BMCR 2011.05.31

‘We have no king but Christ’: Christian Political Thought in Greater Syria on the Eve of the Arab Conquest (c.400-585). Oxford Studies in Byzantium

, 'We have no king but Christ': Christian Political Thought in Greater Syria on the Eve of the Arab Conquest (c.400-585). Oxford Studies in Byzantium. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xii, 295. ISBN 9780199588497. $110.00.


Philip Wood’s book is a remarkable debut, quite unlike most adaptations of doctoral theses. It is broad in focus, sparing in its use of footnotes, and stimulating in the picture it presents of the Roman East in the fifth and sixth centuries. In many regards it calls to mind Garth Fowden’s Empire to Commonwealth (Princeton, 1993), a work that is cited a number of times, but it seeks to refine Fowden’s approach by concentrating particularly on the Roman East, or, more precisely, Mesopotamia and the region around Edessa.

The author’s contention is that there progressively emerged a regional identity in the hinterland of Edessa, an identity that associated the region with Christianity, and more particularly with Miaphysite Christianity, which gained momentum in the sixth century, as Justin I and his successors sought to impose Chalcedon on their empire. By their marginalisation of their anti-Chalcedonian opponents they fostered the growth of this sense of identity, allowing Miaphysite authors (Wood focuses especially on John of Ephesus) to envisage alternatives to Roman Christianity: thus they come to portray local leaders, such as Arab phylarchs or Ethiopian kings, similar way to Roman rulers, usurping a role that previously only the emperor had fulfilled.

The Introduction briefly discusses Roman paideia and how it changed following the conversion of the empire to Christianity, before turning to consider the geographical and cultural position of Edessa. This city, unlike nearly all others, maintained an awareness of a distinctive, independent past, in the form of the fifth-century Syriac work, the Doctrina Addai, which offers a Christian account of its history. Wood proceeds then to engage with modern discussions of identity (pp.12-16): he is interested particularly in the emergence of ‘latent points of difference’ over time in the formation of an identity. Both Christianity and the Syriac language, he argues, are features that came to define the Suryaya ‘ethnie’ (i.e. a community with shared myths, territory and a sense of identity).

The first chapter, ‘Classification in a Christian Empire’ considers the relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity and focuses on the early church historians. As he notes, Eusebius and his successors tended to identify Christianity with the Roman Empire; similarly, barbarians were identified with heretics. Barbarians could be improved through absorption into the Christian empire, although certain groups – the Manichaeans and the Samaritans – are excluded. The emperor, through his piety, ensures the spread of Christianity; a holy man, such as Symeon the Stylite, aids in the process, but for Theodoret of Cyrrhus at least, Christianity and empire go together.

Chapter two, ‘Controlling the Barbarians. The First Syrian Hagiographic Collection’, continues the discussion of Theodoret. Wood underlines the historian’s manipulation of the saints whose lives he presents in the Historia Religiosa, starting with two saints from Mesopotamia, then proceeding to Syria. Theodoret is keen to emphasise the holy men’s ties to the church and to the bishop, and to make them into suitable exemplars of asceticism. In this way he can appropriate important figures and take a stance against certain practices that he felt to be too extreme or unorthodox, such as those of the Messalians or of other ‘over-achievers’ (Robin Lane Fox’s term).

In the third chapter, ‘Theories of Nations and the World of Late Antiquity’, Wood begins to focus more closely on Edessa. Roman identity, as he argues, was indeed supra-national and tied to orthodoxy. Emperors promoted this approach, rejecting heretics as barbarian outsiders; hence the discourse employed tends to be centripetal. Other models, however, were possible, which might, over time, diverge from the centralising tendency. Wood compares the case of the Jews, whose own cultural identity revived as a result of increasing marginalisation at the hands of the Christian Roman government; the Samaritans underwent comparable developments (pp.71-5). The rest of the chapter discusses the spread of Syriac, a process probably linked to missionary activities based in Edessa. Wood is careful to emphasise that there is no trace of an independence movement in the city at this time; rather, the basis was being formed for an identity that could later distinguish the region from what he calls ‘Roman Christianity’ (p.81).

Chapter four, ‘Edessa and Beyond: The Reception of the Doctrina Addai in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries’, considers this work of the fifth century alongside other Syriac texts of the same period, e.g. the Life of Euphemia and the Goth and the Acts of Mar Mari. These works, along with others discussed in the following chapter, furnish the Suryaye with their own (Christian) traditions, an essential component of their identity. For Wood, the Doctrina Addai incorporates earlier material, e.g. the story of Abgar’s conversion, thereby establishing a tradition of the city’s early Christian past. Strong anti-Jewish and anti-pagan tendencies emerge, as well as an important role for the city’s nobility, the bnay hire, while asceticism is well regarded. The works discussed build up a picture of a distinct Edessene or Suryaya ‘ethnie’, with Edessa as a Christian centre, protected by a promise of Christ, content on the whole with its place in a Christian Roman empire. But traces can be found of centrifugal tendencies, e.g. in religious practices and traditions, that would later grow in strength.

