Two empires which have stood for a thousand years fight a battle to the death. The war lasts over twenty years, and in the end, both sides are exhausted. One empire is fatally weakened, while the other barely survives as a shadow of its former self. The Byzantine-Persian War was over, but what came next?
It’s a common story in history, with examples from ancient times all the way to the present. Athens and Sparta fought the Peloponnesian War, the Chinese Sung fought Jin, and the United Kingdom fought Nazi Germany in World War 2. Sometimes the cost of victory is so high that an empire can’t pay the bill without going bankrupt.
What happens after a great war between empires? The course of world history changes. When an empire stumbles, there are always many nations ready to take its place. The Greeks fought each other and were conquered by Rome. The Sung and Jin were conquered by the Mongols. The United Kingdom lost the largest Empire in all history after defeating the Nazis. Big wars, even victorious wars, are the graveyard of empire.
The Classical world, long led by Greeks, came to be ruled from Rome. The Mongol Empire went on from conquering divided China to ruling from Russia to the Pacific. The post-WW2 world became dominated by the USA and USSR, two countries which had been minor powers in a Euro-centric world. The deathbed of one empire is the birthplace of another.
One of the most important of these ruinous wars is little known and seldom discussed, although the results were world-changing. The war led to the end of one civilization and the transformation of another. A faith shared by a billion people today is the result of the disastrous political calculations of two men, a Byzantine emperor and an Iranian shah, in the seventh century AD.
The Byzantine-Sassian war pitted the eastern half of the old Roman Empire against the Sassanian Persian empire. The Roman Empire had seen its western half collapse into barbarism. The rump eastern half survived, but it was in big trouble. The Persians, while not a major threat to a unified Roman Empire, were a difficult antagonist for the half which remained.
The war started over a pair of border fortresses, but rapidly escalated into attacks across the entire Middle East, from Egypt to Mesopotamia. The Persians besieged Constantinople itself, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines, in turn, lay waste to the Persian heartland. The front lines flowed back and forth, with Persia coming very close to restoring its ancient ascendancy from Asia Minor to Egypt. Only a near-miraculous Byzantine recovery saved the remains of the Empire from final collapse.
Persians at the Gates, 626AD
The final result was a return to the borders the empires shared before the war began. All the blood and treasure spilt over twenty years of fighting had been for nothing.
Then the Arabs came.
The Sassanid Persian empire, in a state of dynastic civil war, having been ravaged by Turkish allies of the Byzantines, with its treasury empty, had little ability to fight the Arab invasions which began a few years after the war with the Byzantines. The Persian empire fell quickly to the Arab invasion.
The Byzantines did little better. They lost the southern half of what remained of the Roman Empire within ten years. All that remained of Rome was Asia Minor and some possessions in the Balkans and Italy. Constantinople itself barely weathered the storm, with Arab armies lapping at its walls in 674 and 717.
The Arabs were not only a military threat. They brought with them a new religion, Islam, which displaced Christianity in the former Byzantine territories in the Near East. Islam crushed Zoroastrianism as a major faith in Persia.
The Arab conquests, while dazzling in their speed and audacity, could only have succeeded against enemies weakened and ill-equipped to fight a long war. If the Byzantines and Sassanids had remained at peace with each other, it is doubtful the Arab attacks would have gone anywhere. Islam very likely would have remained confined to the Arabian peninsula.
Whether the Byzantine and Persian empires could have avoided a ruinous final war at some later date is an open question. Perhaps it is inevitable that empires will eventually fight each other to the death. Looking across the Pacific from America in the 21st century, I hope the ocean is big enough for China and the United States to share.
Lessons for the Future
Now, why is this relevant to the New Persia series of science fiction books? Besides the obvious historical analog of New Persia, there is a big, total war between evenly matched superpowers. It’s quite possible that a war ending in victory would be at such a cost as to not be worth the fighting. Additionally, there are other powers, long confined to the edges of the world, waiting for their moment. A fully intact New Persian or Azanian state has nothing to fear, but one weakened by war and seed storm may be in great danger.
The Deluge, New Persia Book Three, will tell that story.