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The Last Great War of Antiquity
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021
The First World War is a curious conflict. The belligerents prayed to the same God, their royal families were closely related, and their nations were free and prosperous. They ruled most of the Earth through their empires. They only needed to cooperate, and the golden world in which they lived could have lasted for a long time — but they failed to do so. After the civilized world exhausted itself in a dreadful conflict, the Bolsheviks and Third World social movements went from the periphery to the center of global affairs.
A similar event happened during the seventh century, from 602 until 628. A war took place between the Romans, who by then had their capital at Constantinople, and the Persians. The Romans and Persians did not pray to the same god, but their religious ideas were not incompatible. As the two most civilized polities on the planet, they only needed to cooperate to continue to maintain law, learning, and order. Like the belligerents of 1914-18, however they failed to cooperate and a dreadful war followed.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Roman-Persian War, the ultimate Third World movement , Islam , moved to the center of global affairs, and that movement conquered Persia, Egypt, and the Levant, as well as much of the ancient world.
This Roman-Persian War was the last war that can be traced to the Classical world’s political configuration. After this conflict, the geopolitical structure shifted to something resembling the clash of civilizations  as it exists today. The circumstances surrounding this war have surprising parallels with the situation in America and the world today.
The Roman Empire of the seventh century was politically polarized domestically, was involved in quagmire wars, had a mutinous and disloyal military, and was surrounded by armed, migrating tribes that were not part of Classical civilization and were a threat to it. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there is a quote that can easily apply to the Roman-Persian War as well as to America today: “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn, and accents yet unknown!”
The Roman Cultural Mutation and the Migrating Tribes
The origins of Rome are shrouded in myth. What is certain is that the Latin tribe of central Italy developed a political and military organization that came to dominate the Mediterranean. The self-governing Roman Republic fell apart  just before the time of Christ and became an imperial dictatorship thereafter.
Although there are some considerable differences, the story of the Roman Empire can be compared to that of the American Empire of Nothing. The Roman system carried out a Great Replacement, at least of the Latins within the city limits of Rome itself. In the Eternal City, Latins were replaced by slaves from elsewhere. While the Latin working class in Rome was replaced by slaves, the Latin people more generally expanded into other parts of Europe. Latin DNA is not much different from that of other Europeans, so one cannot measure the spread of the Latins that way; rather, one can see the cultural impact of the Latins’ expansion in Europe’s languages and writing system s. Today, much of Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe speak a language that is directly descended from Latin .
The Roman system grew beyond the folkways of its Latin founders. By 324 AD, the Roman Empire’s economic center was in the Greek-speaking east, so the Emperor Constantine moved the capital to the centrally located and easily defended city of Byzantium, which was then renamed Constantinople.
The western, Latin-speaking part of the Roman Empire fell apart in a slow-motion series of disasters after the capital moved. Rome was conquered by the Visigoths in 410. The Lombards conquered and settled northern Italy shortly thereafter. In 449, the Anglo-Saxons started their conquest and settlement of Britannia. Gaul had fallen to the Germanic Franks by 481.
Historians have puzzled over the fall of the Western Roman Empire for generations, and there are many theories as to why such a powerful force collapsed. There is one trend which seems to explain it: The Romans somehow lost their sense of civic virtue and initiative. They hired northern Europeans to fill the ranks of their army, and used slaves to work their land. The Roman Britons, for example, were overrun by their Saxon mercenaries.
It is likewise uncertain why the northern Europeans became such a mighty force. What is known is that Germanic people from Scandinavia, Jutland, and northern Germany started to look for new lands as Rome fell apart, and it appears they easily captured all the lands they found. We also know that there was a catastrophic global cooling event in 536 , likely caused by volcanic activity. This cooling brought about famine and caused further migrations of barbarian tribes. It also contributed to Justinian’s Plague , which caused the Romans to abandon their attempt to recapture the western parts of their empire from the Germanics.
Eastern Rome had trouble with barbarian tribes as well, but they were different from those in the west. The first problems arose from Slavic tribes making an armed migration into the Balkans. The Turks and the Avars were a threat, also. The Avars migrated to Europe across the Eurasian Steppe. The Turks probably originated in the Altai Mountains  in Central Asia, and they likewise headed towards Europe across the steppe. The Turks were more of a problem for the Persians than the Romans in the seventh century, however.
