The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius between Rome and Iran

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The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius between Rome and Iran. By Elizabeth Key Fowden. [The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, XXVIII. ] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999. Pp. xxii, 227. $55.00.)

At last, long last, the book on St. Sergius, the military saint martyred around A.D. 300 in the Orient, has appeared, authored by the one most qualified to write on him. The authoress, Elizabeth Key Fowden, is a classicist who had written her Princeton doctoral dissertation on the Saint in 1995 and continued for a quinquennium researching this theme. The result of this patient and conscientious effort is this book under review, which will remain for a long time to come the standard work on St. Sergius. The book is remarkable for the completeness of its coverage of the Sergius saga, as the chapters begin with the passio, followed by those on the rise of the cult of the martyr on the frontier with Persia; the emergence of a city, actually named after him, Sergiopolis/Rusafa, not far from the Euphrates in Syria; the spread of his cult in Byzantine Oriens and Persian Mesopotamia; the involvement of the two world powers in it, Christian Byzantium and Zoroastrian Persia; and finally the attraction of the Saint to a third religion, Islam. In addition to her command of the two important relevant languages for the study of the Saint, namely, Greek and Syriac, and of the various disciplines involved, which go beyond hagiography and ecclesiastical history, the authoress has not remained an armchair historian but has lived in the Near East and visited the main center of the cult, Sergiopolis/Rusafa. She even pere-- grinated to distant South Arabia, to Tarim, where the Saint's memory is still green to the present day, and what is more, among Muslims who revere him as a nab!, a prophet in whose honor a mosque still stands. The analytic portions of the work are also matched by the synthetic in which the authoress treats large historical problems related to the Saint and his cult. It is impossible to go through all these important contributions in a short review such as this one, but one large problem she has handled very well is the involvement of rulers, so far removed from one another in almost everything, in this Saint, namely, the Byzantine Christian Emperor, Justinian, and the Persian Zoroastrian Shah, Chosroes Parvis, and the Muslim Arab Caliph, Hisham,which makes the Saint truly unique in the annals of ecclesiastical history.

Of all ethnic groups, the Arabs were the ones most involved with St. Sergius. His city Sergiopolis, was located in the eastern limitrophe of Oriens, predominantly inhabited by the Arabs, and one group among them, the Ghassanids, the foederati of Byzantium in the sixth century, were guardians of the Saint-his shrine and the city. …