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Heraclius, before he went Grecian 2000.

Heraclius (Flava Flavius Heraclius; c.575 - 11 February 641) was the Byzantine Emperor from 610 to 641 as a result of a usurpation against the unpopular usurper Phocas. Heraclius' rule began what Wikipedia refers to as the Heraclian Dynasty, which sounds much more formal than calling it the Usurper Dynasty. Heraclius had Constantine III as "co-emperor" (imminent next usurper) starting in 613. Heraclius captured and unified much territory, which was a prerequisite to handing it over to Muhammad and the Arabs in extraordinarily large pieces.

Early life[edit]

Heraclius was the oldest son of Heraclius the Even Older, who was a key general under Emperor Maurice as he spoke of the pompatus of love. Beyond that, there is little specific information known about Heraclius. This was fortunate for him, as the Byzantine Empire was in an odd era of being ruled by emperors about which there was little specific information — until they got onto the throne, at which point all of it was bad.

Ascension to power[edit]

Pride going before a fall.

As we pick up our story, the army mutinies against Maurice and a centurion named Phocas leads the march back to the capital, encounters no resistance, unseats Maurice, and then unseats his head. Phocas is universally regarded as "an even worse Emperor," trusting no one but family members in important posts, except that he puts an in-law in charge of the Excubitors, the palace guard.

This was Priscus, who came to Cartilege, where Heraclius was Governor, and asked him to conduct a palace coup. Indeed, in 608, Heraclius Sr. renounced his loyalty to Phocas, and the locals stamped out coins showing father and son both dressed as consuls, which technically neither one was, a move that always signals, Game on! In 609, Heraclius Jr. sailed eastward to Constantinople and staged a ceremony where he was crowned Emperor, always seeking to "avoid the last-minute rush." Now made official, he entered the city without serious resistance. The palace guard was under control of Priscus, who had asked for the coup in the first place, and they escorted him directly to the throne room.

Heraclius captured Phocas, asking, "Is this how you have ruled, bitch?" Phocas replied, "I take it you could do better?" This so enraged Heraclius that he beheaded Phocas on the spot. Heraclius then advanced the state of the art of bloody palace coups by also lopping off Phocas's penis (on the other spot).

In case neither his vanity minting of coins nor his vanity ceremony had made it convincing enough, Heraclius had another crowning, this time in the Chapel of St. Stephen. Finding himself in church, he killed two birds with one stone by also marrying Fabia, who wanted everyone to call her Eudokia. Heraclius merely wanted everyone to call him Emperor.

Persian War[edit]

Heraclius dispenses with formalities as meets with Khosrow II.

Emperor Maurice had installed King Khosrow II in the Sasanian Empire. But, recall Maurice had been beheaded by Phocas, at which point all hell broke loose. When Heraclius beheaded Phocas (twice), all hell kept breaking loose. The Persians had taken Mesopotamia and the Caucasians, and in 611, they overran Syria. Over the following decade, they got Palestine and Egypt, while the Avars and Slavs overran the Balkans. When the Persians reached Chalcedon in 615, Heraclius wrote a very respectful letter offering eternal pandering to Khosrow II. But Khosrow rejected the offer and arrested the emissaries. Heraclius contemplated abandoning the Constantinople thing and resuming his previous post in Cartilege, which was very nice at that time of year.

Heraclius takes off his trousers in an act of piety as he restores the Holy Cross to Jerusalem.

When the Persians advanced to the very walls of Constantinople, Heraclius sweetened his offer to include 1000 gold pieces, 1000 silver pieces, and 1000 pieces of ass. Khosrow went for the cooze. Having bought some time, Heraclius rebuilt the army for a second try. Thus, in 622, Heraclius assembled his forces in Asia Minor and launched a new offensive, using a figure of Jesus Christ as its standard. Things began to turn Heraclius's way and territory was recaptured. There was no evidence the Persians returned the 1000 virgins, but along the same lines, Heraclius found enough spare time for a little incest involving his niece Martina. In 626, Avars, Slavs, and Persians combined to lay siege to Constantinople, but church leaders prevailed, parading icons of the Virgin Mary around the city's walls as though any of the attackers cared.

