Was Heraclius Armenian

Was Heraclius Armenian? A Look at the Sources

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book.

It is often claimed with varying degrees of certainty that Heraclius was of Armenian origin. Yet the evidence for this is strikingly thin, amounting to two ambiguous sentences from so many sources.

Theophylact Simocatta

The first quote comes from Theophylact Simocatta’s history of the Roman-Sasanian War of 572-91, written during the early years of Heraclius’ reign. It purportedly shows that Heraclius’ father, called Heraclius the Elder, was a native of Armenia. He had been fighting in Mesopotamia as second-in-command to Philippicus, the magister militum per Orientem—commander of all troops in the Diocese of the East, which consisted of Mesopotamia and Syria. Philippicus became ill and left for the capital, leaving Heraclius in charge of the army.

After recovering, Philippicus set out to rejoin the army. On the way back, he received word from Emperor Maurice that he was being replaced as magister militum, so he wrote ahead to the elder Heraclius, ordering him “after leaving the army, to return to his own city once he arrived in Armenia, and hand the army over to Narses, commander of Constantina” (Simocatta 3.1.1). Philippicus had apparently fallen somewhat out of favor in Constantinople—he was reinstated later that year, but removed from command again the following year. Following this logic, Philippicus’ order was taken by some scholars to be an injunction to Heraclius to return to his native city—a dismissal from the army, in other words.

But looking at the original Greek, one comes away with a very different impression:

…καταλιπόντα τὸ στράτευμα ἐς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ πόλιν ἐπανελθεῖν ἐς τὴν Ἀρμενίαν γενόμενον, Ναρσῇ τε τῷ Κωνσταντίνης πόλεως ἡγεμόνι μεθιέναι τὸ στράτευμα.

Simocatta refers to Constantina as “Constantina city”, which creates a contrast with “his own city”: the implication is that Heraclius the Elder, like Narses, was the garrison commander of some frontier city. Translators Michael and Mary Whitby suggested Theodosiopolis, which was later his seat as magister militum per Armeniam—this strikes me as unlikely, given the phrasing of the passage and Heraclius’ subordinate status to the magister militum per Orientem. But whatever the case, commanders were transferred between Armenia and Oriens all the time, as was Maurice himself before becoming emperor. Furthermore, Heraclius seems to have been closely linked to Philippicus, first appearing in Theophylact’s narrative as one of his lieutenants; it makes perfect sense that a magister militum would bring a trusted general from some other area to serve under him after being assigned to the East. Once that commission expired, he would return to his original command—not to the city of his birth.

How could such an obvious point be missed? The misreading dates back to Jacobus Pontanus’ 1609 edition of Simocatta, which translated the passage into Latin as:

…uti exercitum Narsae praesidi Constantinae tradat, ipse in patriam suam in Armeniam revertatur.

The word for “city” is not used at all here. “Constantina city” is condensed to just Constantinae, and “his own city” is replaced with patriam suam—his fatherland, or native land.

The reason for this error, I believe, is that the original Greek uses the word γενόμενον in the phrase “once he reached Armenia”. This is a form of the verb which means, among other things, “to be born”; in this context, it unambiguously means “once he arrived” or “having arrived”. It is likely that Pontanus misinterpreted this to mean “in Armenia, where he had been born” (which is ungrammatical in the Greek), hence his translation of “his own city” as patria. Pontanus’ translation was used by Immanuel Bekker in his 1834 volume of the massive Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, the standard compilation of Byzantine sources still used by scholars today. This mischaracterization of the passage seems to have skewed its interpretation by later scholars, even those who got the literal translation of the passage correct.


As sloppy as such readings of Simocatta are, the second piece of evidence offered in support Heraclius’ Armenian origins is unforgivable. The passage comes from a history attributed to Sebeos, a 7th-century Armenian bishop. The history describes events in Armenia and surrounding lands from the outbreak of the Roman-Persian war in 572 until 661, and is an important source for Heraclius’ reign.

Sebeos describes an episode in which Heraclius’ grandson and successor, Constans II, was dealing with an Armenian client named Smbat Bagratuni:

He [Constans] gave him [Smbat] a wife from the house of the Arsacids, from among his own relatives. (Sebeos, ch. 44)

The Arsacids were a princely family that ruled Armenia until the 5th century, and were still a prominent noble house by the 7th. If “his own relatives” refers to Constans and not Smbat (as indeed seems the correct reading), then the passage implies that at the very least the emperor had some Armenian connection—Cyril Toumanoff and Irfan Shahid both cited this passage in mentioning the possibility. Whether this referred to a direct ancestor or relatives by marriage, they argued that it suggests very close affiliation with Armenians which could be from kinship ties.[1]

We do not have to speculate, however, because the 7th-century Coptic bishop John of Nikiu tells us precisely the nature of this relationship. According to his chronicle, a general named Valentinus led a rebellion that put Constans on the throne in place of a rival family member. Soon after this, the general married his daughter to the boy-emperor.[2] This is the same Valentinus who Sebeos tell us “was called an Arsacid”, meaning he was probably a Romanized Armenian. Smbat was therefore almost certainly engaged to a relative of Constans’ wife, not of the emperor himself. In other words, the Heraclians did indeed have a family connection to Armenia, but not by descent.

