How did the fall of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice change history?

coins with the portrait of Emperor Maurice

The importance of the Byzantine Empire, the successor of Rome, is increasingly being recognized by historians. One of the most important turning points in the history of the Byzantine Empire was the fall of Emperor Maurice (539-602 AD). He is a not a well—known emperor, or one that has entered into the popular consciousness. His reign, which was at first very successful, ended in a catastrophe for the emperor and his realm.

The fall and deposition of Maurice ushered in over a century where it seemed that the Byzantine state would suffer the same fate as the Western Roman Empire. Maurice’s death directly led to a 26-year war with the Sassanian Empire in Persia that weakened the Byzantines. This war had two critical repercussions, that changed history. The first challenge was that the Arabs, who were able to annex much of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire. The Arabs then Islamized this entire region. The second was that Slavs overran the Balkans provinces and these areas have remained Slavic to this day.

Background

The Byzantine Empire in the 6th century controlled roughly the eastern half of the old Roman Empire. The Western Roman territories had been largely partitioned between Germanic kingdoms. Justinian II sought to restore the Roman Empire, and he reconquered North Africa, Italy, and parts of Spain. However, Justinian had fatally overstretched the resources of the Empire, this and a terrible plague weakened his realms. His successor Justin II was faced with a series of daunting challenges.

The Lombard’s invaded Italy and began to conquer the territory that was secured at a great cost only recently by Justinian. In the east, the situation had reached a crisis point. To concentrate on the conquest of the west, Justinian had paid a hefty tribute to the Persians[1].

When his successor, refused to pay, they invaded and overran many provinces; such was the scale of the defeat that Justin II became mentally unbalanced. His successor Tiberius II stabilized the situation, and he managed to halt the Persians. While he was diverted in the east an alliance of Avars and Slavs tribes began to infiltrate the Balkan provinces, especially after the fall of the key fortress of Smirnium. Tiberius IIs armies were overstretched and could not contain the Slavs and Avars and the Empire who began to slowly annex Imperial territory[2].

The reign of Maurice

Reconstruction of a Slavic Fort

Maurice was born in Cappadocia (modern Turkey) and came from a Greek-speaking family. He was connected to Tiberius II and went to Constantinople to serve in the army [3]. When Tiberius ascended the throne, he was appointed as head of the Imperial Bodyguard. The new Emperor recognized the potential of the young man. In the east the situation was disastrous, and the Persians were seizing land and cities.

Maurice was given command of the east, despite having only limited military experience and soon proved himself to be a talented general [4]. In 582 Maurice was able to secure a resounding victory over a massive Persian invasion army. Soon after Tiberius sickened and as he lay on his bed, he appointed Maurice as his heir. He later married the daughter of Tiberius II and was crowned Emperor. He was faced with a series of crises, that threatened the Empire.[5]

The new general in the east was incompetent, and the Persians quickly defeated him. In the Balkans, the Avars and Slavs continued to advance, and in Italy, the Lombard’s pushed the Byzantines into the heel and toe of Italy. Maurice proved himself an energetic ruler. He created two administrations (Exchartes) in North Africa and Italy, under governors with a great deal of autonomy and this stabilized the situation in these provinces. Maurice then fought the Persians in the east for several years and inflicted a number of devastating victories on the Sassanians. These defeats led to the overthrow of the Persian ‘’King of Kings’’ and his son and heir was forced to flee to the Byzantine court for protection.[6]

Maurice protected the young man, who would later become Khosrau II. He used Byzantine forces to restore the young Persian to his father’s throne. Maurice had transformed the situation in the east, a grateful Khosrau II conceded territories and fortresses to the Byzantines and even was adopted by Maurice. Many Persian nobles were unhappy at this and believed that their Empire was merely a dependency of the hated Christians. Maurice then turned his attention to the Balkans and confronted the Avars and the Slavs who had stealthily occupied large swathes of Imperial territory. He began to campaign in the Balkans and recaptured key cities and fortresses. He inflicted several defeats on the Slavs and the Avars by using cavalry and ambushes to great effect.[7]

The Emperor was very cautious, and this reduced the effectiveness of the Slavs guerrilla tactics. Maurice also raided deep into Avar and Slav territory, and this kept these groups on the defensive. He even campaigned beyond the Danube, the first Emperor to do so in a century. By 595 Maurice had neutralized the Avar and the Slav threat and also defeated the Gepids. Despite his many victories, the Emperor was neither popular with his soldiers nor his subjects.[8] The Emperor was very much concerned with the finances of the Empire, and he refused to ‘buy’ the support of his soldiers and the general population. He was perceived as being mean-spirited and hated for his oppressive taxes. These taxes were necessary given the precarious state of the Imperial finances.

Moreover, Maurice neglected the internal affairs of the cities. The ‘Blues’ and the ‘Greens’ factions were divided by their loyalty to rival chariot teams in the Hippodrome.[9] They had been powerful street gangs, and in the past had even defied the great Justinian. The absence of Maurice, on campaigns, meant that the Blues and the Greens began to renew their old conflict and many cities became lawless. The Emperor drove his soldiers hard and did not spare them, in peace or war. In 602 AD, the army was driven to mutiny.

Maurice had refused to pay a ransom for some Byzantine troops that had been captured by the Avars, who subsequently killed them. In the bitterly cold winter of 602, he ordered his army to camp beyond the Danube and would not let them retire to their winter quarters. The military mutinied and proclaimed a general, Phocas as Emperor because they had not been paid. Maurice was forced to abdicate, and he was later beheaded after being forced to watch the torture and death of his sons.[10]

The Persian-Byzantine War

Modern portrait of Emperor Phocas based on his portrait on coins

The death of Maurice was to change the dynamic of Persian-Byzantine relations, Maurice had adopted Khosrau II, and his deposition meant that he could legitimately wage a war of revenge against Phocas. The new Byzantine Emperor was incompetent and brutal, and the elite despised him. The Persians invaded the eastern provinces of the Empire, relatively unopposed.

