Priscus (general)

Priscus (general)

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Priscus (died 613) was a leading East Roman (Byzantine
Byzantine
Byzantine usually refers to the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages.Byzantine may also refer to:* A citizen of the Byzantine Empire, or native Greek during the Middle Ages...

) general during the reigns of the Byzantine emperors Maurice
Maurice (emperor)
Maurice was Byzantine Emperor from 582 to 602.A prominent general in his youth, Maurice fought with success against the Sassanid Persians...

 (r. 582–602), Phocas
Phocas
Phocas was Byzantine Emperor from 602 to 610. He usurped the throne from the Emperor Maurice, and was himself overthrown by Heraclius after losing a civil war.-Origins:...

 (r. 602–610) and Heraclius
Heraclius
Heraclius was Byzantine Emperor from 610 to 641.He was responsible for introducing Greek as the empire's official language. His rise to power began in 608, when he and his father, Heraclius the Elder, the exarch of Africa, successfully led a revolt against the unpopular usurper Phocas.Heraclius'...

 (r. 610–641). Although the contemporary sources are markedly biased in his favour, Priscus comes across as an effective and capable military leader. Under Maurice, he distinguished himself in the campaigns
Maurice's Balkan campaigns
Maurice's Illyricum campaigns were a series of military expeditions conducted by emperor of Constantinopolis Maurice in an attempt to defend the Illyrian provinces of the East Roman Empire from Avars and Slavs...

 against the Avars
Eurasian Avars
The Eurasian Avars or Ancient Avars were a highly organized nomadic confederacy of mixed origins. They were ruled by a khagan, who was surrounded by a tight-knit entourage of nomad warriors, an organization characteristic of Turko-Mongol groups...

 and their Slavic allies in the Balkans
Balkans
The Balkans is a geopolitical and cultural region of southeastern Europe...

. Absent from the capital at the time of Maurice's overthrow and murder by Phocas, he was one of the few of Maurice's senior aides who were able to survive unharmed into the new regime, remaining in high office and even marrying the emperor's daughter. Priscus however also negotiated with and assisted Heraclius in the overthrow of Phocas, and was entrusted with command against the Persians in 611–612. After the failure of this campaign, he was deposed and tonsured, dying shortly after.

Under Maurice



Priscus first appears in the sources when he was appointed, in late 587 or early 588, to command in the east as magister militum
Magister militum
Magister militum was a top-level military command used in the later Roman Empire, dating from the reign of Constantine. Used alone, the term referred to the senior military officer of the Empire...

 per Orientem
Diocese of the East
The Diocese of the East was a diocese of the later Roman Empire, incorporating the provinces of the western Middle East, between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia...

 replacing Philippicus
Philippicus (general)
Philippicus or Philippikos was an East Roman general, comes excubitorum, and brother-in-law of Emperor Maurice. His successful career as a general spanned several decades, chiefly against the Persians.- Under Maurice :...

. He only reached the east in spring, and assumed his new command at Monocarton in April. Priscus immediately ran into trouble with the soldiers: his haughty manner in refusing to mingle with them made him unpopular, and when a decree by Maurice which reduced army pay by a quarter was announced, the soldiers mutinied on Easter
Easter
Easter is the central feast in the Christian liturgical year. According to the Canonical gospels, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. His resurrection is celebrated on Easter Day or Easter Sunday...

 day, 18 April 588. Priscus not only failed to restore order, but was himself attacked and forced to flee to Constantina, while the soldiers elected the dux
Dux
Dux is Latin for leader and later for Duke and its variant forms ....

 of Phoenice
Phoenice
Phoenice or Phoenike was an ancient Greek city in Epirus and capital of the Chaonians. It was also the location of the Treaty of Phoenice which ended the First Macedonian War, as well as one of the wealthiest cities in Epirus until the Roman conquest. During the early Byzantine period, Phoenice...

, Germanus, as their leader. Priscus' attempts from Constantina to calm the soldiers by employing the local bishops as mediators and rescinding the decree also failed. Philippicus was restored to command by Maurice, while Priscus returned to Constantinople
Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

.

Despite this debacle, in the same summer he was entrusted with the post of magister militum for Thrace
Diocese of Thrace
The Diocese of Thrace was a diocese of the later Roman Empire, incorporating the provinces of the eastern Balkan Peninsula The Diocese of Thrace was a diocese of the later Roman Empire, incorporating the provinces of the eastern Balkan Peninsula The Diocese of Thrace was a diocese of the later...

