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EXPLAINING THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN WEST (10TH-15TH CENTURIES)

While the early standard narrative came into being, developed and diffused in the course of the tenth century, certain Arabic-Islamic scholars also received access to additional information about the Roman Empire’s western dimension.

Middle Eastern Theories

Some scholars of the tenth-century Middle East were aware of a close relationship between Byzantium and certain peoples of the northwestern hemisphere. Although unable to provide historical background information, al-Ist akhri (10th cent.) and Ibn Hawqal (d. after 378/988) included the Franks and the Galicians in their description of Byzantine territory (balad al-Rum), claiming that all three peoples formed a united realm (wa-l-mamlaka wahid [sic]) and practised the same religion, even though they differed in language.^3

The earliest firm evidence for a remarkable surplus of historical information on the Roman West is found in a universal history written by none other than al-Mas'udi, [1] [2] [3]

presented above as one of the exponents of the early standard narrative. After completing the above-mentioned treatise Meadows of Gold (muruj al-dhahab) in 336/947,124 he finished a historiographical work entitled Book of Instruction and Supervision (kitab al-tanbih wa-l-ishraf) in 345/956.125 This work structures Roman history in line with the early standard narrative, with a first chapter on the pagan rulers of Rome/26 a second chapter on the Christianized rulers after Constantine’s conversion—either a consequence of his cure from leprosy or a vision in the sky, 127 and a third chapter on the rulers after the rise of Islam.m The general mixture of information does not differ considerably from the earlier muruj al-dhahab. Again, al-Mas'udl combines efforts to reconstruct the Romans’ genealogy with a chronological overview. His narrative begins with Augustus’ predecessor and the Roman conquest of the east, and addresses imperial activities, Persian-Roman relations, and issues linked to Christian dogmatic and ecclesiastical history. The kitab al-tanbih contains less anecdotes, more facts, and a list of emperors that is more complete than the one in the muruj al-dhahab. In this sense, however, it is not original. What is new is that it contains considerably more data on the western dimension of the Roman Empire. Among the earliest Arabic-Islamic works to mention Rome’s foundation by Romulus and RemusTh9 it also conveys a ‘Frankish’ dimension to Roman history.

On the one hand, this ‘Frankish’ dimension of Roman history is expressed in linguistic terms. In the muruj al-dhahab, the standard term for the language spoken and written by ‘al-Rum’ or Roman emperors is ‘al-Rumiyya’.i30 In the kitab al-tanbih, al-Mas'udl introduces the linguistic term ‘al-Ifranjiyya al-ula’, that is ‘archaic Frankish’. This term is used to explain the imperial title ‘Caesar’ (qaysar), which, according to al-Mas'udl, allegedly derived from the fact that Augustus entered the world thanks to a Caesarean section.i3i On the other hand, this ‘Frankish’ dimension becomes manifest in passages which unambiguously define the ‘lands of the Franks’ (bilad al-Ifranja) and the Iberian Peninsula (al-Andalus) as territory under Roman rule. In a chapter on the provinces of the empire (bunud al-Rum), al-Mas'udl explains that, in ancient times, the Romans (al-Rum) had taken control of the Greek provinces (diyar al-Yunaniyyin)

  • 124 al-Mas'udl, muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 30, p. 29 (AR), p. 19 (FR); cf. § 3628, pp. 282—3 (AR).
  • 125 al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, pp. 2, 6, 123.
  • 126 Ibid., p. 122, trans. Carra de Vaux, p. 172.
  • 127 al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, pp. 137—8, trans. Carra de Vaux, p. 189; cf. Branco, Storie (2009), pp. 138—40.
  • 128 al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 156, trans. Carra de Vaux, p. 214.
  • 129 al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 123.
  • 130 al-Mas'udl, muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 127, p. 73 (AR), p. 54 (FR); § 712, p. 30 (AR), p. 267 (FR); § 733, p. 40 (AR), p. 274 (FR).
  • 131 al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 123. Compare the same anecdote in al-Mas'udl, muruj, ed./trans. Pellat, § 717, pp. 33^ (AR), p. 270 (FR), where he fails to name the language. Further references to the language of ‘al-Rum’ in the work are indefinite. Al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, pp. 123, 129, refers to ‘this language’ (hadhihi al-lugha) or ‘their language’ (bi-lughatihim) without defining it. On the etymology of the title Caesar cf. Caius Plinius secundus, Naturalis historia, ed. Mayhoff, vol. 2, lib. VII, cap. 9, § 47; Sextus Pompeius Festus, De verborum significatu, ed. Lindsay, p. 50, 50L.

