Why Khusrau Chose to Attack the Byzantine Empire

The reforms and expansion of Justinian did not go unnoticed by his enemies. The reason that Justinian could carry out his grand plans of conquest in the West was due to his good fortune. There was no one with the strength or the will to oppose him. But such good fortune would not last forever. While Justinian’s army was engaged in the West, the Shah of Persia, Khusrau, had stabilized his empire in the East. Now that he had to will to attack, all he lacked was a reason and an opportunity. Read on to find out the causes that led Khusrau to invade the Byzantine Empire.

Looking for a Reason to Invade

Khusrau was an intelligent ruler who knew how to flow with the times. In 532, he had agreed to a perpetual peace with the Byzantines because he needed to establish internal stability in his empire. As he had just succeeded his dead father, Khusrau wished to secure his hold on power. Over the years, he established his rule firmly, bringing stability to his empire. But he did not isolate himself from external events. During this time, he kept abreast of the many developments in the lands around him. Soon a unique set of factors arose that convinced him to break the peace.

The Problem of Armenia

Strategic position is important for the survival of any kingdom or empire. Due to its poor position, Armenia’s powerful neighbours, whoever they happened to be, usually took advantage of it for their own agendas. During the Age of Justinian, it was sandwiched by the Byzantines on the West and the Persians on the East. The result was a division of Armenia amongst the two empires in the late 300s. For many years, all was relatively well as local Armenian satraps ruled Byzantine Armenia on behalf of the empire. But Armenia resisted Byzantine assimilation. Although it was Christian, it rejected the council of Chalcedon and its interpretation of the Bible. Armenia also developed its own alphabet around the 400s which led to the growth of its own culture and identity expressed through its literature.

In the end, the Byzantines failed to win the loyalty of the Armenians as well, coming across as oppressors instead. As a result, the Armenians had no qualms about meddling in Byzantine affairs and backing a candidate for the throne around the 480s. Unfortunately, they made the wrong choice. Then, in 536, Justinian pushed through with his reforms and abolished the satrapy to establish centralized rule in its stead. This change of events did not sit well with the Armenians. As if that was not enough, Justinian renamed the Byzantine capital of Armenia, Justinianopolis. This was the last straw for the unhappy Armenians. For years they had endured heavy taxation to fund Justinian’s various projects. Now, they had enough of it. They rose up against Byzantine rule and tried to claim back their lands for themselves.

Justinian could not let this revolt go unchecked. However, Belisarius was still busy in the West against the Goths. Luckily, Sittas, a skilful general in his own right, was on hand. Sittas was married to Komito, the older sister of Theodora, which made him the brother-in-law of the emperor. Justinian swiftly dispatched Sittas to quell the revolt in 538. Unfortunately, the Armenians killed him in battle. Meanwhile, knowing that they couldn’t stand again the Byzantines, the Armenians appealed to Khusrau for help. They claimed that Justinian intended to attack Persia after he finished with the West. To prevent this, the Shah should launch a pre-emptive strike before it was too late.

The Problem of Arabia

Meanwhile, south of Mesopotamia, in the endless desert, lay the land of the Arabs. The various tribes were a nuisance to the Byzantines and Persians who chose to play them off against each other. Justinian favoured Harith, the Monophysite Christian ruler of the Ghassanid Arabs. To counter this, the Persians backed al-Mundhir, the ruler of the Lakhamids of al-Hira. Both of these men made skirmishes along the borders of the Byzantine and Persian empires respectively. But soon, tension rose between the two men over Strata, a province south of Palmyra. Both men sought to claim it and refused to give way. If they went to war and either one prevailed, it would shift the balance of power in Arabia.

When Justinian got word of the unrest, he sent officials to Harith to see how they could resolve the dispute. But the officials reported back with differing views of the situation, making it hard to decide what to do. As for Khusrau, he also noted the growing tensions along the Arabian border to the south.

Envoys from the Goths

At this time, the envoys of the Gothic King Vitigis arrived at the court of Khusrau. The envoys urged the Shah to attack the Byzantines while their armies were still in the West. Like the Armenians, they warned him of Justinian’s great ambitions to swallow up the whole Earth. If, Italy fell, Persia would face the full might of the Byzantines and all would be too late.

Khusrau Decides

Khusrau was well aware that Justinian’s great victories in the West had shifted the balance of power between the two empires. He also knew that the unrest in Armenia and Arabia gave him a unique opportunity. The Byzantines could not hope to deal with all of these problems at once. The charges that the Armenians and Goths made about Justinian’s ambitions were also obvious. Khusrau did not believe Justinian would spare Persia after he finished with Italy. Finally, the main forces of the Byzantines were still in Italy. Khusrau reasoned that if he struck now, there would be no one to stop his Persian army. He would also have the chance to weaken the Byzantines before they attacked him. Having made up his mind, Khusrau launched his attack on the Byzantines in the spring of 540.

Reflections of the Vizier

Khusrau had read the situation correctly and seized the most opportune moment given to him. Firstly, he knew that after Italy, Justinian was likely to attack Persia. Secondly, the unrest amongst the Armenians and Arabs would divide the focus of the Byzantines. Thirdly, the Byzantine army was away in Italy. There would be no better moment to attack if he wished to defend Persia from the Byzantines. The timing favoured Khusrau and he clearly had the good sense to seize it. How the war would proceed from here depended on his strategy.


Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

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