. And it was a great risk. In 626 a Persian-Avar alliance formed and attempted to capture Constantinople in the emperor's absence. A Persian fleet sailed into the Sea of Marmara, while Persian and Avar armies laid siege on land. Heraclius refused to relieve the siege with his new army, leaving the defense to his deputies in the city. In a daring and successful ploy, the Romans deployed Greek Fire to destroy the Persian fleet, direct Avar assaults failed and the Slavs revolted against their masters, forcing the armies to lift the siege.
Meanwhile, Heraclius' coalition came together as he finally convinced the Turks to invade the Sassinid Kingdom. He also convinced the Persian general, who led the unsuccessful assault on Constantinople and was subject to scathing criticism from Khusrow, to remain neutral. In 627 he launched an offensive, moving south into Mesopotamia, defeating the Persians in a great battle at Nineveh on December 12, in the wake of which he issued an ultimatum to Khusrow:
I pursue and run after peace. I do not willingly burn Persia, but compelled by you. Let us now throw down our arms and embrace peace. Let us quench the fire before it burns up everything.The defeats triggered a revolt against Khusrow, who was killed by his eldest son in February. However, negotiations to formally end the war dragged on. Heraclius was in a vulnerable position as major Persian forces still occupied Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Roman Mesopotamia. Changing tack, Heraclius turned his support to a rival Sassanian general and encourage civil strife within the kingdom, which led to a final treaty in 629; under its terms the frontiers of 602 were restored. Seemingly nothing had changed after the long conflict. But everything had.
In March 630, Khusrow's successor was killed by an usurper who, in turn, was murdered 40 days later. The Sassinid Kingdom's descent into chaos and civil war eliminated it as a threat to the Romans.
The True Cross was returned under the terms of the Peace Treaty. Heraclius took it first to Constantinople where it was received with jubilation. He then traveled to Jerusalem. On March 21, 630, walking and not wearing the usual imperial regalia, Heraclius carried the True Cross into the city. The Cross was to be captured by Saladin in 1187. Last seen in Damascus several years later, it is now lost to history.
When the Treaty was signed in 629, Persian troops still occupied Syria, Palestine and Egypt. We have no documentation but the process of evacuation must have taken some time and not been complete till some time in 630 or even 631. Heraclius faced a massive task of reconstruction, reestablishing the Roman administration and reinserting a military presence to protect the regained provinces. Hampered by the debts incurred in financing the counteroffensive of 624-28, the continued need for funds to support the army against the Avars threat in the Balkans, reconstruction proceeded slowly. From a military perspective, the focus was on defense of the Mesopotamian frontier. With the Armenians and Turks not interested in providing soldiers for the rest of the empire, the desert defenses of Palestine and Syria were left to Arab tribes held in low regard by the Romans. The desert frontier forts constructed in the second and fourth centuries by Trajan and Diocletian remained mostly abandoned (for more on the early Roman frontier with Arabia read Madain Saleh).
In 632, chroniclers noted the first "harsh and strange" raids by Arabs into southern Palestine. In the same year, a revitalized and ever more strongly Christian Roman empire saw an edict from Heraclius mandating the forced conversion of Jews and Samaritans.
Two years later, the unforeseen storm broke. Arab forces attacked Palestine and Syria. Initially, the Romans may not have realized the significance of these events as during unstable periods Arab raids were not uncommon. Two years later Mesopotamia and the Sassinid Kingdom were under assault.
Within a decade, Jerusalem, Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Armenia were lost to Rome, while the Sassinid dynasty had been defeated, Mesopotamia occupied and Arab armies advanced across the Iranian plateau. In 651 the last Sassinid monarch, reduced to a fleeing refugee, was finally hunted down and killed. Forty years later, the Arabs ruled North Africa, had almost reached the Atlantic, were laying siege to Constantinople, and approached the borders of India and China.
We know little of the origin of these events or why the Arab armies achieved such quick success. Historians of the Enlightenment era used to refer to Islam as the first religion born in the full light of history, but we now know how dim and flickering that light was. The original sources, Greek, Syrian, Armenian, and Arabic are few and all have severe limitations on their reliability. We've realized there are many questions about early Islam and its conquests for which we do not have answers, and it is unlikely, given the difficulties Western scholars face in researching its origins and the even greater danger faced by any Muslim scholar attempting to seek answers, anything new will be learned under present conditions. These questions include:
What role, if any, did Mecca play in the origin of Islam?What we do know is the Arab conquests were the third, and final, of the hammer blows that destroyed the classical Greco-Roman world. In the 5th century, the Vandals, Franks, Goths, Alans, Burgundians, Angles, and Saxons ended the Roman world in Britain, Gaul and Spain. Ironically, it was the Byzantine reconquest of Italy, and the Gothic Wars it triggered in the mid-6th century, that closed the classical era in the land of the Eternal City (for more, read Belisarius Enters Rome). The Arab invasions terminated the classical world in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa.
When was the Qu'ran written?
How much of what is considered Islam today existed at the time of the initial conquests?
Were Jewish tribes involved along with Arabs in the initial attacks?
How did the Arabs consolidate themselves so quickly into an effective military force?
What role did the Arab tribes formerly guarding the Roman and Sassinid frontiers play in the attacks?
The surviving rump of the Byzantine Empire was crippled. Heraclius, having gone from the facing extinction in 620, to resurrection and triumph less than a decade later, and then plunging to defeat after defeat and the loss of his empire's richest provinces, died in 641. For the next two hundred years a much poorer realm would fight for its survival (it would be more than a century before a Byzantine army defeated an Arab army in the field), no longer a world power, with the last remnants of its Roman character shed in the desperate struggle.