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The Last Great War of Antiquity

July 27, 2021 at 10:40 am

The Last Great War of Antiquity
  • Book Author(s): James Howard-Johnston
  • Published Date: July 2021
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Hardback: 480 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198830191

The author of The Last Great War of Antiquity makes the point that its writing was “no easy task… but given the importance of the war, it is worth making the effort.” The Persian-Roman War (602-630 CE) was one of the most significant to be fought in the ancient world. It unleashed an unexpected spiritual and religious crisis and cities throughout the Middle East were left in ruins, but surprisingly little has been published about what some call a “world war”.

The war is often viewed through the prism of Islam, which emerged from Arabia during the conflict. Many historians attribute the swift Muslim victories against the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and Persian Empires in the seventh century to the impact that the war had on both. James Howard-Johnston has produced a grand narrative which aims to reconstruct one of the most impactful conflicts of the ancient world.

The war began and ended with a coup, one Roman, the other Persian. In 602, Roman Emperor Maurice was toppled and killed after dissatisfied troops from the Balkans led by an army officer called Phocas seized control of Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Discontent had been spreading throughout the empire in the run-up to the coup with rebellions in imperial provinces from Egypt to Armenia. The emperor’s popularity took a real hit in the capital. “There was a worrying incident in Constantinople early in 602,” explains Howard-Johnston. “The immediate cause was a food shortage. As the emperor was going barefoot through the city in procession on the night of 1-2 February, stones were thrown at him… A bald man who looked like Maurice was put on a donkey, crowned with a wreath of garlic, and then taunted with various mocking shouts.”

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But for all of Maurice’s failings, his toppling unleashed devastating infighting, which is where the Persians came in. The ruler of Persia was Khusro II, who owed his political survival to Maurice, as the Roman emperor helped end a civil war taking place in the Sassanian [Persian] empire, in return for which the Romans were granted huge concessions. “The Persian aim at the outset was not even regime change, merely restoration of an ousted regime,” says the author. However, Khusro was not only trying to bring back the old guard. “He [Khusro] may have been genuinely saddened at the overthrow and murder of his benefactor Maurice… He decided to replay the events of 590-91 [Persian civil war], this time with the Persians intervening to restore the legitimate ruler… The reward would be the recovery of territory which Maurice had demanded as the price for his military and political support.” Thus began the Persian-Roman war.

The conflict consumed much of the Middle East, with battles in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere. Persian forces had the advantage in the first stages of the war, with important cities like Jerusalem and lands like Egypt falling under their control. The Byzantines were on the back foot militarily, and encouraged Roman provinces to rise against Persia, which only contributed to the view that the Eastern Roman Empire’s collapse was inevitable.

The Persian armies made it as far as Constantinople where they came close to delivering the coup de grace, but somehow the Romans managed to reverse their defeats. Led by Emperor Heraclius, they forged alliances with the Turkic Khaganate Ghassanids, who attacked Persia from Central Asia. At that point, writes Howard-Johnston, “Khusro had no choice but to adopt a very defensive posture. The losses suffered in 626 and commitments elsewhere left him short of manpower.”

In fact, he lost huge swathes of territory until his capital Ctesiphon was itself under siege. Popular opinion turned against the Persian ruler, to which Khusro responded by arresting, torturing and executing members of the elite. He was eventually deposed by his son Kavad Shiroe, who declared himself king and had his father executed.

James Howard-Johnston succeeds in providing a gripping and detailed account of the Persian-Roman War. Although Islam does not feature greatly in his retelling, he does link episodes in the war to the actions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in Makkah. The author is not alone in doing this. Historian Juan Cole argued in his book Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires that Islam was partially a peace movement that sprang up due to the concerns and anxieties caused by the war. While the sweeping nature of The Last Great War of Antiquity means that it’s very easy for the casual reader to lose the thread, it is nonetheless a worthy account of this particular “Great War”.

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