Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century. Volume I, Part 1: Political and Military History / Volume I, Part 2: Ecclesiastical History

By MacCoull, L. S. B. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century. Volume I, Part 1: Political and Military History / Volume I, Part 2: Ecclesiastical History


MacCoull, L. S. B., The Catholic Historical Review


Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century Volume 1, Part 1: Political and Military History, and Volume I, Part 2: Ecclesiastical History. By Irfan Shahid. (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 1995. Pp. xxx, 688; x, 689-1034 plus indexes. $75.00.)

The epic undertaking continues. After volumes (progressively growing in size proportionally to the increasing amount of source material) on Rome and the Arabs and on Byzantium and the Arabs in the fourth and fifth centuries, Professor Shahid has arrived at the sixth century and indeed carried on down through the first third of the seventh. The massive, physically two-volumed work here considered is Volume One of what is given the acronym BASIC Part 1, following Shahid's usual bipartite pattern of treatment, covers political and military history, while the separately bound Part 2 covers ecclesiastical history. This physical disjunction enables the reader to juxtapose the volumes while studying any particular reign (as in previous periods, Shahid divides his history up by the reigns of the Byzantine emperors). Volume Two of BASIC will cover the archaeological remains of Arab-Byzantine history from this period, largely reviewed on the ground by the author, and more of the Arabic-language sources, especially poetry. The culmination will come in the in-progress Byzantium and Islam in the Seventh Century. (Note the careful changes: in the fourth through sixth centuries, the Arabs, an ethnic group; in the seventh, Islam, a religious polity.)

As in the earlier volumes, we are taught two lessons. The first is in how much history can be squeezed out of a comparatively small amount of evidence: an inscription, a mention in a narrative historian (more here), a subscription to an ecclesiastical letter. The second is that many Arabs were Christians in late antiquity (and the subtext is that many remain so today). From the period being treated here there is a third lesson, this time explicit (see especially I, 605-610): that the alienating of Byzantium's Christian Arab "federate shield" by the shortsighted policies of the emperor Maurice contributed disastrously to the later conquest of much of the Middle East by the Muslim Arabs. In one form or another this thesis-that Byzantium needed the Arabs-underlies the whole.

The century-and-a-half-long story of Byzantium and the Arabs surveyed here is one of a back-and-forth, love-hate relationship of repeated alienation and reconciliation between the two, largely owing to the confessional disalignment of our period's principal federate group, the Monophysite Ghassanids, with the prevalent Byzantine state ideology of Chalcedonianism. Their leaders are alternately accused of treachery and then endowed with honors in the capital, only to withdraw or again be dismissed. In view of the leading part played by Arab armed forces in the intermittent two-superpower struggle between Byzantium and Sasanian Persia that occupied nearly the entire period, the overall story is, from hindsight, a crescendo of warnings about the need for unity in the multicultural Christian Roman Empire. …

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