Byzantine Empire 555AD
Byzantine Empire 555AD

Overview of the Byzantine Persian Conflict

compiled by Lewis Loflin

The Byzantine Persian wars in the early 6th century weakened both empires. This made them easy conquests for Islam.

Khosru I came to power in 531. In 532, he offered the Romans peace. Justinian accepted, wanting to have his eastern frontier secure before setting out to conquer Africa and Italy. On Justinian's success, Khosru humorously asked for a share of the spoils on the grounds that Byzantium could not have won without peace on its eastern border. Justinian, sent Khosru costly gifts in return.

In 539, Khosru declared war on Byzantium on the premise that Justinian had violated the peace treaty, however, it is more likely that Khosru wanted to take advantage of Byzantium having most of its troops stationed in the now conquered western provinces, instead of waiting for a strengthened Byzantium to invade Persia.

He invaded Syria, besieged Hierapolis, Apamea, and Aleppo until they paid him rich ransoms. He then stood before Antioch. When the Byzantines mocked Khosru, in a rage Khosru took the city by storm, burned down all the buildings except the cathedral, massacred part of the population, and sent the rest of the population to a new Antioch in Persia. He bathed with great joy in the Mediterranean, which was once Persia's western border. He then recrossed the Euphrates with his fortune.

In 541, Justinian sent for Belisarius to come to the rescue but Khosru had crossed the Euphartes with his spoils and Belisarius did not pursue him. Due to the fact that neither side could hold land across their borders for long periods of time, both the Byzantines and the Persians resorted to rapid attacks and then retreats. Khosru did this in three more invasions, during the Lazic War. The Lazic war, between the Persians and the Byzantines lasted from 542 to 562, over what is now Georgia, which was inconclusive and ended in a truce.

In 545, Justinian paid Khosru 2000 pounds of gold for a five year truce and then another 2600 pounds for a five year extension. In 562, both Justinian and Khosru had pledged a fifty year truce, in which Byzantium would pay Persia 30,000 pieces of gold annually in return for Persia giving up its claims to disputed territories in the Caucasus and on the Black Sea.

Khosru, on the request of the Himyarites of southwest Arabia, sent an army to free them from the Abyssinians in 570. Justin II, the successor to Justinian, having had an alliance with the Abassinians, considered this an unfriendly act, and declared war in 572 with their Turk allies in the east. Khosru, despite his age, took to the field and captured the Byzantine frontier town of Dara while his general Adarman attacked the suburbs of Antioch and sacked the city of Apadmea.

These defeats prompted Justin II to abdicate the throne, and Tiberius, the new emperor, made a three year peace. Byzantium, in these three years, organized a massive army, and on learning this, Khosru invaded in order to prevent a Byzantine attack. The two armies met at Melitene in 578, and Khosru suffered his first defeat due to his poor health and later died in 579 in Ctesiphon.

After Khosru's death, Persia went through a series of successions which later installed the Byzantine backed Shah Khosru Parvez, who would later become a nightmare for the Byzantines. When The Byzantine Emperor Maurice, who had placed Parvez on the Persian throne and was a dear friend to Parvez, was murdered and replaced by Phocas as emperor, Parvez declared war on Byzantium in an attempt to get revenge on the usurper.

The Sassanid armies took Dara, Amida, Edesa, Hierapolis, Aleppo, Apamea, Caesarea, Damascus, and all of the surrounding cities all within eight years (605-613). Now that Parvez was inflamed with success, he had the tolerance that had once flourished within the Persian Empire since Achaemenid times undone. He declared a holy war against the Christians.

Following his announcement, 26,000 Jews joined his army and in 614 Jerusalem fell to the Persians. Christians were massacred, their churches burned to the ground and the True Cross carried off to Persia. In 616 the Persians captured Alexandria and by 619 all of Egypt (to the border of Ethiopia) was once again under Persian rule. In the meanwhile, another Persian army overran Asia Minor in 617 and captured Chalcedon.

The Persians held the city for ten years, and were only separated from Constantinople by the Bosporus. Parvez taxed the former Byzantine provinces into destitution (which would later leave nothing to stop the Arabs from overrunning both empires), and for the first time in many years, one side was able to hold the other's territory.


Parvez retired to his palace, and his triumph was hailed as the final triumph of Persia over Greece and Rome, of Ormuzd over Christ, revenge for the battles of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea, and Arbela, and Alexander answered. Nothing remained of the Byzantine Empire except for a few maritime Asiatic ports (from Tyre to Trebizond), some fragments of Italy, Sicily, Africa, the Balkan coast, Greece, a besieged capital, and its navy, which was still unbeaten.

The defeat was so bad, that when Heraclius ascended the throne he proclaimed to move the capital to Carthage, where it would be safe, but was stopped by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Ironically, in the end Parvez's favorite wife, and the one with the most influence, was Christian, and once again Parvez, under influence of his wife, allowed tolerance of Christianity in Persia.

