BMCR 2022.01.38

Rome, Persia, and Arabia: shaping the Middle East from Pompey to Muhammad

, Rome, Persia, and Arabia: shaping the Middle East from Pompey to Muhammad. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. xii, 246. ISBN 9780415728805 $140.00.


A promotional blurb hails this work as “the definitive history of the Arabs before Islam.” Detailed it is, with proper attention to epigraphical and material sources besides numerous maps (generally legible) and black and white photos (not always superior quality). Study of Roman Arabia exploded after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 into a highly technical field with thriving archaeological activity. Efforts to understand Arabs, no longer limited to Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan, now include the Arabian Peninsula. This book reflects a fruitful marriage of classicists with scholars of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabs, already seen in Fisher’s revised D.Phil. thesis, editorship of a valuable anthology, and scattered papers.[1] A short review cannot address the richness of the material, although the author seems most comfortable with Late Antique developments.

Justification comes from a desire to replace Hoyland on pre-Islamic Arabia and to update for anglophones his study of Arab Christianity.[2] Shahîd’s multiple volumes (1984, 1989, 1995-2010) are scarcely cited (now passé?) and Retsö’s monograph (2002) on Arab identity is ignored. Despite the title, the real focus of this ambitious work, narrowly Arabs and Arabia (Arabcentrism?), reflects the post-1967 emphasis on the Roman Near East’s southern sector.[3] The admirable attempt at comprehensive coverage, however, would overwhelm the presumed target audience, undergraduates or even non-specialist graduate students. Preference for Arabic names (e.g. al-Harith, Procopius’ Arethas) that are not coordinated with designations in the PLRE, can generate confusion. The chronological narrative sometimes flounders in digressions on epigraphy, religions, and “heritage issues” related to ISIS’ recent demolitions. A more thematic approach to some aspects would have promoted clarity. The book’s design, with chapter end notes in social science style with full citations in the bibliography, does not facilitate critical reading for a reviewer or others. Are the notes intended as more than scholarly decoration?

Those expecting a broader strategic context of eastern developments and detailed treatment of Roman and Sasanid interaction with Arabs, whom both super-powers viewed (ultimately to their undoing) as an annoying secondary front, will be disappointed. For example, treatment of Aelius Gallus’ Arabian expedition (25 BC) omits the larger strategic context. Motives cited (44-45) overlook that Gallus’ campaign, probing the Parthian Empire’s southern flank, much like Mark Antony’s venture into Media Atropatene a decade earlier tested the northern, coincided (not by chance) with a usurper, Tiridates (I/II), on the Parthian throne, whose threat to Phraates IV’s rule Augustus manipulated into the famous agreement of 20 BC.[4] A rare attempt (146) to co-ordinate the narrative of the northern and southern theaters in the 570s that places the Persian capture of Dara (573) in parallel to Roman disappointments in the south, assumes too much knowledge of the target audience, which may be unprepared for such comparisons. Too little space (145-46) is given to the Sasanid conquest of Yemen (Himyar)—the end of Roman policy in the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea (560s). Abbreviated coverage of the seventh century omits details of the Muslim offensives against Rome and the Sasanids (630s). The decisive Roman defeat at Yarmak (636) merits an incidental reference and the Sasanid loss at Qadisiyah (636, 637, 638?) none. For Fisher, following the conventional view, Muslim success resulted from the mutual exhaustion of Rome and Persia, to which Himyar is added (171, 174). Indeed, the book concludes (200) with the grossly exaggerated claim that the Roman-Iranian rivalry reflected a contest for the loyalty of peoples of Arabia.

Further, the Roman strategy debate, initially spawned in part by interpretation of the Arabian frontier, is sidestepped. This leaves ambiguous the question of whether rivalry with Iranian empires or internal security motivated Rome. A view (57-58, 68; cf. 170) that Roman absorption of earlier so-called “Arab” principalities and the rise of the Sasanids eliminated an Arab “middle ground” between the super-powers exaggerates the degree of either’s control of nomadic desert populations. Desert raiders beset the Sasanids as well as the Romans. Sapor II dug a ditch of ca 100 km between Najaf and Fallujah to protect irrigated southern Mesopotamia (73, 87).

