web counter









At the opening of the seventh century the Roman Empire seemed passing from decline to dissolution. Sixty years earlier the power of Justinian had spread from the Caucasus and Arabia in the east to the Pillars of Hercules in the west, and his strong personality so filled men's minds that it seemed, as the phrase ran, as if “the whole world would not contain him”. His splendour was equal to his power, and for a while at least his wisdom was equal to his splendour. Moreover his triumphs in the realms of science and art were even more striking than his exploits in war : for of the two foremost achievements by which his name is remembered, the Code and Digest of Justinian still remain the greatest master­pieces of jurisprudence, while the Cathedral of St. Sophia stands to all time as the most splendid monument and model of Byzantine architecture.

But the menace of decay was felt even in Justinian’s lifetime. To the mischief, moral and political, which threatened the state, were added physical calamities. The whole of the East was scourged by a plague, which broke out at Pelusium, and swept through Egypt to Libya and through Palestine to Persia and Constantinople. After the plague came an earthquake, which wrought almost as much destruction to the cities as the black death to the peoples of the Empire. The last days of the great lawgiver were clouded by a sense of gloom and foreboding. The government was breaking up, even before his successor Justin closed his brief and nerveless reign in insanity. Tiberius, who came to the throne in 578, gave some promise of better things. He might at least have essayed to arrest the process of decay: but his life was cut short before he could prove his worth, and he bequeathed to Maurice a bankrupt exchequer, a discontented people, and a realm out of joint.

Only a man of the strongest brain and of unerring judgment could have dealt with such a crisis: and Maurice, though well-meaning, was not the man for the task. That blind disregard of changing circumstance which so often ruins the application of wise principles marred and thwarted his policy. His army reforms and his knowledge of military tactics—on which he wrote excellently—could not save his forces from defeat; while his zeal for economy to repair the finances of the state failed in its purpose, and so estranged and wearied his people, that they tossed the crown contemptuously to an illiterate and deformed rebel centurion—Phocas.

It now seemed as if nothing could save the Empire from ruin. The only strength of Phocas was that of a tyrant upheld by a licentious army and a corrupt nobility—a strength which diminished with every mile’s distance from the capital. Thus all the provinces of the Empire lay under a kind of agony of misrule, which was probably lightest in the regions torn by war with the Persians or with the northern barbarians.

Certainly no part of the Roman dominion was in worse plight than Egypt. There Justinian’s efforts to force the orthodox religion on the nonconforming Copts had been partly balanced by Theodora’s open sympathy for their creed : but all such sympathy was recklessly cancelled by Justin. So the ancient and bitter strife between the Melkite and Monophysite parties was more embittered than ever : and for the Copts it filled the whole horizon of thought and hope. Where the two mainsprings of government were the religious ascendency and the material profit of the Byzantine Court, and where the machinery worked out steady results of oppression and misery, it is small wonder that the clash of arms was often heard in Alexandria itself, while not only was Upper Egypt haunted by bands of brigands and harried by raids of Beduins or Nubians, but even the Delta was the scene of riots and feuds little short of civil war. The fact is that the whole country was in a state of smouldering insurrection.

Phocas’ reign began on November 22, a.d. 602. On that day he was crowned with all due solemnity by the Patriarch Cyriacus in the church of St. John at Constantinople, and entering the city by the Golden Gate drove in state by the great colonnades and through the principal streets amid crowds that received him with joyful acclamations. By the beginning of the year 609 the Empire was ready for revolution. It began at Pentapolis. The common form which the story takes is that Crispus, who had married the daughter of Phocas, incurred the Em­peror’s furious resentment by setting up his own statue with that of his bride in the Hippodrome : and that having thus quarrelled, he plotted rebellion and invited Heraclius, the Prefect of Africa, to put the scheme in action. The fact however is—and Cedrenus expressly records it—that Heraclius was planning insurrection unbidden of Crispus. Indeed Crispus was not the man to take any initiative : but when he heard of the unrest in Pentapolis, then he ventured to send secret letters of encouragement, and promised help in the event of Heraclius making a movement on Constantinople. Heraclius himself was somewhat old for an adventure of the kind—he cannot have been less than sixty-five—but in his son and namesake, who was now in the prime of life, and in Nicetas his friend and lieutenant-general, he saw at once the fitting instruments of his design.

The plan of campaign has been much misunder­stood. Gibbon lends the great weight of his authority to the somewhat childish story that the two commanders agreed upon a race to the capital, the one advancing by sea and the other by land, while the crown was to reward the winner. They were starting, be it remembered, from Cyrene : and given anything like similar forces at starting, surely a more unequal competition was never devised. Heraclius had merely to cross the Mediterranean, coast along Greece and Macedonia, and then to fling his army on the capital: while Nicetas, according to the received theory, marching to Egypt, had to tear that country from the, grasp of Phocas, then to make a long and toilsome journey through Palestine, Syria, Cilicia and Asia Minor, under such conditions that even a succession of brilliant victories or the collapse of all resistance would, in mere point of time, put him out of the running for the prize. No : if there was any idea at all of a race for empire, which is extremely doubtful, the course was marked out with far more simplicity and equality. For it must be obvious that the province of Pentapolis could not have furnished material for a very con­siderable army, still less for two armies : and what the leader of each expedition had to do was not merely to set out for Byzantium, but to raise the standard of revolt as he went, to gather supplies and reinforcements, and then possibly to unite in dealing a crushing blow at the capital. In pursuance of this plan Heraclius was to adventure by sea and Nicetas by land—unquestionably: but what Gibbon and the Greek historians have failed to see clearly is this—that while the immediate objec­tive of Heraclius was Thessalonica, that of Nicetas was Alexandria : and that all depended on the accession or subjugation of these two towns for the success of the enterprise.

It is hardly doubtful that Heraclius had intimate relations with the people of Thessalonica, or at least with a party among them: while Nicetas calculated on a welcome or a slight resistance in Egypt, though, as will be shown, his calculations were upset by the unforeseen intervention of a formidable enemy. But I must again insist—in opposition to Gibbon—that Nicetas’ one aim was the conquest of Egypt: that Egypt was the pivot on which his combinations with Heraclius turned, and the only barrier between him and Constantinople: and that, when once he possessed the recruiting ground and the granary of the Nile together with the shipping and dockyards of Alexandria, it would have been madness to plunge through Syria and Asia instead of moving straight to the Dardanelles and joining forces with Heraclius.

This then was the plan : Heraclius with his galleys was to make for Thessalonica and there prepare a formidable fleet and army, while Nicetas was to occupy Alexandria—the second city of the Empire—so as at once to cut off the corn supplies from Constantinople, and to secure the strongest base for equipping an armament against Phocas, or at least to prevent his deriving help from that quarter.

The whole incident is dismissed by the well-known Byzantine historians in a few lines, and the part played by Egypt in the revolution has hitherto scarcely been suspected. But an entirely new chapter of Egyptian history has been opened since the discovery—or rather since the translation into a European language—of an Ethiopic MS. version of the Chronicle of John, bishop of Nikiou, an important town in the Delta of Egypt. John himself, who lived in the latter half of the seventh century of our era, must have spoken with many old men who witnessed or remembered the events connected with the downfall of Phocas. His Chronicle, therefore, is of very great importance. In spite of its passage from language to language, where the MS. is not mutilated, its accuracy is often most minute and striking: and though there are errors and inconsistencies, they are balanced by the amount of new knowledge which it discloses. Indeed the work throws all sorts of novel and curious lights on the history of the Eastern Empire, of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, and of Egypt generally during a period of extraordinary interest—a period which has suffered even greater neglect than is warranted by the scantiness and imperfection of the materials; and it supplements and corrects in many curious ways the inadequate and faulty narratives of Theophanes, Cedrenus, and Nicephorus.




From the Egyptian bishop’s Chronicle we learn that even in Pentapolis there was some fighting. By large expenditure of money Heraclius assembled here a force of 3,000 men and an army of barbarians, i.e. doubtless Berbers, which he placed under the command of ‘Bonakis’ as he is called in the Ethiopic corruption of a Greek name. By their aid he won an easy victory over the imperial generals Mardius, Ecclesiarius, and Isidore, and at one blow put an end to the power of Phocas in that part of Africa. At the same time, Kisil the governor of Tripolis sent a contingent which probably passed to the south of Pentapolis. In any case Nicetas now began his advance along the coast towards Alexandria, and was joined at some point by both Kisil and Bonakis. He was secure of a friendly reception up to the very borders of Egypt: for Leontius, Prefect of Mareotis, the Egyptian province on the western side of Alexandria, had been won over, and had promised a considerable body of troops.