, and tasked with campaigning against the Avars
Eurasian Avars
The Eurasian Avars or Ancient Avars were a highly organized nomadic confederacy of mixed origins. They were ruled by a khagan, who was surrounded by a tight-knit entourage of nomad warriors, an organization characteristic of Turko-Mongol groups...

 at the head of an improvised force. Outnumbered by the Avars, he was forced to retreat, allowing them to sack the city of Anchialos. Outflanked, Priscus retreated to Tzurullum
Çorlu
Çorlu is a northwestern Turkish city in inland Eastern Thrace that falls under the administration of the Province of Tekirdağ. It is a rapidly developing industrial center built on flatland located off the E80 highway between Istanbul and Turkey's border with Greece and Bulgaria. As of the 2000...

, where he was besieged by them until they were persuaded to leave with threats from Maurice of an attack against their homeland, and by payment of a ransom in gold. Priscus disappears for the next few years, as he fell into disfavour with Maurice. By 593 he had recovered his position, as a letter by Pope Gregory the Great which congratulates him on returning to the emperor's favour testifies. He had also been given the honorary rank of patrikios.
In spring 593 he was re-appointed in command as commander of the cavalry, with Gentzon leading the infantry. Both generals campaigned with success against the Slavic tribes preparing to cross the Danube
Danube
The Danube is a river in the Central Europe and the Europe's second longest river after the Volga. It is classified as an international waterway....

 under their leaders Ardagastus and Musocius. Crossing the river, both Slavic hosts were annihilated in surprise night attacks. At the same time however, Priscus reportedly quarreled with his men over the distribution of the considerable amount of booty captured. Maurice also sent orders for the army to winter north of the river, but this caused great resentment and unrest amongst the soldiers. Priscus chose to disobey the emperor's order and crossed again with his army to winter in the southern bank. In the autumn of 593, he was replaced by Maurice with Peter
Peter (curopalates)
Petrus |Cappadocia]] – 27 November 602 in Constantinople or Chalcedon) was a brother of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice, who reigned from 582 to 602.-Background:...

. Before the latter could assume command however, Priscus arranged for a truce with the Avar khagan
Khagan
Khagan or qagan , alternatively spelled kagan, khaghan, qaghan, or chagan, is a title of imperial rank in the Mongolian and Turkic languages equal to the status of emperor and someone who rules a khaganate...

, to whom he returned all captives, a fact for which he was criticized by Maurice.

In late 594 however, after Peter was heavily defeated by the Slavs, he was again appointed to command as magister militum of Thrace, a post he held for several years. In 595 he marched up the Danube, crossing the river and marching along its northern bank to Novae
Novae
Archaeological site situated on the Danube in northern Bulgaria, about 4 kilometres east of the modern town Svishtov. A legionary base and late Roman town in the Roman province Moesia Inferior, later Moesia II.-Localisation and topography:...

, despite the khagans protests, before sending his fleet to relieve the city of Singidunum
Singidunum
Singidunum is the name for the ancient city in Serbia which became Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It was recorded that a Celtic tribe Scordisci settled the area in the 3rd century BC following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans. The Roman Empire conquered the area in 75 BC and later garrisoned...

 from an Avar siege. After these events, the Avars turned west, raiding Dalmatia
Dalmatia
Dalmatia is a historical region on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. It stretches from the island of Rab in the northwest to the Bay of Kotor in the southeast. The hinterland, the Dalmatian Zagora, ranges from fifty kilometers in width in the north to just a few kilometers in the south....

 and then campaigning against the Franks
Franks
The Franks were a confederation of Germanic tribes first attested in the third century AD as living north and east of the Lower Rhine River. From the third to fifth centuries some Franks raided Roman territory while other Franks joined the Roman troops in Gaul. Only the Salian Franks formed a...

, leaving the Danube border relatively quiet for a period of a year and a half. Consequently, when they resumed their operations with a large invasion in autumn 597, they caught Priscus, who was probably operating with his army at the eastern Stara Planina, off guard. They advanced quickly, and even managed to bottle up and besiege Priscus and his men at the port of Tomi
Constanta
Constanța is the oldest extant city in Romania, founded around 600 BC. The city is located in the Dobruja region of Romania, on the Black Sea coast. It is the capital of Constanța County and the largest city in the region....

, until the approach of a freshly raised army under Comentiolus
Comentiolus
Comentiolus was a prominent Eastern Roman general at the close of the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Maurice . He played a major role in Maurice's Balkan campaigns, and fought also in the East against the Persians.- Life :...

 forced them to abandon the siege on Easter, 30 March 588.

