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What was the fate of the ‘True Cross’ in the Byzantine-Sassanid Wars?

By Georgios Theotokis

“Then the Judge of truth, who desires not the death of the sinner, but that he may turn again and live, sent on us the evil Persian race, as a rod of chastisement and medicine of rebuke. And they advanced with a great force and numerous host. They seized all the land of Syria and they put the Greek to flight. And they reached Palestine and its borders, and they arrived at Caesarea […] Next they reached Judea ; and came to a large and famous city, a Christian city, which is Jerusalem, city of the Son of God. And they came on in wrath and mighty anger of soul; and the Lord surrendered it into their hands, and they fulfilled all in accordance with His will. And who can depict what took place within Jerusalem and in her streets? Who number the multitude of dead who lay stretched in Jerusalem?” ~ Antiochus Strategos, The Capture of Jerusalem by the Persians in 614 AD

The capture of Jerusalem by the Persians in the spring of 614 was a tremendous shock to the Christian world, and the psychological impact of its conquest can, perhaps, only be compared to the sack of Rome in 410. The sack of Jerusalem forms part of the series of conflicts between the two superpowers of the Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages – Byzantium and Sassanian Persia, conflicts that revolved around issues of strategic control along the eastern frontier regions of Armenia and Mesopotamia that went as far back as the establishment of the Sassanian State in the third century.

A new war between Byzantium and Persia flared up in 602, and by the end of the decade the Sassanians had conquered Mesopotamia and the Caucasus. After achieving complete control over Armenia by the summer of 610, the Persian general Shahin burned the Cappadocian capital city of Caesarea in the summer of 612, while a Byzantine army led by Heraclius was heavily defeated at the hands of Shahin near Antioch in 613.

Emperor Heraclius sets off on a campaign against the Persians. – Miniature 43 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century.

After the battle, Antioch, the third largest city of the Byzantine Empire, capitulated as Shahin and Shahrbaraz, another of the Shah Khusrow’s skilled generals, marched south along the Palestinian coastline. By the end of 613, the cities of Damascus, Apamea, and Emesa surrendered without resistance, giving the Persian generals the chance to strike further south into Palaestina Prima. Although the details of the conquest and sack of Jerusalem are murky and the (Christian) sources are, certainly, biased, one start date for the Persian assault is given as 15 April 614. Most of the sources point that the siege lasted about three weeks, with the Persian breakthrough coming between 17 and 20 May.

As the capture of Jerusalem was accompanied by the destruction of churches and the killing of Christians, perhaps the heaviest blow to Byzantine morale was the capture of the True Cross, the relics of which had been kept in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since the 340s:

“On the 19th day [of the siege] […] ten days after Easter, the Persian army captured Jerusalem. For three days they put to the sword and slew all the populace of the city. And they stayed within the city for 21 days. Then they came out and camped outside the city and burnt the city. They added up the number of fallen corpses, and the total of those killed was 17,000 people; and the living whom they captured were 35,000 people. They also arrested the patriarch, whose name was Zak‘aria, and the custodian of the Cross. In their search for the Life-bearing Cross, they began to torture them; and many of the clergy they decapitated at that time. Then they showed them the place where it lay hidden, and they took it away into captivity.” ~ The Armenian History attributed to Sebeos, chapter 34

Despite the initial setbacks, Heraclius’ campaigns in Persian lands between 622 and 626 forced the Sassanians onto the defensive. A final Persian attempt to take Constantinople in 626 was thwarted, and in 627 Heraclius pushed deep into the enemy heartland. A year later, in 628, the emperor concluded a peace treaty with the Persians, which included the return of the relics of the True Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The relics of the Cross were handed over to Heraclius in Hierapolis (Ἱεράπολις; modern Manbij in northern Syria), from where he toured through Mesopotamia and Armenia to Palestine, before restoring the relics to their rightful place in a lavish ceremony on 21 March 630. Undoubtedly, this was an event of multiple symbolical significance; it was meant to symbolise and mark the new beginning of Heraclius’ rule, after a twenty year reign defined by difficulties and loss of territory, but also victories against the Persians, the recovery of lost territory, and perpetual – it seemed – peace.

Yet, despite the fact that there is a relative abundance of contemporary or near contemporary sources on Heraclius’ campaigns, it is hard – if not impossible – to retrace the chronology of the events leading up to the restoration of the Cross; the available material is contradictory and it is not always easy to distinguish between fact and fiction. Nevertheless, scholars over the last century have attempted to discover the historical `truth’.

