Thus passes Constans II, Emperor of the Romans

This summer I’ve been leading a medieval Greek reading group, and we’ve been going through Theophanes’ Chronicle. We began with the death of Herakleios in 641, ideally situated for the really dark times, which tend to be my favourite. It was also pedagogically useful, since the sections tend to be very short and so we had a chance to get a grip on Theophanes’ Greek. This worked out well, and I’m glad I did it that way.

Anyhow, this morning we killed Constans II, the emperor from 641 – 668. This was a particularly turbulent time in Byzantine history, but one that I find so interesting perhaps because it is so dark. The Arabs were advancing, the authority of the emperor was in danger, and the church remained divided by Herakleios’ late attempts at reunification that spawned yet another heresy. Constans did not take this lying down, however. He vigourously resisted the Arabs, attempting to take advantage of the divisions spawned by the First Fitna. When Mu’awiya put his new fleet to sea, Constans set out to drive it back, despite an oracle that testifies to the heights of Byzantine pedantry. Although he was defeated in a major naval engagement off of Lycia in ca. 654, it at least spawned an amusing episode as reported by Theophanes. When the battle starts to look bad, Constans gives his clothes to some brave and foolish sucker and heads for the hills. It had never occurred to me that Theophanes says nothing about Constans putting on other clothes. Presumably he did, but it nonetheless presents a literal “the emperor has no clothes” moment!

constanscoin

Constans had some seriously impressive facial hair. Consider that this coin is about the size of your thumbnail and the level of detail speaks for itself.

The rest of Theophanes’ account of the reign of Constans has little to say about him. We know that he went west and toured Italy, although the Liber Pontificalis is more useful for this (but no less problematic.) He spent a number of years in Sicily, allegedly having fled Constantinople because the populace hated him after he executed his brother. Tension is undeniable; some named (members of the senate?) seemed to have prevented him from taking the empress and his children west. Few scholars actually believe that Constans intended to move his administration permanently to the west. The general idea is that he was in Sicily organizing the defences for Africa from the Arabs, and keeping the Lombards at bay in Italy while building a central Mediterranean battle fleet for taking the fight to the Muslims, something in line with both earlier and later Herakleian strategy. The evidence for this is slim – it’s based upon a scanty reference to a tax imposed upon Italy that has something to do with ships, a reformed naval command that began to play imperial politics after Constans’ death, and how many ships Justinian II was able to lose. Still, this idea remains more appealing than slavishly believing a hostile chronicler who wrote almost a century and a half later.

Constans’ planned move against the Arabs never came. Instead, in his 26th year on the throne he went for a bath, and after he got all soaped up his bath attendant bashed him over the head with a bucket. Despite attempts by certain modern scholars to invent explanations, we really have no idea why Constans was murdered. Following Theophanes, the reign of his son Constantine IV began bloodily. First, he sailed to Sicily and put down the emperor who had been raised there (and by “put down” think of it in the terms of what veterinarians are sometimes called to do), although some have called into question whether he personally made the trip. Upon returning home, he met with a general revolt of the leaders of one of the major remaining army groups who wanted Constantine’s brothers to be crowned alongside him. Constantine invited them to Constantinople and then impaled them within sight of the army. Then just for good measure he decided to ensure that no one would try to crown his brothers in the future, so he chopped their noses off. And we haven’t even gotten to the bloody, violent reign of Justinian II yet. So please, remind me again of how boring medieval history is?

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Let’s discuss sources and the value of studying history

Frequently throughout my undergraduate career and even during my short time thus far as a graduate student, I have often been asked what I would do with history and why I was studying. While most of these questions were innocent enough, the premise behind others is that one goes to school to train for some particular role in society in order find a job, make some money, and one day get a mortgage, a house in the suburbs, and have two and a half kids. The questions were occasionally voiced with some concern, since a B.A. in history, financially speaking, is not worth much and there is certainly no secure career path with that degree. I understand and appreciate that people were worried that after graduation I’d be living on the street debating the relative merits of Thucydides, Latin subjunctive constructions, or the origins of the First World War with all my fellow unemployed history majors. However, going back to the original premise – that we pursue higher education in order to secure a place in society where one has a steady income and is consequently able to live a sanitized existence, this was never the intention of a humanistic education. The exigencies of the modern western economy and society have come to praise those which keep the material wealth cycle moving and the expectation is that the university system will play its role in that death spiral.

I am not here to argue for the value of an arts education. I am, however; going to argue for the value of studying history. Unfortunately, largely thanks to poor curriculums and teachers, many seem to have the idea that history is knowing a variety of dates and facts that one can recite at will. There is some degree of that in history and it does come in useful, but what historians do is tease out those facts (caveat lector: imagine inverted commas around that word every time you see it, and not just here) through the careful analysis of sources. Having some basic background in dates and facts is important to have just about any educated discussion on any topic. Even in the sciences, if you’re looking at the results of past experiments, you’re interpreting and using history. Politics cannot be discussed outside of history. Precedents (ie: history) is essential in law. History is nearly everything and everyone interacts with it constantly, so wouldn’t it make sense for the proper study of history to receive some serious attention?

