Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Sack of Jerusalem by a Jewish - Persian Army

The Persian Siege and Sack of Jerusalem (614 AD)
A combined army of Jewish troops and Persians split the Roman Empire in half.

The massive Roman–Sassanid Persian War (602 – 628 AD) nearly caused the extinction of the Roman Empire.

This final struggle was the most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid Empire of Persia. The previous war between the two powers had ended in 591 after Emperor Maurice helped the Sassanian king Khosrau II regain his throne.

In 602 Maurice was murdered by his political rival Phocas. Khosrau proceeded to declare war, ostensibly to avenge the death of Maurice. This became a decades-long conflict, the longest war in the series, and was fought throughout the Middle East and eastern Europe: in Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, Anatolia, and even before the walls of Constantinople itself.


In 608 general Heraclius the Elder, Exarch of Africa, revolted, urged on by Priscus, the Count of the Excubitors and son-in-law of Phocas. Heraclius proclaimed himself and his son of the same name as consuls—thereby implicitly claiming the imperial title—and minted coins with the two wearing the consular robes.

At about the same time rebellions began in Roman Syria and Palaestina Prima in the wake of Heraclius' revolt. In 609 or 610 the Patriarch of Antioch, Anastasius II, died. Many sources claim that the Jews were involved in the fighting, though it is unclear where they were members of factions and where they were opponents of Christians. Phocas responded by appointing Bonus as comes Orientis (Count of the East) to stop the violence. Bonus punished the Greens, a horse racing party, in Antioch for their role in the violence in 609.

Heraclius the Elder sent his nephew Nicetas to attack Egypt. Bonus went to Egypt to try to stop Nicetas, but was defeated by the latter outside Alexandria. In 610, Nicetas succeeded in capturing the province, establishing a power base there with the help of Patriarch John the Almsgiver, who was elected with the help of Nicetas.

The main rebel force was employed in a naval invasion of Constantinople, led by the younger Heraclius, who was to be the new emperor. Organized resistance against Heraclius soon collapsed, and Phocas was handed to him by the patrician Probos (Photius). Phocas was executed.

The anarchy of rebellion and civil war attracted a new invasion by the Persians.

A Byzantine Infantry Reenactor.

Invasion by a Persian - Jewish Army

During an early stage of the war Khosrau II decided on a tactical move to establish a military alliance with the Jewish population of the Sassanid Empire, with a promise to re-establish Jewish rule over the Land of Israel (Palaestina province of Byzantine Empire at that time). Following Khosrau II's pact with Nehemiah, son of Jewish Exilarch, a Jewish army of about 20,000 was recruited in Persia and marched together with Persian troops towards the Levant.

The Persians took advantage of this civil war in the Byzantine Empire by conquering frontier towns in Armenia and Upper Mesopotamia. Along the Euphrates, in 609, they conquered Mardin and Amida. Edessa fell in 610.

In Armenia, the strategically important city of Theodosiopolis (Erzurum) surrendered in 609 or 610 to Ashat Yeztayar, because of the persuasion of a man who claimed to be Theodosius, the eldest son and co-emperor of Maurice, who had supposedly fled to the protection of Khosrau.

In 608, the Persians launched a raid into Anatolia that reached Chalcedon, across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. The Persian conquest was a gradual process; by the time of Heraclius' accession the Persians had conquered all Roman cities east of the Euphrates and in Armenia before moving on to Cappadocia, where their general Shahin took Caesarea.

Heraclius' accession as Emperor did little to reduce the Persian threat. Heraclius began his reign by attempting to make peace with the Persians, since Phocas had been overthrown. The Persians rejected these overtures, however, since their armies were widely victorious.

By established practice, Byzantine Emperors did not personally lead troops into battle. Heraclius ignored this convention and joined with his general Priscus' siege of the Persians at Caesarea. Priscus pretended to be ill, however, and did not meet the emperor. This was a veiled insult to Heraclius, who hid his dislike of Priscus and returned to Constantinople in 612.