The work divides into five chapters. The first provides a broad bibliographical overview of Arabs (ancient and modern), including “heritage issues,” and different views of areas called “Arabia.” There follows a survey of literary (Greek, Latin, Syriac, Iranian) and epigraphical sources besides the problematic later Muslim texts. Chapter two on Arabs between Rome and Parthia to 211 CE, which begins the book’s narrative, is largely derivative with questionable choices of secondary sources and interpretations, some perpetuating traditional misconceptions or simply factual errors. Much the same applies to chapter three covering 211-500.[5] Conventional views (68-71), such as Sapor I’s deportation of Romans nurturing Christianity in Persia, Kerdir’s role in Sasanid Zoroastrianism and policy (greater under Bahram I-II than Ardashir I and Sapor I), and Christian influence on Roman foreign policy in the fourth century, are now controversial. Chapter four treats in detail the so-called “super-phylarchies” of the Jafnids and the Nasrids of the sixth century and how the kingdoms of Himyar and Aksum (Ethiopia) became third parties in efforts to control the Arabian Peninsula.[6] A final chapter on “Legacy” summarizes the emergence of “Arab statesmen” as political and religious figures, speculates on how they inspired the later caliphate, and compares (with some strained arguments) the emergence of Frank and Ostrogoth kingdoms in the West with Arab developments.

Two major themes emerge: attempts to define “Arabs” and Arab culture (piecemeal presentation) besides an effort to show how “Arab leaders” of the sixth century laid the foundation for Muslim expansion in the seventh. The vexed issues of an Arab identity and the extent of an Arab culture remain controversial. Millar’s denial of any Arab identity before Josephus and a more recent disavowal of a pre-Islamic pan-Arab consciousness[7] provoke a stout rebuttal (176-79). Arguments valid for Late Antiquity, however, become more problematic for earlier eras. The differences between tribe and state (not a matter of nomads vs. settled populations) are addressed, although the Late Antique distinction of “Saracens” from “Arabs” complicates the issue. “Tribe” as “community,” Fisher’s preferred interpretation, suggests “fixed” assembly points (later often Christian sites), but does not totally counter the Graeco-Roman view of Arab nomadic raiders. Raids for loot and slaves remained a key aspect of Arab culture throughout Antiquity, even if both Rome and Persia manipulated this aspect of Arab culture in proxy operations of various Arab confederations.[8] More successfully, a catalogue of important cities and realms, often perceived as “Arab” in Graeco-Roman sources (Edessa, Palmyra, Emesa, Nabataeans, Hatra, and Characene), shows that none identified themselves as “Arab,” although nomadic elements in their neighborhoods could be called such. Likewise, the word “Arab” never appears in Safaitic inscriptions of southern Arabia, nor did the Himyarite kings called themselves “Arabs,” a label for tribes under their control.

The much-discussed funerary text of Mara (Imru) al-Qays from al-Namara (southeast of Damascus), now redated to 332, offers the first Arabic text (in Nabataean Aramaic script) from the Roman border, remarkably a monumental tabula ansata and a milestone in expansion of Arabic. Al-Qays described himself as “king of (the) Arab(s)” and detailed campaigns, both his own and those of his sons, against tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. If al-Qays’ tomb lies near a Roman castellum, his service and that of his sons alternated between Rome and the Sasanids—proof of local exploitation of the “middle ground” that postdates its alleged disappearance. A cautious discussion discourages that al-Qays anticipated the “super-phylarchs” of the sixth century. Indeed Graeco-Roman sources imprecisely use “phylarch” and Aramaic mlk (king), terms for local consumption and devoid of proof of a pedigree or a realm.

Space precludes detailed commentary on Late Antique developments. Rome abandoned the Hejaz (northwestern Saudi Arabia), once part of the Nabataean kingdom and the original provincia Arabia, in the third century and increasingly relied on Arab allies in this region. Contemporary parallels for this shrinkage of Roman territory, Dacia and Colchis (cf. Diocletian’s adjustment of borders in southern Egypt and Mauretania Tingitana), are unnoticed. Mavia’s revolt (377) demonstrates the prominence of Arab leaders and expansion of Christianity to Arab peoples. Yet a phylarch as the link between a tribe and Rome and a phylarch’s ability to enhance status locally through Roman patronage seems hardly unique to Roman-Arab relations. Such arrangements were generally personal between rulers. But for Fisher, despite Arab raids, an Arab rebellion like Mavia’s becomes not a rejection of Roman control but “negotiation” to barter the supply of Arab manpower to the Roman army in return for Roman concessions (88-89, 189-91).