It may appear to many that the main role of historians is to spit facts at an audience, since the place where most people see historians is in the lecture theatre or as a talking head on a TV program. The reality is that we spend most of our time working with sources (I, for one, have never been interviewed for TV). These sources rarely come down to us in a nice format (and when they do, there’s reason to be suspicious). They need to be analyzed, categorized, often translated or at least read in their original language, and interpreted in light of other historical sources. This is the absolute basic foundation upon which the modern study of history rests upon, and one cannot deviate from it. If one wishes to posit a particular source is the best account or interpretation of some event, then they need to provide further evidence to demonstrate that the source is valuable or useful. For example, if I wanted to say that the siege of Alesia happened as Caesar described it, I would argue that Caesar is an important source because he was present and directed the siege, that de Bello Gallico is likely based upon military reports sent back to Rome, and that there were too many Roman witnesses and potential enemies of Caesar for him to have wildly fabricated his account. I would also be required to look at what other ancient accounts of the siege of Alesia say, and then examine what modern scholars have said, since I might have misinterpreted some part of the Latin text, and others who have actually visited the site would have an understanding of how this applies to the text. Likewise, if I wanted to look at the big naval battle between the Arabs and the Romans off the coast of Lycia in 654/5 AD I am compelled to examine Theophanes, and yet am faced with the difficulties that Theophanes wrote almost a century and a half later, relied upon sources that were themselves distant from the battle, and sloppily constructed his chronicle. Of course, these are extremely basic examples and all of them would need further work, but they suffice to make the point here: that the sources are no good on their own and they need further analysis, both internal and external.

Broadly, sources exist as primary or secondary, although the definition is a bit loose. By the strictest definitions, Plutarch is a secondary source. He worked from texts and oral tradition to compose an account, much as modern historians do today. However, since he is an important source of material from the ancient world and wrote in ancient Greek, we tend to refer to him as a primary source. Likewise, a secondary source can also be a primary source. This post would be considered primary material by someone studying how history is discussed in the age of digital media. Generally, primary sources are those who had access to the event. A soldier’s memoir detailing his time in Vietnam would be an example of this, although when working on ancient and medieval history a primary source tends to be anything ancient or medieval: closer than us and not early modern tends to suffice to meet the definition. Secondary sources are typically works written about the events in question, and in academia are usually those which are written by scholars. These are not immune from criticism either. Just the other day I had a book review accepted by a major journal in my field. The book was good, but there were a number of errors in it and I’ve exposed those in my review. It’s possible that the author or someone else will respond to my criticisms and render some of them invalid (but I hope not!) This is how scholarship works: you make your point and you argue for it based upon the evidence. You then present that evidence to your peers who are also familiar with that material and historical methodology and they examine what you have done to see how your premise stands up.

If you’re not able to defend your position based upon evidence, your thesis will collapse. Pretty basic stuff, right? This is why the academic study of history is so important: it gives you the skills and the mindset you need to approach materials, whether they be a Mycenean jug, a medieval manuscript, or a newspaper article from this morning. History teaches you to critically analyze the sort of information that you come across in daily life. A historical education is not important just for the sake of antiquarianism or having some picture of the past, although these have some value on their own, but for justice and tolerance and humanity as a species. While this may sound excessive, the main skill history teaches is deconstruction, which extends beyond history itself and to everything around us. It’s difficult to demonize another group of human beings for trait X when you see that trait elsewhere and realize that the claims made about that group have no basis in reality. It’s difficult to claim nationalistic exclusivity when you realize that the people you’re supposedly claiming ancestry from had no conceptions of group solidarity in any way that you do.  It’s difficult to blame some religion for something when you see that the cause of the event is enmeshed in another dozen critical factors. It’s difficult to hate another culture when you’ve looked at your own from the outside and have come to understand that maybe it doesn’t have all the answers. It’s difficult to idolize another culture that glorified horrific things. The conclusion to this repetitious series of points is that properly done, history allows one to understand others and to reserve judgement until all the evidence has been critically analyzed and reviewed. Hopefully, by that point, it will be clear that history is rarely black and white and some appreciation for the complexity will be gained. I’m a Byzantinist because I find Byzantium to be a fascinating, alien society that both belongs to the west and the east (if we can talk in such broad terms; there’s my historical education speaking), not because I think that they hit upon some magical formula that made everything wonderful for them. I am continually bothered that a society which placed the Christian religion above all could so readily mutilate their enemies, and yet they claimed they did it as an act of mercy. History allows us to understand that others are complex and fascinating, and by doing justice to the past we create the mindset needed to bring justice to those who need it today. It’s difficult to hate when you come to see that atrocity breeds atrocity and hate breeds hate, and that the “enemy” may not be very different at all.

