BMCR 2011.08.10

Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa

, Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xx, 345. ISBN $99.00. $9780521196772.


This book constitutes a sort of continuation of Kaegi’s Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests (Cambridge, 1992). Whereas his earlier book had discussed the Muslim conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia c.630-41, this book discusses the Muslim conquest of North Africa from the initial raids into the Byzantine province of Byzacena in 647 until the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711. The book focuses upon analyzing the course of events and explaining what strategies the leadership on either side were trying to pursue at key moments in time, whether in the African theatre alone or throughout the whole theatre of war. Hence it is very much a work of military history rather than of historiography.

The book consists of twelve chapters. The brief first chapter explains Kaegi’s objectives and methodology, and includes a useful chronological table of the sort that is usually relegated to an appendix. The second discusses nineteenth and twentieth century treatments of the history of North Africa, criticizing both the colonialist and anti-colonial approaches, before discussing the key Muslim, Byzantine and Latin sources for the Muslim conquest of North Africa. The third chapter is devoted to a description of the physical geography and climate of North Africa.

The historical reconstruction proper begins in chapter four with a discussion of the religious context during the later reign of the emperor Heraclius (610-41) and proceeds in a straightforward chronological manner thereafter. Hence chapter five discusses the military situation in North Africa on the eve of the Arab invasion, the strategic vision and experience of the Byzantine officer corps, as well as the state of the physical defences themselves. Chapter six focuses on the events leading to the crushing Arab defeat of Byzantine forces at the battle of Sbeitla in 647, the course of the battle itself, and the results of the same. Chapter seven discusses the situation in Byzantine Africa between the defeat at Sbeitla and the next major Arab raid in 665, asking why the Byzantines did not make better use of this breathing space in order to prepare themselves properly for the next phase of the struggle. Chapter eight turns away from Africa and considers the character of the emperor Constans II (641-69) himself. It questions his strategy and ability and debates whether events in Africa may have contributed to his assassination in 669. In chapter nine, the focus shifts to the Arabs. This chapter asks some broader questions about the overall strategy pursued by the caliph Mu‘āwiya and examines why he directed so much energy against Byzantine Africa when he did. Chapter ten discusses the military campaigns in Africa from 669 until just before the Arab capture of Carthage in 695. Chapter eleven opens with the Arab capture of Carthage and traces their subsequent expansion westwards until just before their invasion of Gothic Spain in 711.

The final chapter compares and contrasts military developments in Africa and in the Byzantine East and recapitulates earlier material in order to explain why the Byzantines did not put up a better fight in Africa. There follows a comprehensive bibliography. This begins with an invaluable list of primary sources, including translations where available, and then provides a detailed list of secondary sources. The book concludes with a good index of subjects and names (but with occasional omissions e.g. ‘truce’ or ‘treaty’). Finally, one should note the inclusion of 10 maps and 10 figures. Enlarged photographs of various Byzantine coins serve to illuminate the discussion, although only two of the coins were actually minted in Carthage. All maps and figures are in black and white.

This book exhibits all the strengths and weaknesses of Kaegi’s earlier volume. On the positive side, Kaegi reveals an impressive knowledge of both primary sources and modern scholarship. There seems to be no relevant primary source he has not consulted. This includes Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic materials that range in date from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Kaegi’s historical scholarship is his willingness to pay as much attention (some might say too much) to the relatively late Muslim Arabic sources as he does to the relatively early Christian sources for the history of the seventh century. Furthermore, he is no arm-chair general (or academic), and has visited the relevant modern countries – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria – in order to understand better both the physical conditions facing each side in the conflict that he describes and the archaeological remains. Likewise, the modern scholarship is all absolutely up to date. Kaegi has been particularly diligent in seeking out information buried away in unpublished dissertations from across Europe, North Africa, and the USA.

On the negative side Kaegi seems reluctant to engage in a detailed, critical analysis of his primary sources. The result is a book that tells a good story, but which some readers may find frustrating as they try to pierce beyond the narrative into the textual foundation upon which it is built. To add to the problem, Kaegi’s writing can be quite repetitive. The same point is sometimes made repeatedly within a few short paragraphs, or the same fact is repeated as if it had never been mentioned before, as in the case of Ibn Khaldūn’s irrelevant view of the origin of Christianity in North Africa (pp. 37, 72, 77). Worse still, a large part of this book consists of negative statements. Hence a large amount of space is relatively poorly used.

Given the sparse amount of contemporary or near-contemporary evidence from or about North Africa during the mid- or late- seventh century, it is disappointing that Kaegi does not make as much of the numismatic evidence as he might have. It is particularly disappointing that his discussion of the ‘puzzle of the PAX coinage’ (pp. 151-52) is as poor as it is. The reverse of this silver coinage depicts a cross above three large central letters (P, A, X) where these are separated from one another by a series of five pellets. Since this reverse was unique to the mint at Carthage, one might have hoped that it would cast some important light upon the mind-set of the authorities there. Perhaps a fuller treatment of this topic ought to have been included in an appendix to the main text.

One notes few factual errors. The initial claim that the patriarch Pyrrhus fled to Africa c.642 (p. 72) is quickly contradicted, and corrected, by the revelation that he was actually exiled there (p. 73). The legend on the silver hexagram ( Deus adiuta Romanis) ought to be translated ‘God, help the Romans’ rather than ‘May God help the Romans’ (p. 81). As is perhaps inevitable in any academic discussion there are many cases where it is possible to disagree concerning the interpretation of the evidence. For example, Kaegi claims that a passage in the so-called Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius (dated to the 690s) refers to Arab raids upon the ports of Gigthis in Africa and Olbia in Sardinia. On this basis, he then dates these raids to the 660s based upon later Arab reports of Muslim raids in the same broad region at this time (pp. 179-82). Yet this passage could be interpreted to prove the very opposite of what he insists, that its author did not yet know of any Arab raids upon Gigthis or Olbia by the time that he was writing and regarded such possibilities as equally distant or implausible as raids upon Rome or Illyricum. Likewise, Kaegi claims that a line from the life of Pope John V in the Liber Pontificalis concerning the Byzantine re-possession of territory in Africa from the Arabs supports the claims by late Arab sources that a native commander by the name of Kasīla inflicted an important defeat upon Arab raiders there in 684 (p. 244). But the full text reveals that the author of this life attributes this re-possession to the wider treaty which Justinian II made with the Arabs in 685, so that the local treaty which Kaegi dates to 678 following late Arabic sources (pp. 13, 226-27) seems suspiciously like a misdated description of the local implications of the wider treaty of 685.

In conclusion, Kaegi has produced an interesting and learned book. He clearly knows the range of surviving literary, numismatic, epigraphic and archeological sources extremely well even though he does not engage in systematic and close analysis of the literary sources and leaves many questions unanswered about broader historical trends. The book seems aimed primarily at students of early medieval military history, and it repeats the same approach and will undoubtedly enjoy the same success as his earlier volume on the Muslim conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia. This leaves a gap and presumably Kaegi ‘s next book will discuss the Muslim conquest of Egypt and its neighbouring regions of Libya and Tripolitania during the intervening period.