Saturday, May 30, 2020

Heraclius: The David of the Eastern Roman Empire?

The year the Roman emperor Heraclius came to power, the empire was threatened on multiple frontiers. Heraclius immediately took charge of the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628. The first battles of the campaign ended in defeat for the Byzantines. The Persian army fought their way to the Bosphorus but Constantinople was protected by impenetrable walls and a strong navy, and Heraclius was able to avoid total defeat. Soon after, he initiated reforms to rebuild and strengthen the military. Heraclius drove the Persians out of Asia Minor and pushed deep into their territory, defeating them decisively in 627 at the Battle of Nineveh. The Persian king Khosrow II was overthrown and executed by his son Kavad II, who soon sued for a peace treaty, agreeing to withdraw from all occupied territory.  The Eastern Roman empire thus regained Jerusalem, Egypt, and other Byzantine territory.  To celebrate his victory Heraclius ordered the production of a set of silver plates. Elaborate dishes used for display at banquets were common in the late Roman and early Byzantine world.  Generally decorated with classical themes, these objects conveyed wealth, social status, and learning. But the set commissioned by Heraclius featured the biblical characters of David and Goliath dressed in the costume of the early Byzantine court, suggesting to the viewer that, like Saul and David, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius was a ruler chosen by God who had defeated a foe as formidable as the legendary Goliath.

Heraclius subsequently lost much of the recovered lands to the Muslim conquests but he still ranks among the great emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire.  His reforms of the government reduced the corruption which had taken hold in Phocas's reign, and he reorganized the military with great success. Ultimately, the reformed Imperial army halted the Muslims in Asia Minor and held on to Carthage for another 60 years, saving a core from which the empire's strength could be rebuilt.

Images: Silver stamps dating to 613–29/30 on the reverse of these masterpieces place their manufacture in Heraclius’ reign. At the top of this magnificent plate, David confronts Goliath, and between them is a personification of the river from which David gathered stones for his sling. The major scene shows the decisive battle. Although David appears to be on the defensive, his men move forward, forcing Goliath’s soldiers into retreat. At the bottom, the victorious David beheads the giant.  The Metropolitan Museum of art has produced a short video about the plate narrated by curator Helen Evans featuring the photography of Bruce J. Schwarz:

I saw this spectacular plate back in 2007 but it was in a corridor that wasn't very well illuminated so my photographs are not as amazing as those of museum photographer Bruce J. Schwarz taken in a well lit studio.

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