Now, since I’m an historian I am fully aware that such utopian visions are bound to fail since they always do and we cannot escape human nature. However, we are not bound to that nature, and the skills that history provides are an important part in overcoming the knee-jerk reaction to easy answers that we seek. Because everyone interacts with history regularly, having the ability to criticize it is essential. Politicians, religious leaders, demagogues, and yes, even us ivory tower folks, have been known to use history to suit their own purposes and agendas, whether for some petty squabble or to secure power by creating an ideology with historical roots. For a rather tame example, the Canadian government has spent some money on making the War of 1812 public knowledge. Ottawa is bedecked in banners hanging from lampposts illustrating characters and battles from the war. I have heard criticisms that this is an attempt by the conservative government to militarize Canada’s past in order to militarize Canada’s future. Not having looked into the issue, I do not know what the intention is, but in the very least the portrayal is rather tasteful and tries to incorporate various viewpoints (the Americans, the natives, women) and is thus a far cry from some of the shrill military propaganda produced in the 20th century. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of history and a willingness to question what the authorities have created raises some outstanding questions: why is the government trying to Canadianize an event that happened half a century before Confederation? To what degree was this war a Canadian vs. American conflict? What relevance does this have for us today and why is the government investing money in this project?  A sound historical education keeps one asking questions like this about everything and about every portrayal and use of the past. It’s not about knowing some dates or facts or the answers, but acquiring the skills to break down each and every portrayal of an event and question its sources and how they are being used. One imagines that if such an education was widespread, the dangers of easy answers from governments, educational institutions, religions, and groups of every agenda would be somewhat ameliorated. History is about questioning every narrative and the material which it is based upon, and rather than leaving us adrift with nothing to hold on to it liberates us to be more fully human and escape the often destructive stories which we use to dictate our existence.

 

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A Serial Review

This is the part where I will discuss the relative merits of Shreddies against Frosted Flakes. Or perhaps not. I’ve actually been pre-occupied with two main matters as of late: thesis research and figuring out what I am going to do and where I am going to go for a Ph.D. The thesis research has been going quite well, and I hope to have a draft of decent size complete for the end of summer. All this terminological work on the foederati is rather tedious, but it’s paying off. I am getting to the point where I can argue that a list terms of suspected relevance do not actually provide much information. I also received several large scholarships for my M.A. work, which is encouraging. On the Ph.D front I feel that I’ve made less progress. The UK schools I’m looking at (primarily Oxford and St. Andrews, although Cambridge remains a possibility) tend to want very good thesis proposals. The problem with this is that I want to work on the Byzantine-Islamic relations at the state level in the late seventh to mid-eighth century, and all the recent scholarship on that topic is in German. I do not know any German, and although I’m planning on spending a term at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich next year to finish my thesis, I do not actually start German until the fall. Syriac, French, and some Greek will keep me occupied until then. Anyhow, this ramble was never the point of the post. I intended to do a serial review of what I’ve been reading, in 100 words or less per book. I’ve reviewed a few of these on Amazon, so you can see my thoughts in full there, but here it shall be kept brief.

 

The History of Michael Attaleiates

Michael Attaleiates, translated by Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis.

attaleiates

Michael Attaleiates’ history is mainly focused on the 1070s, and is presented here for the first time in English with a recent Greek edition on the facing page. It’s a very lively read, and I am coming to have great hopes for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series. Essentially, this work chronicles Byzantium’s decline in the 1070s as it fought internal civil wars and did little to ward off the Seljuks. Also includes some material to contrast with the Alexiad on the pre-imperial career of Alexios I Komnenos.

 

Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for a History of Nikephoros Bryennios

Leonora Neville

heroes and romans

Heroes and Romans is one of my favourite books I’ve read on Byzantium to date, partially because Neville’s insights are constantly revealing, and partially because I could never have the patience to do what she does. The essential crux of the work is that Nikephoros Bryennios Materials for a History has a strong Roman moralizing bent, and that when viewed by the standards of the work certain characters come out quite well despite their eventual defeats (Romanos IV Diogenes, John Doukas, and Nikephoros Bryennios Sr., namely) while others (Alexios I Komnenos) actually appear to be quite bad despite being successful. Neville breathes life into a neglected text, and this fascinating book will likely be read with great profit for a long time to come.

