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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 94-95
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First Crusader: Byzantium's Holy Wars. By Geoffrey Regan. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2003. Pp. viii, 280. $29.95.)
This popular history is worth reviewing in a scholarly journal only because its confused ideas of "crusade" and "holy war" could do real harm in the present political climate if it were mistaken for a scholarly work (as sometimes happens, for example, with the popularizations of John Julius Norwich). It offers a mixture of an overview of Byzantine history between 299 and 1099, an account of the wars of the emperor Heraclius (610-641), and an essay on medieval ideas of holy war. Its thesis is that Heraclius was the "first crusader," whose "holy wars" influenced both the Muslim idea of jihbd and the Western idea of Crusading.
The introduction attacks an article by Tia Kolbaba, who has gone as far as any scholar (I think too far) in arguing that the Byzantines did have an implicit idea of holy war, though one quite unlike Western Crusading or Muslim jihbd. Against Kolbaba, Regan insists that Heraclius and his troops fought a full-blown Crusade, because they were moved by "religious enthusiasms" against the "infidel" Zoroastrian Persians. Then Regan gives six centuries of muddled background, explaining for example that "the crucifixion and resurrection" only "became the central 'facts' of the life of the historical Jesus" in the fourth century (pp. 33-34), an observation refuted by the New Testament alone.
Regan pronounces Heraclius' successful rebellion against the usurper Phocas "deeply religious... little less than a crusade" (p. 52), though Phocas was an orthodox Christian like Heraclius. Heraclius inherited from Phocas a defensive war against the Persians, who had overrun much of the empire, allegedly to punish Phocas' usurpation. When Heraclius offered peace in 615/616, he was almost certainly prepared to let the Persians keep their conquests in Christian Syria, including Jerusalem; but the Persian king seized Heraclius' ambassadors and let them die in prison. Regan declares, "From that moment it was a fight to the death between the Byzantines and the Sasanian Persians" (p. 70); but Heraclius always sought peace with Persia.
Regan describes the Church's "contributing to this unprecedented struggle against the enemies of God and His people" (p. 71), mentioning only much later [End Page 94] (p. 136) that the Church's contribution was a loan. He badly distorts the inscription on Heraclius' coins as the "provocative message" of "God has chosen the Romans [Byzantines]" (p. 71); it was actually a desperate cry: "God help the Romans!" One of Regan's main arguments that Heraclius was a "crusader" is wildly anachronistic: "Five centuries after his great Persian campaigns Heraclius became part of the history of the crusades written by [the Western Crusader] William of Tyre" (p. 77).
Regan writes, "if the battle [of Nineveh] was lost [the Persian capital of] Ctesiphon must fall" (p. 116), though the Persians did lose and Ctesiphon did not fall. Instead Heraclius agreed to a peace restoring the prewar frontier and pretending the Persians had preserved Christ's Cross (Regan ignores plausible reports that they had virtually destroyed it). Regan continues, "The Sasanids... had now, in their turn, been overthrown by Heraclius" (p. 126), though the Sassanids continued to rule Persia until the Arabs overthrew them. Regan badly misrepresents Fred Donner as supporting the absurd idea that Byzantine "theories of holy war" and "martyrdom... in Christian holy warfare" influenced Mohammed's idea of jihad (p. 255). Among many other errors, Alan Cameron is cited to prove a thesis he refuted (p. 44); Theophanes' chronicle is misdated by a century (p. 114); the pagan Bulgars of 718 are turned into Christians (p. 189), and a book by John Haldon is attributed to me (p. 276).
Regan's most serious mistake is to assume that all wars fought by religious believers must be "holy wars." The assumption was untrue of Heraclius, and remains false today.
Saint Louis University