Priscus however remained strangely inactive, and Comentiolus' inexperienced army was routed. The Avars advanced south into Thrace, but their army was decimated by a plague and a treaty was quickly concluded, which the Byzantines used to regroup and prepare a new campaign. Thus, in the summer of 599, the two armies of Priscus and Comentiolus headed west along the Danube. While Comentiolus guarded the rear and the operational base of Singidunum, Priscus invaded the Avar homeland in Pannonia
Pannonia
Pannonia was an ancient province of the Roman Empire bounded north and east by the Danube, coterminous westward with Noricum and upper Italy, and southward with Dalmatia and upper Moesia....

, devastating their lands and inflicting four major defeats upon the Avars and their allies. Tens of thousands of Avars and their subjects were killed, and 8,000 Slavs, 3,000 Avars and 6,200 other barbarians taken prisoners according to Theophylact Simocatta
Theophylact Simocatta
Theophylact Simocatta was an early seventh-century Byzantine historiographer, arguably ranking as the last historian of Late Antiquity, writing in the time of Heraclius about the late Emperor Maurice .-Life:His history of the reign of emperor Maurice is in eight books...

. It was a remarkable act of aggressive defence, in the words of Michael Whitby, "without parallel in the sixth century" for the Danube frontier, and which essentially decided the war for Byzantium.

After this success, which secured the Balkans, Maurice intended to consolidate Roman control by bringing in Armenian settlers who would be given land in exchange for military service. To this end, Priscus was sent to Armenia to recruit men and their families. In 602, Maurice again ordered his troops on the Danube frontier to winter north of the river. Again this provoked widespread discontent, and when Peter, who had replaced Priscus, refused to bow down and rescind the order, an outright mutiny broke out. The army chose the officer Phocas
Phocas
Phocas was Byzantine Emperor from 602 to 610. He usurped the throne from the Emperor Maurice, and was himself overthrown by Heraclius after losing a civil war.-Origins:...

 as its new leader and marched down to Constantinople. Without any credible military forces of his own, Maurice had to flee, but was captured with his family and executed by Phocas, who now became emperor.

Under Phocas



Being absent from Constantinople, and retaining still a large measure of support within the soldiery, Priscus was the only one of Maurice's senior generals who managed to survive into the new regime, while Comentiolus and Peter were executed and Philippicus was banished to a monastery. In the winter of 602/603 he was made comes excubitorum, commander of the imperial bodyguard. In 606 he also married Phocas' daughter Domentzia
Domentzia
Domentzia was a name shared by the mother of the Byzantine emperor Phocas , and a daughter of the same emperor, likely named after her paternal grandmother.- Name :...

, becoming the effective heir-apparent to the childless ruler, but soon fell into disfavour when the citizenry of the capital began erecting statues in his honour.

Phocas' rule lacked in legitimacy and was resented by the populace and the elites of the Empire. His prestige further eroded when the Persian shah Khosrau II
Khosrau II
250px|thumb|Khosrau II 250px|thumb|Khosrau II 250px|thumb|Khosrau II (Khosrow II, Chosroes II, or Xosrov II in classical sources, sometimes called Parvez, "the Ever Victorious" – (in Persian: خسرو پرویز), was the twenty-second Sassanid King of Persia, reigning from 590 to 628...

 (r. 590–628) declared war
Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628
The Byzantine–Sassanid War of 602–628 was the final and most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Roman Empire and the Sassanid Empire. The previous war had ended in 591 after Emperor Maurice had helped the Sassanian king Khosrau II regain his throne. In 602, Maurice was murdered...

, and when the Byzantine forces suffered their first defeats. According to a later tradition, Priscus sent a letter to the Exarch of Africa, Heraclius the Elder
Heraclius the Elder
Heraclius the Elder was an East Roman general and the father of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius . Of Armenian origin, the elder Heraclius distinguished himself in the wars against the Sassanid Persians in the 580s. Ca. 600, he was appointed as the Exarch of Africa. In 608, he rebelled with his son...

, urging him to revolt. This is probably later invention, but if true, it would indicate the level of dissent even within Constantinople. Whatever the truth of the matter, in 608 Africa rose in revolt, and the Exarch's son, Heraclius the Younger
Heraclius
Heraclius was Byzantine Emperor from 610 to 641.He was responsible for introducing Greek as the empire's official language. His rise to power began in 608, when he and his father, Heraclius the Elder, the exarch of Africa, successfully led a revolt against the unpopular usurper Phocas.Heraclius'...

