The Annales School 1966

The Arabs in the Greco-Roman World

By Maxime Rodinson

Source: Annales. 1966, Volume 21, No. 5;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

Many recent publications have been dedicated to the Arabs before Islam. Aside from the American dig at Marib, whose epigraphic results are beginning to be known, we must point out A. Grohmann. Manual (Arabien, Munich, C.H. Beck, 1963) criticizable on various points; the huge work of H. von Wissman (Zur Geschichte und Landeskunde von Alt-Süd-Arabien, Vienna, H. Böhlaus, 1964); and Mme N.V. Pigoulevskaya’s book which we will speak of at greater length (Araby v granic Vizantii I Irana v IV-VI vv., Moscow-Leningrad, Nauka, 1964). We must particularly single out the tome that a group of tireless workers have begun to give us. We are talking about Franz Altheim and Ruth Stiehl, whose monumental works on all aspects of the Spätantike we are familiar with. For quite some time these two scholars have been interested in the ancient Arabs. They are now announcing a no less monumental work on the Arabs in antiquity in five volumes. Two have already appeared. The third is in its final proofs and F. Altheim informed me on October 2, 1965 that the fourth is in manuscript. I will only speak here of the first, which takes us up until the beginning of the empire (Die Araber in der alten Welt. 1 band. Bis zum begin der Kaiserzeit. Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1964).

This magnificently presented volume, with a beautiful section of illustrations, is in realty a collection of essays and outlines by the two authors, with the addition of contributions from various scholars. Excellent indices assist in using its riches, which are as varied as they are abundant.

We have been hypnotized by the Arab conquest of the seventh century and have often forgotten the role that the Arabs previously played. We have forgotten that it was only “a link in a whole chain of invasions.” It is important to underline this fact, and we must be grateful to the authors for reminding us.

This is what the observations contained in this book contribute to. They are of a variety that is disconcerting, and it is impossible to discuss all of them here; we will have to be satisfied with enumerating them. One study, which uses as its departure point the name of the island of Sarapis, on the coast of what is now Oman, attempts to demonstrate that we are here dealing with the name of the famous Alexandrian god Serapis. The sanctuary on the island mentioned by Ptolemy and the “Periplus of the Erythrean Sea” are of Babylonian origin like the god of Sinope, from which place Ptolemy Soter introduced it in Egypt. A study of tales on the beginnings of the Nabataeans shows that the “Periplus the Erythrean Sea” was written on a date close to that of Quintus Curtius’ “History of Alexander.” F. Altheim, taking up an old abandoned hypothesis, had already situated the latter in the time of the Severuses. The recent work of Mlle Jacqueline Pirenne, placing the “Periplus” around 225-230 seems to confirm his view of the Latin author, who he situates a bit further, around 210. The relations between the Lagides and the Nabateans are then studied, the former having put an end to the latter’s piracy on the Red Sea and broken their monopoly on the commerce in incense, with the assistance of the Sabians against the Minoan allies of Nabatea and their vassals.

A very interesting chapter establishes a relationship between the rebellious slaves of Sicily under Eunus of Apameus (136-132), the parallel movement of the Pergaminian revolutionaries called the Helioplites, and Iamboulos’ novel transmitted by Diodorus. Iamboulos, whose name is Semitic, discovered in the Indian Ocean a fabulous and paradisiacal island dedicated to Helios. Altheim and Stiehl compare the novel to various tales about the Fortunate Islands, and tie all of this to the Iranian eschatological ideas of the Magi.

A severe criticism is given of W. Caskel’s ideas on the Arab kingdom of Lihyan, its relations with the city of Dedan, and his chronology. For the authors the Lihyanites, friends of the Lagides, were enemies of the Nabateans, and the latter would have annihilated the state at the time of the last Ptolemies. The authors then speak of the establishments of the Arabs in Iran, in the north of the Persian Gulf. Pliny’s Omana would have been an Arab colony, the future Ormuzd. It was perhaps this colonization that delivered the coup de grace to the commercial port of Gerrha in the southern gulf.

A long and very ingenious (doubtless a bit too ingenious) article attempts to fix the chronology of the various waves of colonization flowing from southern Arabia to Ethiopia. The Guez would have carried out their immigration to Adulis from the region of Aden at the end of the Lagide period and at the beginning of the Roman domination in the east.

A chapter by E. Merkel on the “first Arab establishments in the Fertile Crescent,” starting with a new examination of the problems concerning the ancient history of Homs, results in general consideration on Arab infiltration into Syria from the origins to the end of the Seleucid era.

The following chapters are apparently more or less linguistic, but their principal interest is especially of a historic order. The authors give an overall picture of the history of the spread of Aramaic as a world language (Weltsprache) and respond to the criticisms that were addressed to their previous publications on this subject. In parallel, a chapter deals with the spread of Greek in the east, in Nubia and Ethiopia, as the effect of the spread of the Lagide state in Babylonia, Iran and as far as northeastern India after Seleucid domination.

Then a long essay by E. Merkel returns to the first Arab establishments in the Fertile Crescent. Once again, he attempts to constitute a typology of the mode of urbanization of the Arab tribes installing themselves in that region and illustrating these types through historical examples. The light is shifted from the Arabization of Mesopotamia – particularly according to the example of Hatra – to the evolution of the Nabatean kingdom. Quite extensive Nachträge again develop certain points. We should note an attempt to tie the Nabatean era attested to in southern Arabia (but does not really signify “Nabatean?” This is quite doubtful.) to the fortunate events for the Nabateans that followed Actium and the destruction by Rome of the Lagide state (cf. above). One can hardly understand why this era would be particularly maintained in southern Arabia, especially because it isn’t attested to before the end of the third century. Much is said on the origins of Edessa, Palmyra, the Etrureans, Emesa, and especially Charax.