It is thought that nowadays such a march would lie almost entirely through a waterless desert; but there is abundant evidence to show that in the seventh century of our era there were many flourishing towns, palm groves, and fertile tracts of country, where now little is known or imagined to be but a waste of rocks and burning sands. The subject is one of some interest to scholars and to explorers, and some brief remarks upon it may be pardoned. From Ptolemy we know that the province of Cyrene ceased on the eastern side at a city called Darnis, where the province of Marmarica began. Moving eastward, Nicetas must have passed among other places the city of Axilis, the towns of Paluvius, Batrachus, and Antipyrgus, and the promontory of Cataeonium, all in the nome of Marmarica. The nome of Libya began near Panormus, and included among other towns Catabathmus, Selinus, and Paraetonium, or Ammonia as it was also called according to Strabo. Paraetonium was the capital and the seat of government of the Prefect: the name seems to have lingered in the Arabic Al Barton. Still further east in the same nome we come to Hermea, then to Leucaspis; and half way between Leucaspis and Chimovicus began the nome of Mareotis, in which the best known towns were Plinthine in Tainia, Taposiris Magna, the fortress of Chersonesus, and the city of Marea or Mareotis.

Both Ptolemy and Strabo give many other names, and it is certain that in the first century Egyptian territory was regarded as ending where Cyrenaic began, and that there was no break of impassable country between them. Later the nome of Libya suffered some decay, and in the sixth century Justinian compensated the Prefect for the poverty of his province by throwing the nome of Mareotis in with his government. But even then the way from Pentapolis to Alexandria was in well-defined stages, with no serious gaps or breaks : nor had the continuous character of the route changed at the time of which I am writing. This is proved beyond doubt. For we know that early in the seventh century the Persian army, after the subjugation of Egypt, moved on by land to the conquest of Pentapolis, and returned after a successful campaign, in which, according to Gibbon, were finally exterminated the Greek colonies of Cyrene. This, be it remembered, was only eight or nine years after the march of Nicetas. But Gibbon is altogether mistaken in his view of the devastation wrought by Chosroes’ troops in that region. Great it was, but in no way fatal or final. On the contrary, less than thirty years later, when 'Amr Ibn al Asi the Saracen captured Alexandria, his thoughts turned naturally to Pentapolis, and to Pentapolis he went, conquering Barca and Cyrene. There is no record or hint of either mar.ch being regarded as a great military achievement or triumph over natural difficulties.

Indeed nothing could be more false than to picture the route as lying across inhospitable deserts. For there is express evidence that practically the whole of the coast provinces west of Egypt continued well populated and well cultivated for some three centuries after they fell under Arab dominion. The Arab writer Al Makrizi mentions the city of Lubiah as the centre of a province between Alexandria and Marakiah, showing that the classical names Libya and Marmarica were retained by the Arabs almost unaltered. In another passage he says that, after passing the cities of Lubiah and Marakiah, one enters the province of Pentapolis: and Al Kudai and Al Masudi concur in similar testimony. The canton of Lubiah contained twenty-four boroughs besides villages. Makrizi’s account of Marakiah—taken from Quatre-mère's version of it—is in substance as follows : “Marakiah is one of the western districts of Egypt, and forms the limit of the country. The city of that name is two stages, or twenty-four miles, distant from Santariah. Its territory is very extensive and contains a vast number of palm-trees, of cultivated fields, and of running springs. There the fruits have a delicious flavour, and the soil is so rich that every grain of wheat sown produces from ninety to a hundred ears. Excellent rice too grows in great abundance. Even at the present day there are very many gardens in this canton. Formerly Marakiah was occupied by tribes of Berbers; but in the year 304 a.h. (916 a.d.) the inhabitants of Lubiah and Marakiah were so harried by the Prince of Barca that they withdrew to Alexandria. From that date onwards Marakiah steadily declined, and now it is almost in ruins. But it still preserves some remnant of its ancient splendor.

The last words evidently refer to the city, not the province : they are remarkable as showing how much was left even in 1400 a.d. and we may mention, as at any rate curious, the fact that the Portolanos, or Venetian navigation charts, of about the year 1500, show at least an unbroken series of names along this part of the shores of the Mediterranean. But Makrizi has also something to say of Mareotis. Formerly he declares that it was covered with houses and gardens, which at one time were dotted over the whole country westward up to the very frontiers of Barca. In his own time Mareotis was only a town in the canton of Alexandria, and used that city as the market for the abundant produce of its fruit-gardens. Champollion says that under the old Egyptian Empire it was the capital of Lower Egypt, and gradually sank into decay after the foundation of Alexandria. In the time of Vergil and Strabo it was, as they testify, at least renowned for its wine. To-day the ruins that mark the site, twelve miles west of Alexandria, are practically unknown, but the soil beneath the sand is found to be alluvial, in confirmation of its ancient repute for fertility.

It is, then, clear that before the Arab conquest there was a continuous chain of towns, and an almost unbroken tract of cultivated land, stretching from Alexandria to Cyrene, and that the march of Nicetas demanded no great qualities of generalship or endurance. Even at the present time it is probable that the difficulties of the route are greatly exaggerated: for Muslim pilgrims constantly make their way on foot from Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli along the coast to Egypt. The country abounds in Greek and Roman remains; but the people are fanatics of the lowest type. The wandering Arab keeps out the wandering scholar, and the whole region, though its shores are washed by the Mediterranean and lie almost in sight of Italy and Greece, is more lost to history and to archaeology than if it were in the heart of the Sahara. The fact is, of course, as much due to the rule of the Turk as to the fanaticism of the Beduin: but the two form a combination enough to make travel almost impossible. But if ever the country falls under a civilized power, it will be a splendid field for exploration, and might even, with proper engineering works, resume something of its ancient fertility and prosperity.

This digression, however, has taken long enough. It enables us to follow the movements of Nicetas’ army, and to infer that though he met with few perils on the way, yet that the time occupied on the march must have been considerable. Meanwhile in the Egyptian capital plot and counterplot were working. Theodore, son of Menas, who had been Prefect of Alexandria under the Emperor Maurice, and one Tenkera (by whom Zotenberg wrongly thinks Crispus may be meant), had engaged together to put Phocas to death and secure the crown for Heraclius. The Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria, another Theodore, who had received his seat from Phocas, knew nothing of this conspiracy; but John, the Governor of the Province and Commander of the Garrison, and yet another Theodore, the Con­troller of Finance, revealed it to him: whereupon the three addressed a joint letter of warning to Phocas.

The Emperor well knew the uncertain temper of the Egyptians : and, with a view to humour them, he had lately sent from Syria a large consignment of lions and leopards for a wild-beast show, together with a collection of fetters and instruments of torture, as well as robes of honour and money, for just apportionment between his friends and foes. But on receipt of the letter from the Patriarch, while professing to disdain the menace of revolt, yet knowing the supreme necessity of holding Egypt at all costs, he neither faltered in resolve nor paltered in action. Summoning the Prefect of Byzantium, he took from him a solemn oath of allegiance, and dispatched him with large reinforce­ments both for Alexandria and for the important garrison towns of Manuf and Athrib in the Delta. At the same time he sent urgent orders to Bonosus in Syria to hurl all his available troops on Egypt. For Bonosus was now at Antioch, where he had been sent, with the title of ‘Count of the East’ to crush a revolt of the Jews against the Christians—a revolt which seems to have been rather religious than political, although the threads of politics and of religion are often indistinguishable in the tissue of history at this period. Yet so well or so ill did Bonosus achieve his bloody work by wholesale massacre, by hanging, drowning, burning, torturing, and casting to wild beasts, that he earned a name of execration and terror. Indeed he was a man after Phocas own heart—a ‘ferocious hyena’ who revelled in slaughter—and he hailed Phocas’ message with delight.

Meanwhile Nicetas was nearing Alexandria on the west. The town of Kabsain (which may possibly be identified with Fort Chersonesus) surrendered, and the garrison were spared, but the prisoners of the revolting faction were released and joined the march. Messengers were sent on ahead to spread the rebellion in the country round the Dragon Canal —so called from its serpentine windings—which was close to the city. But finding that the imperial forces, strong in numbers and well armed, barred his passage here, Nicetas summoned the general to surrender. “Stand aside from our path”, he said, “and remain neutral, pending the issue of the war. If we fail, you will not suffer; if we succeed, you shall be Governor of Egypt. But the reign of Phocas is finished!”. The answer was brief—“We fight to the death for Phocas”, and the battle began. It is probable that the general was the one under special oath to defend the Emperor, and that he fought with better heart than his soldiers. For Nicetas was completely victorious: the imperial general was killed, and his head set on a pike and borne with the conquering standards through the Moon Gate into the city, where no further resistance was offered. John, the Governor, and Theodore, the Controller of Finance, took refuge in the church of St. Theodore in the eastern part of the town : while the Melkite Patriarch fled to the church of St. Athanasius, which stood by the sea shore. John of Nikiou is silent concerning the Patriarch’s fate; but we know from other sources that he perished.

