Between Empires: Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity examines Arab elites and their role in the borderland between the Later Roman and Sasannid Empires. These Arab groups have come under increasing scrutiny over the last thirty years as interest in Rome’s eastern border has expanded. The field today is dominated by the works of Irfan Shahid,1 whose arguments face intense scrutiny from Fisher.
Fisher’s major innovation is separating the ruling and elite dynasties (Jafnids, Naṣrids, and Ḥujrids) from the confederacies known to scholars as the Ghassān, Lakham, and Kinda, respectively. The Jafnids figure most prominently in the work because there are few contemporary sources which treat the Naṣrids and Ḥujrids in detail. Fisher argues that the relationships which linked these peoples and their leaders to the Roman and Sasanian states were intensely personal. Agreements were made with individuals, not with the larger groups. The elites also participated in different cultural, political, social, and religious movements from those in which the “rank and file” members did. Fisher attempts to understand how the Arab elites maintained their own identities and power in the face of lop-sided power dynamics with Roman and Sassanid rulers, while at the same time using the superpowers to enhance their power within their own communities. Fisher utilizes contemporary sources while avoiding later Muslim sources written in Arabic. He is limited to drawing on the works of “classicizing” historians like Procopius, ecclesiastical historians such as Sozomen, Syriac works, chronicles, archaeological material, and inscriptions in Syriac, Arabic, and Greek. Fisher’s source material is therefore much smaller than that employed by Irfan Shahid, who extensively mined the poetry of the early Islamic period which portrays itself as works from the Ghassānid period.2
Throughout, Fisher demonstrates that these elite groups cannot be treated in isolation and uses comparative material ranging from the theories of ethnogensis of the “Germanic barbarians” to how the Ottoman Empire and modern Iran have dealt with nomadic client groups. These comparative elements demonstrate that these Arab elites groups were “to the Romans … simply another set of allies, or possible enemies, whose continued existence was often at the whim of the Empire and whose elimination was a perpetual possibility” (199).
The work consists of six chapters, including introduction and conclusion.
In Chapter 2, “Aspects of Arab Christianization,” Fisher shows both how the Roman government used Christianity as a tool of influence on the periphery of the Empire, and how the adoption of Christianity by liminal groups could yield benefits and power from the Empire. Literary sources describe the Jafnids as miaphysites, and Fisher argues that the Jafnids took advantage of the lack of miaphysite leadership to extend their influence over the regions east and south of Damascus. The Naṣrids, on the other hand, as clients of the Sasanids, maintained a more complicated association with Christianity. The first Naṣrid to convert to Christianity, al-Nu’mān (583-c.602), was executed. As argued by Fisher, “[t]he most efficient way to balance the competing affiliations of the Sasanian leadership, Nestorian Christians, Mazdaeans, non-Christians, and, indeed anyone else, was simply to choose no affiliation at all, by maintaining the appearance of supporting anyone who was politically well-disposed towards them” (70).
Chapter 3, “Empires, Clients, and Politics,” examines the political developments of these Arab elite groups. While the relationship between the Arab groups and the Roman/Sasanid Empires was quite similar to the Roman- Gothic/Frankish relationship, the vitality of the eastern Roman Empire prevented the Arab groups from obtaining a level of power above that of the imperial government. Fisher argues that Roman influence helped Arab elite dynasties to consolidate power and allowed them to construct an organization with some features of a state. This led to increasing Arab political confidence as some Arabs, such as Imru’ l-Qays, claimed to be king ( mlk). The Ḥujrids began as clients of the Ḥimyarites of southern Arabia before transitioning to Roman phylarchs. The Sasanids used the Naṣrids in much the same way as the Romans did the Jafnids, but the Naṣrids constructed a more “state- like” apparatus at their base, al-Ḥirā.
There has been little scientific excavation at al-Ḥirā, leaving little possibility for an in-depth analysis of Naṣrid cultural and economic developments. Much more is known about the Jafnids, who were largely located south and east of Damascus and were known to construct a number of structures, such as martyria, in the region. Fisher argues that Jafnid construction in this area increased economic prosperity. As the Jafnids acquired more wealth, both from their Roman overlords and from the raiding opportunities that were available through this alliance, they distributed money as a way to buy additional influence. According to Fisher, contra Shahid, there is no evidence that the Ghassānids became sedentary, and he points out that “different sections of the population of the peoples led by the Jafnids would have had very different motivations for either sedentarising or choosing an alternative path” (111). In other words, that the Jafnid elites constructed a number of buildings, many ecclesiastical, does not mean that the entire population under their control, which may have consisted of many different groups and tribes, settled. Some may have, but there seems to be extensive evidence for continued practice of pastoralist subsistence methods.