This signaled the start of a 26-year war between the Empires. The Byzantine army was demoralized and leaderless and they were soon defeated. Phocas rule was tyrannical and law and order collapsed in many areas. The armies of Khosrau II occupied Syria, Palestine, Armenia and entered Egypt by 608 AD. Phocas was eventually deposed by Heraculus, who was to eventually save the Empire. He defeated a siege of Byzantium and later launched a counter-attack that led to the defeat of Khosrau II , and the recapture of all the lost Byzantine provinces. However, the Orthodox Christian Empire was severely weakened and was only a shadow of what it had been in 600 AD and this was important repercussions for the future of Europe and the Middle East. If Maurice had lived and passed the throne to one of his sons, the mutually ruinous conflict between Byzantine and Sassanian could have been avoided.

The Arab Invasions

The Prophet Muhammad unified the disparate and feuding Arab tribes and transformed them into a formidable fighting force. In 629 the Prophet called for a Jihad against the Byzantine and Persian Empires. The Emperor Heraclius had not been able to consolidate Byzantine power in the areas that had been occupied by Khorsau II. At the battle of Yarmouk, the army of the Christian Empire was decisively defeated by the Muslims. This led to the loss of Palestine, including the Holy City of Jerusalem and Syria. By 642 AD, Egypt was also conquered by the Arab armies, who by 660 had captured North Africa. The collapse of Byzantine power in these areas was remarkably swift. This was a result of the brutal conflict between the Persians and the Byzantines that had broken out after the fall of Maurice.

The Arab conquests were facilitated by the usurpation of Phocas and his disastrous reign. If Maurice had lived the Byzantine’s would have been in a better position to withstand the Arab onslaught.[11] This could have ensured that Syria, the Palestine and North Africa would have remained part of the Empire and part of the Christian World. Instead these areas came under Arab control and eventually became largely Muslim.

The Slavs in the Balkans

The army in the Balkans had to be moved to the east to counter the growing Persian threat after Maurice’s brutal execution. The Persian invasions forced Emperor Heraclius to concentrate all his forces in Anatolia. This led to the collapse of the Byzantine Balkan frontier and the Avars raided to the walls of Byzantium and even took part in the Persian siege of the city in 626 AD. The Slavic tribes who had been largely pushed back beyond the Danube by Maurice were once again able to enter the Balkans, the Avars remained by and large beyond the Danube. These tribes settled in agricultural areas and formed petty kingdoms.[12]

They regularly raided or besieged the remaining Byzantine settlements. The result was that many Greek and Latin speakers left the area and moved to southern Italy or Asia Minor. Heraclius and subsequent emperors were so concerned with the Arab threat that they could not launch any meaningful counter-attack against the Slavs. The result was that over a period of time, the Slavs occupied much of the Balkans and the area was only nominally under Byzantine control. This not only denied the Christian Empire, resources and manpower it also permanently changed the character of the area and the region. The Balkans had been largely Greek or Latin in character but after the 7th century it became increasingly Slavic.[13]

This may not have occurred if Maurice had not been deposed. He was on the verge of defeating the Slavs and their allies and close to subjugating them in 602 AD. If the army had not mutinied and acclaimed Phocas as Emperor, the Slavs could have been kept out of the Balkans. Instead by 680 AD they had occupied nearly all of the region and changed its ethnic character, permanently.[14]

Conclusion

Maurice is rightly seen as a great general and administrator, but he was uncompromising and did not attend to the interests of his soldiers and the general population. Maurice removed the Persian threat and secured the eastern flank of his Empire. He was on the verge of a complete victory in the Balkans. Maurice inflexibility provoked a mutiny this led to his deposition and death. There was a dramatic shift in the fortunes of the Empire. It led to a 26-year war with Persia that grievously weakened the Empire, even though it survived. The Christian Empire went into a protracted period of decline that has been called the ‘Byzantine Dark Ages’. At this time the Slavs occupied the Balkans and the Muslims permanently seized Syria, Palestine and North Africa. This led to enduring cultural and religious changes in these regions. The decline of Byzantium could have been avoided if Phocas had not treacherously deposed and killed Maurice. The fate of the successor of the Roman Empire shows that individual events, such as a usurpation can change the fate of even great states.

Recommended Reading

Kaegi, Jr. Walter Emil. Byzantine Military Unrest, 471-843: an interpretation. Amsterdam, 1981.

Stratos, A.N. Byzantium in the Seventh Century. Amsterdam, 1968.

Kazhdan, Alexander P. S.v. "Constantine IV" by Paul A. Hollingsworth and Anthony Cutler. Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. New York, 1991

Haldon, J.F. Byzantium in the Seventh Century: the transformation of a culture. Cambridge, 1990.

References

  1. Treadgold, Warren T. A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), p 198
  2. Treadgold, p 201
  3. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. ("Maurice, East Roman emperor". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1911), p. 1
  4. Chisholm, p 2
  5. Norwich, John. Byzantium: The Early Centuries (London: Viking, 1988), 145
  6. Norwich, p 141
  7. Treagold, p 217
  8. Norwich, p 134
  9. Norwich, p 89
  10. Norwich, p 137
  11. Kennedy, H., The Prophet and the age of the Caliphates: the Islamic Near East from the sixth to the eleventh century (London, Routledge, 2015), p 178
  12. Curta, Florin Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500–1250. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p 134
  13. Curta, p 201
  14. Curta, 202