However, Byzantium was not yet completely defeated. After ten years, Heraclius, the successor to Phocas, who ruled from 610 to 641, was able to build a new army. In 624 he sailed through the black sea, landed in Armenian, and invaded Persia from the rear, which started what is known as the Byzantine Crusade, while his Turkish allies attacked Persia through modern day Georgia. Persia, having its forces scattered from Anatolia to Egypt, was not prepared for such an attack, which proved decisive in Heraclius's campaign.

As Khosru had desecrated Jerusalem, Heraclius now destroyed Clorumia, the birthplace of Zoroaster and put out its sacred light. Heraclius defeated Khosru's army in Armenia, while his brother Theodorus defeated a second army to the west. In the mean time, the Persians and their Avar allies laid siege to Constantinople in 626, which failed. The last battle between the Byzantines and Persians was the battle of Nineveh, in 627, which ended in a Persian defeat. Parvez fled to Ctesiphon, where he was later killed by one of his sons, Kavadh II, who later made peace with Heraclius by returning all the lands that Persia had taken from Byzantium along with the True Cross.

This would be the last time the Byzantines and Persians would war with each other. After so many years of war, two crusades, and countless casualties, neither side gained anything. The borders went back as they were in the Roman and Parthian times, both sides were weakened, and neither had the power to defend when the time presented itself. Heraclius was so happy with his victory that he did not observe that on the very day (629) he placed the True Cross in its shrine, that the Arabs had attacked a Byzantine outpost near the River Jordan.

A plague broke out in Persia that killed thousands including the king. The shattered Byzantine provinces could not defend themselves from the Arabs, and were quickly overrun. A weakened Persia was also overrun in short order by the Arabs. By 652 Sassinian Persia came to an end.

Ref. Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950. Pages 142-151.

The following is another view of Heraclius I to the Crusades by Richard Hooker.

It fell to Justinian's successors to rescue Byzantium from the financial ruin caused by Justinian's ill-fated attempt to retake Italy. The emperor most responsible for saving this empire was Heraclius I (610-641). When he assumed the throne, things looked pretty hopeless. From the east, the Persian Empire threatened to overwhelm Asia Minor while from the west, a mix of German, Slavic, and Mongolian peoples were pressing into Greece and the Balkans.

Heraclius decided to allow a group of Huns to settle the Balkans and protect the western border while the Byzantine empire focussed on Persia, which Heraclius finally defeated and permanently ended the long history of that great empire.

A new cultural force, however, emerged during his reign-in fact, the very year that Heraclius assumed the throne, a forty-year old Arab named Muhammad in the city of Mecca first heard the message that would sweep across the face of the world: Islam. By the end of his reign, Muslim armies were making raids into Byzantine territory in Syria and were beginning to conquer the Persian territories.

From this period onwards, Byzantine energies focussed almost entirely to the east and to the south. The western countries, the Europe that Byzantium at one time looked to for their identity and history, began to steadily fade from their horizon.


Almost all of Byzantine energy over the next centuries would be focussed on Islam. The Muslims very quickly conquered Byzantine territory in Syria and Egypt largely because of disaffected populations of Christians and Jews who had been persecuted since the time of Justinian. The patriarchal caliphs and later the Umayyad caliphs, however, really had their sights on the conquest of Byzantium itself.

They easily conquered all the Persian territories, but they could never quite conquer the heart of Byzantium itself. In 670, they attempted this conquest with a large fleet; in 717, they tried again with a land and sea operation against the city.

This operation, however, turned the tide away from the Muslims. Under the emperor Leo the Isaurian (717-741), the Muslim invasion was turned back and the Byzantines began to hold their own against Islamic incursions.

As the centralized Islamic government under the caliph began to disintegrate in the ninth century, the Byzantines began to reassert their dominance over Asia Minor. By the middle of the tenth century, they reconquered most of Syria and were once again and powerful and influential empire stretching from Greece to Arabia.

In 1071 the Seljuk Turks destroyed a Byzantine army at Manzikert in Asia Minor, then quickly overran all of Byzantine territory in the eastern Anatolia.

The Crusaders

The Byzantines, however, turned to Europe for help against the Muslims-the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenius, called upon the European states to push back the Muslim conquerors. While Byzantium and the Europeans had drifted apart culturally, they still shared a common religion, and the European states complied. They had, however, designs of their own on Byzantine territories.

While they successfully pushed back the Seljuks and returned territory to the Byzantines, the western Europeans also carved out kingdoms of their own in Syria and Palestine. In 1204 the Crusaders attacked, conquered, and pillaged the city of Constantinople.

For a few decades, the Byzantine imperial government continued to function in Greece-in 1261, they returned to Constantinople and retook the city! But the Byzantine Empire was no longer an empire after 1261, but rather a small kingdom centered around Constantinople. In 1453, the city was finally and permanently conquered by the Ottoman Turks and renamed Istanbul. Byzantine culture, law, and administration came to its final end.

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