In 1907, Bolotov published an elaborate paper that shaped the chronology of the events as follows. As Heraclius approached the Persian capital during the final stages of the war, Khosrow fled Dastagerd, near the future city of Baghdad, without offering resistance. Meanwhile, Khosrow’s eldest son Kavadh II, who had been imprisoned by his father, was released and proclaimed King on the night of 23–24 February, 628. Yet, Kavadh was mortally ill and was gravely concerned that Heraclius should look after the interests of his infant son Ardeshir. As a goodwill gesture, he promised to deliver the True Cross, in 628, by dispatching the Christian Ishoʿyahb II of Gdala, the patriarch of the Church of the East from 628 to 645, to do the job. The latter had been well-known for many years for his efforts to find common theological ground between the Nestorianism of the Church of the East and the Chalcedonian doctrines held in the capital.

As Ishoʿyahb ventured to attend a celebration of the eucharist in the emperor’s presence, probably at Theodosiopolis according to Bolotov, Heraclius then held a synod at the same city and effected a union with the Armenian church in the winter of 628-29, after which he distributed pieces of the True Cross among the notables of Armenia before departing for Caesarea. From Caesarea, Heraclius sent the True Cross to Constantinople, and in July 629 the emperor finally concluded terms of peace with Shahrbaraz. Heraclius returned to Constantinople, probably in August or September 629, and in March of 630, he returned the Cross to Jerusalem.

Heraclius bring the True Cross to Jerusalem – Belle Heures du duc de Berry – f156r

Five years later, in 1912, Baynes published an article that raised questions on Bolotov’s effective use of the history of Agapius of Hierapolis, a 10th-century Melkite bishop of Hierapolis (Manbij), writer and historian, best known for his lengthy Kitab al-‘Unwan (Book of headings or Universal History). Agapius’ history disproves Bolotov’s argument that Heraclius remained at Theodosiopolis where he held the famous synod in 628-29. Instead, we gain from Agapius’ account that the emperor chose the strongly fortified Mesopotamian city of Amida (Greek: Ἄμιδα; modern Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey).

But what Baynes acknowledges as the chief misunderstanding in Bolotov’s account is the latter’s placing of Heraclius’ return to the capital before the restoration of the Cross in Jerusalem. This has been shown to be wrong in the Short History of Patriarch Nicephorus I of Constantinople (c. 758 – April 5, 828), and in the works of Theophanes and George Monachus.

Furthermore, Baynes argued that historians should reconsider Heraclius’ triumphant restoration of the Cross to have taken place, according to Antiochus Strategos’ account, on the 21 March of the year 629 instead of 630. He, then, argued that it seems more likely that Heraclius would have dispatched pieces of the Cross for exaltation to Constantinople, to Caesarea and to the Armenian nobles, but the Cross itself must have remained in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rather than taken on a tour around the Empire. The piece dispatched to Constantinople would have reached the capital during the second indiction, i.e. before 1 September 629, just before Heraclius’ triumphal progress to Constantinople (probably in August 629).

Forty years later, Frolow revisited the issue of the restoration of the True Cross in 629/30. Based on Heraclius’ victory dispatch to the capital on April 8, 628, that would have been read in St. Sophia Church on May 15 for the public to celebrate the magnitude and the significance of the Persian defeat, Frolow underlined the fact that the dispatch reports of the death of Khusrow, and the reception of the plenipotentiaries dispatched by his son Kavadh, yet no reference is made about the return of the Cross, hence it must have occurred in the spring of 630. The author also contended that Heraclius almost voluntarily delayed the return of the Holy Cross in order to use the festivities to legitimize his marriage to his niece Martina that was opposed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius I, on the grounds of consanguinity.

More recently, Holger Klein and the late Paul Speck re-examined the two entries in the final part of the Chronicon Paschale, and both concluded in their short studies that the exaltation of the True Cross was celebrated in Constantinople in September 629, and that the relic of the Cross was returned to Byzantium quite some time before that date, and not in 630. Both make a strong case for the presence of the relic in the imperial capital as early as September 629. Yet, they differ as to the itinerary that took it there: Speck argues that the Cross was surrendered by the Persians immediately after their military defeat, then exalted in Jerusalem in the fall of 628 before being transferred to the City. On the other hand, Klein aims to maintain the traditional date of presentation of the Cross in Jerusalem, March 21, 630 and argues, therefore, that Heraclius first exposed the Cross to the veneration of the people of Constantinople and only then brought it to Palestine. Then, just a few years later, Bernard Flusin put forward arguments that, again, support the return of the Cross to Jerusalem in March 630.

Byzantine Emperor Heraclius receiving the submission of the Sassanid king Khosrau II – Cherub made in the 12th century, now on display at the Louvre.

The most recent contribution to the debate comes by Constantin Zuckerman, in a long and meticulous study published in the journal Travaux et mémoires in 2013, where the author provides a reconstruction of Heraclius’ itinerary from mid-628 to mid-630.

First, Zuckerman discusses the evidence of the Chronicon Paschale, which ascertains the presence of the Cross at Constantinople in September 629. The author further explores the generally acknowledged date of the presentation of the Cross at Jerusalem, March 21, arguing that it belongs just as surely in the year 629. What is also interesting is Zuckerman’s analysis of the paradox of the Chronicon Paschale, showing that the author of this historical compilation was not – as many scholars have believed – manifestly interested in history per se, but in chronology (calculations of religious dates, the timetable of Jesus’ life, etc.).

