Heraclius: Legitimacy and Propaganda (on behalf of Ruaraidh McIver)

When I began my research five weeks ago, it was with full confidence that I could both read the entirety of relevant academic scholarship (which I believed to be limited), and simultaneously develop my own independent research. I swiftly realised the difficulties associated with this approach, as my first two weeks were consumed with my reading of numerous historical articles. These all proved informative and added to my own understanding, however the direct relevance of these to my own research were questionable. Upon recognising this with the help of my supervisor, I decided to narrow my focus to individual, and prominent examples of Heraclian texts and imagery. This would prove significantly more beneficial to my research, and the readings that I had pursued previously had provided me with a stable historical grounding from which to analyse these pieces. It is this that I am now working upon.

Upon hearing the name Heraclius, one’s mind immediately relates the Emperor with the Greek god Hercules. To the average person, his exceptional strength, martial feats and fame become interchangeable with the Roman ruler. This association is by no means an accident. While perhaps the most subtle example, propaganda such as this was utilised continually by Heraclius during his reign. This was done in an attempt to both strengthen and legitimise his rule in the eyes of his subjects.

Heraclius was raised to the throne in AD 610, after defeating the previous Emperor, Phocas, in a civil war that had raged for years. Phocas had himself also claimed the throne through the murder of the previous Emperor Maurice, and as such his claim to the throne was viewed as being wholly illegitimate. This civil war had proved disastrous to the Roman state, as the Persian Shah, Khosrau II, exploited this internal instability, conquering Syria, Palestine, Egypt and much of Asia Minor. The situation faced by the Romans upon Heraclius’ coronation appeared hopeless, as the new Emperor held command of a fatally reduced Empire and military. Yet, Heraclius defied all expectation, and through a series of spectacular military expeditions, was able to reverse Roman fortunes, and succeeded in re-establishing the original borders of the Roman Empire prior to the civil war. This success was lauded throughout the Roman Empire, and indeed the wider world. This was not a feat which was soon forgotten, as centuries later Christians within France celebrated this military victory, and the deposition of Khosrau II.

Enamel plaque on a cross stored in the Louvre which depicts Heraclius receiving Khosrau’s submission.

However, it was not only as a military leader that Heraclius was celebrated. Khosrau had claimed the ‘True Cross’ when his forces had seized Jerusalem. There is no reason to believe that Khosrau showed any disrespect to the relic, however Heraclius used this as a rallying cry from which to unite Christians throughout the Middle East under his leadership. After the conclusion of the war, Heraclius recovered the True Cross, and made a concerted effort to display it throughout his Empire. This was done in order to show that he was capable of not only defending the Empire itself, but more importantly the Christian faith. This was evidence of the Emperor fulfilling his duty as a Christian ruler, and being supported by Christ.

Depiction on the Armenian Church at Mren of Heraclius (kneeling on the left) restoring the True Cross

As his reign progressed however, Heraclius became increasingly concerned with his own legitimacy, and reminding his subjects of his divine appointment. This was done by the production of artistic items such as the David Plates, a series of high quality silver plates which showed snapshots of the life of the biblical ruler King David. David, like Heraclius, had not inherited the throne through familial succession. Rather, David was appointed by God to succeed Saul as he was a more worthy King. Just as David had defeated the giant Goliath, Heraclius had defeated the giant of Persia. Heraclius sought to remind his subjects that holding the throne need not always require familial ties, and that he, like David, had been appointed by God to defend his people.

The largest of the David Plates, depicting David (centre left) fighting Goliath of Gath.

My research has now moved on to focus upon the history of Theophylact Simocatta. Simocatta composed a history of the reign of the Emperor Maurice while living in the reign of Heraclius. Very little research has been focused upon this historical piece, with most historians utilising it as a simple narrative history for the reign of Maurice. However, there appears to be underlying Heraclian additions, and it seems increasingly likely that this history was used by Heraclius to legitimise himself. This can be seen through Simocatta’s continual mentions of Heraclius the Elder, the father of the Emperor Heraclius. Most other contemporary sources mention the elder Heraclius in passing, or in relation to making his son Emperor. However, Simocatta makes special effort to recount the military actions of Heraclius the Elder. In doing so, this allows the audience who hear this work to subconsciously recognise the Emperor Heraclius as the true successor to Maurice, as it is the son of his faithful general who restores stability from the tyrannical rule of Phocas. This shall be contrasted with other historical sources of the time, such as the Chornicon Paschale in order to recognise the differences in the work. My research shall soon turn towards the Islamic scholarship on Heraclius, and their records of the Roman Emperor, who himself exchanged correspondence with Muhammad.

Letter from Muhammad to Heraclius which can be read in Quran 3:64.

My internship so far has taught me of the difficulties associated with independent research, and how best to learn from these problems. Consistent focus upon a realistic set of achievable goals has provided me with infinitely more worthwhile results than my initial study. The support offered to me by my supervisor has been invaluable in this, and my own understanding of the importance of academic leadership has developed because of his direction and support. There is no doubt in my mind that this shall continue, and I am excited to see where it will take me.

Leave a Reply