Sword and Shield of God: Byzantine Strategy and Tactics Under Heraclius During the Last Persian War and First Arab War
By Stuart E. McAllister
Master’s Thesis, Oklahoma State University, 2007
Abstract: The Byzantine Empire in the early Seventh Century suffered a series of disastrous setbacks at the hands of the Sassanid Persians. Under the Emperor Heraclius the Byzantine Army reorganized its tactics and strategy to inflict a series of crushing defeats on the Sassanids that culminated at Nineveh in 629. However, the nascent and fierce Muslims Arabs began their invasions of Syria and Palestine only a few years later. The Byzantines, fighting an unfamiliar foe and lacking the leadership of Heraclius, were decisively crushed at the Yarmouk River in 636. This defeat signaled the loss of considerable Byzantine territory in the Middle East and North Africa, and ultimately set the Byzantine Empire on a course of decline from which it would never recover.
Introduction: After the fall of the Roman Empire, its successor, the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire had to contend with the ancient enemy of Sassanid Persia and the new threat of Islam that came like a firestorm out of Arabia. By A.D. 610 the Persians were on the verge of shattering the Byzantine Empire. Then a general and emperor had arrived who would use blitzkrieg tactics and strategy to smash the Persians; the use of the word blitzkrieg, while seemingly anachronistic, serves to illustrate the tactics and strategy used by the Emperor Heraclius. He would invade his enemy’s homeland while they pursued him across the Fertile Crescent. Striking into the weakened areas like the blitzkriegs of 1939 and 1940, Heraclius used mobility and speed to throw off his enemies and he possessed the army capable of it. He used the three forces of his army for combined arms tactics that enabled him to gain all the advantages possible in any given battlefield situation. He would employ his cavalry like the panzers of the twentieth century to sweep around enemy flanks or smash centers of fierce resistance; the infantry of Heraclius would be like the infantry of any period, only used to great effect and speed with the élan and courage rarely found amongst the corps, and his archers would be used to soften and weaken the enemy both offensively and defensively as suited Heraclius. Only Heraclius could have wielded these forces effectively against his foes to achieve victory; with any other Byzantine commander these revolutionary tactics would have been monumentally difficult if not unworkable. Unfortunately the tactics and strategy of the Byzantines under Heraclius was not used to its fullest potential against the nascent and wild Arabs who succeeded in conquering forever huge portions of the Byzantine Empire, for without the presence of Heraclius and his use of lightning tactics and strategy victory was impossible. Heraclius was the reason that victory against the Persians became a reality and his absence was the reason for the catastrophic defeats suffered against the Muslims.