Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Fall of Empires

Coming soon to Amazon Kindle and paperback...

He did not doubt that his death would plunge the empire into crisis, as dark and chaotic as the waters that waited to receive him.
For centuries Rome and Persia have fought each other. This will be the last great war between them.  The Roman Empire stands on the brink of annihilation. Its lands are overrun, its armies shattered. Only a truly remarkable emperor will be able to turn disaster into victory.
 Fall of Empires is an epic tale of love, loss, hope and revenge. From the baying crowds of the hippodrome, across the bloody battlefields of the Persian frontier, to the secluded harem of the king of Persia, the action sweeps through an ancient world locked in its last titanic conflict.
At the heart of the story, two young lovers, Anna and Theo, are torn apart by the tides of war. Whilst Theo finds himself at the centre of events in the struggle between the emperor Heraclius and the cunning Persian general Shahrbaraz, treachery results in Anna being condemned to the life of a concubine in a far-off land. Can they ever be reunited?
Fall of Empires will be published by Quest Publications

Fall of Empires is a fast-paced historical fiction tale which takes place against the backdrop of the last war between Byzantium and Persia. It follows the fortunes of its two young protagonists as their home city of Antioch falls to the forces of the King of Persia commanded by the charismatic general Shahrbaraz. Along with the emperor Heraclius, Shahrbaraz is one of the key historical figures in the story which is a blend of fact and fiction. The war itself was an epic affair and provides many great set pieces for the action in Fall of Empires. Here is the historical version of events.
The Persian War of 602 - 627

The catastrophic twenty five year conflict between Persia and Byzantium, during which Fall of Empires is set, was sparked by the murder of the emperor Maurice in 602 AD. The ruinous conduct of his predecessor Tiberius II had forced Maurice to operate his armies on a shoestring budget with ultimately disastrous consequences. The army in the Balkans mutinied and marched on Constantinople with the renegade centurion Phocas at their head, demanding the abdication of Maurice. For the defence of the city Maurice had looked to the Blues and Greens. The chariot racing factions were common to all the major cities of the empire and incorporated a hard core of supporters who were relied upon as an urban militia if the city was threatened.  At other times however they could be beyond the control of the authorities and mob violence ensued with supporters of both factions taking to the streets. Both factions were fickle in the extreme. They were unwavering only in their hatred of each other and they loved nothing better than a good riot. As the rebel army had approached the city and the Blues had dutifully manned the walls, the Greens had decided instead to throw their lot in with Phocas and the city was taken. Maurice was forced to watch as his sons were beheaded one by one in front of him before being dispatched in turn and his body flung into the sea.


Ruins of Khusrow's palace at Ctesiphon

When news of Maurice’s murder reached the court of the Persian king Khusrow II it was met with predictable outrage. Khusrow owed Maurice nothing less than his throne, having been driven from Persia by the rebellion of the general Bahram Chobin who had then claimed the crown. With Maurice’s support, Khusrow had regained his throne but the manner in which he had done so and the high price that he had paid in territorial concessions had made him deeply unpopular.  Nevertheless his personal sense of honour and the genuine gratitude and affection which he felt towards his benefactor Maurice had prevented him from seeking to regain the surrendered territories or breaching the peace with Byzantium whilst the emperor lived. Refusing to see the ambassadors sent from Constantinople, the King of Persia declared war upon the usurper Phocas and advanced at the head of his forces with the city of Dara as his first objective. At his side was a man who claimed to be a surviving son of Maurice named Theodosius but who was most likely an imposter as the real Theodosius is thought to have perished along with his siblings. It was hoped that his presence would tempt Byzantine forces to rebel against Phocas on behalf of the legitimate heir and the commander of the Edessa garrison did just this.

Dara fell in 604 and for the next six years Persian generals moved at will through Byzantine controlled Mesopotamia and Armenia capturing the key cities which protected the frontier whilst Phocas seemed intent on alienating his own subjects to such an extent that many would welcome the invaders as liberators.

