Earliest Expositions of Roman History

Active confrontation with the western hemisphere in combination with the development of imperial concepts and a proliferous written culture during the late seventh and eighth centuries gave rise to a new understanding of the Roman Empire. This transformative period facilitated the transition from a rather diffuse, self-centred, and associative understanding of the Roman-Byzantine Empire to a systematic and intellectualized conception of Roman-Byzantine history. Whereas the former lacked historical depth and was reduced to the remembrance of quasicontemporary events, the latter resulted from the effort to understand historical developments that did not touch directly upon Arab and Arabic-Islamic collective identity. On these foundations, Arabic-Islamic scholars from the ninth century onwards were increasingly able to develop a systematic conception of world history and to define the Roman Empire’s place in the history of humankind. Only then, it became possible to assess the empire’s relevance for the emerging societies of the medieval Latin West.

Such a systematic and intellectualized approach to Roman history developed gradually and already before the ninth century. The historiographer al-T abari (d. 310/923) claims that the early Muslim traditionist Ibn Ishaq (d. c.150/767) had recourse to the testimony of Christians in his description of the Passion of Christ and the ensuing fate of the apostles.46 According to Ibn Khaldun’s (d. 808/1408) citation of Ibn Ishaq, the latter also mentioned the Roman authorities in this context.

Ibn Ishaq said: Then the Jews assaulted the remaining disciples, tormenting and aggravating them. The emperor (qaysar) heard about this because his governor Pontius Pila- tus (Filatush al-Bunti qaiduhu) wrote to him about the events and the miracles [he had witnessed]. The Jews became aggressive against him as they had become against John before, so that he ordered them to refrain from doing so77

Although these later citations do not focus on the Romans, they do suggest that very early Arabic-Islamic scholars showed interest in the origins of Christianity and related aspects of Roman history.4®

The earliest Arabic-Islamic work of universal history at our disposal still ignores the Romans. Written by the Andalusian scholar Ibn Habib (d. 238/853), it begins with the Creation, reproduces biblical narratives from the Old and the New Testaments, dedicates some space to the history of the pre-Islamic Arabs, provides [1]

context to Qur’anic narratives, and then focuses on the prophet and the succeeding caliphs up to the reign of al-Walid, which witnessed the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.[2] [3] [4] [5] [6] In contrast, works of universal history and geography written in the Middle East of the late ninth century contain entire chapters or at least several passages on the history of ‘al-RumM0

Dealing with the most ancient rulers of the world, Ibn Khurdadhbah’s (d. c.300/911) Book of Routes and Realms leads the Romans’ genealogy back to the mythical Persian ruler Afrldun.51 The oldest fact on Roman history concerns the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.52 A short passage on the historical geography of the Roman Empire refers to some of its western domains. According to Ibn Khurdadhbah, the empire originated in the city of Rome (Rumiyya) and on the island of Sicily (Siqilliya). Rome was the residence of twenty-nine rulers. After this period, two rulers resided in Nicomedia (Nuqumudiya), followed by two rulers in Rome. Constantine the Great (Qustantin al-akbar) then moved to Byzantium (Bizantiya) which he named Constantinople (Qustantiniyya) and surrounded with fortifications.53 A description of Constantinople54 is followed by references to Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, and a portrayal of Rome. This large fortified city surrounded by stylites on pillars contained markets and churches, including a huge and magnificent church that harboured the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul. 55 The city’s construction allegedly took 300 years. Its fortifications and beacon were so bright that its inhabitants, including 600,000 Jews, were forced to wrap a dark cloth around their head for a period of seventy years.5fi Ibn Khurdadhbah also claims that the Romans had been active in North Africa and had once ruled Egypt and the ‘people of the West’ (ahl al-Maghrib).5J After the death of Goliath at the hands of David, Berber tribes had migrated to the west and settled in North Africa, forcing the local Romans to leave their cities and to seek refuge in Sicily until a peace settlement had been concluded. Since the Berbers did not wish to settle in the cities, the Romans and Africans (al-Afariqa) returned to their cities on the North African coast and lived there up to the Muslim conquest.58