The clergy and people now assembled, and agreed in their detestation of Bonosus and his wild beasts and in their welcome to Heraclius' general. They set the head of the slain commander on the gate; seized the palace and government buildings, as well as the control of the corn and the exchequer; took possession of all Phocas’ treasure; and last, but not least, secured the island and fortress of Pharos and all the shipping. For Pharos, as Caesar saw and said long before, was one key of Egypt, as Pelusium was the other. Thus master of the capital, Nicetas dispatched Bonakis to carry the revolution through the Delta. It proved an easy task, for everywhere the native Egyptians hated the rule of Byzantium. Town after town made common cause with the delivering army. Nikiou, with its bishop Theodore, flung open its gates: at Manuf the faction in revolt plundered the house of Aristomachus, the imperial governor, and those of the leading Romans; and nearly every Prefect and every town cast in its lot against Phocas : so that after a triumphant progress Bonakis returned to the capital. Only at Sebennytus or Samanud Paul, the popular Prefect, stood to his colours, and Paul’s friend Cosmas, blazing with courage, though crippled with paralysis, was carried about the town to fire the garrison with his own spirit; while at Athrib another friend of Paul, the Prefect Marcian, equally refused to join the rebellion. The war was not yet over.

Bonosus had reached Caesarea when he heard of the fall of Alexandria. The news only stung him to fiercer action. Shipping his whole force at that port, he sailed swiftly southwards, and either landed his cavalry on the confines of Egypt or was met there by a body of horse from Palestine. His plan was now to relieve Athrib; and for this purpose he took his fleet in two divisions, one by the main eastern branch of the Nile, and one by the Pelusiac channel, while the cavalry followed by land. Besides the Prefect Marcian there was at Athrib a redoubtable lady named Christodora, who from motives of private vengeance was a strong supporter of the Emperors interest. Paul and Cosmas also had come from Manuf to a council of war. In vain the Bishop of Nikiou and the Chancellor Menas wrote urging Marcian and Christodora to throw down the statues of Phocas and acknowledge Heraclius: for they heard of Bonosus’ arrival on the isthmus, and the report was soon followed by the news of his occupation of Pelusium. His advance was watched in alarm by the Heraclian generals Plato and Theodore (really these Theodores are interminable), who had an army in the neighbourhood of Athrib. They sent an urgent message for succour to Bonakis, who lost no time in moving up the western or Bolbitic branch of the Nile; but he reached Nikiou only to learn of Bonosus arrival at Athrib. Quitting that town, Bonosus moved by the canal which branched off the main river westwards in the direction of Manuf, and with him were Marcian and Cosmas and the relentless Christodora.

Paul now directed his march to join Bonosus, and the two imperial forces had hardly united, when the army of Bonakis arrived on the scene. The encounter was fierce but decisive. The rebel troops were completely routed—part hurled into the waterway, part slain, part taken prisoner and thrown into irons. Bonakis himself was captured alive, but put to death : another general, Leontius, met the same fate : while Plato and Theodore managed to escape, and sought sanctuary in a neighbouring monastery. Nikiou, though a fortified city, was in no position to hold out against the victorious army of Bonosus. Accordingly Bishop Theodore and the Chancellor Menas went out to the conqueror in solemn procession, carrying gospels and crosses, and threw themselves on his mercy. They might better have thrown themselves from their city walls. Menas was cast into prison, fined 3,000 pieces of gold, tortured with a prolonged bastinade, and set free only to die of exhaustion : while Theodore was taken back to Nikiou by Bonosus, who now moved there with his army. At the city gate Bonosus saw the statues of Phocas lying broken on the ground, the work of the bishop, as Christodora and Marcian testified; and the unfortunate Theodore was instantly beheaded. This execution was followed by that of the generals Plato and Theodore, and of the three elders of Manuf — Isidore, John, and Julian — all of whom had sought asylum in a monastery, and were tamely surrendered by the monks. Of the general body of prisoners Bonosus merely banished those who had been in Maurice’s service, but put to death all who had ever borne arms under the flag of Phocas.

The tide of war has now fairly turned in favour of the reigning Emperor. Bonosus was virtually master of the Delta, from all parts of which the rebel forces—afraid to fight and afraid to surrender—streamed towards Alexandria by the vast network of waterways which covered the country. For Bonosus himself it was an easy passage from Nikiou down the western main of the Nile, and thence by the canal which ran to Alexandria.

Nicetas was well prepared to receive him. Within the city he had organized a large army of regulars and irregulars, sailors and citizens, aided warmly by the Green Faction. The arsenals rang with the din of forging weapons, and. the walls were manned and furnished with powerful engines of defence. Paul seems to have been sent on by Bonosus to attack the city with a fleet of vessels on the south side, probably at the point where the fresh-water canal entered through two enormous gateways of stone, which had been built and fortified by Tatian in the time of Valens. But as soon as Paul's flotilla came within range of the city batteries, the huge stones which they hurled fell crashing among his vessels with such deadly effect that he was unable even to approach the walls, and drew off his ships to save them from being disabled or sunk. Such was the force at that time of the Alexandrian artillery.




Bonosus, who had performed at any rate the last stages of his journey by land, seems nevertheless to have followed Cleopatra’s canal, i.e. the principal waterway leading from the Bolbitic branch of the Nile to Alexandria. He first pitched his camp at Miphamomis, and next at Dimkaruni, according to the bishop’s Chronicle. Zotenberg has no note on these places, and at first sight they are puzzling. But Miphamomis is called in the text “the present Shubra”. This must be the Shubra by Damanhur. Now Champollion speaks of a place called Momemphis, which he alleges to have been seven leagues west of Damanhur, or Timenhor, as he gives the name of the town in its ancient Egyptian form. We can have no hesitation in identifying Miphamomis with Momemphis and in placing it close to Damanhur: but then Champollion cannot be right in identifying it with Panouf Khet, which the Arabs called Manuf as Safli, and which the French savant places twenty-one miles—an impossible distance— from Damanhur.

As to Dimkaruni, one cannot remember any such form elsewhere : but bearing in mind that Dim—or Tim—in ancient Egyptian was a regular prefix denoting ‘town’ it seems beyond doubt that Dimkarfini is merely a Coptic form of Chaereum or Karium. This explanation fits accurately with the geography of that region; for Karium was not only further west on the canal which Bonosus was following, as the context requires, but was nearly half-way between Damanhur and Alexandria, being only thirty-eight kilometres from the latter city and thirty-one from Damanhur. From Karium Bonosus covered the remaining distance without opposition, and arriving on the eastern side of the capital, he halted his army within view of the walls and resolved to assault them on the following day, Sunday. It would be interesting could we know by what means he hoped to storm the lofty and powerful fortifications which guarded the Great City.

But the Alexandrians were in no mood to stand a siege. The story is that a certain saint of Upper Egypt, called Theophilus the Confessor—who lived on the top of a pillar, and there, it seems, acquired practical wisdom—counselled Nicetas to sally out and give battle. Accordingly he marshalled his troops within the ‘Gate of Aun’, where the splendid width of the great street dividing the city lengthwise gave plenty of room for the muster. The name ‘Gate of Aun’ is not explained by Zotenberg, and at first sight does not connect with any known feature in Alexandrian topography. But in another passage of the MS. we find Aun used as a synonym of Ain Shams. Now Ain Shams is the Arabic name for the town better known as Heliopolis : and the ancient Egyptian for Heliopolis is On or Aon. The Gate of Aun is therefore the gate towards Heliopolis, which may further be identified with the well-known Sun Gate closing the eastern end, as the Moon Gate closed the western, of that broad avenue which ran east to west in Alexandria, and was crossed at a sort of Carfax by the other main avenue running north to south. It may be added that the preference for old Egyptian forms shown in this use of Aun, and in other passages, is a strong indication that John of Nikiou wrote this part of the original in Coptic.

But to resume. The imperial forces were now ordered to advance against the city, a mounted general leading the way. While they were still far out of bowshot, they were harassed by a lively fire from the huge catapults roaring and creaking on the city walls and towers. One of these projectiles struck the general, smashing his jaw, unhorsing and killing him instantly : a second killed another officer: and as the assailants wavered, thrown into confusion by this dreaded artillery, Nicetas gave the order for a sortie. The Sun Gate was thrown open, and his main force issued thence, formed line, and by a brilliant charge broke the enemy’s ranks, and after a sharp struggle cut Bonosus’ army in two and turned it to flight. When Nicetas saw that most of the fugitives were streaming northwards, he put himself at the head of his reserve of black troops, and sallied out from another gate by the church of St. Mark on the north or seaward side of the city, near the north-east angle of the walls. He soon headed off the flying soldiers and drove them back either under the ramparts, where they were over­whelmed by volleys of stones and arrows, or else among the prickly hedges which enclosed the sub­urban gardens, where they were entangled and slain. Those of Bonosus’ men who fled to their left, or southwards, soon found their way barred by the canal in front: behind they saw the swords of their pursuers flashing: and, maddened by the press and panic, they turned their weapons blindly one against another.