The fifth chapter concerns ‘the Julian Romance ’, a sixth-century Syriac work that offers a highly critical fictional account of the apostate emperor, among whose allies are the Jews. For Wood, the criticism of Julian is an oblique attack on the Chalcedonian tendencies of Justinian. In the Romance, the Edessenes refuse to admit Julian into the city, thus showing that their allegiance to Rome is conditional; likewise, the Edessenes remain fiercely anti-Jewish, while Julian enjoys the Jews’ support. Although the work contains no explicit reference to Chalcedon, Wood is right that opponents of the council sometimes assimilated its supporters to Jews, which strengthens his argument for detecting allusions to this doctrinal dispute in the work.

Chapter six, ‘Creating Boundaries in the Miaphysite Movement’ begins by recounting the gradual separation of an independent Miaphysite hierarchy following the persecutions of the 520s. Wood notes the fissiparous nature of the Miaphysite community, which frequently split into opposing factions; sometimes the emperor sought to intervene, on other occasions, as he goes on to discuss in chapter 7, local rulers such as Jafnid phylarchs, came to take on this role. He makes extensive use of the Lives of the Eastern Saints of John of Ephesus, seeing in the work a celebration of anti-Chalcedonian asceticism, praising practices that had earlier drawn criticism. John’s work and the Life of John of Tella portray an emperor lacking in self-control, who comes off worse in his encounters with holy men; Wood notes parallels with earlier treatments of the Arian Emperor Valens. The emperors have thus begun to act as barbarians, strengthening the nascent Suryaya identity. Wood detects traces of an anti-urban, anti-imperial bias in the biographies of Severus by Zachariah Rhetor and John of Beth Aphthonia (pp.201-2); even Roman law becomes subject to criticism. In concluding the chapter, Wood emphasises how John of Ephesus favours the separation of Miaphysites from Chalcedonians, exemplified by the hard line of the holy man Sergius at Amida. Imperial authority is open to criticism; a distinctly Miaphysite identity is being forged.

Although Wood’s argument is broadly convincing, there is a general problem with the issue of what works may be considered Syriac and what Greek: Zachariah’s biography of Severus, for instance, was originally composed in the 510s or perhaps the 520s in Greek (not c.538, as Wood assserts, p.201, where he also gives the impression that it is a Syriac work). If one is to bring Syriac translations to bear, then one would expect a discussion of John Rufus and the Miaphysite community in Palestine, whereas he does not refer to the useful work of J. Steppa, John Rufus and the World-vision of anti-Chalcedonian Culture, 2nd ed. (Piscataway, 2005), or the Life of Peter the Iberian, on which see C. Horn, Asceticism and Christological Controversy in Fifth-Century Palestine (Oxford, 2006). There is thus a danger of treating the Suryaya case in a vacuum, focusing too narrowly on a few sources, especially John of Ephesus. Furthermore, in the case of John, it is not acceptable to give references to the second part of his Ecclesiastical History, which does not survive (e.g. p.211, n.4): we can cite the Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, much of which stems from John, but Witold Witakowski’s detailed analysis of Pseudo-Dionysius’ sources must be taken into account.

Chapter seven, ‘A Miaphysite Commonwealth’, traces the evolution of the Suryaya identity in the spread of Miaphysitism beyond the frontiers of the empire. The various accounts that survive of the Martyrs of Najran and the Ethiopian conquest of Himyar reflect the differing interpretations of the Miaphysite and Chalcedonian traditions. The Jafnid rulers receive high praise from John of Ephesus, becoming the patrons of the Miaphysite community, arbitrating in disputes and successfully defending their territory. Wood concludes by underlining the autonomy gained by the Suryaya by the time of the Arab conquest. While there is no reason to suppose that this contributed to the loss of the region for the Romans, it does help to account for the survival of a distinct culture well into the seventh century and beyond.

In sum, Wood builds an interesting and persuasive case. He brings up appropriate modern analogies, e.g. concerning the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, which he applies sensitively, noting both parallels and differences (cf. pp.12-16, 68-9). There is, however, a feeling of haste in the composition of the work – not only in its bibliographical gaps on certain questions, but also even in the prose style, the references themselves, and even some basic facts.1 One instance is the very first sentence of the whole work: ‘In the year 502 the Persian shah Kavad laid siege to the city of Edessa…’ (p.1), whereas the attack to which he alludes took place in the following year.

There are signs of shoddy editing, e.g. in typographical errors (Aristotlean, p.206, but correctly, p.233), in inconsistency of spelling (e.g. Simeon or Symeon, cf. p.228, where both versions can be found in the same line). At p.239 Elizabeth (Key) Fowden is correctly identified as the author of The Barbarian Plain, but in the bibliography her work is subsumed under her husband’s name; an article of A. Vööbus is attributed to J. Walker (p.288); and more examples could be given. It is moreover baffling as to why Wood insists on referring consistently to Hussey’s edition of Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History when G.C. Hansen (not Hanson, cf. p.272 for Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History) published an important new edition in 1995. These somewhat pedantic comments should not be taken so much as criticism of the author as of Oxford University Press. Most, if not all, of these points should have been weeded out by a good copy-editor, but it appears that the high cost of their books is not reflected in an attention to detail – a tendency observed also by Michael Whitby in his review of the excellent recent work of Volker Menze, Justinian and the Making of the Syrian Orthodox Church (Oxford, 2008) in Gnomon (forthcoming). In any case, these are relatively minor flaws in what is otherwise a well-structured and convincingly argued work.


1. For more detailed remarks and bibliographical details see the blog to this review.