We have already stated in the chapter on the ancient Greeks included in the Book on the Arts of Knowledge and What Happened in the Era of the Ancients that the nine provinces adjoining Islamic territory (ardal-Islam) today, constituted the domains of the ancient Greeks up to the straits (al-khalij) and several days beyond them, while the lands and seas that stretch out beyond these confines beyond the lands of Rome (bilad Rumiyya) and the territories of the Franks (ard al-Ifranja), which extend up to the surrounding Ocean and the lands of the Iberian Peninsula (bilad al-Andalus) and add up to around 500 parasang, constituted the domains of the Romans (diyar al-Rum).[4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

Dealing with the late antique tetrarchy, al-Mas'udi claims that Maximian and Maxentius ruled the empire jointly, but eventually fought about it.133 In this situation, Maxentius asserted his power ‘in the city of Rome and the adjacent lands of the Franks’.i34 Explaining how Constantine I divided the empire among his sons, al-Mas'udl states that Constantine’s son Constans (Qustus) received ‘the city of Rome and the lands of the Franks, the Slavs and other peoples that lie behind it.’i35 In spite of these clear statements concerning the western and northern extension of late antique Roman rule, al-Mas'udl fails to acknowledge that the empire fell apart in Late Antiquity. In the kitab al-tanbih, Theodosius I is succeeded by Arcadius and Theodosius II with no reference to developments in the Roman WestTh6 not even in connection with Justinian.137

Notwithstanding, al-Mas'udl knew that the empire’s western half eventually became independent from the imperial centre in the east. A curious anecdote explains how this took place—not in Late Antiquity, but in his own lifetime. It forms part of a subchapter attached to his list of Roman rulers and dedicated to the provinces of the empire (bunudal-Rum). According to al-Mas'udl, the city of Rome had already been subject to Constantinople before the rise of Islam (qabla zuhur al-islam). In this period, the city’s ruler (sahib Rumiyya) was dependent on (munqadan ila) and obedient to (muttan lahu) the ruler of Constantinople (sahib al-Qustantiniyya) and neither had the right to wear a crown nor to hold the title of king (malik). Around 340/951_52, he felt strong enough to usurp these insignia of power. The troops sent out to quell this rebellion by the ruling emperor, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (Qustantin b. Alyun) were defeated. The latter was forced to plead for peace. Before peace was concluded, the ruler of Rome married his daughter to Constantine’s son, Romanos, who honoured his new wife and endowed her with precious gifts. In this context, al-Mas'udl claims that:

all other Frankish peoples, that is the Galicians, the people of Jaca, the Basques, the Armanjas [Germans?], most of the Slavs, the Bulgars and other peoples, adhere to Christianity and recognize the authority of the ruler of Rome. Rome is and has always been the capital of the realm of great Francia (dar mamlakat al-Ifranjiyya al-'uzma).lis

Seen in combination with his earlier statements, this passage proves that al-Mas'udl was aware of the northern and western dimensions of Roman rule. The Roman Empire as presented in the kitab al-tanbih is a Roman-Frankish empire that started out in the city founded by Romulus and Remus, and eventually included great parts of Western Europe. Thanks to the conquests of Augustus and his successors, it also incorporated the Middle East. The ‘Frankish’ and ‘Slavic’ sphere were still part of the empire in the period of the tetrarchy. Constantine then moved the empire’s capital to Constantinople and allotted Rome with its hinterland to one of his sons. This part of the empire was subject to Constantinople until it successfully seceded in 340/951_52.

In comparison to previous works of Arabic-Islamic scholarship, the exposition of Roman history in the kitab al-tanbih thus represents a significant step ahead. Can this be explained by the fact that al-Mas'udl had access to western sources? By defining Rome as the historical centre of Frankish rule, al-Mas'udl proffered a distorted Arabic-Islamic version of the medieval Latin-Christian concept of translatio imperii, the idea that the polities ruled by the eastern Franks represented a continuation of the Roman Empire.[10] [11] [12] [13] [14] However, al-Mas'udl also characterizes the Roman ruler’s behaviour vis-a-vis Constantinople as an act of usurpation and secession, thus reproducing a perspective of events that has a decidedly ‘Byzantine flavour’.140 Al-Mas'udl claims that he acquired his knowledge about the Frankish-Roman connection from a letter written by Aristotle to Alexander the Great.ш In this letter, Aristotle allegedly exhorted Alexander to wage war against the Persian ruler Darius:

You, O King, have seen the signs of victory when you first ventured into the Frankish sphere (ila l-Ifranjiyya [sic]). When you approached them, their elders, who were at the borders of their lands, abandoned the border zones and fled to their great city Romed42