The army of Bonosus was cut to pieces. Marcian, Prefect of Athrib, Leontius, Valens and many notable persons were among the slain; and such was the effect of the victory that even the Blue Faction abandoned the cause of Phocas. But Bonosus himself managed to escape and retreat to the fortress of Kariun, a place which figures again some thirty years later in the advance of the Arabs under Amr on Alexandria. It lay on both banks of the canal which connected the capital with the Nile. Ibn Haukal describes it in his day as a large and beautiful town surrounded by gardens, and it still survives as a village. What Paul and his flotilla were doing during the battle is uncertain. They may have been making a diversion towards the south-west of the city, but they do not seem to have been near the scene of the encounter either to aid in the fight by land or to rescue survivors.

When at length Paul heard of this crushing defeat, he thought seriously of surrendering and joining Nicetas; but he remained loyal to his party, and secured his retreat by some means to Kariun, where he joined Bonosus. That general—whose extraordinary resource and courage challenge our reluctant admiration—had no thought of abandoning the struggle. He passed rapidly by the canal to the western main of the Nile and ascended the stream to Nikiou, which his troops still garrisoned. There he recruited his fleet, and, after destroying a vast number of Alexandrian vessels, he succeeded in dominating the river. But not being strong enough to confront Nicetas again, he passed down another waterway (probably that called Ar Rugashat) towards Mareotis, and entered the Dragon Canal on the west of Alexandria with the intention of seizing Mareotis as a fresh base of operations against the capital. But Nicetas received intelligence of his plan, and defeated it by sending to break down the bridge at a place called Dafashir, near Mareotis, and so blocking the canal.

Furious with this check, Bonosus, renouncing the methods of open warfare, resolved to assassinate his rival. He persuaded one of his soldiers to go as an envoy to Nicetas under pretence of arranging terms of surrender. “Take a short dagger with you”, he said, “and conceal it under your cloak. When you come close to Nicetas, drive it through his heart, so as to kill him on the spot. You may escape in the confusion; but if not, you will die to save the Empire, and I will take charge of your children at the royal palace and will provide for them for life”. Such was the plot of Bonosus; but it was betrayed by a traitor. One of his own followers named John sent a message of warning to Nicetas; so that when the assassin appeared, he was at once surrounded by a guard, who searched him and found the hidden dagger. The weapon was used to behead him.

Thus baulked of his vengeance, Bonosus marched by land to Dafashir, and wreaked his spite by massacring the inhabitants. Nicetas was hurrying to meet him : but Bonosus knew the folly of risking a battle with the diminished remnant of his force. He therefore retreated, crossed the Nile, and once more gained the shelter of Nikiou. Instead of passing the river to pursue him, Nicetas remained on the western side, and occupied the town and province of Mareotis with a considerable army. The desperate valour of his foe and the baffling rapidity of his movements still gave the general of Heraclius much cause for anxiety, and he met his daring tactics with calculating prudence. It was not till Nicetas had firmly secured his rear and the western bank of the Nile that he passed over the river and advanced on Manuf. Here there was a very strong fortress—one of the great works of Trajan—which might have held out for an indefinite time if vigorously defended. But it is clear that popular sympathy was with the revolting party, and that the imperial soldiers were losing heart, in spite of the undaunted prowess of their leader. Many of the garrison took to flight, and the citadel itself was taken after a feeble resistance.

Having thus mastered the country on both banks of the Nile, Nicetas advanced on the town of Nikiou, which he had caught in a vice. At length the indomitable spirit of Bonosus was broken. He fled under cover of darkness, and either slipped past the besieging army eastward and got to Athrib, or else dropped quickly down the main river, and then crossed by one of the innumerable canals towards Tanis. In either case he reached Pelusium in safety, and took ship to Palestine: whence under the execration of the people he passed on his way to Constantinople, and joined his master Phocas. The fall of Manuf and Nikiou was the signal for the surrender of the other imperial towns and generals. Paul, Prefect of Samanud, and the vigorous cripple Cosmas were captured, but frankly pardoned by the conqueror: and the Green Faction, who had made the occasion of Nicetas’ success an excuse for maltreating the Blues and for open pillage and murder, saw their leaders arrested and solemnly admonished to be on their good behaviour. The two Factions were actually reconciled: new governors were appointed to every town : law and order were re-established : and Heraclius was master of Egypt.

It had been a long and a desperate struggle, with a romantic ebb and flow of fortune. We have seen the country roused from its sullen torpor by the sound of Heraclius’ trumpets : Nicetas capturing Alexandria almost without striking a blow, and the revolution triumphant through Egypt : then Bonosus flinging himself like a tiger on the head of the Delta, sweeping all before him to the walls of Alexandria, and dashing against the city’s bulwarks only to recoil crushed and disabled for any further contest save a guerilla warfare, which he maintained for a time with fiery courage; then, brought to bay at last, he cheated the enemies that surrounded him of their vengeance and stole away in the night. It is a remarkable picture, drawn in strong colours, but bearing in every detail the image of reality; it is one entirely unknown to history until revealed in the Chronicle of John of Nikiou.

For not a word of all this dramatic struggle in Egypt occurs in the Byzantine historians, except that the Chronicon Paschale speaking of 609 a.d. says, “Africa and Alexandria revolt”. Gibbon, who knows every page of their writings, thus sums up what he gleaned from them about the revolution :  “The powers of Africa were armed by the two adventurous youths (Heraclius and Nicetas); they agreed that one should navigate the fleet from Carthage to Constantinople, that the other should lead an army through Egypt and Asia, and that the imperial purple should be the reward of diligence and success. A faint rumour of their undertaking was conveyed to the ears of Phocas, and the wife and mother of the younger Heraclius were secured as the hostages of his faith: but the treacherous art of Crispus extenuated the distant peril, the means of defence were neglected or delayed, and the tyrant supinely slept till the African navy cast anchor in the Hellespont”. There is no suspicion here of the part played by Egypt in the revolution. Indeed a few pages later in the same chapter, Gibbon, in treating of the Persian invasion of Egypt under Chosroes in 616 a.d., expressly speaks of that country as “the only province which had been exempt, since the time of Diocletian, from foreign and domestic war”,  an extraordinary statement, which Gibbon in part demolishes in his own brief but vigorous account of the Copts in the following chapter. The truth is that the more one studies this period, the clearer it becomes that Egypt was one of the most restless and turbulent countries in the whole Empire, and, certainly since the Council of Chalcedon, was in an almost chronic state of disorder. There is abundant evidence of this not only within the wide range of the Chronicle of John of Nikiou but in Renaudot’s well-known History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria and in other writings, apart from the particular story of Heraclius, with which we are now dealing.

This is not the place for a discussion upon either the facts or the sources of Egyptian history during the last two centuries of the Empire : but when that record comes to be fully written, it will prove a record of perpetual feud between Romans and Egyptians—a feud of race and a feud of religion—in which, however, the dominating motive was rather religious than racial. The key to the whole of this epoch is the antagonism between the Monophysites and the Melkites. The latter, as the name implies, were the imperial or the Court party in religion, holding the orthodox opinion about the two natures of Christ: but this opinion the Monophysite Copts, or native Egyptians, viewed with an abhorrence and combated with a frenzy difficult to understand in rational beings, not to say followers of the Gospel. The spirit of the savage fanatics who tore Hypatia to pieces at the altar was alive and unchanged: only now instead of being directed against the supposed paganism of a young and beautiful woman, it was divided between two sects each of which called itself children of Christ, and called the other sons of Satan. But further, apart from all religious dissensions, though crossed and complicated by them, the strife of the Blue and the Green Factions was as real and as relentless on the banks of the Nile as in any part of the Empire.

So much then for the domestic peace of Egypt at this period : and the alleged freedom from foreign war is disproved at least by the invasion of the Persians in the time of the Emperor Anastasius, when according to Eutychius, a writer born in Egypt, all the suburbs of Alexandria were burnt down, battle after battle was fought between the Persian invaders and the Egyptians, and the country was so harried that it escaped from the sword only to be smitten by a famine which led to insurrection. And what is to be said of the almost perennial persecutions and massacres, such as even Justinian must be said to have countenanced? the petty rebellions, like that of Aristomachus under the Emperor Maurice? the outbursts of organized brigandage, the Beduin raids, the continual alarms and incursions of the Sudan tribes, who then as now menaced the frontiers? If war was not often present in act, its phantom was always hovering in the mirage of the Egyptian horizon.

