Shining light on Dark Ages clash between Rome and Persia — The Last Great War of Antiquity by James Howard-Johnston review

James Howard-Johnston delves deep into war between two great powers but mysteries remain.
Takht-i Sulaiman
Takht-i Sulaiman, Iran. (Credit: B.O'Kane / Alamy Stock Photo)
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When the outgoing editor of History Today, Paul Lay, was asked recently what, in his view, was his subject’s most exciting field, his answer was ‘the study of Late Antiquity’. It is not hard to see why. In recent years historians have chipped away at the ‘Dark Ages’, as this era was once known. Thanks to their painstaking and imaginative research we now know far more about this period, from the first signs of crisis in the Roman Empire in about 250, to the establishment of Islam as a world religion by the mid-eighth century.

One of the best known of these miners is James Howard-Johnston, now emeritus fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, after an academic career spanning more than 40 years. His last book, Witnesses to a World Crisis, tackled one of the most charged questions: how trustworthy are the earliest (but much later) Islamic accounts as sources for the birth and growth of that religion in the seventh century? That book was an evaluation of the Arab and other sources of this era, and an attempt to secure certain, datable facts from what – to me as a modern historian – looks like a nightmarish mix of contemporary, if remote, chronicles, hagiography, inscriptions, coins and other ambiguous archaeological finds, and works which have now vanished and are only faintly visible as influences on later writers. 

A warning to others working in the field not to run before they could walk, Witnesses deliberately showed its working. Though important, it was not designed for the general reader. This new book, The Last Great War of Antiquity, however, is. Using the refined chronology that emerged from Witnesses, Howard-Johnston vividly tells the extraordinary story of the clash between Rome and Persia in the first 30 years of the seventh century AD. This was the final bout of a century-long – arguably even longer – war between two of the great world powers of the era. For a decade the Romans lolled like a boxer on the ropes, both eyes half-shut from bruising. To win, they weaponised their Christian religion, but fuelled the millenarianism that suffuses the Qu’ran and ultimately came back to bite them. 

The war began in 603 when Khusro, the Persian king, saw his chance to claw back territory he had been obliged a decade earlier to cede to the Roman emperor Maurice, to win Maurice’s support for his own bid for kingship. When Maurice, by now gouty and unpopular, was murdered, and a dissident Roman general in the east named Narses appealed for Persian help, Khusro saw grounds to intervene.  

In 603 the Persians launched a two-pronged attack, and choreographed Narses’s installation of Maurice’s surviving son, Theodosius (or a very convincing impostor), as anti-emperor. The Romans counter-attacked the following year, but Khusro held them off and in 605 finally took Dara, today an insignificant place on Turkey’s border with Syria, back then a provocative strongpoint that was the point of the Roman spear. The Romans had, however, parried the Persians’ initial thrust and Khusro was forced to take a year mobilising more men before he could attack again. 

The second phase of the war, between 607 and 615, was disastrous for the Romans. The Persians deployed Theodosius to convince the inhabitants of one Roman outpost to capitulate. When Edessa (modern Sanliurfa) fell in 609, the remaining Roman outposts further east became untenable. 

Having wrenched the frontier over 200 miles west to the Euphrates, the Persians crossed the river in the summer of 610 and established a bridgehead on the Roman side. Helped by the fact their enemy was distracted by a further coup and roiling rival Christian sects, they then took Antioch on 8 October. In 611 the Roman capital, Constantinople, was itself rocked by an earthquake. Coming so soon after the series of defeats, it looked ominous to the god-fearing citizens.

The new emperor, Heraclius, led the procession to plead with God for mercy following the tremor but it did little good. Taking personal command of a much shrunken army – it was the first time in two centuries that an emperor had done so because of the mortal risk involved – he failed to take back Antioch in 613, and although two other Roman generals achieved minor victories, they could not stop the Persians seizing Jerusalem in 614 and spiriting the True Cross away to their capital at Ctesiphon. With the loss of the holy city, the Roman Empire had not just been cut in two: as Howard-Johnston drily notes, the Romans’ ‘special position as God’s single authorised agent for regulating earthly affairs came into serious question’. 

Heraclius may not have won but, unlike less lucky predecessors, he lived to fight another day and drew strength from his predicament. Exploiting the surge of the Persians towards the Bosphorus in 615 and their refusal to come to terms, he slashed state salaries by half, and issued a new silver coin bearing the legend “God Help the Romans” to pay them. In 618, anticipating that Egypt would be next to fall, he cut the unaffordable grain dole given to the original citizens of Constantinople. Howard-Johnston reckons this ensured that the loss of the grain-rich province the following year made little difference. 

In 622 Heraclius took a significant gamble, leaving Constantinople to resist the Persians and their Avar allies, and heading east. Roman resources had also been whittled away by the waves of plague that had bedevilled the world since the 540s, and his army cannot have been more than a fifth the size the state fielded a century earlier. However, Heraclius had promised his men paradise if they died in battle – an innovation which the popes latched onto during the crusades. Having despatched an envoy to solicit the help of the nomadic Turks, he marched right into the Persians’ heartland, snuffing out the sacred flame of their fire temple at Takht i-Sulaiman, dealing Khusro a stunning psychological blow. 

Heraclius was a consummate propagandist and Howard-Johnston has his work cut out in untangling fact from hysterical anti-Persian fiction. He meticulously unravels what happened in the tortuous final years of the war. Contrary to what some of the sources say, Heraclius decided not to get drawn into the siege of his capital. Instead, by haunting the valleys of Armenia (from where Howard-Johnston thinks his family probably came), he managed to defeat the army of the great Persian general Shahen, with the help of a violent hailstorm. Having finally returned home to celebrate the deliverance of Constantinople he set out again the following year with the intention of destroying the Persians once and for all. After a theatrical meeting with the Turks’ great khagan outside the walls of Tbilisi in 627, he then left a smouldering trail of devastation from northern Persia to Mesopotamia. He defeated the Persian army outside Nineveh that December and the following year his march on Ctesiphon caused Khusro to panic. The Persian king was overthrown by his son and senior army officers, who sued for peace. The frontier defined in a treaty nearly 300 years earlier was largely restored, and in 630 Heraclius triumphantly restored the True Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Due to the Arab conquests that followed, Roman control of the holy city was brief. 

The signs of an increasingly troubled relationship between the two powers and their nomadic Arab neighbours are visible in Khusro’s decision, during the war, to execute the Arab leader of the tribe on which the Persians had relied for centuries for security on their desert frontier. Exactly when this happened is unclear. Howard-Johnston ‘provisionally’ dates it to the early stages of the war, attributing the move to Persian confidence. My feeling is that it reflects the exact opposite – tensions which would soon engulf the Persian state. Whatever, this is the most definitive account of this climactic era yet but, excitingly, intriguing mysteries remain. 

The Last Great War of Antiquity by James Howard-Johnston, Oxford University Press, pp 464; £31

James Barr

James Barr is author of several books on Middle Eastern history including 'A Line In The Sand' (2011) and 'Lords of the Desert' (2018) and a visiting fellow at King's College London.

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