A week before he died, Tiberius II Constantine had appointed as his successor a young Cappadocian named Maurice. 'Make your reign my finest epitaph,' were the last words of the dying Emperor; and for the next twenty years Maurice ruled with a firm and competent hand. He also gave serious thought to Justinian's remaining conquests in Italy and Africa. The result was his two great Exarchates, Ravenna and Carthage. Organized on strict military lines under an Exarch with absolute power over both military and civilian administration, they were henceforth the principal western outposts of imperial authority There was good news, too, from Persia. Old Khushru had died in 579 and had been succeeded by his son Hormisdas; but in 590 the latter was killed in a coup d'etat; his son Khushru II fleeing into Byzantine territory and appealing to Maurice for help. The Emperor seized his chance: he willingly granted the prince the assistance he needed, in return for a treaty of peace by the terms of which both Persian Armenia and eastern Mesopotamia would be restored to Byzantium. In 591, with his support, young Chosroes overthrew the opposition - and kept his promises to the letter.
Maurice's principal problem was lack of money. His predecessor's extravagance had virtually bankrupted the Empire; warfare and subsidies prevented his ever properly replenishing the imperial coffers. The result was a parsimomiousness which gradually became an obsession. Already in 588 his reduction by a quarter of all military rations had led to a mutiny in the East; in 599 he refused to ransom 12,000 prisoners taken by the Avars, who consequently put them all to death; and in 602, most disastrously of all, he decreed that the army should not return to base for the winter, but should remain in the inhospitable and barbarous lands beyond the Danube. After eight months' campaigning, the army was exhausted. Traditionally, soldiers always returned for the winter to their families. They must now face the intense cold and discomfort of a winter under canvas, living off the local populations and in constant danger from barbarians. Flatly refusing to march another step, they raised one of their own centurions, a certain Phocas, on their shields and proclaimed him their leader. But he was not, they emphasized, their Emperor. Maurice they would no longer tolerate, but they would willingly acclaim either his seventeen-year-old son Theodosius or his father-in-law Germanus as his successor.
Both men were immediately accused by Maurice of treason. Theodosius was flogged; Germanus fled to St Sophia, where he successfully resisted several attempts to remove him. By now riots had hroken out all over the capital, and an angry crowd had gathered outside the palace. That night Maurice, his wife and their eight children slipped out of the palace and across the Marmara, landing at last near Nicomedia. Here the Emperor remained with his family; Theodosius, however, headed east to Persia. Khushru owed his throne to Maurice; now was his opportunity to repay him. In Constantinople, Germanus had meanwhile emerged from his refuge in St Sophia and made his bid for the throne. But Phocas too - despite his comrades' disclaimer - had imperial ambitions. He now sent a message to be read from the high pulpit of St Sophia, requiring Patriarch, Senate and people to come at once to the Church of St John the Baptist; and there, a few hours later, he was crowned Emperor of the Romans. The following morning he rode in triumph into his capital; the day after, with still greater pomp, he invested his wife Leontia with the rank and title of Augusta. Meanwhile a troop of soldiers quickly ran the fugitives to earth. The Emperor is said to have watched impassively as his four younger sons were butchered before his eyes; then he himself faced the executioner and was dispatched at a stroke. The bodies were cast into the sea; the commander returned with the five heads to Constantinople.
In many ways, Maurice had proved a wise and far-sighted statesman. He had redrawn the administrative map of the Empire, incorporating the scattered imperial possessions in both East and West into a much-improved provincial system. Ultimate responsibility was henceforth in the hands of the military rather than those of the civil authorities. Had such firm organization existed in Justinian's day, Italy would have been far more easily conquered. Thus, by a combination of determination, clear-sightedness and sheer hard work, Maurice left the Empire immeasurably stronger than he found it.