It is clear, then, that many causes contributed to keep the whole province in a state of unrest. And the divisions were at once so fierce and so manifold that almost any determined invader might count on the aid of some party within its borders. What helped Nicetas was a genuine detestation of Phocas : the measure of his crimes was full even in the judgment of the Romans, while to the Copts he was not merely a tyrant and an assassin, but the sign and centre of that foreign power and that accursed creed, the existence of which in Egypt embittered their daily bread. But it is probable that, even after the flight of Bonosus, Nicetas felt his continued presence necessary to secure his authority. Unfortunately the dates here are somewhat hard to follow. Apparently John of Nikiou makes all the war, previous to the defeat of Bonosus before Alexandria, take place in the seventh year of Phocas reign, i.e. before the close of 609 : the battle itself then would be about the end of November, 609, and the subsequent events may have occupied a few weeks longer. Still it would follow that Nicetas was in possession of Egypt in the spring of 610.

On one point the bishop’s Chronicle is curiously silent—on the part played in the contest by the powerful fortress of Babylon near Memphis. Next to Alexandria, it was the strongest place in Egypt, and of course it was held by an imperial garrison. In the war of the Arab conquest it was the first objective of the Saracen commander, and its reduction sealed the triumph of the Crescent. This is so fully set forth by the Chronicle, that one can only interpret its silence to mean that Babylon surrendered to Nicetas without a conflict. But if so, and if the war in Egypt was over by the spring of 610, it is more than ever clear that Nicetas had no idea of racing for Constantinople. Else, assuming that he could have drawn an adequate armament from Egypt, which there is no reason to doubt, he might have reached the Byzantine capital and overthrown Phocas six months in advance of Heraclius. It is true that Cedrenus assigns the massacre by Bon6sus at Antioch to 610, which would make the whole Egyptian war fall within that year: but this chrono­logy is not consistent with the rest of Cedrenus: it disagrees with the Chronicon Paschale: and it is hopelessly at variance with our Ethiopic MS., in which generally speaking the dates are remarkably trustworthy. The balance of evidence is then strongly in favour of the earlier date, and we may take it that Nicetas, having achieved the object of his mission, when he won the final throw of the die on the Nile, was well content to hold the province pending the advance of Heraclius, to keep centralized and friendly all the imperial forces in the country, and to control its vast resources in corn and shipping on which Constantinople largely depended.




Meanwhile how was Heraclius faring? Our information of his progress by sea is scanty enough, nor does John of Nikiou add greatly to the meagre details of the Byzantine historians, who, like him, reserve their descriptions for the closing scenes at Constantinople. But it is clear that the progress was slow, and that like Nicetas he set out with a comparatively small force of vessels, carrying some Roman and African troops on board, and that he had to collect and organize both a fleet and an army with which he might adventure against Phocas. At the islands where he touched, and at the towns on the seaboard, he was welcomed, and recruits— particularly of the Green Faction—flocked to his standard. Of resistance to his arms there is no record : and yet it is certain that Heraclius never dreamt of moving direct on Constantinople with the small force with which he started. On quitting Africa he coasted along Hellas or threaded the islands slowly to Thessalonica, where he fixed his base of operations and spent a considerable time—not less than a year—in equipping a fleet and army and in strengthening his connection with the disaffected party led by Crispus in the capital. Thessalonica was at this time, as we know, strongly fortified, and it was one of the few places in Macedonia which had withstood the hordes of Huns and other barbarians then flooding the country1. It was in fact one of the gates of the Eastern Empire : it commanded the trade routes from Carthage, Sicily, and the western Mediterranean to Constantinople. Here then Heraclius established himself presumably without a struggle, and so firmly that one writer, Eutychius, appears to imagine him a native of the town. It must, however, be said that Eutychius’ whole account of the revolution is no less imperfect as a record of events than confused in chronology: and on this point he is clearly mistaken.

During the many months which Heraclius spent at Thessalonica, we can only conceive of him as maturing plans, gathering resources, and removing obstacles. What difficulties he had to encounter we cannot say: it is possible that at this period, which is a blank in the annals, he may have displayed that combination of calculating foresight and brilliant activity with which he subsequently astonished the world in his Persian campaigns. But it was not till September, 610, that all was ready, and the vast armament which he had collected and provisioned weighed anchor from the harbour. On the leading galleys reliquaries were carried, and the banner of the Cross waved at the mast-head : while on Heraclius’ own vessel an image of special sanctity, “the image not made with hands”, formed the figure­head. News of the arrival of the fleet in the Dardanelles spread like wild-fire to the capital; and while Crispus seems for the moment to have kept in the background, Theodore the Illustrious and a large number of senators and officials declared for Heraclius. According to John of Nikiou the city rabble also rose against the Emperor, hurling imprecations on his head.

Phocas, meanwhile, seems to have been ill prepared for the storm that had been so long in breaking. When he first received news of the revolt of Egypt, there was a large fleet of corn-ships from Alexandria in harbour. These he seized, and flung the sailors into prison in the fortress on the harbour of the Hebdomon, where they were kept in long durance. Yet after the failure of Bonosus’ expedition to reconquer Egypt, we read of no further serious efforts on the Emperor’s part. But it was the shout of these Alexandrian prisoners, as they acclaimed the sails of Heraclius, that sounded the first note of real alarm which was borne to Phocas. The Emperor was then at the Hebdomon palace near the fortress : but he sprang on his horse and galloped to a palace called the palace of the Archangel within the walls. From the Chronicon Paschale we know that this was on a Saturday; which must have been the 3rd October. Next day Bonosus was sent with the imperial chariots and other troops to encounter any force landed by Heraclius : but the charioteers, who had been won over by Crispus, revolted and turned on their leader, who fled back, eating his heart with rage, to the city. There in a fit of savage treachery Bonosus hurled fire into the quarter round the palace called Caesarion : but, failing to kindle a conflagration, he baffled for a while the pursuing mob, and escaped in a small boat to the quay called Port Julian. Here, however, he was followed and found, and the chase closed about him. He essayed a fierce but vain resistance against overwhelming odds: then in the last extremity of danger he plunged into the sea. As he rose a sword-cut clove his skull, and that indignant spirit fled from the scene where it had wrought so much havoc. The body was taken out of the water and dragged to the Ox Market, where it was burned in public ignominy and execration.

This account of the death of Bonosus is put together from the records of Cedrenus, John of Nikiou, and the Chronicon Paschale. It is curious how well they combine, and how little real disagreement there is between them; for although the stories differ, it is rather by omission or addition than by any discrepancy of fact. Moreover the points of coincidence are often very striking; and as it is rather a coincidence of logic than of detail, it seems to establish at once the independence of the writers and to carry a conviction of their trustworthiness. There is no sign of the three writers relying on any common document.

When the Emperor heard what had befallen Bonosus, he knew that his own hour had come. He had no intention of resigning the crown, nor indeed any hope of mercy in case he surrendered to his enemy: his only chance lay in fighting to the bitter end, and the defection of his best troops made this chance almost worthless. All he had now to rely upon was the allegiance of the Blue Faction, or rather their furious hostility to the Green and their exasperation at the first successes of the rival colour. Phocas accordingly manned a fleet with the Blues in the harbour of St. Sophia, and prepared to give battle to Heraclius. John of Nikiou is responsible for a curious anecdote which, as far as I am aware, does not occur in any other historian. He relates that Phocas and his chamberlain or treasurer, Leontius the Syrian, knowing that after the death of Bonosus their own lives were in imminent danger from the mob, took all the hoarded wealth of the imperial treasury and sank it in the sea. All the riches of the Emperor Maurice, all the vast store of gold and jewels which Phocas himself had amassed by confiscating the property of the victims he had murdered, and last but not least all the money and precious vessels which Bonosus had heaped up by his multiplied iniquities, were now in a moment lost to the world. “Thus”, as the Egyptian bishop remarks, “did Phocas impoverish the Eastern Empire”.

It was an act of triumphant spite such as well accords with the character of the Emperor, and apparently it took place when victory declared for Heraclius in the naval engagement. The treasure must have been taken on board the Emperor’s galley, to save it from being plundered while the battle was raging, and sunk bodily when the battle was lost. For though the contest may have been stubborn, the issue was not doubtful. The imperial vessels were defeated and driven on the shore or captured. All who could, escaped, and fled for sanctuary to the Cathedral of St. Sophia. Phocas himself seems to have made his way back with Leontius to the palace of the Archangel, where they were followed and seized by Photius (or Photinus) and Probus. The crown was struck off the Emperors head, and he was dragged with his companion in chains along the quay, his raiment torn to pieces. There he was shown to the victorious fleet and army, and with a storm of curses ringing in his ears, he was haled into the presence of his conqueror in the church of St. Thomas the Apostle.

It is probable that this church was chosen for Heraclius’ thanksgiving service rather than St. Sophia, because the latter was too crowded with refugees of the defeated Faction to admit of any large company or solemn pageant. There is no necessity to draw on the imagination for many details of the meeting between Phocas and Heraclius. We may picture a stately basilica thronged with officers, senators and soldiers, priests standing in gorgeous vestments round the altar laden with golden vessels, and the strains of the Te Deum dying away as Phocas is brought in chains.

