Catastrophe: An Investigation Into the Origins of the Modern World
from on high for the conduct of their empire, especially for the sins of Phocas’ revolution. A group of Roman magnates sent a letter across the Bosphorus to the Persian king in which they virtually trembled with guilt and fear.
    “Attacked by you as a reward for our sins, the affairs of the Romans have reached this sorry state of weakness,” they wrote. 10
    They abjectly begged that “your most great majesty, your most peace-loving majesty”—referred to by the Romans in less awkward times as “the Hated of God”—might make peace “by the Grace of God” as soon as possible. “We also beseech your gentleness that you hold our most pious Emperor Heraclius as a true son of yours, for he is ready in all things to concede to Your Serenity due reverence and duty.
    “For if you do this, you will acquire a double glory, first for fortitude in war and then for granting peace.
    “We ourselves would enjoy your never-to-be-forgotten gift of tranquillity, and it would be an occasion for us to offer daily prayers for your life. As long as the Roman Empire lasts, your beneficence would never fall into oblivion among its recipients,” the magnates groveled.
     
    T he empire had indeed become humble in its desperation. The currency was on the verge of collapse, and soon the loss of territory also began to reduce food supplies for Constantinople. In 618 government bread distribution was stopped. Three-quarters of the empire had been lost: The Levant, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and most of Anatolia had fallen to Persia, while much of Thrace, Greece, and Italy had been overrun by Avar, Slav, and (in Italy) Lombard barbarians. With the Avar and Persian armies preparing for the kill, the virtually bankrupt Roman government, holed up in Constantinople, appealed to the Church in 622 to hand over its gold and silver treasures, its church plate and altar fixtures, to pay for the empire’s preservation. Something in the region of 200,000 pounds of gold (worth in modern terms around $32 billion) was collected, ostensibly to raise a new army against the Persians.
    However, within a few months the Avars, who had no doubt heard of the emperor’s newfound “wealth,” forced the Romans to double their protection payments to 200,000 gold
solidi
per year.
    By 626 Constantinople was completely surrounded. The situation appeared hopeless. The Avars and their Slav vassals were just outside the city to the west, while just across the Bosphorus to the east was the Persian army. They were in contact with each other and acted in concert.
    The Avar
kagan
—also “the Hated of God” as far as the Romans were concerned—even offered the people of the capital a deal whereby they would lose their worldly wealth yet save their lives.
    “If any of you in the city wish to leave it, with only your shoes and shirt, then let us make a pact and treaty with my friend Shahbaraz [the Persian general],” the
kagan
told a delegation of citizens. 11 “If you cross over to him, he will do you no injury. Leave your city and your fortunes to me, for there is no other way for you to find safety, unless you turn yourselves into fish and escape by sea, or into birds and fly off through the air,” he warned.
    But 626 was to be a temporary turning point in the fortunes of the empire, for in the end the Avar attack failed and the Persians were beaten back.
     
    O ver the next four years, Emperor Heraclius managed to retake all the lost lands of western Asia and North Africa. But the cost in cash and manpower of this twenty-five-year-long war had been massive for both the Roman Empire and Persia.
    For the former it was a Pyrrhic victory, but for the latter it was a prelude to final catastrophe. From the 540s onward, the mounting cumulative effect of plague and barbarian attacks had caused financial problems that in turn had led to mutiny and revolution. That pivotal event—Phocas’ takeover—had furnished the Persians with the excuse to attack the empire at its weakest

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