Battle of Nineveh: Byzantines Defeat Sassanids

 
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Battle of Nineveh: Byzantines Defeat Sassanids

Extent of the East Roman [or Byzantine] Empire, c. 500

Today in Military History: December 12, AD 627

It's been just over five months since my previous battle report involving the Byzantines, so here's a post about a battle which ended a long-running conflict with the Persians in the early seventh century.

Background

In August of 582, Flavius Mauricius was crowned emperor of the East Roman Empire. He had been a general as well as commander of the imperial bodyguard to the previous emperor, his father-in-law Tiberius II Constantine. He re-organized the Italian and African provinces, and was tolerant of the Monophysitism sect. Continuing his military success as the Emperor Maurice, he pushed the barbarian Avars north of the Danube, and subdued the Slavs in the Balkans close to the capital Constantinople. Inheriting a war against the Sassanid Persians, he brought that war to a conclusion.

Maurice is also credited with authorship of the "Strategikon," a military manual produced in the late sixth century. Historians are not convinced that the manual was actually written by the emperor, or merely commissioned by him and compiled by a courtier or a general. The text consists of 12 chapters, or "books," on various aspects of the tactics employed by the Byzantine army of the 6th and 7th century A.D. It is primarily focused on cavalry tactics and formations, yet it also elaborates on matters of infantry, sieges, baggage trains, drilling and marching. Books VII and VIII contain practical advice to the general in the form of instructions and maxims. The eleventh book has ethnographic interest, with its portrayal of various Byzantine enemies – Franks, Lombards, Avars, and Slavs. The Strategicon also contains Byzantine legal literature, since it contains a list of military infractions and their suitable penalties.

Byzantine coin with portrait of Emperor Maurice, minted in Italy c. 594/5
Byzantine coin with portrait of Emperor Maurice, minted in Italy c. 594/5

In 590 the Persian monarch Hormizd IV was overthrow by his son Prince Khosrau and the Sassanid commander-in-chief Bahram Chobin. However, Bahram claimed the throne for himself, causing Khosrau to flee to the court of Maurice. The Persian prince asked the Byzantine ruler for help in regaining his rightful throne. Despite the Roman Senate voicing its opposition, Maurice sent 35,000 men commanded by the generals John Mystacon ("the mustachioed") and Narses east to defeat the usurper. [This is *not* the same Narses who was an East Roman general in the early- to mid-sixth century and was featured in my blog post of July 1, 2011 entitled: "Battle of Taginae, Byzantines Defeat Ostrogoths."]

The Byzantine intervention was successful, and Prince Khosrau was installed on the Sassanid throne in 591. As part of the treaty ending the 19-year Roman-Persian War, Maurice married his eldest daughter to Khosrau. He also probably "adopted" Khosrau, mainly a diplomatic event. For his part, the new Sassanid emperor suspended the tribute that the East Romans had been paying to Persia for many years; he also ceded western Armenia to the Byzantines.

Despite the end of the Persian war, Emperor Maurice soon faced a fiscal crisis. In 588 he sought to cut the army's wages by 25 percent, which led to several mutinies on the Persian front. He also refused ransom for some 12,000 Byzantine soldiers in 600, which caused the Sassanids to slaughter them all.

Prelude to the Battle

In the fall of 602, Maurice ordered troops currently north of the Danube to stay there and prepare for a winter offensive, rather than withdraw south and go into winter quarters. This act provoked a mutiny, wherein the mutineers proclaimed their general Phocas to be the new emperor, and demanded that Maurice abdicate. Phocas and his men marched on the capital, where riots broke out. Maurice and his family fled eastward. Phocas was crowned emperor, and his forces pursued and captured Maurice and his family. On November 27, 602 Maurice was forced to watch his six sons executed, whereupon he himself was behead. His wife and three daughters, however, were spared and consigned to a monastery.

When he heard of the demise of his fellow emperor – and father-in-law – Sassanid ruler Khosrau II invaded Byzantine territory to avenge the death of his benefactor. This led to the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602-628. The Persians had initial successes, capturing Syria, the Levant and Egypt. They even managed to penetrate to the core home provinces of the East Roman Empire, notably Anatolia.

In 610, a new emperor named Heraclius crowned. He made a treaty with the Persians, which allowed him to make various reforms in the money supply and to train new armies. By 622, Heraclius led a series of campaigns to push the Sassanids back to their original boundaries.

