Between Empires: Arabs, Romans and Sasanians in Late Antiquity by Greg Fisher

Book Review by Ian Hughes

In the sixth century the tension between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sasanid Empire of Persia dominated the political landscape in the "Fertile Crescent". To all intents and purposes the Arabs were sandwiched between these two monolithic empires and were often forced to choose between them. Unfortunately, the dominance of Rome and Persia resulted in the Arabs being reduced to secondary participants in the major events of the time, with the result that little is known about them. Especially in "Western" sources – mainly Procopius – the Arabs are reduced to the status of untrustworthy allies, the pro-Roman Ghassanids and the pro-Persian Lakhmids.

This is unfortunate: not only do the Arab peoples deserve to be known in their own right, but the lack of detail is frustrating for historians attempting to investigate the meteoric rise of Islam, which in a short space of time drastically reduced the power of the Roman Empire, whilst eliminating the Sasanids altogether.

In Between Empires Fisher has drawn together all of the available evidence in order to bring these peoples out of the darkness. One of his first tasks is to explain why modern experts no longer use the terms Ghassan and Lakhm: both of these words imply a hereditary kingdom based upon specific peoples (the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids). Unfortunately, there is no evidence for these peoples outside a few mentions in the written sources, and as a result these terms are no longer used. Instead, historians now use the terms Jafnid instead of Ghassanid and Nasrid instead of Lakhmid. The intention is to highlight the fact that the "kings" involved were not actually hereditary leaders of settled kingdoms, but appear to have been short-lived dynasties who managed to retain leadership of an unspecified number of "tribes", largely thanks to the financial and political support of either the Romans or the Persians. Once this support was withdrawn, the dynasties collapsed and the ‘kingdoms’ disappeared.

Having explained the terminology being used, as well as his methodology, Fisher begins his analysis of the Jafnids and Nasrids, along with their contemporaries the Hujrids. The reader is immediately thrust into highly-technical discussions concerning the depth and form of the Arabs’ adoption of Christianity, and the impact this had on their relations with the Romans and Persians. The analysis is interesting, and Fisher draws interesting conclusions regarding the major problems faced by communities on the edge of Empire adopting the religious convictions of one empire when opposed by a second with different religious beliefs.

Fisher also details the political connections between the Arabs and the Empires, focusing on the ability of the two empires to promote the influence of one Arab leader by supporting them politically and financially. This allowed these individuals to enhance their position in Arabia, bringing greater numbers of individual tribes into their orbit, and so leading to the conclusion by Roman and Sasanid historians that the empires were effectively dealing with Arab kingdoms rather than simply powerful individuals. This development was also to the advantage of the empires, as the result was that they could focus their political attention on individuals who in turn would be able to enforce agreements upon the wider Arab population. It is noteworthy that attempts in the West to foster similar conditions amongst the Germanic tribes appears to have ultimately failed, since in some cases the tribal leaders so promoted were able to turn their temporary advantage into long-lived dynasties that outlasted the Empire itself.

After discussing the outside influences on the Arabs, Fisher turns his attention to internal factors, including the origins of a wider "Arab" identity rather than the limited "tribal" identity of the past. This is vital if we are to understand how a group of disparate tribes were welded so quickly into the united Islamic forces which demolished the Sasanid Empire and came close to doing the same to the Romans.

One aspect of these investigations is the origins of the Arabic language itself, as well as that of the written Arabic that would become so pronounced a feature of the Islamic Empire. Tied in with these discussions is an analysis of whether the pre-Islamic Arabs accepted a "Biblical" descent from Ishmael. Establishing the depth of this phenomenon may help to account for some Arabs’ acceptance of their place in Biblical history, which may have eased their later conversion to Islam, which was also based on "Biblical" precedents.

The final Chapter focuses on the legacy of the Jafnids, especially in relation to their possible influence on the Islamic empires that ruled after them. The analysis of potential continuities reflects the tone of much of the book: with little evidence, and with what there is being ambiguous and open to interpretation, definitive conclusions are impossible.

Having thought about this for quite a while, I believe that there are two drawbacks to the book. The first is that there are no firm answers to any of the questions raised. Yet this is unavoidable: the poor and ambiguous quality of the available sources, both literary and archaeological, defies the drawing of firm conclusions. The second is that the book is highly academic: the use of technical terminology and the large number of references to both primary and secondary sources result in the book making, at times, a tricky read. Again this is unavoidable: the book amalgamates modern research and historical sources to provide an overview of current thinking on the status of the Arabs immediately prior to their conversion to Islam and their eruption on to the world stage. Terminology and references are a necessary part of this process.

Despite these reservations, I would heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in the affairs and status of the Arabs in the sixth century. For anybody interested in the history of the Arabs immediately prior to the Rise of Islam, it is vital reading: but the reader should first read around the subject, otherwise they may get lost in the complexities inherent in the book.

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