 

The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072

Ronnie Ellenblum

collapse

This one wasn’t so great. From the sheer quantity of information the author collected he’s probably correct, but given the topic outlined it read like a second-rate Ph.D. thesis. His idea is that the decline of the Abbasid state and Byzantium coincided with a period of extreme weather that led to famine and drought in the settled areas and which brought steppe peoples into the civilized world. Constantly interesting but hampered by the lack of the scientific data which is essential in studies such as these, Ellenblum’s book really just seems like a first draft of something that should be monumental and field-changing.

 

Pierre Gilles’ Constantinople

Pierre Gilles, translated by Patricia Byrd

PG Constantinople

I finally got around to reading Pierre Gilles’ account of his trip to Constantinople in the middle of the 16th century. While it is an impressive work of scholarship on its own, Gilles provides us with information on monuments now buried or destroyed. One has to sift a bit through the book, since so much of it is filled with what the ancient authors whom Gilles had read had to say about various buildings, but it remains an essential text for understanding Byzantium Constantinople. The translation is easy to read and the notes are good.

 

The Oxford Book of Oxford

Jan Morris

oxfordbook

I picked this up on a whim, but it was a lot of fun. It’s just little document snippets relating to Oxford from its foundation up to the Second World War. It’s anecdotal nature means that there is no narrative, and it’s occasionally hard to understand some of the big issues that the university faced over its existence (from my understanding, WWI and women being two of the most important in recent times) but this book is endlessly entertaining, and has some excellent material contained within even if it tends to lean towards the more exciting/scandalous/amusing side of things.

 

The Armenian Military in the Byzantine Empire

Armen Ayvazyan

armenian military

The best part about this book is that it was short. This mildly nationalistic piece proposes to discuss the Armenian rebellion against Justinian in 538-9 AD as well as explain why the Armenians aren’t mentioned in Maurice’s Strategikon. The latter is argued well, but the former is a meandering mess of invented plausibilities that has the Armenians revolting against the Romans in the name of some nationalistic spirit. Perhaps most interestingly was the point Ayvazyan made about how the Armenians often targeted enemy commanders in their conflicts, a point which seems to stand despite everything else.

 

The World Beneath Istanbul

Ersin Kalkan

istanbul

Another disaster of a book. It has a few useful pieces of information on some of the lesser-known or more inaccessable parts of Byzantium hidden under Istanbul, but as a whole it’s badly translated and frequently meanders onto irrelevant or semi-relevant topics, public executions and holy springs apparently being some of the favourites.

 

Between Empires: Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity

Greg Fisher

between empires

A comprehensive history of the Jafnids and Nasrids (often referred to as the Ghassanids and Lakhmids in older literature and anything by Irfan Shahid) and their interactions with both Rome and Iran. Convincingly argued and always interesting, the parts I got the most out of was the forms that interactions on the Roman frontier took and how similar they were to a few forms of display that we see in early Islam.

 

The Myth of Nations

Patrick Geary

myth

I actually didn’t like this book despite it being good. Geary spends a great deal of time discussing the representations of foreign peoples in antiquity and then late antiquity, whereas I was hoping more for a point by point refutation of various nationalistic claims. It’s a solid work, if a bit tiresome for a classicist who knows how Herodotos and Tacitus viewed peoples from beyond the borders. While structurally this book is far more complete, I got more from Michael Kulikowski’s (who I was fortunate to have lunch with this past term) one chapter on nationalism and the Goths in Rome’s Gothic Wars.

 

The Iohannis, or de Bellis Libycis

Corippus, translated by George Shea.

corippus

I was so happy to find that there was an English translation of this. The thought of having to go through 200 pages of Latin verse or 200 pages of Latin verse in French translation for what turned out to be a not very fruitful reward had filled me with dread. I have yet to look at the Latin text since this is very low-priority in the hierarchy of thesis research, but Shea’s translation makes for excellent English prose. The text is a Latin poem on the wars against some opportunistic locals after Justinian’s reconquest of Africa.

 

The Fragmentary Classicising History of the Later Roman Empire I

R.C.Blockley

The cover was too boring to show. The introductory volume to a work containing the fragments and translations of four mostly lost historians from late antiquity. This volume comprised an introduction the authors themselves and a survey of the available fragments. Essential reading for anyone working in the 5-6th centuries, either east or west, and thankfully a quick, easy, and informative read. But if you’re in the field you already know that, unless you’ve been living under a rock since the ’70s.

 

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The Lack(?) of Sources for Early Islamic History

Since at least the time of Henri Pirenne, the idea that the Muslim conquests brought an end to classical world has received some respect. The collapse of the Mediterranean economy, as Pirenne has argued, ushered in the so-called “Dark Ages.” The question of just how far civilization waned in the western world during that time is part of a vigorous intellectual debate these days, and I might as well admit that I’m a regionalist. However, the term “Dark Age” has another meaning as well, and can refer to period in which the textual source material is poor. By that logic, it is possible that we’re living in a dark age right now, given how much of our data is on magnetic or plastic media or acidic paper. It’s hard to beat vellum and oak gall for sheer preservation, but I’ve digressed before even getting to the point I am going to try to (briefly) make: that the early Islamic period was not really all that dark in terms of source material. For sake of terminology, I am generally referring to the “Islamic” here to be the period, ca. 620-750 AD. Thus authors do not have to be Muslims to be writing “Islamic” sources.