Ibn Khurdadhbah combined data from different Middle Eastern milieus with knowledge acquired during the Muslim conquest of North Africa. The mythical ruler Afridun’ is of Persian origin. Jewish tradition is the probable source of information on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem as well as on the number of Jews residing in ancient Rome, here probably mistaken for Alexandria. Mentioned in the work’s Introduction, Ptolemaic geography may have served to depict the empire’s historical geography.59 His comments on the shift of the empire’s centre from Rome to Constantinople, as well as the ensuing description of the empire, focus on the eastern Mediterranean and betray very limited knowledge about the empire’s western extension. The description of Rome mainly conveys a sense of awe vis-a-vis the city’s architectural grandeur and the luxurious interior of its churches. References to religious monuments and phenomena are dominant, suggesting that he relied on a Christian source of information. His reference to the Berber migration and settlement in North Africa probably dates from the period when the expanding Muslims became acquainted with the ethnic landscape of the region.60 Other data may be of contemporary origin, e.g. the indication that the ruler of ‘al-Rum’ is commonly called either Caesar (qaysar) or Basileus (basil).[7] [8]i Even if the exact origins of his data remain a matter of speculation, nothing indicates that Ibn Khurdadhbah made use of western sources.

This equally applies to the universal history of al-Ya'qubi (d. after 292/905), the earliest Arabic-Islamic work to feature a self-contained and well-informed chapter on the Romans. In the tradition ofArab genealogists, al-Ya'qubl leads their genealogy back to a certain ‘Rum b. Samahir b. Huba b. 'Alqa b. Ъй b. Ishaq b. Ibrahim’, a descendant of the biblical Esau ('Isu), but also proposes that the ethnonym ‘al-Rum’ may derive from the toponym Rome.62 Roman history begins with the decline of the Greeks (al-Yunaniyyun), represented culturally by the Greek sciences63 and politically by Alexander and his Ptolemaic successors in Egypt.64 A brief comment on the Roman annexation of Egypt65 is followed by a list of Roman rulers divided into two chapters.

The first chapter ranges from Caius Julius Caesar (Jalyus al-asghar) to the post- tetrarchian rulers Constantin I and Maxentius (Qustantin wa-Makniyus). Aside from several emperors and the length of their reign, it mentions the birth of Jesus under Augustus (Aghustus), the cult of emperors under Vespasian (Isfasyanus), the destruction of Jerusalem and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (jabal Ubrumur) under Titus (Titus), Apollonius of Tyana, the murder of Domitian (Dumityanus) as well as a Jewish rebellion against Hadrian (Adriyanus).66 A lengthy digression about pre-Christian religiosity presents different religious schools of thought relevant to Greek and Roman rulers, including the Sabeans, the Sophists, the Atheists, and the Peripatetics.6[9]

The second chapter deals with the Roman rulers who adopted Christianity, beginning with Constantine’s vision that made him decorate his lance with the sign of the cross before an important battled[10] The topic of Christianity pervades the whole chapter. It contains the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesos, several short explanations of the dogmatic decisions taken at various ecumenical councils as well as an Arabic translation of the Nicene Creed.[11] It also lists Christian emperors up to the joint rule of the Byzantine emperor Leo IV and his son Constantine VI (Alyun wa-Qustantin ibnuhu) in the late eighth century.[12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] The chapter ends with a short presentation of the Roman calendar and a few lines on the extension of the Roman-Byzantine Empire. Here al-Ya'qubi mentions the territorial losses suffered due to the Muslim expansion and claims that the empire originally extended to the lands of the Slavs and the Franks, unfortunately without clarifying if it included or only bordered on these regions. In line with Ibn Khurdadhbah, he only mentions two western toponyms, Rome and Sicily/1

To al-Ya'qubl, Roman history was a history of imperial continuity from Caius Julius Caesar up to the Byzantine emperors of the eighth century. Although he refers to the joint rule of Constantine and Maxentius/2 he does not mention that Theodosius’ sons Honorius and Arcadius ruled in Rome and Constantinople respectively. He thus ignored that the late antique empire split into an eastern and a western half.

