Expeditio persica of Heraclius: Holy War or Crusade?

Expeditio persica of Heraclius: Holy War or Crusade?

By Nicola Bergamo

Porphyra, No.12 (2008)

Introduction: This essay will try to explain if the expeditio persica of Heraclius was similar or not with the concept of western Crusade. This military expedition, as a matter of fact, has various references as a Crusade, especially in some Byzantine sources, as Theophanes and George of Pisidia, or in other oriental source as History of Sebeos. These references could sometimes be interpreted as a Crusade made by Heraclius against the infidel Persian. However, these sources have to be read very carefully because the authors did not know the concept of Crusade. In the Byzantine Empire, at least until the eleventh century, there were no wars against the infidel which were comparable with the concept of Crusade. There is no evidence according to the sources. In Byzantium there was a concept of Holy War that, sometimes, could be very similar to a Crusade concept; probably for this reason some authors compared Heraclius as the first Crusader. Anyway, to make this situation clear, I shall now discuss the concept of Crusade.

Alexios I (1081-1118) of Byzantium, while fighting against the Seljuk Turks, asked for some aid from the west. According to the secondary source, Pope Urban II answered with the famous Speech of Clermont (1095). This speech is accessible to us in five different versions: Gesta Francorum Jerusalem Expugnantium, Historia Hierosolymitana, Gesta Francorum, Balderic of Dol, Historia quae dicitur Gesta Dei per Francos, Letter of Instruction, December 1095. It contributed to the birth of the concept of Crusade. According to Riley J. Smith, the Crusader ideal requires two premises. The first one was the changed idea of violence; in fact for the Crusader killing or injuring someone was not connected directly with an evil action.  This new concept of legalized homicide changed drastically the idea of the Christian religion which was founded on the love for others. The second premise, according to Smith, is found in the political Christ, that is the building of the Christian Republic which must be a single, universal and transcendental kingdom ruled by him. For this reason the sacred violence was perpetrated because it was Christ’s will.

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