In 636 CE, Roman and Arab contingents met at the river Yarmouk. After days of fighting, the Roman army suffered a disastrous defeat. The provinces of Palestine and Syria, which had been reconquered from Persian occupation only a few years prior, were again lost to enemy forces. The emperor Heraclius (610–641), who had coordinated the defense in person, left Syria in haste. A passage in Nicephorus’ Breviarium covers what happened in Constantinople in the aftermath of the battle: It tells a seemingly strange tale of Heraclius being so afraid of water that he would not enter the capital until a bridge of boats was built over the Bosporus. In scholarship this tale is often reproduced uncritically. Deconstructing the passage, I argue that the image of a mentally frail Heraclius is an instance of political satire that exposed the emperor’s weak position and ridiculed his attempts to cope with the destabilizing consequences of Roman defeat. When seen from a structural perspective, it becomes clear that Heraclius was not afraid of water but intended the bridge of boats to serve as a triumphalist statement at a moment when the situation in Constantinople threatened to slip out of his control.
The Battle of Yarmouk, a Bridge of Boats, and Heraclius’s Alleged Fear of Water: Assessing the Consequences of Roman Military Defeat
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Nadine Viermann; The Battle of Yarmouk, a Bridge of Boats, and Heraclius’s Alleged Fear of Water: Assessing the Consequences of Roman Military Defeat. Studies in Late Antiquity 1 May 2021; 5 (2): 241–266. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/sla.2021.5.2.241
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