Book Review: James Howard-Johnston, ‘The Last Great War of Antiquity’ (Oxford, 2021).

Book Review: Howard-Johnston, J, ‘The Last Great War of Antiquity’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). £35.00 (480 Pages)

James Howard-Johnston provides a long-awaited narration of the last war fought between the Roman and Sasanian Empires, in what he terms, ‘The Last Great War of Antiquity’ (AD 603-630). This book allows the reader to disseminate why the war began, how it unfolded, and lastly, how it was concluded.

The narrative starts with the events pertaining to Phokas’ insurrection and the eventual overthrow of Emperor Maurice in 602. Nominally, Khosrow II owed his life and royal title to the fallen Maurice, who in 590/591 helped the usurped king regain his throne from the rebellious general Bahram Chobin. It is for this reason, why Howard-Johnston suggests that Khosrow might have been genuinely saddened at Maurice’s murder and launched a war of revenge against Maurice’s killer. There were also other factors to consider in why the Sasanians called for a resumption of war, and again these are discussed in the first chapter of the book.  

The author proceeds to ​trace the conflict between the Roman and the Sasanian Empires, in what is divided into key stages of the war, under the leadership of Emperor Phokas (602-610), Emperor Heraclius (610-641), and Shahanshah Khosrow II (591-628). Here, we see conflict consuming regions such as Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, and at vital times making their way to the hearts of both empires at Constantinople and Ctesiphon. For a large proportion of the war, the Romans were on the backfoot, but due to several factors and important decisions that both Roman and Sasanian rulers had taken, the war started to change its course in the mid-620s.

As well as providing a vivid and highly detailed narrative of the war, Howard-Johnston delivers upon discussing various topics and themes throughout the book. Some of these include imperial motives for the war’s initiation, historiographical problems for reconstructing the war, alongside thoughts on grand strategy, resources, foreign relations, and warfare during the early seventh century.

James Howard-Johnston undoubtedly succeeds in his goal of providing a lucid, engaging, and detailed account of the last Roman-Sasanian war. This devastating conflict was perhaps the most significant contest to take place during Late Antiquity, and quite possibly even the Ancient World. I’m glad that, what once was a relatively unknown topic, can now be brought into the foreground by this accessible volume.

To supplement this text, I would also recommend James Howard-Johnston’s important study on seventh century historiography – ‘Witness to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century.’ For those wanting an introduction to the Roman and Sasanian Empires, it might be worth looking at Howard-Johnston’s article ‘The Two Great Powers in Late Antiquity: A Comparison’, and the wonderful volume by Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter titled ‘Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals.’

Please note that a full ‘academic’ review will be released on this blog soon.

Published by Sean Strong

Sean is a doctoral researcher working on the reign of Maurice (582-602). He holds a further interest in understanding the ideology behind identity and the perception of rulership in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Sean's research interests vary throughout the Late Antique and Byzantine world, and span across the fields of military, political, and social history.

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