Meanwhile, Shahin's troops escaped Priscus' blockade and burned Caesarea, much to Heraclius' displeasure. Priscus was soon removed from command, along with others who served under Phocas. Philippicus, an old general of Maurice's, was appointed as commander-in-chief, but he proved himself incompetent against the Persians, avoiding engagements in battle. Heraclius then appointed himself commander along with his brother Theodore to finally solidify command of the army.

The pre-war Persian Empire is in dark green.  The Persians
went on to conquer lands up to Constantinople itself along
with Armenia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

Persian Leaders.
(L to R) Chief Mobad, General Shahrbaraz and Prince Boran.

The Jewish - Persian Siege of Jerusalem

Khosrau took advantage of the incompetence of Heraclius' generals to launch an attack on Roman Syria, under the leadership of the Persian general Shahrbaraz. Heraclius attempted to stop the invasion at Antioch, but Byzantine forces under Heraclius and Nicetas suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Antioch at the hands of Shahin. Details of the battle are not known. After this victory the Persians looted the city, slew the Patriarch of Antioch and deported many citizens.

Roman forces lost again while attempting to defend the area just to the north of Antioch at the Cilician Gates, despite some initial success. The Persians then captured Tarsus and the Cilician plain. This defeat cut the Roman Empire in half, severing Constantinople and Anatolia's land link to Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and the Exarchate of Carthage.

Resistance to the Persians in Syria and Palestine was not strong; although the locals constructed fortifications, they generally tried to negotiate with the Persians. The cities of Damascus, Apamea, and Emesa fell quickly in 613, giving the Persians a chance to strike further south. Nicetas continued to resist the Persians but was defeated at Adhri'at. He managed to win a small victory near Emesa, however, where both sides suffered heavy casualties—the total death count was 20,000.

Following Persian advances into Syria in the previous year, Shahrbaraz's next target was Jerusalem, the capital of Palaestina Prima. Providing direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, the city would have also provided a strategic location for the Persian Empire to begin constructing a naval fleet, thereby threatening Byzantine hegemony in the Mediterranean. Reinforced by the Jewish army from Persia and local Jewish rebels under Benjamin of Tiberias.
6th Century Eastern Roman Cavalry

The Jewish revolt against Heraclius spread across the Levant, coming to the aid of the Persia during. The revolt began with the Battle of Antioch (613) and culminated with the conquest of Jerusalem in 614 by Persian and Jewish forces and the establishment of Jewish autonomy. The revolt ended with the departure of the Persian troops and an eventual surrender of Jewish rebels to the Byzantines in the year 625 (or 628).

Following the victory in Antioch, a joint Sassanid-Jewish army, commanded by Shahrbaraz, arrived in Palaestina Prima and conquered Caesaria Maritima, the administrative capital of the province. Nehemiah's Jewish troops and the Sassanid Persians were joined by Benjamin of Tiberias (according to Jewish sources – a man of immense wealth), who enlisted and armed additional Jewish soldiers from Tiberias, Nazareth and the mountain cities of Galilee, and together they marched on Jerusalem.

Customary to military tradition, when the Persian force arrived outside Jerusalem, Shahrbaraz offered a peaceful transition of power should the city surrender without resistance. The Sassanid general's offer was however rebuffed, and he consequently prepared his troops for a blockade. Shahrbaraz, alongside fellow general Shahin, prepared for what would they believed would be a long and fierce siege, given Jerusalem's powerful fortifications. For twenty days, the Persians army continually pounded the walls of Jerusalem with ballistas and other engines.

While the Byzantine city was composed primarily of civilians and the priesthood, there is mention of a formidable Greek force, which was gathered by monk Abba Modestus to assist Jerusalem. However, once the Roman troops caught sight of the overwhelming Persian army encamped outside the city walls, they fled, fearing a suicidal battle.

After the twenty-first day of bombardment, the city's walls finally broke, and due notably to the Jewish allies' assistance to the Persian army, the interior was quickly overrun. The Jews, who had long been marginalized and oppressed in their Roman-controlled homeland, viewed the Persian invaders favorably. Some 26,000 Jewish rebels joined the war against the Byzantine Christians.