The murder of Maurice and his family had been just the beginning of the reign of terror which Phocas unleashed upon his unfortunate subjects. All those who had been close supporters of Maurice or whose loyalty was suspect were arrested, tortured and executed. The new emperor had also for reasons unknown embarked upon a widespread persecution of the Jews who made up a significant proportion of the population of the eastern provinces and who now looked to Khusrow for their protection.
Despite his best efforts, Phocas could not purge everyone who might oppose his rule. In 608 Heraclius the Elder, Exarch of Carthage, began to raise a rebellion against Phocas. The exarch dispatched a fleet towards Constantinople under the command of his son Heraclius the future emperor. He also dispatched a land army commanded by his nephew Nicetas which marched along the North African coast to capture Alexandria. In 610 with Egypt safely in rebel hands, Heraclius the younger sailed into the harbour of Constantinople known as the Golden Horn at the head of a mighty fleet. He arrived to scenes of rioting as the factions abandoned Phocas. Phocas was arrested and rowed out to Heraclius’ flagship where victor and vanquished confronted each other before the usurper was executed. On the very same day Heraclius was both crowned and married in the church of St Sofia.
Heraclius emperor of Byzantium

Meanwhile the war with Persia continued. Refusing to receive Heraclius’ ambassadors or to acknowledge him as a rightful emperor, Khusrow declared that the legitimate Byzantine succession had died with Maurice. The pretender Theodosius was now forgotten and the generals Shahin and Shahrbaraz were ordered to drive the Greeks into the sea, with the former heading north into Cappadocia and the latter west into Syria. These regions, as Khusrow well knew, were ripe for the taking. The Byzantine forces which remained on the eastern frontier were ill equipped and demoralised and the civilian population felt little loyalty towards the regime in Constantinople.

Shahrbaraz swept through Syria in 611 whilst Shahin captured the Cappadocian city of Caesarea where he was besieged by Priscus. Rather than endure a siege, Shahin simply put the city to the torch and managed to break out and escape southwards unhindered.

Along with Nicetas and his brother Theodore, Heraclius then took command of the Byzantine forces in Syria in 613 but they were no match for the combined forces of the two Persian generals and their army was crushed in a battle fought close to Antioch. Following this defeat, the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire were left virtually defenceless. Antioch fell in the aftermath of the battle with the Blues and Greens offering fierce resistance.

The fall of Jerusalem in the following year was a great calamity for Christendom and there were many who saw God’s wrath and the coming of the end of days in these shocking events. The recovery of both the city and the true cross became key objectives for Heraclius. Following the uprising, Shahrbaraz had sacked the city, enslaved the populace, burned down the church of the Holy Sepulchre and taken away the precious relic of the True Cross which was sent to Ctesiphon for safe keeping.

Meanwhile Shahin once more struck deep into Anatolia, capturing Sardis in 616 and raiding all the way to the eastern shore of the Bosphorus within sight of Constantinople itself. By 619 resistance in Egypt had crumbled and Alexandria fell to Shahrbaraz. Its defender Nicetas fled by ship, bringing what treasure and holy relics he could with him.

Money was in short supply and Heraclius was forced to turn to the church in search of capital. In this he had a willing ally in Patriarch Sergius who was prepared to countenance the stripping of silver plate from Constantinople’s churches and its melting down into hard currency. In 623 Heraclius sought to secure a peace agreement with the Avars. These efforts almost ended in disaster but for the discovery just in time of an Avar plot to capture Heraclius. The emperor was forced to flee back to Constantinople with a rampaging barbarian horde hot on his heels ‘with his crown under his arm’. In spite of this perfidy Heraclius persisted with  peace efforts and succeeded in securing a truce.

The year 624 saw Heraclius once again take command of his troops and then lead them on a bold expedition into Persian controlled Armenia. With the majority of his forces far away occupying Byzantine territory, Khusrow himself was in command in the town of Ganzak which protected the northern approaches to the Persian heartland. With Heraclius’ forces bearing down on him, the Persian king lost his nerve, abandoned the town and fled southwards. Close to Ganzak was the site of the Persian’s most sacred fire temple. Heraclius now presided over the vengeful destruction of this temple in direct retribution for the fate of the Holy Sepulchre in  Jerusalem.

Seventh Century Byzantine icon depicting the triumph of Heraclius over Khusrow

Early in 625 three Persian armies advanced towards Heraclius’ army intent on its destruction. Heraclius knew that if the Persians joined forces he would be hopelessly outnumbered and so began a game of cat and mouse through the mountain passes and valleys of Armenia with the emperor always one step ahead of the pursuing Persians. Coming across favourable ground, Heraclius chose to turn and fight was able to take on two of the Persian armies piecemeal, destroying one and killing its commander and badly mauling the second under the command of Shahin in two engagements.