On the eve of the Classical world’s last war, the Roman Empire was a polity severed from its original roots. It had abandoned its old faith for Christianity . It had moved its capital more than a thousand miles from Rome. It had originally been built upon a Latin ethnic core, but in the seventh century it came to be based on a Greek core  instead. It was as if the United States had conquered Western Europe and moved its capital to Gibraltar while the original Thirteen Colonies  were being conquered by Inuit tribesmen originating in Nunavut, and then Spanish-speakers in the new American capital started calling themselves “Yankees ” even though their only connection to the original Americans  was political.
The Mutiny & Coup
It was the problems stemming from the migrating tribes in the Balkans that led to the Roman-Persian War. The Roman army was deployed there to stop the Slavic migrations. It deployment was difficult, and discontent ultimately led to a mutiny. An officer named Phocas was elected leader of the mutineers, and in 602 he led his army back to attack Constantinople.
Phocas was able to gain political capital by building upon the Emperor Maurice’s military missteps in Italy against the Lombards, as well as the divisions between Orthodox Christian sects. There were also anti-Maurice riots within the city. Phocas was able to enter Constantinople because the undisciplined circus factions called Blues and Greens that were charged with defending the city walls rioted as the rebel army approached, among other failings on the part of Maurice’s supporters. Phocas was proclaimed Emperor, and he had Maurice beheaded, along with his sons.
One of his sons, Theodosius, was not captured, however. He either vanished completely or successfully made his way to Persia to appeal for help. Roman and Persian accounts are so full of propaganda that it is not known if Theodosius really made it to Persia or not. Either way, the coup and purported survival of Theodosius was the cause of the Persian attack on Rome’s eastern frontier in Mesopotamia and Armenia.
In looking back at Maurice’s fall, it is clear that part of the problem was that he accepted political blame for military defeats while his military commanders were left free to exploit the situation. This has some parallels to America’s current situation. In the wake of the catastrophic withdrawal from Kabul, no senior military planner was asked to resign. A US Marine Corps battalion commander was sacked  after “demanding accountability ,” but his efforts at getting accountability went nowhere.
Nonetheless, the American establishment was politically wounded and has still not healed. While the military didn’t march against the current American President in the wake of the Kabul disaster, there is a parallel in present-day America to the Late Roman Empire’s quagmire wars and ineffective and politicized military. Additionally, a case can be made that Biden’s ascension to the presidency due to a fraudulent election helped encourage the decision-makers in Russia to attack Ukraine.
The Persian Advance
The Persians started to bite off parts of the Roman Empire in Armenia and Mesopotamia during the first two years of the war. It was clearly a difficult job for them, as the Romans had built extensive fortifications and had excellent roads for their troops and supplies to use for movement.
The Persian successes, as well as domestic problems within Rome, led to another change at the top. Heraclius, a senior military officer and government official in North Africa, gathered a force and went to Constantinople by sea. Once there, he deposed and executed Phocas. Having done that, he attempted to make peace with the Persians, who had already conquered parts of Anatolia. His efforts were rebuffed.
James Howard-Johnston writes,
[The Persian Emperor] Khusro made a conscious, public decision to reconstruct the world order on new lines. His war with the Romans was thenceforth to be a war to the death. His decision marked a final stage in its escalation. All controls were removed from the conflict. It was a decision taken by an individual which changed the course of history. (p. 120)
The Persians continued to make progress. By 614, they were ready to attack Palestine. They were greatly aided by the Jewish community there. Despite the stories of the Jews having being expelled from the region after the Jewish Revolt , it seems that enough of a Jewish community remained to be a subversive force once an enemy arrived. The Jews identified Romans — Greek-speaking Christians in Palestine — whom they disliked to the Persians, and those community leaders were killed in a huge massacre.
In 618, the Persians captured Egypt. The Persian victories in Egypt and the Levant shocked the world. The Romans had established trade networks that extended from Western Europe to Sri Lanka, and down into Arabia. The Roman Empire was the superpower of its day, and it had ruled for centuries. Rome’s military defeats ripped at the political and military foundations across the known world.
And yet all was not lost for Rome. They still held most of Asia Minor and North Africa, and they still controlled the Mediterranean Sea. To meet the costs of the war, the Emperor increased taxes and cut salaries for government officials by half. The Romans recognized that they were in a fight to the death and steeled themselves for the coming conflict. There was no panic in the capital, and it is clear from archeological evidence and the study of coins from the era that there wasn’t a major shortage of money. The mints continued to produce gold, silver, and copper specie.