The siege resulted in a massacre of the Christians in Jerusalem and destruction of Christian churches and other buildings, and notably the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcure. According to Antiochus, Shahrbaraz ordered a swift razing and looting of Jerusalem. Having recognized the assistance of the Jews in the significant capture, he even gave them the opportunity to personally massacre their Christian enemies.

It is not known why Shahrbaraz ordered the massacre. The Christian accounts of the massacre vary in their estimations but run to over 60,000.

The massacre allegedly happened after Christians revolted a few months after the capture of Jerusalem. They were able to briefly retake the city for 19 days before the walls where breached, killing the new ruler of Jerusalem the Exilarch Nehemiah ben Hushiel and his "council of the righteous" and dragging their bodies through the streets.

Christians in this time period had allied themselves with the Eastern Roman Empire. Archaeological evidence does not currently support the idea that churches were burnt. Christian sources may well have reason to exaggerate the extent of the massacre as they would later in 628 massacre, forcible convert and expel the Jews.


Somewhere between 57,000 and 66,500 people were slain there; another 35,000 were enslaved, including the Patriarch Zacharias. Many churches in the city, including the Church of the Resurrection or Holy Sepulchre, were burned.

According to Jewish sources, Jerusalem was handed to the Jewish rebels, under the leadership of Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias, becoming the capital of shortly lived Jewish-Sassanid Commonwealth.

Persia's most devastating crime in the eyes of the Byzantines was the capture of the True Cross and its removal to Ctesiphon as a battle-captured holy relic. The conquered city and the Holy Cross would remain in Sassanid hands for some fifteen years until Heraclius recovered them in 629.

(Editor  -  From the dawn of time historians have had to deal with soldiers, civilians and politicians who cannot count.  The number of troops in battles and the numbers killed are almost always inflated.  Often this is done by the winner to make them appear powerful in propaganda or by the loser as an excuse for their poor generalship.  Historical numbers are only a guide to events.) 

The ancient walls surrounding Old city in Jerusalem

Antiochus Strategos: The Sack of Jerusalem (614)

Byzantine law granted toleration to Jews [Theodosian Code 16.8.21], although there were occasional attempts at forced conversion [Leo VI, Novels], but there was a general prejudice against Jews. The following account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Persians in 614, by the monk Antiochus Stategos, who lived in the monastary (lavra) of St. Sabas in Jerusalem, shows this attitude. It provides a Byzantine version of the later blood libel.

It also, of course, may reflect Jewish resistance to Byzantine restrictions and oppression.

Finally, it might be noted that, despite Antiochus' account, the Persians of this period seem to have been significantly more tolerant of religious diversity than almost any contemporary government. They began the system, long continued and later known (under the Turks) as the Millet system by which each religious group governed itself in religious and family matters. 

The beginning of the struggle of the Persians with the Christians of Jerusalem was on the 15th April, in the second indiction, in the fourth year of the Emperor Heraclius. They spent twenty days in the struggle. And they shot from their ballistas with such violence, that on the twenty-first day they broke down the city wall. Thereupon the evil; foemen entered the city in great fury, like infuriated wild beasts and irritated serpents.

The men however, who defended the city wall fled, and hid themselves in caverns, fosses and cisterns in order to save themselves; and the people in crowds fled into churches and altars; and there they destroyed them. For the enemy entered in a mighty wrath, gnashing their teeth in violent fury; like evil beasts they roared, bellowed like lions, hissed like ferocious serpents, and slew all whom they found. Lile mad dogs they tore with their teeth the flesh of the faithful, and respected non at all, neither male nor female, neither young nor old, neither child nor baby, neither priest no monk, neither virgin nor widow….
Meanwhile the evil Persians, who had no pity in their hearts, raced to every place in the city and with one accord extirpated all the people. Anyone who ran away in terror they caught hold of; and if any cried out from fear, they roared at them with gashing teeth, and by breaking their teeth on the ground forced them to close their mouths. They slaughtered tender infants on the ground, and then with loud yelps called their parents. The parents bewailed the children with vociferations and sobbings, but were promptly despatched along with them.