Following his victories Heraclius set off back towards his own territory with the army of Shahrbaraz in pursuit.  Heraclius was able to dish out further humiliation upon the Persians by launching a daring night attack on Shahrbaraz’s camp. The Persian general was forced to flee, leaving his baggage in the hands of Heraclius.

Shahrbaraz caught up with Heraclius on the Saros River in Cilicia and enticed the Byzantine cavalry into crossing the river before springing a trap. Disaster was only averted by a piece of conspicuous gallantry from the emperor himself who spurred his horse onto the bridge at the head of his counterattacking troops. His bold actions that day are related by the Byzantine monk Theophanes the Confessor, who wrote his chronicle some two centuries later.

Theophanes relates how Heraclius, mounted upon his valiant warhorse Dorkon, charged across the bridge where a giant of a man stood barring his path. Heraclius knocked the man into the river and continued his charge unchecked, causing panic amongst the Persians who, we are told, jumped into the river like frogs. Reaching the far end of the bridge with just a few companions, the emperor laid about him fearlessly with his sword, ignoring the swarms of arrows which were loosed his direction. Shahrbaraz could only look on in admiration and praised the boldness of Heraclius, who fought on despite receiving several wounds. Under such inspirational leadership the Byzantines carried the day and the Persians withdrew. Shahrbaraz is said to have exclaimed to a Greek collaborator named Kosmas; ‘Look at your emperor, he spurns their blows like an anvil!’

In 626 the feared alliance between the Persians and the Avars finally materialised. The year began well when a Persian army under Shahin was met and defeated in a battle fought in a driving hailstorm by forces under the command of Heraclius’ brother Theodore. Following this defeat Shahin took his own life rather than face the wrath of Khusrow who is said to have had his corpse flayed. Shahrbaraz meanwhile now proceeded with his army towards  Constantinople, to which a great horde of Avars led by their khan in person was now laying siege. The emperor had elected to remain with his army from where he could continue to threaten an invasion of Persia and so the defence of the city was left to the Master of Soldiers Bonos, ably supported by Patriarch Sergius.
From the Asian side of the Bosphorus there was little that Shahrbaraz could do to threaten the city directly and so it fell to the Avars to make the first attempt against it, storming the Theodosian Walls using siege towers from the landward side. Much as they are dismissed as barbarians, the Avars are credited with introducing two key military innovations to the west in the form of the stirrup, which was adopted by both Roman and Persian heavy cavalry, and the trebuchet. Tens of thousands of Avar warriors swarmed against the walls but were beaten back by the twelve thousand defenders made up of those troops whom Heraclius could spare from his army bolstered by the Blues and Greens who were united against a common foe. In spite of repeated Avar attacks the defences were not breached and the attackers slowly ran out of steam whilst the defenders drew courage from the knowledge that they fought under the protection of the Virgin Mary, whose image was carried daily around the walls by the Patriarch Sergius.
This icon in the possession of the Russian Orthodox Church is claimed to date from the siege of 626

The Avars and Persians now hatched a new plan. Whilst the Avars once more launched an attack against the walls at Blacharnae, an amphibious force would cross the Bosphorus under cover of darkness with rafts to pick up elite Persian troops and ferry them across to the other side where they could join in the attack. Meanwhile, an allied Slavic force would launch an attack in dugout boats across the Golden Horn in an attempt to storm the Sea Walls and keep the defenders occupied. The Byzantines however were forewarned, having captured the Persian ambassadors attempting to cross the straits back to their own lines and tortured the details of the plot out of them before beheading them and catapulting their heads at the enemy. The assault was doomed to failure and the Byzantine fleet which was lying in wait made short work of the flimsy craft which the Avars had assembled as they tried to cross the straits.