While Rome readied itself for whatever was coming next, the Persians solidified their rule in the occupied areas. In the Levant they switched from favoring Jews to Christians to keep tensions from rising. In Egypt they deported some senior officials, but otherwise maintained a light presence. Based on what records exist as well as archeological discoveries of coin stashes, the Persian tax burden was not oppressive.
Although the Persians appeared to be making enormous gains, there were problems in Arabia. During the life of Christ, Roman law and order was so pervasive that Bedouin raiders are not mentioned in the New Testament, even though Judea was right next to the desert from where they could launch attacks. But in the intervening centuries, Bedouin raiding had increased across Palestine and become a menace.
After capturing the Levant, the Persians worked to end the Bedouin raids by making clients of Arab tribesmen through various patronage and payment schemes. On the whole, this worked, but there were some negative interactions between Arabs and Persians as a result. The Persian Emperor Khusro and an Arab king named al-Nu’man had a falling out, and there was a minor skirmish at Dhu Qar  as a result. In retrospect, it is clear that that battle marked a shift in the relationship between Persians and Arabs from one of cooperation to open hostility. Regardless, for a time, and through their clients, the Persians controlled all of Arabia except for the Hijaz .
The Romans Return
Howard-Johnston doesn’t mention or allude to the ideas that Victor Davis Hanson presented in his book Carnage and Culture (2001). Hanson argued that Western Civilization, which had been created by the Greeks, tended to ultimately triumph over non-Western civilizations due to specific cultural traits. These included self-criticism, economic prowess, and the civic involvement of free citizens.
The most important civic involvement among Westerners is what Hanson called “civic militarism,” referring to the fact that every citizen is free to join the military. Should one Western army be destroyed, another could be formed. There were also plenty of veterans around who can be called up. There was not a caste of soldiers trained from childhood who were difficult to replace if they were killed or wounded, as in most non-Western societies. Westerners also fought in orderly formations, and the only real requirement for a soldier in combat was to stand his ground rather than count coup or carry out an individual act of valor.
Additionally, Hanson points out that Westerners study war in a way that non-Westerners do not. There are very few Persian sources for this war. Persian motivations and strategy during this conflict have to be puzzled out from non-Persian sources.
We know from Roman sources that the Roman army had reformed by 622 and conducted large-scale training maneuvers prior to facing the Persians in battle. These maneuvers would have had after action reviews and self-reflection at every level of command. These training maneuvers also developed the all-important logistical efforts required to maintain an army in the field in the exact same way that logistics are carried out in actual combat operations.
Heraclius was an excellent speaker. He used this ability to impart a solid ideological and religious focus to his army. He was also a brilliant strategist. His plan was to counter the Persians by attacking their forces in detail. No doubt the Greek and Christian population in Anatolia aided him with intelligence as well. Likewise, the Romans were fighting on their own turf, so they could move more quickly.
The Avars Attack
There is no one official, all-encompassing contemporary source for this war anywhere. Its events must rather be pieced together from various sources, and the blank spots filled in and connected by educated guesswork. In 622, the Emperor Heraclius had to leave the field in Anatolia and return to Constantinople to fend off an attack by the Slavs and Avars. The attack came first from the Slavs, who were vassals of the Avars, and then Thessaloniki was attacked and besieged directly by the Avars themselves.
This was partially an intelligence failure by the Romans, which was burdened by the time’s limitations. The entire Avar army was mounted, and they could travel as fast as any messenger. This was also the advantage that the Mongol armies possessed when they conquered China. The Avars came upon Thessaloniki by surprise. Many of its citizens were bringing in the harvest. Those outside its walls were captured or killed, and the city settled in for a long siege.
Thessaloniki held out, eventually paid tribute, and ransomed the captives. The Avars moved on to Constantinople. Heraclius managed to arrange a truce, but when he went to meet the Avar leader, he realized they planned to attack and capture him. He retreated with his party back to the protective walls. The Avars then made some trouble, and Heraclius paid them off and allowed his illegitimate son, his nephew and a child of a prominent senator, to be hostages for a time. The gold coins from that payment have been found across northern Europe. One coin was even found near the Sutton Hoo ship burial in England.
The Roman Counterattack
While the Avars were pacified with peace terms that were humiliating for the Romans, they were pacified. This left the Romans free to attack the Persians. The Romans assembled an enormous army; possibly as large as 120,000 soldiers. (It is unlikely that this massive force would have been all in one place at one time, however.) These men had to be fed and equipped, so it is clear that the Roman economy was very strong despite the losses of Egypt and the Levant. The Romans continued to use tried-and-true methods of building fortified camps wherever they stopped. They also had corps of technical specialists: medics, engineers, and artillery (catapults and trebuchets). The key innovation was replacing wagons with pack animals. This meant they could travel overland and across rough, mountainous terrain.