What distinguishes the early Islamic sources is their limited nature, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Our actual sources from the seventh and early eighth centuries are scattered across the Mediterranean. Not a single one from this time has any grand encompassing narrative relating to the Muslim conquests. The academic material reflects this. Dates, particularly in the seventh century, remain in flux. Major events, like the supposed siege of Constantinople in 654, may or may not have happened. We do not really know what sort of message Mu’awiya was send when he was crowned caliph in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, it’s the lack of a coherent political narrative that give us a good understanding of the period. The scattered and incidental nature of our sources ensure good reporting because they come from a wide geographical area and are in a variety of languages.

The value of these sources is that they do not give us what we want: a coherent narrative in which to understand a series of movements that are too complex for any one story. This period is dark because it is dissatisfying. We do not have all the answers, and are unlikely to ever find many. What is important about this seemingly dark period is how it compares to other periods in which we feel we know it well. Let’s take the Peloponnesian War as an example. We have one major, contemporary source for the bulk of it, Thucydides, and Xenophon fills in the end. We have some scattered archaeological material, and Thucydides’ narrative clearly took place in the lands around the Aegean Sea. Thucydides was, of course, hardly an impartial observer to events even if he was a very perceptive one. Nonetheless, Thucydides is the only other contemporary source to inform us about the war. We can get a sense of how some Athenians felt about it from non-historical literature like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, but we only have one account of the details of the war, and most of our other material derives from Athens anyhow.

Often, that is more than we have for the early Islamic period, but those many pieces come together to make a colourful, and often blurry, but understandable mosaic. Whereas most of our knowledge on the Peloponnesian War derives from one man in one place at one time and is all in Greek, the early Islamic material is much more diffuse and appears in Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Syriac. The early Islamic sources have a wide range of interests and are in many genres, including letters, apocalypses, homilies, hagiographies, and poems, whereas Thucydides is one highly complex piece of literature. He tells a story, but the story he tells is the Peloponnesian War through Thucydides, and we really have no other material to compare it to. His account generally makes good sense; his battle narratives are very sober and his figures reasonable, but it remains the lone contemporary source. The same goes for Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul or Justinian’s wars in Africa and Italy. The main story arc comes through single figures writing grand literary histories. The early Islamic materials are not nearly as monolithic, and nor do they make such a satisfying story. They often are responding to the new world in a variety of different ways and are not explicitly writing down words for the sake of posterity, as Thucydides claims to have done. We have some of the actual working materials from the period, although they rarely gives us a deep insight on, for example, politics in Umayyad Damascus under Abd al-Malik.

This is actually good news because instead of having a coherent political narrative from one source which is certainly not impartial, we now have a variety of pieces of the story and have to put it together ourselves. This is a lot of hard work. As mentioned above, the materials are in a lot of different languages, and unless you’re this guy, knowing them all just isn’t reasonable. You have  to be prepared to deal with the failure to answer the sort of questions that we traditionally think we can understand. The reality is that we have no idea why Constans II was assassinated. The best guesses are just guesses and barely enter the realm of hypotheses since they are so speculative. The material is just not there to understand the world in the same way we’re used to when we have large literary histories, but because these sources together are not monolithic literary constructs, it serves to reason that our knowledge of this “dark age” is actually rather good. We can ascertain the attitudes of different classes and groups of people from the wide spectrum of the central and eastern Mediterranean worlds, which is a lot more than we are able to with most classical history. Salacious spin is much more difficult when you have works coming from Alexandria, Dvin, and Constantinople by authors of different political and religious persuasions. We have no Carthaginian account telling us about their war with Rome, nor do we have any material from the Sicilians who were caught in the middle between the two powers. Similarly, the people of Delos have not left us an apocalypse or a series of letters illuminating their views on Athenian intervention. The seventh and eighth century sources may not always give us what we want, but in terms of accessing the past they give a broader and less constructed view than the major literary sources which inform so much of our knowledge of the classical world, so perhaps the seventh-century dark age just was not so dark after all.

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The World in 640 A.D.

[This was put together as an attempt to collect my thoughts before a give a brief introduction to the topic in the title in the Greek reading group I’m organizing this summer. Since I normally write boring, argumentative stuff I tried to make this is a bit more exciting.]

