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Pivotal Moments of History that No One Knows About: The Roman Empire vs the Sassanid Empire 602-628AD

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The Roman and Sassanid Empires clash for the last time. The consequences of this war will change history forever.

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There are many events throughout history that are little understood, and for many today completely unheard of. Whilst this is justifiable with the vast majority of history, there are certain events so pivotal to the future that it is criminal for there not to be more of an effort to get the information about them out into the public sphere. This series shall seek to fill those holes in modernity’s collective knowledge, starting with the final war between the Romans and the Persians, which just so happened to be the first true ‘Holy War’ of Christianity – and which paved the way for a future that was, at that time, unimaginable.

The Roman Empire and the Parthians, later Sassanids, and today known as the Persians; were embroiled in many bitter wars that lasted nearly seven centuries: from Crassus’ disastrous campaign that ended in a brutal and total defeat at the battle of Carhae, to Emperor Heraclius and his costly victory over the Sassanids at the battle of Nineveh. For the majority of their feud, both sides would remain relatively evenly matched, and the status quo would be maintained. Small gains were made on either side but none would last. These wars began before Christianity had even come into existence, and it would be wrong to claim that the whole chapter of history was characterised by religious war. The final interaction before their respective collapses would, however.

The year is 613AD and the Sassanids have marched into the Roman territory of Syria. The Roman Emperor Heraclius is unprepared but quickly manages to scrounge together a force. The battle would not go his way, and Rome would face a decisive defeat. The Sassanids have now overwhelmed the city of Antioch, and after Rome’s defeat, they are left completely unable to respond. The Jews of Jerusalem will now side with the Sassanids and take the opportunity to rebel, handing over yet another Roman Christian city to the Persians, as well as partaking in the slaughter and enslavement of Christian citizenry themselves. As a final insult the True Cross of Christ, as well as many lesser relics and those Christians not murdered, would be taken from Jerusalem back to Persia as slaves and booty. The True Cross of Christ was the foremost symbol of not only Christianity but of 7th Century Rome as a whole; it had to be reclaimed.

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After Heraclius’ defeat at Antioch, he may have thought of abandoning hope, but he was the Emperor of Rome and would not give up so easily. The Church of Constantinople would offer up all silver and gold plated items that they had as means to fund and outfit a military force to reclaim the True Cross of Christ and take the fight to the Sassanids. The year is now 622AD, and the Sassanids have had continued success in their campaign; their forces have conquered Egypt (Rome’s most profitable province) and reached the mighty walls of Constantinople (which was now the capital of the Roman world).

A day after celebrating Easter on Sunday the 4th of April, Heraclius marches into Anatolia with his new force in toe and achieves a decisive victory over the Sassanids. The celebration must be cut short, however, as Constantinople is soon under siege from a combined Avar, Slavic and Persian host – believed to have numbered around 80,000 men. The great walls hold firm, and Heraclius’ Crusade to reclaim the True Cross of Christ reaches its climax. It is the 12th of December 627AD and the day of the final battle. The war has thus far been long and arduous, and both sides are left exhausted. The battle would rage for 8 hours with 6,000 Sassanids (half of their entire army) falling to Roman blades, yet they would not retreat. The Sassanid general Rhahzadh would challenge Heraclius to single-combat as a way quickly end the chaos. It would be a fight that Heraclius would win with a single thrust of his sword. The day was won, and Persia would implode with the remnants of their army overthrowing their leader, and eventually killing him. His son would be crowned and would make a deal with Rome to release all the Christians who were taken as slaves, to return all Roman lands, and to restore all the Christian relics seized back to the Romans, most important of those being the True Cross of Christ.

The first Christian ‘Crusade’ had ended in victory; the Sassanid Empire was destroyed, the Cross was returned to Jerusalem, and the Christian slaves were set free. The devastating war, however, had shattered both sides and could only be considered a Pyrrhic victory. Worse still for both the Romans and the Persians, the Arabian desert tribes had just been united under a single warlord, Muhammad; and within a decade his armies would leave the Arabian peninsula and find vast stretches of rich, bountiful lands ripe for the plundering – with none but those too young and too old left to defend them. It is strange to think that had the Sassanids not invaded Syria at exactly this time, and had the Jews not revolted in Jerusalem and given the Christian relics to be taken back to Persia, no Crusade may ever happen. More importantly however it is highly unlikely that Islam would ever have gained a foothold in our world, as it is impossible to imagine how their relatively small and disorganised forces would be able to take on the might, wealth and experience of either the Romans or the Sassanids. The two mighty Empires, however, had essentially wiped one-another out, the Sassanids were defeated and the Romans shattered … and the armies of Islam would sweep out into this now defenceless world and change history forever.

 

By Matthew Harris

 

Matthew Harris