The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, July 20, 2003

The Byzantine betrayal of Syria

I just picked up Crossroads to Islam: The origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State by Judith Koren and the late Yehuda Nevo. Readers of this blog and website know that I consider the latter's Towards a Prehistory of Islam ("TaPhoI") a seminal influence.

This book is an attempt to update the theories of Wansbrough and Crone, and also to bring them into the popular domain. It is, unsurprisingly, published by Prometheus, who also publish Ibn Warraq's books; in fact iW is singled in the Acknowledgements as giving particular encouragement.

This book has been a decade in the making since Nevo's passing. Nevo's organisational skills as employed in TaPhoI were, in my opinion, seriously wanting; here, fortunately, there is no such problem. (Koren deserves high honours for that alone.)

It is divided into three "parts", of which I have read only the first. But that part is mind-blowing enough.

I already knew that the East Roman Empire had reorganised the Syro-Palestinian provinces in the late 3rd century. I also knew that the Empire had firstly devolved its defence responsibilities onto subsidised Arab tribes, and had further allowed organised opposition movements in the form of rival Monophysite (and Nestorian) Christian churches. I had thought that much of this was out of necessity, given barbarian (Avar, Slav) raids from the Balkans. As for alienating the "heresies", I just put that down to bigotry and folly (mostly Justinian I's), of the sort we are used to from Christian fundamentalists.

Nevo and Koren disagree. They think that the Byzantines destroyed their own empire on purpose:

  • The Empire abandoned its forts - not during the sixth and seventh centuries, but during the third century's reorganisation. (p. 17)
  • The Arabs did not fight Byzantine armies. Where they faced any resistance, they only fought ad hoc local conscripts and civilian militiae. (p. 17, 98-99) The local Christians complained about Arab raids and Arab takeover, but not on the scale of war and conquest - formerly controlled Arabs suddenly started to do as they please. This by way of contrast to earlier wars, which the Christians did notice. (pp. 106-108, 115-119)
  • The Empire relied on bribery. (pp. 23-4)
  • The Empire adopted Arab tribes as foederati. (p. 30) These foederati ran a "parallel administration" in their regions. (p. 33, 44-46)
  • Justinian put Arabs within his own borders under the protection of an Arab state outside those borders: the Arabs of Phoenicia III under the state of Phoinikon. (p. 35, given special emphasis) This would be like America providing Mexican citizenship for American citizens of Mexican descent throughout the Southwest - in effect, Justinian told them they were no longer Romans.
  • The actual differences between Byzantium and Monophysitism were vanishingly small. But the official "persecutions" were calibrated only to annoy Monophysites - never to destroy them. In such a manner the local churches were forced to set themselves up as a rival hierarchy to that of the Byzantine church and state both. The Monophysites didn't even want to leave communion with the Orthodox. (p. 51-55)
  • The Caliphate was a de facto client of the Empire, at first. Mu'awiya started minting his own coinage in Syria, but only put his own name on it after defeating 'Ali for the East. He did not bother with the Negev nor with Byzantium proper, (p. 159, 161) and the Empire left ambiguous whether the Arabs would keep their empire until 680 CE (when the Church - on behalf of the state - shifted doctrines against provincial Byzantine loyalists). (pp. 159-160)
  • Marwanid wars with Byzantium were phony wars - comparable to "army exercises". (p. 167) Pirenne is wrong; there was trade between the two sides. (p. 163-165)

The reason? The Emperor didn't control his own bureaucracy. It decided what the Emperor knew. The Emperor typically took charge violently, and tended to be ignorant of policy. This enabled the civil service, powerful businessmen, and great lords to run the Empire according to Constantinople's interests - not those of its provinces. (pp. 18-21) These interests were to divert Near Eastern trade from the Levantine coast through to Constantinople. Once said coast was in the hands of a "hostile" party - the Arab Caliphate - the Empire could legally blockade its own former ports without having to deal with provincial complaints. (p. 165)

To carry out this grand strategy, Constantinople ensured that, firstly citizenship was associated with Orthodox belief, and secondly Orthodoxy was to be defined and enforced in a way unacceptable to local belief - for example by rendering local saints (Nestorius, Theodoret, etc) posthumous heretics.

Constantinople also ensured the borders were kept on edge, so that the Byzantines could claim them as "indefensible". To do so it provoked silly wars with Persia. The borders were of course not in any natural danger; when the Empire had to fight Persia (in the 600's, say), it won a victory so crushing that the Arabs had no problem filling the vacuum. (p. 23)

Oh, and Constantinople imported Arabs into the provinces. Lots of Arabs. (pp. 71-75) They were trained to maintain the provinces, so when the Empire did walk away, the Arabs simply kept taxing the place on their own authority. (p. 23, 97-98)

And here is the kicker - the entire policy was kept secret for centuries. To provincials loyal to Rome, it was incomprehensible that Rome should give up lucrative provinces to desert barbarians. But Nevo and Koren say that these provinces were more lucrative to the right people if the provinces were outside the Empire than if inside.

If Nevo and Koren are right, this ranks among the greatest and most successful conspiracies in history. And among the greatest betrayals.

UPDATE 2/18/2017: From April 2004, there was some violence. But against that let's also consider the distaff side of Oriental Late Antiquity.

posted by Zimri on 15:12 | link | 0 comments

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