In September of 627, Heraclius launched another campaign, but he was intent on bringing the 25-year old war to a final conclusion. His army was estimated at 25,000-30,000 men, and left the eastern Byzantine city of Trebizond on the Black Sea. Heraclius had made an alliance with the Onogurs (sometimes referred to as Khazars), a nomadic people in the central Asian steppes who were rivals of the Sassanids.

Byzantine Campaigns, 624-628 (the solid black line is the campaign leading to battle of Nineveh
Byzantine Campaigns, 624-628 (the solid black line is the campaign leading to battle of Nineveh

Heraclius led his army – with 40,000 Onogur allied horsemen – not southeastward, but eastward into the northwestern portion of the Sassanid lands, into the Caucasus Mountains and Armenia. The Byzantine army proceeded south into the heartland of the Sassanid realm, what is today western Iraq, burning and pillaging as it went.

At some point in the campaign, the Onogurs – disconcerted by the warm weather of Iraq, deserted Heraclius to return northward. Not greatly worried by this act, the emperor continued his invasion. His army obtained food, fodder, and supplies from the land as they went. A Persian army of some 12,000 men under command of the Armenian-born general Razadh, was shadowing the Byzantine force, but Heraclius did not feel an immediate need to confront it. In addition, the Sassanid force was unable to find supplies, because the Romans were there first. This resulted in the Persian horses going on short rations.

On December 1, the Byzantines crossed the Greater Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris River. The army camped at the bridge to prevent the pursuing Persians from using it. Razadh marched his army further south, crossing the Greater Zab about 8-10 miles south of the bridge. Roman scouts reported this Persian movement to Heraclius. The emperor sent some of his cavalry to harass the enemy. A short, sharp skirmish took place, which killed some of the Persians. It also resulted in the capture of the personal aide of Gen. Razadh. After much "persuasion," the aide revealed that 3000 Persian reinforcements were approaching the area, seeking to link up with the main Sassanid force. Heraclius made the decision to meet his pursuers and destroy them before they could be reinforced.

Battle of Nineveh
Battle of Nineveh

Heraclius marched his army westward, giving the impression that he was running from the pursuing army. The Romans stopped in the vicinity of the ruins of the former Babylonian city of Nineveh, on the north bank of the Tigris River. They camped on a broad plain near Karamlays Creek, and awaited the approach of the Sassanids. The Persians approached the Byzantine encampment and began preparations for battle.

Dispositions of the Armies

[Most of the sources I have perused do not give many specific details of either army. I am, therefore, forced to speculate…]

The Byzantine army was mainly cavalry, with some heavy infantry, foot archers and possibly javelin-armed skirmishers. Horsemen had become the main arm of the East Roman military, with infantry used as the base for maneuver and rallying. The infantry formed the center, usually with two lines, spearmen in the front two ranks, archers in the immediate rear. There may have been lightly armored Armenian javelinmen present as well, arrayed in front of the center.

Byzantine bodyguard cavalryman (Optimates), 600-650 AD
Byzantine bodyguard cavalryman (Optimates), 600-650 AD

The two wings of the army were cavalry, also in two lines. The first line of each wing was probably barbarian auxiliaries (Onogurs, Huns, or similar steppe horsemen) armed with bows. They would use harassing fire on the enemy. The second line consisted of the dreaded cataphracts, the heavily armed and armored "tanks" of the time. These men wielded bows, maces, lances, and even hand-thrown darts. Held in reserve was the commander's personal bodyguard (called the Optimates), usually barbarian retainers trained to fight with spears and bows, and heavily armored.

The Sassanid army was remarkably similar to the Byzantine army, as the East Romans had adapted to warfare from the old days of the Western Roman Empire. The center would have been a large phalanx of lightly-armored spearmen (most of them poorly-trained levies) with man-sized wicker shields. These would be used as protection for the foot archers, who were more highly trained and valuable.

Sassanid noble cavalry, c. 600-650 AD
Sassanid noble cavalry, c. 600-650 AD

The wings of the Persian army consisted of the cavalry. The super-heavy cataphracts of previous years was probably gone by 627, replaced by heavy noble cavalry – armed with lance and bow but not so heavily armored – and light cavalrymen from steppe tribes hired as mercenaries.