Sebeos gives no indication whatsoever that Heraclius’ family originated from Armenia. As an Armenian himself who admired the emperor, he would have had every reason to mention it were it believed at the time, so in this particular case the absence of evidence can be considered weak evidence of absence.

Circumstantial Evidence

So long as the two quotes from Simocatta and Sebeos were believed to support an Armenian connection, many other facts were marshalled to show consistency with that hypothesis. This mass of purely circumstantial evidence convinced many scholars that there was in fact a preponderance of evidence—Walter Kaegi argued as much in his biography of Heraclius. But circumstantial evidence alone proves nothing, and each piece can also be judged on its individual merits; a closer look shows all of it is wanting.

The most often-cited bit of circumstantial evidence is that many Armenians soldiers were enrolled in the eastern armies, combined with the fact that Heraclius the Elder ultimately became magister militum per Armeniam. Was that not the natural culmination of a talented local soldier’s career? A look at Heraclius’ activity in the role suggests otherwise.

In the years following the Persian war, Maurice had trouble controlling the Armenian nobles. He proposed a joint solution to Khusrau: each ruler would remove the nobles from his respective half of Armenia and deport them to the opposite end of his empire, where they would be settled to defend the frontiers. Khusrau agreed, but this provoked a rebellion among the nobles, and Maurice ordered Heraclius the Elder to join forces with a Persian army to crush this uprising.

Some of the nobles did stay loyal, including the prince of Roman Armenia, one Hamazasp Mamikonian. The prince was supposed to be a loyal native, appointed by the emperor to rule over the region and keep any separatist tendencies in check. The Mamikonians were perfect for the role: they were a noble family that became famous for organizing a revolt against Persian rule in the 5th century. Members of this family lived on both sides of the ever-shifting Roman-Persian frontier, but were mostly loyal to the Romans. The rebels naturally viewed someone such as Hazasp as a traitor, so they tried and failed to assassinate him; he and Heraclius then hunted down and killed the remaining rebels.

This episode shows Heraclius the Elder working with a loyal Armenian prince to enforce Roman interests. Given the parlous state of affairs, it is highly unlikely that Maurice would have trusted two locals with such a task. More likely, Hamazasp was a figurehead meant to appease local sentiment, backed by Roman arms. Moreover, no other magister militum per Armeniam is known to have been Armenian, so it is hard to believe Maurice would change Roman policy at that moment.

Nor does Sebeos, our source for this information, give any indication to the contrary. He refers to Hamazasp by his Roman title curator (probably in fact curopalates, an honorary title usually given to the prince of Armenia); Heraclius is simply called “general”. Hamazasp is thus designated by a title and family name that associate him with Armenia, while Heraclius is called by a generic military title. Elsewhere, when mentioning the Armenian-descended but Roman-named general Valentinus, Sebeos makes a point of specifying his family origin—unless Sebeos believed Heraclius’ Armenian origins to be common knowledge, we can take his account at face value.

Examining the names of Heraclius’ family members, however, Toumanoff discovered another possibility. He conjectured that the name Heraclius itself was a Hellenization of the common name Vahan, derived from a god of pagan Armenia later associated with Heracles. Vahan was especially popular among the Mamikonians, who also commonly used the name Gregory and David from the 6th to the 8th century. This last is significant in view of the fact that Gregory was the name of Heraclius’ nephew and a possible brother, and David the name of one of his sons.[3] Should this make us reconsider Heraclius the Elder’s relationship with Hamazasp Mamikonian?

There are many problems with this. To begin with, neither David nor Gregory was all that popular among the Mamikonians, although there were some of those names. Toumanoff rightly claims that Heraclius’ relation Gregory was the first imperial family member ever to have that name, although he gets that relation wrong: he was almost certainly the emperor’s nephew, not his brother.[4] This is important because Gregory would have been born after 600, when Pope Gregory the Great had given the name prestige. Moreover, the name’s uniqueness is not all that significant, as Greek names in general were uncommon among imperial families before that time.