The external contributions begin with a chapter in Italian that constitutes the reprinting of an article by A. Calderini on the ethnography of the Greek papyruses of Egypt (1920). This is a useful listing, by ethnic and geographic group, of the indications concerning individuals of non-Egyptian origins gleaned from these documents. A long chapter by Jan Burian follows on the indigenous populating of North Africa from the Punic Wars till the end of the third century. It is interesting to see this history of the Maghreb not from the external point of view of the Punic and Roman powers, but from the point of view of the “natives.” J. Burian insists on this “double face” of Roman North Africa, on the one hand a fruitful and rewarding collaboration with the Romans, and on the other anti-Roman resistance. The portrait that follows, taken from epigraphic material on the position of tribes, chiefs, nomadic cities, castelli and their chiefs in Northern Africa, is most useful.

The work ends with a series of appendices, no less varied than the chapters on the material. The first, by Jutta Muth, criticizes strongly and at length A. Alfödli’s thesis on the lance as symbol in Rome of Imperial might and its derivations (the lance carried before the Germanic Roman emperor) in the Middle Ages. She adds to the Byzantine example that of the spear of the Arab prophet and the caliphs. A supplementary note by Altheim and Stiehl incorrectly invokes R M H S, one of the names of Abraha, sovereign of Yemen in the sixth century, interpreted by A.J. Drewes as derived from the Gueze word ramh, spear. But this interpretation is certainly false (it would give us a name that would be translated as “as for the lance"!) and Rumabis is a good Arabic name, well attested to (cf. my report on the classes of 1964-65 in “L’Annuaire de l’École pratique des Hautes Études, 1965-55, IVth section).

The authors then spend 15 pages on the famous castle of Mshatta, defending with several arguments the ancient dating (fourth century) against the Omayyad dating, partially justifying it by general considerations taken from R. Ettinghausen’s book on Arab painting. Muslim art had pre-Islamic models, and Mshatta would be of these models.

A dual linguistic appendix has as its unifying factor that of being a criticism of two books by Anton Schall. The first is on Greek borrowings in Syriac, and the second on Ethiopian prosody.

The following, in part linguistic as well, has as its object Irano-Semitic cultural contacts. It in fact is a detailed and sometimes acerbic critique of G. Widengren’s book that bears this title, but mainly deals with Parthian influences on the Arameans of the Fertile Crescent. Nevertheless, on certain points the two scholars are in agreement. The authors add a critique of an article of the same G. Widengren on the status of Jews in the Sassanid empire and that of R.N. Frye on several ancient Iranian titles.

Another appendix is formed by the translation of two Greek patristic texts (the second homily of St. Cyril on Melchizedek and the homily of Theodotus of Ancyre) according to the Ethiopian version, the only one that has been preserved. There then follows a response to the virulent criticism made in 1962 by H. S. Nyberg of F. altheim and R. Stiehl’s “Supplementum Aramaicum” (1957).

The work ends with the reprinting of H. van de Weerd and P. Lambrechts’ “Note on the Corps of Archers in the High Empire) which appeared in 1938. This corps was mainly recruited from among those from the east, though the officers seem to have been purposely chosen from among the Italians.

We are left confounded by the wealth and variety of the information this book provides us. The authors have an amazing numbers of strings to their bow, and they maneuver with ease among the most varied specialties, about which their familiarity is obvious. To be sure, we are bothered by the lack of a “constructed” character to the volume, a collection of disparate essays written at various times, reproduced with additions and additions to additions. More than the title “History of the Arabs,” it would merit a German title beginning with “Beiträge zu...,” “contributions to...” The very connection of certain chapters to the Arabs is not always obvious. In the preface we are told, concerning the chapters on Serapis, on the date of the “Voyage...,” on Quintus Curcius, and the one on the North African tribes during the Imperial era, that the justification for them will appear when we read volume II, where we will see that they establish the foundations upon which the history of the pre-Islamic Arabs can be built. We already see quite well how this can be done. But the connection will surely remain in many cases quite indirect.

What is more, F. Altheim and R. Stiehl’s method is sometimes worrisome. Their astonishing erudition is able to support a given hypothesis that at first glance is quite daring: for example, supporting theirs on Caesarian Mauretania, by another hypothesis built on Kushan inscriptions from India. We are frozen in admiration before such prowess. But we are not always convinced. The deductions at times appear fragile or too acrobatic, though rare are the scholars whose competency is sufficiently wide to judge any of the authors’ arguments as a whole. But to cite but one example, if among the languages the Cleopatra spoke , whose polyglot gifts Plutarch enumerates, Gueze does not figure, does this really mean that the tribe that bore this name only reached Ethiopia in the final year of the reign of Horace’s fatale monstrum or later?

Whatever the case, we will always benefit from reading and scrutinizing these pages. Even if we don’t always share F. Altheim and R. Stiehl’s conviction on the results of their incomparable ingeniousness, from this mass of materials, scrutiny, connections, and suggestions, it is difficult not to draw some new, stimulating, and fertile idea. One finds oneself reminded of such and such an unknown, misunderstood, or forgotten text which will turn out to be important, reminded of such and such an evocative synchronism, such and such an enlightening ambience. We can only thank the authors for providing so much matter for our information and meditation.