, was dispatched against Constantinople at the head of a fleet. Unopposed by Phocas' forces, he landed at Hebdomon outside the capital on 3 October, and marched to the capital, where pro-Heraclian riots had broken out. At this juncture, Priscus pretended to be ill, and withdrew to his mansion, where he called the excubitores and his own retainers (bucellarii
Bucellarii
Bucellarii is a term for a unit of soldiers in the late Roman and Byzantine empire, that were not supported by the state but rather by some individual such as a general or governor, in essence being his "household troops".These units were generally quite small, but, especially during the many...

), thus depriving Phocas of his major armed support. He is also recorded by John of Nikiu
John of Nikiû
John of Nikiû was an Egyptian Coptic bishop of Nikiû/Pashati in the Nile Delta and appointed general administrator of the monasteries of Upper Egypt in 696...

 to have safeguarded the women of Heraclius' family from retribution by Phocas.

Under Heraclius



Heraclius now became emperor, although one chronicler claims that the crown was first offered to Priscus, who declined. As commander of the excubitores, protopatrikios (first among the patrician order) and one of the few senior and influential officials with ties to past regimes, Priscus represented a potential threat to Heraclius. Nevertheless, facing a critical situation in the East, where the Persians had overrun much territory
Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628
The Byzantine–Sassanid War of 602–628 was the final and most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Roman Empire and the Sassanid Empire. The previous war had ended in 591 after Emperor Maurice had helped the Sassanian king Khosrau II regain his throne. In 602, Maurice was murdered...

 and were raiding Anatolia
Anatolia
Anatolia is a geographic and historical term denoting the westernmost protrusion of Asia, comprising the majority of the Republic of Turkey...

, Heraclius appointed Priscus in command of the Anatolian army in the autumn of 611. The Persian general Shahin captured Caesarea in Cappadocia
Cappadocia
Cappadocia is a historical region in Central Anatolia, largely in Nevşehir Province.In the time of Herodotus, the Cappadocians were reported as occupying the whole region from Mount Taurus to the vicinity of the Euxine...

, only to be blockaded and besieged there by Priscus. Heraclius himself decided to visit the army camp at Caesarea during winter, but Priscus refused to meet him, on the pretext of an illness. This snub alienated Heraclius from his general, and when Shahin and his army managed to break out and escape in summer, Priscus was recalled to Constantinople, ostensibly to become godfather to the emperor's son, Heraclius Constantine. At the capital, he was removed from his post as comes excubitorum, which went to Heraclius' cousin Nicetas
Nicetas (cousin of Heraclius)
Nicetas was the cousin of Emperor Heraclius, helping him the wars against Phocas and the Persians in the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628. He helped Heraclius revolt against Phocas by conquering Egypt in 610. At Egypt, Nicetas established a power base because of his friendship with Patriarch John...

, while command in Anatolia went to the other surviving general of Maurice, Philippicus, brought out of retirement. Priscus was brought before the Senate
Byzantine Senate
The Byzantine Senate or Eastern Roman Senate was the continuation of the Roman Senate, established in the 4th century by Constantine I. It survived for centuries but was increasingly irrelevant until its eventual disappearance in the 13th century....

 and accused by Heraclius of treason. In the end, he was tonsure
Tonsure
Tonsure is the traditional practice of Christian churches of cutting or shaving the hair from the scalp of clerics, monastics, and, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, all baptized members...

d as a monk and confined in the Monastery of the Chora, where he died in 613.

Assessment


Priscus comes across as an able and versatile military leader. In many instances his operations against the Slavs resemble the prescriptions of the most influential Byzantine military manual, the Strategikon ascribed to Maurice. Despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian and his aloof stance which led to the mutiny of 588, in later campaigns he showed ability in dealing with the soldiers and calming their discontent.

Our major Byzantine source for the period, Theophylact Simocatta
Theophylact Simocatta
Theophylact Simocatta was an early seventh-century Byzantine historiographer, arguably ranking as the last historian of Late Antiquity, writing in the time of Heraclius about the late Emperor Maurice .-Life:His history of the reign of emperor Maurice is in eight books...

, displays a marked bias in favour of Priscus, especially in its account of the Balkan campaigns, where the other generals are denigrated and made to appear incompetent, with their achievements regularly belittled while Priscus' successes are extolled and his defeats glossed over. This may be due to the fact that Simocatta relied for this period on a semi-official "campaign log" compiled during the years of Phocas, when Priscus was pre-eminent while most of his rivals were either executed or in exile.

Sources