It is true that Heraclius’ son David was unique within the imperial family for having an Old Testament name, but the context of his birth is significant. He was born in 630, just after Heraclius’ underdog victory over Khusrau. Imperial propaganda celebrated the emperor as a new David, triumphing over the mighty Persian Goliath—such an obvious explanation makes it less likely that Armenian customs had anything to do with it.

At best, these various strands are consistent with a Mamikonian connection, but they do not add any weight in its favor. And even if some trace of Armenian customs could be divined from Heraclius’ behavior, both he and his father were bound to be influenced by all the Armenians they worked with.

A much stronger line of argument is therefore Heraclius’ support of the doctrine of monotheletism, the attempt to reconcile Chalcedonian orthodoxy with monophysitism. The latter was the official doctrine of the Armenian church, which Heraclius attempted to accommodate in defiance of his own clerical establishment. If Heraclius did in fact have Armenian blood, he would want to protect his countrymen by recognizing the legitimacy of their church.

While this is a compelling argument, it has a more compelling alternative explanation. In the aftermath of the Persian War, Heraclius was trying to hold a very fragile empire together. Egypt and Syria were also majority monophysite, causing resentment of Constantinople’s Greek-speaking, Chalcedonian elite which the Sasanians exploited in the conquest of those lands. It is only natural that an emperor who spent most of his reign at war with Persia would seek a conciliatory policy toward those disaffected regions.

In sum, there is simply no positive evidence in favor of the Armenian hypothesis. Every concrete claim appears on closer examination as insubstantial as wisps of fog. What evidence do we have then of an alternative origin?

The Facts in Evidence

Against this non-evidence and dubious circumstantial evidence, we have two sources that point to a specific non-Armenian origin for Heraclius. The first is John of Nikiu, who in one instance refers to Heraclius as “the Cappadocian” and mentions that his female relatives were living in Cappadocia a few years before he became emperor.[5] The second comes from the 12th-century poet Constantine Manasses, who wrote a verse history of the Roman Empire in which he referred to Heraclius’ fatherland as “the thrice-blessed country of the Cappadocians”.[6] Manasses lived more than five hundred years after the emperor’s death, but he also had access to sources that do not survive.

Advocates for Heraclius’ Armenian origin tried to square this contradictory evidence by claiming that he was probably an Armenian born in Cappadocia—perhaps his father was stationed there. But this is flatly contradicted by Manasses’ description of Cappadocia as Heraclius’ πατρίς, or fatherland, implying an ancestral connection. Moreover, he goes on to describe the emperor’s “lineage of distinguished and long-haired men.” This echoes the Homeric epithet “long-haired Achaeans” and was probably meant to evoke Greek blood along with martial prowess.

The circumstantial evidence in support of a Cappadocian Greek origin is also much stronger. Heraclius the Elder rose to prominence under the reign of the emperor Maurice, himself a Cappadocian. His patron and commanding general Philippicus was married to the emperor’s sister, and therefore would have looked favorably on someone from Cappadocia (and might also have been Cappadocian himself).

Finally, there is one very tenuous connection that favors a non-Armenian origin for Heraclius. That is the 5th-century general Heraclius from the Mesopotamian fortress-city Edessa. He was very active in Eastern Roman politics and eventually becoming magister militum per Thracias, so perhaps he was part of the distinguished lineage that Manasses referred to. Heraclius of Edessa would have preceded Heraclius the Elder by four or five generations, so there is no reason to believe they were related, but the coincidence of name, profession, and area of operations leaves open that possibility.

The argument in favor of Heraclius’ Cappadocian Greek origin is far stronger than any competing alternative. It is the only one supported by the actual testimony of historical authors and requires fewer of the tenuous chains of reasoning used to support an Armenian origin. It is stunning, in light of the available evidence, that the Armenian hypothesis gained traction to begin with and has had currency for so long.

[1] Toumanoff, Cyril. Studies in Christian Caucasian History 192-3; Shahi̇d, Irfan. “The Iranian Factor in Byzantium during the Reign of Heraclius.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 26 (1972): 310.

[2] John of Nikiu ch. CXX 61-3. Theophanes and Sebeos also mention the episode, but only John mentions the marriage.

[3] Toumanoff, Cyril. “Caucasia and Byzantium” Traditio 27 (1971), p. 157-8.

[4] Theophanes makes a single mention of Heraclius’ brother Gregory, who died at Baalbek around 653. This was almost certainly Gregory the son of his brother, who two paragraphs above was taken to Damascus as a hostage, in 651.

[5] John of Nikiu, CIX.27 and CVI.2 in Zotenberg’s French translation. R.H. Charles has the relevant phrase as “Heraclius and Cappadocian” in his English translation, which makes no sense in context—it is almost certainly either a scribal or translator’s error.

[6] Manasses, 1.3664