A kind of ‘mirror for princes’ written in the form of a correspondence between Aristotle and Alexander the Great, this letter addresses various topics. Such literature had already been translated from Greek to Arabic in the Umayyad period and was developed and enriched in the subsequent period.[15] [16] [17] [18] If al-Mas'udl’s indication of the source is correct, he must have used a text that drew on and enlarged a textual tradition made available thanks to the translation of Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic between the eighth and the tenth century. Fortunately, al-Mas'udl is also quite explicit as regards the origins of his other data on the Roman Empire in the kitab al-tanbih. He made use of a large array of Christian scripture including the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles.144 He mentions texts that form part of the known corpus translated from Greek via Syriac to Arabic, including works by Marinus of Tyre, Ptolemy, and Galen as well as a table of Roman rulers written by Theon, one of the late exponents of Roman paganism at the Museion of Alexandria in the late fourth century. 145 In addition, he discusses several works written in Arabic by contemporary Christian scholars:

One of the adherents to Maronite Christianity known as Qays al-Marunl, has written a good book on history including the Creation, the prophets, the books, the cities, the peoples, the rulers of al-Rum and others that ends in the caliphate of al-Muktafl. Among the Maronites I have not seen a comparable book, whereas a number of earlier or later Melkites, Nestorians and Jacobites have written numerous books. The best Melkite book I have seen so far on the history of rulers, prophets, peoples and countries etc., is the book by Mahbub Ibn Qusta ml n al-Manbajl, as well as the book by Sa'ld b. al-Batrlq, the patriarch in Alexandria on the chair of Marcus who is known as Ibn al-Farrash the Egyptian and whom we have seen in the Egyptian town of al-Fustat, which ends with the caliphate of al-Radl, as well as the book of the Egyptian monk Athanayus in which he deals with the lives and activities of the rulers of al-Rum and other nations from Adam to Constantine, the son of Helena. Among the Ibadites in the East, I have seen the book by the scribe Ya'qub b. Zakariyya’ al-Kaskarl. It fell into my hands in Iraq and Syria and it encompasses various branches of sciences of this genre, excelling in this in comparison to other books of the Christians. Then there is a Jacobite book, which deals with the lives and activities of the rulers of al-Rum and the ancient Greeks (al-Yunaniyyin) as well as their philosophers. It was written by Abu Zakariyya’ Dankha, the Christian. He was very apt at dialectic and analytic philosophy, and several discussions took place between me and him on the trinity and other topics in the quarter Umm Ja'far in the western part of Baghdad as well as in a church in the city of Tikrlt known as al-Khadra’.^6

Thus, when writing the kitab al-tanbih, al-Mas'udl had access to an impressive variety of texts on the history of the Roman Empire. None of these texts was of western origin. Most of them had been written by Eastern Christians of different sectarian affiliation, some of whom he even knew personally. Given this large number of sources, it is highly probable that some of these texts were of high quality and elaborated more on western affairs than the sources used by al-Mas'udl in his muruj al-dhahab or by his earlier or contemporary Arabic-Islamic peers. Moreover, we can assume that al-Mas'udl read the available texts more attentively and with an eye to western affairs. The accounts of Frankish, Lombard, and Galician history in his muruj al-dhahab attest to this scholar’s interest in the history of Western Europe.147

