Peter Frankopan

The war that changed the world in the early seventh century

James Howard-Johnston describes how the last great conflict between the Roman and Persian empires led to the Arabs and Islamism sweeping all before them

The Emperor Heraclius receives the submission of the Shah of Persia Khusro II (12th-century gilt copper plaque, The Louvre, Paris). [Bridgeman Images]

It was not a war to end all wars, writes James Howard-Johnston at the start of this illuminating and thought-provoking book about the confrontation between the empires of Rome and Persia that began at the start of the 7th century and lasted the best part of three decades; it was not even a war with ambitious goals. The ‘last great war of antiquity’ started when the Shah of Persia, Khusro II, decided that the assassination of an unpopular emperor in a palace coup in Constantinople gave him the excuse and the window he needed to try to put right a punitive settlement that had been imposed on Persia a decade earlier. It was miscalculation that changed the world, writes the author, the start of a war whose consequences were so profound that it serves as ‘the final episode in classical history’.

Howard-Johnston, an Oxford historian (and this reviewer’s former doctoral supervisor many moons ago), writes with verve and precision to tell the story of the momentous events that took place between 602 and the start of the 630s. It was a time of high drama and high stakes. Persian forces cut through Roman defences across the Near East, capturing the province of Egypt, a crucial source of wheat for the Mediterranean economy. Cities fell like dominoes, including the holy city of Jerusalem in what the author describes as ‘the most sensational item of news from the Middle East’ in the whole course of the war.

More was to follow as the Shah’s army bore down on Constantinople, which it then subjected to a siege in 626 that many inside the city believed presaged the end of time when the seas would boil and the sky would be torn apart.

In one of the most extraordinary rear-guard actions in history, the Emperor Heraclius rallied his forces, repelled the Persians and out-manoeuvred them diplomatically by forging an alliance with the powerful confederation of nomads under the leadership of the Turks who controlled land, manpower and cavalry to the north of the Black and Caspian Seas.

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