Heraclius then reached out to the Turks. These nomadic people were then located north of Persia in what are now the “Stans” of Central Asia. Andrew, the Roman diplomat, met with the Turks on the Black Sea coast and traveled to the steppes to obtain military support from the Turkish leadership. This effort was successful by June of 625. The Turks promised to attack by 626.
Although there are no Persian sources confirming this, it is likely the Persians were assembling to capture all of Anatolia and then go on to Constantinople. They did not expect a Roman attack. The Romans achieved strategic surprise and defeated the Persians at their base in Ganzak, a town in northern Iran.
The Persians fled and their army dissolved. They attempted a scorched-earth defense, but the Romans pressed on, capturing and killing civilians and burning towns. Their first major success was the capture of a Zoroastrian fire temple. This was a major blow to Persian prestige and morale. This attack upon a religious site was important, since it came in the wake of Christian propaganda about Persian atrocities.
The Romans continued to press on. They defeated Persian forces in detail, using deception operations to lure them into frontal attacks on ground of their choosing. The Persians also had to make do with armies of inexperienced troops. When the Persians assembled a large army against the Romans and met them on ground the Romans hadn’t chosen to fight on, leaving the outcome in doubt, Heraclius addressed his men:
Be not disturbed, O brethren, by the multitude of the enemy. For when God wills it, one man will rout thousands. So let us sacrifice ourselves to God for the salvation of our brethren. Let us seize the crown of martyrdom that a future age may praise us and that God may grant us our recompense. (p. 240)
The language of jihad is clear. This battle took place during the Prophet Mohammed’s lifetime.
The Romans faced off against the massive Persian force, but the Persians did not attack. The Romans left that night. They were able to cross rough terrain, and they positioned themselves in an area that was easy to supply and defend in Armenia. When the Romans got word of a Persian attack, they struck preemptively with their cavalry, scattering the enemy.
The Persians planned to turn the tide by using the Avars to attack Constantinople again. As the Avars gathered strength, the Romans were forced to return to defend their capital. The sources differ and are not entirely clear on how the Romans got back there, but they did make a successful fighting retreat. The Avars then attacked Constantinople by land and sea, but the walls held and the Roman navy destroyed their fleet, which was manned by Slavic sailors. The Persians were nearby, in the areas they still held in Anatolia, but they were unable to cross the Bosporus. With their supplies exhausted, their fleet destroyed, and their armies beaten, the Avars burned their siege engines and retreated.
The Persian army in Anatolia was defeated as the result of a Roman campaign that was conducted by something like guerrilla warfare. The Romans met the Persians in mountain passes, hid in forests, and destroyed small Persian detachments whenever they were found. It is likely that senior Persian generals were killed at this time, because their names disappear from the historical records following the campaign.
Exactly where the Emperor Heraclius was at this time is uncertain. Different sources put him in two places at once, but it is certain that he was there at the decisive points and was victorious.
By 626, the Turks and Romans had come to a diplomatic understanding and forged an alliance. The Turks issued a declaration of war against the Persians: “Doom was now coming with long strides upon Persia.” (p. 291) The Turks launched their attack in 627 through a pass in the Caucasus called the Caspian Gates  (there are several passes that are candidates, so its exact location is unknown). They swept through several Persian cities and fortresses; some Persian cities surrendered without a fight. They met up with the Romans at Tiflis , where they conducted a joint siege.
At this point the Persians recognized that they were in enormous trouble. They were faced with two powerful enemies, and the Romans were making advances everywhere. The Romans also burned every town they captured and sacked captured Persian palaces and government buildings. These reverses in fortune created a domestic crisis for Khusro. These years of warfare were as hard upon the Persians as they were on the Romans. The Persian aristocracy and senior military leadership finally revolted in the capital of Ctesiphon (near present-day Baghdad), arresting Khusro, executing him, and placing his son on the throne.
The new Persian administration sued for peace. The Romans used the peace conference to put forward a candidate for the Persian throne that was more acceptable to them. They also exploited the fact that the Turks were still conducting hostilities to gain concessions. In the end, the Romans chose to not disassemble the Persian Empire. Aside from the fact that they recognized that it would tie down thousands of their troops to garrison a hostile population from a wildly different historical background and powerful culture, they wished to leave Persia intact so that a stable balance of power would continue. The Persian garrisons then withdrew from those Roman territories in Egypt and the Levant they had occupied without a fight, except in those places where the Jewish community encouraged resistance. The Emperor Heraclius stopped the inevitable pogroms following Roman reoccupation as soon as he could, however.