From Constantinople, the world must have looked like a dark and frightening place. In the palace, the emperor Herakleios was dying. He was a shell of the man who had gone east nearly two decades previous to combat the Persians, and possessed neither the physical nor mental strength to combat the new invaders from the south. In 602, the emperor Maurice had been assassinated by a military coup and a soldier by the name of Phokas was brought to power. We do not know much about Phokas’ reign, but it was not militarily successful. With the coup, the Persians attacked, allegedly to reinstall Maurice’s son upon the throne. It’s unclear exactly whether Maurice’s son escaped to Persia, but it is unlikely. The Persians were probably hoping to take advantage of a weakened Byzantium to gain some strategic leverage in the heavily-fortified region of northern Mesopotamia. Meeting little Roman resistance, the Persians pushed forward, and by the end of Phokas’ reign in 610 had battered their way through the shield that had long protected Asia Minor and the Levantine provinces from Iraq.

Phokas was deposed in 610 by the son of the exarch of Africa, Herakleios. Although Phokas’ reputation is stained black in the pages of history, perhaps we should reconsider his lack of success in comparison to Herakleios’ first eight year. While Phokas managed to lose Mesopotamia and parts of the Balkans, by the end of Herakleios’ first decade he had lost the Levant and Egypt, and the Persians were moving into Asia Minor. Had Herakleios been deposed at this point he would undoubtedly have gone down in the annals of history as another useless tyrant, much as Phokas has.

The situation had worsened by the mid-620s. The Avars had proved themselves to be a very dangerous foe in the Balkans, perhaps more than the Huns had ever been, as they had a complex logistical system and advanced knowledge of siege warfare. Allegedly in collusion with the Persians, the Avars besieged Constantinople in 626. The Persians were unsuccessful in joining the siege as they lacked a navy to transport them across the Bosporos, but Persian fires burning in Chalcedon just across the narrow strip of water were unlikely to inspire confidence for the defenders of Constantinople. The emperor Herakleios at this point was out east, deep in the fastness of the Caucasus with what remained of the Roman army. When he heard of the danger presented by the Avars, he was forced to send an entire third of his army to defend Constantinople.

Herakleios was not idle in the Caucasus. He was actively recruiting locals, drilling his troops, and engaging in diplomacy with Turks from the Gok Turk confederation. Diplomacy was Herakleios’ greatest success in this period, for not only was he in contact with potential military allies, but he was also talking with Persian generals who were occupying former Roman land. In any event, the Avar siege of 626 was a failure, and the shahanshah in Ctesiphon now had to deal with a Roman emperor occupying a dangerous strategic position with the remnants of the Roman army. Persian armies were sent against Herakleios, but he managed to outmanoeuvre and defeat them individually. Then, when the campaigning season was over, Herakleios did something unexpected. Rather than encamp the army in the Caucasus for the winter, Herakleios turned south and marched into Persia. There was no word of protest from his army; by this point they seem to have had great confidence in their leader and were battle-hardened troops accustomed to long marches in difficult terrain and even moving at night. While the standard texts follow the sources in claiming that this was a masterstroke on Herakleios’ part, I am inclined to be a little more cautious. Herakleios’ army moved extraordinarily fast, which indicates to me that they had no siege train. Ctesiphon was a very well defended city, and I do not believe that Herakleios had the resources to invest it. If his army was as good as it seems, it’s not impossible that he conceived storming it, but such tactics are very uncharacteristic of Roman armies in this period. Then again, so is an emperor marching into Persia. The real victory was diplomatic. Herakleios had been in contact with Persian generals, many of whom had been campaigning far from home for many years on their own dime. They were disaffected, and the failure to capture Constantinople cannot have helped the situation. Thus rather than an attempt at conquest or a conclusion of the war through a feat of arms, Herakleios’ march into Persia was an indication to his allies in the Persian court that it was time for a shahanshah who would be more amenable to Roman peace offers. This is what happened, the Persian government collapsed and a new regime, supported by Herakleios’ army in Persia negotiated a peace.

All was not well in the near east, however. Two and a half decades of war had left both devastated. The urban populations of Syria and Egypt, who had long been in conflict with Constantinople over religious matters now had spent an entire generation under foreign domination. Herakleios created a new religious policy in an attempt to bridge the gap between the Chalcedonians and the so-called Monophysites, but like Justinian’s attempt in the previous century it failed to win over the hardliners and tainted the emperor’s image with heresy.