Any that were caught armed were massacred with their own weapons. Those who ran swiftly were pierced with arrows, the unresisting and quiet they slew without mercy. They listened not to the appeals of supplicants, nor pitied youthful beuty nor had compassion on old men's age, nor blushed before the humility of the clergy. On the contrary they destroyed persons of every age, massacred them like animals, cut them into pieces, mowed sundry of them down like cabbages, so that all alike had severally to drain the cup full of bitterness. Lamentation and terror might be seen in Jerusale. Holy churches were burned with fire, other were demolished, majestic altars fell prone, sacred crosses were trampled underfoot, life-giving icons were spat upon by the unclean. Then their wrath fell upon priests and deacons; they slew them in their churches like dumb animals.

David's Tower and Old City Wall, Jerusalem

Thereupon the vile Jews, enemies of the truth and haters of Christ, when they perceived that the Christians were given over into the hands of the enemy, rejoiced exceedingly, because they detested the Christians; and they conceived an evil plan in keeping with their vileness about the people. For in the eyes of the Persians their importance was great, because they were the betrayers of the Christians.

And in this season then the Jews approached the edge of the reservoir and called out to the children of God, while they were shut up therein, and said to them: "If ye would escape from death, become Jews and deny Christ; and then ye shall step up from your place and join us. We will ransom you with our money, and ye shall be benefited by us." But their plot and desire were not fulfilled, their labours proved to be in vain; because the children of the Holy Church chose death for Christ's sake rather than to live in godlessness: and they reckoned it better for their flesh to be punished, rather than their souls ruined, so that their portion were not with the Jews.

And when the unclean Jews saw the steadfast uprightness of the Christians and their immovable faith, then they were agitated with lively ire, like evil beasts, and thereupon imagined an other plot. As of old they bought the Lord from the Jews with silver, so they purchased Christians out of the reservoir; for they gave the Persians silver, and they bought a Christian and slew him like a sheep. The Christians however rejoiced because they were being slain for Christ's sake and shed their blood for His blood, and took on themselves death in return for His death....
When the people were carried into Persia, and the Jews were left in Jerusalem, they began with their own hands to demolish and burn such of the holy churches as were left standing....
How many souls were slain in the reservoir of Mamel! How many perished of hunger and thirst! How many priests and monks were massacred by the sword! How many infants were crushed under foot, or perished by hunger and thirst, or languished through fear and horror of the foe! How many maidens, refusing their abominable outrages, were given over to death by the enemy! How many parents perished on top of their own children! How many of the people were bought up by the Jews and butchered, and became confessors of Christ! How many persons, fathers, mothers, and tender infants, having concealed themselves in fosses and cisterns, perished of darkness and hunger! How many fled into the Church of the Anastasis, into that of Sion and other churches, and were therein massacred and consumed with fire! Who can count the multitude of the corpses of those who were massacred in Jerusalem?
Translated by F. Conybeare, "Antiochus Strategos' Account of the Sack of Jerusalem (614)," English Historical Review 25 [1910], p 506-508. Reprinted in Deno Geanokoplos, Byzantium, (Chicago: 1984), 334-335, 266-67

A model of Jerusalem and the defensive walls
from an earlier period.  (Livius.org)

Sassanid Persian Cavalry

(fordham.edu)      (Byzantine-Sassanid War)      (Siege of Jerusalem (614)

(Jewish revolt against Heraclius)      (weaponsandwarfare.com)      (Walls of Jerusalem)


fireymonkeyboy said...

Good read, thanks for the info!

Gary said...

Thanks for coming by.

Anonymous said...

Go Jews!

Gary said...

How about cheerleaders?

Gerald said...

War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Gary said...

To quote Starship Troopers:

"Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor. The contrary opinion, that violence doesn't solve anything, is wishful thinking at its worst; people who forget that always die."

Surelia Dev said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Blood circle, never ends..