A change of status from hypospondoi (foederati) in Mavia’s time to inclusion in the Roman-Persian treaty of 561/562 as symmachoi, bound to observe its terms (143-44), demonstrates the increasing importance of Arabs in frontier defense. Peculiarly, the fall of Zenobia’s Palmyrene empire (273) is not emphasized, although henceforth tribal leaders like Mara al-Qays assumed a new prominence. Roman experiments with tribal confederations before the Jafnids, e.g., the Tanukh (Mavia’s tribe?) and the Salih (notable in the fifth century), are left obscure. The vulnerability of an open frontier like the eastern limes to Arab raids led Justinian (528/529) to create a “super-phylarch” in the Jafnid al-Harith (Arethas) as one measure to strengthen Roman defenses. Yet to some degree a precedent existed: appointment of the Persian Arab defector Aspebetus (c. 420) as a phylarch with superior authority over other Arab chieftains. Fisher (93-94) is more interested in Aspebetus’ Christian than his political/military context. Justinian’s appointment of al-Harith responded to Sasanid use of the Nasrids, based at al-Hira (south of modern Najaf), especially Alamundarus (PLRE’s al-Mundhir III), an effective raider and Roman headache 505-554. As shown (114-17), al-Harith’s position was thoroughly integrated into the Roman administrative hierarchy. Astute use of John of Ephesus and epigraphy demonstrates a Jafnid role in promoting Monophysite interests in Syria and desert communities. But al-Harith’s position was not unique. His brother Abu Karib, also a “super-phylarch” in Palaestina and possibly the Hejaz, supplemented al-Harith’s command in Arabia, Phoenice Libanensis, and perhaps Syria and Euphratensis. Al-Harith’s position became essentially a fiefdom passed on to later generations. Military ineffectiveness and court intrigues eliminated both the Jafnid and the Nasrid “super-phylarchies” by the beginning of the seventh century—a void not adequately filled by either super-power before the epic war Chosroes II initiated in 603. From a broader perspective, creation of “super-phylarchs” in the East, responding to an immediate need, had a distant precedent. Archelaus I of Cappadocia (36 BC-CE 17) had served as a “super-client-king,” controlling much of eastern Anatolia for over a half-century, and Decebalus as a client-king in Dacia had been Domitian’s solution to peace on the lower Danube. Such subordinate rulers, eventually too powerful, aroused their patrons’ suspicion.

This work assembles an impressive amount of information about Arabs, even if not all views need be accepted. Its Arabcentric approach appeals to and will inform specialists. Typos and proofing errors are minimal. Yet the title somewhat deceptively suggests a broader approach than the book delivers. Organization and presentation of the vast material deter its utility for non-specialists. Details sometimes overwhelm: too many trees obscure the forest.


[1] Between Empires: Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity (Oxford 2011); Arabs and Empires before Islam(Oxford 2015).

[2] R. Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs from the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam (London 2001); J. Trimingham,  Christianity among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times ((London 1979).

[3] Cf. Sir Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East (Cambridge, Mass. 1993), defining the “Near East” as Semitic and south of the Taurus.

[4] See C. Marek, “Die Expedition des Aelius Gallus nach Arabien im Jahre 25 v. Chr.,” Chiron 23 (1993) 121-56; A. Luther, “Medo nectis catenas? Die Expedition des Aelius Gallus in Rahmen der augusteischen Partherpolitik,” OTerr 5 (1999) 157-82.

[5] E.g., 13: end of the Sasanids is 651 (assassination of Yazdgard III), not 650; 24: Hatra a Parthian client in the first century BC, although correctly as first century CE at 31; 40: Lucullus and Pompey fixed the Euphrates as the border with Parthia and Crassus in 53 BC aimed to conquer the Parthian Empire: neither is true; 49: confusion of the annexation of Judaea (a praetorian province from 6 CE) with the end of Agrippa II’s kingdom 92/93-100; 56: Septimius Severus’ first Parthian war (195) misdated to 193/194; 67-68: the Treaty of Nisibis in 363 did not return to Persia all territories lost in 299; Constantinople was not the capital of East Rome only from 395; 71: Sapor I did not install a Tiridates as king of Armenia.

[6] The current fashion for Jafnids (instead of Ghassanids) and Nasrids (for Lakhmids), the pro-Roman and pro-Sasanid Arab confederations respectively, is favored despite acknowledgement that this distinction, derived from the later Arab-Islamic tradition, has no basis in ancient sources. But on Ghassanids cf. J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, “Arab Tribesmen and Desert Frontiers in Late Antiquity,” JLA 18 (2015) 74-75, 82, 86-88.

[7] Millar (supra n.3) xix, 4-11; P. Webb, Imaging the Arabs. Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (Edinburgh 2016).

[8] See the significant paper of N. Lenski, “Captivity and Slavery among the Saracens in Late Antiquity (ca. 250-630 CE), AntTard 19 (2011) 237-66.