For a moment the fallen Emperor and his victorious vassal stand fronting each other. Their portraits are well known as drawn by Cedrenus. Heraclius was in the prime of life—his age was about thirty-five—of patrician family, of middle stature and muscular build, deep-chested, with well-knit athletic frame : his hair and beard were fair, his complexion bright and clear, his eyes pale blue and singularly handsome. Altogether a man of frank and open presence and aristocratic mien, with a look of power, physical and intellectual: a face denoting courage, insight, ability, and perhaps that unscrupulousness which Eutychius commemorates. Phocas was of the same height: but there the resemblance ended. His person was repulsive from its hideous deformity: his beardless face was crossed by a deep and ugly scar which flushed and blackened in his fits of passion: his jutting eyebrows met on a low forehead under a shock of red hair, and the eyes of a savage glared beneath them. Foul of tongue, besotted in wine and lust, ruthless and remorseless in torture and bloodshed—such was the ex-centurion whose lash had scourged the Eastern Empire for eight years, and who now was called to answer for his deeds. As crime after crime was unfolded, “Is this”, said Heraclius, “the way you have governed ?”. “Are you the man”, was the retort, “to govern better?”

Sentence of death was passed, and it is a reproach rather to the manners of the time than to the character of Heraclius that its execution was accompanied by horrible barbarities—though perhaps not much worse than the drawing and quartering which our own law formerly sanctioned. Phocas body was dismembered : first the hands and feet were cut off, then the arms, and after other mutilations the head at last was severed, put on a pole, and carried about the main streets of the city. Meanwhile the trunk was dragged along the ground to the Hippodrome, and thence to the Ox Market, and burned on the spot where Bonosus’ ashes were hardly cold. The banner of the Blue Faction (not the Green, as Gibbon says) was also burned, and a statue of Phocas was carried through the Hippodrome in mock procession by men clad in white dalmatics and bearing lighted tapers, and was thrown on the fire. “They burned Phocas, Leontius, and Bonosus and scattered their ashes to the winds : for all men hated them”

According to John of Nikiou, Heraclius was crowned—against his own wishes—in the same church of St. Thomas; and after his prayer was ended, he repaired to the palace, where all the dignitaries of the city rendered him homage. Cedrenus makes the imperial coronation take place in the chapel of St. Stephen attached to the palace, while the Chronicon Paschale puts it out of order between the burning of Phocas’ body and his statue, naming no place. It is curious that the Egyptian chronicle confirms the story of Heraclius reluctance to accept the crown—a reluctance emphasized by the Chronicon Paschale as well as the Byzantine historians. But his scruples were overcome: and on October 5 in the year 610 he was proclaimed Emperor, with Fabia, his betrothed wife, whose name was changed to Eudocia, as Empress.

Nicetas does not seem to have made any effort to join Heraclius before Constantinople: for though John of Nikiou uses language apparently implying his presence in the city at the time of Phocas fall, Zotenberg must be right in thinking that “Nicetas” there is a mere slip on the part of writer or copyist for “Crispus”. The fact of Nicetas leaving Egypt to join forces with Heraclius, and succeeding in his object, would not have been buried, if it were a fact, in the obscurity of a chance allusion. But I must again differ from Gibbon, who says :—

“The voyage of Heraclius had been easy and prosperous, the tedious march of Nicetas was not accomplished before the decision of the contest: but he submitted without a murmur to the fortune of his friend”

The truth, as I have shown, is just the reverse. It was Nicetas’ march which on the whole was easy and prosperous: and in spite of the dangers and delays arising from the intervention of Bonosus, he reached his final goal, the possession of Egypt, long before Heraclius was able to move from Thessalonica. From which it is fair to argue that Heraclius in his voyage had difficulties and adversities to master, of which we have no record and no measure.




Nicetas was confirmed by the Emperor in the governorship of Alexandria or, as it might be called, the Viceroyalty of Egypt. The adherents of Phocas had now been killed or banished, or had thrown off their allegiance to the lost cause, and the chief work of Nicetas was the resettlement of the Roman civil service and the reorganization of the Roman military service, which between them held Egypt in fee for the Empire. Both these services were filled by the ruling class to the general exclusion of the Copts or natives, and the system was so far analogous to the British administration of India : it differed profoundly and fatally in this, that the whole machinery of government in Egypt was directed to the sole purpose of wringing profit out of the ruled for the benefit of the rulers. There was no idea of governing for the advantage of the governed, of raising the people in the social scale, of developing the moral or even the material resources of the country. It was an alien domination founded on force and making little pretence of sympathy with the subject race. It held the Greek capital of Alexandria and the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, with its great bulwark the Roman fortress of Babylon on the eastern side of the Nile, and from Syene to Pelusium it occupied a chain of fortress towns. From these its soldiers and tax-gatherers patrolled the country, keeping order and collecting money, while Roman merchants and Jewish traders settled freely under protection of the garrisons, keenly competing with their Coptic rivals.

Alexandria itself was as difficult a city to govern as any in the world with its motley population of Byzantine Greeks, Greeks born in Egypt, Copts, Syrians, Jews, Arabs, and aliens of all nations. Yet Nicetas seems really to have won the respect, if not the affection, of the fickle and turbulent Alexandrians. One of his first measures was to grant a three years’ remission of the imperial taxes, an act of singular favour, which heightened the popularity already gained by his record as a brilliant soldier. That he remained at Alexandria is no longer open to question. True, we hear of him at Jerusalem before the Persian advance to that city, where he is said to have saved some of the holy relics—the spear and the sponge—from capture : but as we shall see he returned to Alexandria again.

The fact doubtless is that Heraclius ordered him to Palestine in hope that he might offer an effectual resistance to the Persian armies, whose numbers and strength he greatly under-estimated; and that Nicetas had no alternative but to beat a hasty retreat.

But here most unfortunately the history of Egypt is extremely difficult to recover. The annals of John of Nikiou, which up to this point have furnished a wealth of information, now become totally silent. There is in the MS. a blank of thirty years, just as if some malignant hand had torn out every page on which the record of the reign of Heraclius was written. Some Armenian and other eastern authorities who deal with this period throw much light upon the history of some parts of the Empire : but, like the Byzantine historians, they have little to say on the subject of Egypt. Yet dimly through the gloom one may mark the movement of those great events which at the close of the Emperors life closed the book of Byzantine overlordship in Egypt.

In tracing the story of Egypt during the thirty years between the accession of Heraclius and the Arab conquest we are mainly dependent on ecclesiastical writers or writers with a strong religious bias. The truth is that in the seventh century in Egypt the interest of politics was quite secondary to the interest of religion. It was opinion on matters of faith, and not on matters of government, which formed and divided parties in the state; and religion itself was valued rather for its requirement of intellectual assent to certain propositions than for its power to furnish the springs of moral action. Love of country was practically unknown, and national or racial antagonisms derived their acuteness mainly from their coincidence with religious differences. Men debated with fury upon shadows of shades of belief and staked their lives on the most immaterial issues, on the most subtle and intangible refinements in the formulas of theology or metaphysics. And the .fierce battles which Juvenal describes as turning in his day on the relative merit of cats or crocodiles as objects of worship found their analogue in Christian Egypt:—


                                             Numina vicinorum

Odit uterque locus, cum solos credat habendos

Esse deos quos ipse colit.


Times had changed, but the temper of the people was the same. Inasmuch then as parties and party divisions were essentially sectarian, it is rather the lives of saints and patriarchs than those of warriors or statesmen, which have survived to furnish the sources of Egyptian history.

The resulting difficulties are not lessened by the fact that at this time, as ever since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, each of the two great parties into which the Church was cloven had its own separate Patriarch and administration. These parties, it may be repeated, are distinguished by the familiar names Jacobite or Coptic and Melkite or Royalist. The Jacobites were by creed Monophysites, by race mainly, though not exclusively, native Egyptians, while the Melkites were orthodox followers of Chalcedon and for the most part of Greek or European origin. Severus of Ushmunain and all the authorities agree that, whatever Emperor reigned, the policy of suppressing the Jacobite heresy in Egypt was pursued with relentless intolerance : while the Jacobites aimed no less at extirpating all that stood in the following of Chalcedon.

It has already been shown that the Melkite Patriarch, who was called Theodorus, was slain at the capture of Alexandria by Nicetas in 609. The revolt of Heraclius was directed against the imperial power at Constantinople, and in joining it the Copts doubtless hoped for better treatment than they had received under the iron rule of Phocas. Nor at first were they greatly disappointed. The Coptic Patriarch Anastasius, who had been on the throne for five years at the time of the rebellion, retained his seat for another six years till his death on 22 Khoiak (18 Dec.), a.d. 616. And although the Melkites remained in possession of power and held the principal churches in Alexandria, yet the Copts were able to build or rebuild several churches of their own, such as those of St. Michael, St. Angelus, SS. Cosmas and Damian, besides various monasteries, to all of which Anastasius appointed priests and ordained bishops.