Heraclius went on the offensive into Mesopotamia and almost captured the capital of Ctesiphon, but the Persians reprised their tried-and-true tactic of blowing up the toll bridge. Khosrow II was overthrown and killed in a coup led by his son Kavad II, who had been conveniently let out of prison. Kavad sued for peace, offering as a goodwill gesture the One True Cross. Heraclius got a lot of street-cred by personally returning the cross to Jerusalem, which was suffering under a backlog of crucifixions.

War Against the Arabs[edit]

Heraclius had become adept at using Christian icons and rhetoric about holy wars to motivate his troops. Unfortunately, he was next to confront a real expert on the subject, by the name of Muhammad. The prophet snapped out of his self-confessed illiteracy for long enough to write Heraclius a letter urging him to convert to Islam. Unfortunately, he posted it to the offfice address (Imperial Palace, Constantinople) rather than to where Heraclius actually was (Byzantine Army, Any Active Battle, Mesopotamia), and it was never read — even for a mocking laughter response. That or the co-emperor Heraclius Constantine had lost it amongst a pile of other bills.

The first skirmish with the Arabs occurred in 629. The Roman Governor of Arabia had killed the Muslim ambassador, to which the Arabs took offense. They sent a force to the province but were easily swatted away. The Byzantine victory seems to have made them overconfident; they did not reorganize their forces nor plan for further battle against hashish-crazed zealots commanded by a prophet. Consequently, by the time of Heraclius's death, the Muslim army had crossed the Negev Desert to Gaza, and also taken the Levant and most of Egypt.


Heraclius was widely regarded as not as bad as Phocas, praise faint enough to have anyone rolling over in his grave. Heraclius reduced the corruption that took hold under Phocas, and re-established the practice of having officials who were not members of his immediate family. He is noted for recapturing vast territory in the East from the Persians, almost as fast as he gave up other vast territory to the Muslims.

The first 'basileus' was Basil Fawlty.

Recovering the eastern provinces, however, led to renewed debate on the true nature of Christ. The easterners were Monophysites, who rejected the Council of Chalcedon. Heraclius tried to put forward a compromise called Monothelitism (Monotheism Lite), but both the "Tastes great!" and "Less filling!" factions viewed Heraclius as a heretic; also a bad leader for not coming down squarely on the right side of the fence. Later, though, this debate lost its significance, as province after province was finally lost to the Muslims. Heraclius is unique among emperors to have a cameo appearance in Muslim literature, in several passages apparently trying to say positive things about Muhammad and nothing at all about Heraclius.

An important legacy of Heraclius was to change the official language from Latin to Greek in 620. The thinking here is that the people cannot be as disgusted with official decrees if they cannot understand them. Emperors also relished the need to hire translators. Later historians would say this was the real end of the Roman Empire, as an empire can hardly be Roman if it does not speak Latin, or at least have toga parties.

Heraclius was also credited with creating the Office of the Comptroller. Other offices just got a few name changes. Emperors were now also known as 'Basileus,' taking after Heraclius's herb garden.


Heraclius and his sons. There was a lockdown because of plague - hence the hair.

Heraclius had two children by Eudokia; also four by his niece Martina, to the disapproval of most everyone in Constantinople including the Church. Two of those had "something not right," seen by many as divine punishment for the second marriage, long before biology would come forward with the more genteel excuse of double-copies of chromosomes. Four more died in infancy, which is to have something really not right.

His eldest son was Heraclius Constantine, proclaimed co-emperor three years after the marriage of Heraclius and Eudokia, as he showed command potential even in the high-chair. Eventually, H.C. was able to sit on the throne and pop pimples as Heraclius was in Persia trying to get things nailed back down.

The next most likely successor was his first son by Martina, named Constantine Heraclius to avoid confusion (except among the dyslexic). It became evident that Martina was actively lobbying for her own son to succeed Heraclius. However, Heraclius's will split it down the middle, naming both of them emperors and directing them not only to govern with Martina as empress but for Eudokia's boy to regard Martina as his mother. That is how you spell pussy-whipped.

Heraclius is notable, in his era, for actually being succeeded by his next-of-kin, and with his death not the result of the removal of his head.

Preceded by:
Byzantine Emperor
Succeeded by:
Constantine III and Heraklonas