FROM BYZANTIUM TO ROME

Over the centuries, Arabic-Islamic scholars accumulated knowledge about the Roman Empire in general, and its western dimension in particular. The Roman Empire already played an important role for the pre-Islamic Arab world that, to a limited degree, participated in interaction between the Western European and the Middle Eastern parts of the empire up to the fourth century. These encounters seem to have sunk into oblivion when the empire began to drift apart from the early fifth century onwards. In consequence, western affairs ceased to be of direct relevance to Arab groups. As far as it can be reconstructed, the collective memory of pre-Islamic Arabs of the sixth century and the Muslims of the early seventh century seems to have been self-centred and unsystematic. To them, the Roman Empire was a Middle Eastern power that impinged on their affairs. The Roman West does not seem to have been of any importance to them.

When Arabic-Islamic historiography developed in the wake of the Arabic- Islamic expansion, the history of the Roman Empire became a subject of systematic investigation. Between the ninth and the tenth century, Middle Eastern Arabic-Islamic scholars aquired enough historiographical data to produce substantial accounts of Roman history. Often moving in circles touched by the so-called Graeco-Arabic translation movement, they drew on material that became available thanks to contact with Middle Eastern Christians of various denominations as well as the Byzantine Empire. These earliest narratives generally elaborate on lists of Roman emperors, but ignore Rome’s republican past. Their geographic perspective is decidedly Middle Eastern in that Roman history has its beginning in the city of Rome as the original residence of Roman rulers and the venue of early Christian missionary efforts, but always leads up to the contemporary Byzantine emperor. Apart from Rome and Sicily, the western Mediterranean only features in connection with Byzantine rule in pre-Islamic North Africa. This suggests that most [1]

Middle Eastern authors of this period were only vaguely aware of the Roman Empire’s western origins, history, and extension. Only Middle Eastern scholars with a very good knowledge of contemporary Middle Eastern Christian historiography were able to acquire more knowledge on this topic.

Arabic-Islamic scholars from al-Andalus contributed to the diffusion of fresh data on the Roman West. Writing in a region with a long Roman past, they acquired access to information derived from Latin sources, in particular the reworked Arabic version of Orosius’ Historiae adversus paganos. Enabled to deal with Roman history from a new angle, they provided local, regional, and macrohistorical expositions of Roman history. These feature data on the foundation of Rome, the political system of the Roman republic, the Punic Wars, the history of imperial Rome as well as the substitution of Roman for Visigothic rule on the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, they clearly acknowledged Rome’s impact on the western Mediterranean. Equally important is that these Andalusian scholars used a new terminology, i.e. the new ethnonyms ‘al-Rumaniyyun’ and ‘al-Lafi niyyun’ as well as a word for the Latin language, i.e. ‘al-LatInf.247

Arabic-Islamic scholars of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries made use of the hitherto acquired knowledge in different ways. In the Muslim West, many historiographers seem to have become indifferent to Roman history and chose to focus on the Muslim history of North Africa and al-AndalusTh8 If they dealt with Roman history at all, their distorted expositions suggest that they lacked data, used sources of minor quality, and were unable to cope with conflicting historiographical traditions. In the Middle East, some scholars merely reproduced the early standard narrative while others enriched the extended standard narrative with material from al-Andalus. Ibn Khaldun, born and educated in the Muslim West but residing in Mamluk Egypt in a later phase of his life, constitutes a notable case, in that he produced the most comprehensive exposition of Roman history found in medieval Arabic-Islamic historiography. [2]

247 See Chapter 3.2.2.

  • [1] 5 Ibid., vol. 5, p. 209: ‘fa-lamma inqaradat dawlat ula’ika istaqalla ha’ula’ al-Ifranj bi-mulkihimwa-ftaraqu mithla dawlat al-Qut bi-l-Andalus’. 246 Talbi, ‘Ibn Khaldun’ (1971), p. 825.
  • [2] See Chapter 5.3.2. and 5.3.3.
 
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