Moreoever, al-Ya'qubi’s Roman Empire is clearly centred on the Middle East. Important events in the West, i.e. Constantine’s vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, or emperors who ruled from a western location such as Valentinian (Walantyanus), are not linked to a toponym/3 Since the eruption of Vesuvius is not localized, al-Ya'qubi’s narrative is devoid of western toponyms with the exception of Rome and Sicily. Eastern toponyms, in turn, feature often, i.e. Jerusalem under Titus and Hadrian, the cities accommodating the ecumenical councils, finally the imperial capital of Constantinople.

All this is not surprising, if one considers the sources at al-Ya'qubi’s disposal. His impressive knowledge of Greek science74 and Hellenistic philosophy75 suggests that he moved in intellectual circles fascinated by the ancient Greek heritage. The latter had become accessible to Muslim intellectuals thanks to translations from Greek and Syriac to Arabic during the eighth to tenth centuries/6 The dominance of data about Christianity, including a description of Constantine’s conversion that largely resembles the corresponding passage in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine[19] as well as various details about the formation of early Christian dogma, suggests that al-Ya'qubi had access to data provided by Christians. Since he refers to Nesto- rius’ flight to Iraq and the ensuing establishment of a local Nestorian ecclesiastical structure,[20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] we may surmise that al-Ya'qubi gained access to corresponding data with the help of Nestorians, who participated actively in the above-mentioned process of translation/9 All this suggests that the transmission of the so-called Greek sciences was closely associated with a parallel transmission of knowledge on the first five centuries of the history of Christianity/0

