Book Review by Ian Hughes
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Sasanid Shahs would regularly persecute their Christian subjects, whom they suspected of being in alliance with Rome, and that in response war would break out with the Later Roman Empire as the emperors attempted to stop the persecution of their co-religionists. In addition, it is sometimes assumed that after the last Romano-Sasanid war the newly-converted Arabs swept away the Sasanids and imposed Islam on their newly-subject peoples.
In the same way it is often claimed that barbarians in the Roman Empire who were Arians were shunned and banned from high-ranking posts, especially after the failed coup of Gainas in the East in AD 399-400. The cause of these beliefs is that the vast majority of books concerning Late Antiquity are overviews which, of necessity, have to simplify some details of the subject in order to be of a manageable length. One of the most common casualties of the process, probably much to the chagrin of specialist Theologians, is the simplification of the religious developments of the period.
The work of historians such as Professor Peter Brown has illuminated the complexity of religion in the Roman Empire and destroyed the simplistic notions concerning the Arians. In a similar manner, Philip Wood has analysed the Chronicle of Seert, a Christian Ecclesiastical History written in Arabic sometime during the period of the Abbasid Caliphate, and in so doing sheds light on the complexity of Sasano-Christian relations between the fourth and seventh centuries.
Since the Chronicle was written much later than many of the events it describes, Wood begins by unravelling the complex manner in which the Chronicle was compiled. His method of peeling back the layers of later propaganda and manipulation allows him to focus on what may have been the original sources and in this way he pieces together a coherent picture of the earliest records of Christianity in the Sasanid Empire.
Rather than the simplistic traditions developed previously, Wood’s analysis brings into focus the complications surrounding the Christian tradition in the East, using the Chronicle to trace the development of the Catholicosate of Ctesiphon and its relations with the Shahs of Sasanid Persia. In addition, Wood traces the development of the Christian Church of the East, outlining the process by which the East developed a Church that eventually came to be in opposition to that of the ‘Orthodox’ East Roman Empire.
However, the result is not easy reading for the non-specialist. At times the text can be rather repetitive, focusing as it does largely on a single document and so attempting to extract the maximum information possible from a limited amount of material. Furthermore, obviously many of the names of the religious men under scrutiny are little known in the West, and so the unwary reader will be constantly cross-referencing to confirm the identity of the person being discussed.
Thankfully, Wood has recognised that this could be a problem and at the back of the book are several additions, including chronologies relating to ‘Episcopal and Regnal Lists’, ‘Synods of the Church of the East’, and ‘History-writing in the Church of the East’, as well as a contents list for the Chronicle itself. Yet even with this aid a second reading may be needed to fully establish the names and events in the reader’s memory.
The end result is a ‘history’ quite different to that normally produced by general histories of the Sasanid Christians, the Shahs, and their relations with the Eastern/Byzantine Empire. Rather than the simplistic notion of the Shahs seeing Christians as a destabilising element with a pro-Roman ideology, it demonstrates that the ‘persecutions’ of the Shahs was mainly rooted in the religious beliefs of the Christians and the manner in which this failed to comply with the behaviour expected from their subjects by the non-Christian Shahs. Furthermore, the book demonstrates the way in which the Christian clergy accommodated themselves to the new Muslim rulers after the rapid collapse of Persia, a factor not usually covered by political histories of the period, except in very brief terms.
Despite its value, there is one major feature of the book to which potential readers’ attention is drawn: as this review is being typed the cost of the book is around £55/$100 US. Thanks to the cost and the nature of the text, it is obvious that this is not a book intended for the ‘general’ reader, but one aimed more at the specialist market of the Theologian or historical expert in the field of Late-Roman/Sasanid Persian History. For the non-specialist the book could be hard reading, and needs a high level of commitment.
However, despite this warning, there is much here to reward the reader. By clearly demonstrating the complexities of the period Wood has helped to highlight that the history of the Christians in Sasanid Persia is deserving of as much attention as that currently being lavished on the Christians in the Roman Empire. It is for this reason that this book is greatly recommended.