Arab groups living on the Roman periphery had begun raiding Roman territory in the late 620s. While the Romans had no concept of it yet, these Arabs would later be known as the first Muslims, and they soon appeared in sufficient force to threaten the fragile Roman hegemony in the region. The chronology is very problematic from 628 (when most of the Chronicon Paschale ends) for the next century, and the information available for the next few decades is confusing and difficult to place. At some point the Arabs took Damascus, were driven out of it by a large Roman field, but subsequently were able to defeat that field army. Following that battle, traditionally known as the Battle of Yarmuk, although where it took place and when (636 or 638?) is unknown, the Romans fell back to the Taurus, the mountain chain that divides Asia from Syria and Mesopotamia. Unable to withstand the Arabs on land and unwilling to risk another decisive engagement, the Romans took to the seas. They did not know that it would be another two centuries of grim fighting before their power was re-asserted in the east. Herakleios’ gains had effectively been wiped out in a few short years by the Arabs, and the situation looked dire. The Romans had fought the Persians for centuries, they shared numerous aspects of elite culture, and typically had fought limited wars over minor objectives. The Arabs, however, played a new game. By 640 they had effectively annihilated the Persian empire in Iraq. Their culture, language, and religion were a mystery to the Byzantines at this time, but they had proved themselves to be military effective. The emperor who had turned back impossible odds against the Persians was now dying, and the future of the empire must have seemed bleak indeed.

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Genesis 21:13 and Islam

I met the author and blogger Lee Harmon on Goodreads, where I’ve put far too much time and effort into cataloguing my personal library. I’ve always found him to be nothing short of a scholar and a gentleman. We’ve communicated a few times, and he has always been friendly and generous. Lee runs a blog, The Dubious Disciple, and that brings me to the topic of today’s post. The subtitle of his post is “How Constantine Created Islam.” I have no issues with this title. I would personally have said something along the lines of “How Late Sixth and Early Seventh Century Chaos Coupled With the Imperial Religious Program Created Islam,” you, dear reader, are now able to understand why his blog gets far more views than mine (Lee also constantly updates it, so that might help, too.) Anyhow, there are a few nitpicky issues which I have with this post, which are less about what Lee wrote and more about common ideas associated with early Islam and the Arabs in antiquity which have little basis in reality: that Arabs were limited to the Arabian peninsula and that Genesis provides a basis for separation between Jews and Arabs, and that Islam was created in a near vacuum.

The first is the story told in Genesis 21:13 about the division between Isaac and Ishmael. Lee notes that “tradition holds” that the division between Judaism and Islam can be traced back to this point. This later tradition is nothing other than an attempt to explain the Arabs (and Islam) in a Biblical cosmogony. It clouds the reality of the origins of Near Eastern peoples and creates a division where one does not exist. It helps to reinforce the stereotype of Arab = Muslim, and has been used to create a Biblical basis in which Islam could be explained. While early Islam was primarily an Arab movement, we need to remember that Arabs come from an area much greater than the Arabian peninsula. The great Roman-era cities of Edessa and Palmyra in Mesopotamia and Syria were ruled and peopled by Arabs. We would do well to remember that the first Christian state in the world (sorry, Armenians), the Abgarid dynasty which ruled Edessa, was Arab. With this in mind, it is hard to give much credence to the alleged Genesis-based separation between Judaism (and thus Christianity) and Islam on the basis of Jews and Arabs. Arabs occupied much of the Near East before Islam as its inhabitants, but we tend to forget that because in the pre-Islamic period we look at the region as part of the Roman world. It certainly was, but the peoples within were Romanized Arabs. When the centres of power changed from the Mediterranean trades axes that had led from the Phoenician cities to Constantinople to ones centred on first Damascus and then Baghdad, the locals began to change their customs, appearance, and in some cases, religions, to better interact with those new centres of power. The picture is far more complex than this Biblical interpretation makes it out to be.

It also seems to me that Lee’s post neglects the Christianization of the Arabian peninsula and sets Mohammed too far from the Graeco-Roman context which he lived on the edge of. Mecca and Medina were not isolated desert communities that had no contact with the outside world. As a merchant culture, the Arabs of the Hijaz travelled widely. When we first begin to get texts written in Arabic about their travels, it is hard not to be impressed. Not only did they go to many of the places they talked about, they took a genuine interest in the places they visited. This is not to say that these accounts are unbiased or beyond any sort of myth-making, but in comparison to Roman geographical treatises you can see that the Arabs actually left the comfort of their surroundings. Penguin recently published some translations of Arab travellers in Russia and the far north under the title Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness. I highly recommend it. Not only were the Arabs of the peninsula regularly in contact with the Graeco-Roman world (or perhaps more accurately, were part of its periphery) many were Christians. In the south, wars were fought between the Christian kingdom of Axum and a state which converted to Judaism in the Yemen and had begun to persecute its Christian population. Given the time frame here (520s) we can put it into the context of imperial Christianity, which was increasingly using conversion as a means of controlling satellite states in the ongoing conflict with the Sassanian Persian empire, the other major power in the region. The ruler in Himyar (Yemen) likely saw conversion to Judaism as a way to keep Constantinople’s hands out of his pie. The king of Lazika in the Caucasus also converted around this time. The eventual result was Roman troops in his territory and decades of small-scale, intermittent warfare, so perhaps we can understand the Himyarite king’s fears. Both the Romans and Sassanian Persians employed Arab tribes to guard their respective desert frontiers, and the Romans efforts to convert theirs were successful. Thus not only were the Arabs of the peninsula familiar with Christianity, large sections were thoroughly Christianized. As for what went on in Mohammed’s mind, I wouldn’t have the gall to guess. However, I would not be surprised in the least if the strict monotheism of early Islam was not a direct reaction to the centuries of Christological strife in the Near East and the power vacuum opened by the recent war between Persia and Rome.