  • [1] 6 al-Tabari, tarikh, ed. Ibrahim, vol. 1, p. 602: ‘'an Ibn Ishaq: wa-l-nasara yaz'amuna . . .’. 47 Ibn Khaldun, tarikh, ed. Zakkar and Shahada, vol. 2, p. 173: ‘qala Ibn Ishaq: thumma wathabaal-Yahud 'ala baqiyyat al-hawariyyin yu'adhdhibunahum wa-yaftinunahum, wa-sama'a qaysarbi-dhalika wa-kataba ilayhi Filatush al-Nabati qa’iduhu bi-akhbarihi wa-mu'jizatihi wa-baghi al-Yahud'alayhi wa-'ala Yuhannan qablihi, fa-amarahum bi-l-kaff 'an dhalika’. The edition gives ‘Filatushal-Nabati’, i.e. ‘Pilatus, the Nabatean’, instead of ‘Filatus al-Bunti’, i.e. ‘Pilatus, the Pontian’. Thisseems to be a spelling error by the copyist or the editors who confused the letters ‘ba” (_,) and ‘nun’ (j).That the Arabic transcription of Pilatus begins with the letter ‘fa” instead of the letter ‘ba” may pointto a Syriac source of information, since the Syriac letter ‘pe’ resembles the Arabic letter ‘fa”, cf. Reynolds, Theologian (2004), p. 74 with n. 274, p. 201. 48 See Anthony, ‘Composition’ (2010), pp. 164—202, on the purposeful manipulation of historicalknowledge on early Christianity in the late eighth century.
  • [2] Ibn Habib, tarikh, ed. Aguade; Pons Boigues, Historiadores (1898/1972), pp. 32—4.
  • [3] In contrast, historiographical works with a specific focus, such as writings on the Arabic-Islamicexpansion, i.e. the so-called furwh-literature, only mention the ‘Rum’ in direct contact with the Muslims without referring to their history.
  • [4] Ibn Khurdadhbah, al-masalik, ed. de Goeje, p. 15.
  • [5] 52 Ibid., p. 118. According to Ibn Khurdadhbah, this event led to the dispersion of the Jews as hadbeen predicted to Isaac’s son Jacob by God. Furthermore, it provoked God’s wrath with the consequence that, from this time on, at least one Roman was led into captivity by neighbouring peoplesevery day.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 104. 54 Ibid., pp. 103—5. 55 Ibid., pp. 113—15. 56 Ibid., p. 160. 57 Ibid., p. 83. 58 Ibid., pp. 91—2.
  • [7] 9 See his references to Ptolemy in ibid., pp. 3, 5. 60 Ibid., pp. 91—2.
  • [8] 1 Ibid., p. 16. 62 al-Ya'qubl, tarikh, ed. al-Muhanna, vol. 1, p. 186: ‘wa-intasabu ila l-Rumiyya’. 63 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 126—82. 64 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 184-6. 65 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 186 . 66 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 186-8.
  • [9] 67 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 188-94; cf. Branco, Storie (2009), pp. 112-14.
  • [10] 68 al-Ya'qubi, tarikh, ed. al-Muhanna, vol. 1, p. 194.
  • [11] Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 194—8, mentions the condemnation of Arius in Nicaea under Constantine(pp. 194—5); a declaration of faith allegedly issued in Constantinople under Theodosius I, whichactually represents an exact translation of the Nicene Creed that only omits one phrase (p. 196); thecondemnation of Nestorius in Ephesus under Theodosius II and Valentinian (pp. 196—7); the condemnation of the Jacobites in Constantinople under Marcian (p. 197); a fifth council dealing with thecorporality of the Messiah, and a sixth council. The latter two councils took place in an unnamed cityunder Anastasius and Heraclius respectively. Cf. Branco, Storie (2009), pp. 114—15; Konig, ‘Chris-tianisation’ (2009), pp. 439^0.
  • [12] al-Ya qubi, tarikh, ed. al-Muhanna, vol. 1, pp. 186—98.
  • [13] Ibid., vol. 1, p. 199. 72 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 188 . 73 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 194, 196.
  • [14] 74 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 126—82, deals with Hippocrates, Galen, Pythagoras, Euclid, Nichomachus thePythagorean, Aristotle, and Ptolemy.
  • [15] 75 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 188—94. 76 Gutas, Thought (1998).
  • [16] 77 Compare al-Ya'qubi, tarikh, ed. al-Muhanna, vol. 1, p. 194, to Eusebius, Life of Constantine,
  • [17] trans. Cameron and Hall, book 1, § 27—41, pp. 80—6. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History had been avail
  • [18] able in Syriac since, at least, the fifth century, cf. Ecclesiastical History, ed. Wright and McLean, p. v
  • [19] (Introduction).
  • [20] al-Ya'qubi, tarikh, ed. al-Muhanna, vol. 1, p. 197.
  • [21] Gutas, Thought (1998), pp. 13—14; O’Leary, Thought (1923/2003), pp. 31—55; Teixidor, Anti-oche’ (2001), pp. 249—62.
  • [22] Against Rosenthal, Heritage (1975), p. 10; Lewis, Discovery (1982/2001), pp. 8—9. Al-Ya'qubl,tarikh, ed. al-Muhanna, vol. 1, p. 183, mentions Ptolemy’s Qanun as a source on the father of Alexander the Great.
  • [23] al-Tabari, tarikh, ed. Ibrahim, vol. 1, pp. 201, 209—10, 577, summarizes them under the term‘ahl al-ansab’.
  • [24] 82 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 210: ‘ahl al-tawrah’.
  • [25] Ibid., vol. 1, p. 540: ‘ahl al-akhbar wa-l-'ilm bi-umur al-awa il’, p. 574: ‘ahl al-'ilm bi-akhbaral-awwalin’, p. 580: ‘ahl al-'ilm bi-akhbar al-madi’.
  • [26] 84 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 581: ‘ahl al-'ilm bi-akhbar al-Faris’.
  • [27] Ibid., vol. 1, p. 540: ‘qawm min 'ulama ahl al-kitab min ahl al-Filastin’.
  • [28] Ibid., vol. 1, p. 606: ‘dhikr man malaka min al-Rum ard al-Sham ba'da raf al-masih 'alayhial-salam ila ahd al-nabi salla llahu 'alayhi wa-sallam fi qawl al-nasara’.
  • [29] al-Mas'udi, muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 191, p. 101 (AR), p. 76 (FR).
  • [30] Ibid., § 715-16, pp. 32-3 (AR), pp. 269-70 (FR).
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