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The "Byzantine" Empire and Ancient Arab Society

posted on: Nov 24, 2021

Clibanarius from Ahwaz, mid-3rd C. AD • Lakhmid élite cavalryman, 6th C. AD  • Tanukhid auxiliary, 4th C. AD"… | Ancient warfare, Historical art,  Ancient warriors
Arabs in service of the late Roman Empire, 4th-6th centuries AD, by Angus McBride

By: Lyric Ludwig/Arab America Contributing Writer 

Early in Arab history, the one major European power that they encounter is the “Byzantine” Empire. The so-called “Byzantine Empire” was the first major obstacle for the Arabs when it came to conquering the cities of the Levant and turning into a major regional and world empire (besides the Persians). However, a fascinating thing to note is that the “Byzantine Empire” was really referred to by themselves and by others as the Roman Empire and is also known today as the Eastern Roman Empire. With that in mind, we can most certainly say that the Eastern Roman Empire had a hand in the political developments in the Middle East, particularly when it came to early Arab expansion in the region under the Rashidun Caliphate. This article will focus on the historical relations between these two cultures.

The Roman Empire, when it had control over the Mediterranean, already had a long history with Arab peoples. Arabs served in the army as auxiliaries to become citizens and several Arabs even became Emperor. However, the situation changed in late antiquity from the 3rd to 7th centuries AD. The Sassanian Persian dynasty pursued an aggressive policy against the Roman Empire, which led to the Middle East becoming increasingly contested for the Romans. For the Arabs, this meant that they were caught between two warring powers. As a result, much of the Arab world was divided in spheres of influence, being client kingdoms of the Eastern Roman Empire or the Sassanian Persians.

File:Dura Europos Tempio divinità orientali - GAR - 7-01.jpg - Wikimedia  Commons
Remains of Dura Europos, a Roman fortress in Syria

Because of this complicated geopolitical scenario, each Arab Kingdom essentially acted as proxies for the two vying powers in the region, fighting on behalf of their respective larger empires. The Romans specifically went through several smaller Arab Kingdoms in this process during late antiquity. The first of these client Kingdoms is the Tanukhid tribe, which came to inhabit modern day Syria. The Tanukhids were said to have been devout followers of Christianity, with their culture being a mixture of older Arab paganism. One Tanukhid woman, Mavia, even fought on behalf of the Eastern Roman Empire, leading her cavalry in battle against the Germanic Goths. In the fifth century, the Tanukhids were largely replaced by the Arab Salihids, who continued the  tradition of supplying cavalry to the Roman army. The last of these tribes was the Ghassanids, who continued to fight alongside the Romans until their defeat by the Muslim Rashidun caliphate.

Arabs in the late Roman period, depicted in the popular strategy game “Attila: Total War” by Creative Assembly

Culturally, oral poetry and mass celebrations would have united these tribes. The Arabs of this time were well known for their celebrations after battle, singing and celebrating their deeds of horsemanship, fighting on behalf of a Christian empire and slaying their enemies. This tradition no doubt led to the popularity of such figures as the warrior Queen Mavia, who would have been praised for crushing Rome’s barbarian enemies. The presence and culture of these Arab tribes in late antiquity is a sign of religious diversity that is still present to this day. It is important to note that not all Arabs are Muslim, and that not all Muslims are Arab. In late antiquity as well now, the Middle East and Arabia was a cosmopolitan region home to Pagans, Jews, Christians and Muslims.

ArcGreek on Twitter: "The lands of the Ghassanids acted as a buffer zone,  protecting Byzantine lands against raids by Bedouin tribes. Few Ghassanids  became Muslim following the Muslim conquest of the Levant
Ghassanids in the 6th century AD, depicted wearing Coptic clothing and Roman equipment, by Angus McBride

The fate of these various peoples are all similar. The tribes certainly remained in the Middle East well into the middle ages, holding autonomous city states or villages. Many, such as the Tanukhids gradually converted to Islam, remaining Christian even until the days of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Were there Arabic speaking Christians in Arabia before Islam? - Quora
Map of Arabs in late antiquity

For the Rashidun Caliphate, the relations with its neighbors were clear, in that both surrounding powers were to be conquered. In a series of brilliantly executed battles, the Rashidun army overpowered and destroyed the Sassanian Empire and Roman armies in the Middle East. This was largely under the command of Khalid ibn al-Walid, one of the greatest generals in all of history, period. This is just a small look into the lesser known Arab cultures of antiquity, their unique legacy certainly deserves to be remembered.

Depiction of the Christian rulers, Roman Emperor Justinian and the Ghassanid King Al-Harith

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