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Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, vol. 1.

Publication of these two volumes brings Irfan Shahid back to the period and subjects with which he began his scholarly career more than forty years ago. This is the material that he knows the very best. Although he reviews topics and controversies that intrigued scholars in those decades, this is not a mere stringing together of those older materials. Where appropriate, he revisits those older debates in detail. In other cases he summarizes, refers to the decisive earlier scholarship, and turns his attention to problems that deserve more attention and may even require extensive debate. He tackles controversial and doubtful issues in exhaustive detail. His gathering and filtering of material is fundamental background for students of the rise of Islam, for those investigating the late Roman and early Byzantine historians, and also for those studying the Sasanian Empire. There is no comparable study in any language of the relationship of Byzantium to the Arabs in the sixth century C.E. It is comprehensive. The investigation required not only the skills of a Semiticist, but also familiarity with Byzantine Greek sources and that growing body of scholarship by modern Byzantinists and specialists on other aspects of Late Antiquity. Shahid is the first to have that dual mastery. This will be the fundamental reference work on the subject for a very long time. Coverage does not technically restrict itself to the years 500 to 600 C.E., for it covers the Byzantine reigns that stretch from Anastasius I, who started to rule in 491 C.E., to the end of the reign of Heraclius, in 641. The bulk of these volumes concentrates on the reigns of Justin I, Justinian I, Justin II, Tiberius II, and Maurice. The most detailed coverage concerns the middle decades of the sixth century, especially from the 530s through the 580s. Part one of volume one covers secular, that is, primarily political and military history, while part two is shorter and contains ecclesiastical history, again organized by imperial reign.

Shahid, in his earlier volumes on the fourth and fifth centuries, succeeded in collecting often very scattered references to the Arabs, subjecting them to analysis, and providing his reader with his own synthesis of the evidence. The reader again will find that in these two volumes. Shahid has read very attentively. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century is a mine of information and many scholars will consult it in that fashion. The book contains not simply a marshaling of references, but also reflections and hypotheses, in which the author continues the process of recovering the history of the Arabs and their relationship to the Byzantines. Chronology and prosopography receive much attention. Compared with the fifth century, the sixth contains a lot of documentation, although many lacunae remain on topics about the Arabs. There is another difference with the fifth century - Shahid is able to draw on more non-Greek and non-Latin primary sources, which include Syriac and even some Arabic texts and inscriptions. Whenever possible he gives priority to historical narratives, but he also draws on epistolary and hagiographic and poetic texts.

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century is a fitting sequel to Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century and Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century, but it has more coherence than either of them. It reads more easily as a single work. But it trails off at the end, because there is only limited coverage of the reigns of Phokas and Heraclius here. The reign of Phokas simply has a dearth of appropriate sources. Shahid plans a sequel volume or volumes in which, among other subjects, he will discuss a number of issues of the later parts of the reign of Heraclius.

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century will not satisfy everyone. Selectivity was required; Shahid could not extensively discuss late Roman provincial life and other related topics. So these volumes do not pretend to be a general history of the late Roman Near East, nor are they an economic or social history. A number of aspects of tribal history are also absent; details of transhumance, diet, migration, internal structure, and demography, as well as broader speculations on tribal identity and issues of closure. An anthropologist might want other things: what constitutes a tribe, aspects of daily life, and popular beliefs and their consistency or inconsistency with elite culture and expectations. Shahid, moreover, has used the literary and epigraphic evidence very carefully but has not given as much attention to archaeology and to material culture. Readers who wish such subjects will have to look elsewhere. Much remains to be done.

The best earlier scholarship on the Ghassanids and Lakhmids is that of Noldeke and Rothstein - learned, though brief contributions, but now long out of date. The most detailed twentieth-century narratives of Justinian's war with the Persians, which involved Arabs, were those of J. B. Bury in the early 1920s and of Berthold Rubin in 1959 (and an incomplete posthumous volume 2 has just been published, too late for Shahid to cite). Neither scholar read Arabic or had special expertise in the eastern limes. Both histories are inadequate. Shahid's is the first major study of Ghassanids since that of Noldeke. Besides providing the Anglophone world with something in English, it is also fair to say that the sources and our knowledge of the broader historical context have changed since the days of Noldeke, so a reworking was badly needed.

