It rained heavily and thunder continued to roar outside the palace. Lightning struck down to the ground of Constantinople, and since it had already reached the time of darkness, the peoples of the Roman Empire were asleep.
Phocas, Caesar of the Romans, however, was not asleep. He grunted to himself. He had been stirred from his bed because the rebel leader had been caught, and he was forced to immediately question them, and eventually, order his execution. Phocas sat down on the throne, while the officials stood to the sides, whispering to themselves. The rebel leader stood, his back straight, in the middle of the room, his hands tied to his back.
Somehow, Phocas regretted his decision to overthrow Emperor Maurice. Maurice had not been an incompetent leader, but Phocas’s troops had hailed him as their Emperor, and it would be an admission of weakness to refuse his new position. He had proceeded to capture and execute the old Emperor, but what had followed was a string of rebellions that he was forced to continue crushing.
“Alright, rebel, vile slave.” Phocas said, his voice hard and firm. “What do you have to say for yourself?” The rebel kept silent.
“What have you to say for yourself?”
The guard grunted, “Nothing, your Imperial Majesty.”
The official struck a blow onto the rebel’s face. He collapsed to the floor, but stood up again.
“I have nothing to say for myself. I did what is right.”
“No, you did not.” Phocas replied. “I am your Emperor.”
“Not all the provinces recognize you.”
“They will, in time.”
“They will not. It has been six years, Phocas.”
“Emperor.” The guard shouted into the rebel’s ear.
“Enough, Iacobus, let him speak. I am interested to hear what this rebel has to say.”
“You are simply an usurper with no administrative skill. You will continue to see rebellions to the end of the days.”
Phocas could feel his temper mounting. It hurt him always when people said the truth. He was not a legitimate emperor, but he had not had a choice. He silently cursed the army for hailing him as their Caesar.
“Take him away.” Phocas said softly. “You may execute him however you please.”
“As your Imperial Majesty desires.” the guard replied. Two more came and Phocas watched blankly as they dragged the rebel away, who continued to curse the Emperor. The day had been filled with duties, and Phocas was exhausted. He left the room without a word, followed quickly by his servants.
The officials in the room were left. The Emperor had not yet dismissed them, but he had already left. After some mutterings to each other, one of them dared to leave, and he was followed a stream of others. Senator Theodorus followed them out. Theodorus walked through the heavy rain, his tunic completely wet. He didn’t care. As a wealthy senator, his house was fairly close to the imperial palace. After only a few minutes, he was in his house. Theodorus quickly washed and he was soon sitting at his writing desk.
The old senator sighed. He did not want to do what he was about to do. He had had a faint glimmer of hope in Emperor Phocas, but even that had faded after the first year of the Emperor’s reign. There was no talent in the man, and even if there was some military skill in him it was not enough to save the empire from its current troubles.
Theodorus silently cursed old Emperor Maurice for helping the Persia King of Kings Chosroes II gain his throne. It had enabled the cunning Persian monarch to easily find a pretext to invade the empire when Phocas had overthrown and executed Maurice. Persian troops were now overrunning the empire’s borders. All Phocas was doing was to preside over decline, more decline and even more decline.
Heraclius the Elder was not a bad leader. He was the governor of the province of North Africa, and it was the only area of the empire that was not threatened by enemies. Heraclius would have an army, although inexperienced, and he would have the skill to help the empire struggle against the Persians. Theodorus finally nodded to himself. The two officials had once been close friends during the days where the studied at the University of Constantinople, and Heraclius would not ignore the pleadings of a friend. Theodorus wrote quickly on a piece of paper. He called for his servant and gave it to him. In a few weeks, it would reach the city of Carthage. With luck, the empire would be saved, but Theodorus did not dare think of what would happen if God did not grant him the luck.
* * *
It was an interesting letter, Heraclius the Elder thought. It was quite a request.
Heraclius had spent half his life as the governor of North Africa, and it was a dream came true. North Africa was the most peaceful province in the empire, unthreatened by war. He had not seen blood for a very long time, and he only had a dim recollection of what it was like to command in battle.
Yet his old friend Theodorus was asking him to rebel against the Emperor Phocas. Heraclius considered it thoughtfully. He was old and he would no longer be a good military commander. However, an ambition deep inside stirred him, and he felt the urge to assemble his ships and head towards Constantinople, seize it and proclaim himself Emperor of the Romans. Being the greatest man in the world? It was not a bad idea.
Heraclius dismissed the idea from his mind. No, it was not to be. He might have been born in Asia Minor, but his home was now Carthage. As much as Constantinople, Queen of Cities, tempted him, he would not go there. Perhaps he would if he was younger, but at the age of sixty, he was no longer fit enough to march to battle. In any case, he knew that he would miss the comfortable life he led at Carthage. No, being the greatest man in the world is not worth fighting the dreaded Persians.
“Eudamon!” he called.
The guard quickly hurried up the stairs to the study. “Yes, governor?”
“Call my son to me.” Heraclius instructed.
“Governor, your son is sleeping in his bedroom. Are you sure you want to rouse him?”
“Yes, it’s urgent. Call him over to me now.”
“Your will, governor.” Eudamon quickly disappeared down the steps, and within a few minutes, the son was there.
Heraclius smiled when he saw his son. While his father was fat from years of sitting and governing, he was in superb physical condition, with golden hair and ocean-blue eyes. Perhaps the name Heraclius the Younger was not a fit name for him, as he had fallen so far from the tree.
“Son, I have received a letter from Constantinople.”
“A friend have written to tell me that he wishes for us to rebel against Emperor Phocas.”
Heraclius saw his son’s eyes widen. “Rebel? Against the Emperor? He would crush us. We would be but dust.”
“No, he wouldn’t. I’d known you haven’t been catching up with the reports coming in.” Heraclius the Younger shuffled embarrassedly.
“Anyway, Phocas is in a very weak position. You, my son, will be Emperor.”
“What?” Heraclius stammered. He could not take it all in so quickly. “Me? Emperor? How?”
The father smiled again. “We will rebel against the Emperor. We will renounce our allegiance to him. You, my son, will set sail from here next month, and secure the capital. You will then declare yourself Emperor.
“I have trust in you. There is no one as capable as us for seizing the throne. Many rebels have tried, but they have all failed. We will not. Our army is ready. And it’s not like we’re doing this purely for self-gain, anyway. I’ve been watching the scene at Constantinople for many years, and there’s no doubt that Phocas isn’t competent enough. He might have been fine in peace, but this is a time of crisis.
Heraclius the Younger simply stood there, shocked. “No. I’m not prepared for this. I can’t.”
“Why can’t you?” was his father’s soft reply.
“I…I don’t know how to rule. Why don’t you go? You would make a fine Emperor.”
“Oh, I’m old and tired. In any case, Carthage is my home now. I’ve settled here. You are far too young to settle anywhere. I was born in Asia, and I never thought of coming to Africa, let alone settle here as governor. Life is a long, winding road, son. You can only see so far. Take chances. Don’t be afraid to dream.”
Heraclius the Younger was silent for a moment. He was not prepared for this, but his father’s speech inspired him. Unlike what his father thought, he did read the reports, although ones about the war in Asia, not from Constantinople. Heraclius slowly nodded. The two Heraclii grasped each other’s hands tight, knowing that their next decisions would either result in a more glorious rise than they could ever have imagined or a slow, painful death. Or perhaps both.