Zuckerman also casts doubt on the testimony of (the source of) the Patriarch Nicephorus’ Short History, which he calls a historical pamphlet rather than a chronicle, yet he contends that the Short History – despite its peculiarities as a historical source – deserves more credit and, especially, its testimony for the date of the return of the Cross and even more so, on the circumstances of its transfer to Constantinople, is very hard to reject.

A long section of Zuckerman’s article summarizes the Cross’ complex itinerary using the precious yet much neglected evidence on Heraclius’ movements in the Chronicon ad annum Christi 1234 pertinens. The author’s proposed reconstruction of Heraclius’ itinerary allows us to track the movements of the Cross between the spring of 629 and the spring of 630, and it is clear that the Cross came into Heraclius’ hands early in 629, probably in February.

Exaltation of the Cross by Piero della Francesca in the 15th century

The anonymous Syriac Chronicon ad annum Christi 1234 pertinens and Michael the Syrian, describe Heraclius’ slow progress in the summer and fall of 628, and his actions in the following year: according to Zuckerman, the emperor’s itinerary took him from Antioch to Hierapolis (Manbij), which means that it was there he received the news of Kavadh II Shiroe’s death in September 628, or early in October, and this news could have reached Heraclius no later than November. For any travels he undertook in 629, Hierapolis would have been the obvious starting point, and it must have been at that city where – no later than January – the emperor would have learned that Shahrbaraz could deliver into his hands the precious trophy that the entire Persian court had been unable to recover: the True Cross. The Cross was brought to Hierapolis some time in February 629 and deposited on Golgotha on the 21st of March.

Sometime in April or May 629, Heraclius sojourned to Antioch to meet with the miaphysite patriarch of the city, Anastasios. Zuckerman believes that this meeting was the cornerstone of the new imperial policy aimed at imposing the authority of the patriarch of Antioch over the miaphysitic Church of Persia. From Antioch Heraclius returned to Hierapolis, where he probably spent the month of June. Crucially, in July of 629, Shahrbaraz was invited to take a deep detour into the Roman territory to meet Heraclius at Arabissos Tripotamos in Cappadocia. The Cross was sent forward to Constantinople, where it was exulted in August, while the emperor followed it at leisure and arrived in the City early in September.

Yet, Zuckerman’s most ground-breaking suggestion is that the True Cross was actually lost in the mayhem of the aftermath of Khosrow’s overthrow, and that the wood contained in the allegedly-still-sealed reliquary brought to Jerusalem by Heraclius in 629 was a fake. Rather, the evidence available overwhelmingly identifies the Persian general Shahrbaraz as the person who sent the True Cross to Heraclius, and most of the sources specify that he did so after becoming king of Persia on 27 April 630.

The future would certainly have looked bright for Heraclius after his triumphant return to his imperial capital. However, both himself and Shahrbaraz were in for a rude awakening. The end of the Byzantino-Persian war of 602-28 may have marked a new dawn for the Middle East, but no one would have expected the this new world was shortly going to be swept aside by the advent of the Arabs and Islam.

Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He has published numerous articles and books on the history of conflict and warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Medieval and early Modern periods. His first book was on the Norman Campaigns in the Balkans 1081-1108 (2014), while his second on the Byzantine Military Tactics in Syria in the 10th century came out in October 2018. He has taught in Turkish and Greek Universities; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Byzantine Studies Research Centre, Bosphorus University, Istanbul. Click here to read more from Georgios Theotokis.

Further Reading:

Medieval Warfare VI.3 – The Byzantine-Sassanid Wars

Norman H. Baynes, “The Restoration of the Cross at Jerusalem,” The English Historical Review 27 (1912) 287-299.

B. Flusin, “Les cérémonies de l’Exaltation de la Croix à Constantinople au xie siècle d’après le Dresdensis A 104,” in: Byzance et les reliques du Christ, éd. par J. Durand et B. Flusin (Monographies du Centre d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance 17), Paris 2004, pp. 61–89.

Anatole Frolow, “La Vraie Croix et les expéditions d’Héraclius en Perse,” Revue des études byzantines 11 (1953) 88-105.

H. Klein, “Niketas und das wahre Kreuz: kritische Anmerkungen zum Chronicon Paschale ad annum 614,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 24 (2001), 580–87

P. Speck, “Zum Datum der Translation der Kreuzreliquien nach Konstantinopel,” in: Varia. 7 (Poikila Byzantina 18), Bonn 2000, pp. 167–77.

Constantin Zuckerman, “Heraclius and the return of the Holy Cross,” Travaux et mémoires 17 (2013), 197-218.

Top Image: Heraclius carrying the True Cross – British Library MS Royal 15 E. i, fol. 16

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