  • [1] Cf. Zaman, ‘Yakubi’ (2002), p. 257; Bosworth, ‘al-Tabari’ (2000), p. 11; Pellat, ‘al-Masudl’(1991), p. 786; Boilot, ‘al-Biruni’ (1960), pp. 1273—5.
  • [2] Cf. Kaegi, Expansion (2010); Hartmann, Hadrian I (2006); Metcalfe, Muslims (2009), pp. 7—16.
  • [3] al-Istakhri, al-masalik, ed. de Goeje, p. 9; and Ibn Hawqal, surat al-ard, ed. Kramers, p. 14,compare this constellation with the Islamic world of their times where there existed different languagesbut only one ruler. Miquel, Geographie (2001), vol. 1, p. 269, points out that this description does notcorrespond to the political situation of the Islamic world in the tenth century. While Miquel suggeststhat both authors did not wish to face reality, one should also consider if they wished to propagate theutopian vision of a unified Islamic world or to point to existing religious, economic, and cultural ties.
  • [4] al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 182: ‘wa-qad dhakarna fi akhbar al-Yunaniyyln minkitab funun al-ma'arif wa-ma jara fi l-duhur al-sawalif an hadhihi al-bunud al-tis'a allati tali ardal-islam fi hadha al-waqt kanat diyar al-Yunaniyyln fa-ila wara5 al-khalij bi-ayyam wa-kanat diyaral-Rum ma wara5 dhalika ila warn bilad Rumiyya wa-ard al-Ifranja barran wa-bahran wa-dhalikanahwa min khams mi at farsakh ila an tattasil bi-bahr Uqyanus al-muhit wa-bilad al-Andalus . . .’,trans. Carra de Vaux, p. 247.
  • [5] In this context, al-Mas udi, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 136, refers to an earlier book of hisentitled ‘akhbar al-zaman’, where he claims to have treated these wars extensively. If one can believethat the edition by 'Ubayd Allah al-Sawi (Beirut: dar al-Andalus, 1996) represents this work, oneshould note that its chapter on the Romans (pp. 99—100) is extremely short and does not deal withthe period before the rule of Constantine I.
  • [6] al-Mas udi, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 136: ‘madinat Rumiyya wa-ma ittasala biha min biladal-Ifranja’.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 145: ‘madinat Rumiyya wa-ma yaliha min bilad al-Ifranja wa-l-Saqaliba wa-ghayrihimmin al-umam’, trans. Carra de Vaux, pp. 199—200.
  • [8] 136 Ibid., ed. de Goeje, pp. 147—8, trans. Carra de Vaux, p. 204.
  • [9] Ibid., ed. de Goeje, p. 152, trans. Carra de Vaux, p. 209.
  • [10] al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, pp. 181—2: ‘wa-sair ajnas al-ifranjiyya min al-Jalaliqa wa-l-Jasaqas wa-l-Washkans wa-Armanjas wa-akthar al-Saqaliba wa-l-Burghar wa-ghayrihim min al-umamfa-dainun bi-l-nasraniyya munqadun ila sahib Rumiyya wa-Rumiyya dar mamlakat al-Ifranjiyyaal-'uzma [sic] qadlman wa-hadlthan’, trans. Carra de Vaux, p. 246. Cf. Constantine Porphyrogenitus,De administrando imperio, ed. Moravcsik and Jenkins, cap. 26, fol. 115 Be, p. 108 (EL): “leyaXgvUpayylav, p. 109 (EN): ‘great Francia’.
  • [11] This concept is based on an interpretation of the Book of Daniel (chs 2 and 7), cf. Kowalewski, Theorie (1923); Guldenfels, Translatio (1950); Goez, Translatio (1954); Baar, Lehre (1956); Schramm,Kaiser (1957); Thomas, ‘Translatio’ (1997), pp. 944—6.
  • [12] See Konig, ‘Ausstrahlung’ (2012), pp. 214—15, as well as Chapter 6.4.1.
  • [13] al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, p. 182: ‘wa-qad dhakara dhalika Aristatalls fl risalatihi ilal-Iskandar’.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 182: ‘innaka ayyuha al-malik qad raayta amarat al-zafar inda maslrak awwalan ilal-Ifranjiyya fa-inna mashayikhahum alladhlna kanu 'ala tukhum biladihim lamma danwata minhumaslamu atraf biladihim wa-iltajau ila madlnatihim al-uzma Rumiyya.’
  • [15] Gutas, Thought (1998), p. 23. On the career of the pseudo-Aristotelian ‘Secret of Secrets’ (sirral-asrar), see Forster, Geheimnis (2006), pp. 11—112.
  • [16] al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, pp. 160—1, trans. Carra de Vaux, pp. 220—1.
  • [17] al-Mas'udi, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, pp. 127, 129, 131, 136, trans. Carra de Vaux, pp. 178,180-1, 183, 193.
  • [18] al-Mas'udl, al-tanbih, ed. de Goeje, pp. 154-5: ‘wa-li-ba'd muttabi'ihi min al-maruniyyawa-yu'raf bi-Qays al-Marunl kitab hasan fi l-tarikh wa-ibtida’ al-khaliqa wa-l-anbiya’ wa-l-kutubwa-l-mudun wa-l-umam wa-muluk al-Rum wa-ghayrihim wa-akhbarihim intaha bi-tasnifihi ilakhilafat al-Muktafl wa-lam ara li-l-maruniyya fl hadha al-ma'na kitaban mu’allafan ghayrihi wa-qadallafa jama'a min al-malakiyya wa-l-nasturiyya wa-l-ya'qubiyya kutuban kathiratan mimman salafawa-khalafa minhum wa-ahsan kitab ra’aytuhu li-l-malakiyya fi tarikh al-muluk wa-l-anbiya’ wa-l-umam wa-l-buldan wa-ghayr dhalik kitab Mahbub Ibn Qustantin al-Manbaji wa-kitab Sa'id b.
 
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