With their dastardly plans foiled, the Avars torched their siege machines along with anything else which would burn on their side of the Theodosian Walls and tramped away. Shahrbaraz stayed put but his failure to make much of an impression on the enemy capital had not impressed Khusrow, who felt that perhaps his general was not trying as hard as he might and that perhaps his loyalty was suspect. Khusrow therefore decided to remove Shahrbaraz with unexpected consequences. In another crucial interception of enemy communications, the messenger carrying Khusrow’s secret orders for Shahrbaraz’s second in command to arrest and execute Shahrbaraz fell into Byzantine hands. Heraclius can hardly have been able to believe his luck on receipt of this message and promptly forwarded it on to Shahrbaraz with his compliments in the hope of precipitating a revolt against Khusrow. Shahrbaraz was most grateful for this piece of intelligence but uncertain of the loyalty of his men. He therefore doctored the contents of the letter so that it ordered not only his own death but those of four hundred other Persian officers as well before revealing its contents to his outraged soldiers. This had the desired effect and neutralised a large proportion of the forces available to the Persian king. Whilst not resorting to open rebellion, Shahrbaraz and his army would make no further move against Constantinople. Nor would they lift a finger to assist Khusrow in the event of a Byzantine invasion of Persian territory. Shahrbaraz moved his forces into Syria to sit out the rest of the war and await developments, thereby swinging the balance of power dramatically towards Byzantium.

A traction trebuchet in action depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes

Heraclius waited out the summer of 627 in Armenia before launching his invasion into Mesopotamia as the cooler weather arrived. The Byzantine advance was slow and deliberate, looting, burning and destroying as it went, underlining the inability of the Persian king to protect his subjects. As before, Heraclius’ every move was dogged by a Persian army commanded by a general named Rhazates.

Keen to bring Rhazates to battle before further Persian troops could arrive, Heraclius elected to turn and fight upon reaching the ruins of ancient Nineveh, where the broad plain lent itself to a cavalry battle. Details of the battle are frustratingly scant but it seems likely that the Persians were outnumbered. There is an account of a Savaran champion challenging the emperor himself to single combat. We are told that Heraclius struck off his opponent’s head with a single stroke. The emperor then fought a further two victorious duels, being slightly wounded in the last.

Following the duels the Persians attacked; forming their cavalry into three wedges in the hope of driving through the Byzantine formation. Heraclius’ heavy cavalry were a match for their Savaran rivals however and their lines held. The Persians now found themselves enveloped as the Byzantines attacked the flanks and rear of their formations. The fighting went hard and the battle continued until darkness fell, by which time the Persian force had been all but annihilated and the survivors withdrew into the nearby hills. Amongst the Persian dead were Rhazates and most of his officers.

Victory at Nineveh spelled the end of effective Persian resistance. The road to Ctesiphon now lay open and Heraclius resumed his steady and destructive advance, laying waste to everything in his path and  taking particular pleasure in burning Khusrow’s palace at Dastagard to the ground. The soldiers feasted on gazelle and ostrich from the royal hunting park. For Khusrow the game was up and he soon fell victim to a palace conspiracy orchestrated by Shahrbaraz. Khusrow was confined to a prison known as the House of Oblivion. The king is said to have been left to starve surrounded by treasures piled up around him. He was succeeded by his son Kavad. When he heard of these developments, Heraclius immediately called off his advance on Ctesiphon and began the long march home. Peace terms were soon agreed, with Shahrbaraz playing an instrumental role in the negotiations. Prisoners taken by both sides were released and the Byzantine territories in Syria, Palestine and Egypt were returned as were the holy relics looted from Jerusalem.

A later Persian depiction of the murder of Khusrow

The relationship between Shahrbaraz and Heraclius grew closer over the course of their negotiations to the extent that a marriage alliance was agreed between the daughter of Shahrbaraz and Heraclius’ eldest son Heraclius Constantine. The Persian general, whose wife was a Christian, may even have embraced Christianity himself. When the short-lived Kavad who had already killed off most of his male relatives died and was succeeded by his infant son Ardashir, Shahrbaraz made his move and seized power. It seemed that an era of far more friendly relations between the two empires had dawned. This was not to be however and Shahrbaraz was soon assassinated by conservative elements at the Persian court and his body was dragged through the streets of Ctesiphon. The death of Shahrbaraz saw the end of strong and effective Persian kingship. Within a decade of his death, the Persian empire was no more, swept aside by the Arab conquests.

Heraclius died in 641. Death when it came to Heraclius must have been a merciful relief after years of painful and debilitating  illness during which he had seen all of his life’s achievements undone by the advent of Islam and the onslaught of the Arab conquests which overwhelmed those lands he had fought so hard to regain. He nevertheless deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest of Byzantine emperors who had pulled the empire back from the brink of disaster and but for his intervention it is questionable whether the empire would have survived at all.

So that's the history. In writing Fall of Empires I have sought to feature many of the key moments described above and bring this incredible period to life.


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