Home Geography Arabic-Islamic views of the Latin West : tracing the emergence of medieval Europe
The ‘Arab Factor’ in the History of the Roman Empire
Roman entanglement in the Middle East began in the first century BCE with the successive creation of the provinces of Syria and Egypt in that century, Judaea around the beginning of the Christian era, and Arabia Petraea and Mesopotamia at the beginning of the second century ce.          Roman sources reporting on the first and early second centuries ce locate Arabs (Arabes) in various places of the Middle East and mention their participation in Roman activities, including diplomatic exchange with the Parthians and the destruction of Jerusalem under Titusd4 An integral part of the empire’s eastern domains by the second century ce, Arab groups must have been aware of the wider Roman sphere. Nabatean inscriptions from the early imperial period found in Rome and Puteoli show that some were active in the west.i5 A Latin inscription dedicated to the emperor Marcus Aurelius between 175 and 177 CE by the representative of the Nabatean ‘civitas Hegrenorum’ (today Madain Salih, Saudi Arabia) implies that the settlement’s inhabitants had at least a vague notion of a Roman emperor residing far offd6
Caracallas decision to extend Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of Roman provinces in 212 may have reinforced the attachment to Hellenistic culture on the part of Roman citizens of ‘Arab’ ethnicity.17 But to claim that ‘the Arabs’ even provided the empire with an imperial elite during the reign of Marcus Iulius Philippus (ruled 244-49), commonly known as ‘Philippus Arabs’, may go too fard8 Philippus’ origins in the Syrian HawraM9 as well as the neutral or derogatory epithet ‘Arabs’ assigned to this emperor in various Latin and Greek sources of the fourth to sixth centuries2° have led some scholars to identify Philippus with the ‘son of an Arab sheikh’.21 However, later Arabic-Islamic historiographers do not acknowledge the rather noteworthy issue of having contributed an emperor to the largest and most powerful polity of Antiquity.22 It seems rather improbable that such knowledge was filtered or lost during the creation of an Arabic-Islamic collective memory. Apparently, Arab groups of later centuries did not regard Philippus as ‘one of them’ and consequently failed to integrate him into their collective memory.
Notwithstanding, Arab groups of the fourth and the early fifth centuries, now often called ‘Saracens’,23 were involved in imperial affairs, not only as foes,24 but also as auxiliary forces, foederati and regular ethnically defined units of the Roman army.25 These Arabs were all stationed in the Middle East, with the possible exception of troops from Egypt active in the Cyrenaica.26 This implies that they were essentially of local and regional importance. However, being part of the Roman military machinery may have acquainted Arab groups of the fourth century with troops and administrators from North Africa, Spain, Italy, Gaul, or Britain who had been stationed in the Middle East.27
Possible acquaintances with Western troops and administrators were probably limited to the period in which the Roman Empire still functioned as a whole.28 They must have become increasingly rare, as soon as the western and the eastern half of the empire began drifting apart from the late fourth century onwards. Arab groups involved in Roman-Byzantine campaigns of the sixth century do not seem vol. 1, p. 86, ignores his name but mentions his conversion and his death at the hands of the pagan Decius; Ibn Khaldun, tarikh, ed. Zakkar and Shahada, vol. 2, p. 236, mentions his genealogy, the duration of his reign, his conversion, and his murder at the hands of Decius. On Philip’s sympathy for Christianity, see Prickartz, ‘Philippe’ (1995), pp. 146—50.
to have ventured into the western parts of the Mediterranean.- Critics of the famous Pirenne-thesis underscore that the sixth century displayed a very low degree of connectivity between the Mediterranean’s northwestern and southeastern hinterlands, manifest, among other things, in the blocking of land routes from the West to Constantinople, a decreasing number of transport ships, the fading away of western harbours, the demise of the Roman annona system, and the reduction of papyrus imports from Egypt to Gaul.      From the perspective of the Arabian Peninsula, it is possible to draw an equally sombre picture. The profitable continental transit trade of spices from India and Ethiopia to the Mediterranean basin of Antiquity had given way to a more restricted land-based network of merchants trading in perfume, leather, clothing, camels, donkeys, and primitive foodstuffs. This network connected Mecca with the Yemen, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Syria, in particular the cities of Gaza (Ghazza), Abila (Ayla), and Bostra (BusrO)?1 In view of the unstable political situation on the Arabian peninsula of the second half of the sixth century, the cradle of Islam was probably not stable enough to reach far beyond its geographical confines.32
Notwithstanding, political, economic, and ecclesiastical relations between the northwestern and the southeastern shores of the Mediterranean continued to exist in the sixth century. Justinian’s efforts at restoring the former unity of the empire by (re-)establishing Roman-Byzantine hegemony not only created a buffer between the emerging powers in the post-Roman West and the Arab sphere.33 Taking on the role of an intermediary, Constantinople maintained direct and regular relations with elites from the pre-Islamic Arab world34 and the Latin West.35 In this context, the Ghassanids play an important role, given that their rulers maintained political and ecclesiastical relations with the Byzantine Empire, including its emperors.36 Constantinople could serve as a place of encounter between Ghassanids and people from the west.37 Western policy-makers such as pope Gregory I (sed. 590-604) even seem to have been involved in Ghassanid affairs.38
Commercial networks continued to connect both parts of the Mediterranean.39 Whereas Mecca and the Hijaz seem to have been comparatively isolated, the contacts maintained by Arab groups from Syria, Palestine, and Egypt may have reached farther afield.40 Latin texts from the sixth century contain many references to Orientals and Oriental traders from Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the Latin West.41 The spread of Christianity implicated some Arab groups in Middle Eastern ecclesiastical networks42 that occasionally maintained sporadic contact with the west. Since the fourth century, pilgrims from the Latin West spent time in Egypt, Northern Arabia, Palestine, Syria, and even Mesopotamia.43 Both Latin-Christian visitors and Arabs or ‘Saracens’ are attested in various locations, including the column of Symeon the Stylite the Elder,44 the tomb of Saint Sergius in Rusafa,45 and the port cities of Gaza and Abila/Ayla, both destinations of Meccan traders.46 Although the majority of these encounters seem to have been superficial, the ‘Saracens’ involved must have learnt something about the origins of these Western visitors. The sources also mention ecclesiastics from the eastern Mediterranean in the Latin West, including a presbyter from the province of Arabia in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula in 435,47 an abbot sent by the bishop Marianus of Arabia
In view of this evidence, encounters seem to have taken place occasionally at certain focal points of exchange, i.e. the Byzantine court at Constantinople, the ports connecting the western with the eastern Mediterranean as well as the stopovers used by Western pilgrims travelling in the Middle East. It seems impossible to rule out that Arab groups occasionally received information about the Latin West directly or indirectly, even in the two centuries preceding the rise of Islam.
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