There seems no reason to doubt that Heraclius was genuinely anxious to win over the Coptic party, and at the same time Nicetas felt bound to recompense their services rendered. Hence although the Byzantine Court still appointed a Melkite Patriarch in place of the slain Theodorus, they chose, on the special recommendation of Nicetas, a man whose life and character so far commanded the admiration of the Jacobites, that they honoured him during his lifetime and after death enshrined his memory in the Coptic calendar. It is curious to find that Nicetas was at a later date largely instrumental in bringing about the union of the Monophysite Syrian with the Coptic Church, a fact which shows that his abiding attitude to the Copts was one of sympathy rather than mere tolerance.

The new Melkite Archbishop was John the Compassionate, or the Almoner—a name bestowed upon him for his great acts of charity. But his lavishness was not wholly without a method. He told those about him to go through the city and take note of all his “lords and helpers”. When they questioned his meaning, he explained: “Those whom you call paupers and beggars I call lords and helpers: for they truly help us and grant us the Kingdom of Heaven”. So a roll of the poor was prepared, and they received daily relief to the number of 7,500. The governor Nicetas, watching with envy the ceaseless flow of wealth from the Patriarch, went to him one day and said, “The government is hard pressed for money : what you receive is gotten freely without impoverishing anybody : therefore give it to the treasury”. The Patriarch answered: “What is offered to the heavenly King must not be given to an earthly. I can give you nothing. But yours is the responsibility, and the store of the Lord is under my bed”. So Nicetas called his retainers, and ordered them to take the money. As they were leaving, they met men carrying in their hands little jars labelled “Best Honey” and “Unsmoked Honey”, and Nicetas asked for a jar for his own table. The bearers whispered to the Patriarch that the vessels were full of gold : nevertheless John sent a jar to Nicetas with a message advising him to have it opened in his own presence, and adding that all the vessels he had seen were full of money. Nicetas thereupon went in person to the Patriarch and returned all the money he had taken, together with the jar and a handsome sum besides.

Stories of this kind at least show the power and resources of the pontiff at Alexandria, and it is interesting to learn also that the Church had its own fleet of trading vessels. It is related that one such ship with a cargo of 20,000 bushels of corn was driven so far out of its course by storms that it reached Britain, where there happened to be a severe famine. It returned laden with tin, which the captain sold at Pentapolis. In another instance we hear of a flotilla of thirteen ships, each carrying 10,000 bushels of grain, which lost all their burden in a tempest in the Adriatic. They belonged to the Church, and besides corn they carried silver, fine tissues, and other precious wares. Nor can it be doubted that the Church had its share of the enormous grain trade between Alexandria and Constantinople which Justinian carefully reorganized. And beyond the profits of such traffic and the voluntary offerings of the people, the Church had endowments of land which brought in large revenues. Hence it is not surprising to learn that, while John the Almoner astonished the world by his bounty, Andronicus, who succeeded Anastasius as Coptic Patriarch, and was for some few months at any rate contemporary with John, was scarcely less famed for his wealth and his charity.

Although the double succession of pontiffs was maintained, and although the early policy of Heraclius was to bring about a reconcilement between the two great branches of the Church of Egypt, yet as a rule the Coptic Archbishop was unable to maintain his seat in the metropolis. The hostility between the two sects, even when smouldering, was ready to burst into a blaze when fanned by the slightest gust of passion; and the government could not in common prudence brook the presence of the rival Archbishops in the capital. When, for example, Anastasius welcomed the Patriarch of Antioch, we find him living at the Ennaton, a famous monastery, which lay near the shore nine miles westward of Alexandria, and from there he went forth in solemn procession to meet his visitor1. Nor did he go to Alexandria, but summoned thence his clergy and held in the monastery that conclave which resulted in the re-establishment of full communion with Antioch.

But Andronicus, the successor of Anastasius, offers a remarkable exception to this rule of non-residence. At the time of his election he was deacon at the Cathedral church of Angelion in Alexandria, and there in the cells attached to the Cathedral he continued to reside during the whole period of his primacy, which lasted six years. This immunity from banishment was due to the fact that he belonged to a noble family, and had the support of powerful kinsmen in the government of the city. What the personal relations of the two Patriarchs were is not known; but John the Almoner died a few months after Andronicus came to the Coptic throne, and it is doubtful whether George, the successor of John in the Melkite chair, lived in Alexandria at all, so that the personal question may never have become dangerous.

It is useless to regret that these not very interesting details of matters ecclesiastical furnish the chief record that remains of the history of Egypt during the first five or six years following the revolt of Heraclius. But it is time now to pass to those great events with which the eastern part of the Empire was ringing, events which had their instantaneous echo on the banks of the Nile, and which were destined to shake the Byzantine power in Egypt to its foundations and prepare the way for the Arab conquest. But the great conflict between the Empire and Persia took place on a wider stage; and in order to understand its bearing upon the fortunes of Egypt, it is necessary to follow its vicissitudes, if only in rough outline.




When Chosroes, grandson of Anushirwan, the great King of Persia, had a few days after his enthronement been driven from his kingdom by the rebel usurper Bahram, he fled with his two uncles across the Tigris, cutting the ropes of the ferry behind him to baffle his pursuers. He pushed on to Circesium on the Euphrates, wishing to pray at a Christian shrine for deliverance from his enemies. Thence he is said to have wandered irresolute and despondent; and hesitating whether he should seek protection with the Huns or with the Romans, he threw the reins on his horse’s neck and left the decision to chance. His animal carried him to the Roman frontiers, and he became the guest of the nation with whom his country had been waging war for the space of nearly seven centuries.

He was well received by the Emperor Maurice, or rather by his lieutenant, at Hierapolis. The Emperor is said himself to have sent him a treasure of priceless jewels and to have given him his daughter Mary in marriage. It is of more importance that he espoused the cause of the Persian prince, and sent Narses with a vast army to recover the kingdom from Bahram. The issue was decided in a bloody battle on the river Zab in the district of Balarath, where, although the Persian commander fought with his usual adroitness and valour, his army was outnumbered and cut to pieces. Bahram fled to Balkh, where the ministers of the King’s vengeance soon tracked him down and destroyed him. Chosroes was thus by Roman aid placed on the throne of Persia; a picked regiment of a thousand Romans formed his body-guard; and peace was established between the two Empires. It is even said that Chosroes turned Christian, and his costly offerings at the shrine of St. Sergius and his letters to the Patriarch of Antioch are quoted as evidence of his preference for the Jacobite profession of faith.

No doubt his education and his close relations with the Christian Empire, as well as his marriage, softened the traditional hostility of a Magian to the Christian religion. But the Romans claimed as the reward of their alliance an annexation of territory which brought their Empire up to the banks of the Araxes; and while this loss was galling to Chosroes and his people, the King’s leanings to an alien religion were equally galling to his priests, and were doubtless quickly corrected. He was consequently driven by powerful forces, religious and political, to break the pact with Byzantium. He got rid of the Roman guard, and he quarrelled with Narses who was in command at Dara; whereupon Maurice, anxious to soothe the Kings enmity, replaced Narses by Germanus

It was at this time that the deformed and ferocious Phocas, having secured the supreme power at Byzantium, had the Emperor Maurice and all his sons and his daughters put to death. Chosroes hardly needed now the pretext his indignation furnished for a declaration of open war. Any doubt he may have felt was removed when Narses set up the standard of revolt at Edessa, dividing the Empire against itself. It is true that Narses, venturing in a fit of foolish confidence to visit his partisans at the capital, was seized by Phocas and burnt at the Hippodrome; but the die was cast. When therefore Lilius, the envoy of Phocas, reached Germanus at Dara and was sent on with every mark of honour to the Persian court, bearing letters and royal gifts for the King, Chosroes flung the Emperors ambassador into a dungeon and marched his forces into Armenia.

It is not within the scope of this work to follow the campaigns of Chosroes against Phocas. They neither fall within the period under review, nor connect, save by their broad results, with the history of Egypt; and the present writer could add little or nothing to the records already written. Suffice it therefore to say that after overrunning Armenia, which had so often been the battlefield of contending empires, the Persian King divided his forces, and sent one army southward to the conquest of Syria and another westward through the heart of Asia Minor with the design of reaching Constantinople. The order of events is by no means clear; but it is the fortune of the southern force that concerns us here, and so slow was its progress that the fall of Antioch only coincided with the coronation of Heraclius. Had the motive of Chosroes in waging war been merely revenge against Phocas, the death of that tyrant might have ended the strife: but the Great King had proved the weakness of his enemies, and the success of his arms only fired his ambition. He now aimed at nothing less than the total subjugation of the Roman Empire. It was no visionary scheme. In numbers, equipment, and discipline his troops were far superior to those of the enemy; his commanders—now that Bonosus and Narses were dead—were unrivalled; his treasury was full and his people united, while the Emperors people were divided, and his exchequer wellnigh exhausted.