Battle of Nineveh

By mid-morning of December 12, a thick fog sprang up. Heraclius knew that this unforeseen weather would not discomfit his men greatly, but would certainly cause problems with the Sassanid bowmen. The Romans set up for battle some distance from the plain near Karamlays Creek. The Persians are described as lining up in three "masses" or phalanxes, and launching an immediate attack on the Byzantines. The fog did indeed hurt the firepower of the Sassanid horse archers. After several minutes of hand-to-hand combat, Heraclius ordered a retreat. Gen. Razadh ordered his men to pursue the fleeing enemy, smelling a quick victory.

However, the Romans flight was a feint. The army turned about as they reached the plain. As the fog began to dissipate further, the Byzantine horsemen first launched a barrage of arrows on the surprised Persian, followed by a volley from the Byzantine foot bowmen. The Roman heavy cavalry then launched an all-out attack on the disordered Sassanids. Despite the Roman surprise, the Persians kept their order and fought back. The fight dragged on for nearly eight hours, charge and countercharge, neither side giving an inch. The Romans realized that the approaching Persian reinforcements could tip the scales of victory toward their antagonists, so they fought on.

Battle b/w Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II (15th century Italian fresco)
Battle b/w Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II (15th century Italian fresco)

In the "Short History" of St. Nicephorus written a century-and-a-half after the battle, Persian general Razadh challenged Emperor Heraclius to single combat during the climax of the battle. With a single stroke of his sword, Heraclius decapitated the enemy leader. As trophies of his victory, Heraclius took Razadh's golden breastplate and his shield of 120 gold plates. Shortly thereafter, as word of their general's demise spread through the Sassanid ranks, the morale of the Persian host plummeted. As dusk approached, the Sassanids fled the field, but in fairly good order. The battle of Nineveh was over.

Aftermath

The only casualty figures given for this battle were for the Persians, with 6,000 soldiers slain in the battle. Byzantine casualties were probably similar. They must have been significant enough to keep the Romans from occupying and looting the Persian camp.

Footnote #1: The remaining Sassanids retreated westward towards the ruins of Nineveh, where they met the Persian reinforcements. The Romans, surprisingly, turned east and south, into the heart of the Persian Empire. The Byzantines continued to burn and pillage, even reaching one of the main palaces of Khosrau. They took considerable wealth, but also found over 300 Roman/Byzantine battle standards accumulated over several hundred years of warfare.

Footnote #2: Khosrau II had already fled to another portion of his realm, hoping to raise another army. However, the Persian army rebelled, deposed Khosrau and placed his son Kavadh on the Sassanid throne. Khosrau was thrown into a dungeon, deprived of food and water for four days, then was shot to death with arrows on the fifth day. Kavadh sued Emperor Heraclius for peace.

Footnote #3: Knowing both empires were close to exhaustion, Heraclius welcomed the peace overtures. The Byzantines regained their former territories, captured Roman soldiers were released, a war indemnity was imposed. However, the most significant clause of the treaty included the return of various Christian relics, including the True Cross, looted from Jerusalem when it fell to the Persians in 614.

Heraclius returning the True Cross to Jerusalem (15th century Spanish painting)
Heraclius returning the True Cross to Jerusalem (15th century Spanish painting)

Footnote #4: Within a decade, a new power arose the Middle East. Coming out of the Arabian peninsula, the fanatical adherents of Mohammed began conquering everything in their path. By the late seventh century, the Sassanid Empire was no more, and the Byzantines lost Syria, Armenia, North Africa, and Egypt – all newly recovered – to the "human tsunami" of Islam.

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Comments

Wadi Shawr and Kramlays Greek are separate by nearly 10 miles . Wadi Shawr (Valley of Honey from Assyrian Dialect) begin from Jabal Makloub and Jabal Ain Asaffra and flows into Tigris near Nineveh, while Kaamlays Greek begins with two springs east of Karamlays, and flows into Tigris , near Nimrud . The greek passes through a village named Kara Shawr (the finest kind of honey from soureth dialect), but Kara Shawr village is not Shawr Valley>

This is not true the battle of nineveh had to do with the ancient Chaldeans and the assyrians.

This is not true the battle of nineveh had to do with the ancient Chaldeans and the assyrians.

Did it not occur to you that there were two, different battles at or near this city? The two fights were separated by about 1200 years. If -- by chance -- you are familiar with American history, there were two separate battles at Bull Run/Manassas, Virginia during the War of the Rebellion (aka the American Civil War) both won by the Confederates. The second battle was a year and a month after the first.

this is not how the battle went down, do not trust this site!

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.