There are fundamental questions of source criticism in Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century. Shahid reevaluates Procopius of Caesarea, who he conceded is indispensable for recovering the history of the sixth century, but cannot be trusted on Arab subjects, given his dislike for Arabs, and, in particular, for the Ghassanids. Shahid had long ago convincingly traced the tendentious nature of the historians Procopius' and Menander the Protector's accusation of prodosia, or betrayal, on the part of the Ghassanids. A principal theme is the need for skepticism about the narratives and omissions in Procopius' histories. As the author of an essay on Procopius as a military historian, I agree with Shahid, who likewise convincingly argues for giving greater credibility to the writings of John of Ephesus, which survive only in a Syriac version. Shahid understands that one must try to avoid having one's judgments skewed by Constantinople-centered and court-centered historiography and rhetoric. As difficult as it is, one must try to penetrate the formalities of literary Greek to understand realities, and one must also note and explain the omissions in the sources. A disturbing question is the degree to which the distortions and omissions of Constantinople- and court-centered historians contributed to skewed perceptions of the Arabs at the imperial court and among Byzantine elites. That may help to explain some erroneous imperial decisionmaking.

Much of Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century is a lengthy analysis of imperial mistakes in handling the Ghassanids: failed attempts to murder or otherwise eliminate Ghassanid leaders, kidnappings, and treacherous meetings. Shahid lays out the record of treachery, conspiracy, betrayal, and deception, which were not myths or mere paranoia and propaganda on the part of John of Ephesus. They were part of that historical reality. In isolation, these might seem to be insoluble issues about the veracity of Procopius or Menander the Protector versus that of John of Ephesus. But we know of similar contemporary Byzantine dealings with Berber tribes in North Africa, and the source for those is not John of Ephesus. So these abusive activities fit into a broader pattern. Such conduct was not unique to Byzantium - the Sasanian monarchs and their subordinates engaged in similar practices.

In details: Shahid provides a valuable elucidation of two encomia by Choricius of Gaza, one on Stephanus and Aratius, and the other on Summus. He reaffirms his views that Arethas (Harith) enjoyed the title and regalia of kingship, including the Greek term basileus. His analyses of Arabs as diplomats and interpreters in the service of Persia and Byzantium, the kidnapping and exile of al-Mundir, the role of the curator Magnus in kidnapping Mundir, of the relations of al-Numan to Byzantium are some of the best pages in the volume. Military historians will find his analysis valuable on the abortive campaign in Euphratensis in 536 and against Ctesiphon in 580-81. Shahid rightly concludes that the references to Palmyra and an unidentified friendly phylarch in the seventh-century acta of St. Anastasius the Persian (d. 628 C.E.) are important and worth elucidating. Some material is necessarily speculative: the Ghassanids' role in the crushing of the Samaritan revolt of 529 and possible relationships to the Falashas of Ethiopia, participation of the Ghassanids in Belisarius' reconquest of Africa from the Vandals in 533, and the relationships of the Ghassanids with Phokas. Shahid shows a solid understanding of the topography.

Shadhid analyzes the significance of Monophysitism to the Ghassanids, writing much more sensitively on this topic than did another specialist on Monophysitism, W. H. C. Frend, who is often unsympathetic to the Arabs. Shahid correctly argues that one should not argue from the silence of the Greek sources that the Ghassanids and other Arabs played a negligible role in frontier defense of the late Roman cum Byzantine Empire. Shahid has trenchantly criticized the disastrous reign of Emperor Maurice (582-602), whose irresponsible policies in handling his Arab allies and subjects were ultimately ruinous. He has successfully made the case for the significance of the Ghassanids to imperial policy and for the disastrous consequences of imperial mismanagement of relations with them, especially on the eve of the emergence of Islam. In publishing Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Shahid has laid the basic foundations for understanding the historical context in which Islam spread.

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Author:Kaegi, Walter E.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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