The Causes of the Last Great War of Antiquity

“And so Chosroes … mobilized that world-destroying trumpet: for this became the undoing of the prosperity of the Romans and Persians.”[1] Theophylact Simocatta forebode the end of the world as he and his fellow historians had known it. In 600, The Byzantine and Sassanian Empires held sway over great swaths of the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, and Arabia. Less than 25 years after the end of the Last Great War of Antiquity (602-628), the last Sassanian shahanshah, Yazdegerd III, was killed in Central Asia while fleeing from the Muslim Arab army. And yet, we still do not know why these two great states went to war with one another. Most historians hold that the war began for the sake of the murdered emperor Maurice and from the Sassanid shahanshah Khusrow II’s wish for revenge. In this paper, I use a combination of literary sources and realist international relations theory to explain the Last Great War of Antiquity. This combination of approaches leads me to conclude that the traditional reading is too shallow and that the death of Maurice and the squabbles within the Byzantine Empire that followed the rise of emperor Phocas made bare its weakness to the Sassanids, who, after all other means to reshape the international setting failed, began a hegemonic war to fulfill their want for security.

The paper has purposefully written with a strict adherence to George Orwell’s prescriptions in Politics in the English Language per my teachers’ request, a stylistic choice that may catch some of the readers off-guard. It was written as a final paper for a course of Causes of War, which I took in the Fall of 2020.

[1] Theophylact Simocatta, The History of Theophylact Simocatta, trans. Michael and Mary Whitby (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1986), book VIII, chapter 15, section 7, page 234. HathiTrust Digital Library.