The Persian Shah Khusrau chose the most opportune time to invade the Byzantine Empire. With the main Byzantine army fighting in Italy, Khusrau knew he would be free to do as he wished. In any war, the final outcome is peace on the victor’s terms. Khusrau would not engage in a war without an end goal in mind. What was his goal and how would he force Justinian to comply with his terms?
Leading a large army in person, Khusrau marched along the southern side of the Euphrates and entered Byzantine lands in March, 540. His first stop was the town of Sura, on the Upper Euphrates, which he took and razed to the ground. Meeting no resistance and receiving no word from his scouts of hostile forces, he continued to advance further into Byzantine lands. His next stop was Beroea. Khusrau stationed his troops outside the town and demanded 4,000 pounds of silver. When the town failed to produced the money, the Persians burned the city.
The aim of Khusrau was not conquest, but plunder. All wars were costly and Khusrau fully intended to profit from this invasion at the expense of the Byzantines. As he made his way past the various towns, he sacked and pillaged them to fill his coffers. In the clash of great powers, it was always the innocent people that suffered.
The Sack of Antioch
These acts of violence soon reached the ears of Justinian. But though his heart and pride burned with anger, he lacked the resources to halt Khusrau’s march. As Khusrau had known all along, the bulk of Justinian’s army was still fighting the Goths in Italy. Meanwhile, Justinian could not fold his arms and do nothing about the Persian menace. After careful consideration, he sent his envoys to negotiate with the Goths to free up his army. At the same time, he also sent his cousin Germanus with a force of three hundred men to see what he could do against the Persians. Finally, he sent envoys to Khusrau to open negotiations that would restore peace.
Arriving at Antioch, Germanus learned that the Persians outnumbered the Byzantines by far. It would have been suicidal to confront them head on. Wisely, he and the Patriarch Ephrem left the city before the Persians arrived in June. When the people of Antioch denied Khusrau’s demand for 1,000 pounds of gold, the Persians besieged Antioch. Despite a spirited defence by the citizens, the city fell due to the overwhelming numbers of the attackers. As the third city in the empire and the capital of Syria, Khusrau was well aware of Antioch’s importance. After helping himself to the riches of Antioch, Khusrau decided to send a message to Justinian. He ordered his army to raze the city to the ground and had its citizens massacred or enslaved for defying him. The loss of Antioch was a heavy blow to Justinian in terms of prestige and commerce.
After destroying Antioch, Khusrau made his demands known. He asked for 5,000 pounds of gold to halt his attacks and a yearly tribute of 500 pounds to keep the peace. Justinian’s envoys readily agreed and sent word to Constantinople to gain approval. While waiting for the reply, Khusrau enjoyed himself by bathing in the waters of the Mediterranean at Seleucia. He also plundered the riches of the town Apamea before settling down to watch the races at its Hippodrome. From here, Khusrau began his homeward march, expecting Justinian to agree to his terms. Along the way, he continued to plunder the towns he passed as he marched his army leisurely back to Persia.
The Siege of Daras
Thus far Khusrau had plundered as he pleased. Believing that no one could resist him, he ordered his army to lay siege to the town of Daras. But this time his overconfidence got the better of him. Located along the border between the two empires, Daras’ stout defences successfully held off the Persian siege. Had Khusrau been able to destroy the town, it may have discouraged Justinian from attacking his powerful rival. However, because Khusrau had failed in his attempt, the myth of his power was broken. When Justinian heard about the failed siege of Daras and the continued attacks during the negotiations, he was livid. With his prestige at an all time low, he refused to agree to the peace terms and declared he would fight Khusrau till the end.
Reflections of the Vizier
Khusrau’s aim in sacking the various towns and cities was to force Justinian to pay him tribute. Although things seemed to be going as planned, he made a few errors. Firstly, he went too far with his needless provocations; especially the failed siege of Daras. Secondly, the main Byzantine army remained active which meant a counter attack sooner or later. Lastly, he underestimated the resolve of Justinian. By the end of 540, Justinian’s triumphant army returned from Italy. Now he could move his troops against the Persians. As usual, the commander he selected to lead this campaign of vengeance was Belisarius.
Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.