Still the Syrian country was difficult: siege methods were tedious: and a great amount of time was wasted every year in winter quarters. Hence it was not till the fifth year of Heraclius reign that the Persian general Khorheam after taking Damascus and Caesarea advanced to the capture of Jerusalem. From his head quarters at Caesarea, Khorheam, it seems, sent envoys calling on Jerusalem to surrender to the Great King; and the city was actually delivered up to the Persian officers by the Jews, who had prevailed over the Christian population . Some months later, however, the Christians rose in revolt, slew the Persian chiefs, overmastered the garrison, and closed the gates. The Shah-Waraz then advanced to beleaguer the town : but aided by the Jews he succeeded in undermining the walls, and on the nineteenth day from their arrival his troops entered by the breach and took the city by storm. Scenes of massacre, rapine, and destruction ensued. The most reasonable estimate, which is that of Sebeos and of Thomas Ardzrouni, places the slain at 57,000 and the captives at 35,000, while the Byzantine historians say loosely that 90,000 perished. The Armenians are probably nearer the truth, but it is certain that many thousand clergy and monks, saints and nuns, were put to the sword. After twenty-one days of plunder and slaughter, the Persians retired outside the walls, and set fire to the city. Thus the church of the Holy Sepulchre and all the famous churches of Constantine were destroyed or dismantled. The Holy Rood, which had been buried in its golden and bejewelled case, was unearthed when its hiding-place had been disclosed under torture, and with countless holy vessels of gold and silver was carried away as plunder, while great multitudes, including the Patriarch Zacharias, were driven into captivity. The reliquary of the Holy Cross and the Patriarch were sent as presents to Mary the wife of Chosroes : but of the ordinary captives many were redeemed by the Jews for the mere pleasure of putting them to death, if Cedrenus is to be believed. “All these things happened not in a year or a month but within a few days” pathetically exclaims the writer of the Chronicon Paschale, and the date is accurately fixed to the month of May, 615.

So the Holy City was smitten with fire and sword. But of the remnant that escaped slaughter and captivity many fled southward to the Christian cities of Arabia1—quiet communities whose peace was already disturbed by echoes of the cry of the rising prophet of Islam. Yet it was probably in connection with this very triumph of the idolatrous Persians at Jerusalem that Mohammed uttered his famous prophecy : “The Romans have been overcome by the Persians in the nearest part of the land; but after their defeat they shall overcome in their turn within a few years”. But the main refuge of the scattered Christians was in Egypt, and particularly Alexandria, where the population was already swollen by crowds of refugees who had been flocking thither during the whole course of the Persian invasion of Syria.

The bounty and resources of John the Almoner were already strained by the prevailing destitution, even before the exiles from Jerusalem were thrown upon the city. To add to the troubles of the time, that same summer saw a serious failure of the Nile flood, and the result was a devastating famine throughout the land of Egypt. Gifts nevertheless poured in to the Church, and few of those who came to John, “as to a waveless haven”, for refuge were disappointed. Besides the daily dole of food for the needy the good Patriarch provided almshouses and hospitals for the sick and wounded, and scorned even to rebuke those wealthy men who were mean enough to take advantage of his charity. But such lavishness could not last: and as the famine grew fiercer, John found his chest becoming empty. In this strait he was sorely tempted by a layman who had been twice married and was therefore disqualified for orders, but who offered a vast sum of money and a great weight of corn as the price of his ordination. John had only two measures of corn remaining in his granary : but in the end he rejected the offer, and was rewarded almost on the moment by the news that two of the Church cornships, with large cargoes of grain, had just rounded the Pharos from Sicily, and were moored in the harbour.

Yet the good works of the Patriarch were not bounded by Egypt or confined to feeding the hungry. No sooner had the Holy City been sacked than a certain monk named Modestus, who had escaped the slaughter, wandered through Palestine begging for alms to reinstate the ruined churches. He was successful in his mission, and returning with a great sum of money to Jerusalem, he found that the Jews had now forfeited the special protection of the Persians, which they had at first received as the guerdon of their service to the conquerors. The Christians were again in favour, and Modestus being appointed civil and spiritual head of the community, was suffered to rebuild the churches. Indeed, as Sebeos relates, Chosroes had sent special orders to treat the captives kindly, to resettle them, and to restore the public buildings. He also sanctioned the expulsion of the Jews—an order which was carried out with the greatest alacrity.

The same historian gives a letter written by Modestus to Koumitas, Metropolitan of Armenia, after the completion of the work upon the churches. “God now has made our adversaries friends”. it says, “and shown us mercy and pity from our captors. But the Jews . . . who presumed to do battle and to burn those glorious places, are driven out from the Holy City, and must not inhabit it nor see the holy places restored to their magnificence”. And again: “All the churches of Jerusalem have been set in order, and are served by clergy: peace reigns in the City of God and round about it”

Not less curious is the narrative, given by the same writer, of a kind of council held by the Christians at the suggestion of Chosroes. The story is preserved in a letter sent by the Armenian Catholicus and bishops in reply to a message from Constantine, successor to Heraclius. The latter relates that the Great King ordered all the bishops of the East and of Assyria to assemble at his Court, remarking: “I hear that there are two parties of Christians, and that the one curses the other : which is to be regarded as in the right? They shall come to a general assembly to confirm the right and reject the wrong”. One Smbat Bagratouni and the King’s chief physician were made presidents. It is specially recorded that Zacharias, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, was present, “and many other wise men who had been carried into captivity from Alexandria”. The council proved very turbulent, and the King had to expel all sects but those who followed the doctrines of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. These several doctrines he ordered the assembled divines to examine and report upon. Memorials representing various opinions were submitted to the King, who discussed and pondered them. Finally, Zacharias and the Alexandrian divines were separately asked to pronounce the truth under oath, and they declared the right faith to be that approved by the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus, but not that of Chalcedon : in other words they pronounced for the Monophysites. Thereupon the King ordered a search to be made in the royal treasury or library for the document of the Nicaean faith, which was found, and declared to be in agreement with the faith of the Armenians. Accordingly Chosroes issued an edict that “All the Christians under my rule shall accept the faith of the Armenians”. Among those who so agreed are named “the God-loving queen Shirin, the brave Smbat, and the chief royal physician”. The instrument embodying the right confession of faith, as the result of the council, was sealed with the Great King’s seal, and deposited with the royal archives.

This singular episode, embedded in the letter of the Armenian bishops and so preserved to history, is the most striking evidence we possess of Chosroes’ attitude to the Christians. The letter itself has the ring of truth, and there is no reason whatever to question its genuineness. It was written somewhere about the year 638, or some twenty years after the council which it records, and which was assembled not long after the Persian capture of Jerusalem. The Great King is here revealed in a new light. He is no fanatical heathen monarch, persecuting or warring against the believers in the Cross. On the contrary, he acknowledges the right of the Christians to their belief, shows a curious speculative interest in their tenets, is puzzled by their most unchristian fightings and anathemas, and either from kindly wishes for their welfare or from mere motives of state policy he desires to compose their differences. He was present at the debate, put questions, and weighed answers. When his mind was made up and his decision given, he seems to have threatened some of the bishops that he would put them to the sword and pull down their churches if they disobeyed his ordinance. But on the whole the story shows a toleration verging on sympathy for the Christian religion—the same frame of mind which is displayed in the order restoring the Christian outcasts to Jerusalem and enabling them under Modestus to rebuild the churches. John of Nikiou relates that Hormisdas’ father, the great Anushirwan, after secretly professing Christianity, was baptized by a bishop. However that may be, the influence of Christian queens, physicians, and philosophers at the court clearly enlightened the King’s mind and softened his disposition towards the Christian religion. We have far more reason for astonishment at the normal toleration which the Church enjoyed under Persian rule than for surprise at the occasional outbursts of ferocity from which it suffered.

But to resume. The contribution offered by John of Alexandria towards the reinstatement of the churches in Jerusalem is said to have been a thousand mules, a thousand sacks of corn and of vegetables, a thousand vessels of pickled fish, a thousand jars of wine, a thousand pounds of iron, and a thousand workmen : and John wrote in a letter to Modestus—“Pardon me that I can send nothing worthy the temples of Christ. Would that I could come myself and work with my own hands at the church of the Resurrection”. He is also recorded to have sent a large convoy of gold, corn, clothing, and the like, under charge of one Chrysippus— though this, albeit separately related, may be the same story in another form—and to have commissioned Theodore bishop of Amathus in Cyprus, Gregory bishop of Rhinocolura, and Anastasius, Abbot of the monastery of the Great Mountain of St. Anthony, with large sums of money to recover and redeem as many captives as they could. This was in the latter half of 615.