Chapter 4, “Arabic, Culture, and Ethnicity,” attempts to understand the extent to which there was a shared Arabian culture amongst the elite Arab groups. Fisher stresses that the limited number of inscriptions in Arabic from the fourth and fifth centuries, and the limited quantity of individuals who call themselves “arab” or “araps” (in Greek), make any conclusions about an “Arab” identity tenuous. About the famous Imru’ l-Qays inscription, he argues that it is “a reflection of the growing confidence of a group of people who thought it appropriate to proclaim publicly, in their own language… the position and deeds of Imru’ l-Qays” (143-144). By the sixth century, Arab elites, such as the Jafnids, were regularly using Arabic for inscriptions, and this period corresponded with the height of power of the Jafnids and Naṣrids. However, Fisher again avoids statements concerning identity here because of the lack of source material. He next questions the use of pre-Islamic poetry as a way to understand cultural/identity development in the sixth century. Although he concedes that these poems reflect a period of the construction of identity, their uncertain mode of transmission makes them unreliable for understanding sixth century dynamics. He concludes the chapter with a discussion of the connection between the Arabs and Ishmael, which he suggests was not accepted by Arabs until after the Islamic conquest and remained a strictly Christian/Jewish trope before then. At the end of the chapter, after examining these topics for any evidence about ethnic identities among Arab elites, he concludes that “it is impossible to state with any certainty how the Arabs of Late Antiquity viewed themselves with regard to their ethnic identity” (170).
Chapter 5, “Between Empires: the Jafnids, the Naṣrids, and late Antiquity,” situates the Arab elites dynasties in current late antique scholarship. He is particularly interested in the collapse of the Jafnids and Naṣrids at the end of the sixth century, and argues that the Romans and the Sasanids saw them as liabilities. He cites the failure of al-Mundhir (a Jafnid) in imperial court politics, his scapegoating by the future emperor Maurice, and the decline in monophysite organization as causes of the Jafnid downfall. No Jafnid ever obtained a position like that enjoyed by Stilicho, suggesting that the Arab elite groups were not culturally accepted by the eastern Romans. The Naṣrids lost power after al-Nu’mān converted to Christianity and failed to assist Khusrau in holding his throne. When Khusrau returned with Roman assistance, Nu’man and the Naṣrids were doomed. Finally, Fisher argues that the Justinianic plagues probably did not play a role in the decline of the Ghassānids, as argued by Ma’oz.3
In general, the book is free from typographical errors, but the date of the annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom should read “106” and not “108” (33, no. 97). Strangely, the index does not include the word “Saracen,” which is the most common appellation for Arabic groups along the eastern frontier in Greco-Roman sources.
Overall, this is an interesting work that helps fit the Arab elite groups of the Near East into the wider context of Roman-“barbarian” relations. These groups were clearly “Between Empires,” both in that they lay between Roman and Sasanid kingdoms, and in that they straddled those empires’ demise and the rise of the Islamic caliphate. Fisher’s arguments are sound and sophisticated, but, in many places, he refuses to draw conclusions. In some ways, this is commendable — Shahid, for example, has been criticized for too much speculation4— but it suggests a little too much timidity. Nevertheless, this is a minor criticism of this book, which injects a healthy dose of skepticism into the study of Arab groups in late antiquity.
1. Shahid, I. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1989; Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1984; Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995-2002; Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1984.
2. Shahid, I. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995-2002, esp. 2.1, 220-305.
3. Ma’oz, Zvi U. The Ghassānids and the Fall of the Golan Synagogues. Qazrin: Archaostyle, 2008.
4. Howard-Johnston, James. Review of Shahid, I. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century. Vol. I, Pt 1: Political and Military History. Pt 2: Ecclesiastical History. The English Historical Review, Vol. 113, No. 451 (Apr., 1998), pp. 384-385.