The 7th century AD and its quickening pace of change in the Roman East

Emperor Maurice’s self-sworn avenger Heraclius had overthrown Phocas in 610, and assumed responsibility as emperor for the defense of the empire and the faith, and the
expulsion of the Persians. Although the Persians had overrun Syria and Palestine and threatened to occupy all of Asia Minor and even approached Constantinople, it was Heraclius who, after reconstituting his armies, had brought the war to the heart of the Sassanian Empire in early 628. The overthrow and death of Chosroes ensued.


After imposing peace terms on Persia, essentially the territorial status quo ante, restoring the Byzantine borders of 590 at the Khabur River, Heraclius, now about fifty-three years of age, returned to Constantinople. The humiliated Sassanian Empire degenerated into civil war and chaos. Heraclius was the first Byzantine soldier-emperor since Theodosius I died in 395. He engaged in successful negotiations in July 629 with Persian General Shahrbaraz to pry the Persian troops out of Egypt and Byzantine western Asia, to enforce the earlier terms agreed with the successor of Chosroes II, Kawadh-Siroes. In March 630 Heraclius personally accompanied the restoration to Jerusalem of what he and contemporaries believed to have been the relics of the cross that the Persians had removed from Jerusalem in 614. But many other problems remained. Many shattered provinces needed help in reconstruction. The needs were great and the financial resources were limited. Of great importance were troubling ecclesiastical problems, especially the divisive problems of Christology and ecclesiology, which had long wracked Syria, Egypt, and Armenia. Heraclius vainly sought, with the assistance of Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople, to find some satisfactory unifying formula, but religious strife persisted.


No accurate statistics exist for the population of Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian cities and villages. It is probable* that the population on the eve of the Muslim conquests was much smaller than it had been in the fourth or early sixth centuries. Plague and war presumably were the most important contributors to the demographic shrinkage.

It is conceivable that the population of the Greek East in the second century Roman principate reached 28 million to 34 million at the maximum, although by AD 630 that total had probably declined by 20 percent to 40 percent, if not more, to between approximately 17 million and 27 million.

By the late seventh century, after territorial losses to Muslims and Slavs, Bulgars, and
Avars, the total population may have fallen to 7 million or less in areas that still remained under imperial control.


Although there was religious dissension, particularly concerning Christology, and both Chalcedonian and Monophysite opposition to the official Heraclian policy of Monotheletism, it is not clear that these divisions were decisive in weakening Byzantine authority**. The most disaffected religious minorities were relatively small Jewish and Samaritan communities, although they occupied areas and towns that were important for communications, intelligence gathering, and military strategy (such as Adhri’at and Nawa). The population was not homogeneous with respect to religious communion or language, but again, there are no reliable appropriately segmented statistics. There is no evidence for active Monophysite disloyalty between 600 and 638.



The confident and comfortable assertions and assumptions so easy for the ecclesiastical historian Evagrius Scholasticus in the 590s were no longer possible after 602. His boast that “from the time when the renowned Constantine took power, built the city bearing his own name, and dedicated it to Christ, come look with me whether any of the emperors in this city… either was killed by domestic or foreign foes, or whether a usurper has completely overthrown an emperor,” became obsolete less than a decade after he uttered it.

The overthrow and execution of the Emperor Maurice by the centurion Phocas in 602 is easily the most visible symbol of the new and violent period of the seventh century with its quickening of the pace of change. It would be erroneous to argue that Maurice was an excellent emperor who would have been able to reorganize the eastern provinces and develop satisfactory diplomatic relations with Persia if only he had not met death at the hands of the usurper Phocas. Tempting but false is the formula that “602 equals 622,” that it was the overthrow and execution of Maurice that gave historical significance to Muhammad’s Hijra, that only the events of 602 made possible the emergence of Islam as a major religion and factor. Many deficiencies in Maurice’s policies with the Arabs long before his own overthrow point to his poor political judgment.


Byzantium had not become a geriatric case, although institutional change had been so slow in the late Roman Empire that one scholar described it as “imperceptible”. That condition persisted until the beginning of the seventh century, when the process of  change began to accelerate. The Persian invasions that followed under King Chosroes II Parviz exposed, between 603 and 628, the grave vulnerabilities of the Byzantine Empire. The overthrow of Maurice stimulated other attempts at violent rebellion within the Byzantine Empire, including the one under Heraclius that successfully overthrew Phocas, in early October, 610. Heraclius’ execution of Phocas brought no stabilization. The virtual collapse of the Byzantine armies between late 610 and 615, the Persian invasion and occupation of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, and Avaro-Slavic raids and depredations all revealed the extremely perilous condition of the empire, which endured, although frail.

The contemporary Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta even expresses a cautious recognition of the desirability of perpetuating the Sassanian Empire, no matter how injurious it had previously been to the Byzantine Empire, for fear that something worse might replace it: “Therefore, even though the Persians were to be deprived of power, their power would immediately transfer to other men. For events will not tolerate lack of leadership, nor such great fortune lack of direction.” Again, “…what prosperity would events devolve upon the Romans if the Persians are deprived of power and transmit mastery to another nation ?” That attitude might reflect shrewd political realism, but also an almost compulsive Byzantine preference to avoid changing the essential elements of the status quo.


The slow rate of change in so many dimensions between the fourth and early seventh century contributed to the intensity, violence, acceleration, and vast scope of the change that finally hit an unprepared Byzantium in the seventh century. It is less certain whether villagers, townspeople, and rural inhabitants experienced any drastic change in their physical environment and daily lives, if they escaped the destruction of war. A seventh-century Persian envoy had allegedly warned in vain that protracted Byzantine-Persian warfare would reduce both empires “to a wretched and miserable condition,” but it is unclear whether contemporaries really believed or foresaw that. The populace responded to news of the changing fortunes of the Byzantine Empire and its armies with violent fluctuations and dramatic swings in moods of despair and joy, which were a symptom of growing volatility, instability, uncertainty, and unrest.

The empire lost its equilibrium when its rigid worldview and religious confidence shattered in 602 and never fully recovered it throughout the ensuing three decades of crisis. Heraclius, after overthrowing and executing Phocas, never had a chance for a respite. The abortive revolt of Phocas’ brother Comentiolus in October, 610 enabled the Persians to make their decisive breakthrough on the eastern front in 611 and thus prolonged the crisis. The Muslim invasions followed Heraclius’ victory over the Persians too swiftly to permit imperial restabilization. The rapid succession of internal and external crises created insecurity, contradictions, and volatility, which kept Heraclius and his government perpetually off balance. This disorder left its traces in the mood of some of the sources.


(Source: “Byzantium and the early Islamic conquests” by Walter E. Kaegi)

Notes from NovoScriptorium:

*Actually, it is rather certain that more than a third of the Empire’s population was wiped out during the Plague. Especially in the great urban centers like Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch.

**Actually, they must have been decisive, since there were many territories a little later on which surrendered without a fight against Muslims, only to escape religious control-patronage from Constantinople.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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