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Update

It has been a while, so I suppose that I ought to give an update to prove that I am still alive. I’m currently back in northern Alberta after doing a tour in Latin Palaeography; I mean, a semester of graduate school. I’m now doing my MA in late Roman history at the University of Ottawa, where I have the opportunity to work under a very renowned scholar who has also turned out to be an incredible supervisor. It’s been pretty good. My research methodologies course enjoyable, and gave me an opportunity to read some literature I had not yet gotten into, as much of my personal reading belongs more properly to medieval Byzantium. My living accommodations are less than satisfactory (but very cheap, which has resulted in runaway book buying) and I ended up getting stuck in a Latin palaeography course (which was fascinating, but hellish.) Currently, I’m working on two main research topics. The thesis topic has yet to consume a great deal of my time but will with the beginning of the New Year; I am looking at the specific terminology used to refer to barbarians in Roman service with the goal of determining just who the foederati were. Just over a century ago a French scholar noted that we do not really know what the word means, and although some attempts have been made to come to a definition scholars continue to throw around the word without much understanding. My project is to gain some insight on how the foederati related to the symmachoi, amongst other terms.

My secondary area of research has been for a series of conference papers and revolves around Byzantine “foreign policy” towards the Arabs and the Arab response, ca. 640-717. These dates have been selected because 640 means I can avoid the conquest of Syria and Palestine, and in 717 I see a new diplomatic parity after the failure of Maslama to take Constantinople with what seems to have been a massive expedition. The emperor Constantine VII noted in a 10th c. document that following this siege a mosque was built in the praitorion in Constantinople, and I have seen some evidence of a redefining of early Islamic eschatology after repeated failures to the take the city. This is a topic I have every intention of turning to when I get the time, but first I need to figure out just what happened in between these two dates. The chronology is a complete mess for this entire period and I have no pretensions about resolved it. We need some people who can read Armenian, Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Latin.

The main research I have been doing is on how the two powers of the eastern Mediterranean squared off with each other when both seems to have still believed the annihilation of the enemy was possible, which I see a coming to an end in 717. I gave a paper in Ottawa on Arab campaigns beyond the Taurus, arguing that the main goal was to win a decisive battle, something the Byzantines never gave them the opportunity to fight. The research for this simply opened up a wide variety of new questions, new areas for research, and more conference papers. In the February I’ll be making the journey out to Oxford to give a paper at the Oxford Byzantine Studies Graduate Conference. Looking at the same chronological period, I’m switching from the campaigns of the Arabs to the campaigns of the Byzantines. Byzantium still managed to put together a number of large imperial campaigns during that period, but they typically were not against the Arabs. I’m arguing that this was an attempt to shore up the western and northern frontiers while hoping for a Herakleios redux, ie: arranging a large amount of foreign military aid like Herakleios managed to secure from the western half of the Gok Turks while in the Caucasus. Of course, this could all change since I have yet to do all the research. Several books and a good 300 printed pages are waiting for me, and that’s just on Constans II. Following this I’m planning on giving another paper in Calgary although I have yet to hear back from this conference. For this one I’m turning to the war at sea and arguing that although the Muslims could win in a decisive naval battle, they did not have the resources or the desire to the turn to the sea to create an effective coastal defence to stop Byzantine raiders, who were quite successful in temporarily re-occupying numerous coastal cities. In response to the Arab unwillingness or inability to defend their coastlines, we see their fleets deployed against Byzantium in two roles: the conquest of Constantinople or support for soldiers attempting the conquest of Constantinople. The new Arab capitals were also in locations where they were in much less danger from Byzantine raiding forces. Whether the Byzantine raids were the primary impetus for moving the capitals further inland is a question I’m hoping to address somewhat, because we also have the glaring examples of the qasr and the convenient use of Mu’awiya’s Damascus, both of which just happen to be located in areas where access to the periphery (and at least in early Umayyad Syria, the source of the caliph’s military power) is better than in somewhere like Alexandria or Carthage.

Christmas holidays are somewhat abbreviated this year despite getting to go home for longer than ever before due to all of the research that needs to get done. Still, now that I am free from medieval palaeography I can return to the historical research that I do best, and those dark ages that I love so much.

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