In 630, Heraclius returned the True Cross — a piece of wood said to be from the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified — to Jerusalem.
Causes & Consequences
The crisis began with a failure to defend the Roman Empire’s border in the Balkans from invaders — armed Slavs and, later, Avars. The second challenge was how to fight a war with an ineffective but highly politicized military that was hostile to the constitutionally legitimate Roman Emperor. The weakness and coup that followed gave the Persians the green light to attack, and they made the most gains in those parts of the Empire where there were fewer people of the Empire’s core ethnic base: Christian Greeks.
There are remarkable similarities between this ancient war and America’s situation today. America has been unable to defend its border for decades. An attempted defense during the Trump administration was halted by the Democratic Party and mainstream media establishment by means of a fraudulent presidential election in 2020. The new President is clearly senile and declining. Meanwhile, the American military has become politicized, mutinous, and ineffective. As a result, Russia was given a green light to attack Ukraine, and other great powers are now growing restless and threatening.
While “civic militarism” was critical to the Roman victory, the fundamental reason why the Romans won was because of decisions that had been made centuries earlier. Then, the Roman political elite made a decision, free of ties to tradition and sentiment, to move its capital from Rome to Byzantium, which was located at the nexus of the trade routes that connected Russia, Scandinavia, and the entire Mediterranean world.
Byzantium was also easy to defend. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 was a stroke of luck, pulled off with considerable Christian European support — especially Western Christians. Modern technology and weaponry has not diminished Constantinople’s defensive advantages, either; the British and French could not take the city despite their enormous resources during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War.
“Civil militarism” was highly important within Greek culture. “Heraclius and his staff officers were able to draw on the accumulated wisdom of Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman military men,” Howard-Johnston tells us (p. 362) They especially did so in war games and strategy sessions during the winter of 621-22. The Romans made cold, carefully calculated decisions and attacked Persia at its weakest point. They also trained hard. Heraclius likewise skillfully employed his intelligence assets and was able to deceive the Persians about his movements and plans.
Most importantly, the Romans never lost heart. It is clear that their political-religious ideology helped them greatly. They looked to the Bible and saw themselves as a chosen people beset with troubles, but they had faith that Divine Providence would eventually intervene on their side. Heraclius used religion to great effect. He harnessed religion to war at the level of the whole state. Howard-Johnston writes:
Heraclius was the first secular leader to pump out stridently Christian propaganda — propaganda being the only effective weapon to hand during the second phase of rapid Persian advance of the Levant. The war was portrayed as that of an evil empire against God’s faithful worshippers. (p. 364)
Heraclius’ exhortations, especially his claim that the soldiers in the campaign would go directly to Paradise, were taken up by the Prophet Mohammed and his followers. Shortly after this conflict, Mohammed’s followers burst forth from Arabia and went on to conquer much of the world, eventually reaching Spain.
The conventional wisdom is that the reason the Moslems advanced so quickly was because the Romans and Persians were exhausted by the war and thus not up to the challenge of dealing with a new rival they had not recognized previously. There is some truth to this, but Howard-Johnston makes the case that the Arabs were well-organized at all levels and won decisive military victories against large Persian and Roman armies. They were like the Viet Minh triumphing over France at Dien Bien Phu: France was exhausted from the two world wars, but they lost in Indochina due to their enemies’ better organization. It is impossible to believe that the Viet Minh would have gone to war had the French not already been so weakened, however.
The Arab victories were also aided by the terrain. Geographically, there is nothing other than desert that can stop an army hell-bent on attacking Persia’s capital in Mesopotamia from the direction of Arabia — and the Arabs are experts at crossing deserts. There are no natural defenses between Arabia, Egypt, and the Levant, either.
The Roman-Persian War was a conflict much like the First World War. It was extremely destructive, wholly unnecessary, and caused by both perceived and real internal weaknesses in a great power. After the conflict, Islam became the major power. In Western Europe, the Germanic raiders continued to build and expand their settlements in formerly Roman lands, while the peoples in the areas around the Baltic and North seas grew stronger. Thus, this ancient conflict shaped the world we live in today as much as many of the more recent and better-known wars. In The Last Great War of Antiquity, James Howard-Johnston fills in an important but little-known chapter of world history.
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